SAN DIEGO – A U.S.-born man accused of being a drug cartel lieutenant pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal racketeering and drug charges, one day after he was extradited from Mexico.
Armando Villareal Heredia is the lead defendant among 43 people charged in a 2010 indictment targeting the organization of Fernando Sanchez Arellano, whose operations are based in Tijuana, Mexico, across the border from San Diego.
Known as "Gordo" — or "Fatty" in English — the San Diego-born Villareal was arrested by Mexican authorities last July in the northern city of Hermosillo at the request of U.S. officials.
Mexican and U.S. authorities say Villareal took orders directly from Sanchez Arellano, also known as "The Engineer," a drug kingpin who is the leader of a younger but weaker Tijuana cartel that came to dominate much of the drug trade from Mexico to the United States in the 1990s.
Sanchez, who is believed to be in his 30s, is a nephew of the four Arellano Felix brothers who have been either killed or arrested since 2002.
Villareal, 33, was turned over to the FBI Wednesday in Mexico City, according to Mexico's federal attorney general. He was being held at a prison in Veracruz state.
If convicted of either the racketeering or drug charges, he could face a maximum sentence of life in prison, said Todd Robinson, an assistant U.S. attorney.
To date, 38 defendants have pleaded guilty in the sting that U.S. authorities dubbed "Operation Luz Verde." They acknowledged murders, kidnappings, robberies, assaults, money laundering and drug trafficking.
They include Jesus Quinonez, a former Mexican law enforcement official who was convicted of participating in a racketeering conspiracy. He worked closely with U.S. authorities as the Baja California state attorney general's international liaison.
Carlos Cosme, identified by U.S. authorities as a lower-ranking cartel member, was expected to enter a guilty plea Friday, though a court calendar did not indicate to which charges. His attorney, Donald Levine, did not immediately respond to a phone message.
Robinson said Cosme would plead guilty to federal racketeering and drug charges.
Four defendants are fugitives.