Chicago’s new Scarface is a shadowy Mexican drug kingpin nicknamed Chapo – “Shorty” in Spanish.
His cash crop is marijuana, which his cartel sells by the ton and protects with horrific violence.
If you thought Chicago’s Italian mob was the worst of the worst in organized crime, think again, federal agents say.
“Chapo Guzman would eat them alive,” said Jack Riley, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s office in Chicago.
The 5-foot-6 Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman rules the Sinaloa Cartel, which allegedly smuggles marijuana and other narcotics in planes, trains, ships, trucks, cars and even submarines.
Most of Guzman’s leafy product comes from Mexico, but some is grown alarmingly nearby – deep in Wisconsin’s North Woods, whose pristine lakes and pine forests are a paradise for weekend campers, hunters and anglers. Authorities suspect much of that Wisconsin-grown pot is destined for here.
Although Chicago is in the U.S. heartland, in the marijuana trade, “We are on the Mexican border,” Riley said.
Mexican marijuana dominates the Chicago market at a time when local police and prosecutors are trying to devise a better way to deal with the tens of thousands of people arrested here every year for possession of small amounts of pot. Most of those cases get dismissed in court, so several Chicago aldermen recently proposed an ordinance to allow officers to write tickets for minor marijuana possession.
Whatever the outcome, police and prosecutors say they won’t stop trying to prevent cartels like Guzman’s from shipping their huge loads of marijuana to Chicago.
“The Mexican cartels have totally taken over the majority of the marijuana trafficking here,” Riley said. “It’s their cash crop. It’s the drug that really allows them to do all of their other criminal enterprises: heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine. That’s why it’s so important to us.”
NORTH WOODS POT FARMS
A man scouting locations to hunt bears near the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest stumbled upon one of the Sinaloa Cartel’s secret North Woods marijuana operations. The hunter called authorities, who notified the DEA.
A federal probe found about 10 grow sites that ranged in size from a suburban backyard to a football field in the forest and other remote areas of northern Wisconsin. Suspected cartel workers were tending to about 10,000 plants that would have been worth millions of dollars on the street.
Twelve men were nabbed last year and all the plants were destroyed. Agents also recovered an AK-47 and other weapons.
These backwoods pot farms – first discovered about three years ago – are more sophisticated than what local cops there have encountered in the past.
Trees were clear-cut to 3 feet high and marijuana was planted between the stumps. Workers dug water wells and ran irrigation hoses to the plants.
The men slept and cooked under plastic tarps where they stored their pots and pans, sleeping bags, fertilizers, pesticides and trash. “Luncheros,” or supply workers, brought them food and growing supplies.
National Forest Service district ranger Jeff Seefeldt said he has suggested that fellow employees bring along law enforcement on visits to remote areas of the 130,000 acres of forest he oversees. Oconto County Sheriff Michael Jansen said he doesn’t know of any cartel-related violence in his community, yet. But he’s worried that other heavily armed marijuana grow operations might move into his backyard.
“The national forests in the mountainous states – Oregon and California – have been dealing with this for years,” he said. “They’re looking at a map and seeing other national forests besides those out West. And they’ve put their finger on Wisconsin.”
Mexican drug cartels are growing marijuana in the Chicago area, too, but on a lesser scale, said Larry Lindenman, executive director of the Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group. He suspects a cartel was to blame for a marijuana field found in 2008 in Waukegan across the street from property owned by Abbott Laboratories.
“They had tents. They would work and live on the site. They even made a building out of plastic bags and used a generator-powered heater to dry the harvested plants before shipping,” he said.
The operations the feds have busted in Wisconsin and northern Illinois are proof Mexican cartels will grow marijuana anywhere they can to ensure an uninterrupted supply of marijuana makes it their best-selling markets, including Chicago.
Still, their local grow operations are a sideline – just a “small part of the pie” Â– in the drug business, Riley said.
‘THE MOST DANGEROUS CRIMINAL IN THE WORLD’
In recent years, Chicago and Atlanta have become key transportation hubs for the cartels, Riley said. Most of their pot comes to Chicago in trains and semi trucks.
A lot of that marijuana is being shipped here by the Sinaloa Cartel and protected with unthinkable violence, Riley said.
“Chapo Guzman, now that Osama is dead, is in my opinion the most dangerous criminal in the world and probably the most wealthy criminal in the world,” he said. “Guzman was in the Forbes Top 100 most wealthy people in the world. His ability to produce revenue off marijuana, we’ve never seen it before. We’ve never seen a criminal organization so well-focused and with such business sense, and so vicious and violent.”
In Mexico, feuding cartels are suspected of tens of thousands of murders, some gruesome beyond compare. They have been known to kidnap, torture, kill and mutilate. Here’s an example: The Juarez Cartel got blamed for what happened to a kidnapping victim whose skinned face was stitched onto a soccer ball in Sinaloa, Mexico, in 2010. Cartel members, including a hit squad called the Scorpions, are believed responsible for murders in Chicago, too, a police source said.
