Behind the Chicago trial of a Mexican drug kingpin

Vicente Zambada, accused of being one of Mexico’s most powerful drug kingpins, will be tried in Chicago. But does he have his own case against the DEA?

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  • Photograph: Eduardo Verdugo/AP

    ??Military officers in Mexico City keep watch on Vicente Zambada-Niebla (front, third from left) and five men presented as his bodyguards a day after Zambada-Niebla�s arrest in March 2009.

  • Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AP

    Words on a mural in Culiac�n, the capital city of Mexico�s drug-torn Sinaola state, translate to �wave of violence and blood.�

  • Illustration: Stephen Mancusi

    Margarito Flores Jr.

  • Illustration: Stephen Mancusi

    Pedro Flores

  • Photograph: Eduardo Verdugo/AP

    Mexican federal police officers escort alleged Beltr�n-Leyva cartel lieutenant Alfredo Beltr�n-Leyva (center) at Mexico City�s airport in 2008.

  • Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

    Alleged drug kingpin Joaqu�n Guzm�n-Loera, a.k.a. �El Chapo,� in June 1993

  • Photograph: Imperial Valley Press/ Joselito N. Villero/AP

    Then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown announces the seizure of more than 550 pounds of marijuana and cocaine, some seen at right, following infiltration of the Sinaloa drug cartel in August 2009. He says drugs smuggled into California by the cartel ended up in cities including Chicago. (AP Photo/Imperial Valley Press, Joselito N. Villero)

  • Photograph: Eduardo Verdugo/AP

    Flanked by military officers, Vicente Zambada-Niebla stands before the press in Mexico City in March 2009.

  • Photograph: Fidel Duran/AP

    Forensic workers examine the bodies of police officers, who were killed in May 2008 after surrounding an alleged drug safe house in Culiac�n, Mexico, home to the Sinaloa drug cartel.

  • Photograph: Imperial Valley Press/ Joselito N. Villero/AP

    Weapons and ammunition seized from members of the Sinaloa drug cartel are displayed at a press conference in August 2009.

Photograph: Eduardo Verdugo/AP

??Military officers in Mexico City keep watch on Vicente Zambada-Niebla (front, third from left) and five men presented as his bodyguards a day after Zambada-Niebla�s arrest in March 2009.

The abandoned car of Little Village resident Margarito Flores Sr. 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 U.S. intelligence considers one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the world.


Margarito Sr. was never heard from again.


The brothers, now in U.S. 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 U.S. courtroom. A status hearing on October 9 will set a new date 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, and that in exchange for intel on rival cartels, the U.S. 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’s 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, Mexico, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, 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, D.C.


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 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”


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