Drug cartel player extradited to US from Mexico

Nearly a year after a top drug cartel lieutenant was arrested in Mexico, the U.S.-born man is back on American soil to face federal racketeering and drug charges, according to federal prosecutors.

Armando Villareal Heredia is the lead defendant in a 43-defendant prosecution against the Fernando Sanchez-Arellano Organization, a drug cartel, and was in the custody of American officials, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy announced Wednesday.

He was extradited from Mexico Wednesday and is expected to face a hearing in federal court Thursday.

Also known as Gordo Villareal, the top cartel lieutenant was arrested by Mexican law enforcement July 9, 2011, in the northern city of Hermosillo, at the request of U.S. officials.

Mexican and U.S. authorities say Villareal takes orders directly from Fernando Sanchez Arellano, also known as "The Engineer," a drug kingpin who is the leader of a younger but weaker Tijuana cartel.

U.S. officials say Sanchez's criminal organization is an offshoot of the defunct Arellano Felix cartel, whose domination of Tijuana was fictionally portrayed in the Hollywood movie "Traffic."

Sanchez, who is in his 30s, is a nephew of the four Arellano Felix brothers who have been either killed or arrested since 2006.

To date, 38 defendants have pleaded guilty in the current case, admitting to murders, kidnappings, robberies, assaults, money launder and drug trafficking.

Four defendants are fugitives and another is due for trial June 5.