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Feds land vaunted big fish but keep trolling for sharks

I couldn’t tell you how many drug defendants have come before U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo in his 20 years on the bench, but surely hundreds if not thousands.

By the judge’s own reckoning, though, too many of them were low-level cogs in the supply chain that feeds America’s never-ending demand for illegal narcotics.

For every one of those flunkies that Castillo sent to prison, he knew from experience there would be no shortage of others willing to take their place.

“I know this because I see them every day,” Castillo said Tuesday.

That’s why it must have bothered Castillo somewhere down deep when minutes later the “most significant” drug dealers he’d ever encountered — operators of what federal prosecutors say was the largest known drug enterprise in Chicago’s history — walked out of his courtroom with measly 14-year prison sentences.

Castillo said the sentences he handed down for Pedro and Margarito Flores as part of a plea bargain were proper in light of the twin brothers’ extraordinary cooperation with prosecutors to help dismantle the infamous Sinaloa Cartel, including the indictment of El Chapo himself, Joaquin Guzman Loera.

I don’t disagree. That doesn’t make it much easier to swallow.

It’s as if the nation’s whole drug-enforcement effort is predicated on catching the legendary Big Fish, but these two whoppers found the catch-and-release loophole at the bottom of the live well.

The 33-year-old twins’ drug trafficking was so significant that it could be measured in tons, not kilos — more than 60 tons of cocaine in all over the course of the conspiracy, and that doesn’t count the heroin they also supplied.

Half the cocaine the Flores brothers brought into the country was distributed around Chicago, and the rest delivered to drug dealers in other major cities.

The pair may not have been the biggest fish in the U.S. drug dealers’ food chain, but nobody in Chicago outranked them, according to prosecutors. Of course, the Sinoloa Cartel is bigger.

Castillo, who enjoys a reputation for taking his sentencing responsibilities seriously and for putting the hammer down in public-corruption cases, acknowledged his anguish over the case.

If not for the extent of the Flores’ cooperation, which included catching “Chapo” on a wiretap discussing a drug deal, Castillo said he would have sentenced them to life in prison, as they would have deserved.

But their plea agreement set parameters that limited the sentence to somewhere between 10 and 16 years with prosecutors recommending the low end of the range as an incentive to other highly placed criminals to come forward and cooperate. Under the circumstances, Castillo really had no choice.

Castillo seemed to take solace in observing that “in a very real way,” the twins were leaving his courtroom “with a life sentence” anyway, because for the rest of their lives they’ll be looking over their shoulders for the assassins sent to even the score.

True, but that’s a helluva way to get justice.

In their matching khaki prison uniforms and squared away haircuts, the boyish-looking brothers could have passed for young Marines when they stepped into the courtroom, right down to their Desert Storm combat boots.

The Flores brothers were making their first public appearance in court since they entered protective federal custody in 2008, and I’m sure many of the people who crowded into Castillo’s courtroom to get a look at them were as surprised as me to see they stood barely more than five-feet tall.

But their barrel chests suggested they know their way around a weight room — and a fight.

Each main spoke barely loud enough to be heard in the rear of the courtroom as they took turns telling Castillo they accepted responsibility for their actions.

Margarito, who parts his hair on the right, told the judge he was “ashamed . . . embarrassed . . . regretful.”

“I’ve put my family in harm’s way, and I will never forgive myself,” he said.

Pedro, who parts his hair on the left, also said he was “sorry.”

Castillo wondered aloud what the two homegrown hoodlums, products of Little Village, might have accomplished if they hadn’t got involved in crime.

“There’s a lot of things you are, but stupid is not one of them,” he said.

Castillo said he was not “naive enough” to think that the drug highway into the city is “now closed down” with the twins’ arrest.

During his own time in the drug wars, “nothing has really changed,” Castillo said.

And five years from now, Castillo will still be handling drug cases.