The Flores twins—Margarito Jr., nicknamed Junior, and Pedro, called Peter —were not yet born when their pregnant mother witnessed their father being arrested in their Chicago home for narcotics by federal agents.
The twins were 7 when Margarito Sr. returned home from prison. He began their tutelage in the drug trade as he resumed smuggling drugs in automobile gas tanks.
“Putting their little hands in the gas tanks, removing the drugs,” Junior's wife told The Daily Beast this week. “Learning how to use a triple beam scale to weigh out his drugs.”
The twins did as instructed with the fervor and focus of children whose father had materialized after being absent their whole lives.
“Kids that age are like sponges,” Junior's wife added. “They were so eager to learn from him and to be around him and feel his love.”
The father could not have foreseen that the twins would far surpass him, becoming the biggest drug dealers in Chicago history while still in their twenties.
“The total quantity of drugs that the Flores brothers trafficked to Chicago is so large that it sounds fantastic,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara would later say in court. “Even using the most conservative numbers, it was a minimum of more than 60 tons of cocaine alone. That number sounds unreal, but unfortunately it was all too real, as was the damage that those drugs did to untold individuals and entire communities.”
But to their father's disgust, they also became at the age of 27 the biggest drug informants ever.
“At the time of their outreach to the government, they were absolutely at the top of the cartel world,” Ferrara said. “They were earning millions of dollars, and they were relatively shielded from problems with law enforcement due to their circumstances. The fact that they were at such an apex when they decided to turn the corner and come in and assist with the government's investigation is exactly why they were able to achieve the results of their cooperation.”
The prosecutor said the unique nature of this cooperation was best exemplified by the the conversations the brothers managed to record with Joaquin Guzman-Salazar, known as El Chapo.
“At the time Chapo was one of if not the most wanted person on earth,” the prosecutor noted. “He was insulated by layer upon layer of buffers and security measures.”
The prosecutor went on, “The Flores brothers were able to bypass all of that... to record two conversations directly with Chapo, two remarkably inculpatory conversations in which Chapo admitted to the existence of a vast conspiracy and specifically talked about a heroin transaction.”
As a result, the twins are expected to be the star witnesses against El Chapo when he goes on trial in Brooklyn, with jury selection beginning Monday. The tale of how the twins came to bring him to justice amazes even those who were part of it.
“There’s adjectives that are routinely heard in courtrooms, words like unprecedented, extraordinary, historic, incomprehensible, but here those words in this case are used frequently, and they're used frequently for good reason,” Ferrara said.
The twins had learned firsthand back in their early teens that the drug business is hugely profitable, as became apparent in their attire.
“What 15-year-old doesn’t wear the same sneakers twice?” Peter’s wife asks in Cartel Wives, the book she later wrote with Junior's wife.
At 17, the twins had embarked on their own business.
“In approximately 1998, (Junior) and I started distributing cocaine in Chicago,” Peter later said in a sworn statement presented to a grand jury. “By approximately 1999, Margarito and I had expanded our business and were selling wholesale quantities of cocaine to a large customer base throughout Chicago.”
The business kept growing to where they were distributing up to 2,000 kilos a month. But the twins were not only the biggest drug dealers in Chicago and perhaps the rest of the country, with satellite operations in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Columbus, Detroit, Los Angeles and Milwaukee. They were the most genteel, as they had also demonstrated as teens when they met Junior’s wife-to-be.
“One of them put his hand out to shake mine,” she recalls in the book. “Get the f*** outta here! I thought. Nobody did that anymore; people usually just stared at my boobs, but these guys looked me straight in the eye and greeted me like a real, proper lady.”
That unusual combination of gentility and bad-boy appeal helps explain how both Junior and Peter came to marry girls whose fathers were upstanding Chicago cops. The twins were those rare drug kingpins who eschewed violence and firearms.
When a rip-off artist allied with a crew of corrupt cops kidnapped Peter, savagely beat him and only released him in exchange for millions in ransom, the twins refrained from seeking revenge. They simply resolved that they would have to make up for the loss by selling even more drugs.
As they did so, the only manifest attention the twins received from legitimate law enforcement came when Junior was cited for driving without a seat belt and a joint was found in his car’s ashtray.
But that was clearly changing in January of 2004, when a helper at one of the drug warehouses turned informer. Feds from Milwaukee raided Peter’s home the following month.
