CHICAGO — In the underworld of illegal drug trafficking, identical twins Pedro and Margarito Flores rose from middling Chicago dealers to partners of Mexico's most notorious cartel lord, eventually building a nearly $2 billion franchise that spanned much of North America.
Anyone convicted of trafficking a fraction as much cocaine and heroin could normally expect a life sentence. But the twins can enter their sentencing hearing Tuesday confident of receiving far less. Because they spilled secrets that led to the indictments of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, a half-dozen of his lieutenants and about 40 lower-level traffickers, prosecutors are asking for a remarkably lenient term — around 10 years.
If credited for six years in protective custody, the pair could go free within a few years.
Guzman "ran the one of the biggest trafficking organizations in the last 100 years, and these brothers were crucial in helping to bring him and his people to justice," said Jack Riley, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Chicago and now the agency's No. 3 in Washington. "I don't think you can get bigger than that."
Details of the twins' story have been kept under seal for years, but recently opened federal government files, and an Associated Press review of documents in related cases, have lifted some of the secrecy surrounding the two, offering a fuller narrative of their journey from flamboyant teen traffickers to associates of Guzman, who was captured last year by Mexican authorities.
American authorities portray the twins as among the most valuable drug traffickers who ever became informants. Chicago criminal lawyer Joe Lopez, who represented several clients indicted on evidence from the twins, put it more starkly: "They're some of the most significant rats in U.S. history."
Drug-world figures weighed in on their importance, too, in their own way. After word spread in mid-2009 that the twins had turned informants, their father was kidnapped, according to government documents. A note left for the twins on the windshield of his abandoned car read, "Shut up or we are going to send you his head." He is presumed dead.
Prosecutors cited his death and the fact that the twins — as well as their mother, wives and children — will live in fear for the rest of their lives as one reason for leniency. They also want to use the lighter sentence as an enticement to urge other cartel associates to cooperate.
The threat of retaliation by cartel members looms over the case. Since becoming informants, the 33-year-old siblings have never appeared in public. Because of the constant danger, the name of their defense attorney has also been kept secret. And it's unclear how the brothers will be protected in prison or after their release.
The speed with which the 5-foot-4 twins ascended the drug-world hierarchy had something to do with location. Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, where they grew up, is surrounded by major rail lines and highways. It's an aspiring trafficker's dream — a transportation hub within a city that's a transportation hub to the nation.
As dealers in their teens, they had a reputation for being flashy but savvy, said Lopez, who had some clients from the same neighborhood. The twins' fondness for bling was illustrated by a list of items agents said they would forfeit. It included more than $400,000 in jewelry.
Only after the brothers fled Chicago around 2004 for Mexico, apparently fearing arrest following their indictment in Milwaukee, did their trafficking careers soar.
It's not clear how they first made contact with the Sinaloa cartel, but by mid-2005 they were summoned by Guzman himself, according to government filings. Flown to an airstrip in Sinaloa, they were taken to a secret mountain compound to hammer out drug deals with the kingpin.
From 2004 on, prosecutors say, the brothers ran their entire U.S. operation from a Mexican ranch, issuing orders by phone. Their network stretched to from New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles and Vancouver, Canada.
Strict rules governed the drug shipments. Guzman's people got the drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border — sometimes via tunnels — and were responsible until the packages were transferred to Flores associates in the U.S. If the drugs were lost somewhere between that point and Chicago, the brothers would be on the hook for the full cost.
Court documents say the twins approached U.S. authorities on their own in the summer of 2008, offering to cooperate. The papers do not explain why, though it happened during bloody conflicts between cartels, and the twins may have feared they would soon fall victim.
Still, they continued to do business with the cartel, now with the aim of gathering evidence.
According to court documents, they met Guzman again in his mountain compound in October 2008, when he made an ominous request of Margarito Flores: Could he obtain rocket and grenade launchers? They would use them, he was told, to attack a U.S. or Mexican government office to send the message that cartel suspects were not to be extradited.
The pressure on the twins was building.
Then something triggered U.S. agents' concern. On Nov. 30, 2008, they gave the brothers two hours' notice to get out of Mexico. They flew to Chicago with little but the clothing they wore.
But the brothers' scheming did not stop immediately.
In Chicago, the two sought to squirrel away millions in ill-gotten gains, toying with the idea of burying some of the money, filings say. While in custody, they also managed to purchase a $100,000 Bentley as a gift for Pedro's wife. They had to give it up when agents learned what they had done.