This is one of two related posts I am posting back to back
|At top Rodriguez and Lewellen bottom Margrito and Pedro Flores|
Final round: Cartel twins vs. cop-backed kidnapper
By Kim Janssen and Frank Main
To Pedro Flores, the two men who pulled him over had looked like cops.
But moments later, face down in the back of a windowless van, his hands and feet zip-tied, Flores realized he’d been duped.
At 22, he had been quietly working with his twin brother, Margarito, to create the most successful drug-dealing partnership in Chicago’s history.
Now, hog-tied, his diamond-studded cellphone out of reach, Flores was powerless.
All he could do was whisper a prayer.
“Don’t worry,” one of his captors told him. “Once we get the money, we’re going to cut you loose.”
The Flores twins would come to believe a man they thought was their friend, Saul Rodriguez, was behind the kidnapping. They had known Rodriguez for a few years, and at the time of the kidnapping, as Pedro Flores rode to his uncertain fate, they had plans to go with Rodriguez to Las Vegas to see a welterweight title match. Rodriguez arranged the tickets.
The twins and Rodriguez were all big-time drug dealers, but the similarities ended there. While the twins were loath to resort to violence, Rodriguez reveled in it, according to a Sun-Times review of court records and interviews with law enforcement and underworld figures.
At the time, the kidnapping in September 2003 might have seemed like Rodriguez’s knockout blow to the twins. But 11 years after Pedro Flores was snatched from an alley behind his family’s Southwest Side home, he and his brother appear to have been playing a longer, smarter game: rope-a-dope.
On Friday when Rodriguez faces sentencing in Chicago for a career of killings, home invasions and drug trafficking, a federal judge will pass final judgment on the twins’ and Rodriguez’s contrasting routes to the top of Chicago’s underworld.
Set them up or rip them off
Rodriguez grew up on the South Side where he ran with a street gang called La Raza. By the time Pedro Flores was kidnapped, Rodriguez had organized several kidnappings and personally participated in the abduction, torture and murder of another drug dealer.
If he wasn't ripping off his rivals, he was setting them up.
He had a sweet deal with the cops. Rodriguez not only sold his own large amounts of heroin and cocaine. When he tipped the Chicago Police off to his rivals’ stashes, he also got paid for every kilo the cops recovered.
In the four years leading up to 2000, Rodriguez netted $800,000 in fees for his police tips — a figure that likely made him the department’s highest-paid employee.
His handler, narcotics Officer Glenn Lewellen, became his partner in crime, tipping him off about police operations and using his badge to carry out kidnappings at Rodriguez’s behest.
Emboldened by the police protection, Rodriguez became a boxing promoter and branched into real estate, building a strip of town homes in the Brighton Park neighborhood and investing in a Nevada golf course development.
But he took wild risks. A notorious womanizer, he slept with his flunkies’ wives and regularly partied in Vegas, where he laundered money and had all the perks of a high roller.
Nobody around him was safe. He had his best friend killed. Even a pal whom he’d once helped escape from a Mexican prison, then set up in the drug business, became a target.
Extravagance and restraint
If experience had taught Rodriguez that violence and double-crossing provided big rewards, it taught the Flores twins something else.
From a young age, they were groomed for a life amid drug world royalty.
When they were just 8, the twins rode with their father as he drove from Mexico to Chicago in a vehicle packed with marijuana.
Their dad went to prison and their older brother, Armando, took over the family business. Then he got in trouble with the law, too, so the twins learned the value of discretion.
They started out as customers of Rodriguez, purchasing 15 to 20 kilos at a time. But through their father, they had a link directly to the Mexican cartels. Soon, the amounts of marijuana, cocaine and heroin they would be moving would dwarf anything Rodriguez had ever seen.
Before they turned 25, they controlled the Sinaloa cartel’s distribution network across the Midwest and into Canada, moving an estimated $1.8 billion in drugs through Chicago.
With the near-monopoly of Chicago’s drug supply came riches and toys: custom chopper motorcycles, Lexuses and Bentleys, and their own real estate empire.
With that typical, drug-dealer extravagance, though, came some uncommon restraint.
Where lesser dealers might have settled unpaid debts with bullets, the Flores twins simply cut bad debtors off to avoid police attention.
“They did not cut off fingers to teach people about paying,” said a source intimately familiar with the brothers’ methods.
But that restraint would turn into a reputation for weakness that Rodriguez would exploit.
“I know people who were terrified of Rodriguez. His reputation was a no-nonsense, trigger-happy kind of dude,” said attorney Joseph “The Shark” Lopez, who has represented dozens of players in Chicago’s drug world.
“The Flores brothers were just drug dealers, gentlemen drug dealers. They were afraid of him.”
The Wrecking Crew
Rodriguez met the twins in the early 2000s at Hoops, a basketball gym on the Near West Side. After three years of friendship, he was ready to pounce.
He assembled a crew out of central casting.
In addition to the crooked cop, Lewellen, there was a suburban mom whose day job was driving an ambulance but who also acted as a drug courier and once arranged the kidnapping of her own grandmother.
She cashed in on the kidnapping twice. After family members paid the ransom, the woman comforted her unwitting grandmother, telling her grandmother that she had paid the ransom herself and would need to be repaid.
