Why Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel Loves Selling Drugs in Chicago

Chicago is key to a business moving tons of drugs for billions of dollars. Here’s how the whole operation works.

Photo: Clint Blowers; Prop Stylist: Melanie Francis

On the night that Jesús Vicente Zambada Niebla strode into the lobby of the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel in Mexico City, the price on his head was $5 million.

The handsome 33-year-old, nicknamed El Vicentillo (Pretty Boy Vicente), was a notorious drug capo. He was also the only son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, the No. 2 boss of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel, the biggest supplier of illegal narcotics to the United States. For years, the younger Zambada had been on the run from the federales as well as from U.S. authorities. But that night in March 2009, he strolled into the hotel for an unlikely midnight tryst with—of all people—two agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

According to court documents, the meeting had been arranged by Humberto Loya Castro, a consigliere to the cartel (and, since 2005, a DEA informant). Zambada didn’t know it, but he was walking into a trap. His fate had been sealed eight months earlier, when two drug wholesalers from Chicago—the Flores twins, Margarito Jr. and Pedro—flipped on their Sinaloa employers. That led authorities on both sides of the border to make a series of arrests all the way up the cartel chain of command to Zambada.

Hours after Zambada left the hotel, just before daybreak, he and his entourage of five heavily armed bodyguards were loading their vehicles in the driveway of Zambada’s safe house in the leafy neighborhood of walled estates called Lomas de Pedregal. Sixty regulars from the Mexican special forces surrounded them. Caught off-guard and outnumbered, the men surrendered their arsenal of AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and .38 Super pistols. Pretty Boy Vicente was taken into custody without firing a shot.

 

Never heard of the Sinaloa cartel? If you’re in law enforcement, you certainly can’t say the same. Last February, the Chicago Crime Commission branded Sinaloa’s leader, the elusive and fearsome Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, Public Enemy No. 1—a distinction last held by Al Capone.

“What Al Capone was to beer and whiskey, Guzmán is to narcotics,” Art Bilek, the commission’s executive vice president, said at the time. Except, Bilek added, Guzmán “is clearly more dangerous than Al Capone was at his height.” (Zambada is plenty dangerous, too: Prosecutors say he commanded logistics and security for the cartel, including assassinations. He is suspected in a number of slayings, including the murders of government officials.)

The cartel’s scope is staggering. About half of the estimated $65 billion worth of illegal cocaine, heroin, and other narcotics that Americans buy each year enters the United States via Mexico, according to law enforcement experts (though the drugs often originate in South or Central America). More than half of that is believed to be supplied by Sinaloa. Drug enforcement experts estimate, conservatively, that the cartel’s annual revenues exceed $3 billion: more than those of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group.

In Chicago, the cartel has a near monopoly. “I’d say 70 to 80 percent of the narcotics here are controlled by Sinaloa and Chapo Guzmán,” says Jack Riley, director of the DEA’s Chicago office. “Virtually all of our major investigations at some point lead back to other investigations tied to Sinaloa.”

In August 2009, five months after Zambada’s capture, a federal grand jury in Chicago indicted him and 45 others tied to a Sinaloa-led drug ring in the city. Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney at the time, called the indictments “the most significant drug importation conspiracies ever charged in Chicago,” claiming that the cartel imported and distributed nearly $6 billion worth of illegal narcotics mostly to the Chicago area between 1990 and 2008.

The announcement was a big one, to be sure: Zambada would be the highest-ranking cartel leader ever to be prosecuted in the United States. But a major turning point in the war on drugs? Not exactly. More than four years later, Zambada—who currently resides in a federal prison in Milan, Michigan—still has not been tried, in part because of endless wrangling by prosecutors and defense attorneys on the size and scope of the pretrial legal discovery. At presstime, a status hearing was scheduled for September 25.

Whenever Zambada does get to the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, all eyes in the narco world will be watching. In court filings, Zambada has already made the explosive claim that he was working as a secret informant for the DEA. In exchange for information on rival drug lords, he says, U.S. authorities offered him immunity from prosecution and turned a blind eye toward the Sinaloa cartel’s illegal activities. (Prosecutors deny these allegations.)

