The Chicago Syndicate: Sinaloa Cartel
Showing posts with label Sinaloa Cartel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sinaloa Cartel. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Details on Jesus Beltran Leon Prison Sentence, Former High-Ranking Member of the Sinaloa #DrugCartel

A former high-ranking member of the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for his role in transporting large amounts of illegal drugs to the Chicago area and throughout the United States.

From at least 2009 until his arrest in November 2014, JESUS RAUL BELTRAN LEON conspired with other Sinaloa Cartel members to transport multi-ton quantities of illegal drugs into the United States. Beltran Leon invested in shipments comprising hundreds of kilograms of drugs that were purchased in Central and South America, imported into Mexico, and eventually smuggled into the U.S. for distribution in Chicago and throughout the country. Beltran Leon also sought to acquire from other cartel members numerous kilograms of drugs that already had been imported into the U.S. so that he could further distribute those narcotics to his own wholesale drug customers in Chicago and throughout the country.

Beltran Leon, 35, of Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico, pleaded guilty earlier this year to a drug conspiracy charge. U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo imposed the sentence in federal court in Chicago.

The sentence was announced by John R. Lausch, Jr., United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois; and Brian McKnight, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Chicago Field Division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.  Valuable assistance was provided by the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division in Chicago. The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Andrew C. Erskine and Erika L. Csicsila.

Beltran Leon is one of more than 20 members of the Sinaloa or Beltran-Leyva drug cartels to be charged in federal court in Chicago. The investigation has resulted in seizures of approximately $30.8 million, approximately eleven tons of cocaine, 265 kilograms of methamphetamines, and 78 kilograms of heroin.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Former High-Ranking Member of Sinaloa Drug Cartel Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison

A former high-ranking member of the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in trafficking large amounts of illegal drugs to the Chicago area.

VICENTE ZAMBADA-NIEBLA conspired with other Sinaloa members to import and distribute large quantities of illegal drugs into the United States. From approximately 1996 to 2008, Zambada-Niebla oversaw shipments of narcotics from Central and South America into Mexico and eventually into the U.S. The cartel covertly transported the drugs via private aircraft, submarines, container ships, fishing vessels, buses, tractor-trailers, automobiles, and other methods. Zambada-Niebla also oversaw the corresponding transfer of drug proceeds back to Mexico.

Zambada-Niebla, 44, has been in law enforcement custody since March 2009. He pleaded guilty in 2013 to a drug conspiracy charge and agreed to cooperate with the U.S. government in its efforts to dismantle the Sinaloa Cartel and one of its rivals, the Beltran-Leyva organization, and hold their leaders accountable in U.S. courts.

U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo imposed the 15-year sentence in federal court in Chicago.

The sentence was announced by John R. Lausch, Jr., United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois; and Brian McKnight, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Chicago Field Division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.  Valuable assistance was provided by the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division in Chicago, and the Chicago Police Department.

“Zambada-Niebla played a major role in flooding the streets of Chicago with dangerous narcotics,” said U.S. Attorney Lausch. “Not only has he been brought to justice for his actions, but his extensive cooperation led to charges against dozens of other high-level drug traffickers in courts throughout the United States.”

“The DEA law enforcement team and prosecutorial partnerships continue to thrive and this sentencing is just one result of those great partnerships,” said SAC McKnight. “Members of the Sinaloa Cartel’s leadership have been held accountable for their actions. DEA will continue to focus investigative efforts to arrest the remainder of the Sinaloa Cartel leaders who are operating in Mexico to face justice in the United States.”

Zambada-Niebla is one of more than 20 members of the Sinaloa and Beltran-Leyva cartels to be indicted in federal court in Chicago. The investigation has resulted in seizures of approximately $30.8 million, approximately eleven tons of cocaine, 265 kilograms of methamphetamines, and 78 kilograms of heroin.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Is Joquin Guzman, AKA "El Chapo" Planning another Prison Escape?

A lawyer for Mexico's most notorious drug kingpin, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, dismissed prosecutors’ arguments that he might try to escape from the Manhattan prison where he awaits sentencing saying he should have access to drinking water, sunlight and fresh air because they “are basic human rights.”

“Mr. Guzman has not had any access to natural sunlight or fresh air for more than 2 years now since he has been extradited to the United States,” Guzman’s attorney Mariel Colon Miro told Fox News on Monday.

“It’s concerning because our country prides itself of being respectful of human rights yet the U.S. government is not doing it for Mr. Guzman.”

Colon Miro said she filed an original motion for Guzman’s conditions of confinement in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center on May 9th requesting that her client would be allowed at least 2 hours of outdoor exercise a week, 6 water bottles a week that he would be allowed to purchase from the correctional facility’s commissary as well as access to a general commissary list, and that he would be allowed to access a set of earplugs to help him sleep.

She said on May 23rd the government filed a response asking U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan to deny all 4 of his requests alleging that he should not be allowed to exercise outdoors because of the risk that Guzman, who broke out of Mexican prisons twice, might try to escape again.

Prosecutors also cited an unsuccessful 1981 escape attempt at the same jail, in which a prisoner’s accomplices hijacked a sightseeing helicopter and tried to cut through the wire screening surrounding the recreation area. When that didn’t work, prosecutors said, they rammed the helicopter into the screen and then dropped a pistol to one of the inmates on the roof. The incident, even though it was foiled, “resulted in a standoff between two armed inmates and more than 100 armed, flak-jacketed police officers and prison guards in a population dense, urban area,” the government response stated.

The response said “any outdoor exercise would be particularly problematic for this defendant” who “successfully planned and executed elaborate escapes from two high-security penal institutions.”

This Sunday, Colon Miro said she filed a reply to the government’s response asking the Brooklyn federal judge to grant Guzman’s requests explaining that an attempted escape was “completely different” from the example supplied in the government response. She said Guzman should be granted outdoor access especially because he is not allowed to communicate with anyone but his lawyers and, therefore, is in no position to try a similar escape.

Judge Cogan sided with the government and denied all the requests in an order filed Monday saying the “defendant’s conditions of confinement are tailored to his specific history, including two prior prison escapes, and his specific crimes, including previously running the Sinaloa Cartel from prison and engaging in multiple murder conspiracies to kill his enemies, which were proven beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.”

Cogan also said the Government’s example of the prison escape attempt is relevant given Guzman’s history saying it would be “plausible that defendant could try to recreate such an escape attempt if the opportunity presented itself.”

The judge denied access to the general population commissary citing “security reasons” since many items on that list can be “weaponized.”

He also said that Guzman’s motion to purchase 6 water bottles a week is “denied as moot” since prison records show he has been receiving 6 water bottles a week since April 2019.

Cogan also denied Guzman’s request for earplugs saying the Metropolitan Correctional Center does not allow any inmate to use earplugs “due to legitimate safety concerns that the inmates would not hear guards in an emergency or would use them to ignore the guards.”

“I am shocked because the thing that we were requesting touched constitutional concerns and they were basic human needs,” said Colon Miro in response to Judge Cogan’s decision.

Michael Lambert, another attorney representing Guzman, told Fox News, “We’re distressed by the courts sacrificing security above all else in spite of valid humanitarian concerns.”

“We’re contemplating next moves,” Lambert said. “We are dismayed by this step back but we have no intention of abandoning this issue,” he added.

Colon Miro said one option is to petition the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Another option she said she is considering is to petition to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. “What Mr. Guzman is going through right now is plain cruel,” Colon Miro said.

John Marzulli, a spokesman for the office of U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue, which prosecuted Guzman, told Fox News he has no additional comment.

Guzman, 62, will spend the rest of his life behind bars after being found guilty in February of trafficking tons of cocaine and other drugs into the U.S. as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. The three-month trial detailed grisly killings, a bizarre escape and drugs hidden in jalapeno cans.

Guzman escaped from jail in 2001 by hiding in a laundry bin and managed to evade authorities by stowing away in one of his mountainside hideaways. He was recaptured in 2014 but escaped a year later through a mile-long lighted tunnel. Guzman was captured again nearly six months later. He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 25.

Thanks to Talia Kaplan.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Ghost: My Thirty Years as an FBI Undercover Agent

The explosive memoir of an FBI field operative who has worked more undercover cases than anyone in history.

Within FBI field operative circles, groups of people known as “Special” by their titles alone, Michael R. McGowan is an outlier. 10% of FBI Special Agents are trained and certified to work undercover. A quarter of those agents have worked more than one undercover assignment in their careers. And of those, less than 10% of them have been involved in more than five undercover cases. Over the course of his career, McGowan has worked more than 50 undercover cases.

In this extraordinary and unprecedented book, McGowan will take readers through some of his biggest cases, from international drug busts, to the Russian and Italian mobs, to biker gangs and contract killers, to corrupt unions and SWAT work. Ghost: My Thirty Years as an FBI Undercover Agent, is an unparalleled view into how the FBI, through the courage of its undercover Special Agents, nails the bad guys. McGowan infiltrates groups at home and abroad, assembles teams to create the myths he lives, concocts fake businesses, coordinates the busts, and helps carry out the arrests. Along the way, we meet his partners and colleagues at the FBI, who pull together for everything from bank jobs to the Boston Marathon bombing case, mafia dons, and, perhaps most significantly, El Chapo himself and his Sinaloa Cartel.

Ghost: My Thirty Years as an FBI Undercover Agent, is the ultimate insider's account of one of the most iconic institutions of American government, and a testament to the incredible work of the FBI.



Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Inner Workings of a El Chapo's $14 Billion Drug Empire

The trial of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, and his conviction Tuesday on drug-smuggling charges, brought to an end the decades long career of the notorious “El Chapo.” It also revealed in remarkable detail the inner workings of the criminal empire he built, one that rivaled governments and multinational companies in its power and sophistication.

