Illustrations by Dave van Patten

This Is What ‘Narcos’ Is Like in Real Life

At least when it comes to dealing coke in Chicago for El Chapo

I’m standing in front of the L stop in Little Village on Chicago’s Southwest Side. An outdated billboard hangs overhead that promotes a fight from a few years back: Adrian “El Tigre” Granados vs. Antonio “The Aztec God of War” Canas, two Mexican boxers from different parts of town. Nerves bite at my shoulders, just like they did 10 years ago when I would wait here for my connect to take me back to his house to receive my next ounce of coke.

I started selling coke for Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and his Sinaloa Cartel in the mid-2000s. I’d recently lost my job and was paying too much rent and ignoring too many unpaid parking tickets. After a Saturday training session at the Windy City Gym, one of my sparring partners invited me to watch that night’s Oscar De La Hoya-Bernard Hopkins fight in his cousin’s backyard in Little Village. The price of admission was a case of beer. When I got there, Latin Kings filled the entire yard. They asked about my boxing career, and eventually, they asked if I wanted a bump.

I’d done a few lines of coke before. It kept the party going, but it mainly made me sick as hell the next day. The Kings, however, had uncut coke that lit up my mind like I’d been caught with a hard jab to the chin. My nose, teeth and lips went numb, and despite the fact that it was 2 a.m., I was ready to stay out until 2 p.m. the next day. Afterward, the Kings asked if I thought any of my friends on the North Side might like it. I told them absolutely, and they gave me a job: They would front me an ounce (or more) of near-pure cocaine — roughly $3,000 worth — and I’d sell it on consignment until it was all gone. Then I would go back and pick up another ounce or so.

But now I was reformed. No more boxing. No more coke. Just memories — the very thing that brought me back here in the first place. The world that I knew and that had helped pay my bills for a few years had completely changed. “The Twin,” the nickname for the two brothers who ran El Chapo’s U.S. distribution network and the bosses of my bosses, had turned federal witnesses, which, in turn, had brought down the cartel and set off a huge spike of violence in Chicago. I was curious about how it all played out, and filled with guilt about how I had contributed to everything that had happened since.

And so, I called my old connect Guapo, who was now on his way to meet me with his brother Wizzo. As high-ranking Latin Kings, Guapo and Wizzo protected Little Village from the Kings’ main rival gang, the Gangster Two-Six (aka the Bunnies). They also grew up a few blocks from the Twin and dealt and transported large quantities of Sinaloa Cartel cocaine for more than a decade, often buying bulk directly from the Twin and other affiliates of the cartel.

“Look at this motherfucker!” Guapo yells at me from the passenger window of his black ’06 Hummer before turning to Wizzo in the driver’s seat. “He looks all normal and shit! Remember how crazy his hair used to be? He looks like a fucking professor or some shit now.”

“That’s good,” I tell him while hopping into the back seat. “Because I’m trying to get a job as one.”

“A lotta shit’s changed huh, Butchy?”

Almost immediately, we start talking about the Twin — Pedro and Margarito Flores. Their father, Margarito Sr., had longtime connections to the Sinaloa Cartel. He saw potential in his sons and decided to bring them to meet his old friend El Chapo, who was looking for a new head of distribution in the U.S. The Twin rose through the ranks because they were smart guys who kept their mouths shut and were major moneymakers — at least until they decided to become government informants.

“They’re definitely not Kings anymore,” Guapo tells me. “Once you snitch, you out. But they hadn’t been acting like Kings for a long time anyway. Once they got some power and money, it was more about being millionaires than gangbanging. They used to show up at the cheapest bar in the neighborhood in matching Corvettes. Since they snitched, though, their dad went down to Sinaloa never to be seen again. They say maybe he sacrificed himself so they wouldn’t kill the whole family.”

“Did the Twin kill a lot of guys over the years?” I ask.

“Yeah, drive-bys and typical stuff like that. If you a King, you gotta shoot. But once you get up there, you try to stay away from trouble and have people do the bad work for you.”

The Twin ran their distribution network primarily by truck. A middleman would approach a driver and ask if they wanted to make some extra money. They also told them that if they ever got caught, they’d pay their bail and give them $80,000 to either flee to Mexico or cover their legal fees. “So most of the drivers were paisas, a typical Mexican guy that isn’t gang-affiliated,” Guapo explains. “He’s just someone who came from Mexico trying to make a life over here by driving a truck.”

