BEHIND THE CHICAGO CONNECTION
Does a Mexican Drug Kingpin Have a Case Against the DEA?
by Andrew Kennis and Jason McGahan, Time Out Chicago
The abandoned car of Margarito Flores Sr., a resident of Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, was discovered in western Mexico's Sinaloa desert in 2009. A message directed to his twin sons, Pedro and Margarito, was stuck to its windshield: tell those fuckers to shut up or we are going to send you his head.
The Flores twins, 31-year-old Chicago drug traffickers, had warned their father not to return to Mexico, and especially not to the drug-war-torn state of Sinaloa, home to the Sinaloa cartel, which US intelligence considers one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the world.
Margarito Sr. was never heard from again.
The brothers, now in US custody and acting as informants in a plea deal whose details remain secret, will be the star witnesses in the Chicago trial of Jesús Vicente Zambada Niebla, a head of the Sinaloa cartel and the biggest Mexican drug kingpin ever to be prosecuted in a US courtroom. A status hearing on Oct. 9 set a new date of Dec. 12 for the trial, which has been delayed several times.
In court filings, Zambada Niebla's lawyers claim he, like the Flores brothers, was working with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and that in exchange for intel on rival cartels, the US government turned a blind eye as "tons of illicit drugs continued to be smuggled into Chicago and other parts of the United States." In the months building up to the trial, a litany of court documents has been released that describe Chicago as a major distribution hub. The filings also suggest that damning details will be revealed about U.S. cooperation with some of the world's most powerful narcos.
Between 2001 and 2008, Pedro and Margarito Flores's drug distribution operation flourished. Raised in Pilsen and Little Village, the brothers had direct access to Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán-Loera courtesy of their father, who had made a career of trafficking drugs for the Sinaloa outfit.
Their ties to El Chapo meant they could circumvent the traditional supply chain controlled by local street gangs, and in turn, avoid the gangs' trifling turf disputes. The purity and quantity of the cocaine they received directly from Mexico (roughly between 1,500 and 2,000 kilos, or about 3,300 to 4,400 pounds, of cocaine per month, according to court documents) further ensured the twins answered to no one but the Mexican cartels. The Flores' value and importance as traffickers for the Sinaloa cartel put them among a select number of people to have met in person with the elusive El Chapo, who escaped from a Guadalajara prison 11 years ago and is one of the most wanted fugitives in the world.
By 2001, the Flores brothers had become the main connection to Chicago for several of the leading Mexican drug cartels. They were the principal link in a drug-supply chain that connected Colombian producers with Mexican smugglers and on to North American consumers. According to court documents, the drugs were delivered to the US by a variety of means—on speedboats, fishing vessels, Boeing 747 cargo planes, container ships and tractor trailers, and even by submarine.
The shipments reached US soil in Los Angeles and were trucked to Chicago, where the Flores operation received hundreds of kilos each week. They unloaded trailers of Colombian cocaine and Mexican heroin into inconspicuous warehouses in Bedford Park and Chicago. They would split up the powder and stash it in still more warehouses in Chicago, and the nearby towns of Justice, Romeoville and Plainfield.
The Flores twins sold some of their product to middlemen who mixed and resold it to street-level dealers throughout the city, but the FBI says the twins handled a quantity of narcotics large enough to supply wholesalers throughout the U.S., presiding over a network sprawling northward to Milwaukee, westward across the Canadian border to Vancouver, and eastward to Detroit, Cincinnati and Columbus, reaching all the way to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.
Court filings estimate their annual income at $700 million, according to a 2009 Washington Post article; the Flores crew reportedly shrink-wrapped the cash proceeds and hid them inside condominiums and brick split-levels in Chicago, Hinsdale, Palos Hills and Plainfield registered to relatives and girlfriends with no criminal records. But there weren't enough trusted homeowners in the network to receive so much money. The immense market share created the necessity to launder the glut of cash in otherwise legitimate businesses, according to sources familiar with the twins. Pedro and Margarito invested in a barbershop in Berwyn, Ill., called Millennium Cuts, which remains open, and opened a Mexican restaurant in West Lawn called Mama's Kitchen, which is now closed.
To get an idea of just how large the Flores operation was, one only needs to compare their $700 million estimated annual income to the total street value of all drugs seized in Chicago: $208 million worth in 2009, $139 million in 2008, $118 million in 2007, $143 million in 2006 and $235 million in 2005, according to the Chicago Police Department. In any given year, drug seizures never reached a third of the value of what the Flores crew dealt annually. After the Flores empire was dismantled, cocaine prices surged on the streets of Chicago, from $18,000 per kilo to $29,000 in 2009, according to the US Department of Justice.
That the Flores operation had grown so huge isn't surprising since Chicago has one of the largest Mexican populations among all US cities, says Special Agent in Charge John "Jack" Riley, head of the DEA's Chicago Field Division. (According to the 2010 census, Chicago's Mexican population is fourth behind Los Angeles, San Antonio and Houston.) "That allows Mexican drug traffickers to blend in more, avoiding sticking out in a crowd, while also having the benefits of more family and friends as support," Riley says. "Family members in the States are key to the cartels, as trust is central to the operation."
