Pedro and Margarito Flores
  • US Marshals Service/AP
  • Pedro and Margarito Flores

This post has been updated with additional information.

By 2008, after a decade in the drug trade, Pedro and Margarito Flores were at the height of their business, moving as much as 2,000 kilos of coke and additional quantities of heroin through Chicago each month.

But that spring, they decided to start cooperating with U.S. authorities. Over the next seven years, their assistance helped authorities penetrate the highest levels of the Sinaloa cartel, described by authorities as one of the most profitable and dangerous criminal organizations in the world.

They recorded its leader, Joaquin Guzman Loera, known as “El Chapo”, conducting international drug transactions. And they provided information that led to drug seizures, arrests, and the indictments of dozens of alleged cartel leaders and business associates, many of whom are now in custody.

For their help, the twins received 14 year prison sentences Tuesday from federal judge Ruben Castillo, far less than the life terms they faced for the scale of their drug trafficking.

But the judge noted that the twins, now 33, were essentially getting life sentences anyway, since they’ll live under the threat of retaliation long after their prison terms are over. “Every time you turn the ignition in a car, you’re going to be wondering, ‘Is that car going to start or is it going to explode?'”

The brothers are short and stocky, and they had identical short haircuts and tan prison jumpsuits for what was their first appearance in public since being taken into custody more than six years ago.

Given the chance to address the judge, both brothers apologized for their time as drug traffickers. “I’m ashamed, I’m embarrassed, I’m regretful,” said Margarito Flores, his voice cracking. “I’ve put my family in harm’s way and I’ll never forgive myself.”

Their case was so high profile—and the cartel figures they betrayed are deemed so dangerous—that an extra metal detector and security search was set up immediately outside the courtroom. Federal officials also took the highly unusual step of asking the media not to reveal the names of the brothers’ defense attorneys.

Officials have not revealed where the brothers have been detained, where they’ll serve the rest of their sentences, or what steps will be taken to protect them when they’re released.

But they describe the brothers’ cooperation as “historic” and “unprecedented,” offering a glimpse of the way international drug trafficking organizations have created distribution networks in cities and towns around the country.

The Flores twins admitted that they moved at least 60 tons of cocaine and countless kilograms of heroin through Chicago between 2005 and 2008.

They acquired their product in Mexico from the Sinaloa cartel, which they said used planes, trains, trucks, and even submarines to transport the cocaine from Colombia. The brothers arranged to transport the cocaine, along with heroin and marijuana, into Chicago by train or truck, stashing it in secret compartments or under other imported goods. From their hub in Chicago they distributed the drugs to customers in cities from New York to Vancouver.

Their proceeds were astonishing: at least $1 billion in four years.

“Their organization was simply the largest known criminal enterprise in the history of this city,” federal prosecutor Michael Ferrara said in court Tuesday. “The cartel simply did not expect them to be anything other than the cash cow outlet they had been for years.”

But for reasons that neither the twins nor federal officials have explained, the brothers began cooperating with authorities in the spring of 2008. Over the next few months, they recorded more than 70 calls with alleged cartel operatives, including two in which Guzman himself helped negotiate heroin prices and a 20 kilogram shipment to Chicago.

That fall the brothers also worked with an alleged Guzman lieutenant to ship 276 kilos of coke to the city. Their secret recordings eventually helped the feds nab the cartel coordinator, but the cocaine was sold, and the Flores brothers later admitted that they continued to collect millions of dollars in profits.

By November 2008, things were getting dangerous. The brothers turned themselves over to federal custody and family members were moved out of Mexico. In April 2009 the feds indicted Guzman and other cartel operatives based largely on recordings and testimony from the Flores brothers.

It was clear to the cartel what was going on. When the Flores brother’s father brushed off warnings and went back to Mexico, he was kidnapped and never seen again. “A note left at the scene of the kidnapping made explicit that the father was taken as a direct consequence of the Flores brothers’ cooperation,” prosecutors said in a recent court filing.

Prosecutors cited the abduction as an example of the risk the brothers had taken when they decided to cooperate. For that reason, they argued that the twins should get no more than 16 years in prison.

Castillo admitted that he was of two minds. Based on the massive volume of drugs they’d distributed, a life sentence was warranted.

But he acknowledged that the twins’ cooperation was unique and historic, and he wanted to send a message to other traffickers that they too could change directions. He concluded that 14 years was fair.

The judge also expressed his weariness with both the war on drugs and Americans’ unending demand for them. “I could take myself back to 1987 and the sad truth is that nothing has really changed,” he said. “It just goes on and on and on.”

After the court proceedings were over, federal authorities announced a new round of indictments of Sinaloa cartel leaders, including two sons of Guzman’s. U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon said it would not have been possible without the cooperation of the Flores brothers.