By Fiona Ortiz
CHICAGO (Reuters) - An alleged top member of the Sinaloa drug trafficking cartel will appear in court for sentencing on Monday in a case that has highlighted Chicago's role as a hub for distributing tons of cocaine throughout the United States from 1998 to 2008.
Federal prosecutors are seeking a sentence of up to life in prison for Alfredo Vasquez Hernandez, 59, who pleaded guilty in April to one count of drug distribution but who denies he was part of Sinaloa.
But prosecutors said he was key man in the cartel run by Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, who is in jail in Mexico. Vasquez arranged airplanes, submarines, trains and trucks to transport cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and on to the United States, prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum.
Vasquez was arrested in Mexico in 2011 and spent almost two years in prison there before being extradited to the United States. U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo was scheduled to sentence him on Monday.
Prosecutors based much of their case against Vasquez on testimony from two informants, twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, who are in protective custody and also face federal drug trafficking charges.
The brothers, who stored cocaine, heroin and marijuana in a Chicago warehouse for distribution to 30 wholesale customers in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Columbus, Detroit and Los Angeles, testified that Vasquez coordinated logistics for the Sinaloa cartel and smuggled tons of drugs hidden inside rail cars.
According to their grand jury testimony, which was revealed in court documents filed in November, the Flores brothers said they began doing business with Vasquez in 2006 and set up a company to import furniture in trains that were also packed with cocaine.
At the height of the business in 2007 they were distributing up to 2,000 kilograms of cocaine per month. They also said Vasquez told them the Sinaloa cartel stripped the seats out of 747s, which were loaded up with as much as 13 tons of cocaine in Colombia and flown to Mexico.
"This case is about drug trafficking at the highest levels at which it exists in the world," the court document said.
In a sentencing memorandum filed by his attorneys, Vasquez denied ever speaking with the Flores brothers about using airplanes to transport cocaine and claims they lied to get a better deal in their own drug cases.
(Reporting by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Doina Chiacu)