NATIONAL NEWS

Alleged Mexican drug cartel hitman pleads guilty to charges

Jul 13, 2023, 1:38 PM | Updated: 1:46 pm

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — An accused hitman for a Mexican drug cartel pleaded guilty on Thursday to federal charges, ending a nearly 20-year-old investigation involving dozens of defendants.

Juan Francisco Sillas-Rocha, of Tijuana, Mexico, pleaded guilty to three charges in a hearing before Chief Judge Peter Welte in Fargo, North Dakota, including conspiracy to commit murder in furtherance of the continuing criminal enterprise.

He is expected to be sentenced in early 2024; he faces life in prison and millions of dollars in fines, KFGO reported.

His attorney, Matthew Lombard, did not immediately respond to phone or email messages from The Associated Press for comment on Sillas-Rocha’s guilty plea.

Authorities have said Sillas-Rocha was a top lieutenant for the Arellano Felix cartel, which for decades smuggled cocaine, marijuana and other drugs into the United States. The Felix cartel was a longtime competitor of the Sinaloa cartel led by notorious drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Sillas-Rocha was indicted in 2011 and was arrested later that year in Tijuana, but was according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota.

Sillas-Rocha once boasted to authorities he killed up to 30 people a month during the Felix cartel’s prime in Tijuana, according to a detective in North Dakota.

The case reaches back to 2004, when the drug trafficking investigation “Operation Speed Racer” began in Fargo, and involves the 2005 killing of a man who failed to pay for 5 pounds of methamphetamine supplied by Sillas-Rocha and delivered to Fargo.

The probe uncovered an alleged criminal enterprise transporting methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana from Washington, California and Mexico to North Dakota and Minnesota. Ultimately, 66 people were charged in 18 indictments; Sillas-Rocha’s guilty plea ends the investigation, the federal authorities said.

“The prosecution, extradition, and now conviction, of Juan Sillas-Rocha, brings to an end over a decade of tireless, coordinated effort by investigators and prosecutors from Fargo, North Dakota and San Diego, California and sends a powerful message that violence perpetrated or orchestrated by persons at the highest levels of Mexican drug trafficking organizations against persons in the United States will not go unanswered,” San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said in a statement.

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