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Sinaloa cartel member known as ‘The Engineer’ pleads guilty

(NewsNation) — A former high-ranking member of the Sinaloa drug cartel and one of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s top aides has pleaded guilty to a drug charge in Chicago federal court.

Felipe Cabrera Sarabia, also known as “The Engineer,” is just the latest Sinaloa cartel member to find himself in the headlines. Just two weeks before Sarabia’s Jan. 20 guilty plea, Mexican security forces captured Ovidio Guzman, an alleged drug trafficker and one of the sons of El Chapo.

Sarabia is set to be sentenced on July 7. Here’s what we know about him.

Who is ‘The Engineer’?

Sarabia, 51, was arrested on criminal charges in Mexico on Dec. 23, 2011. He was later extradited to the United States from Mexico in June 2020.

Originally, Sarabia was charged along with Sinaloa cartel boss Guzman in a 2009 indictment in Chicago, but Guzman was ultimately prosecuted in New York.

In 2015, the U.S. Treasury described Sarabia as a “longtime lieutenant” of Ismael Zambada Garcia, a Sinaloa cartel leader, who is the single remaining fugitive on Mexico’s most wanted drug lords list from 2009.

The Treasury said Sarabia controlled “large-scale marijuana and poppy” operations and was responsible for the transportation of marijuana and heroin into the United States.

“There’s no doubt he was directly responsible for killing many, many people there in Mexico,” former U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte told NewsNation. “The reason he was responsible is because he was one of the bosses, he ordered these killings.”

To what did he plead guilty?

Earlier this month Sarabia pleaded guilty in Chicago federal court to distributing more than 150 kilograms of cocaine and more than 30 kilograms of heroin.

In a November 2008 incident, prosecutors say an individual posing as a courier for law enforcement delivered $715,000 to another courier working with Sarabia as payment for 13 kilograms of heroin. Sarabia was later heard on the phone confirming the transaction, the plea deal says.

Sarabia also acknowledged that a firearm was used in connection with the crime.

In other phone conversations with associates, Sarabia was heard discussing the “poor quality” of the heroin some had received, according to the plea deal.

What happens next?

Sarabia is scheduled to be sentenced on July 7. He faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and a possible life sentence.

Prosecutors will argue for an enhanced sentence because they say Cabrera “was an organizer or leader of a criminal activity that involved five or more participants,” according to the plea deal. Sarabia intends to dispute that enhancement.

During a hearing before U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman earlier this month, Sarabia said through an interpreter that he had “always made a living as a cattle rancher,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

The government plans to argue for an additional enhancement because a dangerous weapon was involved.

If applied, those enhancements could lead to a stiffer prison sentence.

What is the Sinaloa cartel?

The Sinaloa cartel is one of the most powerful transnational criminal organizations in Mexico and has hubs in nearly 50 American cities, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The cartel’s influence in the United States stretches as far south as Miami and as far north as Spokane, Washington.

The DEA says the Sinaloa cartel is most likely the “primary fentanyl” threat to the United States due to their “demonstrated ability to run clandestine fentanyl synthesis labs” throughout Mexico.

Data suggests that threat has been growing.

Since October, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has seized more than 9,400 pounds of fentanyl. Over the same time period last year, CBP seized around 2,700 pounds of fentanyl.

What is El Chapo’s status?

The former leader of the Sinaloa cartel, El Chapo, is serving a life sentence for an international drug operation that spanned decades. He’s currently being held at a maximum-security prison in Colorado.

Earlier this month, the 64-year-old asked Mexico’s president to help him return home.

The drug lord’s attorney cited poor living conditions as the reason for El Chapo’s request. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the request will be reviewed.