How to Get a Gold Star From the DEA

Bump and Update: The Flores Twins have each been sentenced to 14 years. The Judge said had they not continued to deal drugs while cooperating, they would have gotten 12 years.

The infamous Flores twins of Chicago will finally be sentenced Tuesday. Some background on twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, is in this Chicago Reader article. The Government filed its sentencing memorandum a few weeks ago, which I have uploaded here. Their sentencing guidelines (level 47, Category I) call for a sentence of life in prison (there is no parole in the federal system and good time doesn't apply to a life sentence.)

Due to the Flores Twins' “extraordinary cooperation”, which the Government maintains resulted in more than 50 people being charged (list here), most of whom are their workers and customers, the Government is asking for a sentence at the low end of a reduced range of 10 to 16 years. The Government writes:

Absent their cooperation, the government would argue life imprisonment is the appropriate sentence for these defendants. However, they are not being sentenced absent cooperation.

How big were the Flores twins? [More....]

According to the Government's sentencing memo, they laundered more than $1.8 billion dollars and distributed 64,500 kilos of cocaine and a lot of heroin in the three and one half year period between May, 2005 and November, 2008. (According to other court filings, the Government seized a grand total of 1,930 kilos.) Pleadings from 2009 show their annual income to be $700 million. According to the Government's sentencing memorandum:

On average, this cell received 1,500-2,000 kilos of cocaine per month. Approximately half of this cocaine was distributed to the Flores brothers’ Chicago-area customers; the other half was distributed to customers in additional cities, including Columbus, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Vancouver.

Media reports, including this one in the Chicago Sun Times, give the impression the Flores twins were only in business for three years, from 2005 to 2008. That is certainly not the case.

According to their statements to the grand jury (available here and here), they began their drug business in 1998, and continued until 2008. The Government doesn’t mention the first six years because it is outside the time period charged in the Chicago Indictment. The Twins got their cocaine from the Sinaloa and Beltran-Leyva cartels for years before 2005, but 2005 was the year the twins say they met and began dealing directly with Sinaloa co-leaders Ismael Zambada-Garcia and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman-Loera, rather than underlings.

Also, the Twins were charged in Wisconsin for activity from 2001 to 2004, and because they had the case transferred to Chicago, the reduced sentence they will receive in Chicago includes their Wisconsin activity. They apparently get a pass on everything from 1998 to 2001. Pedro's plea agreement is here and Margarito's plea agreement is here.)

At least the Government finally admits that the Flores twins continued their illegal drug business after they began cooperating, and twice lied about it, before finally 'fessing up. The Government says the totality of the Twins' cooperation was so great, it’s not going to hold their lies against them.

The Government effusively praises the twins for their cooperation which it says resulted in charges against 9 Sinaloa Federation members from Mexico, including Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman-Loera. That Indictment is here. The Government's focus on "charges" rather than "convictions" is telling.

To date, the Flores' twins cooperation has contributed to convictions of only three of Sinaloa members (Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, Alfredo Vasquez-Hernandez and Tomas Arevalo Renteria.) El Chapo may never face trial in the U.S. because Mexico has opened several new cases against him and he has years left on the sentence he was serving when he escaped from jail.(Just Friday, a judge in Mexico accepted his latest request for protection from extradition for filing. Mexico has yet to acknowledge receiving a new extradition request since his arrest in February, 2014. The last one was made in 2001.)

El Chapo's son, Alfredo Guzman-Salazar, is a fugitive. Ismael Zambada-Garcia, the "co-leader" of the Sinaloa federation, is a fugitive in his 60's who may never be caught. German Olivares and Heriberto Zazueta-Godoy are fugitives. Juan Guzman Rocha was a fugitive but died, so the charges against him were dismissed. Felipe Carbrera-Sarabia is a fugitive now in custody in Mexico where he has been battling extradition for 2 years. If any of these fugitives reach Chicago, by the time their cases are ready for trial, the Flores twins will have finished their sentences. It's highly unlikely they would be called as witnesses. Another newly added defendant to the case, Edgar Manuel Valencia Ortega, has not admitted guilt.

On the Beltran-Leyva side, while the Government praises the twins' cooperation, the lead defendant is dead, another is contesting his guilt, and the third person is a fugitive. So their cooperation against those cartel members has not resulted in convictions.