After a three-month trial, the 61-year-old, who escaped twice from maximum-security prisons, was found guilty on 10 criminal counts by a federal jury in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is expected to spend the rest of his life in a U.S. prison.

Trial testimony laid bare the secrets of the Sinaloa cartel’s organizational structure, including how cocaine and marijuana rumbled across the U.S. border in the walls of freight trains, how in-house tech experts built encrypted communications networks and how the cartel moved money around using debit cards, suitcases of cash and private planes. It even built its own rail spurs to unload shipments.

At times, the underlings of Mr. Guzmán who testified sounded as if they were describing corporate life. Former operations managers detailed infrastructure, accounting ledgers, supply-chain issues and the need to “protect the capital of the investors.” Mr. Guzmán often referred to the cartel as “la empresa,” or “the company.”

The cartel, of course, was no ordinary business. Prosecutors alleged Mr. Guzmán was involved in dozens of murders, and had ordered the burning of two cartel enemies after he had shot them in the head. Cartel leaders also allegedly paid millions in bribes to every level of Mexican law enforcement, which helped them to stay in operation for decades.

The U.S. has called the Sinaloa cartel Mr. Guzmán ran the largest drug-trafficking organization in the world. The murders and bribes facilitated its primary goal: maximizing the profits from smuggling illegal drugs into U.S. cities for sale to American users.

Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers said during the trial he wasn’t the real cartel leader and had no money. After the verdict, they said he didn’t get a fair trial and planned to appeal.

At the center of the action, as described by trial witnesses, was Mr. Guzmán, who evolved from an impoverished teenager growing poppies in front of his house in Sinaloa to a ruthless drug kingpin willing to kill anyone who disrespected him. He owned a private zoo, paid his workers in diamond watches and had girlfriends who helped him coordinate drug shipments. He reveled in his notoriety, even seeking to get a movie and book made about himself.

Mr. Guzmán was just a young smuggler in 1990 when he made a pitch to a Colombian cocaine supplier in a Mexico City hotel lobby. Pay me 40% of your drug shipment, he said, and I will get it across the U.S. border faster than anyone, the supplier recalled in court testimony. The price was higher than that of other Mexican traffickers, but Mr. Guzmán promised both speed and security, thanks to the stable of federal police he had bribed.

The Colombian, Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, flew his first drug shipment to Mr. Guzmán on five planes that landed at a clandestine airstrip in Sinaloa, Mexico. In less than a week, Mr. Guzmán smuggled more than 5,000 pounds of cocaine from Mexico into Los Angeles.

Their partnership lasted for almost two decades. Along the way, Mr. Guzmán escaped twice from maximum-security prisons in Mexico. Prosecutors say he made at least $14 billion in drug profits before his luck finally ran out when he was captured in 2016, and later extradited to New York.

The cartel was a collection of drug bosses who each controlled their own territory in Mexico, known as a “plaza.” The Sinaloa state, where Mr. Guzmán was born, was the most important plaza, partly because it had a long shoreline for receiving cocaine shipments.

Mr. Guzmán was one of the cartel’s four main early leaders, according to the testimony of Jesus Zambada García, who coordinated the cartel’s operations from 1992 until his arrest in 2008.

Underneath them were sub-leaders who managed the plazas and hundreds of other workers. Pilots and drivers ferried the drugs. Engineers set up secure communications. Security guards protected the drug loads and the cartel leaders. Hit men known as sicarios carried out beatings, kidnappings and murders of cartel enemies.

Most important, the cartel established a payroll for corrupt officials who escorted drug shipments and tipped off cartel members about law-enforcement operations. The salaries for corrupt officials exceeded $1 million a month, one witness testified.

Mr. Guzmán allegedly paid $100 million in 2012 to Mexico’s then-President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, according to the testimony of Mr. Guzmán’s former secretary. A spokesman for Mr. Peña Nieto has called the accusation “false, defamatory and absurd.”

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Guzmán and the other bosses began a profit-sharing model to protect against drug seizures by law enforcement. Under the model, each cartel investor shared the risk of lost or seized shipments and the upside for successful shipments. The new setup significantly strengthened the cartel.

The most secure way to get drugs across the U.S. border, witnesses said, was through tunnels. In the late 1980s, the cartel wheeled bricks of cocaine through an underground tunnel it dug from Agua Prieta, Mexico, to Douglas, Ariz. The Mexican entrance was covered by a pool table that lifted from the concrete floor with a hydraulic system. Law enforcement discovered the tunnel in 1990 after a cartel member forgot to lower the pool table.

Mr. Guzmán, one of his early friends testified, needed to quickly figure out a Plan B to move tons of cocaine inventory. Cartel members hatched a plan to smuggle cocaine across the Tijuana border to Los Angeles on large trucks inside jalapeño cans.

The cans were packaged in Mexican warehouses using labels that imitated those of a real chile-pepper company. Workers packed them with a special gravel that would mimic the sound and weight of water if they were shaken by inspectors.

When Colombian suppliers complained the packaging was damaging their product, Mr. Guzmán asked the suppliers to send cocaine in a cylindrical mold instead of the usual rectangular brick.

Mr. Guzmán also came up with a way to move the drugs by train. At the ends of each train car, Mr. Guzmán’s workers welded metal walls where vacuum-sealed bags of cocaine and marijuana were hidden. The bags were smeared with grease to ward off drug-sniffing dogs, and workers poured 2 inches of oil to the bottom of the train car to deter U.S. inspectors from stepping inside.

The cartel leased warehouses and train cars using front companies that looked like legitimate businesses importing cooking oil. Workers installed train spurs inside warehouses in cities such as Chicago and New York, where they could park the trains and sledgehammer the drugs out of the metal walls without arousing law-enforcement suspicion. The trains returned to Mexico carrying legitimate cargo.

Tirso Martínez Sanchez, who handled logistics for the train route, testified that the trains carried up to $800 million worth of drugs into the U.S. Law enforcement discovered the trains in 2002 and 2003. One amounted to the biggest drug seizure in New York City at the time.

Whenever the U.S. ramped up border security, the cartel would recruit people, including families with U.S. citizenship, to drive across legal ports of entry in cars with hidden compartments, stuffed with drugs and cash. In a single day, the cars could smuggle in more than 400 pounds of cocaine, one witness testified. After the drugs arrived in the U.S., they would leave the cartel’s warehouses in vans and trucks.

Mr. Guzmán welcomed international partners. The cartel worked with the Italian mafia to sell cocaine in Canada, one witness said. Dominicans helped distribute the cartel’s heroin and cocaine in New York City. Cartel lieutenants said they obtained methamphetamine from China and heroin from Thailand.

Laundering the millions of dollars in drug proceeds, typically denominated in small U.S. bills, was a separate challenge.

The drug money often came back to Mexico in cars. In 1989, Mr. Guzmán’s brother, Arturo, was stopped as he was driving across the Arizona border carrying more than $1.2 million in cash.

Mr. Guzmán purchased private jets to pick up the cash at the border and fly it back to Mexico City, where it would be wheeled in suitcases to be deposited at banks, according to the testimony of his former money manager Miguel Angel Martínez. Each jet would contain at least $8 million.

Architects built stash houses for Mr. Guzmán with beds that could lift above the ground, revealing passages to underground safes. Mr. Martínez said the largest amount stored in a single location was more than $20 million.

To move money from New York to Colombia and Ecuador to buy more cocaine, the cartel used debit cards that could be loaded up with as much as $9,900 per card. Unlike cash, which is made of linen that can absorb drug residue and attract drug-sniffing dogs, debit cards can be easily cleaned. After the cards arrived in South America, the cartel hired workers to withdraw the money from ATMs.

Mr. Guzmán invested in cutting-edge communications technology to avoid detection by authorities, hiring engineers to travel to the U.S. to buy the latest equipment. Early on, cartel members cloned other people’s phone numbers to make calls. Mr. Guzmán changed his cloned number every three or four days, one witness said.

Mr. Guzmán told his workers to communicate only via BlackBerry phones when crossing the U.S. border, thinking they were safer than radios.

In 2008, he hired as his top tech specialist a millennial college dropout with his own startup. Christian Rodriguez, a young cybersecurity expert, told Mr. Guzmán that BlackBerry messages weren’t safe. He testified he built an encrypted network that allowed Mr. Guzmán to securely call dozens of cartel members, and set up a cloud server in Canada because he had read about the country’s strong privacy laws.

Mr. Guzmán asked Mr. Rodriguez to install spy software that would let him track the locations of his associates’ phones and remotely turn on their microphones to eavesdrop on their conversations. He wanted to hear what his workers, including girlfriends, were saying behind his back.

The success of the Sinaloa cartel spawned deadly wars with rivals that were bad for business, former cartel workers said. Drug seizures ramped up, and American authorities slowly turned Mr. Guzmán’s close associates into cooperators.

Mr. Guzmán spent his last few years of freedom running from authorities, sometimes sleeping on the ground in the mountains and waking up every half-hour, according to his lieutenant at the time. Even so, Mr. Guzmán kept coordinating cocaine purchases from Ecuador for shipment to the U.S., the lieutenant said, protected by an army of bodyguards.

After his final arrest, a month before his extradition to the U.S., Mr. Guzmán was still planning another escape. The reason, said a federal prosecutor, was because “he never wanted to be in a position where he would have to answer for his crimes.”

Thanks to Nicole Hong.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Prosecution Rests Its Case and Joaquin Guzman Does Not Take the Stand in His Defense #ElChapo

The most common methods the drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera used to avoid imprisonment in Mexico was to either escape (which he did twice) or to not get caught in the first place. But now that the kingpin, known as El Chapo, is standing trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, his lawyers have been forced to mount an actual defense. As many had suspected, it emerged they did not offer one.