Whether or not Zambada’s statements prove true, the trial should provide a rare and enlightening window into the inner workings of the Sinaloa cartel’s massive drug distribution operations in the United States and its deep roots in Chicago. And if anything, experts say, those operations have only increased in the past four years. (Chicago constructed this story from thousands of pages of federal court records, police reports, and court testimony from related cases, as well as from official government reports and dozens of interviews with federal and local law enforcement officials and attorneys for some of the defendants; through a spokesman, prosecutors in the Zambada case declined comment.)

Sure, Zambada’s capture—and the dismantling of one of the Sinaloa cartel’s large Chicago-based drug distribution operations, run by the Flores twins—may have hurt business for a time. But the cartel’s two leaders, Guzmán and the elder Zambada, are still at large. And the illegal narcotics trade is remarkably resilient.

Indeed, today the Sinaloa cartel and its rivals are selling record amounts of heroin and methamphetamine in Chicago, according to drug seizure data and law enforcement officials (see “Sizing Up the Big Four,” below). In May, the regenerative powers of the cartel led Chicago’s police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, to call America’s war on drugs a “wholesale failure.”

Jesús Vicente Zambada Niebla
The Lords of the (Drug) Ring: Jesús Vicente Zambada Niebla, above. Click the image above to see the full chart. Photos: (Guzmán Loera) STR/AFP/Getty Images; (Zambada García) DEA/AP; (Zambada Niebla) Eduardo Verdugo/AP; (Floreses) U.S. Department of Justice

The failure is as much Chicago’s as the nation’s. For this city has replaced Miami as the primary U.S. distribution point for illegal narcotics—mainly cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine—imported from Mexico.

In a 2010 report, the U.S. Department of Justice named the Chicago metro area the No. 1 destination in the United States for heroin shipments, No. 2 for marijuana and cocaine, and No. 5 for methamphetamine. Chicago is the only U.S. city to rank in the top five for all four major drug categories. No wonder Sinaloa boss Guzmán was quoted in a recent New York Times Magazine article calling Chicago his cartel’s “home port.”

It might seem odd that a city some 1,500 miles north of the Mexican border has become the nation’s narcotics center. But there are four main reasons: transportation, ethnic makeup, size, and gang culture.

Chicago is the transportation hub of America, a fact not lost on the Mexican cartels (just as it wasn’t on Capone and his fellow bootleggers almost a century ago). It’s ideally located within a day’s drive of 70 percent of the nation’s population. Six interstate highways crisscross the region, connecting east and west. Only two states (Texas and California) have more interstate highway miles than Illinois.

As for rail transport, Chicago welcomes six of the seven major railroads and accounts for a quarter of the country’s rail traffic. Water? The Port of Chicago is one of the nation’s largest inland cargo ports, and the city is the world’s third-largest handler of shipping containers (after Singapore and Hong Kong). And let’s not forget about Midway and O’Hare: More than 86 million passengers and 1.5 million tons of cargo passed through these airports combined in 2011, the latest year for which data are available.

Second, the Chicago metro area has a large Hispanic immigrant population, making it easy for Mexican cartel operatives to blend in. (Only Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Houston have more residents of Mexican descent, according to the 2010 census.)

Because many of these immigrants—especially those who are here illegally—are poor or underemployed, the area provides a fertile recruiting ground for cartel operatives.

According to a Cook County law enforcement officer familiar with the local drug trade, the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, which are more than 80 percent Hispanic, are el eje (the axis) of drug distribution in the city. They’re conveniently located near the Stevenson, Dan Ryan, and Eisenhower Expressways, Metra’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, and a major industrial corridor off Blue Island Avenue. (With 1.3 billion square feet of warehouse property, Chicago has one of the largest concentrations of industrial space in the nation, offering plenty of room for cartels to hide contraband.)

Third, the city is a huge market in its own right. Chicagoans’ taste for drugs is as big as—if not bigger than—that of most other Americans. For example, according to a report by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 86 percent of people arrested in Cook County in 2012 tested positive for at least one illegal narcotic—the highest percentage of any big city. Twenty-two percent tested positive for more than one.

While the amount of cocaine seized annually by law enforcement officials in the Chicago area has been declining in recent years, the amount of heroin has skyrocketed, rising sixfold from 2002 to 2012. Chicago’s rate of heroin-related emergency room admissions is three times the national rate.

