DEA boss pushing to bring Mexico’s arrested Sinaloa drug chief to Chicago

Written By BY KIM JANSSEN Staff Reporter Posted: 02/23/2014, 08:14pm
Array Mugshot of MARGARITO FLORES from August 20, 2009: Federal authorities have disrupted a massive cocaine operation that was bringing 1,500 to 2,000 kilos of cocaine a month to Chicago from the most powerful drug traffickers in Mexico, in what law enforcement is calling the most significant drug conspiracy ever to be broken up in Chicago. Those charged include twin brothers from Chicago -- Pedro and Margarito Flores -- who, according to federal authorities, controlled Chicago1s distribution cell in the operation.

Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was the first criminal dubbed Chicago’s “Public Enemy No. 1” since Al Capone, even though he’s never set foot in the city.

Now, after Guzman’s arrest early Saturday in Mexico, the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago said he’s aiming to bring Guzman here to stand trial.

“I think we have the strongest case,” Chicago’s DEA boss Jack Riley said Saturday. “I fully intend for us to have him tried here.”

Guzman, the 56-year-old billionaire drug lord who reputedly controls the world’s largest crime syndicate — including the majority of the supply of marijuana, cocaine and heroin sold on Chicago’s streets — was arrested in the Mexican beachfront resort city of Mazatlan by Mexican authorities who were aided by U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Wearing a white dress shirt and a look of stunned disbelief, Guzman was paraded by Mexican marines past reporters and photographers and placed in a military helicopter under heavy guard.

His dramatic capture ended a 12-year manhunt.

And it began what’s likely to be a prolonged effort first to extradite him to the United States and then to decide where he will be prosecuted.

Guzman — who supplanted Osama bin Laden as the world’s most-wanted felon — has been indicted in jurisdictions across the United States and could face additional charges in Mexico. He’s expected to fight extradition.

Attorney General Eric Holder called Guzman’s capture a “victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States.” It’s Holder who’ll decide where Guzman is prosecuted if brought to the United States.

In 2009, the 5-foot-6 Guzman — whose nickname means “Shorty” in Spanish — was indicted in the biggest drug case in Chicago history. DEA agents seized two tons of cocaine and $20 million in drug money during the bust, claiming Guzman’s cartel used Chicago as a national hub for trafficking.

Two of Guzman’s alleged lieutenants, Vicente Zambada-Niebla and Alfredo Vasquez Hernandez, have been extradited and are in federal custody, awaiting trial in Chicago.

DEA officials have said the drugs Guzman’s cartel supplies are a key factor driving gun violence on Chicago’s South Side and West Side.

Court papers filed late last year suggest Chicago prosecutors have evidence linking Guzman to the sale of drugs on Chicago’s streets. Chicago twins Pedro and Margarito Flores — drug wholesalers who flipped to become key government witnesses — provided it.

According to prosecutors, Margarito Flores traveled to Guzman’s Mexican mountaintop lair in October 2008. A month later, the brothers received a shipment of 20 kilos of heroin in Northlake. Federal authorities seized the dope. They said the brothers then recorded a series of phone calls with senior Sinaloa cartel figures, including Guzman, in which they discussed the quality of the product they said he supplied.

Last year, the Chicago Crime Commission declared Guzman the city’s “Public Enemy No. 1,” calling him “clearly more dangerous than Al Capone was at his height.”

Authorities said Guzman’s empire included marijuana plantations in Wisconsin’s secluded North Woods, where they found 10,000 plants in patches as large as football fields in 2011.

If Guzman is brought to Chicago, it could prove to be a headache for federal marshals.

Marshals’ deputies already have begun preparing enhanced security for the trial this May of two of Guzman’s alleged henchmen, Vasquez-Hernandez and Tomas Arevalo-Renteria.

Guzman famously escaped a Mexican prison in 2001 by bribing guards and hiding in a laundry truck.

And in 2010, U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials barred Zambada-Niebla from exercising on the roof of the high-rise Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago, citing the Sinaloa cartel’s unlimited resources and intelligence that the cartel was planning to use a helicopter to help Zambada-Niebla escape from the roof.

That combination of wealth and ruthlessness was also evidenced in conversations Guzman had at his compound in 2008 with Margarito Flores, according to court papers, which said Guzman wanted to send a message by attacking a U.S. or Mexican facility in Mexico City with rocket-propelled grenades.

“Let it be a government building, it doesn’t matter whose,” authorities quoted him as saying. “An embassy or a consulate, a media outlet or television station.”

Guzman’s rise from poverty to become the world’s most powerful drug trafficker coincided with Mexico’s deadly drug wars, which have seen 70,000 people killed since 2006, some in gruesome public displays of gore.

In more than a decade on the run, Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel grew bloodier and more powerful, taking over much of the lucrative trafficking routes along the U.S. border, including such prized cities as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. Guzman’s play for power against local cartels caused a bloodbath in Tijuana and made Juarez one of the world’s deadliest cities.

Officials estimate 90 percent of the illegal drugs sold in the United States now arrive across the Mexican border, and Guzman’s empire allegedly also stretched to Europe and Australia. Forbes magazine listed him among the “world’s most powerful people” in 2012, ranking him above the presidents of France and Venezuela.

His distribution network is said to have used trains, semi-trucks, a Boeing 747 and even submarines.

Tales of his close brushes with capture since his 2001 escape became part of his legend, which was celebrated in folk songs in Mexico.

But arrests of other high-ranking Sinaloa cartel figures in recent months were clues authorities were closing in.

Guzman’s arrest Saturday at a high-rise condo that had steel-reinforced doors was hailed as a major achievement by Mexican authorities and in Chicago by Police Supt. Garry McCarthy.

“Obviously, he’s an arch criminal,” McCarthy said. “But it won’t fix what’s wrong — when demand exists, supply will show up.”

Despite the sense of satisfaction within Chicago’s law enforcement community, McCarthy said he couldn’t predict what the impact will be on Chicago’s streets.

“A No. 2 will probably step up,” he said.

Contributing: AP, Frank Main

Email: kjanssen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @kimjnews

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