EDITORIAL: How the good guys chase down the El Chapos who ‘feast on misery’

SHARE EDITORIAL: How the good guys chase down the El Chapos who ‘feast on misery’

Thomas Shakeshaft is a former assistant U.S. attorney who handled every step of the investigations of Chris Baines, the Flores twins and El Chapo Guzman investigation. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Good police work, by the book, can accomplish powerful things.

In the Sun-Times this weekend, reporter Frank Main offered a detailed account of how a minor drug bust in Chicago led in time to one of the biggest drug investigations in history and the arrest of the world’s most-wanted criminal, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera.


It is a remarkable tale, full of lessons, not the least of which is that the mysteries of human nature are hard to fathom. One man’s family raises him right and he grows up to be a federal prosecutor who takes down bad guys. Another man’s family raises him right and he grows up to be one of the bad guys.

Main’s account of how the road to El Chapo’s demise began in Chicago offers a lot to chew on:

  • It all began on July 3, 2007, when an informant for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration bought 50 grams of heroin — less than a cup — from a mid-level West Side drug dealer, Christopher Baines. After three more sales, the cops arrested Baines. What we’d like to emphasize here is that the informer himself had a long criminal record, including an arrest for murder. Defense attorneys lament this practice, but good police work sometimes requires collaborating with hardened criminals.
  • Baines was arrested by a DEA task force that included federal agents, Chicago Police Department investigators and members of other law enforcement agencies. Good police work often requires coordination among agencies, which is possible only when there is mutual trust. The more the practices and professionalism of CPD are upgraded, as reformers keep pushing for, the more the department will be worthy of such trust.
  • In the movies, and among too many police officers grousing over drinks in cop bars, the disturbing view is that effective police work must inevitably cross the line at times, getting more physical and less constitutional than the formal rules allow. But El Chapo was taken down not by force or a denial of his rights, but by persistence and brains, within the rules. The DEA arrested Baines and worked up the chain — first to his friend “Fat Mike” King, then to the twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, and finally to El Chapo himself.
  • “It’s kind of law enforcement 101,” Thomas Shakeshaft, a former assistant U.S. attorney who supervised the entire investigation, told Main. “It’s what we do.”
  • Plenty of criminals had tough childhoods, and maybe society is to blame. But Baines’ story says real life is more complicated. Baines grew up middle-class and attended a suburban Catholic school. His father owned a grocery story in Austin and drove a bus for the CTA. The future drug dealer had two parents at home who tried to keep him off the streets. He didn’t listen.
  • Criminals refuse to squeal on other criminals not out of sense of honor, of which we there is little, but out of healthy sense of self-preservation. They don’t want to die. Baines, who never himself cooperated with the feds, explained it this way to Main: “When all this is over, I can go downtown to Buckingham Fountain, take a picture at 11 o’clock at night, and I don’t have to worry about someone who wants to put a bullet in the back of my head.”
  • Police work takes a heavy personal toll. Ask any cop. Or ask Shakeshaft, the prosecutor.

Of all the characters running through Main’s narrative, Shakeshaft is the most fascinating because he’s is the most admirable. His dad, who was awarded the Silver Star after fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, was his personal hero. Shakeshaft he got into law enforcement, he said, because he wanted to “try to live up” to his dad’s example.

Now, after the stress and responsibilities that came with chasing down El Chapo, he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“You know, I woke up every day for 6 1/2 years afraid that I was going to make a mistake that was going to get somebody killed,” he told Main. “Professionally, I did the right thing for our country, but on a personal level it hasn’t been easy.”

Shakeshaft, to our thinking, is every bit as much a hero as his father was, though he fought in a very different war — one without end. As long as there are addicts and broken people desperate for drugs, there will be people like Baines, Fat Mike, the Flores brothers and El Chapo.

“They’re all feasting off human misery,” Shakeshaft said.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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