Methamphetamine sales are way up, too. As U.S. authorities have cracked down on home-produced meth, the cartels have been breaking badder: inundating Chicago and other U.S. cities with extremely pure, relatively cheap meth straight from “superlabs” in Mexico. In 2002, law enforcement officials in Chicago seized 3.5 kilograms (8 pounds) of meth; in 2012 they seized more than 70 kilos (155 pounds).

Finally, Chicago’s deeply entrenched street gangs offer a ready-made retail network. Law enforcement officials estimate the number of street gangs in the city at more than 70 and the number of members at between 70,000 and 125,000. The DEA’s Jack Riley likens them to “100,000 Amway salesmen” for cartel-supplied drugs.

“It’s easy for the cartel to get the drugs to Chicago and then have people put them on the street,” explains Christina Egan, the former deputy chief of the narcotics and gangs unit for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago. “There’s a huge demand, and with the gangs in Chicago, it’s easy to service that demand.”

 

As often as not, the avocados for sale at your local supermarket were grown in Mexico, then shipped across the border at Laredo, Texas—a 1,400-mile journey that takes two days by truck or two and a half by rail. When the shipment arrives at a warehouse of one of the big grocery chains or food service operators somewhere in the city, the produce gets divvied up. Some portion stays in Chicago, to fill produce sections or get sold to local restaurants or at farmers’ markets. The rest is broken down further and then transported to other cities, such as Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, where the cycle begins anew. At each step, the price of avocados goes up.

For illegal narcotics, the process is much the same. Take cocaine, which derives from the coca leaf. While coca, unlike avocados, isn’t grown in Mexico—it comes from South America’s Andes Mountains—cocaine is arguably a Mexican export. A recent U.S. State Department report estimated that as much as 90 percent of all cocaine consumed in this country comes from Mexico—$37 billion worth each year, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. That’s far more than the $7 billion combined value of fresh fruit (excluding bananas) and vegetables imported annually from Mexico.

SIZING UP THE BIG FOUR: While the amount of cocaine seized in Chicago by law enforcement has dropped substantially from 2002 to 2012 …
Sizing Up the Big Four
SOURCE: U.S. DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION

While mighty Colombian cartels once ran the supply side of the business, Mexican bosses wrested control years ago. Under the watchful eye of cartel operatives, coca leaves are converted into cocaine, usually in Colombia, Peru, or Bolivia, in labs near the fields where they’re grown. The drug is then packaged into “keys,” brick-shaped bundles weighing a kilogram each. To avoid detection by drug-sniffing dogs, each key is sheathed in a rubber membrane, swathed with plastic wrap, and then wrapped once more in duct tape.

The keys are smuggled into Mexico and then on to the United States—by land, air, or sea—using methods as varied as they are ingenious: stashed under fresh produce, in cans of jalapeños, in the bellies of frozen shark carcasses, in trap compartments of cars, trucks, motor homes, container ships, small aircraft, even submarines; taped to the bodies of backpackers traveling by bus; catapulted over border fences; concealed in the trunks of corrupt local sheriffs; or trundled through underground tunnels (some so well constructed that they have air conditioning), a tactic purportedly devised by El Chapo himself.

Smuggling cocaine is, of course, a much more expensive and labor-intensive business than shipping avocados. The cartels have armies of workers on their payrolls to keep their operations humming: drivers, pilots, lookouts, dispatchers, distributors, stash house operators, money couriers, and enforcers, not to mention a vast bribe network of corrupt cops, politicians, security officials, and soldiers.

The drug trade is also fraught with peril. One Colombian trafficker-turned-informant in the Zambada case testified about a time around 2004 when he was scudding along the Caribbean shore with a fleet of cigarette boats. Hidden aboard in secret compartments, the man said, were some 2,000 bricks of pure Colombian cocaine—two metric tons in all. The boats were on their way to rendezvous with Vicente Zambada and other Sinaloa cartel operatives on a remote beach near Cancún.

The informant recalled how Zambada—a pistol holstered to his belt, flanked by a small army of cartel gunmen dressed in federal police uniforms—counted out the kilos. He stabbed a knife into one of the packages to examine the quality and color of the powder. Once he found that everything was up to snuff, his men loaded the coke onto commercial trucks, burying it under loads of fresh fish and ice. Meanwhile, Zambada radioed ahead to Mexican police to ensure safe passage; he had “paid for the road” with bribes, the informant explained.