Mr. Guzmán’s case to the jury began at 9:38 a.m. when one of his lawyers, Jeffrey Lichtman, called to the stand an F.B.I. agent who explained his own small role in obtaining a piece of evidence that did not relate to the defendant. Mr. Lichtman also read aloud a stipulation, noting that for several years, his client was in debt.

Mr. Lichtman finished his presentation at 10:08 a.m. “And with that, judge,” he said, “the defense rests.”

It was clear from the beginning of the trial that little could be done for Mr. Guzmán who, after all, had been under investigation by American authorities for more than a decade. Complicating matters, he had also effectively confessed to being a drug lord in an interview with Rolling Stone two years ago. But Mr. Guzmán’s 30-minute jury presentation seemed particularly small compared to the monumental case prosecutors brought to a close on Monday. For more than 10 weeks, the government buried the defendant in a Matterhorn of evidence from 56 witnesses, including recorded phone calls of the kingpin doing business and intercepted messages of him, his wife and mistresses.

Mr. Guzmán’s courtroom troubles began in November from the moment Mr. Lichtman delivered his opening statement. In a bold move, he claimed his client had been framed for years by his partner in the Sinaloa drug cartel, Ismael Zambada Garcia, who Mr. Lichtman alleged had conspired with “crooked” American drug agents and a hopelessly corrupt Mexican government.

Two main problems emerged with this argument. One was that Judge Brian M. Cogan cut it short at the government’s request, stopping Mr. Lichtman in the middle of his speech by telling him that anything he had said was unlikely to be supported by evidence. The other was that the argument, even if true, did not exclude the possibility that Mr. Guzmán was a narco lord guilty of the charges he was facing.

During the trial, Mr. Lichtman and the two other members of Mr. Guzmán’s legal team — William Purpura and A. Eduardo Balarezo — largely spent their time attacking the credibility of the government’s 14 cooperating witnesses. Their efforts sometimes worked and sometimes did not. Most of the witnesses had also been previously charged with federal crimes and usually confessed to their misdeeds before the defense could bring them out.

Before the trial, the kingpin’s lawyers had mostly focused their attention on pointing out the harsh conditions of his confinement in the high-security wing of the Manhattan federal jail. Given Mr. Guzmán’s history of jailbreaks, he was kept for several months in isolation, forbidden to occupy the same room as his lawyers. Pretrial meetings were conducted — awkwardly at best — through a perforated plexiglass window.

In several motions, Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers sought to persuade Judge Cogan that such severe conditions had eroded their client’s right to adequate legal counsel under the Sixth Amendment. While the judge improved the circumstances slightly, he was mostly unconvinced that Mr. Guzmán’s constitutional rights had been violated.

Last week, intense speculation arose over whether Mr. Guzmán might take the stand and become his own star witness. But after days of conversations with his lawyers, he told Judge Cogan on Monday that he did not plan to testify.

Little is known about those conversations because of the protections of the attorney-client privilege. But after Mr. Guzmán addressed the court, Mr. Purpura told Judge Cogan that he and his partners had explained to their client the legal perils of undergoing cross-examination. Mr. Guzmán then decided not to testify “knowingly and voluntarily,” Mr. Purpura said.

The kingpin’s lawyers will have one more shot at persuading the jury Thursday when they deliver their summation. But even that will be severely restricted if the government has its way.

On Monday night, prosecutors filed a motion to Judge Cogan asking him to preclude the defense from arguing, as they did in opening statements, that Mr. Zambada, known as Mayo, had quietly conspired with Mexican and American officials to target Mr. Guzmán.

The prosecutors not only said the claim was “preposterous,” but also quoted back Judge Cogan words from the second day of the trial. “You can have two drug dealers, one of whom is paying off the government and one of whom is not,” he had said. “That does not mean the one who is not didn’t do the crimes.”

Thanks to Alan Feuer.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Highlights From the El Chapo Trial: Cocaine in Jalapeño Cans and a Tunnel From Mexico to Arizona, The Mexican Drug Lord’s U.S. Trial has Detailed the Inner Workings of his Narcotics Empire

The trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the infamous Mexican drug lord, has given the public an unprecedented look inside the operations of the Sinaloa cartel. Prosecutors have trotted out dozens of witnesses, including former cartel bosses, who have described how Mr. Guzmán and his associates built a multibillion-dollar narcotics empire.

The two months of testimony in Brooklyn federal court have revealed details about how the cartel smuggled cocaine, marijuana and other illegal drugs into the U.S. using cars, trains, planes, submarines and even underground tunnels. Witnesses have described the multimilliondollar bribes paid to law enforcement and the murders carried out during wars with rival cartels.

Mr. Guzmán has pleaded not guilty to drug-trafficking, money-laundering and other charges. Getting Mr. Guzmán into a U.S. courtroom has been years in the making, after he escaped twice from maximum-security prisons in Mexico.

The trial is expected to last several more weeks. Here’s a look at some of the colorful moments that have already come out:

In the Can

In the early 1990s, Mr. Guzmán smuggled cocaine across the Tijuana border to Los Angeles inside jalapeño cans, according to the testimony of Miguel Angel Martínez, an early member of Mr. Guzmán’s crew. The cans were packaged in warehouses in Mexico using labels that imitated those of a real chile pepper company.

To make the cans sound like there were actual peppers inside when shaken by inspectors, workers packed them with a special gravel that would mimic the sound and weight of water. During the packaging, workers would often get high because pressing the cocaine into the can would release it into the air, Mr. Martínez said.

Mr. Martínez testified that the cartel stopped using this method in 1993, after a truck carrying seven tons of cocaine packed inside jalapeño cans was stopped by Mexican police.

Tunnel Effect

Mr. Guzmán impressed his Colombian suppliers because he was able to move drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border in mere days—much faster than the weeks needed by other traffickers, federal prosecutors said

In the 1980s, the cartel used an underground tunnel it dug from Agua Prieta, Mexico, to Douglas, Ariz., according to the testimony of a former U.S. customs agent. Cartel members would wheel cocaine bricks in carts from the Mexican side to the U.S., approximately 40 to 50 yards.

The Mexican entrance was covered by a pool table that lifted from the concrete floor with a hydraulic system. The entrance on the American side was located two blocks away from the U.S. customs office. The tunnel was discovered by U.S. law enforcement in 1990.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

In describing Mr. Guzmán’s lavish lifestyle in the 1990s, Mr. Martínez told jurors that his former boss owned a ranch in Guadalajara, where he built a zoo that housed tigers, lions, panthers and deer. Guests could see the animals by riding a train that ran through the property.

Jets and Suitcases Full of Cash

In the early 1990s, Mr. Martínez’s job was to coordinate money shipments for the cartel. He testified that drug profits came back to Mexico in pickup trucks filled with cash. After the money arrived in the border city of Tijuana, it was flown in Mr. Guzmán’s private jets to Mexico City. Each jet contained $8 million to $10 million, Mr. Martínez testified.

Mr. Martínez said he wheeled a Samsonite suitcase filled with at least $10 million in drug proceeds to a Mexico City bank every week to deposit. When the bank asked if he was laundering money, he said he was exporting tomatoes.

Border Run-in

In 1989, a U.S. customs agent stopped Mr. Guzmán’s brother, Arturo, as he was trying to drive across the border in Arizona with drug proceeds in his car. His black Ford Bronco was stuffed with more than $1.2 million in cash—a record seizure at the time for any port of entry in Arizona, according to the testimony of Michael Humphries, a port director with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

An Assassination Attempt

In 1993, members of the rival Tijuana Cartel tried to assassinate Mr. Guzmán at an airport in Guadalajara, Mexico, according to multiple trial witnesses. Mr. Guzmán and his bodyguard dodged the shootout by running past baggage claim and onto the landing strips, all while carrying $600,000 in a suitcase. They kept running until they reached a highway, where they hailed a taxi.

The shootout killed Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, a beloved figure in Mexico, sparking a national manhunt for Mr. Guzmán. He was captured in Guatemala shortly after and extradited to Mexico. Mr. Guzmán escaped from a maximum-security prison there in 2001 before completing his 20-year prison sentence

Bribery at Every Level

Trial witnesses testified about the bribes paid to law-enforcement officers at every level of Mexican government. Jesús Zambada García, the cartel’s former accountant, testified under cross-examination that he paid off Genaro García Luna—head of Mexico’s equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who eventually became the country’s secretary of public security—to ensure law enforcement wouldn’t interfere with the cartel’s drug activities. Mr. Zambada said that between 2005 and 2007, he met the official on two occasions at a restaurant to give him at least $3 million in a suitcase each time. Mr. García Luna has denied receiving any bribes, according to Mexican press reports.

When Mr. Guzmán was in prison the first time, his lieutenants paid approximately $30,000 to $40,000 a month in bribes to prison officials, according to Mr. Martínez. Mr. Guzmán wanted a cell phone and asked to have “intimate relationships” with all of his wives. He had four or five wives at the time, Mr. Martínez testified.

Mr. Guzmán escaped from prison in 2001 by paying off a prison worker who wheeled him out in a laundry cart.

Swiss Fountain of Youth

Mr. Martínez said he traveled the world with Mr. Guzmán, including to Macau to gamble and to seek out heroin suppliers. Mr. Guzmán also traveled to a clinic in Switzerland for cell injections to keep himself looking young, Mr. Martínez said

As gifts, he gave his employees new cars and diamond Rolex watches. Mr. Martínez said his annual salary in the early 1990s was $1 million.

The government blurred out Mr. Martínez’s face in their trial exhibit because of the death threats he has received since his arrest in 1998.

