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From Mexico To Midwest, A Visit To El Chapo's Chicago

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Recently arrested Mexican crime lord "El Chapo" Guzman left one of his deadliest marks on Chicago. As Patrick Smith of WBEZ reports, the city is a major hub for his drug distribution network.


It's a very different story in Chicago where Joaquin Guzman made life remarkably less safe, dominating the city's heroin trade. In fact, Chicago served as the Midwestern hub for his cartel.

Patrick Smith, of member station WBEZ, reports on what Guzman's arrest means for the drug war there.

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: To get a sense of just how deeply El Chapo Guzman is connected here, it might be best to look to the quiet neighborhoods on the edges of the city's southwest side. According to authorities, it is there, unknown by neighbors, that Guzman's Sinaloa cartel stores huge quantities of heroin and other drugs in normal-looking bungalows. And often the people holding the drugs don't even know they're working for Guzman.

JACK RILEY: We'll arrest a Mexican national and he'll say: Well, my Uncle Gordo who lives in El Paso asked me to do this. There is no clear understanding that they're working for Sinaloa. They don't walk around with, you know, cards that say you're a card-carrying member of Sinaloa.

SMITH: That's Special Agent Jack Riley who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office, talking to NPR last summer.

The fact that Sinaloa's control is so often unseen has some wondering if Guzman's arrest will have a significant impact on the day-to-day operations of the Chicago drug trade. Pete Bensinger is a former DEA administrator and is now on the board of the Chicago Crime Commission. They're the ones that named Guzman Chicago's public enemy number one two years back. He says, while the arrest may not have an immediate impact, catching Guzman is important because he was so successful transporting heroin from Mexico up to Chicago.

PETE BENSINGER: And as a consequence we've had a lot of damage to our communities and to young lives and old lives.

SMITH: Agent Jack Riley estimates that Guzman controlled 70 to 80 percent of the heroin smuggled into this city. And from here, it travels in all directions flooding markets throughout the Midwest.

BENSINGER: There was a recording that was made that was made in connection to Chapo trying to put a bounty on my head. And one of the things he said was his intent was to make Chicago his home port domestically.

SMITH: Guzman has been under federal indictment here since 2009. If he's eventually extradited across the border, the U.S. attorney in Chicago will be battling several other jurisdictions for the right to try him first. If he does come here, the judge hearing his case will be Ruben Castillo, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois. Judge Castillo says he isn't sure Guzman's arrest was worth the resources it took to catch him.

JUDGE RUBEN CASTILLO: The question is: Is it really going to have an effect on the day-today supply and use of drugs in the United States.

SMITH: Jeff Cramer, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Chicago office, says his arrest might not have an immediate impact.

JEFF CRAMER: But that doesn't mean you shouldn't go after person that is making literally billions of dollars in the drug trade, while people are getting shot in South Chicago just to line his pockets. He is absolutely a worthy target.

SMITH: Cramer is experienced with extradition proceedings and says they can take a really long time, even when the person involved has almost no resources to fight it. Considering Guzman's considerable wealth, he suspects that the Department of Justice could be in for a very long battle.

For NPR News, I'm Patrick Smith in Chicago.

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