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How Captured Mexican Drug Lord ‘El Chapo’ Turned Chicago Into His Home Port

Posted on
Feb. 26, 2014

Last year on Valentine’s  Day, the drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was designated Chicago’s Public Enemy No.  1. It was a telling day to bestow the measure of dishonor, a nod to the gangster Al Capone and The Valentine’s  Day Massacre of 1929. Capone found himself Chicago’s Public Enemy No. 1 after  seven mobsters were killed that day, and his role as a bogeyman blamed for  increasing crime in the city was unmatched for decades—until El Chapo.

El Chapo ran the biggest drug syndicate in the Americas until he was  captured in Mexico last week, and his footprint was especially heavy in the  place once dominated by that earlier public enemy. El Chapo’s Sinaloa  Cartel, widely considered to supply up to 80 percent of the drugs in the city,  has been blamed  for helping spark the gang disputes that have fueled so  much of the gun violence in Chicago. That violence peaked in 2012, the city’s  bloodiest year in almost a decade, when 506 people were killed by gun violence.  As Art Bilek of the Chicago Crime Commission, which issues the public  enemies list, put it, El Chapo “virtually has his fingerprints on the guns that  are killing the children of this city.”

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City, on Feb. 22, 2014.

Eduardo Verdugo / APJoaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is escorted to a  helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City, on  Feb. 22, 2014.

“The problem is now the gang structure here is so fractured, you have a lot  of the cliques,” says Brian Sexton, chief of narcotics prosecutions for the  Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. “You may have just like maybe 15 guys in  one block or whatever, but there’s nobody calling the shots really, and they’re  more younger and more violent than they ever were.”

The drug trade can actually have a stabilizing effect, according to law  enforcement. The supply of cocaine and heroin from Mexico, much of it coming  from the Sinaloa Cartel, is the main source of income for these gangs and  violence can be bad for business. “In the 70s, when all the gangs started  big, it was very traditional,” Sexton said. “Folks versus Peoples, and the  colors, and you know they were all rivals with each other and very  turf-protective. But now it’s all about making money.”

Much of that money comes from selling drugs from El Chapo’s cartel, which get  smuggled from Mexico to Chicago and then distributed throughout the Midwest and  other parts of the nation. Numerous cartels ship drugs through the city, but  Sinaloa dwarfs them all, according to court records. And the market is large. In  a 2010 report, the Department of Justice named the Chicago metro area the No. 1  destination in the United States for heroin shipments, No. 2 for marijuana and  cocaine, and No. 5 for methamphetamine. The reasons are a combination of ideal  geography, a developed retail network and a large population of Mexican  immigrants.

Chicago is a national transportation hub, ideally located within a day’s  drive of 70 percent of the U.S. population. It has two major airports, and six  of the seven major railroads. The region accounts for one quarter of the entire  country’s rail traffic. If you’re looking to efficiently move products in and  out, it’s a hard location to beat.

“The geographic reality of the situation is that it’s just a very convenient  point, the infrastructure’s there,” says Amarjeet Singh Bhachu, an Assistant  U.S. Attorney who helped prosecute members of the La Familia  Michoacana drug cartel. “The same reasons that made Chicago a big city in  the history of the United States are the same reasons that make it a big city  for any enterprise, including illegal enterprises.”

Once the drugs make it to town, the city’s large number of gangs serve as a  ready-made distribution operation. Jack Blakey, chief of the special  prosecutions bureau at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, estimated that  there are between 75,000 and 100,000 active gang members in the region who can  be used to funnel cartel shipments onto the street. “Chicago has an  enormously serious gang problem,” says Christina Egan, former deputy chief of  the narcotics and gangs unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “It’s easy for the  cartel to get through a series of layers the drug to Chicago and then have  people able to put them on the street and get them to the consumers. There’s a  huge demand, and with the gangs in Chicago it’s easy to service that  demand.”

Family ties proved especially crucial in helping  Sinaloa edge out  rivals in Chicago’s lucrative market. The Chicagoans credited for building  up El Chapo’s local cocaine operation were twin brothers born to Mexican parents  in the Little Village neighborhood. Their father and an older brother also  smuggled drugs for Sinaloa. The twins, Pedro and Margarito Flores, enlisted  boyhood friends from Little Village to deliver the cocaine, which at the  operation’s peak weighed in at two tons per month. Links to the drug  business in Mexico that go back generations are what distinguished the Sinaloa  business model in Chicago from that of cartels like the Zetas or La Familia,  whose distributors tended to be transients.

Those advantages have helped Sinaloa dominate the Chicago drug market. The  U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago has brought three drug indictments linked to  Mexican cartels since 2009, hitting local distributors for the Sinaloa Cartel  and La Familia in 2009, and the Zetas in 2011, according to federal court  documents. The amount of cocaine in the Sinaloa Cartel indictment was 12 times  the amount in the others, and included 64 kilos of heroin.  “The primary  issue in the Midwest is without a doubt Sinaloa,” says Jack Riley, director of  the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago Field Division. “All of our major  investigations at some point lead back to other investigations that are tied to  Sinaloa.”

Authorities are hopeful that El Chapo’s capture will help them stifle  Sinaloa’s pipeline through Chicago. Cartel members and affiliates are the  targets of a federal task force against drug-trafficking that has about 40  active investigations into the distribution cells in the region and their supply  sources in Mexico. ”Our job,” Riley says, “is to remove all the legs so the  organization ceases to exist, from the highest level to the guy that is maybe  unwittingly putting Chapo’s dope on the street on the West Side, to remove it  altogether.”

That’s a tall order, given Chicago’s natural advantages in the marketplace  and the gap between cartel leaders and the end users of their product. Even at  the height of his power, El Chapo was careful to maintain distance from his  supply chain. The layers of importers and wholesalers served as a kind of  buffer between the suppliers in Mexico and the street gangs who handled the bulk  of retail sales. The bulk wholesalers may know where the drugs are coming from,  but starting at the mid-level wholesalers, the identity of the supplier is  lost.

“The guys at the street level,” says Nicholas Roti, chief of the organized  crime bureau for the Chicago Police Department, ”have no idea.”






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Spreading the word about the dangers of methamphetamine.

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