High-Tech Ducking

To avoid law-enforcement detection, Mr. Guzmán sent engineers to the U.S. to buy the latest high-tech phone equipment, including scramblers and wiretapping gear, a former employee testified.

He “cloned” other people’s phone numbers when making calls, changed those cloned numbers every three or four days, and wiretapped enemies, friends and girlfriends. Mr. Martínez said the wiretaps were critical to keeping Mr. Guzmán informed about his employees’ whereabouts, including attempts by anyone to betray him.

The cartel also bought machines from the U.S. and Europe to manufacture fake passports and IDs, including fake police credentials

Sunken Ships

Cocaine was often transported from Colombia to Mexico by sea, including by submarine, before being smuggled into the U.S. A submarine was seized by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2008 as it was carrying cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel.

In 1994, a large shipping vessel was carrying 20 tons of cocaine to the cartel. The crew thought the shipment would be intercepted by law enforcement and sank the vessel off the Mexican coast, according to the cartel’s former accountant. The cartel then used deep-sea divers to recover the cocaine.

Hiding the Money

To stash his cash, Mr. Guzmán hired an architect to build houses with hydraulic systems that lifted the beds from the floor to reveal hidden compartments, according to a former cartel member. At one house, the bed covered a ladder that led to a safe inside an underground water tank. The water had to be pumped out to access the special compartment.

Thanks to Nicole Hong.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

How Chicago became a Key Hub in El Chapo's Massive Sinaloa Cartel U.S. Drug Operation

In untold hundreds of truck and train shipments, tons of cocaine rolled into Chicago hidden among loads of vegetables, shrimp, and even live sheep.

The city acted as the American distribution center of the vast network of the Sinaloa cartel, and was run by Chicago twin brothers who had declared allegiance to a person they referred to often simply as “The Man.” Both would eventually turn against their boss, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and one of them, Pedro Flores, began testifying in Guzman’s historic trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday.

In harrowing detail over three hours, Flores explained his rise from dealing cocaine with family members on the Southwest Side to working as a top lieutenant for the world’s most notorious drug lord. He told an anonymous jury in New York that he has cooperated against some 50 people in the cartel network already, testifying he risked his life to help the U.S. government after considering his future and that of his pregnant wife 10 years ago. “Or that lack of a future,” Flores said. “That lack of living. I couldn’t promise my family tomorrow.”

Neither Pedro Flores nor his twin, Margarito Flores, have been seen publicly in the nearly four years since both were sentenced to 14 years in prison in Chicago. Dressed in navy blue jail garb, Pedro Flores took a seat in the courtroom Tuesday for a few moments before the jury filed in to hear his testimony.

Perhaps 30 feet away was El Chapo himself, a man to whom Flores estimated he once sent as much as $227 million a year from the cartel’s U.S. operation. Guzman has entered the courtroom with a smile and handshakes for his lawyers in recent days, but as he stared across the room toward Flores, that look had faded.

Flores was somewhat soft-spoken as he related his experiences, drawing laughs in the courtroom gallery at times with his likable demeanor. He described giving El Chapo gold-plated guns as a gift because Flores had “seen too many movies,” and recalled that the reputed kingpin laughed at him the first time he met Guzman at a secret mountain compound in Sinaloa.

Flores was wearing jean shorts. “He said with all that money, I couldn’t afford the rest of the pants?” Flores said.

Guzman has been on trial for more than a month at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, with prosecutors accusing him of drug trafficking as the head of the cartel. They have presented a series of insider witnesses, perhaps none more compelling than the 37-year-old Flores, who now ranks among the most significant criminal turncoats that Chicago has ever produced.

He told jurors his father welcomed him into the world of drug smuggling, using him as a child because his hands were small enough to reach into gas tanks of cars where drugs had been stashed. Their father was kidnapped and presumably killed when he ignored warnings and returned to Mexico in 2009 after drug rings suspected the brothers were helping authorities.

Questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels, Flores explained how his early drug business grew thanks to a connection from one of his father’s friends to the point where Flores was taking shipments in a “grimy van” left for him at a restaurant in the Chicago suburbs. Fels then showed jurors a photograph of a Denny’s in Bolingbrook off of I-55.

Early work to keep larger quantities of drugs in stash houses didn’t always go well, Flores said. The first time he backed the van into a garage, it hit the overhang and the drugs had to be unloaded on the driveway. The plastic bags they were in then tore, spilling kilos onto the concrete. “There’s neighbors out,” he said. “It was a pretty hectic day.”

Chicago was a natural hub for drug networking, Flores said, because of its location in the middle of the country and its infrastructure. “You’re practically halfway to everywhere,” Flores testified.

Flores was soon moving drugs to Milwaukee and other cities, where he eventually attracted the attention of federal authorities who got an indictment against him and sent the brothers fleeing to Mexico.

All of the growth sometimes meant lost shipments and drug debts, one of them leading to a dispute with a former supplier who apparently ordered his kidnapping in Mexico, Flores said. He described 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 days.

After his brother helped arrange his freedom, and with cartel leaders including Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada taking notice of the twins’ success, Flores described an early meeting with Zambada and Guzman’s cousin.

Zambada told the Flores brothers they would be supplied by the cartel, and that their business would grow again. The drug boss said “any idiot” could sell drugs in Mexico, but through his own experiences in Chicago, Zambada was impressed with how much product the brothers had moved in the U.S. “He laughed and said, ‘imagine if you guys were triplets,’ ” Flores testified.

The Floreses would get the same price for bulk cocaine as other top lieutenants, Flores recalled Zambada saying, and they would work on their own behalf.

The business did in fact take off again, Flores said. Drugs flowed through Los Angeles and Chicago to Philadelphia, Detroit, New York and Washington. Throughout his cartel career, Flores said, he moved some 60 tons into the states.

After boosting their supply, the Flores brothers were taken to see El Chapo, Flores said, telling jurors he went first to an airstrip in a cornfield for a 40-minute flight that ended on another runway that ran up the side of an incline in the mountains.

From there they were driven in trucks into an even more remote area. Along the way were macabre signs of the cartel’s handiwork, including a naked man chained to a tree. Flores recalled he appeared to be crouching and staring down at them as they passed.

The kingpin’s compound was a concrete foundation rising from the earth, he said, with a thatched roof. “Like you’d see on vacation,” he said. El Chapo appeared wearing a hat, with a shiny handgun in his waistband. An AK-47 rifle leaned on a chair nearby.

Guzman promised to solve the dispute that had led to Flores being kidnapped, and indeed, Flores said he heard that the man, Guadalupe Ledesma, eventually had been suffocated on El Chapo’s orders. Flores said his anxiety around Guzman eventually faded in future meetings, and that he brought El Chapo the gift of the guns — which were laughed at for being too heavy — and a gag gift of a pair of jean shorts like the ones Flores had been mocked for, which he gave the kingpin in a box shaped like a Viagra pill.

Flores described how the shipments just kept coming, with the cartel even employing submarines to move drugs into the U.S. without detection. The truck shipments came too, including so many with vegetables Flores said they could affect market prices by dumping them for sale in Chicago. And there was the one with the sheep.

The brothers were unprepared. And the truck was headed for a Chicago warehouse.

“I’m looking at a bunch of live sheep,” Flores said. “What are we gonna do with them?” The answer was a friend who was paid $10,000 to take them out of the city. Still, Flores said he complained up the chain of command that “I was concerned the cover loads were getting kinda weak.”

By November 2008, Flores said he had begun to have enough of the business. His wife was newly pregnant, and the cartel had split into two warring factions. One remained headed by Guzman and Zambada, and another by Arturo Beltran Leyva. Both sides wanted to force the brothers to remain loyal and never do business with the other side.

The brothers’ “sweet spot” in the cartel that let them make money without worrying about internal — and often deadly — politics was dissolving. Fearing for his life, Flores said he reached out to the Drug Enforcement Administration through a lawyer, and began cooperating.

That included making recordings, including of El Chapo, on a digital recorder Flores said he bought at a Radio Shack in Mexico. The jury is expected to hear those recordings in the coming days, as Flores continues his testimony.

As for his more recent past, Flores testified that he hasn’t always been on the straight and narrow. He worked a scam to flood other inmates’ commissary accounts with money, he testified, and got his wife pregnant again, this time in a bathroom while in DEA custody.

Still, his cooperation could be key in the federal government’s attempt to hold El Chapo accountable for decades of allegedly providing illicit drugs to addicted Americans. Flores said he made the decision he had to, knowing he was testifying in exchange for wiping out crimes that could have meant multiple life sentences.

“I could only give them one life,” he said.

Thanks to Jeff Coen.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Francisco Quiroz-Zamora, Reputed Mexican Sinaloa Cartel Leader, Charged with Smuggling Fentanyl into US

Authorities in New York have indicted a suspected Mexican drug kingpin they say was responsible for trafficking enough fentanyl to kill 10 million people.

Authorities say the arrest of Francisco Quiroz-Zamora provides a window into how the powerful Sinaloa cartel moves drugs from Mexico to the United States. Quiroz-ZamoraFrancisco Quiroz-Zamora, a 41-year-old known as "Gordo," or the Fat One, has been charged with operating as a major trafficker, first-degree sale of a controlled substance and second-degree conspiracy.

Quiroz-Zamora and five co-defendants will be arraigned in New York City on Tuesday.

Officials with New York's Special Narcotics Prosecutor indicted Quiroz-Zamora. Officials allege he arranged for 44 pounds, or nearly 20 kilograms, of fentanyl to be shipped to New York — a haul of drugs that had the potential to kill 10 million people. Fentanyl is about 50 times more powerful than heroin, and just a few grains can kill.

