CHICAGO — A federal judge sentenced twin brothers Tuesday to 14 years in prison each for running a nearly $2 billion North American drug ring, agreeing with prosecutors to drastically reduce their sentences as reward for their cooperation against Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and other Mexican cartel leaders.
Pedro and Margarito Flores, 33, were portrayed by prosecutors as among the most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in history. With credit for the time served awaiting sentencing and for good behavior in prison, the brothers could be out in as little as six years.
Security at sentencing in U.S. District Court in Chicago was tighter than usual, with extra security checks outside courtroom doors and a bomb-sniffing dog sweeping for explosives. To protect them, neither of the twins' attorneys was named in court.
Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo said the twins brought "devastation" to the country.
"But for your cooperation, you'd be leaving here with life sentences," he said. He likened Americans' sense of security to walls, telling the twins, "You devastated those walls, you knocked them down."
Castillo did say the brothers would be looking over their shoulders the rest of their lives — in prison and out — in fear that a cartel assassin was near.
"Even though I am not going to sentence you to life, you are leaving here with a life sentence," he told them. "Each time you start your car (when you are out of prison), you are going to be wondering, is it going to start, or will it explode."
The Flores twins, wearing olive-green clothes and with closely cropped haircuts, sat at a defense table, both of them tapping one foot nervously. Just before the judge imposed a sentence, each walked to a podium separately to speak.
"I'm ashamed, I'm embarrassed, I'm regretful," Margarito Flores said. "There is no excuse."
Pedro's voice appeared to break as he apologized.
"I wanted to thank the United States (and federal agents) ... for allowing the opportunity not to spend my life in prison," he said.
For security reasons, the brothers had pleaded guilty to a count of drug conspiracy behind closed doors at a 2012 hearing. Tuesday was their first public appearance since they began to spill their secrets six years ago.
Prosecutor Mike Ferrara had asked for a sentence of around 10 and no more than 16 years. He noted that the twins' cooperation led to indictments of Guzman and 50 others, and they had reached out to federal agents while "at the very top" of one "of the most dangerous cartels on earth."
The twins began cooperating with agents in 2008 and engaged cartel leaders for months, sometimes switching on recorders and shoving them in their pockets to gather evidence. They continually faced the prospect of death, Ferrara said.
The brothers' father, Margarito Flores Sr., is presumed to have paid for their cooperation with his life. He was kidnapped in Mexico as word spread of his sons' cooperation, according to government documents.
The 5-foot-4 twins initially put together a less-ambitious trafficking operation, but their trafficking careers soared after they left Chicago to live in Mexico around 2004. In mid-2005, they met with Guzman in his secret mountain compound to cut major drug deals, government filings said.
The brothers ran their operation from a Mexican ranch. Their network stretched from its Chicago hub to New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and to Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Castillo pointed at the brothers' success in the drug world, saying they displayed skilled that could have made them successful in legal careers.
"There are a lot of things you are, but stupid is not one of them," he said.