The Flores twins were never called to testify at any pre-trial hearing or trial. From the time they were whisked to the U.S. from Mexico in November, 2008, all of their cooperation was done while in custody, through telephone calls and visits with government agents or prosecutors.

What did the twins accomplish other than the destruction of their own organization and convictions and jail sentences for their underlings and customers?

The only Sinaloa cartel conviction of any note that resulted from their cooperation was that of Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, son of Sinaloa co-leader Ismael Zambada-Garcia. The Government got an extra bonus when Jesus Vicente agreed to cooperate. He's getting a deal as favorable as the Flores twins. His sentencing guidelines also called for life in prison. The Government has agreed he can request a departure to a term of 10 years. Jesus Vicente, like the Flores twins, will likely go into witness protection with his family when his sentence is finished. And he won't be deported back to Mexico if he's still in danger of retaliation.

The second conviction -- Alfredo Vasquez-Hernandez -- shows what happens when you don't get a gold star from the DEA. He was sentenced to 22 years after pleading guilty without a cooperation agreement. He was recorded by the Flores twins doing a single 276 kilo deal. (Transcripts of the barely comprehensible recordings are here.) No drugs were ever seized in connection with this or any other transaction he was alleged by the Twins to have engaged in. The Government now admits the twins failed to tell the Government that the 276 kilograms arrived in Chicago, and worse, that they instructed their workers to pick them up, they sold the drugs and kept the proceeds hidden from the Government, in violation of their cooperation agreement. The twins claimed Vasquez-Hernandez told them about other large deals he had done with El Chapo, including multi-ton quantities. Vasquez-Herandez denied this. The twins also claimed they used Vasquez-Hernandez' train system to move their drugs from California to Chicago (again, no drugs were seized to support their claim.) They claimed Vasquez-Hernandez and his wife also moved large amounts of money for the Sinaloa cartel. The judge accepted their allegations and sentenced Vasquez-Herandez to 22 years.

The third cartel conviction is Tomas Arevalo Renteria, who mostly sold heroin to the Flores twins. He has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. He did not have a cooperation agreement when he pleaded guilty.

The Government acknowledges that for the most part, the Flores twins ratted down, rather than up. In other words, they turned on their workers, 16 of whom were charged in this Indictment with transporting and distributing their drugs and moving their money. The sentencing pleadings in the cases of the underlings show just how huge the Flores’ operation really was and how many millions of dollars they handled on a daily basis. They also show the value of a gold star from the DEA, and what happens when you turn one down.

The Government requested extraordinary sentence reductions (66% reductions in some cases) for several of their workers who cooperated, including their most senior worker, Cesar Perez, who worked for them for 7 years, from 2001 to 2008 and was paid more than $1 million. He also supplied the Flores' customers with guns, at their direction. He got a 66% sentence reduction for his cooperation and was sentenced to 10 years.

Jorge Llamas, a drug courier, distributed 9 tons of cocaine for the Flores twins during the several years he worked for them. He agreed to forfeit $800,000. He was sentenced to time served in pre-trial detention.

At the other end of the spectrum, consider the 108 month sentence of the Flores twins' physically disabled, menial worker Francisco Espinoza, who did nothing but count money and did not cooperate. He was sentenced to 108 months, just 12 months less that what the Government is seeking from the Flores twins, and 12 months less than the sentenced imposed on their top worker Cesar Perez. To show you just how skewed the system becomes when the prosecutor is given so much discretion in sentencing decisions via cooperation agreements, here’s his story, according to his lawyer’s sentencing memorandum.


Francisco Espinoza is 31 years old, an illegal alien with chronic kidney disease, facing both the prospect of life long dialysis and certain deportation to his home country....

He was 16 years old working in an ill regulated factory as a juvenile when his arm was caught in a machine and seriously mangled, crippling him for life and disabling him from doing much of the heavy farmhand work which employed most of the young men around his small hometown of Jalpa, Mexico. Unfortunately for him, while working in Jalpa for a construction firm which employed him as essentially a one armed worker who carried what he could on the jobsite, he met with the Flores people. The jobsite was the home of one of the Flores brothers, principals in this prosecution.

