SAN DIEGO - An acclaimed architect was sentenced Monday to six months in prison for hiding nearly 13 pounds of cocaine in his minivan's battery before he tried to enter the United States.
A federal judge ordered the unusually light punishment after Eugenio Velazquez contended that drug traffickers threatened to kill him if he refused to carry the cocaine.
Velazquez, 51, 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 months of home confinement.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan said the ability of Velazquez to verify threats against him were crucial to the sentence.
Velazquez pleaded guilty in June to trying to bring 12.8 pounds of cocaine into the United States 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 is a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico, and a member of Tijuana's elite, equally at ease on both sides of the border. He lives in a modest, suburban San Diego neighborhood and had a flourishing career designing some of the Mexican border city's most prominent buildings over the last decade.
Velazquez contended that criminals threatened to kill him and hurt his family if he refused.
"I never imagined I would be standing here," he told the judge.
A court filing by his attorney, Jeremy Warren, 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. The architect surrendered his minivan for packing and got the call to move the cocaine March 4, his wife's birthday.
Velazquez's attorney told reporters after the sentencing that the friend verified the claims for U.S. investigators.
"This does happen," Warren said, "but it's extremely difficult to convince anybody."