Fentanyl, which is made in clandestine labs with cheap chemicals, has become a lucrative business for traffickers. It is often cut into heroin or pressed into counterfeit pills made to resemble legitimate prescription drugs, including OxyContin and Xanax.

For a high-level dealer, Quiroz-Zamora was extremely involved in every aspect of the process that gets drugs from creators to users, officials claim. He organized a pipeline that sent drugs from Mexico to Arizona and California through trucks, cars and drug couriers and authorized transactions between customers and dealers, according to authorities.

Mexican trafficking groups are attempting to turn New York into their distribution hub, and fentanyl is now their main product. The amount of fentanyl seized by the Special Narcotics Prosecutor in New York rose from 35 pounds in 2016 to 491 pounds last year.

The drugs are now managed by inconspicuous dealers. They include a middle-aged couple who authorities said came to New York to broker the sale of 141 pounds of fentanyl seized from a Queens apartment.

Quiroz-Zamora allegedly was planning for a lucrative payday. He negotiated a going rate of between $45,000 and $50,000 per kilo of fentanyl. Officials seized the fentanyl as the result of two undercover sales they said were organized by Quiroz-Zamora.

In one instance, the drugs were stuffed in a duffel bag and placed atop a vending machine at the Umbrella Hotel in the Bronx in June.

In another, authorities said they found more than five pounds of fentanyl in a $4,000-a-month apartment on Central Park West, along with $12,000 in cash and a loaded gun. Thousands of packages of drugs ready for sale with names including "Uber" and "Wild Card" were discovered in the apartment. A man who left the apartment in an Uber was arrested along with the driver after heroin was found in the car.

Authorities allege Quiroz-Zamora went to New York in November to collect money he thought he was owed. He was arrested at Penn Station in New York City after arriving in in an extremely roundabout way. He allegedly flew from Texas to Connecticut and went to Delaware, where he boarded a train that took him to Penn Station.

Thanks to Katie Zezima.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Towns Where Even the Police Fear to Tread #MexicanCartels

Jorge lives in an improvised campsite in Práxedis, a silent town in the north of Mexico where few cars or people venture out on the streets. He is a member of the state police force, sent in by the Chihuahua state governor to combat the terrifying rate of violent crime. It is the state police that now handle a substantial portion of law enforcement in the area.

The Valley of Juárez, a region of Chihuahua bordering the US, has been a war zone riddled with organized crime for the past 10 years, due to its location at the crossroads of the routes used by drug traffickers and people smugglers. “We’ve been here since 2015 – there were no local police left because they had either been killed or abducted,” says Jorge at the precinct. When he first arrived here, he felt as though he were driving through a ghost town. “People didn’t come out on the streets, but bit by bit things have gone back to normal,” he says.

Práxedis and Guadalupe belong to the Valley of Juárez, a region surrounded by desert that was previously a prosperous cotton-growing area. But since the drug traffickers moved in more than 10 years ago, the territory has been a battleground for the Sinaloa and La Línea cartels smuggling drugs and people across the inhospitable gulf dividing this part of Mexico from the US.

The violence was largely responsible for the high number of murders in the state of Chihuahua in 2010, when it racked up a historic 3,903. The murder rate dropped dramatically in 2013, and though it began to climb again after 2016, the death toll in 2017 was still less that half of that at 1,566. In the volatile years between 2007 and 2015, any local police officer who had escaped death or abduction simply fled.

Lourdes López explains how her son was “carried off” along with four other policemen in Práxedis in 2009. “That was nine years ago and there’s been no justice,” she says. Her son had never used a gun and was never trained to do so. “He wanted to be a policeman ever since he was a boy and he was a good person who didn’t deserve what he got,” says the 62-year- old mother, who left town several days after her son was seized.

Martín Hueramo, a former mayor of Guadalupe, says that the municipal police were not prepared for the situation they found themselves in. “Towns had to confront organized crime with unarmed police officers whose only experience was with minor offenses. Nine policemen were killed in Guadalupe in various shoot-outs, and three human heads were left in an icebox. It was a terrifying era,” says Hueramo, who was granted political asylum in Texas. In that period, the population of Guadalupe fell from 13,000 to 2,000, he adds, although it has since bounced back to 5,000.

The last municipal policeman to work in Guadalupe, Joaquín Hernández, was killed in July 2015 after being lured to a phony crime scene. The municipal police department there was among the most frequently attacked. Between 2007 and 2010, it often closed down completely. In December 2010, it was shut down definitively when its head, Erika Gándara was “carried off” by a criminal group who sought her out in her own home. She was the last police officer left in the precinct following the death, disappearance or resignation of her colleagues. In 2014, the police station reopened with Máximo Carrillo at the helm, but he was killed in June 2015. He was then replaced by Joaquín Hernández, who was killed only three weeks later.

The situation wasn’t much different in Práxedis. The last police officer in town was Marisol, a young 20-year-old criminology student who made international headlines as “The Bravest Woman in Mexico.” She lasted less than four months before death threats forced her to flee across the border into the US. After she’d gone, no one else offered to step up to the plate and the state police moved in on surveillance shifts.

To date, Guadalupe’s police precinct has no plans to reopen, according to the town council secretary, Fausto González Pérez. “It exposes people to danger,” he says. “If we issue a job notice, some courageous soul might come forward, but it’s a delicate matter.” The prison cells of the precinct are currently being used to store wine, and the money that once went towards the town’s security has been otherwise spent on sport and cultural activities. “These are difficult times,” says González Pérez. “Right now we are in a wilderness, but we are rebuilding the town.”

Chihuahua’s municipal police force is not equipped to deal with serious crime. A recent report in a Juárez newspaper reveals that there are towns such as Guachochi with 53 police officers but only 15  bulletproof vests. Meanwhile, in Rosales, there are 42 police officers without vests working on an average salary of $200 a month. The state government has had to intervene in as many as nine towns, either because the police are ill equipped or because the police department has become corrupt. Last year, in Ahumada, the director of Public Security, Carlos Alberto Duarte, and six of his men were arrested on criminal charges. Several months later, however, Duarte was back in his job.

Thanks to Cludad Juarez.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Felix "Lic Vicc" Beltran, #ElChapo CFO and #Chicago Fugitive, Captured in Mexico

He is the money man behind the world's richest drug dealer, according to U.S. drug investigators.

Felix "Lic Vicc" Beltran was indicted in Chicago in 2015 on allegations he was chief financial officer for the notorious Sinaloa Cartel and its feared leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Even as El Chapo was arrested and continues to await trial in New York City, Felix Beltran had been a fugitive from justice in the Chicago case.

Until now.

The I-Team has learned that Beltran was arrested last Thursday in suburban Mexico City. 30 anti-organized crime agents raided a 9th floor apartment in the tony Santa Fe district southwest of downtown Mexico City where they say the Sinaloa CFO was hiding out.

Beltran is the son of Victor Manuel Félix Félix, "El Señor," who served as Chapo's chief financial officer and consiglieri until his detainment in 2011. According to authorities, "El Vic" served as his father's successor, handling most of the cartel's finances. Police say he was also in charge of the cartel's money laundering operation, and supervised the cartel's heroin production and export into the United States. Some reports have described him as El Chapo's "consigliere," the top advisor to a crime boss-usually associated with the Mafia.

As the I-Team reported in 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department described Félix Beltrán as "a high-ranking Sinaloa Cartel trafficker" and the newly installed head of the lucrative Mexico-to-Chicago trafficking operation. That same year, federal prosecutors in Chicago charged him with drug trafficking and money laundering, charges from which he remained a fugitive until his apprehension.

Authorities suspect that Beltran took over as leader of the cartel's Chicago distribution hub after the arrests of Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers from Chicago who helped to bring down El Chapo himself.

Despite cutting off Sinaloa's head with the arrest of El Chapo, his cartel continues to reap major profits from exporting narcotics to Chicago investigators have said.

Federal prosecutors in Chicago declined to say whether they would seek Beltran's immediate extradition. There was a Chicago court filing in his case on Monday but it was ordered seal by Judge Ruben Castillo.

Thanks to Chuck Goudie and Ross Weidner.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

How Did Chicago became a Cultural Capital of Crime?

The thing outsiders know about Chicago is crime. The mobsters, the street drug gangs, the corrupt operators—these are the most sensationalized aspects of the city. But they are also key factors in its ongoing narrative, the one true Great American Novel that is Chicago. The city with a fiery creation myth grew into a blue-collar metropolis with the help of oily, feudal political machines and assorted local species of crook, leaving a deep, ugly legacy. It is written in our street grid, our transit lines, and our segregated accents, in which one can still hear both the old white ethnic strongholds and the Great Migration. It can be a very beautiful city, especially at night. In those icy parts of winter that have become more rare since I first moved here, the unique nighttime color of Chicago reflects in every direction. The flatness of the landscape and the straightness of the streets bring its divisions into deep focus. I’m proud to show it off. It is a city on the prairie, and therefore a city of the plain, like Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis.

For a time in the 1850s, there were so many problems with drainage that it became a swamp and had to raise itself up on jackscrews. So really, a Chicagoan has their pick of origin stories. The curse of the so-called Second City is that it lends itself effortlessly to symbolism and especially to metaphor, to the point that you start to believe that it just might be one. I’ve lived here longer now than I have anywhere else, and I have come to love this aspect of the city. When Chicagoans speak—whether they are true locals or transplants like myself, who have come to its ways through prolonged exposure—they speak its complicated history. This is the diverse Southern-inflected sound of black Chicago, the “Chi-cah-go” and “Chi-caw-go” pronunciations that classify white accents, and that perfect formulation of terse Midwesternese, the stranded “with,” as in the classic “You wanna come with?” They say “jagoff” is a Pittsburgh word, but Chicago owns it.

