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Chicago’s other drug cartel, founded by the Handsome Frog

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s infamous Sinaloa Cartel continues to dominate the narcotics trafficking from Mexico to Chicago, but an upstart cartel founded by a former Chicago resident is now considered a major challenger.

Guzman’s daring escape from a maximum-security prison in Mexico on July 13 refocused international attention on the Sinaloa Cartel.

But little has been mentioned about Guerrero Unidos, a fledgling Mexican drug cartel, feeding Chicago’s enormous appetite for heroin. The cartel is infamous mainly for the kidnapping and presumed slaughter of 43 students last fall in Mexico.

Mario Casarrubias Salgado, who is nicknamed The Handsome Frog or El Sapo Guapo in Spanish, is credited with creating Guerrero Unidos around 2011. He was formerly a bodyguard to Arturo Beltran Leyva, the late kingpin of another cartel in Mexico.

Casarrubias, 34, a native of Mexico City who once lived in the Logan Square neighborhood, is suspected of masterminding a heroin distribution network to Chicago using passenger buses from Mexico.

Last year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration busted a suspected Guerrero Unidos cell operating in Chicago, but the cartel is still thought to be a major heroin supplier to the area.

“Did we wipe them out in one case? Probably not,” said Dennis Wichern, special agent in charge of the Chicago division of the DEA.

The Sinaloa Cartel still “has the biggest footprint in Chicago,” Wichern said.

The authorities are closely watching to see whether Guzman, the DEA’s most-wanted man, will retake direct control of the Sinaloa Cartel’s narcotics operations in Chicago and other parts of the United States.

But they’re also keeping an eye on Guerrero Unidos, which has transported huge quantities of heroin to the Chicago area since 2013, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court here.

Guerrero Unidos is one of the “new, younger organizations coming up” after the Mexican government launched offensives that seriously damaged established cartels such as the Juarez Cartel, Wichern said.

The Guerrero state on the west coast of Mexico, where Acapulco is located, is that country’s No. 1 producer of opium poppies, which are used to make heroin, Wichern said.

“And the GU deals mostly in heroin,” he said.

Pablo Vega Cueva, the alleged head of the Chicago cell of Guerrero Unidos, and seven other associates were charged with federal drug crimes in December. His attorney had no comment on the charges on Friday.

Authorities said they seized 68 kilograms of heroin, nine kilos of cocaine and more than $500,000 in cash from the cartel’s associates. A kilo can fetch $60,000 wholesale and $200,000 on the street, officials said.

Vega, who used the nicknames Transformer and Ninja, lived in a tidy frame house in Aurora. He and Mario Casarrubias were caught on a wiretap discussing a heroin shipment on April 28, 2014, authorities said.

“What’s going on buddy? Have they made the delivery yet?” Casarrubias asked, according to the federal complaint.

Casarrubias allegedly instructed Vega to deliver two kilos of heroin wrapped in orange tape and bearing the stamp of an iguana — along with a third, unmarked kilo.

Days later, the Mexican authorities arrested Casarrubias in Mexico. In a statement to reporters, they said he was “considered the main drug dealer to the city of Chicago,” although DEA officials said the Sinaloa Cartel is still tops here.

Casarrubias knows the Chicago area. He lived in the 2300 block of North Campbell in the early 2000s, according to court records, and had some run-ins with the law.

In 2002, he pleaded guilty in Cook County Criminal Court to burglary and received probation. Then in 2004, he pleaded guilty to possession of an illegal firearm and was sentenced to three years in prison. He served about nine months, according to state prison records.

Authorities got onto his associate, Vega, about two years ago.

On Aug. 21, 2013, police stopped a vehicle that contained $200,000 in cash. They then searched the driver’s home in Chicago and found another $231,000 in cash, 12 kilos of heroin and nine kilos of cocaine, according to a federal complaint.

Through that bust, DEA agents developed an informant who led them to Vega.

Agents learned Guerrero Unidos was shipping drugs on buses that took passengers from Mexico to Chicago.

The bus companies are listed in the federal complaint were Autobuses Volcano Travel Agency and Autobuses Monarca Zacatecanos. A law-enforcement source said they were affiliated with a company the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered to stop operating in the United States in 2012 because of safety concerns.

The cartel allegedly unloaded heroin from hidden panels in the buses to warehouses in Aurora and Batavia in the western suburbs, according to the federal complaint. The U.S. attorney’s office filed a 131-page complaint against Vega and his co-defendants on Dec. 8.

Such alleged heroin operations are the top priority for the DEA in Chicago, where more people are seeking treatment for addiction to the drug than anywhere else in the country, Wichern said.

“Our focus is to save lives,” he said.

As the case against Vega and his co-defendants plays out in federal court in Chicago, human-rights activists are paying close attention to another case involving Guerrero Unidos — the abduction of 43 students in Mexico.

Casarrubias’ brother, Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, was arrested in October in connection with the kidnappings and the suspected murders of the students in the town of Iguala in Guerrero state.

Mexican authorities said they believe the police chief of Iguala orchestrated the kidnappings and killings on the orders of Sidronio Casarrubias. The mayor of Iguala and his wife have also been charged in connection with the abductions.

The students, who attended a rural teachers college, traveled to Iguala on Sept. 26 to steal buses to use in a protest march in Mexico City, the authorities said.

Mayor Jose Luis Abarca allegedly ordered the police to detain the students, and they were turned over to Guerrero Unidos, which killed them and incinerated their bodies at a trash dump, officials said.

The cartel’s leaders were allegedly under the impression the students were tied to a rival drug gang.

The case has exposed the pervasive corruption of local governments in Mexico by drug cartels and embarrassed President Enrique Pena Nieto on the international stage.

Human-rights groups across Mexico and the United States have blamed Pena Nieto’s government of bungling the investigation, which is continuing. Only one student has been identified from the charred remains found in the landfill.