Onetime Chicago cartel operative opens up about his life and future

Chicago-born Margarito Flores Jr. was around 8 years old when his father started taking him and his twin brother Pedro on car rides to Mexico. It was mostly business for his father, a hard-scrapping immigrant making ends meet by hauling drugs across the border.

But for the twins, it was an education — and an adventure.

As their father, Margarito Flores Sr., drove through the countryside with loads of narcotics hidden in false gas tanks or secreted in a flatbed truck, he’d tell the twins facts about each state, its people and what they were known to produce. When they’d stop at gas stations in Texas and Arkansas, the residents treated them with respect.

“He loved middle America because he said, ‘They’re basically like us,’ ” Flores Jr., who goes by “Jay,” told the Tribune in an exclusive interview. “They’re farmers. They have respect. They know how to treat you.”

Those journeys in Flores’ early years were just the beginning of an extraordinary life story for him and his brother, who were born in the Little Village neighborhood and rose to the top of the city’s drug trade as teenagers to become top distributors for notorious Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Known for their street smarts and cool business acumen, the tight-knit twins had cautiously avoided the pitfalls of Chicago street gang life. They were living in Mexico in 2008 when they were caught in an escalating war between cartel factions and made the stunning decision to help the U.S. government take Chapo down.

Now, 15 years later, Jay Flores had a homecoming of sorts. On Friday, he spoke to law enforcement in the west suburbs at a one-day seminar titled “From Kingpin to Educator,” giving officers a rare insider account on how cartels use hubs such as Chicago to move massive shipments of drugs and money.

Ahead of the seminar, Flores agreed to speak to the Tribune, his first interview with any Chicago-area news outlet.

Appearing via Zoom from an undisclosed location, Flores, who was released from prison three years ago after serving out his 14-year sentence, cut a far different profile than one might imagine for someone who reached the pinnacle of the cutthroat cartel world.

Dressed in a crisp white shirt, with a bookshelf behind him stocked with family photos and knickknacks, Flores, 42, was thoughtful and articulate about his past and what he hopes to do with his remaining years now that he’s a free man, though under the constant worry of retaliation from the cartels because of his cooperation.

He talked about his life growing up in Chicago, the family bonds that led to the twins’ success as drug dealers, and his desire to do “something positive.”

“I did every aspect of the drug trade,” he said. “I smuggled, I packaged, I counted, I tested, I distributed. … I was a mule. I was a driver. I did it all, from one end to the other. … I hope there is a lot of law enforcement that says, you know what, let’s take a chance. Because a lot of it is mindset. (They say), ‘Why would I go listen to this drug trafficker?’ I’m like, who else?”

The eight-hour seminar Friday took place in a nondescript parks department building in Aurora, not far from many of the west suburban stash houses Flores and his brother once used as waystations for drugs and piles of cash.

In a large meeting room, about 150 law enforcement officers from around the area, including sheriff’s police, state troopers, and federal agents, listened as Flores detailed his intimate knowledge of the cartels’ operations.

Dressed in all black and pacing back and forth with a microphone, Flores seemed nervous at first, describing his indoctrination into the drug business and that first trip with his father in a beige Ford Tempo. He talked about his first big drug deal at age 17, which went down in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where he worked at 26th Street and Kedzie Avenue.

So what made him different from other narcos? “I wasn’t made in Mexico,” he said. “I was made in the streets of Chicago.”

As he described the ways the cartels moved massive amounts of drugs and cash by semitrailers, Flores held up wrapped packages simulating the size and weight of the real thing. Looking out at the sea of faces of trained drug interdiction and K-9 police, Flores quipped, “This is a prop, guys, OK?” drawing laughter.

Bundles of cash at a stash house in Hinsdale that was part of a drug-trafficking operation run by Chicago twins Pedro and Margarito Flores. According to court testimony, the house was one of several used as a way station for millions of dollars in drug proceeds, where the cash was counted by machine, then separated by domination and packaged for delivery back to Mexico. Couriers testified they would vacuum-seal dryer sheets with the money to throw off the scent for canine units.

The seminar was set up by Jeramy Ellison, owner of Dynamic Law Enforcement Training. He said Flores reached out to him on social media earlier this year, and the two of them have spent months talking about what Flores might have to offer.

Flores was being paid for doing the classes, though the amount was not disclosed.

“We’re excited to get these classes running and pass on some valuable knowledge that can help law enforcement make a bigger impact against these deadly organizations,” Ellison said.

Flores told the Tribune his main motivation for taking a risk and putting himself out there was “the same as when I chose to cooperate. “It’s my family, particularly my wife and children,” he said.

To be sure, Flores twins’ deep understanding of the drug trade was built up over a lifetime, starting with those trips with their father.

Flores said that as a child, he never had the sense that what they were doing was wrong. He enjoyed the father-and-son bonding time, learning about the world, moving from riding bikes in Little Village, one day to riding horses in his parents’ hometown in Mexico the next.

While he sees faults in his father now, to this day, Flores believes he was just doing what he thought he needed to do to provide for his family after years of poverty.