Really, there are many Chicagos, bound almost psychically. It is better maybe to try to grasp it in terms of its architecture—which is really one of the most beautiful things about it—and planning. For instance, Chicago is the alley capital of the world. There are about 1,900 miles of alleyways running through almost every block of the city, regulated to a minimum width of 16 feet, some much wider. The alley is part of day-to-day life in Chicago: It’s where we take our shortcuts and bring our trash. It’s why Chicago doesn’t smell as bad as other big cities. It lacks that note of garbage that gives New York streets their character. The kind of buildings we call two- or three-flats, whether brick, frame, or Indiana limestone (called “greystone” locally), will often have a gangway, a passage that lets you cut from the sidewalk to the alley. My favorites are the ones that dip under a protruding oriel. And most of the apartments in those two- and three-flats will have two doors, one in the front and one in the rear. It’s a city of backstreets and backdoors.

Chicago crime is a unique phenomenon. In broad statistics, it is not that dangerous a place; the rates of burglary and theft are low for an American city, and many of its neighborhoods experience negligible violent crime. This is a common defense tactic for Chicagoans, especially white Chicagoans—the “well, not my Chicago” plea. But this is as much a fantasy as the Trumpian burning of the quote-unquote “inner city.” Chicago crime inspires fascination because it is entrenched and so specific, so troublingly connected to a diverse city that otherwise eludes broad social generalizations. One fact about Chicago is that it has more nicknames in common circulation than any other place in this country, all of them kind of tacky: the Windy City, the Second City, Chi-Town and its pun variations, the City Of Big Shoulders. There are many others, too. Defining the spirit of Chicago is a bad parlor game. The nice parts of it are very nice, but for more than 90 years, it has been world-famous as a place where people get gunned down in the street. Throughout its history runs a succession of criminal boom industries: gambling, policy, liquor, crack, heroin.

The criminal conglomerates of Prohibition and the small sets of the West Side’s Heroin Highway are part of one uninterrupted story, though unwittingly. The story is the city. It goes back to the 1870s and the reign of “Big Mike” McDonald as the king of Chicago’s gambling underworld. It goes through generations of increasingly more effective political machines and increasingly larger criminal syndicates, colluding in political and commercial networks that made the street gangs seem like the inevitable result of a complicated equation. Let us assume a few things here as starting points: that the city and its underworlds have existed for a long time in a relationship that is more complex than host and parasite; that political and criminal groups in the city, however big or small, play variations on a similar game involving the flow and direction of movement; and that the city is itself a crossroads, its entire story defined by lines of interstate transit, be it the Illinois Central Railroad that transported half a million black job-seekers from the South during the Great Migration, or the Sinaloa Cartel network from which most of the cocaine and heroin of its current drug economy is believed to originate.

For Chicago, there is no artistic or cultural history without its social history, no social history without its political history, and no political history without crime. The mob is a staple of our tourist kitsch industry: the Al Capone T-shirt and the Untouchables bus tour, right up there with Mike Ditka’s hairspray, the goddamn Blues Brothers, and that casserole we call a deep-dish pizza. But the mob was always corny, even at its scariest. For decades, it was almost everywhere. I’ll give you an example: The Russian bathhouse immortalized by Saul Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift was actually a mob hangout. It was still owned by an Outfit family in the years that I lived across from it on Division Street, one of the more darkly perfect street names in Chicago.

Michael Mann’s 1981 debut feature, Thief (Special Director's Edition), is to my mind the best Chicago crime film set after Prohibition and one of the great artistic interpretations of the city’s nocturnal character. It was made in the last years that Chicago nights glowed bluish-green, before the city had completed the changeover from mercury vapor lighting to the sodium vapor lamps that produce its present honey-bronze haze. Much as alleyways have both a practical and a mystical relationship to the city’s networks of crime, so it is possible to chart eras of criminality through the history of its public lighting. Crime is a largely nocturnal activity, after all, as are most of the vices on which the city’s criminal syndicates were built. In the Prohibition and Great Depression golden age of Chicago crime, most of the streets were still gas-lit and very dim. This was the fabled era of the Tommy Gun mobsters, but also of the bank-robbing outlaw, embodied by the Chicago-based Dillinger Gang, the subject of Mann’s underappreciated crime epic Public Enemies. Mercury vapor arrived in the mid-1950s, along with Richard J. Daley’s Democratic political machine and the solidification of the Chicago Outfit, the white mob, which in those years finally murdered and intimidated its way into the territory of the city’s forgotten black crime syndicates. The most recognizable type of streetlight in Chicago was introduced in this era. It’s a bucket-shaped design unique to the city, called the General Electric Crimefighter.

Thief is not a film about the Outfit, but it features an Outfit operative as a character, played by the avuncular stage veteran Robert Prosky. You have probably seen a picture of Al Capone. Chances are it’s the glamour shot with his head turned and the cigar stuffed in his cheek and the size 6 7/8 cream-white Borsalino on his little head. This is the most flattering picture of Capone. As a young man, he had the pudgy face and baggy eyes of a fortysomething bank manager. He was 26 when he inherited Johnny Torrio’s criminal empire and was out of power by the age of 33. But in movies and TV, he is always played by older actors, trimmer or more barrel-chested, always tougher-looking than the real man: Rod Steiger in Al Capone; Neville Brand, Robert De Niro, and William Forsythe in successive versions of The Untouchables; Jason Robards in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre; Stephen Graham on Boardwalk Empire. But there were never any handsome gangsters. They were all funny-looking, and with the exception of the flashy Capone years, they dressed like shit.

The Outfit was the successor to Capone’s organization, and in that era of mercury vapor lighting, when the tint of the night suggested an extended twilight, their look was Sansabelt, grandpa glasses, and starched short sleeves. Mann grew up in the long-gone Jewish quarter of the Humboldt Park neighborhood, as did Saul Bellow a generation earlier, and he is one of the few to try to capture this banal, used-car-salesman aspect of the Chicago mob. To me, he is one of the geniuses of the genre; in all of his crime films, there is a complex dialogue between authenticity and archetype. His favorite type of verisimilitude is the kind that directly contradicts expectations. In Thief, for instance, the safe-cracker played by James Caan—the first of the single-minded professionals that would become Mann’s contribution to the mythology of the crime genre—doesn’t press the resonator of a stethoscope against a door and listen to the tumblers; he uses an industrial oxygen lance, lent to Mann by an actual Chicago-area burglar. And while Prosky’s role might seem like a case of casting against type, if you look at pictures of Outfit bosses from the time, that’s what they all looked like.But here’s the thing: The imagery Mann subverts with this more realistic portrayal—and uses to formulate his own mythology—is also Chicagoan in origin. It was Chicago that birthed both the gangster picture and the notion of street criminal chic, and it really took until The Godfather for there to be a major American film that took its cues from the clannish organized crime culture of the East Coast. Even the great New York gangster movies that came before The Godfather, like Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties and Budd Boetticher’s The Rise And Fall Of Legs Diamond, are based on an archetype born of the Second City. Most film historians will tell you that there are two definitive early gangster films: Underworld, directed in 1927 by Josef Von Sternberg, and Howard Hawks’ insurmountable 1932 Scarface. Both are set in Chicago, as were almost all early American gangster movies—Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, the whole lot. The gritty city stuck in the imagination of ’30s Hollywood much in the same way as Paris and Vienna did, less a real-world setting than a genre in and of itself. Films about criminal gangs go back to the early 1900s, but they depict their bad guys mostly as ragged, unshaven goons in flat caps. The seductive criminals of the silent era are swindlers and masterminds. The idea that coarse, murderous thugs could be flamboyant, magnetic, and sexy—that comes from the Chicago of Al Capone and John Dillinger.

Both Underworld and Scarface were based on stories by Ben Hecht, though the latter was nominally adapted from a forgotten pulp novel of the time. Before he became one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of Hollywood, Hecht was a Chicago Daily News crime reporter, an experience he would draw on many times—most famously in The Front Page, one of several collaborations with his crime-desk colleague Charles MacArthur, subsequently reworked as His Girl Friday. Hecht was one of a number of literary men who worked in the Chicago dailies of the 1920s (the poet Carl Sandburg was also at the Chicago Daily News at the time), and the best of a tradition of newspapermen who treated the job of columnist as though it made them prose-poet laureate of Chicago. A reader of modernist and symbolist literature, he was also involved in the Little Review, the Chicago literary magazine famous as the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was originally serialized over several years in its pages. In Underworld, released at a time when Joyce’s landmark novel was still banned as obscene in the United States, there is a villainous Irish gangster named Buck Mulligan, after the central character of the first chapter of Ulysses—a fact that I’ve always found amusing.

The classic, Hecht-ian gangster drew on the public’s morbid fascination with Chicago crime to create something almost modernist—this wanton criminal as an epic figure in an expressively metaphorical cityscape. This is true of Scarface, a masterpiece that was the work of a number of remarkable talents, not just Hawks and Hecht. One of the many memorable things about Scarface is the use of signage as commentary and ironic counterpoint: the famous “The World Is Yours” travel ad (carried over in Brian De Palma’s loose 1983 remake); the body lying under the crossed shadow of a signboard that reads “Undertakers”; the lit-up marquee of the club called “Paradise No. 2.” The Godfather would refashion the gangster as a creature of family and loyalty, but in his original conception, he was a creature of the city. Scarface’s Capone-inspired title character doesn’t rise to power in the middle of nowhere, but in a darkly comic metropolis that seems to empower and mock him in equal measure. In other words, he rises to power in Chicago.