Though the business rested on their family connections to Mexico, the Flores twins had managed to remain independent of any one cartel in the supply chain. Between 2002 and 2008, they had benefited handsomely from a power-sharing agreement in Mexico between the Sinaloa cartel and a clan of four brothers at the head of the Beltrán Leyva crime family.
After the six-year span of peace that brought prosperity to both cartels, a feud arose that turned to war in May 2008. At the heart of the violence was a dispute over how the spoils from the lucrative Flores operation were to be divided. Amid an atmosphere of mutual distrust, one of the brothers, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, was arrested in Mexico. His brothers blamed El Chapo for tipping off authorities before the arrest. Their suspicion led them to declare war against the Sinaloa cartel. The Beltrán-Leyva brothers took their vengeance in the streets of Culiacán, the state capital of Sinaloa, where escalating drug-related violence claimed the lives of 387 people, presumably some innocent, in the bloody summer of 2008.
The ethic of violence-for-violence quickly spun out of control, endangering the lives of the Flores family. The Flores twins chose to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement, according to a 2011 government proffer, though the details of this plea deal have not been made public. By 2008, the twins were relaying sensitive information about their cartel suppliers to federal authorities.
Perhaps the most lurid piece of intel supplied by the Flores brothers involved conversations Margarito Jr. secretly recorded with the heads of the Sinaloa cartel in October 2008, some transcripts of which were released by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago. Margarito Jr. was fitted with a wire during a meeting at a remote mountain compound in Sinaloa with the heads of the cartel: Vicente Zambada-Niebla, then 33; his father, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Niebla; and El Chapo.
A close degree of familiarity is evident between the men on the recordings—at one point Vicente is heard affectionately calling Margarito Jr. "twin"—that offer a rare glimpse into the deliberations of men with a near-mythic reputation for secrecy in their affairs.
"This government is letting the gringos do whatever they want," El Mayo is heard complaining in one conversation, referring to Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his open-door policy to US law enforcement operating in Mexico.
"They are fucking us everywhere," El Chapo concurs.
Firepower—how to obtain more of it and what to use it on—is a recurrent theme from the taped excerpts. Vicente is heard asking Margarito Jr. to obtain explosives and military-grade weapons. The men even voice a desire to "send a message" to US authorities by setting off an explosion near a government building or media outlet in Mexico City. No such attack ever took place.
"Twin," the younger Zambada-Niebla says in one recording, "you know guys coming back from the war. Find somebody who can give you big, powerful weapons, American shit... We don't need that small shit. I want to blow up some buildings. We got a lot of grenades, we got a lot of .50 calibers, we're tired of AKs." Citing these conversations, prosecutors have expressed confidence in their ability to convict Zambada Niebla.
Zambada Niebla, better known in the Mexican press by his nickname, "El Vicentillo," which translates roughly to "Pretty Boy Vicente," was arrested in March 2009 in a predawn raid in Mexico City by an elite team of army troops and federal agents. According to court documents, Zambada Niebla stands accused as the logistical coordinator of drug shipments for the Sinaloa cartel. On the day El Vicentillo was paraded before television cameras in handcuffs by the Mexican Army, he sported a stylish haircut, a navy blue corduroy blazer, dark jeans and a striped button-down shirt open at the collar. The man whom the Mexican joint chiefs of staff condemned as the leader of death squads in the Sinaloa cartel's war with the Beltrán-Leyva family looked more like a Latin Grammy nominee than a captured criminal.
Vicente Zambada Niebla caught the attention of the Latin American press corps last March when he entered a plea of not guilty by reason of a pre-existing immunity agreement with the DEA. The two-pronged defense argued immunity and "public authority," a specific kind of immunity that claims he acted under the auspices of the U.S. government. Zambada Niebla asserts that US law enforcement gave him carte blanche to coordinate the cartel's smuggling operations into Chicago and throughout the U.S. and permitted the remittance of billions of dollars in cash back to Mexico. He further alleges that the US was complicit in arming the Sinaloa cartel with semiautomatic weapons, which it used to wage war on its foes.
Indeed, the circumstances of Zambada Niebla's arrest raised eyebrows in Mexico. A mere five hours prior to the raid on his safe house, Zambada Niebla had met with two special agents from the DEA in an upscale Mexico City hotel located across the street from the US Embassy, according to court documents filed last year by both the prosecution and the defense. Zambada Niebla attended the DEA meeting with Humberto Loya-Castro, a lawyer and adviser to the Sinaloa cartel. The defense argues that Loya-Castro had agreed to serve as an intermediary in the DEA's communications with the cartel.
Nevertheless, then-US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who stepped down in June, dismissed Zambada-Niebla's claims. "Contrary to [the] defendant's claim, no immunity was conferred upon him... Nor was any immunity conferred upon Loya-Castro," Fitzgerald declared in documents filed last September with the US District Court in Chicago.
