ATLANTA — Edgar Valdez Villareal came from humble beginnings, one of eight children raised by strict, hard-working and God-fearing parents in the southwest Texas border town of Laredo.
But by age 28, Valdez was shipping hundreds of kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. And he ran his drug operation with military precision, using speedboats, submarines and airplanes to secure his cocaine and arming his security detail with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
On Monday, Valdez, notoriously known as "La Barbie," was sentenced to 49 years and one month in prison for crimes that, a judge said, ruined families and took countless lives. Valdez also was ordered to forfeit $192 million — the amount federal prosecutors said he made by shipping 12,000 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S., a good deal of it through Atlanta.
“You have betrayed almost everything that is important in our country,” U.S. District Judge Bill Duffey told Valdez. “There’s not a single person in this courtroom who doesn’t believe what you’ve done is despicable.”
Valdez got his nickname playing high school football in Laredo where his coach thought Valdez's green eyes and blond hair made him look like a "Ken" doll. After crossing the border into Mexico, Valdez became the only American to rise to such prominent ranks in a Mexican drug cartel.
“Sitting here today is one of the highest-level drug traffickers ever seen in this district,” which covers north Georgia, Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Hathaway told Duffey.
Valdez shipped truckloads of cocaine across the Mexican border into the U.S. in the mid-2000s. He instigated bloody turf wars with drug cartels and once ordered a video be taken of the execution of a man from a rival cartel who’d been captured by his security team. Valdez arranged for copies of the video to be sent to media outlets and U.S. law enforcement.
“Mr. Valdez relished the limelight,” Hathaway said. “He wanted the world to know you don’t mess with Edgar Valdez.”
Valdez, 44, faced a life sentence, but prosecutors asked Duffey to give Valdez the chance to walk out of prison alive. That’s because he’d cooperated with authorities and quickly pleaded guilty after his extradition.
Duffey gave Valdez credit for his eight years in custody since his 2010 arrest. With good behavior, Valdez can get more time shaved off his sentence and be eligible for release when he’s in his 80s.
About 20 members of Valdez’s family, including his parents and seven siblings, attended the lengthy sentencing hearing.
“My parents taught me right from wrong and to stay away from drugs,” Valdez said. “Instead of good, I went the other way.”
He then half-turned and looked back to his parents in the gallery. “I’m sorry, mom and dad, for doing things you are against and hate,” he said. “Please forgive me.”
Valdez paused several times and admitted to being nervous. Except for his tan prison clothes, he did not look much different than when authorities paraded him handcuffed in front of the TV cameras after his arrest at his ranch near Mexico City.
“I’m not a bad person,” he said. “I’m a good person who has made bad decisions in his life.”
By turning snitch against other cartel members, Valdez told Duffey, he’s put his life and the lives of his family in danger.
Duffey scolded Valdez for bringing shame on his family and said, pointedly, “There’s no place for us to send your family to protect them.”
Two of Valdez’s siblings begged for mercy.
His sister, Carla Valdez, an assistant district attorney in southwest Texas, said her parents taught their children strong morals and to love and honor God.
“We’re a tight-knit family,” she said. “We’re not career criminals.”
This confounded Duffey.
“Why are you a prosecutor and why is your brother a seriously evil criminal?” he asked.
“Your honor, this is a question we ask each other everyday,” she replied.
She said her brother began dealing drugs when he was in high school so he could help his parents at a time they were struggling financially. “I think it just snowballed from there.”
Edgar Valdez’s lawyer, Buddy Parker, said his client should get credit for telling federal authorities a decade ago that Mexican cartels had uncovered the identities of undercover DEA agents in the region. This probably saved the agents’ lives, Parker said.
Duffey agreed that was laudable. But the incredulous judge noted that when Valdez told authorities the agents’ identities were compromised, he was continuing to flood the U.S. with shipments of cocaine.
“I’ve never seen a case like this,” Duffey said.