By Dan Whitcomb
(Reuters) - Former Mexican drug kingpin Eduardo Arellano Felix, who pleaded guilty to laundering money for the notorious cartel that bore his family name, was sentenced on Monday in California to 15 years in prison in what law enforcement officials called the end of an era.
With the sentencing in U.S. District Court in San Diego, Arellano Felix, 56, became the last of four brothers killed or sent to prison in connection with the Arellano Felix drug trafficking ring, federal prosecutors said.
"The three living Arellano Felix brothers, who for decades lived as multi-millionaires while terrorizing the Southwest border, ordering assassinations and corrupting countless public officials are now confined to maximum security prison cells for a very long time. I urge others who aspire to take their place to take note," U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said.
The two brothers who authorities say served as leaders of the cartel, Benjamin Arellano Felix and Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, were convicted in the United States on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking and money laundering. Benjamin Arellano Felix was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison and Francisco Javier Arellano Felix was given a life term.
Brother Ramon Arellano Felix, said to be the organization's enforcer, was killed in a shootout with police in 2002.
Eduardo Arellano Felix, nicknamed "El Doctor," pleaded guilty in May 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, he also agreed to forfeit $50 million.
He had faced a maximum 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, although federal sentencing guidelines typically allow for less time. The indictment described him as a senior adviser to his brother Benjamin.
"The sentence that Eduardo Arellano Felix received today marks the end of an era in cartel history. The AFO is finished, others have moved in and are attempting to take their place," William Sherman, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego, said in a statement.
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 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.
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.
But 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 attention on the economy, which has grown at a faster pace than the United States' in the last three years.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)