"I would like to ask forgiveness from my mother, my wife and my children for having to leave them alone as I serve a life sentence," Arellano-Felix said at a sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
"Most importantly, I would like to ask forgiveness from all those people, on both sides of the border, who I have affected by my wrongful decisions and criminal conduct," he said.
In pleading guilty, Arellano-Felix, 37, admitted directing the Arellano-Felix drug cartel, which controlled much of the narcotics trade across the U.S.-Mexico border over the past decade, acting Deputy Attorney General Craig Morford said.
He also admitted committing and ordering murders in connection with the cartel's illicit business, Morford said.
"Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix will spend the rest of his life in prison for leading a violent Mexican drug cartel that was responsible for trafficking hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana and committing countless acts of violence and corruption," Morford said.
Arellano-Felix was arrested along with Manuel Arturo Villarreal-Heredia, 31 in August while deep-sea fishing 15 miles off the coast of La Paz, Mexico, on their yacht, the Dock Holiday.
Villarreal-Heredia also pleaded guilty and is scheduled for sentencing in January.