Court filings show that Zambada’s smugglers typically transported the keys across the U.S. border at the busy crossing in Calexico, a hardscrabble town in Imperial County, California. (They also used crossings near El Paso, Texas.) His drivers would then take the keys to stash houses and staging areas, usually warehouses near Los Angeles. From there, the drugs got trucked to major “transshipment” cities—Chicago one of the most crucial—and then on to smaller distribution outposts such as Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Detroit.

The bulk shipments that arrive in Chicago are typically divided up. Tons of drugs, literally, stay here. Often large quantities are reloaded and sent as far away as New York, Philadelphia, and
Atlanta. Locally, importers break down the keys into smaller loads of 5 to 60 kilos for their wholesale customers. They, in turn, break the packages down into half or quarter kilos; middlemen repackage the cocaine into still smaller quantities and sell to street-level dealers, who further divide it into grams and even tinier dime bags.

As cocaine moves down the supply chain, resellers eager to maximize profit almost always “step on” or “cut” it with things that resemble cocaine, such as powdered vitamin B12, lidocaine, or baby laxatives. By the time coke hits the streets, it’s usually only about 65 percent pure. And as with avocados, the price gets marked up at each link of the delivery chain (see “The Cocaine Trail to Chicago”).

While Sinaloa and other Mexican cartels value the ability to control bulk exports of cocaine, they traditionally haven’t been as interested in controlling the entire U.S. distribution chain. Involvement in street sales, for example, would increase their exposure to busts.

But that attitude seems to be changing. An Associated Press investigation published last April found that in recent years the cartels have been stealthily dispatching senior operatives to live and work north of the border. The goal: to maximize profits by cutting out middlemen.

The Department of Justice has estimated that Mexican cartels now operate in more than 1,200 cities and towns in America’s interior. Just a few years ago, that number was 230.

What’s more, the cartels have begun producing large quantities of drugs on U.S. soil to avoid the expense and danger of smuggling across the Mexican border. Police and ordinary Americans alike are increasingly discovering massive, well-hidden marijuana farms. Last year in northern Wisconsin, for example, a bear hunter near Clam Lake happened upon what the DEA said was a Sinaloa-run pot farm with 10,000 plants, tended round the clock by a dozen migrant workers wielding AK-47s.

Authorities have found similar fields around Chicago. A Cook County sheriff’s deputy and a Chicago police officer on a routine helicopter patrol last year spotted a pot farm the size of two football fields brazenly planted right off Stony Island Avenue and 105th Street. (Law enforcement officials suspect one of the Mexican cartels.) “The plants are pretty big,” the officer told reporters. “They’re as big as Christmas trees.”

 

Vicente Zambada’s father, Ismael Zambada García—a former farmhand from Culiacán, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa (from which the cartel gets its name)—is not nearly as well known as his internationally notorious partner in crime, Joaquín Guzmán.

It was Guzmán (whose nickname, El Chapo, means “shorty”) who gained legendary status after a 1993 shootout at the Guadalajara airport that left the city’s archbishop dead. It was Guzmán who made a Hollywood-esque break out from Mexico’s maximum-security prison Puente Grande in 2001—bribing his way out of his cell and escaping with the very same police SWAT team that had been called in to find him, the legend goes. It was Guzmán whose cat-and-mouse games with the pursuing military are extolled in the popular drug ballads known as narcocorridos. And it was Guzmán who was regularly listed by Forbes as one of the world’s richest billionaires and “the biggest drug lord of all time.”

Yet in Mexico, some say that it’s Ismael Zambada, nicknamed El Mayo, who calls the shots in the Sinaloa cartel. Six years older than Guzmán, Zambada, 65, is as understated as his partner can be flamboyant. He is also more cautious. As El Mayo told the Mexican magazine Proceso a few years back: “I’m full of fear. Always.”

Perhaps that’s one reason the Sinaloa cartel has the reputation for being focused more on the business of drug trafficking and less on violence than rival cartels. For El Mayo, commerce and relationship building trumps bloodshed.

