TAMPA — Saul Velazquez-Bazan admitted months ago that he was the leader of a multimillion-dollar drug trafficking organization.
On Friday, he sobbed as his attorney told the story of his client's impoverished childhood and once-honest living.
Velazquez-Bazan could have been sent to prison for life. But U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, noting his remorse and cooperation with the government, gave him a break.
She sentenced him to 17½-years in federal prison.
"You know how serious your conduct has been," Kovachevich told him. "It's not to be minimized. . . . You've done the right thing in cooperating."
Velazquez-Bazan, 49, led an organization that government attorneys described as an arm of a multinational drug trafficking organization, operating out of Velazquez Pallets on Turkey Creek Road in Plant City.
When Homeland Security Investigations began monitoring the group's activities in early 2016, agents estimated it was moving 40 to 100 pounds of cocaine and methamphetamine per month. Total proceeds from the operation during the seven-month investigation were pegged at more than $3 million.
But Velazquez-Bazan's life was not always one of crime. His attorney, Mark O'Brien, spoke of his meager beginnings and the legitimate business he once ran.
Velazquez-Bazan was one of 10 children born in Mexico to a family that lived in extreme poverty, O'Brien said. Like many families, they would visit the supermarket on weekends. But unlike most, their visits were to the trash compactor behind the store, where the children scrounged for food amid the refuse. Velazquez-Bazan slept on the floor of the family home, never sleeping in a bed until he was 10 years old.
As he grew, though, he managed to work his way out of poverty. He became a U.S. citizen, eventually settling in the Plant City area. It was there that he started his business selling wooden pallets used in commercial shipping.
The business didn't bring much money, O'Brien said, but it gave him a good life.
He had a wife with whom he raised two daughters. They had a large extended family. That included his nephew, Alexandro Velasquez, whom he considered to be like a son.
But there came a time when all he had wasn't enough.
"You got greedy," Kovachevich told him.
Velazquez-Bazan did not testify in Friday's hearing. O'Brien noted that while his client did move large quantities of drugs, it didn't make him rich. Much of the money was sent to Mexico.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Josephine Thomas noted his cooperation in the government's investigation since his arrest. It helped them secure guilty pleas against at least three other people involved in the operation.
His nephew, Alexandro Velasquez, acted as an accountant for the drug-trafficking operation, according to court records. The nephew has also pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced next week. He faces significantly less prison time than his uncle.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.