Updated at: 10/09/2012 5:05 PM
By MICHAEL TARM
(AP) CHICAGO - A federal judge in Chicago held a hearing Tuesday for two reputed lieutenants from one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels who are accused of playing key roles in an alleged $1 billion conspiracy to traffic drugs in Chicago and other U.S. cities.
Mexico extradited Alfredo Vasquez Hernandez, 57, to Chicago last week. Vicente Zambada, 37, was extradited in 2011. Their joint hearing in Chicago on Tuesday was seen as a legal victory in the long Mexican-U.S. fight against the Sinaloa cartel.
The slight, gray-haired Hernandez shuffled into court in an orange jail jumpsuit, his legs shackled. He followed the proceedings through an interpreter as an attorney entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. Zambada listened in by phone from a jail in Michigan where he’s being held.
Arturo Hernandez, a lawyer for Hernandez who is not related to him, told reporters his client lived for years in California working at an auto body shop before settling in Mexico, and that he had never previously been charged with a crime.
"Not even a speeding ticket," the defense attorney said.
Judge Ruben Castillo delayed setting a trial date until a Dec. 12 status hearing, indicating he would prefer to try both men together. Before that could happen, Hernandez’s lawyers would need time to review hundreds of pages of evidence.
Alfredo Vasquez and Zambada are charged under the same 2009 indictment, which accuses the cartel of using speed boats, submarines and even a cargo plane to move drugs from South America to Mexico, then on to the U.S.
If convicted on the multiple trafficking conspiracy charges, both men could face life prison sentences.
Hernandez was considered the right-hand man of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, one of the world’s richest and most feared outlaws. Zambada’s father, Ismael Zambada, is another alleged Sinaloa kingpin.
Guzman and Ismael Zambada are also named in the same 2009 indictment, but are at large in Mexico.
Vicente Zambada has alleged he and other cartel leaders were granted immunity by U.S. agents in exchange for intelligence about rival cartels engaged in bloody turf wars in Mexico. But Judge Castillo rejected a defense request to introduce that claim at trial, saying there was no evidence to support it.
Also Tuesday, prosecutors told Castillo that Felipe Cabrera Sarabia, an alleged Sinaloa leader who was arrested in Mexico in 2011, is awaiting extradition.
Zambada’s attorney, Edward Panzer, told the judge that an already complex case was becoming even more complicated because of the new extraditions.
"At some point, I have to un-complicate it by setting a trial date for these men and letting the chips fall where they may," Castillo responded sympathetically. Although he indicated he would rather try all the co-defendants in U.S. custody together, the judge said Tuesday that he’s eager to give Zambada his day in court, three years after his arrest.
"If that means I am destined to have more than one trial, then so be it," Castillo said.
The Sinaloa cartel, named after the Pacific coast state of the same name, controls trafficking on the border with California and has in recent years successfully battled rivals to expand east and west along the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border.
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(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)