That’s not to say that Sinaloa bosses are above the ruthless torture and gruesome killings that come with the drug trade. Just look at the allegations against El Mayo’s son.

Like the rest of the younger generation of cartel capos—“narco juniors,” as the Mexican media often refer to them—El Vicentillo grew up privileged. He attended middle school and high school in San Diego, according to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Citing military intelligence, it also reported that he received a degree in engineering in San Diego, though the paper didn’t include his alma mater’s name.

As the organization’s third in command, the younger Zambada was, according to prosecutors, in charge of receiving shipments of cocaine and heroin, getting them to the U.S. side of the border, and negotiating prices with wholesalers. The job could turn violent.

For example, Mexican authorities accused him of masterminding the deadly 2000 highway ambush of Tijuana’s police chief. Days after the slaying, six suspects arrested by police admitted that they were part of a hit squad for the younger Zambada, said Baja California attorney general Juan Manuel Salazar Pimentel. Salazar said the men also confessed to killing 14 others on Zambada’s orders, including a former state judge.

In a conversation alleged to be between Zambada and one of his street soldiers, mentioned in the indictment against Zambada, the underling told his boss about the new police chief in
Culiacán. Zambada demanded that the chief be brought to him: “He is either going to work with us, or you know what will happen to him.”

On another occasion at a high-level meeting held at a remote mountain compound in Sinaloa—later recalled by Margarito Flores—prosecutors say Zambada asked Margarito to help him acquire military-grade weapons from American soldiers. “Twin,” he called, “you know guys coming back from the war. Find someone who can give you big, powerful weapons, American shit. . . . We don’t need one, we need a lot of them—20, 30, a lot of them.”

After the meeting, while the Floreses were waiting to be picked up at an airstrip, Margarito told the DEA that Zambada had coaxed him further. “You’re good with me,” Zambada told him. “You want to be really good with me, get me my shit, my guns. Fuck the money, fuck the drugs. I want to blow shit up.”

 

Like Vicente Zambada, the 32-year-old Flores twins, who grew up in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, were born into the drug trade. Sources say that their father, Margarito Flores Sr., was a Mexican immigrant who ran drugs for the Sinaloa cartel. He went missing in Mexico in 2009 and is believed to be dead. His sons eventually took over the family business.

The Flores brothers were included in Patrick Fitzgerald’s 2008 indictment. Also like Vicente Zambada, they have not yet seen the inside of a courtroom: They’re in protective custody in an undisclosed location. But court filings and testimony from others in their Chicago-based narcotics ring show that they kept tight-fisted control over their operation, running it with the assembly-line efficiency of a Domino’s pizza chain.

Margarito handled the Mexican supply side of the operation; he negotiated prices and dealt with the Zambadas, taking calls from them instructing him where and when to expect the loads. Pedro ran the local distribution.

When a load arrived in Chicago, Pedro would call one of his “legs”—couriers with names like Fat Sosa or Nose. He’d instruct them to go to such and such warehouse to meet the semi-truck, pack it up, and drive it to this or that stash house. Then he’d direct them to make the drop-offs: Go see Ron Ron with 50 keys at Q Billiards on Cass Avenue in Darien, he’d say, or Old Man with 30 at the Outback Steakhouse in Calumet. “It was just like unloading groceries,” Jorge Llamas, a courier who worked for the Floreses for seven years, later recalled in court testimony.

Llamas said the brothers kept 50 disposable cell phones on hand. To tell them apart, they used color-coded stickers on which they’d written the nicknames of their customers.

Antonio “T-Bag” Aguilera testified that the twins kept separate stash houses for drugs and cash. The drug stash houses were located in suburban Romeoville, Plainfield, and Justice, as well as in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, at Erie Street and Hoyne Avenue. Most of the money stash houses were also in the southwestern suburbs, in Hinsdale, Palos Hills, Burbank, and Plainfield, with one on the city’s West Side.

The twins proved so skilled at ferrying drugs that they became preferred customers of the Zambadas—an honor cemented one day in 2005, when the patriarch allegedly clapped them on the back and called them “his people.” They were his compadres, and that meant they received the lowest prices for cartel cocaine and, later, heroin. El Mayo even cut the twins in on a share of the cocaine loads he bought, at cost, straight from the Colombians. The twins were also part of a very select club of people who could call Guzmán directly.