“They didn’t peer pressure anybody to do it or keep doing it either,” Guapo adds. “A lot of people say once you do it, you get sucked into it for life. But it wasn’t like that. If you did a run, you could do just that one run and that was it. Make your money and stop.”

As we cruise down 26th Street, a few teenagers smile and throw up the Crown at us — the Latin Kings’ hand sign. Guapo playfully throws up the Bunny, the sign of Gangster Two-Six. Everyone smiles because they know Guapo’s true affiliation.

“I remember when your other brother drove 24 kilos from Chicago to New York,” I tell Guapo. “How did payment for all that work?” (Twenty-four kilos of uncut coke holds a street value of anywhere between $2.4 million to $4.8 million.)

“Ha ha,” Guapo laughs. “Yeah, he packed ’em all in a big diaper box, taped it up and drove with it sitting right next to him in the cab. He probably got paid with some of that coke, too. Because back then, if they wanted you to move 25 kilos, you’d say, ‘Okay, I’ll drive 25 and keep one for myself.’ You could do whatever you wanted with that key — sell it, snort it, break it, whatever.”

That explained why the coke I got from Guapo was so good. When you buy it lower down the dealer food chain, it’s degraded by how many times it has already been cut. Not Guapo’s coke, though. His was super shiny and layered perfectly. “When they’re making up the key [kilo], they press layer after layer on top of it,” Guapo explains. “It gets so compressed that when you break it up, all you see are these layers of thin shiny stuff, which are called fish scales because they look like actual fish scales.”

Wizzo comes to a stop in front of a beefy cop eating a taco on the sidewalk. Guapo rolls down his window: “Good afternoon, Officer Ed.”

Officer Ed grins, his face full of tacos, and flicks off Guapo with his free hand.

“He used to be all over us, busting us for any little thing — rolling a stop sign, no blinker, looking at him funny,” Guapo tells me before Wizzo interrupts him.

“Yeah, the cops used to be all over us, but now, they don’t bother us at all.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Laquan McDonald,” answers Guapo. “That cop smoked him five blocks away. They’re under investigation.”

Wizzo cuts him off again: “They don’t want to lose their jobs so they aren’t pressin’ us no more.”

“What else has changed?”

“First of all, there isn’t a lot of product out there,” Guapo says. “There’s about a tenth of what there used to be. Prices have doubled. It’s hard to get a hold of anything. If anybody’s got even one key, they won’t sell it to you — even in a quarter or a half. They’ll try to cut it down as much as they can and sell it in smaller amounts so they can get the most money out of it ’cause it’s so hard to get a hold of anything.”

“Is that also why the violence has gotten so intense?”

“The fighting always has been there, but now that there’s less coke, you need more area to sell to. So everybody wants more land. Plus, people just rob each other for coke now. If they aren’t a close friend of yours, they’ll shoot you and take your coke. That shit has spiked. Dealers are desperate. And the cops, like I said, aren’t on us like they used to be.”

Wizzo’s phone rings. He answers it, listens for a moment and then hangs up. “The Bunnies are creeping,” he tells us.

A series of gunshots go off in the distance. Wizzo’s phone rings a second time. “Bunnies just lit up Murder City,” he explains while speeding south in the direction of the shots.

We turn onto 28th Street and slow near a corner where a group of people have gathered. A woman crouches over a young Latin King who looks no older than 14. His pant leg is wet with blood, and he’s trembling in shock. The woman is applying pressure to his thigh.

“It’s my little cousin,” a 30-something guy says, his body trembling with rage under his factory uniform.

Marked and unmarked squad cars approach the scene from all directions.

“You see who shot him?” Guapo asks.

“Yeah.”

Guapo turns to me and says, “One more murder coming tonight. We don’t just shoot you; we make sure you don’t make it.”

We get back in the car and drive back toward the L as Guapo and Wizzo field phone calls. Suddenly groups of nervous Kings stand guard on every corner. After a quick goodbye, I soar back home on Pink Line. I don’t have an ounce of coke like before, but I feel as guilty as ever.

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