SAN DIEGO - A highly acclaimed architect was sentenced Monday to six months in prison for trying to enter the U.S. with nearly 13 pounds of cocaine hidden in his minivan's battery.
A federal judge ordered the unusually light punishment after Eugenio Velazquez claimed drug traffickers threatened to kill him if he refused to carry drugs for them.
Velazquez, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico who lives in suburban San Diego, had a distinguished 30-year career in Mexico designing some of Tijuana's most prominent buildings, including its new main cathedral, an expansion of the Tijuana Cultural Center and police headquarters.
The San Diego native embraced his smiling wife, daughters and supporters outside court after being told to report to prison Jan. 11 to begin the sentence in federal custody, followed by six more months of home confinement.
"I'm very satisfied," a beaming Velazquez told reporters. "I'm at peace with myself."
Velazquez pleaded guilty in June to trying to bring 12.8 pounds of cocaine into the U.S. in a special lane for prescreened, trusted motorists. A drug-sniffing dog alerted inspectors to five packages hidden in the battery of his 2004 Nissan Quest at San Diego's San Ysidro port of entry.
Velazquez faced a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years for importing a controlled substance, but his lack of a criminal record and other factors gave the judge discretion to deliver the more lenient punishment.
Prosecutors asked for 2 1/2 years in prison in a brief court filing but made no argument after U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan signaled he was leaning toward the lighter sentence.
The judge said the ability of Velazquez to verify threats against him were crucial to the reduced sentence. He was also acknowledged for leading "a good life" until his arrest.
A court filing by his attorney said Velazquez's downfall began with a project to design the facade of a ranch. The architect, fearful of drug-fueled violence in Tijuana, accepted his client's offer to provide personal security while Velazquez crossed the border between home and work.
The arrangement seemed to work out so well that Velazquez referred a friend who also wanted protection.
Then the client - unnamed in the filing - demanded the men pay $40,000 or drive drugs across the border. He flipped a coin to determine who would transport the drugs and Velazquez lost. His attorney told reporters after the sentencing that the friend verified the claims for U.S. investigators. Both men said they were threatened at gunpoint.