“They grew up in a little town in the middle of Mexico, no running water, no electricity,” he said. “In my father’s eyes he was just trying to provide, and that was his way to provide, you know?”

Flores said their father set very clear cut rules for his boys: Don’t be a thief. Respect everyone. Don’t be a liar. Don’t ever disrespect a woman. No drinking, smoking, or doing drugs.

And never, ever, be a rat or a snitch.

Flores said they learned to live by those rules even in their dad’s absence when he was in prison and later hiding out in Mexico. But in the end, the twins had to violate their father’s no-snitch code to get the deal from investigators and avoid spending the rest of their lives in prison — or an early death.

Their father wasn’t as fortunate. Shortly after the twins’ cooperation became known, Margarito Flores Sr. returned to Mexico despite warnings from his family and federal authorities. Within days, he was kidnapped. A note left on the windshield of his abandoned car had a message for the twins: Shut up or we’ll send you his head. His body has never been found.

The twins’ cooperation has also led to serious consequences for the rest of their family.

When they were sentenced in 2015, then-U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said he harbored no illusions that all of the illegal drug proceeds from their operation had been turned over, saying “everyone in this city thinks that you have money. Everyone.”

Seven years later, the twins’ wives along with three other relatives were indicted in U.S. District Court in Chicago on charges alleging they’d conspired to hide millions more of the twins’ drug proceeds from the government for over a decade.

In this courtroom sketch, from left, twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, 33, of Chicago, appear before U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo at federal court in Chicago on Jan. 27, 2015. Castillo sentenced the brothers to 14 years in prison each for running a nearly  billion North American drug ring, agreeing with prosecutors to drastically reduce their sentences as reward for their cooperation against Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and other Mexican cartel leaders.

All of the defendants pleaded guilty in the case. Vivianna Lopez, who is married to Pedro Flores, was sentenced in July to 3 ½ years in prison. Her sister, Bianca Finnigan, was sentenced to probation while their aunt, Laura Lopez, was given a one-year prison term.

The twins’ older brother Armando Flores, who helped them break into the drug business three decades ago, will be sentenced in October.

Meanwhile, Jay’s wife, Valerie Gaytan, is scheduled to be sentenced next week. Prosecutors have asked for a term of five years in prison.

Flores told the Tribune that it’s just a coincidence his wife’s sentencing, which has been moved twice, was falling within days of his seminar. With her facing a significant stretch behind bars, they’re still grappling with the idea of being separated yet again, but ready to move forward, he said.

“What are we supposed to do, just sit here and cry and just give up?” he said. “We are not those people.”

It had taken only a few years for Jay and his brother to climb to the top of the Chicago-area drug trade, but eventually law enforcement started to take notice. By 2004, in the wake of a federal investigation into their drug trafficking in Milwaukee, the twins moved their operation to Mexico along with their growing families.

In his 2018 testimony at Guzman’s historic federal trial in Brooklyn, Pedro Flores, who goes by “Peter,” said the brothers found a “sweet spot” in the cartel, moving hundreds of tons of drugs for two Sinaloa factions simultaneously, a network that included untold hundreds of truck and train shipments of narcotics hidden among loads of vegetables, shrimp, and even live sheep.

But as their status in the cartel grew, so did problems such as missing shipments and drug debts. Within a year or so of their move to Mexico, a high-ranking supplier, Guadalupe Ledesma, accused the twins of shorting him $10 million and ordered Peter’s kidnapping. Peter described vividly for the jury being handcuffed, blindfolded and stuffed in a truck for a bumpy ride to a building where he said he was held in a cell for weeks.

Jay Flores, meanwhile, decided to go straight to Guzman to try to negotiate his brother’s freedom. On the recent podcast “Surviving El Chapo,” produced by rapper 50 Cent, Flores said that as he pleaded his case why Ledesma was lying and they didn’t owe the $10 million, El Chapo sized him up with his “lazy eye,” rubbing his chin ominously.

“This is starting to be a headache,” Flores said El Chapo told him. “You know I could just kill you both and go about my day right?”

“I said, ‘Yes sir, but that’s why I’m here. I wouldn’t come up here and waste your time with a lie. I’m a man of my word,’” Flores said he told Guzman.

Flores said El Chapo ordered him to get a tape recorder and secretly record Ledesma talking about the situation.

His brother was freed after 22 days. Though the twins had said they held no grudges, Ledesma was soon killed on El Chapo’s orders.

Jay Flores told the Tribune the dangerous episode taught him that he knew how to handle himself around people such as Guzman and Ledesma, who were “old school” from central Mexico, just like his dad.

“I remember having the fear, but also knowing what I had to do,” he said. “It numbed you to it. My brother was tied up in a basement somewhere and I didn’t have the time to be scared.”

Authorities escort Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, center, from a plane to a waiting caravan of SUVs at Long Island MacArthur Airport on Jan. 19, 2017, in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. The infamous drug kingpin who twice escaped from maximum-security prisons in Mexico was extradited at the request of the U.S. to face drug trafficking and other charges.

