A federal judge sentenced a Mexican drug trafficker to 22 years in prison for shipping 276 kg of cocaine to Chicago hidden in railway cars, in a case highlighting the city’s role as a hub for distributing cocaine across the United States.

Judge Ruben Castillo said there was no proof Alfredo Vazquez Hernandez, 59, was a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel, as prosecutors alleged. But in handing down a long sentence for a first-time offender who had pleaded guilty, he said he had trouble believing Vazquez had never dealt drugs previously.

“Given the amount, it’s nonsensical to think this was this defendant’s inaugural voyage into cocaine trafficking,” Castillo said.

Vazquez, who lived for decades in Southern California, spoke briefly at the hearing to ask for forgiveness.

After the hearing, defense attorney Paul Brayman said his client would appeal the sentence.

Federal prosecutors have spelled his last name Vasquez, but his son Gabriel Vazquez said the correct spelling was Vazquez.

Vazquez was arrested in Mexico in 2011 and spent almost two years in prison there before being extradited to the United States.

At the hearing, federal prosecutor Michael Ferrara repeated the allegation that Vazquez was logistics coordinator for the Sinaloa cartel run by Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, who is in jail in Mexico. Prosecutors said Vazquez arranged airplanes, submarines, trains and trucks to transport cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and on to the United States.

The federal case was based on secret grand jury testimony from two informants, twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, who pleaded guilty in August to distributing cocaine supplied by the Sinaloa cartel.

The Flores brothers are in protective custody and entered guilty pleas that were unsealed on Monday, in exchange for possible reduced sentences of 10 to 16 years each. They also forfeited millions of dollars in cash, cars and jewelry.

The brothers, who stored cocaine, heroin and marijuana in a Chicago warehouse for distribution to 30 wholesale customers in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Columbus, Ohio, Detroit and Los Angeles, testified that Vazquez had told them he coordinated flights of tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico.

The Flores brothers said their Chicago distribution operation lasted from about 1998 to 2008 and that they began doing business with Vazquez in 2006 and set up a company to import furniture in trains that were also packed with cocaine. (Reuters)