By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Former Mexican drug lord Eduardo Arellano Felix, the last of four brothers captured or killed in connection with a once-powerful Tijuana-based cartel depicted in the Oscar-winning film "Traffic," pleaded guilty to U.S. drug charges on Friday.
Arellano Felix, 56, admitted in U.S. District Court in San Diego to one count of conspiring to launder hundreds of millions of dollars in drug proceeds and one count of conspiring to invest that money for the cartel's benefit.
Under his plea deal, federal prosecutors will recommend that he serve 15 years in U.S. prison and then be deported to Mexico. Sentencing was set for August 19, ending a criminal prosecution of the Arellano Felix family by U.S. authorities that began in 1997.
Eduardo Arellano Felix had faced a maximum sentence of 140 years if convicted of the charges brought against him in an indictment, including racketeering and conspiracy to distribute and import marijuana and cocaine to the United States.
The indictment described him as a "senior adviser" to his brother Benjamin, the former cartel chief who pleaded guilty in January 2012 to drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Looking pale and subdued, Eduardo Arellano Felix admitted in court to handling money and directing payments, including bribes, but denied having anything to do with the violence and day-to-day smuggling decisions of the cartel.
"I was there," the former medical doctor said in Spanish through an interpreter. "I just talked to my brother Benjamin. He did that, I didn't."
Defense lawyer Brian Funk characterized his client as having lived as a recluse in the years before the downfall of the crime family and his capture in 2008, saying Eduardo Arellano Felix's role in the cartel was confined to directing its money-laundering operations.
"Benjamin would ignore his advice, from what (Eduardo) told me," Funk said.
As part of the plea agreement entered in court on Friday, Eduardo Arellano Felix agreed to forfeit $50 million in proceeds, though prosecutors say they have not identified where the money and assets are held.
The Arellano Felix organization controlled the drug trade from its base in Tijuana, south of San Diego, between 1986 and 2002.
At the height of its power in the 1990s, the cartel smuggled hundreds of millions of dollars in narcotics through a 100-mile-wide corridor stretching from Tijuana to Mexicali, south of Calexico, California. The cartel also was alleged to be behind hundreds of murders in Tijuana and across Mexico.
The brothers gained an added measure of notoriety when the Tijuana cartel and its battle with the rival Juarez cartel were dramatized in the 2000 film "Traffic," which earned four Oscars.
But the family was hit hard by U.S. and Mexican authorities in the 2000s. Ramon Arellano Felix, the cartel's flamboyant enforcer, was killed in a shootout with Mexican police in 2002, and Benjamin Arellano Felix was arrested in Mexico that year and extradited to the United States.
A third brother, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, was arrested in 2006 on a fishing boat by U.S. authorities and is now serving a life sentence.
An older brother, Francisco Rafael, was arrested, indicted and turned over to the United States in the early 1980s, before the family cartel rose to prominence. He served six years for selling cocaine and was deported back to Mexico.
With the downfall of the Arellano Felix brothers, the rival Sinaloa cartel run by Mexico's most-wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, has largely taken over the Tijuana cartel's valuable turf.
The Mexican government has extradited record numbers of reputed drug kingpins to the United States in recent years while Mexican police and soldiers have rounded up thousands of hit men and smugglers.
However, the offensive has led to escalating violence, with more than 70,000 drug-related murders during the six-year term of former President Felipe Calderon, and his efforts were widely condemned as a failure.
His successor, President Enrique Pena Nieto, is keen to rewrite the script, focusing his attention on the economy, which has grown at a faster pace than the United States' in the last three years.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)