Member of Mexico's violent Sinaloa cartel convicted by New Hampshire jury

A federal jury on Wednesday convicted a man of working with others to expand the cocaine-trafficking empire of one of the world's most notorious drug networks into northern New England and Europe.

The jury in U.S. District Court in New Hampshire convicted Rafael Humberto Celaya Valenzuela, a member of Mexico's violent Sinaloa cartel, of conspiracy to distribute more than 2,200 pounds of cocaine, plus heroin and methamphetamine, in the United States.

Two others arrested with Valenzuela in 2012 have pleaded guilty to working with the Sinaloa cartel. One of them, Jesus Gutíerrez-Guzmán, is a cousin of the cartel's notorious leader, Joaquín Guzmán, known as "El Chapo." Joaquín Guzmán escaped prison in 2001 and ran the enterprise from a series of hideouts and safe houses across Mexico, earning billions of dollars moving tons of cocaine and other drugs to the United States, prosecutors have said. He was recaptured in February and has been indicted in numerous states besides New Hampshire, but it is unclear if he will be extradited.

In court, secret video and audio recordings showed Valenzuela conspiring with fellow cartel members and undercover FBI agents, who passed themselves off as members of a European criminal syndicate, to expand the gang's cocaine empire into the United States and Europe. Prosecutors said Valenzuela held himself out as an attorney and financial planner for the cartel.

His lawyers argued that he should be acquitted because he never reached an agreement with the Sinaloa cartel to move drugs, meaning there was no conspiracy. They also argued that there was no overt act in New Hampshire so there were no grounds to try him here. His lead lawyer, Jeffrey Feiler of Miami, was traveling after the verdict and could not be reached.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Feith said Valenzuela and other members of the cartel met over the course of three years in New Castle, New Hampshire, Madrid, the Virgin Islands, Miami and elsewhere. The conspirators and undercover agents at first discussed shipments of 1,000 kilos of cocaine with one of the cartel members promising they could deliver 20 tons.

"Today's guilty verdict, together with the guilty pleas of the defendant's co-conspirators, demonstrates the Department of Justice's commitment to disrupting and dismantling international drug-trafficking organizations wherever they seek to peddle their poison," U.S. Attorney John Kacavas said.

Before the trial started, both sides acknowledged that Valenzuela had turned down a plea agreement that would have gotten him 10 to 20 years in prison, instead of the 10 years to life he faces after conviction. He is set to be sentenced in January.

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