The twins moved their base of operations to Mexico, home of their two main providers, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO). Peter was kidnapped again.
The twins would later learn that their middleman with Sinaloa boss El Chapo had been pocketing payments rather than passing them on. Junior decided that the only way to save his brother was to explain the situation to El Chapo in person.
Heedless of warnings that he was making a surely fatal mistake, Junior petitioned for a meeting. He was directed to a Sinaloa airport, where a teenage pilot in sandals and a T-shirt directed him to climb aboard a Cessna for a flight into the surrounding mountains.
From a dirt airstrip carved into a mountainside, a group of armed men in military-style uniforms escorted Junior to a sprawling home whose cement floors kept it cool. A man in similar attire approached. His modest height explained the nickname El Chapo, which means “shorty.” He had a lazy right eye that had a piercing effect.
“You know that people that come up here don't go back,” El Chapo told him.
The tale might have ended there had Junior not thought to bring the ledgers with which the twins kept meticulous records of all their dealings. The binding made them look almost like Bibles. Inside were page after page of notations in letters so small and compactly spaced as to preclude additions or alterations, yet so precise as to be easily legible.
Junior was able to point out all the exact dates and amounts of the payments the twins had made. El Chapo indicated he was satisfied. He marveled at the total volume of business the twins were conducting with the two cartels.
Junior said that he hoped to continue if he could secure Peter’s release. Junior also said that he and his brother had enough of greedy middlemen. The twins wanted to deal directly with El Chapo.
In the ensuing pause, Junior again felt the piecing effect of that lazy right eye. El Chapo then held out his hand.
“That’s absolutely fine,” he said.
Peter was freed and the twins began working directly with El Chapo and his logistics chief, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. The twins continued to distribute ever bigger qualities of drugs and bring in ever bigger quantities of cash, keeping to a rule that no more than $7 millon should be secreted in at any time in any one of the dozens of stash houses they established, always in the better neighborhoods, always with attached garage so that employees could come and go in identical cars without neighbors knowing more than one person was using the premises.
Peter would keep things moving smoothly by making call after call, using 20 or more “burner” phones, regularly discarded and replaced, each labeled for a particular customer.
El Chapo marveled all the more as the twins continued to demonstrate that a pair of like minds can synergize to much more than two.
“If you were triplets, you’d be the richest people on Earth,” he remarked.
The twins invested in one of the submarines that El Chapo used, along with an air fleet that included 747s to smuggle drugs from Columbia. They expanded to distributing heroin and figured on selling meth, to that end meeting with two Chinese suppliers of the essential chemical ingredient.
The Chinese providers asked to go to a strip club and the twins brought along their wives. A group of masked men clad all in black suddenly burst in brandishing AK-47s and both twins and their wives were forced into waiting vehicles. They were off to what seemed certain death, preceded by torture.
But the abduction proved to have been initiated by a Mexican customs agent who had previously sought to extort the twins only to walk away empty-handed after the Sinaloa and BLO cartels advised the twins not to pay. The agent had now sought revenge by tipping off the Agencia Federal de Investigación, the AFI, the Mexican equivlanet of the FBI. The AFI was now was preparing to turn them over to a team of U.S. marshals for immediate transport to face charges in America.
Peter’s wife had a Nextel phone in her back pocket and she managed to switch it on so as to alert people at home that they had been grabbed. The head of the AFI team got a call from the cartels that led to the wives being immediately released. The U.S. marshals were still on the way to take custody of the twins, but the AFI was deterred from turning them over when dozens of cartel gunmen filled the streets in every direction.
The twins owed their freedom to both cartels, but that debt became increasingly complicated as a bloody war erupted between the two organizations and both began to insist that the twins choose one or the other.
“I know you’re businessmen, but I need to say this,” Chapo told the twins in a meeting at mountain hideout. “From now on you are only to work with us. Not my enemies. Let this be your first and final warning.”
The same message came from the BLO. The twins seemed sure to be swept up in the escalating cartel violence. And even if they escaped that, the U.S. marshals had surely not given up.
“We never were able to feel OK,” Junior's wife later told The Daily Beast. “Any good thing was overshadowed.”
