SAN DIEGO — Angel Dominguez Ramirez Jr.'s turn from a U.S. Marine to the leader of a Mexican drug trafficking cell can be traced back to the night of Nov. 29, 1994.
That's when he swerved to avoid hitting a deer on a back road in North Carolina and flipped his car off a bridge into water. He was seriously injured, forcing a medical discharge from the Marines and ending his dream of joining a special operations unit. Even more devastating, his two daughters, ages 3 and 4, who were in the backseat, were killed.
"He has never made an excuse for the direction he took, only to say that after the accident, he stopped caring. He was numb," his defense lawyer Nancee Schwartz wrote in a sentencing memorandum. "He didn't think or care about consequences because he had experienced the worst."
On Tuesday, Dominguez, 50, was sentenced in San Diego federal court to more than 16 years in prison for what prosecutors characterized as his role as the "unquestioned leader" of El Seguimiento 39.
The drug-trafficking organization, known as "El Seg 39" or simply "The Company," included a vast network of people to transport and supply drugs for sale in the United States, as well as launder money in a reverse pipeline back to Mexico, prosecutors said. The cell operated in alliance with several cartels, including the Beltrán Leyva Organization, Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, the Sinaloa Cartel, Cártel Del Golfo and Los Zetas, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
"Wiretap evidence demonstrates that he controlled every aspect of his organization," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyle Martin wrote in a sentencing memorandum. "Dominguez did rely on co-conspirators to negotiate and control drug routes, find sources of supply, and prevent law enforcement from thwarting his trafficking, but ultimately he gave the orders to each of these co-conspirators."
His allies included corrupt government officials in Mexico, including Ivan Reyes Arzate — a top federal police commander who served as a liaison with U.S. law enforcement officials. Reyes' cozy relationship with cartels was confirmed in an intercepted phone call between Dominguez and another trafficker — a conversation that was used as a key piece of evidence in Reyes' own U.S. prosecution. Reyes was sentenced in New York federal court in February to 10 years in prison for drug trafficking.
While cartel leaders typically use violence to exert control over their empires, Dominguez leveraged money and "his own gravitas" to achieve his aims, Martin said.
U.S. Homeland Security Investigations officials estimated the organization smuggled about 10 tons of cocaine into the United States each month and moved at least $10 million of drug proceeds back into Mexico monthly — claims that Dominguez's attorney pointed out were "pure speculation from an unknown source," with no evidence produced to support it.
Dominguez is a dual U.S.-Mexican citizen — he was born in Guadalajara but settled in the border town of Roma, Texas, at age 8.
After the accident and end of his Marine career, he struggled to find work and deal with his trauma, his lawyer wrote.
When he was 27, he agreed to deliver a load of marijuana after it was crossed from Mexico and was arrested in Texas. He pleaded guilty and served 13 months in federal custody.
He and his brother-in-law later started a small construction company, but that went under with the crash of the housing market. He moved his family to Mexico in 2007 to work with an architect cousin. While there, he met people involved in marijuana and cocaine smuggling, and he saw the illicit work as a way to financially support his family, his lawyer said.
As part of the investigation, law enforcement in the U.S. and other countries seized more than 4,300 kilograms of cocaine in Mexico, Costa Rica, Texas and Chicago, as well as more than $7 million, prosecutors said.
Dominguez was arrested in Mexico in connection to the U.S. investigation in 2016 and extradited to San Diego.
He pleaded guilty in November to an international drug-distribution conspiracy and a money-laundering conspiracy. He will get credit for the nearly six years he has already served in custody.
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