TIME Crime

How Captured Mexican Drug Lord ‘El Chapo’ Turned Chicago Into His Home Port

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City, on Feb. 22, 2014.
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City, on Feb. 22, 2014. Eduardo Verdugo—AP

The cartel boss used the Windy City to infiltrate the U.S.

Last year on Valentine’s Day, the drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was designated Chicago’s Public Enemy No. 1. It was a telling day to bestow the measure of dishonor, a nod to the gangster Al Capone and The Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Capone found himself Chicago’s Public Enemy No. 1 after seven mobsters were killed that day, and his role as a bogeyman blamed for increasing crime in the city was unmatched for decades—until El Chapo.

El Chapo ran the biggest drug syndicate in the Americas until he was captured in Mexico last week, and his footprint was especially heavy in the place once dominated by that earlier public enemy. El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel, widely considered to supply up to 80 percent of the drugs in the city, has been blamed for helping spark the gang disputes that have fueled so much of the gun violence in Chicago. That violence peaked in 2012, the city’s bloodiest year in almost a decade, when 506 people were killed by gun violence. As Art Bilek of the Chicago Crime Commission, which issues the public enemies list, put it, El Chapo “virtually has his fingerprints on the guns that are killing the children of this city.”

Indeed, El Chapo once referred to Chicago as his “home port.” But his arrest is unlikely to have much effect on violence there. Most law enforcement officials attribute the city’s uptick in shootings to the breakdown in the traditional gang hierarchy. Federal prosecutions of gang leaders like Larry Hoover, the head of the notorious Gangster Disciples, disorganized the ranks, and senseless violence increased as a kind of collateral damage.

“The problem is now the gang structure here is so fractured, you have a lot of the cliques,” says Brian Sexton, chief of narcotics prosecutions for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. “You may have just like maybe 15 guys in one block or whatever, but there’s nobody calling the shots really, and they’re more younger and more violent than they ever were.”

The drug trade can actually have a stabilizing effect, according to law enforcement. The supply of cocaine and heroin from Mexico, much of it coming from the Sinaloa Cartel, is the main source of income for these gangs and violence can be bad for business. “In the 70s, when all the gangs started big, it was very traditional,” Sexton said. “Folks versus Peoples, and the colors, and you know they were all rivals with each other and very turf-protective. But now it’s all about making money.”

Much of that money comes from selling drugs from El Chapo’s cartel, which get smuggled from Mexico to Chicago and then distributed throughout the Midwest and other parts of the nation. Numerous cartels ship drugs through the city, but Sinaloa dwarfs them all, according to court records. And the market is large. In a 2010 report, the Department of Justice named the Chicago metro area the No. 1 destination in the United States for heroin shipments, No. 2 for marijuana and cocaine, and No. 5 for methamphetamine. The reasons are a combination of ideal geography, a developed retail network and a large population of Mexican immigrants.

Chicago is a national transportation hub, ideally located within a day’s drive of 70 percent of the U.S. population. It has two major airports, and six of the seven major railroads. The region accounts for one quarter of the entire country’s rail traffic. If you’re looking to efficiently move products in and out, it’s a hard location to beat.

“The geographic reality of the situation is that it’s just a very convenient point, the infrastructure’s there,” says Amarjeet Singh Bhachu, an Assistant U.S. Attorney who helped prosecute members of the La Familia Michoacana drug cartel. “The same reasons that made Chicago a big city in the history of the United States are the same reasons that make it a big city for any enterprise, including illegal enterprises.”

Once the drugs make it to town, the city’s large number of gangs serve as a ready-made distribution operation. Jack Blakey, chief of the special prosecutions bureau at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, estimated that there are between 75,000 and 100,000 active gang members in the region who can be used to funnel cartel shipments onto the street. “Chicago has an enormously serious gang problem,” says Christina Egan, former deputy chief of the narcotics and gangs unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “It’s easy for the cartel to get through a series of layers the drug to Chicago and then have people able to put them on the street and get them to the consumers. There’s a huge demand, and with the gangs in Chicago it’s easy to service that demand.”

Family ties proved especially crucial in helping Sinaloa edge out rivals in Chicago’s lucrative market. The Chicagoans credited for building up El Chapo’s local cocaine operation were twin brothers born to Mexican parents in the Little Village neighborhood. Their father and an older brother also smuggled drugs for Sinaloa. The twins, Pedro and Margarito Flores, enlisted boyhood friends from Little Village to deliver the cocaine, which at the operation’s peak weighed in at two tons per month. Links to the drug business in Mexico that go back generations are what distinguished the Sinaloa business model in Chicago from that of cartels like the Zetas or La Familia, whose distributors tended to be transients.

Those advantages have helped Sinaloa dominate the Chicago drug market. The U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago has brought three drug indictments linked to Mexican cartels since 2009, hitting local distributors for the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia in 2009, and the Zetas in 2011, according to federal court documents. The amount of cocaine in the Sinaloa Cartel indictment was 12 times the amount in the others, and included 64 kilos of heroin. “The primary issue in the Midwest is without a doubt Sinaloa,” says Jack Riley, director of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago Field Division. “All of our major investigations at some point lead back to other investigations that are tied to Sinaloa.”

Authorities are hopeful that El Chapo’s capture will help them stifle Sinaloa’s pipeline through Chicago. Cartel members and affiliates are the targets of a federal task force against drug-trafficking that has about 40 active investigations into the distribution cells in the region and their supply sources in Mexico. “Our job,” Riley says, “is to remove all the legs so the organization ceases to exist, from the highest level to the guy that is maybe unwittingly putting Chapo’s dope on the street on the West Side, to remove it altogether.”

That’s a tall order, given Chicago’s natural advantages in the marketplace and the gap between cartel leaders and the end users of their product. Even at the height of his power, El Chapo was careful to maintain distance from his supply chain. The layers of importers and wholesalers served as a kind of buffer between the suppliers in Mexico and the street gangs who handled the bulk of retail sales. The bulk wholesalers may know where the drugs are coming from, but starting at the mid-level wholesalers, the identity of the supplier is lost.

“The guys at the street level,” says Nicholas Roti, chief of the organized crime bureau for the Chicago Police Department, “have no idea.”

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