A former Mexican law enforcement official who worked closely with U.S. authorities in the drug war pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in San Diego to aiding members of a violent Tijuana-based cartel, including helping traffickers get away with a double homicide in 2010.
Jesus Quinonez was convicted of participating in a federal racketeering conspiracy and could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
In his plea, Quinonez admitted sharing confidential information with the Fernando Sanchez Arellano drug gang while he worked as an international liaison for the Baja California state attorney general's office.
He is the highest-ranking of four former or current Baja California law enforcement officials arrested in the case and was a primary contact in Baja for U.S. law enforcement agencies.
A total of 43 defendants were named in the federal racketeering complaint alleging murder, kidnapping and other crimes. Four are still fugitives, and one is awaiting trial. About half of those arrested are U.S. citizens, U.S. Assistant Attorney James Melendres said.
Quinonez, 50, was a familiar figure at cross-border gatherings of officials, including parties at the home of the U.S. consul general in Tijuana. He was arrested in 2010 during a traffic stop after meeting with San Diego police officials.
The arrest caused concern among law enforcement officials on both sides of the border, said U.S. Assistant Attorney Todd Robinson. It came at a time of growing cooperation between U.S. and Mexican authorities working to topple Mexican-based drug cartels sending tons of illegal drugs into the United States.
Corruption is still prevalent in Mexico, but authorities there have made strides over the past decade to curb the problem and rebuild trust with their U.S. counterparts. Still, cartels continue to use their wealth to buy off authorities at local, state and federal levels.
Robinson said the plea shows U.S. prosecutors' theory that a highly trusted Mexican law enforcement official was involved in a criminal activity "was absolutely correct." But U.S. officials have insisted the case has not deterred their cooperation with Mexico.
"Any time we work with other countries, security is a concern," Robinson said. "We continue to hope and believe Quinonez was an isolated incident of someone being corrupted by organized crime."
According to the indictment, the defendants used their positions within the Mexican law enforcement community to obtain and disseminate confidential information to the cartel. They would target the gang's rivals for arrest; obtain confessions from rival traffickers to gain intelligence about those organizations; and bribe judicial and law enforcement authorities to secure the release of arrested Fernando Sanchez Arellano cartel members and blame other gangs for the violence.
Prosecutors said the officials also would obtain Mexican law enforcement employee information for the cartel to use in targeting officers taking actions against them.
In his plea, Quinonez admitted to working with the cartel from 2009 to 2010, including passing information on to a cartel associate that he knew would be used to help the gang avoid apprehension and prosecution for a double homicide in March 2010 in Tijuana.
He also acknowledged conspiring to launder $13 million for the ring by agreeing to transport the money from the United States to Mexico illegally, although that never transpired, according to the plea agreement.
It was the 38th conviction for federal prosecutors in the case. Quinonez is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 6.
Sanchez Arellano, also known as "El Ingeniero," or "The Engineer," is a nephew of the brothers who headed the Arellano Felix cartel, which was once Mexico's most violent drug ring. Most of its leaders have been killed or jailed since 2002.