Still, Henning is skeptical of Zambada Niebla's chances in court. "It's not an easy defense to make out," he says. "It just can't be his word against what the government says. A lot of times [when] these defenses are raised, they are not raised successfully."
Other experts find more credibility in the defense's claims that their drug trafficking enjoyed tacit official approval. Luis Astorga, a research professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says "the nature of the drug war is such that it is impossible to focus on combating all of the cartels at the same time, so those of us who have been researching this issue have long known that the Sinaloa cartel was not one of the highest priorities of the [Mexican] government. This does indeed contrast with the actual output of its production and its power. This is not at all a convenient case for the U.S. government to try and undoubtedly is quite uncomfortable."
Security during the Zambada-Niebla trial will be extremely tight, as the Sinaloa cartel has a reputation for pulling off prison breaks (Chapo Guzmán was trundled out of jail in a laundry cart). Prison officials suspected the cartel of having the money and influence to arrange a similarly dramatic escape in Chicago for Zambada Niebla.
As a result, for seven months Zambada-Niebla was kept in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a 27-story federal prison located in Chicago's Financial District. He was deprived of daylight and nearly any interaction, with no one below the rank of lieutenant permitted to speak within earshot, says a lawyer familiar with the case. His meals were slid on a tin plate through a slot in the door to his six-by-eight-foot cell, the lawyer says.
In September 2011, Judge Castillo heard a request from the defense that Zambada Niebla be allowed daily outdoor exercise. The prosecutor responded by reading a letter to the court from MCC's warden, Catherine Linaweaver, warning that permitting Vicentillo access to the prison's recreational area on the 27th-floor rooftop might invite an attack—or even a dramatic prison escape straight out of a Hollywood thriller. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Shakeshaft eventually relented. "Mr. Zambada-Niebla will be moved to another institution," he told the judge.
Zambada Niebla, his head now shaved and skin tightly drawn against his cheekbones, was transferred in October to a federal prison in Milan, Michigan. But his lawyers claim the conditions in prison have actually worsened, with new restrictions placed on his ability to see visitors and to receive his mail on time. The location of the prison, nearly five hours from Chicago, has brought accusations from the defense that the government is hampering his lawyers' ability to communicate with their client.
The breaks the Flores twins have received for cooperating with the government have made for contentious courtroom exchanges between the government prosecutors and the defense team, who have been filing competing motions dating back to July 2011. At the heart of the issue is the fight for government documents revealing communication between federal agents and cartel members, and the 32-year-old Classified Information Procedures Act the prosecution has cited in denying the release of the overwhelming bulk of these documents.
Alvin Michaelson, a lawyer for the defense, complained at a pretrial hearing last December that the government was withholding information that impugned the credibility of the Flores twins as witnesses. "We know that there are witnesses that have been interviewed here in the Chicago area who...talk about the reputation of the Flores brothers as murderers, as thieves, liars," Michaelson said before Judge Castillo. "No one trusts the Flores brothers, no one, and...those are the two key witnesses in this case. We believe, we know, we've heard that the government gave enormous benefits to the Flores brothers' families, friends, including the ability to keep their ill-gotten gains while they were working with the government; that agents here in Chicago perhaps...knew about the situation.
"Look," Michaelson observed in court, "no one in the Flores family, there were many of them involved in the organization, they have not been charged with any crimes. We want to know the evidence as to why they were not charged with these crimes."
Judge Castillo refused to comment on Michaelson's assertions, brushing off the lawyer's statements as hubris. "I don't know if that [grandstanding] is for the media or someone else," Castillo said.
"No, that's for Your Honor," Michaelson replied.
The DEA uprooted the Flores empire in a coast-to-coast raid on August 20, 2009. Fitzgerald referred to the indictment that followed as "the most significant drug importation conspiracy ever charged in Chicago."
The twins went quietly. They remain in US custody, though their exact location is a secret. Sources close to the case tell Time Out Chicago they are being held in a Wisconsin prison, a state in which they own property and were previously indicted.
Mum's the word for law enforcement at all levels where the twins are concerned. The US Attorney's office is withholding the details of its cooperation agreement. A police officer in the Chicago narcotics unit, reached on the phone, snickered at the mere mention of the twins' names, then went silent. Not even Riley, the DEA's Chicago director, will talk.
The Flores twins may be important enough to the government's case against Zambada-Niebla for the record of their once-vast criminal empire to be expunged. But by the end of what stands to be a long and drawn-out trial, what will likely prove most important is what sensitive details are revealed about the true nature of the relationship that federal agencies had with Zambada Niebla and the Sinaloa cartel. Did the US allow tons of illegal narcotics into its borders, as Zambada Niebla asserts? His testimony versus the Flores twins will ultimately decide the outcome of the most important narco case to grace a Chicago federal courthouse in decades.
This piece first ran Sept. 20 in Time Out Chicago, and also appeared on TruthOut.
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