It should be pointed out that almost all Chicago-set Hollywood films produced from the late 1920s to the 1970s are about mobsters, crime, or corruption. We’re talking Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl, assorted half-remembered noirs, various versions of the Roxie Hart story (including one written by Ben Hecht), the premise of Some Like It Hot. Of these, only Arthur Penn’s Mickey One, the film that first attempted to apply a French New Wave sensibility to home-grown pulp, did any substantial filming here, capturing both its decrepit alleys and its modernist architecture in stark black-and-white. It was only in the 1980s that the city became a popular filming location. Perhaps Thief seems definitive because it represents a point of merger—between the mythology of the city and its reality, which already seems fairly stylized.


The great musical legacy of Chicago is the modernization and urbanization of the blues, a rural sound that was electrified by the city and laid the groundwork for most popular music that has come since. One important but underappreciated figure in its development was Kokomo Arnold, who played a rapid bottleneck-slide-guitar blues in a style that still sounds rock ’n’ roll. It is said that he came to Chicago as a bootlegger in the 1920s, but was forced to rely on his musical talents for a living after the end of Prohibition, trading one business of handling bottles for another. However, when it comes to stories about bluesmen, one can never be sure. Arnold’s recording of “Old Original Kokomo Blues” was reworked by the Delta bluesman Robert Johnson into “Sweet Home Chicago,” now the de facto anthem of the city. “Sweet Home Chicago” isn’t actually about Chicago. It uses the name of the city figuratively. It has to be the most singable place name in American English: Chi-ca-go, those three syllables, each ending in a different vowel sound. It lends itself to varied interpretation.

More so than any place in America and perhaps even the world, Chicago was founded on the idea of a city; before it had developed a cultural life of its own, it was a word, a notion, and a destination, ballooning over the second half of the 19th century from a smallish midland settlement into what was then the fifth largest city in the world. It is a place that inspires ideals—from the Wobblies to the aesthetic of Afrofuturism, the Hull House to the tradition of philosophizing architects embodied by Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Frank Lloyd Wright. But how much of Chicago’s idealistic streak is a reaction to its cynical pragmatism? For as long as it has deserved to be called a city, Chicago has had problems with disenfranchisement, corruption, and crime—problems that seem like they were almost designed into the city. I’ll point out here that in his Whitman-esque poem “Chicago,” which is the source of the nickname “the City Of Big Shoulders,” Carl Sandburg also writes: “Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.” And this is the definitive celebration of the city.

It was Nelson Algren who mastered the art of making Chicago’s seediness sound like an exotic quality. He is best known for his novel The Man With The Golden Arm, which is set on that same mythologized stretch of Division Street that was home to Saul Bellow’s Russian bathhouse. Here, I’ll point out that Otto Preminger’s well-known 1955 film adaptation, starring Frank Sinatra as a heroin-addicted jazz drummer, was co-written by an uncredited Hecht, because everything somehow intersects in the novel of Chicago. It opens with a prowling long take down an evocative soundstage street that bears only a faint resemblance to the real city. It’s a Chicago of the imagination, but so are most. In his essay “Chicago: City On The Make,” published two years after The Man With The Golden Arm, Algren gave the city one of its most famous panegyrics: “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” Like so many Chicago transplants who came here in the mid-2000s to lead a quasi-bohemian existence, I have this passage memorized. But it did not occur to me until many years later to ask who broke the woman’s nose.
Iceberg Slim on the cover of his 1976 spoken-word album, Reflections.

The fact is that, while the crime and corruption provide links between Chicago’s countless neighborhoods, their effects have always been graded by skin color. I know of no black writer of the same periods who wrote of Chicago crime as a sign of its resilient spirit, as Sandburg did, or as an Algren-esque existential quality, the proof of its hustle—not even Iceberg Slim, who was second only to Ben Hecht in developing and popularizing the mythology of the street criminal. Slim—who was born Robert Maupin, but took Robert Beck as his legal name in middle age—had been a dapper pimp in the black underworld of Chicago and the upper Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s, until a breakdown in the Cook County Jail led him to retire. He had been known as Cavanaugh Slim. It was while working as an exterminator in Los Angeles that he wrote his autobiographical novel Pimp: The Story Of My Life, a bestseller that would come to define the voice of gritty urban pulp. Along with his subsequent crime novels and the follow-up memoir The Naked Soul Of Iceberg Slim: Robert Beck’s Real Story, it would exert a profound aesthetic and thematic influence on gangsta rap, blaxploitation films and black variations on noir (Bill Duke’s Deep Cover, for example), and the prose of a vast array of fiction writers, most notably Donald Goines and Irvine Welsh.

Slim was a complicated figure. Like Chester Himes, the godfather of black noir, and Ed Jones, the most powerful black kingpin of Slim’s early years in Chicago, he had a go at a respectable college education before lapsing into crime—though, admittedly, he already had a lengthy rap sheet by the time he arrived at Tuskegee, where he was a student around the same time as Ralph Ellison. As a prose writer, he was ecstatic and contradictory, the king of mixed metaphors, capable of lucidly deconstructing the misogyny and self-loathing of his criminal past one moment and juicing readers with lurid sexual exploits the next. Like Hecht, he sculpted the seductive aspect of Chicago crime—but in place of the classic gangster film’s anti-social pizzazz, what he presented was a cool, toughened nihilism. Perhaps Slim came to believe his own legend. After he found recognition as a writer, he adopted the public image of a wocka-wocka mid-1970s pimp, though his own heyday had been in the days of boogie-woogie and parted hair.

Indulge me now and take a moment to listen to “County Jail Blues,” a 1941 B-side by the Chicago blues pianist Big Maceo Merriweather. It’s an ageless song, and, in my opinion, one of the great overlooked blues recordings of the 1940s. The guitarist is Tampa Red, who played a gold-plated steel-body guitar that sounds remarkably like an electric. In its ideal form, blues is not glamorous music.

The cultural legacy of Chicago crime is really two stories, but they are intertwined. The first is a story of myths, plucked from the streets and alleys of the city and fermented in the popular imagination. The second is a complex narrative of devil’s bargains between art, business, political machinery, and crime. It stretches from the brothels of the early 20th century to the super-sized media conglomerates of the present day. Let me relate one small part of it.

The first black millionaires in America were probably policy kings, most likely in that densely populated area of the South Side that was then known as the Black Belt. Policy was an illegal lottery in which winning numbers were drawn from policy wheels (often rigged), which in Chicago bore such names as the Airplane, the Kentucky Derby, and the Prince Albert. It was a huge enterprise, with each wheel having its own drops, runners, and policy writers—not to mention a whole sub-industry of numerologists and hucksters who called themselves “policy professors” and hawked dream-based winning formulae in the ad pages of the Chicago Defender. If you want to try to get a sense of the spirit of the time, take a listen to “Four Eleven Forty-Four,” by Papa Charlie Jackson, the sardonic, banjo-playing chronicler of life in Chicago’s black neighborhoods in the 1920s and the first commercially successful self-accompanied blues musician; the title is the prototypical number combination, or gig, and a byword for policy itself.

The great policy kings are mostly forgotten now: Policy Sam, Mushmouth Johnson, Teenan Jones, Ed Jones (no relation) and his brothers, Dan Jackson, Teddy Roe. But their influence on the economic and political life of the city can’t be overstated. For the first half of the 20th century, the white powers that be considered them essential to the black vote in Chicago. When it comes to this city’s history, one should probably always think cynically and feudally: a community where the largest local employer, voter registration effort, charity, and source of capital is a single criminal racket is a corrupt administrator’s dream. Political machines gave policy kings leeway to keep them in power. During their reign, the center of black nightlife in Chicago was a section of the Bronzeville neighborhood known as “The Stroll.” How perfect is that, in a city where control is synonymous with directing movement?

The 1920s and ’30s were Chicago’s heyday as a center of jazz talent and innovation. One of the most important clubs of this era was the Grand Terrace, known in its early years as the Sunset Cafe. The building—originally a garage, and until recently a hardware store—still stands on 35th Street. This was where Louis Armstrong became a star with a teenage Cab Calloway as his master of ceremonies, where Nat King Cole got his first break, and where the trailblazing pianist and bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines had his 12-year residency, playing a piano bought for him by Al Capone. In the ’30s, the Grand Terrace had its own national radio show, broadcast live every night. Policy kings owned many popular clubs on The Stroll, including Palm Tavern (owned by Genial Jim Knight) and the Elite No. 2 (owned by Teenan Jones), which I’m almost certain inspired the similarly comical name of Scarface’s Paradise No. 2. But the most lucrative and glamorous spots were integrated black-and-tan clubs like the Grand Terrace and the Plantation, which was located across the street. Both were controlled by the Capone organization through Jewish associates.


Unlike the Outfit that succeeded him, Capone made a point of leaving the black syndicates alone. There were many reasons for this, including the fact that the mob and the policy kings were both colluding with the Republican political machine headed by Mayor William H. Thompson, a flagrantly corrupt figure who believed that the one true enemy of America was the British crown. But the one that matters here is the mob’s intended audience. The Grand Terrace attracted many wealthy black customers, from bona fide celebrities to local crime lords (Icerberg Slim’s mentor, “Baby” Bell, spent there lavishly), but it was designed to draw in white money. Anyone who wanted to make a career in Chicago had to play the mob’s segregated circuit. The white jazzmen (including such talents-in-training as Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman) mostly played whites-only venues, while the black jazzmen played black-and-tan clubs, where white musicians could sit and play if they wanted. The privilege did not go the other way around.

