(Reuters) – A former Mexican police officer accused of organizing a hit squad for the once-powerful Tijuana drug cartel pleaded guilty in a U.S. federal court on Friday to racketeering and drug trafficking, prosecutors said.
Carlos Cosme, 36, was an officer with the Baja California State Attorney General’s Office when he hired a colleague to set up a hit squad for the Tijuana cartel, which dominated trafficking to California in the 1980s and 1990s.
That officer, Jose Ortega Nuno, a supervisor with the office’s sex crimes unit, pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges in December 2011, prosecutors said.
Both men were among a group of 42 suspects arrested in California in July 2010.
The Tijuana cartel, which was run by the Arellano-Felix brothers, funneled hundreds of millions of dollars worth of narcotics to U.S. markets.
After the death and capture of many of its leaders over the past decade, including three Arellano-Felix brothers who headed the clan, the feared cartel is now a shadow of its former self.
The rival Sinaloa cartel, run by Mexico’s most-wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, has largely taken over the cartel’s valuable turf in Tijuana.
Cosme admitted to conspiring to commit murder and to selling and importing several pounds of methamphetamine for the Tijuana cartel in court, prosecutors said.
His guilty plea is the 39th conviction in a massive multi-agency effort to target drug cartel operations on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border that resulted in a 2010 indictment.
The lead defendant in that indictment, Armando Villareal-Heredia, was extradited to the United States to face charges earlier this week.
Cosme faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a fine of more than $10 million. He will be sentenced on August 27.
In April, cartel kingpin Benjamin Arellano-Felix was sentenced to 25 years in U.S. federal prison for drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering.
His brother Ramon, the cartel’s flamboyant enforcer, died in a shoot-out in 2002. Francisco Javier is serving a life sentence in U.S. federal prison after being captured on a fishing boat in 2006. Eduardo is in jail in Mexico awaiting extradition.
Roughly 55,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico in the past six years as rival cartels fight each other and government forces.
(Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Tim Gaynor and Stacey Joyce)