Francisco’s father urged him to leave Mexico and immigrate to the United States where he could find better work. At the age of 21 he came to the United States and settled in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he had some relatives already living and who had become citizens of the United States or applied for citizenship. Mr. Espinoza worked in Lincoln for approximately three years.

Since he had known the Flores brothers in Mexico, he had social contacts with some of their friends and relatives in Lincoln. He worked in Lincoln for three years without any incident, socializing with his extended family there and obeying the law. He had not applied for citizenship, however.

In 2003 he was asked by an associate of the Flores family if he wanted to work in one of their restaurants in the Chicago area. The Flores person told him they needed him and could substantially increase his pay in Chicago. He responded that that he did not have the money to get to Chicago from Lincoln so they sent him a plane ticket. He was told that he would be counting money in Chicago. Espinoza still did not realize what kind of money and how much. When he first arrived, the Flores representatives told him that they had other plans for him. Shortly after arriving in Chicago, he learned that it was not restaurant money but drug money he would be counting and assured him he would never have to touch or possess any drugs. His pay would be $5,000 a month, a princely sum to this fellow from small town rural Mexico.

From November 2003 to November 2007, Francisco counted the proceeds of the Flores operation. In 2007, he was stopped by police with a large amount of cash in his vehicle but was not arrested. Shortly after he was released by the police, he returned to Mexico, the Flores leaders believing he might have been “compromised.” He had not been.

Francisco commenced working for a family business, a small cantina where he was paid $50 per week. There he worked until 2010 – 3 years with no trouble, when he was arrested by Mexican authorities at the request of the U.S for extradition. He was in jail for 16 months in Mexico, a horrid one, and he’s been in jail ever since. He got back to the U.S. He pleaded guilty.

Why were his guidelines so high? The Government added up all the money he counted during the years he worked for the Flores, added it to the money counted by others, converted the combined amount of dollars to cocaine, and he was sentenced for having distributed more than 150 kilograms of cocaine, even though he never distributed cocaine. The Government wrote in its memorandum for his sentencing:

On average, ESPINOZA, working with others, processed approximately $4-10 million in narcotics proceeds every 10 days. On approximately April 14, 2008, law enforcement seized approximately $2.8 million from ESPINOZA’s car, which constituted proceeds from the sale of narcotics proceeds to customers of the Flores DTO. For his work for the Flores DTO, ESPINOZA received approximately $10,000-20,000 per month plus expenses.(my emphasis.) While working for the Flores DTO, ESPINOZA counted and packaged in excess of $100 million, making the amount of cocaine involved in the conspiracy with which ESPINOZA was personally involved and which was reasonably foreseeable to him in excess of 150 kilograms.

Was Espinoza really someone worth chasing down in Mexico, three years after he left, and extraditing to Chicago, given his medical condition and return to a menial job in Mexico and crime-free life? Does he deserve a sentence only one year less than the Flores twins or their top worker, Cesar Perez, who worked for the Flores for 7 years and pocketed $1 million?

Not convinced? Consider the cooperator's gold star given to a co-defendant named "Tom". He admitted moving more than $5 million for the Flores' twins. His wife was a close friend of the wife of one of the Flores' twins. She rented stash houses for them. Tom helped at one of the stash houses, including guarding it. Tom said he was only personally involved for a month, beginning when he borrowed money from the twins for his legal fees resulting from an assault he he had been charged with and for which he was being sued in civil court. He also picked up new, albeit minor charges while on bond. His lawyer wrote in his sentencing memorandum:

Admittedly, Tom has had new charges filed against him during the pendency of this case. In 2011, he was convicted of a misdemeanor marijuana offense stemming from a November 2008 incident. In 2012, Tom was charged with possession of one ecstasy pill and a small amount of marijuana. Ultimately, both these cases stem from Tom’s struggle with drug and alcohol dependency. His anxiety relating to the instant case has only compounded his dependency, as has his hectic schedule, and recently, his separation from his wife and stepson. Tom recognizes he needs substance abuse treatment as well as mental health counseling.

Tom's guidelines were 188 -235 months. The Government let him plead to reduced charges and also moved for a reduction for cooperation, and he was sentenced to probation.