Thus, the mob invisibly controlled the direction of musical influence, as it did so many other things that may seem intangible. Its monopoly on early Chicago jazz had many consequences, one of which was an eventual exodus of talent, beginning with the great cornetist King Oliver, who led the band at the Plantation Café. Oliver was a true tragic figure; he gradually lost his teeth and the ability to play to severe gum disease, ended up working as a janitor in a pool hall, and died broke in a rooming house. In the mythology of jazz, his downfall into obscurity and fatal poverty is all the result of his refusal to take a lowball offer for a regular gig at the Cotton Club, which instead catapulted Duke Ellington to stardom. This is the thing to remember: Much of the formative 1930s period of jazz, a music with deep black roots, happened on terms set by white criminals. After the black-and-tan clubs went out of fashion toward the end of the 1930s, the Chicago mob got into coin-operated jukeboxes. Thankfully, they never developed an interest in blues.

Regardless of age or gender, Chicago will turn you into an old man giving directions. Every story reminds of another story, and a story of something that used to be there—because it’s really all one story. After the Outfit took control of policy and bolita, a similar numbers game popular in the city’s Latino neighborhoods, they became absorbed into the gambling and vice empire of the Rush Street crew, whose day-to-day manager went daily to Saul Bellow’s beloved Russian bathhouse on Division Street. The Grand Terrace, having finally gone out of business, became the headquarters of the Democratic congressman William L. Dawson. He was the black sub-boss of Chicago’s political machine, and, in theory, the most powerful black politician of the 1950s. He didn’t redecorate the Grand Terrace. It still had its big neon sign (with a smaller sign with his name added) and its Jazz Age murals and private upstairs clubrooms. The last regular bandleader at the Grand Terrace had been the jazz iconoclast Sun Ra, who was then just developing his sci-fi aesthetic in Chicago.

Dawson’s position within the political machine was a feudal lordship; it was dependent on his ability to bring out black voters en masse. The political machine, in turn, depended on segregation and on interchanges with the underworld. The link between the Outfit’s earlier inroads on The Stroll and the Democratic political machine’s command of the post-war black voting block was made literal and blatant by the continued use of the Grand Terrace. There, Dawson’s landlord was Joe Glaser, the manager of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and a longtime Outfit man. Glaser, who had an early history of walking away from sexual-assault charges, had been a boxing promoter who specialized in fixing fights for the mob and then a manager of black-and-tan clubs. After the repeal of Prohibition destroyed the Outfit’s stranglehold over Chicago liquor, he would rob delivery trucks to stock the bar of the Grand Terrace.

The management company Glaser created—and willed to the Outfit lawyer and power broker Sidney Korshak, unbeknownst to Armstrong—was funded by a loan from Jules Stein, an ophthalmologist, former bar mitzvah musician, and jazz booker for the Chicago mob circuit. Stein’s booking company was MCA, which started with speakeasies and black-and-tan clubs and became the largest talent agency in the world by the end of 1930s, all while being effectively controlled by the Capone organization. It acquired Universal Pictures, and expanded beyond talent management into film, television, music, and publishing. It kept its ties to the Outfit and carried over the city’s culture of patronage to Hollywood, where it encouraged the political ambitions of its client Ronald Reagan. At the start of this century, it merged with Vivendi to create NBCUniversal and Universal Music Group. This is the story of the Outfit controlling who worked in one building in Chicago. It’s a big city. There are many buildings.


If you are ever in Chicago, consider taking a drive through the city at night. Let the car rattle on the badly pockmarked streets. Your eyes will adjust to the amber sear of the General Electric Crimefighters and to that other feature of Chicago nighttimes, the blue flash of a police camera box. There are thousands mounted around the city. Turn down an alley and think of the fact that even in the earliest plat of Chicago, dating to the 1830s, there were plans for alleyways. Park the car, get out, and study how the dimensions and alignment of the streets and sidewalks affect your movements. Don’t think of crime as troglofauna, pale and eyeless, evolving in the dank corners of the city. In Chicago, crime moves, often along currents defined by earlier forms of crime. It’s structural.

Given that they have brought Chicago its most sensationalized coverage since the days of Al Capone, it seems interesting that there have been no real fiction films about the street gangs. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq doesn’t count. Its portrayal of Chicago’s gangland is pure fantasy, influenced by the mythology of gangsta rap—which is to say, indirectly indebted to Iceberg Slim. Even in fiction, the city can’t escape the myths it inspires. You could say that about drill, our distinctive midtempo flavor of nihilistic trap rap. Drill tends to be oversimplified as the authentic sound of modern Chicago crime, which is how it sells itself, existing as it does in a complicated relationship with the histories and ongoing conflicts of Chicago’s drug gangs, grouped in the increasingly meaningless six-pointed-star Folk and five-pointed-star People alliances.

Really, drill is internet music. It owes its local significance, popularity, and very existence to limitless digital space and social media. Drill is the dizzying, exhaustive braggadocio of Montana Of 300’s “Holy Ghost”; the squishy nausea of Lil Durk’s “Glock Up”; and the hammering of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like”; but it is also a thousand guys who can’t rap boasting about the same shit over $50 beats while hustling for Instagram followers and YouTube views. Quality drill albums are nonexistent, and consistent drill mixtapes are rare as hen’s teeth; the ratio of filler to killer is notoriously poor. The mise-en-scène is remarkably consistent from video to video: guns; unimpressive cars; alleys, gangways, and iron gates; ugly weather; those hideous kitchen cabinets that seem to have been installed in every Chicago apartment, regardless of neighborhood. But cheapness and a lack of inspiration are part of the authenticity factor, because drill is immediate. It’s also on the outs, having never crossed over the way that the Savemoney scene made famous by Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa has.

Nowadays, Chicago crime is defined by the street sets, mostly black or Latino, related by business and varying adherence to the mythology of the gang, prone to violent infighting and splintering. What makes this underworld special is that most of its artistic record is self-produced. These are the patch-sewn cardigans and calling cards of the old-school 1970s street gangs; the outsider literature of the Gangster Disciples’ manuals, more cultish than criminal; the hieroglyphic symbolism of the gang tags that cover Chicago’s alley-facing garage doors; meandering amateur movies in which people pretend to shoot each other with real guns; drill. Despite the early ambitions of the Vice Lords and the Latin Kings organizations, the street gangs have only ever been politically useful as bogeymen. By most estimates, there are around 100,000 street gang members in Chicago, divided into about 60 organizations that are in turn split into about 700 groups. Not every Chicago gang is a violent criminal enterprise, but the majority of murders in Chicago are gang-related, and most of them go unsolved.

There is nothing transgressive about our gangs. Chicago is a place where one can always map the relationship between the criminal and the city. It taught the world that the street criminal could be a charismatic figure and inspired a mythic bestiary of genre archetypes: the terse Mann-ian professional facing obsolescence; the mobster gunning for the throne of the city; the nihilist pimp who knows it’s all part of the game; the folk-hero bank-robber shot by lawmen in the back; the corrupt and colorful wheeler-dealer. But the street gangs can’t be understood on those terms. To an outsider, their public beefs can sound like the sectarian conflicts of a post-apocalyptic religion; witness the bloody feud between the Bang Bang Gang Terror Dome subset of the Black P. Stones and the New Money Killaward subset of the Gangster Disciples, which in 2015 caught the attention of a city otherwise desensitized to the idea of gangland murders.
Screenshot: Candyman

The ongoing social tragedy of murder in Chicago isn’t that there are so many (there are a lot, but it’s never ranked among the top American cities in that respect), but that they are so similar, the same m.o. repeated over and over again. It can reach the point where you almost trick yourself into thinking of the urban gangland as an organism or serial-killer hive mind. But it isn’t. The foibles of the street gangs are very human. And, though we don’t like do admit it, they are relatable.

The French novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette liked to call crime fiction “the great moral literature of our time,” a statement I sometimes find myself agreeing with. There is no more efficient way of putting a character in a moral and existential crisis than a crime, and it is a dark truth of every developed society that, regardless of circumstances, we are all capable of committing a heinous crime. The question of why some do while most don’t directly addresses an important piece of the human puzzle. But in this chapter of the ongoing story of sin in Chicago—the story as told in film, in music, in the media—crime has become a setting, a fact of the neighborhoods, not a question of personalities. No documentary about the day-to-day lives of street gangs (and there are a lot of them, made mostly for TV) has had the wider appeal of Steve James’ Hoop Dreams or The Interrupters—though, of course, none of them are as well made. This is a net positive.But let me posit something that may seem counterintuitive. It isn’t a plea for a return to romanticized crime, though I do think that the forbidden lure of the illegal and immoral can be subverted in powerful ways; it’s something many of the great crime narratives do. But I do think that the art that most cogently addresses crime—whether as a real-world social issue or as an existential state—is art about criminals, because it puts its audience in a compromised spot. There is something of a moral duty to resist the othering of crime. When we begin to think of gangs exclusively as a social phenomenon, instead of as people in groups, we dehumanize not just the gangs, but the people they exploit and victimize, a category that includes the gangs themselves.

One of the more often cited example of this is the 1992 horror film Candyman, which places a supernatural threat within the crime-infested projects. (If you have the time, I recommend watching our short video documentary on the film.) It’s set in Cabrini-Green, which was then the most notorious housing project in Chicago; it was also the home of one of the subjects of Hoop Dreams, the setting of the ’70s sitcom Good Times, and the subject of several documentaries of its own. Candyman is a film that raises some interesting ideas early on, but waffles on them. In the end, it falls back on that all-too-popular image of the urban gangland as a monster, a variant of what one might call the second curse of Chicago—the idea of the city itself as an abstract threat. But it’s always people. Cabrini-Green is gone now, long demolished. In Chicago, it was symbolic of controlled disenfranchisement: a 15,000-person enclave of poverty in an affluent area. The street that ran directly down the middle of the complex—well, you can probably already guess this one. It was Division.

Thanks to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.


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