Twin brothers who smuggled 71 tons of cocaine and heroin for Mexican drug cartels received 14-year prison terms Tuesday as a federal judge warned that they would always have to look over their shoulders.
A bomb-sniffing dog and metal detectors guarded the courtroom on the 25th floor of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, a testament to security concerns. Even the defense attorneys’ names were not entered into the record.
Pedro and Margarito Flores, both 33, weren’t just drug dealers, but informants. They had worked undercover for the federal government, starting in 2008.
Cooperating at great risk to their own lives, authorities said, the brothers detailed their billion-dollar drug-trafficking operation — a distribution cell for Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, thought to be one of the world's most notorious drug lords, and for the Beltran Leyva cartel.
Their undercover work led to indictments of Guzman, his top leaders and dozens of other drug wholesalers and middlemen from Chicago to Mexico. It also apparently led to the slaying of their father, who traveled to Mexico and vanished in 2009, according to a court filing from prosecutors. A note found at the kidnapping scene said his sons were next.
The brothers pleaded guilty to narcotics distribution in August 2012. Their pleas were unsealed in November 2014.
U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo called the brothers the “most significant drug dealers” he had ever sentenced.
Ordinarily, they could have faced life terms. But based on their cooperation, prosecutors recommended 10 to 16 years. Castillo sentenced them to 14 years, citing the risks they took and the risks they would continue to face for the rest of their lives.
“You and your family will always have to look over your shoulder,” Castillo told the Flores brothers, who sat side by side wearing beige jail garb and nervously tapping their feet. “Any time you start your car, you're going to be wondering, is that car going to start, or is it going to explode?”
A choked-up Margarito Flores told the court: “I’m ashamed. I’m embarrassed. I’m regretful.” He apologized for putting his family in harm’s way, pausing several times to compose himself. His brother followed him to the lectern, telling the court he was ready to take “full responsibility” for his life.
They have been in custody more than six years since surrendering in 2008, and could be freed in about six years.
Born in Chicago, the twins built their mini-empire using a system of couriers and henchmen, court records show. The drugs were often picked up in broad daylight, in supermarket parking lots and outside dollar stores, and were kept in innocuous-looking stash houses.
They started as small-time dealers in 1998, officials said, but rose to become the biggest wholesale suppliers in Chicago. They shipped drugs across the country, including to Los Angeles, New York, Washington and Philadelphia.
“They were the Chicago hub of the Sinaloa cartel, and they pumped literally tons of ... cocaine into the city,” U.S. Atty. Zachary Fardon told a news conference after the sentencing.
The brothers told authorities how their drug ring operated. The cartels’ dope sometimes came to Mexico on Boeing 747s that had their seats removed so they had plenty of room to deliver clothes for humanitarian projects to South America, and to return with tons of cocaine, Pedro Flores told a grand jury. Sometimes the drugs came to Mexico by submarine from Colombia.
Once the cocaine and heroin arrived in the U.S., Pedro said, he and his brother sometimes moved it around the country on trains, but mostly in compartments hidden in the roofs of tractor-trailer trucks.
Business was good. The pair ultimately sent $1.8 billion worth of drug proceeds back to Mexico, officials said, and attracted the attention of U.S. investigators. After the government indicted the brothers in 2008, it moved to seize millions of dollars of their assets, including luxury vehicles and $400,000 in jewelry. The brothers started cooperating.
That cooperation helped authorities charge 62 defendants and seize 71 tons of cocaine, more than 500 pounds of methamphetamines and about 170 pounds of heroin, Fardon said at Tuesday’s news conference.
Fardon and other officials also announced a new round of indictments against the Sinaloa cartel, including against Guzman's son, Jesus Alfredo Guzman Salazar, and three Chicago-area men accused of helping the cartel launder millions of dollars in drug proceeds.
Salazar remains at large.
Guzman was arrested in a joint U.S.-Mexican operation in February 2014 at a seaside condominium in the Sinaloa resort of Mazatlan. He remains in Mexican custody. As to whether he would be extradited to the U.S., Mexico Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam told the Associated Press on Tuesday that might happen in “about 300 or 400 years.”
Pearce reported from Los Angeles, Meisner from Chicago.