The shadows deepened over what should have been pure joy when both wives discovered that they were pregnant. The twins faced the possibility of continuing a cycle that had begun when their mother was pregnant with them.
“You could see the stress on Peter’s face,” his wife recalls in the book. “I’d been with him through three kidnappings, but I’d never seen this kind of pressure bubbling up inside him. He and Junior were two warring cartels’ biggest and best pipelines for sending drugs into the United States, and bodies were piling up to their right and their left. He came to me just a few weeks after I found out I was pregnant. ‘I think Junior and I need to stop doing this.’”
The twins could see only one course of action that would not likely end in either death or life in prison. Junior’s wife flew to Chicago and met with a prominent criminal defense attorney. She told the stunned attorney that the biggest drug dealers in America were prepared to become the biggest drug informants. She handed the lawyer a phone with which he could talk to the twins in Mexico.
U.S. agents arranged two meetings with the twins only to cancel because approval from the the Justice Department was slow in coming. Peter finally did meet with a team headed by a Milwaukee-based agent. Peter reported upon his return that the agents seemed not to comprehend the magnitude of what they were being offered. They had inquired about stash houses and street-level dealing when the twins were ready to give them multiton shipments that came in on 747s.
“They’re clueless,” the wives’ book quotes Peter saying. “They have no idea what they’re fucking doing. Can they handle this information? I’m about to give them Chapo, the most violent, dangerous, and powerful criminal in the world, plus everyone who’s helped build his empire. It is is bigger than Chicago; it’s a global issue. It’s fucking narcoterrorism. Yet they asked me to draw a diagram of who’s on top in the cartels and where Junior and I fit in.”
Peter showed Junior and the wives a piece of paper from a hotel room notepad on which he had used to ball point pen to give the agents a complete picture of where the twins stood in the organization.
“El Chapo — El Mayo
Peter ← → Junior”
Even when the significance of the case became clear, the agents seemed unprepared to handle something so big.
“If you think the feds came into our houses and put secret cameras in our walls or microphones in our ink pens, like in a James Bond movie, you’re dead wrong,” the wives say in their book. “Peter and Junior had the opportunity to unravel the entire North American drug trade, but they didn’t even have the necessary equipment. They had to buy their own recorders at places like Radio Shack.”
The twins began dismantling their own organization, recording their employees in the states, then tipping off the U.S. agents to arriving shipments. But their primary goal was to record the drug lord their hometown of Chicago had declared Public Enemy No 1.
In the past, El Chapo had always refused to speak on a telephone, instead putting underlings on the line. But he had agreed to work directly with the twins and he had noted how they used an array of constantly replaced phones. He had begun to do the same.
On Nov. 15, 2008, Peter called and El Chapo answered. The store-bought recorder was running.
El Chapo: Hello.
Chapo: My friend!
El Chapo seems to have grown genuinely fond of these genteel and remarkably competent twins, having in the past asked them to spend time with his undisciplined and reckless son as good role models. He seemed almost to consider the twins to be the sons he wanted.
The conversation continued, as subsequently transcribed by prosecutors and filed with the court including annotations in brackets to translate coded language.
Peter: What’s up, how are you?
El Chapo: Good, good. Nice talking to you. How’s your brother?
Peter: Everyone is fine. It’s too bad I wasn’t able to see you the other day.
Peter had been unable to accompany Junior to a meeting at the mountain hideout the previous month.
El Chapo: Oh...
El Chapo seemed momentarily surprised. He may have confused Peter with Junior, as people often did.
Peter: It was my brother.
El Chapo: Oh, but I’m here at your service, you know that.
Peter: Yes, everything is fine. Nice talking to you. Hey look, I’m bothering you because of what I picked up the other day from over there. I have the check ready, I’m not sure if... I want to ask you for a favor.
El Chapo: Ask me.
Peter: Do you think that we can work something out where you can deduct five pesos [lower the price $5,000 per kilogram of heroin]?
El Chapo: What did we agree on?
Peter: You’re giving them to me for 55 [$55,000 per kilogram of heroin].
El Chapo: How much are you going to pay for it?
Peter: Well, if you do me the favor I’ll pay 50 for them, I have the check ready [if the price is lowered to $50,000 per kilo, the Flores brothers can make payment immediately].
El Chapo: Do you have the money?
Peter: If you give them to me with a difference of five, I can pay you right away. And if you want to send me more, well like...