There are more examples of gold stars for Flores' workers (big and not so big) who trucked, stored, and sold their drugs. Here's what happened to three of their customers who didn't take the gold star. Ron Collins did not cooperate and went to trial. He was sentenced to 30 years. Here is the court opinion affirming his conviction and sentence. The Government alleged he received 2,000 kilos a month from the Flores twins.Franklin Brown, another customer who did not cooperate, was sentenced to 24 years. His conviction and sentence was affirmed in this court decision.

They weren't the twins biggest customers. Kiley Murray from Atlanta was alleged to have purchased $1.8 billion of cocaine from the Flores twins. In his Indictment, the Government requested he forfeit $8.6 million. He was murdered outside his home while on bond, so the government didn't get much from his indictment.

In addition to the charges filed against others, the Government justifies the extraordinary treatment of the Flores Twins by citing the danger to them and their families that will follow them for the rest of their lives even though the Government claims it will be able to protect them. Presumably, they’ll remain in the witness protection program, with new identities after their release from custody. The Government extended this courtesy not just to the twins, but to their wives, children, another brother and his wife and their children, their two sisters and their children, their parents and an ex-wife of one of the twins. (The father chose to return to Mexico and was promptly killed because of the twins’ cooperation.) What will it cost the U.S. for all these people to be in witness protection for life?

How much will the Government recoup of the $1 billion they laundered during just the three years charged in the Illinois Indictment? A drop in the bucket. The Twins have to forfeit less than $5 million, according to the forfeiture pleadings. (Available here.) The Government has even agreed to let them keep $300,000 for personal expenses.

The sad truth is that our system of giving huge rewards to those who cooperate with authorities and tell the truth (to the Government's satisfaction, and in the Government's sole discretion) is fraught with peril. Their testimony is purchased testimony -- bought with promises of leniency. Freedom is a commodity far more precious than money. While they all swear to tell the truth, they know that if their truth doesn't match the Government's version of the truth, they get little or nothing. The incentive to lie is enormous.

None of the people in these cases deserve medals. But a few deserve our sympathy, particularly, in my view, Alfredo Vasquez-Herandez and Francisco Espinoza.

If there's a moral to this story, it seems to be this: Crime really does pay, provided you cooperate with the Government afterwards. You can even lie and violate your agreement a few times and get away with it.

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  • Display: Sort:
    How did the gold star Flores twins (none / 0) (#1)
    by fishcamp on Mon Jan 26, 2015 at 06:16:47 AM EST
    get caught originally?  I would assume some of their contacts, that were caught, rolled on them, but I couldn't seem to find that information in your excellent research.

    Gus Lives! Tomas "El Gallo" Gonzales (none / 0) (#2)
    by Mr Natural on Mon Jan 26, 2015 at 10:01:19 AM EST
    Tomas "El Gallo" Gonzalez was arrested in 2013 after a three-year investigation into his cold-storage company, T&F produce. That company, whose logo was a chicken, was a front for a major drug trafficking organization, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

    Despite being only 36, Gonzalez has already been the topic of corridos -- Mexican folk music ballads -- that immortalized the exploits of the drug lord in the songs "Tomy Gonzalez" and "El Campeón," as sung in a 2010 album by late, slain singer Chuy Quintanilla.

    "I'm talking about `El Compa Tony,' well-known in Weslaco, making great businesses with those famous gringos, he has been able to better himself and has risen above; He's a true man with the blood of a fine `Gallo' (rooster). His people admire him and respect him. He doesn't like violence; he'd rather use his head, but if need be, he can use his machine gun."

    Narcomúsica and Narcocultura (none / 0) (#3)
    by Mr Natural on Tue Jan 27, 2015 at 02:57:54 AM EST
    Some Chuy Quintanilla Narcocorridos:

    (Warning: The songs are about shootouts and parts of the videos show unsanitized crime scene photos of the results of those shootouts.)

    Tomy Gonzalez (This is the narco from my preceding post.)
    El Lincenciado:
    Soy del Grupo Zetas

    Some background on Chuy and his narcocorridos.

    Before his murder, Chuy allegedly witnessed a meeting between Tomas Gonzalez and County Sheriff Trevino.  Was this the reason he was killed?.


