ENEMY NO. 1
a controversial cartel and its colorful leader bring heroin here
4 OF A SERIES
McBride - Special to The Freeman
— If you wrote a novel about Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s
exploits, no one would believe it. They might believe
the gunfight that killed an archbishop at a Mexican
airport, but you’d probably lose them when he escaped
prison in a laundry cart. And they’d never believe the
beginning of his end started in Milwaukee.
Experts say the Mexican cartel Guzman co-leads controls
80 percent of Chicago’s drug market (including heroin)
and brings 25 percent of all drugs into the U.S. As with
any monopoly, this generated avid government attention.
This isn’t just the story of a distant cartel, though;
Waukesha gets almost all of its drugs from Milwaukee,
and Milwaukee from Chicago, says Capt. Frank McElderry,
who runs Waukesha County’s Metro Drug Unit. And those
drugs — fueled by a much purer form of heroin than in
the past — have led to a crisis here.
Whereas the poppy fields grown by Johnson & Johnson off
Australia’s coast are used to make legal opioid pills,
poppy fields in Mexico and Central America supply our
area’s heroin and are targeted by the government’s “war
on drugs.” The profit margin for both? Billions. The
drugs are chemically similar and produce the same high.
Two Great Lakes partially penning in Wisconsin ensure
it’s not going to be a major illegal drug hub for
elsewhere but rather an “end-destination state,” says
James Bohn, who runs the local DEA office. Heroin comes
to Milwaukee from Mexico, sometimes brought directly
from the border by illegal immigrants, but usually
through Chicago, concurs Mark Manthy of the Wisconsin
High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
“The border is porous,” says McElderry. “It comes over
speedboats are 1980s stereotypes. Cocaine is waning.
Feds put pressure on the “the Caribbean theater,”
pushing cartels to border routes, says Jack Riley,
who runs the Chicago DEA region (Afghan heroin goes
Chicago is a perfect drug
distribution point for a Mexican cartel: A
transportation center, it has the Midwest’s largest
Mexican population, is near populous cities, and
organized street gangs help deal. “This is their
main hub,” Riley says. “They have a toxic business
relationship with the street gangs here. In the last
two years, heroin has become the drug of choice,
hand-in-hand with an explosion in prescription drug
The cartel that emerged from
agricultural northwestern Mexico and cornered
Chicago’s market starting in about 2006 — Sinaloa —
is the world’s most powerful. Violence in Juarez?
Them. Fast and Furious? The Los Angeles Times says
40 guns ended up with the cartel’s enforcer.
Guzman was declared a foreign
kingpin and indicted in multiple federal courts — a
“modern-day Pablo Escobar,” says Bohn. Others call
him Zorro. After his prison escape, he went into
hiding, but married a beauty queen and raked in
billions. The Chicago Crime Commission labeled
Guzman “public enemy number one.”
The last gangster called that?
“How the cartels work influences
places like Wisconsin,” says Bohn.
Authorities got their big break
when Guzman called Chicago twins Margarito and Pedro
Flores to a Mexican mountaintop in 2005, just 10
years after OxyContin’s launch had spiked American
pill demand (most heroin addicts start with opioid
The twins’ immigrant father had
cartel ties. The brothers, in their 20s, ran
barbershops and restaurants as covers in Chicago’s
Pilsen and Little Village areas, says the book “El
Narco.” They agreed to become Chicago’s wholesale
point; the cartel would funnel them millions in
cocaine and heroin.
The cartel’s logistics
coordinator was son of Sinaloa’s co-leader. Vicente
Zambada-Niebla is a “narco junior,” impetuous,
flashy, with bodyguards and military weapons. Think
Sonny Corleone. Pretty boy Vicente, one Chicago
magazine said. The link between Mexico and Chicago,
who made sure drugs got there and cash got back,
Zambada was critical, court records show.
U.S. Attorney General Eric
Holder called heroin a growing, urgent public health
crisis this spring, saying the government was
stepping up enforcement at all levels of the “supply
chain” from opioid pills to heroin. The DEA has
opened more than 4,500 heroin investigations the
last three years; heroin seized along the Southwest
border is up 320 percent.
A Milwaukee drug investigation
led authorities to the “head of the snake.” U.S.
Attorney Steve Biskupic indicted a group of
Milwaukee cocaine dealers. Authorities followed them
to the Flores twins, who were also indicted without
fanfare for cocaine dealing, the same year as that
“They fled to Mexico, where they
became much bigger traffickers,” says Bohn.
Making a deal — with
Three years later, the twins
resurfaced — to a Milwaukee agent. They wanted to
deal. “Suffice it to say, they made a business
decision and a personal safety decision,” Riley says
Bohn’s uncomfortable talking
about them. The case was transferred to Chicago with
“It was a collaborative effort,”
he said. “Lots of people deserve credit.”
Riley says the twins exemplify
the government’s strategy: striking at the “heart”
of the organization. He describes them as the “ideal
choke point targets” who could lead downward to
Milwaukee street dealers causing violence and upward
to cartel leadership. It all stemmed from a street
deal in Chicago tracked to Milwaukee and that back
to the twins, who had suburban Illinois stash
The twins turning Sammy the Bull
was a big deal because they were in contact with
Zambada, even Guzman himself. “Over the last five
years regarding Sinaloa, we’ve sent shock waves
through them. This is the new face of organized
crime,” says Riley.