Flores said that despite all the mystique surrounding El Chapo, he wasn’t a unique figure.

“My first encounter at meeting him, I wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god,’” Jay Flores said on the “Surviving El Chapo” podcast. “I was scared for sure at being there. My impression was like, is this the person they’re always talking about? And he was probably looking at me like, who the (expletive) are you?”

In fact, Flores told the Tribune, Chapo and other cartel kingpins were not much different than all the people his father introduced him to as a kid, men who could order killings at a whim, but also liked to sit down with friends and eat bean tacos out of a cooler.

“For the most part the bosses I met, they were from the old school, from central Mexico just like my father,” he said. “I knew where I stood with them.”

Though stories about the twins often center on the vast sums of money their drug trafficking brought in, Jay remembers his family struggling to make ends meet in his early years, while their father was serving a 10-year prison term for heroin smuggling.

“If you go ask people in my neighborhood, they’ll say we always had money, which is false,” Flores said. “We grew up on government aid.”

He particularly remembers the “government cheese” his mother would come home with, trying to stretch it to feed seven children. To this day, he said, “I cannot give her a burger with American cheese. We lived off of it.”

It was after his father was released from prison in 1988 that the family’s focus on the drug trade began in earnest. Flores said one of the first loads he can remember helping to bring back from Mexico was about 200 pounds of marijuana, netting $100,000. It wasn’t life changing, but the family could afford to buy groceries again.

In one telling memory, Flores recalled his parents taking him and Peter to buy Air Jordan sneakers, a rare treat. Jay, however, balked at the $130 price tag.

“I didn’t want them because I thought it was too much,” he said, laughing. “I still remember I put them back. I ended up buying a different pair of sneakers. They were Patrick Ewings, with the biggest tongue ever. I’ll never forget it, I still regret that so much.”

That feeling of being able to pay bills and afford gifts mushroomed when they were teenagers and making more money than their parents could have ever dreamed, he said.

“It was like, OK, I’m gonna buy my friend a house,” Flores said. “Now I’m gonna buy them a bigger house. I was able to buy cars. Me and my brother bought our whole family cars for Christmas.”

But Flores said he came to learn that money doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. And it can lead people astray.

“It does make things better. But it’s not everything you know?” he said.

The twins were just 12 when they started being introduced into the gang life through their brother, Armando, who was in his 20s and already a kingpin in the Latin Kings.

Just like they were later forced to navigate two sides of the Mexican drug cartels, the twins in those days found themselves positioned between two realities of Little Village.

On the one hand were the street gangs, where kids their age were becoming murderers at 13 and 14 years old, he said. On the other was their brother and his friends, who commanded a certain respect and stayed largely out of the day-to-day mayhem on the streets.

“That’s where I started to see where me and my (twin) brother were going to sit, like, right in the middle,” Flores said.

With their dad largely absent while living in Mexico, Armando bought the home on South Homan and fixed it up, turning the ground floor into a two-bedroom apartment for the twins, who were about to become teenagers.

Even in their father’s absence, the twins still lived by his rules. They didn’t go out and drink or smoke on the corners with the young gangbangers their age. They were expected to iron their clothes and go to school, Flores said.

“It was, I better wake up on time, I better get to school, I better keep up those grades,” he said. “But it was more because I didn’t want to disappoint my older brother.

Like their father, Armando tried to shield the twins from the Latin Kings, even when he was regularly hosting gang meetings at the home. When the gang members would leave, Armando would tell the twins, ‘Don’t ever be like them.’”

“In my head I was like, ‘I thought they were your friends,’” Flores said. “I was like, OK so not everyone who you associate with is your friend. And that’s a lesson of criminal life. You don’t have a lot of choices in that life. You’re going to be associated with some people where you don’t always like what they do.”

As they grew older, the community started changing, Flores said. His family started getting more recognition for being connected to cartels. Up and down Homan Avenue, their cars were the only ones parked on the block. “We were the only ones who weren’t going to work,” he said.

By the time they were in high school, the twins had launched their own drug enterprise, in part by picking up some of Armando’s customers after he went to prison for a federal drug conviction.

Flores said he remembers vividly when he and Peter made their first million-dollar deal. “Our celebration was a high-five and saying, OK, don’t get off course. Stay focused. Because we knew what we were up against to stay out of prison.”

In the end, he said that by doing the law enforcement seminar, he hopes his kids see they have a father who is still aspiring to do something good despite his past.

“I can’t help but acknowledge that, despite my best intentions, their lives have been anything but ordinary,” he wrote in an email after the interview. “I’m not sure how much time I have left, but what matters most to me is leaving behind a positive legacy for my family — something they can take pride in.”

As for the drug task force officers who attend, Flores said he hopes he can give insight into why he made certain choices. He said that people in law enforcement who meet him now are often surprised by what they see. Some are even surprised that he speaks English.

“I speak a few languages, right?” Flores said. “I’m a little bit of everything, and I think that’s what it takes.”

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