This article was originally published on by Madeleine O’Neill on Feb 27, 2018

A leader of a Mexican drug-trafficking organization received 15 years in federal prison Monday for his involvement in a major conspiracy that brought cocaine and methamphetamine to Erie.

Ignacio Montes Leon, a Mexican citizen, will serve his time in prison in the United States and will then be returned to Mexico, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Piccinini said after the sentencing.

Leon, 37, also received five years of supervision from U.S. District Judge David S. Cercone, who delivered the sentence.

The 15-year prison term fell below federal sentencing guidelines but was reached as part of a plea agreement between the defense and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“In light of the seriousness of the offense, the amount of cocaine, how broad the conspiracy was, a 15-year sentence was appropriate,” Piccinini said.

Leon pleaded guilty in October to one count of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute controlled substances, for which he could have received up to a maximum of life in prison, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. He was represented by Pittsburgh lawyer Tina Miller, who was court-appointed.

The government charged that Leon conspired with 18 co-defendants to distribute between 50 and 150 kilograms of cocaine and more than 100 grams of 99 percent-pure methamphetamine between June 2013 and February 2015.

Leon’s case was part of a major investigation that eventually led to charges in three cases against 30 defendants, including Marco A. Melchor, the former owner of the now-defunct El Toro Loco Mexican restaurant, at 319 State St. in Erie.

In the main cocaine case, the government charged that Melchor and 18 others, including Leon, imported from Mexico and Texas $4.8 million worth of cocaine between June 2013 and January 2015.

Leon helped lead a drug-trafficking operation that involved importing the drugs from Mexico into Texas, and eventually to Erie and other locations using hidden compartments in vehicles, according to information presented in court at Leon’s plea hearing.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged that Leon coordinated drug shipments with conspirators in Texas, sold quantities of methamphetamine to individuals in Erie, and distributed amounts of cocaine to other co-conspirators.

Piccinini said Leon fled to Mexico after a pair of drug couriers were stopped by Arkansas State Police with a shipment of cocaine he’d coordinated that was en route from the Houston area to Erie. He was later located in Mexico and extradited to the United States.

The lead defendant in Leon’s case, Raul Gerardo Ruiz-Maldonado, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to traffic in cocaine in U.S. District Court in May 2016. His sentencing has been repeatedly postponed and is now scheduled for June.

Melchor is scheduled to face trial in May.