Marco Avila's meth empire didn't crumble when he was caught more than two years ago in South Dakota with a drug load destined for Minnesota.
Nor did it wither when he was brought here to face federal charges for continuing to lead a conspiracy to which he recruited family members and an ex-girlfriend to help manage.
On Monday — more than a year after Avila pleaded guilty and was again caught directing meth trafficking, this time from a jail phone — a federal judge sentenced him to 26 years in prison to cap an unusual case involving federal drug indictments against the same man in less than a year.
"He was the leader, the protagonist, the catalyst," Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen Slaughter said before U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank imposed his sentence Monday in St. Paul.
Avila, 30, cultivated connections between Mexico and Nebraska for a drug trafficking cell he led in Rochester from about 2015 until 2017, prosecutors said. First arrested in South Dakota with nearly four kilograms of meth in December 2015, Avila turned over the reins of his organization to an ex-girlfriend and also called upon his brother to help lead the cell through an "active shooting war" with rivals in the months before the group's takedown early last year.
The operation produced an indictment against Avila and 10 associates and saw authorities sweep up more than 24 pounds of meth and eight firearms, some of which were stolen, in searches of co-conspirators' homes and a storage unit prosecutors described as a "starter kit" for Avila's anticipated return from a South Dakota prison.
But about a month after he pleaded guilty in the first Minnesota federal case, Avila called upon his Mexico-Nebraska supply source to help move more meth up north with another set of co-defendants. According to court records, Avila facilitated "day-to-day supply and distribution affairs" from inside jail walls, actively organizing phone logistics.
Relatives traveled from California to attend Avila's sentencing on Monday, including an 18-month-old daughter born while he was in custody. They wiped away tears as Avila broke down sobbing during his attorney's plea to Frank for a relatively shorter 20-year sentence. Prosecutors meanwhile asked for nearly 31 years, while Avila's charges carried a potential life sentence.
Aaron Morrison, Avila's attorney, described his client's motivation to keep moving meth from behind bars as an attempt to come up with money "for the people [he] left behind." He said Avila's extended jail term also put him in contact with inmates who cycled in and out of jail because of meth. Morrison said Avila has since taken to scrubbing down the showers at the jail where some users would defecate while overcome with withdrawal symptoms.
"He realized that that was the same poison he was pushing," Morrison said. "He's desperately trying to find some penance in life."
Before sentencing Avila, Frank acknowledged an ongoing debate in Minnesota over whether meth or opioids are causing more destruction in the state.
"It's a contest between the two," Frank said.
While opioid addiction has proved more lethal, meth-related deaths are rising to unprecedented levels and the drug is responsible for more addiction treatment admissions than any substance other than alcohol in the state.
Avila told the judge that he planned to use his own story to warn others against following his path to funneling drugs up from Mexico into U.S. communities — both federal and state authorities reported seizing nearly 1,500 pounds of meth in Minnesota last year, more than ever recorded.
"You guys are going to hear about me," Avila said. "I'm done from this lifestyle. 'Cholo,' 'Gordo,' 'Fat Boy,' all those things they used to call me dies today in this courtroom."
Avila and his attorney asked Frank on Monday for permission to let him hold his young daughter for the first time. The judge told him he could not permit contact, but allowed a brief moment after sentencing for Avila to stand close to the little girl, wrapped in her mother's arms.
A waist-high partition separated the family before marshals escorted Avila out of the courtroom to await his prison assignment.