Like the top cartel bosses, the Flores brothers rarely handled the drugs themselves. Rather, they arranged for handoffs to smaller wholesalers who would sell bulk quantities down the drug chain. Nor did the twins personally deal with street-level dealers—a popular misconception reinforced by police and drug enforcement officials, who often link the cartels to the city’s gangs and the deadly violence they perpetrate.

Law enforcement’s logic seems to be that because Mexican cartels supply nearly all of Chicago’s drugs, and because the gang members who peddle the drugs are responsible for 80 percent of the murders and shootings in the city, the cartels are responsible for bringing the violence of the drug wars in Mexico to the streets of Chicago.

 

But are drug cartels the primary cause of Chicago’s violent crime problem? Some criminologists say—and simple logic suggests—that they’re not. Pressed for a specific example of a direct cartel-to-gang pipeline, Andrew Bryant of the narcotics division of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office concedes: “I can’t give you a chain all the way from the top to the bottom.” The connections between a cartel and street gangs, he says, are very loose.

As one senior member of the Latin Kings puts it: “This is far more complicated than a bunch of Mexicans getting together and bringing drugs into Chicago.” He calls the link between the Flores brothers and the streets the “gray area” of the drug trade.

It appears that no one involved in the Flores brothers’ huge narcotics ring had strong ties, if any at all, to Chicago gangs. The twins employed old friends from the neighborhood, not gang members. Antonio Aguilera, for one, was a boyhood friend of the twins’ older brother. Jorge Llamas rescued Margarito Flores from a beating when they were teenagers. Other crew members were brought in by friends or friends of friends.

Violence is bad for business; it scares away customers. A 2000 study by University of Chicago economics professor Steven Levitt and Columbia University sociology professor Sudhir Venkatesh found that the availability of drugs and their prices fell by 20 to 30 percent during gang conflicts. Which is why the drug trade has actually unified rival gangs, or at least pushed some into an imperfect détente, says Brian Sexton, head of the narcotics unit at the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. “They’ve realized that . . . if I can sell you dope, and you can sell it, and I can keep selling you dope, and I’m making money, what do I care about Folks or Peoples?”

A lot of the murders and shootings that the police call “gang related” aren’t tied to actual gang activity, according to criminologists and police sources. The offender or victim may be in a gang, but the dispute was a personal one.

One classic study by the Chicago sociologists Richard and Carolyn Block examined gang homicides from 1987 to 1994—the height of the crack wars and a period when gang violence soared. The Blocks found that just 3 percent of the gang-motivated homicides were drug related. “The connection between street gangs, drugs, and homicide was weak,” they said.

Similarly, the Mexican cartels seem to have tried to minimize violence on this side of the border. Michael Clancy, a defense attorney for Ron Collins, a regular wholesale customer of the Flores twins, says he was a bit surprised to see how nonviolent the whole operation was. “It was strange,” he says, “to see such a big drug organization that didn’t have any acts of violence. I mean, there was nothing even close to a violent act in anything involving the twins’ organization.”

The couriers who later testified said that the twins forbade them to carry guns. Few couriers had prior convictions. Nicholas Roti, the chief of the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Organized Crime, says that the cartel operatives try to stay “very low key.” He adds, “This is their retail outlet; they don’t want to mess this up.”

So much money was flowing in that perhaps exacting violent retribution just wasn’t worth the effort. Explains Clancy: “If someone rips you off or someone stiffs you on 50 kilos, [do] you go out and do an act of violence against that guy and bring a bunch of heat on you and your organization? Let it go. You’ll sell another 50 kilos tomorrow.” (That number is entirely possible. In signed affidavits, the Flores twins said they moved upward of 46 tons of Sinaloa-supplied cocaine into Chicago between 2006 and 2008. That’s roughly 1,700 kilos a month.)

 

If the quantity of drugs sold sounds staggering, the amount of money made is even more mind-blowing. Court filings estimate that the twins’ drug operation brought in $700 million a year. One courier for the Floreses estimated that he alone handled a quarter of a billion dollars in a three-month stretch in late 2008. Cesar Perez, another courier, recalled collecting untold millions “in rubber bands, plastic bags, paper bags, shoe boxes, duffel bags, luggages [sic].”

