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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.
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.”