CHICAGO (AP) — A federal judge sentenced twin brothers on Tuesday to 14 years in prison each for running a nearly $2 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.
Pedro and Margarito Flores, 33, were portrayed by prosecutors as among the most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in history. Security at sentencing in U.S. District Court in Chicago was tighter than usual, with extra security checks outside courtroom doors and a bomb-sniffing dog sweeping for explosives.
Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo called the identical twins the biggest drug dealers ever to appear in his courtroom.
“But for your cooperation, you’d be leaving here with life sentences … for this devastation … of our country … with drugs,” he said.
Castillo later amended that, saying the brothers would, in fact, would have to look over their shoulders the rest of their lives — in prison and out — in fear that a cartel assassin was near.
“Even though I am not going to sentence you to life, you are leaving here with a life sentence,” he told them. “Each time you start your car (when you are out of prison), you are going to be wondering, is it going to start, or will it explode.”
The Flores twins, both wearing the same olive-green clothes and with the same closely cropped haircuts, sat at a defense table listening, both of them tapping one foot nervously. Just before the judge imposed a sentence, each walked to a podium separately to make brief statements.
“I’m ashamed, I’m embarrassed, I’m regretful,” Margarito Flores told the judge. “There is no excuse.”
Pedro’s voice appeared to break as he apologized and also expressed gratitude.
“I wanted to thank the United States (and federal agents) … for allowing the opportunity not to spend my life in prison,” he said.
For security reasons, the brothers had pleaded guilty to a count of drug conspiracy behind closed doors at a 2012 hearing. Tuesday was their first public appearance since they began to spill their secrets six years ago.
Absent cooperation, prosecutors have said the twins would have faced an almost-certain life prison sentence. But the government had asked for a sentence of around 10 and no more than 16 years, noting that the twins’ cooperation led to indictments of Guzman and 50 others. Their father, Margarito Flores Sr., also is presumed to have paid for their cooperation with his life. He was kidnapped in Mexico as word spread of his sons’ cooperation, according to government documents.
After telling U.S. agents in 2008 that they wanted to become informants in hopes of securing lesser sentences — which they now have — the Flores brothers continued to engage cartel leaders for months, sometimes switching on recorders and shoving them in their pockets to gather evidence.
So successful was their criminal enterprise that the jewelry-loving, Maserati-driving twins hired full-time money counters to keep tabs on the torrent of cash. By the late 2000s, they had smuggled $1.8 billion — wrapped in plastic and duct tape — into Mexico, prosecutors say.
The Flores’ cartel cohorts complained about being paid in thousands of stacks of $1, $5 and $10 bills, saying the small notes were hard to handle and to exchange, according to federal filings.
The 5-foot-4 twins ascended the drug-world hierarchy in a few short years in their 20s, drawing on their childhood friendships in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood to put together, at least initially, a less-ambitious trafficking operation.
Only after the brothers fled Chicago for Mexico around 2004 — apparently fearing arrest following their indictment in Milwaukee — did their trafficking careers soar. In mid-2005, they met with Guzman in his secret mountain compound to cut major drug deals, government filings said.
The brothers ran their entire U.S. operation from a Mexican ranch, issuing orders by phone. Their network stretched from its Chicago hub to New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and to Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.