SAN DIEGO (AP) - One of Mexico's earliest drug kingpins finally appeared in U.S. court Monday, nearly eight years after he was charged with overseeing a vast operation to funnel cocaine and marijuana to the United States from Mexico and South America.
Benjamin Arellano Felix stood in an orange jumpsuit throughout the nine-minute hearing, quietly answering "yes" when U.S. District Judge Larry Burns asked if he understood what was happening.
The judge entered a not guilty plea on behalf of Arellano Felix to drug and racketeering conspiracy charges and ordered him held without bail.
The hearing was staged under tight security at the downtown San Diego courthouse. Arellano Felix's daughter and relatives watched from second-row seats.
Arellano Felix, 57, was extradited from Mexico on Friday, ending a long quest by U.S. authorities.
The man who once headed the Tijuana, Mexico-based Arellano Felix cartel was incarcerated in Mexico since his 2002 arrest and was sentenced in 2007 to 22 years in prison on drug trafficking and organized crime charges.
During Monday's hearing, San Diego lawyer Jan Ronas told the judge that Arellano Felix wanted him as his defense attorney. Burns scheduled a May 23 hearing to consider whether to replace a court-appointed attorney assigned to the case about a year ago.
"He's expressed a decision to fight these charges in the United States," Ronas told reporters outside court.
Ronas said his "cynical side" led him to believe that Mexico extradited Arellano Felix to get more aid from the U.S. under the 2008 Merida Initiative to combat drug trafficking and organized crime. He noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Patricia Espinosa met Friday in Washington to review the Merida effort.
"It could also be a coincidence," Ronas said. "I'm also a great believer in coincidences."
The extradition came less than a month after Mexican President Felipe Calderon named Marisela Morales as the nation's new attorney general. Morales previously headed the organized crime special investigations unit.
"Given the timing of Attorney General Morales' recent appointment to the post, I think it is reasonable to conclude that she was integral in achieving this extradition now," said Karen Hewitt, who was U.S. attorney for San Diego from 2007 to 2010.
The U.S. indictment says Arellano Felix was the principal organizer and top leader of the Arellano Felix cartel going back to 1986, and that the cartel tortured and killed rivals in the United States and Mexico as it smuggled tons of Mexican marijuana and Colombian cocaine.
The cartel, which was known to dissolve the bodies of its enemies in vats of lye, began to lose influence along California's border with Mexico after Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002. A month earlier, his brother, Ramon, called the cartel's top enforcer, died in a shootout with Mexican authorities.
A younger brother, Javier, was arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2006 on a fishing boat off of Mexico's Baja California coast and sentenced in San Diego to life in prison.