How Chicago became a key hub in El Chapo’s massive U.S. drug operation: Chicago twin testifies in historic trial
Chicago twins Pedro Flores, left, and Margarito Flores, in undated photos. The brothers have testified on behalf of the prosecution, saying they operated a massive smuggling way station in Chicago, distributing cocaine and drugs around the United States by rail and truck, often smuggled in vegetable loads.(U.S. Marshals Service)
Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, center, is shown Nov. 13, 2018, in a courtroom sketch at his trial in Brooklyn. Prosecutors accuse him of drug trafficking as the head of a cartel.(Elizabeth Williams/AP)
An image from video shows a tunnel found in Tijuana, Mexico that led into California. Authorities said tunnels were used by the Sinaloa drug cartel to move drugs into the United States.(Mexican Attorney General’s Office)
A photo provided by a New York United States Attorney’s Office shows an empty La Comadre brand pepper can. During the trial of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, former cartel member Miguel Angel Martinez testified he was involved in supervising a warehouse in Mexico City where workers hid cocaine in the cans so it could be trucked over the border.(New York U.S. Attorney’s Office )
A photo provided by a New York United States Attorney’s Office shows a diamond-encrusted pistol that a government witness said belonged to Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman. It was displayed during Guzman’s trial in New York.(New York U.S. Attorney’s Office)
Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, arrives to federal court in New York Dec. 6, 2018.(Seth Wenig / AP)
Federal authorities escort Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman from a plane to a waiting caravan of SUVs at Long Island’s MacArthur Airport in 2017.(U.S. law enforement photo)
(Drug Enforcement Administration)
Mexican cartel leader Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, whom the Flores twins helped authorities find, was a fugitive until his arrest in February 2014.(Eduardo Verdugo, AP)
Chicago U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon presented a poster at a 2015 news conference showing a web of suspects charged as a result of the cooperation from Chicago brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores.(Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)
Margarito Flores Sr., father of Margarito Jr. and Pedro Flores.()
In untold hundreds of truck and train shipments, tons of cocaine rolled into Chicago hidden among loads of vegetables, shrimp, and even live sheep.
The city acted as the American distribution center of the vast network of the Sinaloa cartel, and was run by Chicago twin brothers who had declared allegiance to a person they referred to often simply as “The Man.” Both would eventually turn against their boss, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and one of them, Pedro Flores, began testifying in Guzman’s historic trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday.
In harrowing detail over three hours, Flores explained his rise from dealing cocaine with family members on the Southwest Side to working as a top lieutenant for the world’s most notorious drug lord. He told an anonymous jury in New York that he has cooperated against some 50 people in the cartel network already, testifying he risked his life to help the U.S. government after considering his future and that of his pregnant wife 10 years ago.
“Or that lack of a future,” Flores said. “That lack of living. I couldn’t promise my family tomorrow.”
Neither Pedro Flores nor his twin Margarito have been seen publicly in the nearly four years since both were sentenced to 14 years in prison in Chicago. Dressed in navy blue jail garb, Pedro Flores took a seat in the courtroom Tuesday for a few moments before the jury filed in to hear his testimony.
Perhaps 30 feet away was El Chapo himself, a man to whom Flores estimated he once sent as much as $227 million a year from the cartel’s U.S. operation. Guzman has entered the courtroom with a smile and handshakes for his lawyers in recent days, but as he stared across the room toward Flores, that look had faded.
Flores was somewhat soft-spoken as he related his experiences, drawing laughs in the courtroom gallery at times with his likable demeanor. He described giving El Chapo gold-plated guns as a gift because Flores had “seen too many movies,” and recalled that the reputed kingpin laughed at him the first time he met Guzman at a secret mountain compound in Sinaloa.
Flores was wearing jean shorts.
“He said with all that money, I couldn’t afford the rest of the pants?” Flores said.
Chicago, a hub of drug networking
Guzman has been on trial for more than a month at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, with prosecutors accusing him of drug trafficking as the head of the cartel. They have presented a series of insider witnesses, perhaps none more compelling than the 37-year-old Flores, who now ranks among the most significant criminal turncoats that Chicago has ever produced.
He told jurors his father welcomed him into the world of drug smuggling, using him as a child because his hands were small enough to reach into gas tanks of cars where drugs had been stashed. Their father was kidnapped and presumably killed when he ignored warnings and returned to Mexico in 2009 after drug rings suspected the brothers were helping authorities.
Questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels, Flores explained how his early drug business grew thanks to a connection from one of his father’s friends to the point where Flores was taking shipments in a “grimy van” left for him at a restaurant in the Chicago suburbs. Fels then showed jurors a photograph of a Denny’s in Bolingbrook off of I-55.
Early work to keep larger quantities of drugs in stash houses didn’t always go well, Flores said. The first time he backed the van into a garage, it hit the overhang and the drugs had to be unloaded on the driveway. The plastic bags they were in then tore, spilling kilos onto the concrete.
“There’s neighbors out,” he said. “It was a pretty hectic day.”
Chicago was a natural hub for drug networking, Flores said, because of its location in the middle of the country and its infrastructure. “You’re practically halfway to everywhere,” Flores testified.
Flores was soon moving drugs to Milwaukee and other cities, where he eventually attracted the attention of federal authorities who got an indictment against him and sent the brothers fleeing to Mexico.
All of the growth sometimes meant lost shipments and drug debts, one of them leading to a dispute with a former supplier who apparently ordered his kidnapping in Mexico, Flores said. He described being handcuffed, blindfolded and stuffed in a truck for a bumpy ride to a building where he said he was held in a cell for days.
After his brother helped arrange his freedom, and with cartel leaders including Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada taking notice of the twins’ success, Flores described an early meeting with Zambada and Guzman’s cousin.
Zambada told the Flores brothers they would be supplied by the cartel, and that their business would grow again. The drug boss said “any idiot” could sell drugs in Mexico, but through his own experiences in Chicago, Zambada was impressed with how much product the brothers had moved in the U.S.
“He laughed and said, ‘imagine if you guys were triplets,’ ” Flores testified.
The Floreses would get the same price for bulk cocaine as other top lieutenants, Flores recalled Zambada saying, and they would work on their own behalf.
The business did in fact take off again, Flores said. Drugs flowed through Los Angeles and Chicago to Philadelphia, Detroit, New York and Washington. Throughout his cartel career, Flores said, he moved some 60 tons into the states.
Meeting ‘El Chapo’
After boosting their supply, the Flores brothers were taken to see El Chapo, Flores said, telling jurors he went first to an airstrip in a cornfield for a 40-minute flight that ended on another runway that ran up the side of an incline in the mountains.
From there they were driven in trucks into an even more remote area. Along the way were macabre signs of the cartel’s handiwork, including a naked man chained to a tree. Flores recalled he appeared to be crouching and staring down at them as they passed.
The kingpin’s compound was a concrete foundation rising from the earth, he said, with a thatched roof. “Like you’d see on vacation,” he said. El Chapo appeared wearing a hat, with a shiny handgun in his waistband. An AK-47 rifle leaned on a chair nearby.
Guzman promised to solve the dispute that had led to Flores being kidnapped, and indeed, Flores said he heard that the man, Guadalupe Ledesma, eventually had been suffocated on El Chapo’s orders. Flores said his anxiety around Guzman eventually faded in future meetings, and that he brought El Chapo the gift of the guns — which were laughed at for being too heavy — and a gag gift of a pair of jean shorts like the ones Flores had been mocked for, which he gave the kingpin in a box shaped like a Viagra pill.
Flores described how the shipments just kept coming, with the cartel even employing submarines to move drugs into the U.S. without detection. The truck shipments came too, including so many with vegetables Flores said they could affect market prices by dumping them for sale in Chicago. And there was the one with the sheep.
The brothers were unprepared. And the truck was headed for a Chicago warehouse.
“I’m looking at a bunch of live sheep,” Flores said. “What are we gonna do with them?”
The answer was a friend who was paid $10,000 to take them out of the city. Still, Flores said he complained up the chain of command that “I was concerned the cover loads were getting kinda weak.”
The brothers’ “sweet spot” in the cartel that let them make money without worrying about internal — and often deadly — politics was dissolving. Fearing for his life, Flores said he reached out to the Drug Enforcement Administration through a lawyer, and began cooperating.
That included making recordings, including of El Chapo, on a digital recorder Flores said he bought at a Radio Shack in Mexico. The jury is expected to hear those recordings in the coming days, as Flores continues his testimony.
As for his more recent past, Flores testified that he hasn’t always been on the straight and narrow. He worked a scam to flood other inmates’ commissary accounts with money, he testified, and got his wife pregnant again, this time in a bathroom while in DEA custody.
Still, his cooperation could be key in the federal government’s attempt to hold El Chapo accountable for decades of allegedly providing illicit drugs to addicted Americans. Flores said he made the decision he had to, knowing he was testifying in exchange for wiping out crimes that could have meant multiple life sentences.
“I could only give them one life,” he said.