Jurisdiction question stalls sentencing for drug conspirator

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Lawyers for a man convicted of working for one of the world's most notorious drug cartels said Monday the U.S. had no jurisdiction to bring the case because the drugs weren't intended for distribution in or through the country.

Rafael Humberto Celaya Valenzuela, who is a member of Mexico's violent Sinaloa cartel, was convicted in October of conspiracy to distribute more than 2,200 pounds of cocaine, plus methamphetamine and heroin, in the U.S. He was set to be sentenced Monday in U.S. District Court in New Hampshire, but a judge postponed it after his lawyers filed a late motion challenging the jurisdiction.

At trial, secret video and audio recordings showed Valenzuela conspiring with fellow cartel members and undercover FBI agents, who passed themselves off as members of a European criminal syndicate, to expand the gang's cocaine empire into the United States and Europe. He faces 10 years to life in prison; prosecutors are asking for more than 30 years.

His lawyers, Jeffrey Feiler and Julie Connolly, told District Court Chief Judge Joseph Laplante on Monday that the conspiracy was about getting cocaine to Europe, not the U.S., meaning the U.S. couldn't prosecute him. They said the only players in the conspiracy who mentioned using U.S. ports or shipping to U.S. destinations were the undercover FBI agents who were trying to catch the leader of the Sinaloa cartel: Joaquin Guzman, known as "El Chapo."

"The government is trying to tempt Chapo," Feiler said. So, it created a fictional European drug dealer, believing "we can't tempt Chapo with another U.S. drug dealer."

Feiler and Connolly repeatedly stressed that the drug cartel members considered but rejected transporting the drugs to or through the U.S.

In response, a frustrated Acting U.S. Attorney Donald Feith said the conspirators' rejection of using U.S. ports only related to one shipment and didn't rule out future shipments that could come through or to the country. He said trial testimony showed that Valenzuela was at an August 2010 meeting in Miami at which conspirators discussed a shipment of some 2,000 kilograms of cocaine that would go from Colombia through the U.S. to Europe. Feith also noted that the federal jury that convicted Valenzuela believed the drugs were bound for the U.S.

"That was the theme during the entire trial," Feith said.

Laplante said the issue of jurisdiction should have been raised at trial when it could be considered in the context of all the evidence.

"I'm not inclined to grant this motion. I don't think it's a meritorious motion," Laplante said. He postponed sentencing and didn't rule on the jurisdiction claim. He asked for the trial record to see what evidence presented during trial might shape his ruling.

Guzman escaped from prison in 2001 and ran the enterprise from a series of hideouts and safe houses across Mexico, earning billions of dollars moving tons of cocaine and other drugs to the United States, prosecutors have said. He was recaptured in February 2014.

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