El Chapo: All right then...how much, how much did they give you?
Peter: They gave me 20 [20 kilograms of heroin].
El Chapo: How much?
El Chapo: All right then, I’ll pick the money up tomorrow. That’s fine.
El Chapo: That price is fine.
Peter: Okay then, I really appreciate it.
El Chapo: Hey! Do you have a way of bringing that money over here [make payment in Mexico]?
Peter: Over here? Yes, of course.
El Chapo: Yeah. So you’ll give it to me here then?
Peter: Yeah, give me... if you’ll give me a couple days and… I have it here. Better yet, I have a check that is coming. If you want as soon as I get it I can advance you something... when I get it. I had like 400 [$400,000].
El Chapo: Look, look, hold on. I’m going to talk to someone right now. There might be someone that can pick that money up over there [pick up the money for the heroin in the United States].
El Chapo: I’ll call you back. Hold on.
Peter: Okay, okay.
El Chapo: I’ll call you.
El Chapo called back a short time later and handed the phone to an underling, who gave Peter the contact information for the people who would receive payment from the heroin. El Chapo then got back on the line.
El Chapo: My friend.
Peter: Excuse me, but I just wanted to ask you. I just have 3 left [3 kilos of heroin remaining from the 20-kilo shipment]. When do you think we can receive again?
El Chapo: What the fuck? I thought that you can only get rid of a little bit.
Peter: The truth is these resulted fucking good. Why should I lie?
El Chapo: How much can you get rid of in a month?
Peter: If you want... if they are the same, around 40 [the Flores brothers can distribute 40 kilos of heroin per month].
El Chapo: Oh, that’s good... All right, I’ll send it then [begin supplying the Flores brothers with 40 kilos of heroin per month].
Peter: But do you think they have like another seven there that they can give me [seven more kilos of heroin available for immediate pickup in Chicago]?
El Chapo: Uh... I’ll send you from this week to the next.
Peter: Okay, please. Thanks a lot.
El Chapo: That’s fine.
Peter: If anything. Okay, that’s fine.
Peter got off and announced to Junior and the wives that they had El Chapo. The wives had both given birth in the midst of the constant danger, with Peter’s wife deciding to have a C-section two week before the due date, in part to ensure the baby would come before any sudden emergency.
Twelve days later, the twins and their wives observed an exclusively American holiday with a lavish Thanksgiving feast. The following Sunday, the twins got a call and informed their wives that the U.S. agents wanted to end the investigation before their two prime witnesses were killed. The agents were giving the twins just two hours to get to the airport in Guadalajara, from which they would be flown to America.
The cartels would surely seek to kill the entire family once they learned the twins had turned informant. But the U.S. agents said the wives and the babies would have to make their own way to safety. The new moms grabbed whatever they could to begin the 12-hour drive to the border.
“It was literally formula and Pampers,” Junior's wife told The Daily Beast.
The twins’ parents fled with them. The father did not fail to remind his sons of his long-expressed opinion regarding snitches.
“They had to tell their father he had to flee,” Junior’s wife later told The Daily Beast. “He looked at them, ‘You guys are cowards!’ Being so upset, disgusted with them.”
The twins who had been seven when their father had them use their little hands to extract smuggled drugs from car gas tanks were now 27. They expressed a surprising sentiment as they sat behind bars in America.
“Here they are sitting in prison, the first night in a prison cell and they just felt so free,” Peter’s wife told The Daily Beast.
There remained the question of how much time the twins would have to spend behind bars before they were actually free. They had been told when they started cooperating that the leniency they would receive in exchange for their efforts would ultimately determined by a federal judge.
On Jan. 27, 2015, the twins appeared in Chicago federal court for sentencing before Chief Judge Ruben Castillo. He had been the first member of his family to attend college and the first Latino federal judge in Illinois.
The prosecutor, Michael Ferrara, recommended that the twins receive 12 years. Ferrara noted that this was not your usual case of criminals turning informant.
“A meaningful number of defendants who see the handwriting on the wall that the end is near... decide to cooperate before they're charged, before they're in custody,” the prosecutor said. “However, where those cooperation numbers become vanishingly small is for people who make the decision to cooperate who are sort of at the height of their criminal wrongdoing, and that was certainly the case with the Flores brothers.”