What happened next sounds more
like an episode of “Homeland,” though, than “The
Authorities needed the brothers
to stay undercover to build the case. If they don’t
operate as usual, the cartel might suspect. It’s
alleged this is what federal authorities did — sort
of a Fast and Furious operation with drugs.
Bohn says the Milwaukee office
would never do this, and Flores/Zambada stuff is
“above (his) pay grade.”
Riley, the guy above Bohn’s pay
grade, says, “We would never purposely let drugs go.
Not on my watch. No — that didn’t happen.”
Did the twins continue dealing
drugs without DEA’s permission or knowledge?
“Criminals are criminals,” Riley says. “This is a
dirty business, where people get killed every day.”
But he says he doesn’t think
they were doing so.
Court records describe
controlled deliveries. During one month in 2008,
court documents say, authorities seized over $15
million and made a controlled delivery of $4 million
from a Flores stash house to track it to Mexicali.
Zambada was observed counting
drugs. Margarito Flores received 13 kilograms of
heroin for $715,000. The DEA seized just 8 kilograms
back, court records say. The heroin was 94 percent
“How much can you get rid of in
a month?” Guzman asked in one recorded conversation.
“Around 40,” Pedro Flores
allegedly responded — 40 kilos of heroin.
In the trial of a twins’
Milwaukee- linked contact, the Chicago Reader said,
a Milwaukee drug agent was “asked if the twins were
important enough to the DEA that the agency would
permit them to continue importing drugs to the U.S.
during the initial phase of their cooperation, from
April to November 2008.” According to the Reader,
the agent replied, “They weren’t in our control. We
couldn’t stop them.”
When the agent met the twins in
Mexico, he said, according to the Reader: “(T)he
conversations were a matter of the twins ...
explaining essentially what their value could be to
us and us explaining to them why it was important
for them to turn themselves in.”
When asked if the twins kept
sending drugs to the United States, the agent
replied, “I suspected so,” the newspaper said.
“It has come out in the legal
proceedings ... that the twins, in exchange for
providing incriminating information and the wiretap
recordings that were used to indict Zambada, were
permitted to continue importing cocaine and heroin
by the ton into Chicago and distributing the drugs
throughout the country,” claimed Chicago magazine.
The feds busted Zambada in
Mexico in 2009 as youths across Waukesha County were
dying of a purer form of heroin his cartel
introduced to the Midwest; the twins’ cooperation
gave them a case. Zambada made noise — battling for
classified documents, including those about Fast and
Furious, the scandal in which agents allowed guns to
reach criminals to trace them.
Zambada claimed cartel leaders,
including Guzman, were working with the government
through a cartel lawyer given immunity and claimed
the government gave the cartel “carte blanche” to
smuggle “tons of illicit drugs to Chicago” in
exchange for information on rivals, court documents
“Factually infirm and legally
unsupported,” slammed the government. But the
government admitted the lawyer WAS an American
informant and they’d tossed his indictment. Riley
says Zambada’s charges were “obviously legal
posturing. A judge in Chicago denied his motion.”
Presuming this is not a lie, why
would the government want to cooperate with a
cartel? Zambada argued it was overall drug strategy
— “the end justifies the means” — to divide and
conquer cartels. Bohn points out criminals often
Then, Zambada was given a deal,
announced a few months ago. He could get only 10
years in prison. He must cooperate and relinquish $1
billion, the plea shows.
Meanwhile, authorities here were
back to disrupting lower-level dealers.
The latest target: An
Oconomowoc-area network. A user screws up. Gets
caught in a traffic stop or cops get a Crimestoppers
tip. Now they will give up a dealer; the drug unit’s
goal is to “interdict dealers,” McElderry says. Drug
deals go down in Walmart, Walgreens, and Brookfield
Square Mall parking lots.
It’s just people who know people
who know people. The local “kingpin” is a Milwaukee
man who moved to Oconomowoc. He’s jobless and
homeless, McElderry says. At this level, “there’s no
money in heroin.” One man on the supply chain got
pills for cheap through BadgerCare and sold them for
The largest county heroin case
was “Operation Lake Effect.” Court documents show
two Pewaukee brothers got heroin from a Milwaukee
man who got it from a guy who relocated to Chicago.
They sometimes used a Greyhound bus. The network
caused five overdose deaths.
DA Brad Schimel says Lake Effect
was the “first big ring” here but usually dealers
set up in Milwaukee, leaving Waukesha County full of
“end users.” Milwaukee is “a lot more anonymous.”
Some Lake Effect defendants
ended up with more prison time than Zambada might,
but there’s a lot he knows, and Guzman might be
coming to Chicago. A few months ago, after 14 years
on the lam, U.S. agents arrested Guzman at a Mexican
“It’s a very big arrest,” says
Bohn. “The question is, what will take his place?”
Riley says he can’t talk about Guzman because of the
ongoing case but added generally that, “whenever you
remove ... the CEO of a major corporation who’s been
running it for 20 years, the organization begins to
fragment, alliances switch, communication becomes
undisciplined. There’s a lot of chaos that happens.”
mythology holds that snakes regenerate. You can take
Bill Gates out of Microsoft, Bohn muses, but
Microsoft remains. As for the twins? Riley goes mum.
Witness protection is a good bet.
Coming Saturday: One woman’s journey through drug