Benjamin Arellano-Felix, 58, caught by Mexican officials in 2002 and extradited to the United States in 2011, pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering charges in January, a release by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said Monday.
Arellano-Felix will be sent to a maximum-security prison under a plea agreement negotiated between his defense attorneys and the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego.
"Today's prison sentence virtually ensures that Arellano-Felix will spend the remainder of his life in custody. Following this sentence, he will be deported to Mexico to finish a 22-year sentence. This is a fitting end for a person who has caused so much suffering and destruction," U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy said.
Arellano-Felix, the former boss of the cartel bearing his name, based in Tijuana, was ordered to hand over $100 million -- which was a fraction of the profits his gang generated from drugs and the money laundering operation he used to bribe Mexican authorities and supply assassination squads with weaponry that proved far superior to that of Mexican police, the DEA said.
Investigators said the Felix cartel may have killed as many as 1,000 people, using San Diego gang members to help dissolve the bodies in caustic liquids.
David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, told The San Diego Union-Tribune Arellano-Felix's conviction is a landmark in a drug war frequently acknowledged as a failure. Shirk said the organization was "the most feared and by some accounts most powerful criminal organization in Mexico."
"In some ways this is the closure of a chapter in the drug war in Mexico," Shirk said. "That's a book that is still being written, however."