They called him “The Doctor.” A trained physician, Enrique Avalos-Barriga was the Sinaloa cartel’s top guy in the United States. He lived in the Chicago area for nearly two years, orchestrating shipments of tons of cocaine across the Mexican border.
That was almost two decades ago, long before the Chicago Crime Commission last year branded Sinaloa leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman as public enemy No. 1. Guzman, 56, was captured Feb. 22 and is in a maximum-security prison in Mexico. He faces charges in Chicago and other cities like New York and Miami, as well as Mexico.
Avalos, who rose to the top ranks of the Sinaloa cartel before falling out of favor with Guzman and suffering in a torture chamber in Mexico, is important to the story of the cartel in Chicago because he’s thought to be the organization’s first major player to live here.
The cartel sent Avalos to Chicago “because they didn’t think anybody was connecting the dots,” a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official said. Living under an assumed name in a quiet neighborhood in Berwyn, he made Chicago a hub for the cartel to move drugs across the country on the rail system. The cartel is now thought to supply most of Chicago’s heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
“They were branching out at that point, setting up warehouses across the country,” said another law enforcement official who investigated Avalos and the Sinaloa cartel in the 1990s. “He was their man.”
But things ended badly for Avalos in Chicago.
Although he opened warehouses for the cartel in Los Angeles, New Jersey and the Chicago suburbs, he also lost $1 million in cash and was responsible for hundreds of kilos of cocaine seized by the feds.
He was called back to Mexico to answer to Guzman for the losses and was tortured for days.
He lived, all the while concealing a scrap of paper in his rectum. The paper, with his name on it, was like a soldier’s dog tags: He hoped authorities would find the paper and identify him for his family if he were killed, chopped up and dumped somewhere, according to court records.
Avalos, now 68, was arrested in 1995 in a federal narcotics case in San Diego, convicted of drug conspiracy charges and sentenced to life in prison.
Still, his legacy lives on in Chicago.
The cartel continued to control the drug supply in Chicago with almost no mention in the local media until 2009 when then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced charges here against Guzman and his lieutenants.
“These cartels are not abstract organizations operating in far-off places,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time. “They are multibillion-dollar networks funneling drugs onto our streets.”
It’s a near monopoly that “The Doctor” helped create here in the early 1990s after fleeing California, court records show.
In 1993, Avalos was living in Tijuana, Mexico, and in southern California.
He posed as a legitimate food distributor but was connected to the construction of a 1,450-foot tunnel between Tijuana and a warehouse at Otay Mesa, Calif., where the cartel planned to import tons of drugs.
When Mexican authorities stumbled onto the unfinished tunnel in May 1993, Avalos went into hiding.
He surfaced in Chicago, where he “continued to direct the Guzman organization’s U.S. operations,” according to a federal indictment in San Diego.
According to court records, “The Doctor” said he smuggled 50 tons of drugs worth $700 million across the border in just one month. Avalos smuggled cocaine in chili pepper cans, rail cars filled with cooking oil and in hot water-boilers containing cocaine-filled PVC pipes.
In Chicago, federal officials received permission to monitor phone calls between Avalos and his assistants. The wiretaps were the key to cracking the case, sources said. The government’s informant worked as an accountant for Guzman and stayed in the posh Palmer House when he visited Chicago.
Avalos used one aide, Luis Fernando Gonzalez, to set up warehouses in the Chicago area, New Jersey and Los Angeles where they stored cocaine.
In 1994, while he was in Chicago, Avalos discussed the possibility of building another tunnel on the Mexican border at Mexicali, according to wiretaps.
The government intercepted information in July 1994 that the Sinaloa cartel was sending two couriers to pick up money from Avalos in Chicago. Avalos and Gonzalez had bought two TV sets, which they stuffed with $700,000 in cash. They gave the sets to the couriers, who were caught at O’Hare Airport by U.S. Customs agents as they tried to fly to Guadalajara.
The cartel was so certain that the feds were not watching that the bags were checked under the name Arturo Guzman-Loera, who was Chapo’s brother.
About the same time, the feds intercepted a telephone call that someone stole $1 million in cash from Avalos’ home in Tijuana. In one profanity-laced call, he berated his wife, accusing her of taking the money.
Things got worse for him in September 1994.
The feds raided a warehouse that Avalos told Gonzalez to rent in Franklin Park. Agents seized 120 kilograms of cocaine from a car parked outside the warehouse, and they found another 270 kilos of coke in PVC pipes cut to fit inside a gutted boiler shipped from California.
The feds kept the massive sting under wraps: There’s no mention of it in the Chicago Sun-Times or Chicago Tribune.
Avalos fled to Mexico after the bust.
Wiretaps show Avalos went to Mexico to report the loss of the cash and drugs to members of the Sinaloa cartel, and he was “tortured for the loss, after which he promised to repay the debt he incurred,” according to court records.
He survived after being kept naked and bloody during several days of interrogation, court records show.
In 1995, Avalos was arrested and charged in San Diego with conspiracy to import cocaine, conducting a criminal enterprise and money laundering. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1997.
After the arrest of “The Doctor,” federal authorities realized there needed to be stronger communication between U.S. border agents and federal authorities in Chicago and other major cities.
“No one knew they were setting up shop here,” one federal source said. “It was the beginning of what we are seeing here now.”