Benjamin Arellano Felix seemed to get off easy considering he was one of the world's most powerful drug traffickers in the 1990s.
He pleaded guilty in January to crimes that would give him no more than 25 years in prison -- a lighter punishment than ordered for lower-ranking members of his once-mighty, Tijuana-based cartel.
On Monday, Arellano Felix was sentenced to 25 years as expected. U.S. District Judge Larry Burns said he wanted a longer sentence, but had to stick to the court's guidelines.
US Attorney Laura Duffy said she was satisfied with the sentence, and that it is essentially a life-sentence since he will have to serve a remaining 17 years in Mexican prison upon release. She added that Arellano Felix has been incapacitated and no longer has control over the the cartel in Tijuana or Southern California.
Arellano Felix will also pay $100 million to the U.S. Government.
In an 11th-hour twist, Arellano Felix, 58, fired his attorney just before his sentencing in federal court, fueling speculation that he may be having second thoughts about his plea.
He gave no explanation for wanting to change lawyers in his request to Judge Burns two weeks ago.
"It was very surprising to me," said Anthony Colombo Jr., the fired attorney who negotiated the agreement with prosecutors to cap the sentence at 25 years. "The sentencing is a pro-forma hearing. The heavy lifting is done."
Burns confirmed sentencing would take place Monday when he granted Arellano Felix's request to hire Nicholas De Pento, a San Diego criminal defense attorney. De Pento did not respond to a phone message Friday.
Prosecutors sought the 25-year sentence for racketeering and conspiracy to launder money, saying Arellano Felix led one of Mexico's largest drug trafficking organizations for more than 15 years and oversaw the shipment of hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana to the United States.
He ordered kidnappings and killings of informants and potential witnesses, oversaw widespread corruption of Mexican law enforcement and laundered hundreds of millions of dollars to Mexico.
Arellano Felix has "destroyed lives and caused untold suffering on both sides of the border," prosecutors said in a court filing last week.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors offered to dismiss charges that could have brought 140 years in prison if he was convicted.
De Pento, the new defense attorney, did not file documents to argue for what he considers a fair punishment.
Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, a younger brother who led the cartel after Benjamin was arrested in Mexico in 2002, was sentenced in San Diego to life in prison in 2007, a year after he was captured by U.S. authorities in international waters off Mexico's Baja California coast.
Jesus Labra Aviles, a lieutenant under Benjamin Arellano Felix, was sentenced in San Diego to 40 years in prison in 2010.
It is unclear why prosecutors agreed to a lighter sentence for Benjamin Arellano Felix, who was extradited from Mexico in April 2011. He is one of the highest-profile kingpins to face prosecution in the United States.
His cartel, portrayed in the Steven Soderbergh film "Traffic," slowly lost its grip after Benjamin Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002. A month earlier, his brother, Ramon, the cartel's top enforcer, died in a shootout with Mexican authorities.