In other testimony, a special agent with the DEA described an October 2008 raid on one of the Floreses’ cash stash houses in Hinsdale. The agent said they found several money-counting machines and nearly $5 million in cash, arranged neatly in tall stacks. A million dollars might take two hours to count; a quarter of a million around 40 minutes. The counters used latex gloves to handle the money—no fingerprints—and kept ledgers of all payments; there was never more than $7 million at any given time in the stash houses.

Once a week, Pedro instructed his crew on how to ship cash back to his bosses in Mexico: separate the bills by denomination, bundle the money, bag the bundles in plastic, vacuum- and heat-seal them, stick in some fabric softener to mask the scent, and then wrap them again in plastic wrap and duct tape. Like a dispatcher, Pedro then directed the couriers to drop-off spots where tractor-trailers were waiting to haul the money to L.A. and eventually across the border.

The twins had more money than they knew what to do with. According to public records, Pedro owned homes in Chicago, Romeoville, and Berwyn. Records show that Margarito shared the Chicago house with his brother but also lived in Phoenix. Pedro bought two barbershops, both called Millennium Cuts, in Berwyn and West Lawn; he also opened a restaurant, Mama’s Kitchen, in West Rogers Park. Margarito managed a local rapper named Magic. (Mama’s Kitchen is now closed. The barbershops are still open, but the parent corporation that Pedro formed has since dissolved.)

 

But money isn’t helping either the Flores brothers or Vicente Zambada now. The twins live a constricted existence in protective custody, and Zambada continues to molder in jail in rural Michigan, five hours from Chicago. (He was moved there in October 2011 after his attorneys complained that he needed access to the outdoors; in the South Loop’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he had been held previously, his only access to fresh air was the roof. Prosecutors had refused to allow him to go up there, arguing that he could escape or be shot by a sniper.)

Meanwhile, Zambada’s lawyers are racking up untold hours demanding reams of documents and reports about covert drug operations that the U.S. government says are classified. By law, the judge assigned to the case, Ruben Castillo, must review and rule on the admissibility of every document requested by Zambada. Complicating things further, his lawyers want access to documents from Mexican authorities, too.

As for prosectors, they keep adding new defendants to the case; criminals, they say, are part of Zambada’s vast drug conspiracy. Prosecutors have built much of their case against Zambada on evidence from their star witnesses, the Flores twins. They’re trying to withhold any discovery related to the Floreses until a week before the trial begins.

One point of dispute is the terms of the twins’ agreement to cooperate with the U.S. government. It has come out in the legal proceedings against the former Flores crew members that the twins, in exchange for providing incriminating information and the wiretap recordings that were used to indict Zambada, were permitted to continue importing cocaine and heroin by the ton into Chicago and distributing the drugs throughout the country.

This arrangement—which prosecutors have admitted to in court—raises serious questions about the government’s use of informants and the often blurry methods it uses to combat drug trafficking syndicates. They are the same kinds of concerns that have come up recently in the gun-smuggling operation known as Fast and Furious, in which agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the DEA allowed low-level cartel smugglers to buy and transport guns across the border to help them catch higher-level cartel leaders. (Officials have argued that enlisting the cooperation of lower-level informants to catch the big fish is a necessary evil.)

Prosecutors might have another good reason to keep the Flores brothers as far away from a courtroom for as long as they can. Last year, Saul Rodriguez, a Chicago drug trafficker who had befriended Zambada when the two were imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, testified in another trial that Zambada told him that he wanted to have Pedro and Margarito Flores assassinated. Rodriguez said Zambada transferred $6,600 to one of Rodriguez’s lawyers in exchange for information he claims he gave the kingpin about the twins. “He was repaying the favor,” Rodriguez said of Zambada’s alleged payment. (Alvin Michaelson, one of Zambada’s attorneys, calls Rodriguez’s claim “utter nonsense.”)

As the legal maneuvering in Zambada’s case goes on, drugs supplied by the Sinaloa cartel continue to inundate the city. In a rare interview with Proceso in 2010, Ismael Zambada, when asked about the arrest of his son, insisted that the drugs will keep flowing no matter what—even if El Chapo himself is brought down. “When it comes to the capos, jailed, dead, or extradited,” he said, “their replacements are ready.”
 

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