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BROOKLYN — Jurors in the trial of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán have heard testimony from more than half a dozen cooperating witnesses, including former Colombian drug lords who shipped tons of cocaine to Mexico, and several of Chapo’s ex-cartel lieutenants and business associates. All but one of them got caught.
Unlike the cartel figures who took the witness stand after cutting deals with prosecutors, Pedro Flores actually sought out the DEA, offering to provide information about Chapo and the cartel while he was still an active member. Along with his identical twin brother Margarito, Pedro secretly recorded phone calls with Chapo and other top Sinaloa cartel leaders before surrendering to the DEA in 2008. On Tuesday, Pedro told his story for the first time in court.
The Flores twins are the subject of the latest episode of the VICE News podcast about El Chapo, and the jury sat spellbound as they heard Pedro himself tell the tale in three hours of testimony at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn.
Pedro was also the first cooperating witness to testify in English — a reflection of his upbringing in Chicago. He was soft-spoken and timid, and seemed determined to avoid meeting the cold, hard stare coming from El Chapo, who sat silently next to his lawyers and followed the proceeding through a translator.
With short, dark hair and stubble, the 37-year-old Flores looked markedly older than in his widely circulated mugshot photo. He testified that his career in the drug trade began when he was seven, when he and his brother would serve as translators for their father, Margarito Sr. When their older brother was arrested for drug trafficking in 1998, the teen-aged twins stepped up and took his spot in the family business, supplying Chicago customers with wholesale quantities of cocaine.
By 2001, Pedro said they were regularly receiving shipments of hundreds of kilos. When prosecutor Adam Fels asked who supplied the drugs, Pedro replied, “The Sinaloa cartel and The Man.”
Fels asked, “Who is the man?”
“Mr. Guzmán,” Pedro replied.
Pedro explained that in the early 2000s, he and his brother were working with a middleman named Guadalupe Ledesma, known to them as Lupe. He encouraged the twins to rent warehouses in Chicago to offload and store cocaine, and arranged for shipments to come from Mexico in trains and tractor trailers with hidden compartments. Pedro said Chicago, with its shipping infrastructure and location, was the ideal place to build a drug empire.
“It’s practically centered in the middle of the country,” he said. “It’s halfway to everywhere.”
Listen to an extensive interview with the wives of the Flores twins in Episode 8 of "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial":
Prosecutors had previously called witnesses who testified about the Sinaloa cartel’s network of warehouses in Chicago and a train route that was used to smuggle cocaine, and Pedro corroborated several key details. He described meeting his connect at a Denny’s in the Chicago suburbs and picking up 250 kilos of cocaine that were loaded in the back of an “ugly old beige or cream-colored Ford Econoline.” He called it “a kidnapper van.” He drove it back to one of his stash houses only to find it wouldn’t fit in the garage; kilos began spilling out of black plastic garbage bags as he unloaded them.
“It was a pretty hectic day,” he said.
Mugshot of Pedro Flores via U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York
The twins ended up connecting with Chapo and his partner Mayo Zambada, in 2003, not long after they fled to Mexico under the threat of federal indictment in the United States.
The meeting with the cartel bosses occurred after Pedro was kidnapped. He and his brother were still working with their associated Lupe Ledesma, and they had become embroiled in a business dispute. Pedro said that Lupe had asked the brothers to “turnover the whole business — warehouses, everything.” After the twins refused, Pedro was summoned to meeting. He said 25-30 masked men stormed into the meeting place, beat him with their rifle butts, stripped to his underwear, and took him away in handcuffs.
Pedro testified that he was held hostage for 15 days before he was abruptly released and left on a deserted road in the middle of the night. He said his kidnapper placed a handcuffs key in Pedro’s shoe and a cellphone in his back pocket, then whispered a message in his ear: “You’re lucky. Your brother saved you.”
Pedro said that when he finally reunited with his brother, the first thing that Margarito told him was, “You stink.” He’d been locked in a cell for 15 days with very little food and water. Then, Pedro said, “He gave me a hug and told me he’d met Chapo Guzmán.”
Margarito had managed to make contact with Chapo, who had intervened to secure Pedro’s release. Twelve days later, Pedro flew to the mountains outside of Culiacán, Sinaloa to have his own meeting with Chapo.
In May 2005, Pedro flew into the mountains to meet Chapo. Pedro testified that soon after they arrived at a clandestine landing strip, he saw a naked man chained to a tree, he guessed the man was a prisoner of the cartel.
Pedro said that Chapo was waiting to receive them under a huge palapa, “a dried palm tree hut, like you’d see at a vacation spot.” He testified that Chapo had a .38 caliber pistol tucked into his waistband and an AK-47 leaning on a chair next to him. Pedro was wearing jean shorts and jewelry, which he said prompted Chapo to ask jokingly, “with all that money, I couldn’t afford the rest of the pants?”
