SAN DIEGO – A highly acclaimed architect has been sentenced to six months in prison for hiding nearly 13 pounds of cocaine in his minivan's battery when he tried entering the U.S.
Eugenio Velazquez embraced his wife, daughters and supporters after a federal judge in San Diego ordered him Monday to report to prison Jan. 11 to begin a sentence of six months in federal custody, followed by six months of home confinement.
The sentence is unusually light for such a large amount of drugs, but U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan said Velazquez was able to convince the government that he was coerced.
Prosecutors asked for a 2 1/2-year prison sentence.
The dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico belongs to Tijuana's elite, equally at ease on both sides of the border. He lives in a modest, suburban San Diego neighborhood and had a flourishing career designing some of the Mexican border city's most prominent buildings over the last decade, including its new main cathedral, an expansion of the Tijuana Cultural Center and the police headquarters.
Velazquez, 51, wrote U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan last week that criminals threatened to kill him and hurt his family in San Diego and Tijuana if he refused.
"Fear and uncertainty are the worst of counselors one could have," he wrote. "They paralyze you and one acts stupidly because your mind plays games on you."
Velazquez, who pleaded guilty in June to one count of importing a controlled substance, has elicited little sympathy from U.S. authorities.
"It's very common for a drug smuggler to claim coercion after they get caught," said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which led the investigation. "The question is why they don't come to authorities before they're caught."
As Mexican cartels move cocaine north from South America, they rely on "mules" to hide small packages of drugs in vehicle compartments and on their bodies to get past U.S. inspectors on the Mexican border. Many couriers are young, poor or adrift, desperate for a few hundred dollars. At California crossings alone, inspectors seized 86 tons of marijuana, 7 tons of cocaine and 4 tons of methamphetamine in the 2011 fiscal year.
Born in the U.S. and raised and educated in Mexico, the college professor and devoted Catholic boasts more than 400 residential, commercial and liturgical projects during a 30-year career. His works range from utilitarian industrial parks for multinational corporations on Tijuana's eastern outskirts to some of the city's most recognized landmarks.
Zeta, a Tijuana newspaper known for investigating organized crime, named Velazquez its Cultural Person of the Year in 2008. That year, the Tijuana Cultural Center opened "El Cubo," or "The Cube," a $9-million, burnt-sienna structure that stands next to a distinctive globe-shaped building and provides enough space for large art exhibitions.
According to a court filing by his attorney Jeremy Warren, Velazquez's downfall began with a project to design a ranch's facade. The architect, fearful of drug-fueled violence, accepted his client's offer to provide personal security when crossing the border between home and work. The arrangement seemed to work out so well that Velazquez referred a friend who also wanted protection.
Then the client — unnamed in the filing — demanded the men pay $40,000 or drive drugs across the border. He flipped a coin to determine who would transport the drugs and Velazquez lost. The architect surrendered his minivan for packing and got the call for March 4, his wife's birthday.
Velazquez told the judge that he should have volunteered to border inspectors that his minivan was loaded with drugs.
"To my end, I know I did the wrong thing," he wrote.
Velazquez's attorney asked the judge for a one-year sentence of home confinement. After being freed on $100,000 bond, Velazquez opened an architecture and interior design firm with a friend in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb.
Velazquez is pressing ahead with Tijuana's Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral, a giant complex under construction across the street from City Hall that will be the seat of the Catholic archdiocese.
"He desperately wants to complete that project, and the church has stood behind him as the architect whose vision has been and will continue to be embodied throughout the structures and grounds," his attorney wrote the judge.