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Business News/ News / How El Chapo’s Man in Chicago Became a Police Consultant
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How El Chapo’s Man in Chicago Became a Police Consultant

wsj

Margarito Flores developed a U.S. delivery platform for drugs. Now he advises police officers on dismantling gangs that operate like criminal versions of Amazon.

Former cartel kingpin Margarito Flores hosts a training session about drug sales and distribution methods with law-enforcement officers earlier this month in Billings, Mont. Premium
Former cartel kingpin Margarito Flores hosts a training session about drug sales and distribution methods with law-enforcement officers earlier this month in Billings, Mont.

BILLINGS, Mont.—Margarito Flores has the jitters. Once one of the top kingpins in the U.S. for Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, he is starting a second career—teaching law-enforcement officers how to catch drug traffickers.

Slight of build, with short cropped hair, Flores darted back and forth at the front of a stage. About 30 law-enforcement agents from Montana and nearby states leaned in and listened intently.

“I ran the most successful drug operation in U.S. history," he told them. “I reverse engineered what made me successful, and I came up with some answers to help agents."

Today, Washington thinks the Sinaloa cartel is the largest exporter of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has caused tens of thousands of U.S. overdose deaths. The cartel has become the Drug Enforcement Administration’s main target. Ovidio Guzmán, the son of jailed Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo" Guzmán, was captured in January and extradited to Chicago in September on drug-trafficking charges. Ovidio Guzmán pleaded not guilty at his arraignment.

Court documents, interviews with Flores, his identical twin, Pedro, and U.S. law- enforcement officials detail how the Flores brothers went from top drug traffickers to key informants for American law enforcement.

The twins, natives of Chicago, were once the point men for Joaquín Guzmán and his partner Ismael “El Mayo" Zambada, U.S. prosecutors said. The brothers turned Chicago, with its large Mexican community, into the hub for drugs coming from the Sinaloa cartel, prosecutors said. Joaquín Guzmán is serving a life sentence at a maximum-security prison in the U.S. on drug-trafficking charges. Zambada is a fugitive.

At the height of their operations, the Flores brothers were moving about two tons of cocaine and about 60 kilos of heroin a month from Mexico to Chicago, according to the twins and court records. At first they received the drugs from cartel middlemen, but by 2005 were getting most of them directly from Joaquín Guzmán and Zambada, say the twins and U.S. prosecutors. By that time, they had moved to Mexico ahead of an impending indictment in Milwaukee.

From Chicago, they sold the drugs to wholesalers in half a dozen other U.S. cities and Vancouver, British Columbia. U.S. prosecutors said that the brothers sent some $1.8 billion back to Mexico in bulk-cash payments between 2005 and 2008, according to court papers. Margarito Flores estimates that for the decade he was in business between 1998 and 2008, the number was close to $3 billion.

At his seminars, Margarito Flores tells police officers they should think of drug cartels as criminal versions of the company Amazon.com, with delivery platforms for drugs used by thousands of subcontractors and sellers.

The twins led lives of luxury in Chicago, and they had mansions and apartments in Guadalajara—one of Mexico’s largest cities—and the beach resorts of Puerto Vallarta and Cancún. Margarito Flores says he bought a Lamborghini, a Ferrari and a Bentley, but he could only drive them slowly on the rutted roads of a ranch he acquired near Guadalajara. Outside of the ranch, he was careful to drive an inconspicuous Honda.

Kidnapping was a constant threat. Pedro Flores said he was kidnapped in 2003 by corrupt Chicago police and freed only after paying a $2.3 million ransom. He was kidnapped again in Mexico by a supplier over a drug debt and was saved by the intervention of Joaquín Guzmán, who had taken a shine to the twins, Margarito Flores said. The second time it cost $10 million to save Pedro Flores, but the transaction provided a business connection to Guzmán, who began to deal directly with them, the twins said.

As violence between Mexican drug gangs intensified, the twins decided it was time to go home, Margarito Flores said.

One of their Chicago lawyers arranged a secret meeting in 2008 with DEA agents and prosecutors in Mexico, which Pedro Flores attended. The twins then agreed to inform on the cartels.

They taped conversations with cartel leaders and sent information on deliveries to agents in the U.S., according to court records. The recordings included more than 70 conversations. In one with Joaquín Guzmán, Pedro Flores haggled down the price of 20 kilos of heroin. The recording was used as evidence against Guzmán, who was extradited to the U.S. in 2017 and sentenced to life in prison in 2019.

Using their information, U.S. agents made busts involving almost two tons of cocaine and nearly $15 million. In November 2008, the DEA flew the brothers back to the U.S. Their wives, children and other relatives made a dash for the border in a convoy of SUVs.

For the next six months, U.S. agents interrogated the twins for hours a day. The cooperation continued for years. In 2015, they pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute drugs and were sentenced to 14 years in prison. They were released in 2020.

As a direct result of the twins’ information, more than 50 people were indicted, including half a dozen of Mexico’s top drug lords, according to court records. Their cooperation was essential to those prosecutions, said Pedro Flores, who now works in logistics.

The Flores brothers “were absolutely at the top of the cartel world" when they reached out, said prosecutor Michael Ferrara at their sentencing hearing. Ferrara called their cooperation “unprecedented, extraordinary, historic."

Today, Margarito Flores takes security precautions. For instance, the photographs on the website of the company he works for, Dynamic Police Training, are blurred, making him unrecognizable. “I’ve lived with risks most of my life," he says.

He envisions expanding his seminars into a sort of graduate school for young law-enforcement agents and prosecutors, with training from computer analytics to finance and risk assessment.

In a résumé, Margarito Flores boasts that he led “the global integration of shipping and distribution channels with multiple carriers, leading nationwide and international distribution efforts in North and Central American territories."

The twins say that their education in the drug business started in 1988 when they were 7 years old, and their father, Margarito Flores Sr., took them on a trip to Jalpa, in the Mexican state of Zacatecas.

“I thought I was going to see cows," Margarito Flores told the police officers in the conference room. Instead, their father took them deep into mountains to check out marijuana fields. “This is how we are going to be sure you’ll always be able to eat," he told his sons.

They brought back 200 pounds of marijuana, which they got across the border stashed in the gas tank and in the bumper of their Ford Tempo.

“From that day we learned about the harvest, how to grow marijuana, how to use a hydraulic press to squeeze 60 pounds of marijuana into a small block so it could fit inside a gas tank," he said as the police in Billings listened.

The Billings talk was the sixth since Margarito Flores joined forces with Jeramy Ellison, who runs the company that offers the training sessions.

Margarito Flores tells his listeners that the drug business is a two-way street with drugs flowing north and money flowing south. The confiscation of money is much more harmful to a dealer’s operation than seizing drugs. But law enforcement is more focused on finding drugs than the money sent by traffickers to pay for the next shipment, he said.

Earlier this year, the twins’ wives both pleaded guilty to money laundering and were sentenced to 3½ years in prison. The wives, both daughters of retired Chicago policemen, co-wrote a book, “Cartel Wives."

At the end of the class, a line of police officers come up to Margarito Flores to shake his hand. Montana, like much of the U.S. now, faces a methamphetamine and fentanyl crisis. But many aspects of the drug trade are the same, says Sgt. Ryan Kramer, who heads a Billings police department street crime unit.

“I’m glad he turned his life around," Kramer said.

Write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com

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