Pedro said he and his brother discussed business with Chapo and a $10 million debt that they owed him because of their dealings with Lupe Ledesma. A few weeks later, they were summoned back to Chapo’s mountaintop hideout, where they told Chapo that their former associate was refusing requests to meet.
“He said if he doesn’t come I’m going to make him come,” Pedro recalled Chapo saying. “I’ll give you and your brother a gun and you have to shoot him once in each eye.”
Pedro testified that Lupe was later killed by one of Chapo’s hitmen, who “suffocated him to death by putting a plastic bag over his head.”
Later, when Pedro told Chapo they had heard rumors that Lupe was alive, Chapo replied, “They’re seeing ghosts. Worry about something else.”
Beyond describing cartel violence in detail, Pedro explained how he and his brother did business with Chapo and his organization.
“The farther you get from the border, the higher the price of cocaine,” Pedro explained. “The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.” They could sell kilos of cocaine for $17,000 in Chicago and over $20,000 in New York.
“For years me and my brother had enjoyed a sweet spot in the cartel.”
The drugs were concealed in trains and trucks under “cover loads,” which included everything from livestock to fresh fruits and vegetables. Eventually, Pedro said they had to stop using produce because they were “practically giving it away,” to the point that it was making prices at local markets suspiciously low.
To conceal the drugs, Pedro said he rented stash houses in “the best neighborhoods,” because “they were the ones people would be less suspicious about.” He gave the example of one worker in New York City who called from a stash house and said “she was looking out the window and had a beautiful view of the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Pedro testified that from 2005 to 2008, he and his brother shipped over 60 tons of cocaine across the U.S. for the Sinaloa cartel, at least 38 tons of which belonged to Chapo and Mayo. Altogether, Pedro estimated that the drugs were worth $800 million. He also moved around 200 kilos of Sinaloa heroin worth around $10 million.
Eventually, the brothers decided to quit the cartel. The year was 2008 and Pedro’s wife was pregnant. “I began to think about our future, or that lack of a future,” he said. “I thought they deserved better.”
The twins were also caught in the middle of a bloody cartel war between Chapo and Mayo and their former partner, Arturo Beltrán-Leyva. The brothers had been doing business with both parties and were suddenly being forced to pick a side. Pedro called it “a lose-lose situation.”
“For years me and my brother had enjoyed a sweet spot in the cartel,” he said. “We could focus on making money, we didn’t have to worry about all that other stuff, and that was about to change.”
Mugshot of Margarito Flores via U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York
As a way out, the Flores brothers approached the DEA and U.S. federal prosecutors through their lawyer and began cooperating with the government against the Sinaloa cartel. The DEA wasn’t especially helpful at first. In order to tape calls with El Chapo and other cartel members, they had to go to Radio Shack and buy their own recorders.
The brothers are known to have recorded at least one call with El Chapo, but on Tuesday the jury only heard a recording of a conversation between Margarito Flores and Chapo’s son Alfredo Guzmán. Pedro’s brother could be heard discussing the logistics of a heroin deal.
While they were cooperating, Pedro and Margarito continued to move drugs for the Sinaloa cartel, sometimes without the DEA’s knowledge or authorization. One unsanctioned shipment involved 276 kilos of cocaine. Another 10 kilos of heroin. Pedro said he and his brother had to keep doing business as usual, otherwise it would arouse suspicion.
“The whole timing of it was delicate and the war kinda made it worse,” Pedro said. He later added, “Me and my brother were out there alone. We didn’t have a DEA SWAT team in the next room waiting to come save us.”
Pedro and Margarito turned themselves in to the DEA on Nov. 30, 2008. Since then, information they provided has been used in over 50 other federal drug cases. Pedro and his brother were each sentenced to 14 years in prison, and they could both be released within the next two years.
Pedro acknowledged, however, that his behavior in government custody hasn’t always been perfect. Pedro was supposed to forfeit all of his drug money, but he admitted to having a family member pick up $5 million in cash, which they planned to hide from authorities. He said he used the money to buy his wife a Bentley. They later had to forfeit all but $300,000, plus money for legal fees.
He’s also been reprimanded during his time in prison, twice for a scheme that involved getting other inmates to pay for his food and other items from the prison commissary. On another occasion, he said of his wife Mia, “I had an opportunity to sneak away with her to the bathroom and I got her pregnant.”
“I just have a hard time following the rules, I guess,” Pedro said.
Cover image: In this Feb. 22, 2014 photo, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, in handcuffs, is escorted to a helicopter by Mexican navy marines in Mexico City, Mexico. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)