Sandra Avila Beltrán, the dark-haired Mexican beauty dubbed the “Queen of the Pacific,” has pleaded guilty to a drug-trafficking charge in Miami, closing the curtain on her celebrity as a woman who rose to the top ranks of South America’s male-dominated cocaine trade.
Avila, 52, admitted Tuesday in federal court that she helped her former boyfriend, a Colombian cartel boss, evade prosecution for cocaine-smuggling charges in the United States. She pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to his trafficking crimes, for which the ex-, Juan Diego Espinosa Ramirez, was ultimately convicted.
Avila, who stood out in a narco-trafficking world dominated by macho men and was considered nearly equal to Espinosa, accepted the plea to avoid a potential life sentence. She faced two drug conspiracy charges at trial next month, but the case against her was risky for prosecutors because it was based largely on one incriminating phone call.
With her plea, she now faces up to 15 years in prison at her July sentencing before U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore. But she is expected to receive a much lesser sentence, including credit for about six years she already had served in a Mexican prison before her extradition to Miami in August.
“Both sides felt the charge of accessory after the fact would be reflective of a fair and just result,” Avila’s attorney, Howard Schumacher, told The Miami Herald on Wednesday.
Mexicans, along with the news media, have long been fascinated with Avila, who was arrested in her country in 2007. They constantly followed details of her taste for high fashion, gourmet food and beauty secrets. One rumor that made the rounds: A doctor visited her while she was jailed in Mexico to administer her Botox injections.
On Tuesday, the U.S. attorney’s office filed a factual statement signed by Avila that accompanied her plea agreement, which depicted her in a supporting role in the boyfriend’s cocaine-smuggling syndicate.
“Between approximately 2002 and 2004, Avila-Beltrán provided financial assistance for travel, lodging and other expenses to [Espinosa] with the intention of preventing or hindering his arrest for drug-trafficking crimes,” the statement said.
Avila chose to cut a plea deal after a federal magistrate judge last month rejected her lawyers’ motion to dismiss the indictment filed against her and others in 2004.
Her attorneys claimed in a court filing that a federal prosecutor and drug agent were aware that signed declarations by codefendants — including Avila’s ex-boyfriend — were “riddled with falsehoods and misstatements.” Yet Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Morales submitted the evidence to Mexican authorities in 2010 to persuade them to extradite Avila, according to her defense lawyers, Stephen Ralls and Schumacher.
Morales’ successor in the case, prosecutor Cynthia Wood, said in court papers that the allegations against him were “false” and “without foundation.”
Avila’s nickname as the Queen of the Pacific was gained by her dominant role in the powerful Sinaloa cartel, her romantic relationship with the former Colombian trafficker and her influence over ocean supply routes.
Last summer, a Mexican court and foreign secretary granted Avila’s extradition on her U.S. narco-trafficking indictment, which has links to a cocaine deal in Chicago and a cocaine seizure in Manzanillo, Mexico, more than a decade ago.
Avila’s attorneys claimed that Morales, the prosecutor, pressured her ex-boyfriend, Espinosa, to sign a 2010 declaration implicating her in the Chicago deal — without his defense attorney present. They said his declaration was instrumental in her extradition to the United States.
Espinosa, also known as “El Tigre,” was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to a charge of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute cocaine in 2009.
Espinosa said in the declaration that he and Avila participated in a 100-kilo cocaine shipment with a trafficker named Juan Carlos Lopez Correa in 2001. He also said after the cocaine was delivered to his associates in Chicago, Lopez became responsible for the debt on the deal. The reason: Drug Enforcement Administration agents had seized cash from a courier that was meant to pay off Lopez’s debt.
On Sept. 14, 2001, federal agents intercepted a telephone call in which Espinosa, Avila and Lopez allegedly discussed the outstanding payment on the Chicago transaction. During the call, Espinosa asked Lopez to pay for the shipment, according to statements filed with both Espinosa’s and Avila’s plea agreements.
On Dec. 10, 2001, agents recorded another phone call in which Espinosa and Lopez discussed an “upcoming cocaine shipment” that would be used to pay off the latter’s debt on the Chicago deal, according to Avila’s plea statement. Avila did not participate in that phone call.
The shipment contained nine tons of cocaine, which Mexican authorities seized that December after the load was transferred from one vessel to another off the Pacific port of Manzanillo.
What Espinosa, as well as Avila, did not know at the time: Lopez, also known as Pedro Juan Osorio, had been arrested in Miami that December and become a cooperating source for U.S. drug agents. In 2003, he was sentenced to two months in prison after pleading guilty in Miami federal court.