Joquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera sounded chipper on the phone, arranging a steep discount for kilos of heroin with a Chicago-born drug trafficker who had become one of his best drug-distribution partners stateside.
Greeting an alleged customer amiably, with an exclamation of “Amigo!” Guzmán set about negotiating a 20-kilo shipment of heroin, even displaying an apparent show of generosity when he agreed to drop the price from $55,000 per kilo to $50,000, saving the other man about $100,000 for the load in exchange for next-day payment.
In another call, Guzmán sounded elated when the man on the other end of the phone said he could move 40 kilos of heroin per month.
“Ay, que bueno,” he exclaimed. Oh, that’s good.
Little did Guzmán know, the Americans were listening.
The two phone calls, recorded in November 2008, were entered into evidence Wednesday in Brooklyn federal court, where Guzmán is facing a sprawling, 17-count indictment for drug trafficking, and faces life in prison if convicted. On the other side of the call was Pedro Flores, a Mexican-American drug trafficker who, alongside his twin brother Margarito Flores, worked closely for years with the Sinaloa Cartel to distribute tons of its cocaine and heroin to dealers in Chicago and beyond.
Flores took the stand this week to testify against Guzmán, the seventh cooperating witness to point the finger at his former boss, who prosecutors accuse of turning the Sinaloa Cartel into one of the most prolific drug-trafficking organizations of all time.
The twins were born in Chicago, to a father who got them involved in the drug trade at an early age, according to court documents, and a book co-written by their wives. Between 2005 and their surrender in 2008, the brothers became some of the most reliable traffickers moving the Sinaloa Cartel’s drugs in the United States, trafficking an average of 1,500-2,000 kilos of coke per month through their hub in Chicago, according to court documents. In court this week, Flores estimated they moved $800 million worth of cocaine for the cartel, along with 200 kilos of the cartel’s heroin worth $10 million, according to Vice News.
Despite El Chapo’s upbeat tone on the recorded phone calls, the Flores brothers had good reason to fear their boss, and had seen a much darker side of the man who allegedly called them “amigo.”
In one disturbing incident, in May 2005, Flores told jurors he flew to the mountains to meet El Chapo, according to Vice News. When he arrived there, he was horrified to see a naked man chained to a tree, and guessed that the victim of Guzmán’s vengeance was a prisoner of the cartel, Vice reports.
Over time, the brothers began to question whether the risks they were running were worth the reward, especially because Guzmánhis and his partner, Ismael Zambada, were engaged in a bloody fight for control of smuggling routes with his former ally, Arturo Beltrán-Leyva. That question became more urgent in 2008, when Flores learned his wife was pregnant, according to Vice.
“I began to think about our future, or that lack of a future,” Flores said. “I thought they deserved better.”
In November of 2008, shortly after recording the phone calls with El Chapo — and after tipping off authorities to multiple shipments of drugs that agents then seized — the Flores brothers turned themselves in to the DEA, according to court documents. As the brothers were laying the trap for the cartel and then planning their surrender, their families hastily escaped from Mexico, a dramatic retreat outlined in the book Cartel Wives, which was co-authored by Mia and Olivia Flores.
In the wake of the surrender of the Flores brothers, authorities used the information they provided to indict, and in some cases capture, dozens of their associates in the United States and Mexico.
In exchange for their cooperation, the brothers received a sentence of just 14 years behind bars, but will likely spend the rest of their lives in witness protection, prosecutors wrote in a memo prior to their sentencing in 2015.
Despite the sweetheart deal, the brothers have already paid a hefty price for their cooperation with the government, one that underscores the danger to anyone willing to cross the cartel. After the pair turned themselves in an hastily evacuated their families from Mexico, their father, against the advice of the family’s minders, reentered Mexico in 2009 to take care of some personal business, according to court documents. Within days, he vanished, and is presumed to have been murdered. And the cartel made it clear why, leaving a note at the scene of the kidnapping making it “explicit” that their dad’s disappearance was a direct result of the brothers’ cooperation, according to a 2015 sentencing memo describing the brothers’ work with prosecutors.
The testimony this week by Pedro Flores was some of the most damning evidence against El Chapo yet, and the most detailed description so far of how Guzmán allegedly relied on a network of affiliated distributors in the United States to move his coke, heroin, methamphetamine and weed.
Flores told the jury how he and his brother, who he said got involved in the drug trade through their father at the age of seven, would store drugs in stash houses in affluent neighborhoods in cities across the United States to avoid suspicion, including one stash house that afforded a worker there of a “a beautiful view of the Brooklyn Bridge,” Flores said, according to Vice News.
The phone calls, which Flores said were taped on a voice recorder purchased at a Radio Shack in Mexico, had the potential to be particularly incriminating for El Chapo. According to the Los Angeles Times, when William Purpura, one of Guzmán’s lead defense attorneys, began to question Flores, he tried to challenge the veracity of the tapes, but it didn’t really work.
“Do they sound like the same voice to you?” Purpura asked, according to the Los Angeles Times, immediately after playing a clip from Guzmán’s notorious interview with Sean Penn, published by Rolling Stone
“Not really, no,” Flores answered, according to the LA Times. “They sound similar, but no.”
Later, however, Flores walked back the statement, telling jurors he was, in fact, certain that the man on the recording was Guzmán himself, the LA Times reports.
“I was working for the DEA trying to set him up,” Flores told the court. “I’m 100-percent certain it was him.”