Fear of cartel violence, as well as rampant bribery, has prompted many officials in Mexico to look the other way while tons of marijuana and other drugs cross the border. But the cartel bosses aren’t just ruthless killers. They’re also businessmen who run their operations with a logistical know-how that rivals corporate giants.
Cartels have even secretly hired students attending elite U.S. universities to engineer their marijuana for increased potency, a police source said.
Vicente Zambada-Niebla, the alleged head of logistics for the Sinaloa Cartel, claims the DEA allowed the cartel to operate without interference for years in return for providing DEA agents with details about rival cartels, including the location of their leaders. He says the DEA offered him immunity in exchange for information, which the agency vehemently denies.
Zambada-Niebla, Guzman and their co-defendants are charged with smuggling tons of heroin and cocaine to Chicago and elsewhere in the U.S. Zambada-Niebla is in a federal lockup in Chicago, but Guzman remains a fugitive.
Although that federal case focused on cocaine and heroin, authorities believe the Sinaloa Cartel and rival drug cartels are also responsible for tons of marijuana that police and federal agents have seized in recent years. From 2005 through 2009, Chicago Police officers interdicted 29 tons of marijuana suspected of coming from Mexican cartels. In 2010 alone, police seized another 19 tons.
Last year, DEA agents in Chicago Heights stopped a delivery of nearly 11 tons of marijuana packed in six rail cars from Mexico.
And in August, Chicago Police conducted surveillance on a West Side warehouse and saw workers preparing to move large containers from a tractor-trailer to six white vans. Hiding on rooftops and in weeds, the officers watched workers pull the six containers from the semi truck. Each container contained a ton of marijuana. Some bore the label “AK-47.”
“You will see people getting shot, being beheaded back in Mexico because of this,” said one undercover narcotics officer involved in the bust. “But for every truck you stop, 12 get through.”
The high season for shipping cartel marijuana to Chicago is in January, February and March – the key harvest times in Mexico.
Marijuana is often hidden under fruit or other food in a tractor-trailer. If a truck hauls a ton of pot to Chicago, the dealer who bought it from the cartel might earmark four 500-pound packages for particular customers. Once the truck is unloaded in Chicago, the weed doesn’t sit in a warehouse long – an hour or two, tops.
“Now it’s up to the independent dealers in the area with their own customer base that might supply the local guys with 50 pounds here and 50 pounds there,” an undercover narcotics officer said.
The cartels deal almost exclusively with high-level, Spanish-speaking smugglers in Chicago.
There are rules for how the pot is distributed here, authorities said. A guy who buys a ton won’t sell less than 500 pounds to anyone. A guy who buys 500 pounds won’t sell less than 50 at a time. And the guy who buys 50 pounds will “pound out” 5- or 10-pound amounts to his customers. At the bottom of the pot-dealer chain, low-level Hispanic drug dealers sell marijuana to the street corner salesmen who deal in ounces and grams.
“It’s Basic Narcotics 101,” said Chicago Police Cmdr. James O’Grady of the narcotics unit. “Don’t try to buy a kilo from a guy who sells ounces.”
A guy who sells ounces will think you’re stupid and rob you. Or he’ll think you’re an undercover cop and avoid you – or worse, O’Grady said.
THE GUY IN HINSDALE
Certainly, a pot dealer selling ounces would never negotiate with someone like Saul Rodriguez, a ruthless drug trafficker near the top of the supply chain in Chicago.
Rodriguez played a dangerous game.
He ripped off the Mexican cartels and sold the drugs he stole. He has also admitted to being involved in the murders of three people.
In 1996, the former La Raza gang member became an informant for Chicago Police, earning $807,000 for his tips about high-level drug dealers.
Glenn Lewellen was the narcotics officer who recruited Rodriguez as an informant. They became partners in crime, federal prosecutors allege.
Rodriguez got his start as a big-time marijuana dealer before moving into more lucrative cocaine deals, law enforcement sources say. In 1996, for example, the DEA seized 154 pounds of marijuana from one of Rodriguez’s cars.
But Lewellen persuaded the feds to drop their case, prosecutors said.
Rodriguez’s crew continued to operate until 2009 when he was arrested. He has pleaded guilty to running a drug enterprise and arranging the murders of three men in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
Riley, the head of the DEA here, said he thinks a lot of pot smokers are unaware the bag of weed they buy is directly connected to the violence and corruption of Mexican drug cartels and their local associates, Rodriguez among them.
“The guy sitting on the patio in Hinsdale – smoking a joint with his friend and having a drink – better think twice,” Riley said. “Because he’s part of the problem.”