He went on, “Simply put, these two defendants are the most valuable cooperators this district has ever seen in the context of a drug case, and as well, Your Honor, in the context of international money laundering related to drug trafficking organizations.”
Junior and then Peter were given a chance to address the court. They both expressed deep remorse for their crimes and for having put their loved ones in harm's way. Their father had subsequently returned to Mexico despite their entreaties and he had soon after vanished, his car found in the Sinaloa desert, with a note warning the twins not to talk. The twins felt responsible for his death, but did not blame their father for having introduced them to the drug trade.
“I am before you today ready to take full responsibility for my life as a drug trafficker,” Peter told the court.
He expressed his gratitude to the U.S. government “for giving me the opportunity to cooperate and take apart the drug traffic I helped create.”
“I thank the government, the DEA and you, Your Honor, for allowing me the opportunity to not spend the rest of my life in prison,” he added.
The judge declared himself of two minds and was tempted to throw out the deal.
“The first thing I thought about was whether or not this plea agreement was sufficient given the amount of drugs involved in this case, which is unprecedented, devastating, horrific,” he said. “When you think about a drug conspiracy that involves 1,500 to 2,000 kilograms of cocaine per month…”
He addressed the twins directly, saying, “I want you both to know that but for your cooperation, if you had been brought before me in your prison garb, you'd be leaving here today with a life sentence, and I would not hesitate at all to give you a life sentence.”
He was addressing the entire courtroom when he said, “There is no doubt in my mind that both of the Flores brothers are the most significant drug dealers that I've ever had to sentence in 20 years on the bench, and that is saying a lot”.
But he also said, “Never in my 20 years on the bench have I seen a situation where defendants, regardless of the crime that's being prosecuted, stopped in the middle of the crime spree and say, ‘I'm going to cooperate.’ And so any inkling that I had to reject the plea agreement... I will not follow.”
The judge indicated that he would have gone along with the government's recommendation of 12 years had the twins not failed to report immediately a 276-kilogram shipment as well as millions of dollars in proceeds during the period of their cooperation. The wives would later insist to The Daily Beast that the deal had been necessary to keep the cartels from becoming too insistent for their money while the twins were still trying to record El Chapo.
The judge noted that in this same courtroom he had sentenced the lesser dealer who received this same shipment from the twins to 22 years. But the judge now added only two years to the government's recommendation, sentencing the twins to a total of 14 years, with a twist.
“Even though I'm not going to sentence you to life, you are going to leave here with a life sentence,” the judge told them. “You and your family members for the rest of your life will always have to look over your shoulder and wonder every time you're outside in a vehicle and you see a motorcycle come up behind you, you're going to be wondering if that is the motorcycle that is going to take your life. Every time you start a car, you're going to be wondering is that car going to start, or is that car going to explode. Every single time for the rest of your life.”
The twins were led off to begin a sentence whose clock had started seven years before, when they surrendered at the Guadalajara airport and continued cooperation the most notable result of which was the indictment and subsequent extradition of El Chapo. The judge had not added a fine even though he was among the many people who believe that the twins had stashed significant sums of their drug proceeds.
“Everyone in this city thinks that you have money,” the judge said. “Everyone. But we're not going to do anything about that.”
The judge had not been happy when he learned that Peter had apparently managed from prison for his wife to acquire an automobile such as she had become accustomed to driving when untold millions were pouring in.
“[Peter’s wife] got gifted a Bentley,” Junior’s wife allowed to The Daily Beast. “The judge was really upset about that. But when you’re so used to living a certain lifestyle and that’s taken away from you…”
She added, “We’re talking about a $2 billion conspiracy.”
The twins are expected to appear in Brooklyn sometime in the next 16 weeks as El Chapo goes on trial in the U.S. for the first time. The evidence the government has collected includes the meticulous ledgers that so impressed El Chapo at that meeting in the mountains. El Chapo will likely listen to himself sealing his own fate when the recorded conversations with Peter are played.
The twins’ wives have been busy raising their children among people who could not suspect that their husbands were once America’s biggest drug dealers and that they themselves remain under constant threat of cartel retribution.
“We’re like PTA moms, soccer moms,” Junior’s wife told The Daily Beast this week. “They have no idea who we are. They know us just for us for being moms, for being good people, do you know what I mean?”