    The Twins who betrayed El Chapo (none / 0) (#4)
    by Mr Natural on Tue Jan 27, 2015 at 05:49:08 AM EST
    - Borderland Beat, November 2012:

    Between 2001 and 2008, Pedro and Margarito Flores's drug distribution operation flourished. Raised in Pilsen and Little Village, the brothers had direct access to Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán-Loera courtesy of their father, who had made a career of trafficking drugs for the Sinaloa outfit.

    Though the business rested on their family connections to Mexico, the Flores twins had managed to remain independent of any one cartel in the supply chain. Between 2002 and 2008, they had benefited handsomely from a power-sharing agreement in Mexico between the Sinaloa cartel and a clan of four brothers at the head of the Beltrán-Leyva crime family.

    After the six-year span of peace that brought prosperity to both cartels, a feud arose that turned to war in May 2008. At the heart of the violence was a dispute over how the spoils from the lucrative Flores operation were to be divided. Amid an atmosphere of mutual distrust, one of the brothers, Alfredo Beltrán-Leyva, was arrested in Mexico.

    His brothers blamed El Chapo for tipping off authorities before the arrest. Their suspicion led them to declare war against the Sinaloa cartel. The Beltrán-Leyva brothers took their vengeance in the streets of Culiacán, the state capital of Sinaloa, where escalating drug-related violence claimed the lives of 387 people, presumably some innocent, in the bloody summer of 2008.

    The Twins Little Village (Chicago) roots (none / 0) (#5)
    by Mr Natural on Tue Jan 27, 2015 at 05:57:32 AM EST
    Gangs and Narcotics in Little Village: Media Hype vs. Reality

    Much of Little Village's narco image revolves around the case of two brothers who were raised in the community, Pedro and Margarito Flores. The Flores twins socialized with their neighborhood gang, residents say, but never became active members. Instead, they inherited their immigrant father's business connections, which led to a trafficking partnership with Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla (Vicentillo) of the Sinaloa Cartel and with the Beltran-Leyva Cartel simultaneously.

    Gang members in Little Village say the gang philosophy discourages the handling of hard drugs. Becoming dependent on highly addictive substances tarnishes the collective image of strength that gangs need to maintain for recruitment and survival.

    "We got our own set of laws and accepted practices," the veteran gangbanger confided. "It's not allowed for a Latin King to do anything beyond powdered cocaine."

    Cartel maps spanning five years (none / 0) (#6)
    by Mr Natural on Tue Jan 27, 2015 at 06:11:52 AM EST
    Maps showing the consolidation of Cartel control through 2015.

    N.B.  Cancun is in Zeta territory.

    DEA Tracks Millions of Motorists (none / 0) (#7)
    by Mr Natural on Tue Jan 27, 2015 at 11:52:50 AM EST
    in a huge database, in real time, with data collected from license plate readers all over the United States.

    - The Guardian

    The United States government is tracking the movement of vehicles around the country in a clandestine intelligence-gathering programme that has been condemned as a further official exercise to build a database on people's lives.

    The Drug Enforcement Administration was monitoring license plates on a "massive" scale, giving rise to "major civil liberties concerns", the American Civil Liberties Union said on Monday night, citing DEA documents obtained under freedom of information.

    My recommendation?  Learn to speak Cinema-German, so we can discuss this subject with an appropriate ersatz Gestapo accent.

    Well... (none / 0) (#8)
    by ScottW714 on Tue Jan 27, 2015 at 04:46:42 PM EST
    ...people are fine with them tracking phones, their internet usage, their calls, and a whole lot more intrusive stuff, doubt much dust is going to get kicked up about this.

    I have gotten a ticket using these cameras and technology. Illegally turning right on red, what is funny is that had a real cop given me a ticket, it would have been $150, but the camera ticket was $55, the exact amount to me in which paying it is easier than taking a half day off work to fight a light that is not marked with 'no turn on red'.

    No way they do that by hand, ditto for tolls tag violators.  And if it locals got the technology, no way the feds don't.  Some of those cameras are available online so I would be surprised if the Fed wasn't tapping in.


    please keep comments on topic of (none / 0) (#9)
    by Jeralyn on Tue Jan 27, 2015 at 05:45:09 PM EST
    the Flores twins and Sinaloa indictments. Thanks.