Rodriguez’s muscle came from the “Wrecking Crew,” three oversized brothers named Manny, Hector and Jorge Uriarte. Rounding up the bunch was Fares Umar, a heavy-set thug who hosted the crew at his Al Capone-themed wedding.
The crew had been watching the twins’ daily routines for some time when, in the summer of 2003, one of the twins’ associates tipped Rodriguez about their movements.
The plan was for Umar and Lewellen to disguise themselves as undercover cops, riding in a green Ford Crown Victoria they had tricked out with lights and sirens.
It worked perfectly. When Pedro pulled up to the three-flat where he lived with his brother near Archer and Keeler he spotted the fake cop car, did a U-turn and parked in an alley. Moments later — after Pedro’s brother and a pal left on motorcycles — Lewellen and Umar pulled up in the Crown Vic, frisked Pedro and tossed him into a panel van, which headed to a home in west suburban Burbank, owned by one of the crew members.
At the home, the crew tied the blindfolded Pedro to a chair in the basement and kept him there for 24 hours.
A pet parrot, trained by the kidnappers, kept him company.
“F— you,” the parrot squawked.
Rodriguez came by but was discrete, since he feared Pedro Flores could identify him. He left the negotiations to his crew, who reassured Flores he’d be OK if his brother came through with the ransom: 100 kilos of cocaine, worth at least $1.5 million.
At first, Margarito Flores did not come through. Threatened with the murder of his twin, Margarito showed cold-blooded detachment by trying to cheat the kidnappers with a load of weak cocaine.
Only after a furious Pedro Flores called his brother, reminding him his life was on the line, did Margarito make good on the ransom, and Pedro was freed.
Just a couple of months later, the twins traveled to Las Vegas to see Oscar De La Hoya fight Shane Mosley at the MGM Grand. Rodriguez had arranged for their tickets and hotel.
Though the twins suspected Rodriguez, they said nothing when they partied with him at a nightclub after the fight.
When Margarito Flores lost money at the gambling tables, Rodriguez was only too happy to lend him a big wad of cash.
It all comes crashing down
And that, for a few years, was that.
If the kidnapping was not forgotten, it became a footnote, just one in a series of wild escapades that would mark a dizzy five-year spell of excess for Rodriguez and the Flores twins.
By the time they were federally indicted in Milwaukee in 2005, the twins had already fled to Mexico. They grew their empire in exile, gaining in stature after they enjoyed personal audiences with the boss of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman himself.
Flown into meetings at El Chapo’s secret mountain-top lair, the twins secured the rights to distribute cocaine by the ton through Chicago.
Back in Chicago, Rodriguez was still playing a lower-level game. His crew eventually ripped off at least 29 other dealers.
In one particularly ruthless turn, a cartel hired Rodriguez to investigate a robbery, not knowing Rodriguez had done it himself. Rodriguez happily found an innocent “suspect” to torture.
Rodriguez wasn’t finished with the Flores twins, either. While they were in hiding in Mexico, he kidnapped their top courier and stole $4 million more. When Rodriguez’s crew members found hidden loot at a Flores stash house, they shouted “Bingo!”
Then it all came crashing down.
Rodriguez’s crew was busted in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting, when they were robbing a Joliet-area warehouse that Rodriguez believed was loaded with the twins’ drugs, sources say.
The Flores twins’ run came to an end when they found themselves caught in the middle of a deadly cartel war between El Chapo and a rival boss they’d also dealt with.
Calculating to the end, at the height of their power, the twins made a business decision to turn themselves in, taking the monumental decision to become the biggest drug snitches in U.S. history.
The twins had much to offer.
They risked their lives recording cartel leaders in incriminating conversations. And they taped El Chapo in a phone call that tied him to a heroin deal on Chicago’s West Side. Dozens of indictments flowed from their cooperation.
The feds rewarded them with a blockbuster deal. Their family was placed in witness protection, and the twins, who were sentenced to just 14 years in prison earlier this year, will likely be free by the time they are 41 years old — and may have millions of dollars in hidden drug money waiting.
“Everyone in the city thinks you have money,” the judge who sentenced them acknowledged.
Rodriguez, by contrast, had little to give.
He, too, cut a deal with prosecutors. But all he could offer was his testimony against Lewellen, the corrupt cop, and a handful of lesser dealers.
So following his capture, he tried one last trick. Incarcerated at the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center in 2008, he managed to get himself appointed as an orderly in the segregated housing unit. Inside the unit, held in solitary confinement, was one of the cartel bosses the Flores twins had secretly recorded.
The boss, Vicente Zambada Niebla — the playboy son of El Chapo’s second in command — wanted the twins dead, and was prepared to pay for information. Rodriguez told what he knew, sharing the intel that helped his crew kidnap Pedro Flores all those years ago.
Zambada paid Rodriguez’s lawyer $6,000. But Rodriguez’s involvement with the cartel chief ended up costing him far more. When the feds discovered what Rodriguez had done, they tore up his original deal, and are now asking that he get 40 years behind bars on Friday.
If U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall agrees, the Flores brothers will have prevailed — even though they had endured blow after blow from Rodriguez.
As any Vegas odds maker can tell you: There’s only one winner in a fight between a brawler and a boxer with a plan.
To read additional posts in greater detail about this case, below are 3 posted on BB from 2012