CHICAGO (AP) — A reputed lieutenant and longtime friend of recently captured drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman indicated in a U.S. courtroom Wednesday that he will change his plea to guilty in a $1 billion trafficking conspiracy that prosecutors say was masterminded by his infamous boss.
The decision by Alfredo Vasquez Hernandez, who stood in the courtroom with his legs shackled and listening to an interpreter though a headset, comes days after Guzman was arrested in Mexico following a more than decadelong manhunt.
Guzman's capture did not influence the 58-year-old's change of heart, defense attorney Paul Brayman told reporters outside court. And neither attorneys nor Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo mentioned Guzman during the 10-minute hearing.
U.S. prosecutors in Chicago indicted Guzman, Hernandez and eight others in 2009, accusing them of using speed boats, submarines and even a cargo plane in the mid-2000s to transport drugs from South America to Mexico, then to the U.S.
Hernandez, extradited from Mexico to Chicago in 2012, was described in court documents as a talented Sinaloa cartel logistics chief who arranged multiton shipments of cocaine by train from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Chicago; the illicit cargo would be listed as furniture.
Hernandez, who went by the nickname "Alfredo Compadre," allegedly boasted to cooperating witnesses about sending 747-cargo planes full of clothes on supposed humanitarian missions to South America. They'd return to Mexico with up to 13 tons of cocaine.
Hernandez is set to change his plea to guilty at a March 7 hearing, which would mean he won't go to trial May 12 as scheduled. His plea is not a part of any deal with the government, so prosecutors made him no promises in advance.
He was charged with multiple counts, including conspiring to import cocaine into the United States. A conviction on all counts carries a maximum life prison sentence.
U.S. authorities have said Guzman made Chicago a primary distribution hub for his Sinaloa cartel, relying on the city's extensive train, airport and highway systems to transport narcotics to points in the Midwest and farther around the U.S.
Among the others accused in the trafficking conspiracy is a still-at-large leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael Zambada, and his Sinaloa lieutenant son, admitted Vicente Zambada.
The son, Vicente, was arrested in Mexico City in 2009 and extradited to Chicago in 2010 under the same indictment. He is waiting for his trial to begin.
Among the allegations levied by prosecutors in Chicago was that Guzman and several of his cohorts discussed staging attacks on U.S. or Mexican facilities in Mexico to express outrage at the extradition of cartel members to the United States.
Chicago is among seven U.S. cities where Guzman has been indicted, and federal officials in the city had said — long before Guzman's capture — that they wanted him to face trial in Chicago one day.
Mexican officials, however, formally charged Guzman after his capture, signaling they want first crack at prosecuting him.
Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm