After the arrest of 'El Chapo' in 1993, U.S. federal authorities dismantled a large part of the Sinaloa cartel’s logistics in California.
Looking for new markets, the capo sent one of his trusted men, Enrique Ávalos Barriga, to Chicago. Barriga would turn the windy city into a new drug trafficking empire.
The United States's third largest city, with a population of 2.7 million people, it's central location ofered rail, highways, and air transport hubs, says Dennis Wichern, the DEA's Chicago director.
Ávalos, a doctor by profession, had worked with El Chapo in Mexico and California. Arriving in Chicago, his first task was to find warehouses close to the train tracks.
Another logistical advantage for Avalos was the presence of very well organized gangs. Chicago has around 600 criminal organizations that involve 70,000 gang members.
Ávalos was being watched and his phone had been tapped, which led agents to a warehouse in Franklin Park in the Chicago suburbs. It was one of many that Ávalos had rented in the outskirts of Chicago to receive large amounts of drugs sent from California.
When the DEA found it in 1994, almost 400 kilograms of cocaine was stored inside. For Ávalos such a large loss meant he had to travel personally to Mexico to explain what had happened.
The loss had not been Ávalos' only one and in little time he lost his boss' trust, to the point that he was tortured, according to legal documents.
After his return to the United States, he was arrested in 1996 and is currently serving a life sentence in California.
Two years later, Ávalos was replaced by twin brothers: Pedro and Margarito Flores.
According to investigators from the Chicago police, the twins’ father, Margarito Flores, was a known drug trafficker. Since they were children, he used them as “hawks” (lookouts) and they later became full time members of the criminal enterprise. When the older Margarito Flores moved to Zacatecas, Mexico, he used the young men to distribute the drugs he sent. By 18 years old they were already multimillionaires.
And they were good salesmen.
David Lorino, a former DEA agent in Chicago, knew the twins very well. He was one of the agents in charge of the investigation.
According to the Chicago police officials, the older Margarito Flores became friends with El Chapo Guzman’s associates in Mexico, Ismael 'El Mayo' Zambada and the Beltran Leyva family. The efficiency with which his sons flooded Chicago’s streets with heroin, the Flores family quickly gained a reputation as the top drug trafficker east of the Mississippi river.
"Pedro was the brains of the operation," said Lorino. The younger Margarito was the tough guy who handled the face-to-face side of the business.
They complemented each other perfectly. One imported, the other distributed. One was in charge of public relations, the other of logistics. They never used violence to collect payments, which kept them off the radar of law enforcement.
"By the time we took them out, they were doing 1,500 kilos of coke a month. They were shipping $6 million to $10 million every 10 days out to [Los Angeles], and then ultimately back to Mexico," said Lorino.
They had established a sophisticated web using interstate highways, which extended from Chicago in all directions, including Canada. Their favorite means of transportation were trucks. While the container carried legitimate merchandise, the cabin was filled with drugs in fake ceilings or ingenious spaces created in the wagon. They sent cash to El Chapo in Mexico by the same method.
In 2003, the younger Margarito Flores went to Mexico on vacation and decided to stay in Guadalajara. A few months later, his brother Pedro did the same. The DEA was closing in. One of their lieutenants had been arrested in Milwakee and was collaborating with the authorities.
However, the move to Mexico did not appear to affect the operation.
In their house in Guadalajara, they ran operations off a big board on the wall, cell phones, text messages, to their associates in Chicago.
With Alfredo Beltran Leyva’s arrest at the beginning of 2008, the Flores brothers found themselves in the middle of a bloody war between the cartels.
They didn't want any part in it.
The feds get a break
In April 2008, a lawyer who said he represented the Flores brothers contacted the Department of Justice offering the twins’ collaboration.
Lorino remembers when the offer arrived.
"They flat out told us that they were moving Chapo's dope. They were moving Mayo's dope. They were moving Alfredo Beltran's dope. And kind of walked us through how it was happening," he said.
The DEA received plenty of criticism for allowing the brother’s illegal work to continue.
"I will tell you that we did have to let some money flow back to Mexico in order to perpetuate the operation for as long as was tactically and operationally possible and safe," Lorina said.
Then came another break. Lorino remembers he received a call from one of his agents very late at night. They claimed to have recorded a conversation between one of the Flores brothers and El Chapo.
"Boss, we got the old man on the phone," one of the agents told Lorina.
"I said, 'look, if you're lying to me, I'm going to have you fired,'" Lorina said.
As it turned out, El Chapo's identity was later confirmed.
According to legal documents, in the conversation Pedro Flores asked El Chapo to reduce the price of each kilo of heroin by $5,000.
"As far as I could tell, it was the only recorded version of El Chapo's voice where we were sure it was him," said Lorino. "We could essentially prove it was him. We had a drug seizure to go with the conversation. And it would have been, and would be, and is admissible in court."
In August 2012 the Flores brothers pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 14 years in prison.
According to the DEA, the information obtained from the Flores brothers led to more than 60 arrests and the seizure of hundreds of kilos of drugs and more than $15 million in cash.