On a winter evening a little over a decade ago, as their husbands were busy cooperating against the most wanted cartel boss in the world, Valerie Gaytan and Vivianna Lopez were driving around Chicago’s North Side with more than $4 million in cash in their SUV.
The daughters of Chicago cops, Gaytan and Lopez had grown up in similar neighborhoods but on seemingly separate paths. Gaytan, street smart and tough, started running drugs as a teenager, spent time in prison, opened a successful beauty salon and was romantically linked to some of the city’s top gang kingpins. Lopez, meanwhile, was raised in a tightknit, extended-family household, a high school cheerleader who’d largely steered clear of gangs despite her gritty surroundings.
But their futures were forever entwined when they married Chicago twins Pedro and Margarito Flores, who rose to the apex of the nation’s drug trafficking world before making the stunning decision in 2008 to surrender and help federal investigators build a case against their boss, Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
With the twins’ cooperation heating up, Gaytan and Lopez were told in late 2010 they had to come clean. So one day they flew to Chicago and removed millions of dollars in their husband’s drug proceeds from under the floorboards of a basement theater room in Gaytan’s suburban home, packed the bundles into large plastic storage bins and drove to see Margarito’s lawyer at his office in Lincoln Park, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports.
They parked the Audi Q7 parked on West Belden Avenue with the $4.1 million inside. Because it was after bank hours, the stunned attorney wound up storing the vehicle in his garage overnight before depositing the money the next day at a bank near the airport. There it sat in escrow until the twins’ sentencing nearly five years later, when most of it was turned over to the government in forfeiture, court records show.
According to the wives’ 2017 tell-all book, “Cartel Wives,” turning in the cash was a crucial moment in their desire to start a new life — a realization that it meant getting rid of everything and that even though their husbands had risked their lives to get El Chapo on tape, they weren’t going to get a free pass.
But there was one problem, according to federal prosecutors: The $4.1 million wasn’t everything. Not by a long shot.
Last year, Gaytan, 47, and Lopez, 42, were indicted in U.S. District Court in Chicago on money laundering charges alleging they’d hidden millions more of their husbands’ drug proceeds from the government over a 12-year period.
The women have argued they cannot be prosecuted for any of it because they were promised immunity by federal agents and the U.S. attorney’s office as part of their husbands’ cooperation.
That claim has been hotly contested by prosecutors, and the bid to dismiss the charges is widely regarded as a legal long shot. Still, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly has scheduled an evidentiary hearing starting Monday at downtown Chicago’s Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, where the judge will try to get to the bottom of what — if any — promises were made.
The indictment alleged the cash, much of it still in small denominations, was hauled across the border in rental trucks, secretly recouped from the twins’ associates in the U.S., hidden in trap compartments in vehicles and stash houses, and buried under their older brother’s home near Austin, Texas.
According to the indictment, Gaytan and Lopez and a network of relatives later conspired to launder the money through currency exchanges, credit cards, money orders, gift cards and the U.S. mail.
They allegedly used the money to fund at least a sliver of the lifestyle they’d grown accustomed to when their husbands were on the top of the cartel heap, spending more than $165,000 on private school tuition for their children, $100,000 in international and domestic travel, $80,000 for Lopez’s rent and $11,000 in child support.
Lopez also allegedly sent $5,000 of the laundered money to her husband in prison and spent another $31,000 on a laundry business she opened in Arizona after the family went into hiding, according to the indictment.
So far, two members of the alleged conspiracy have pleaded guilty: Armando Flores, 53, of Round Rock, Texas, the older brother of the twins, who helped them break into the drug business three decades ago; and Bianca Finnigan, 33, of Sycamore, Illinois, who is Lopez’s sister.
Lopez’s aunt, Laura Lopez, 59, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
The hearing Monday is expected to elicit public testimony for the first time from some of the key agents and prosecutors from the Flores investigation, which led to criminal charges against Guzman and many of his top henchmen in the Sinaloa cartel, but never resulted in a criminal trial.
Questioning could be wide open and potentially filled with legal pitfalls, as Kennelly has seemingly not placed any restrictions in advance on what specific topics can be addressed.
Lopez’s attorney has said she intends to call Pedro Flores to ask him to clarify his testimony at Chapo’s trial that his family had been immunized.
Flores, who would appear via video link, might assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but if he chooses to answer questions, he could find himself in legal jeopardy trying to explain under oath his connection to the money that the wives were allegedly spending.
Adding to the intrigue, Pedro Flores’ attorney for the past 15 years, Robert L. Rascia, abruptly removed himself as his legal counsel earlier this month, and another attorney who was appointed by the court recently withdrew her appearance as well, court records show.
The hearing will also be without one key voice. The former lead prosecutor on the case, Thomas Shakeshaft, had been expected to testify about early negotiations with the twins over a potential deal that are at the heart of the issue of immunity.
Shakeshaft died last week after years of health issues, including chronic alcoholism that he blamed in part on the stress of the Flores investigation. He was 55.
The wives’ story had long been on the periphery when it comes to the Flores twins, whose cooperation led to what’s often called the biggest drug case ever in Chicago.
But like their husbands, Gaytan and Lopez had enjoyed the riches that drug trafficking had brought them — the villa in Mexico with a private zoo, the Bentleys, Jet Skis and jewelry. And like their husbands, they knew the cartels had surely marked them for death as turncoats.
Born five years apart, the wives wrote extensively about their backgrounds in their book, including the unlikeliest of scenarios: that the daughters of Chicago cops would go on to marry two of the biggest drug traffickers the city had ever seen.
There are other “only in Chicago” connections as well.
When she was in high school, Lopez, who lived in Little Village before her family moved to West Lawn, dated a young man she referred to in the book as “Mark Jones,” who became a Chicago cop himself and was later convicted of corruption.
The Tribune confirmed that Jones was actually Keith Herrera, a former officer with the elite Special Operations Section who pleaded guilty to robbing drug dealers at the direction of his friend and mentor, Officer Jerome Finnigan.
Finnigan was sentenced in 2011 to 12 years in federal prison. His brother is married to Vivianna Lopez’s sister and co-defendant, Bianca.
Writing under the pseudonym “Mia,” Lopez describes meeting the Flores twins through her childhood friend, recalling them as handsome and well-dressed. When the Flores family moved into Vivianna’s neighborhood, her friend wanted to introduce them.
“Finally I was going to meet the legendary Flores twins,” she wrote in the book. Peter’s handshake greeting and respectful demeanor struck her immediately, a big departure from the boys who would openly comment on her looks.
They saw each other socially and she even invited him to a party at her home, where she describes her police officer father cornering him and warning him to stay away from her daughter.
Ultimately, it was Peter’s near-death experience that brought them together for good. In the summer of 2003, Peter was kidnapped by a violent drug crew and held for ransom, which was paid by Flores’ brother. Upon release, Pete made a brief trip to Mexico to clear his head. When he returned, he sought out Lopez and told her how much he cared for her, she wrote.
Lopez said she knew then that she had to either cut off contact or accept her feelings.
“Life without him felt hollow,” she wrote. “I wanted to be with the drug dealer with the heart of gold. I loved Peter for all the goodness and kindness I saw inside him … and I’d choose to let the rest slide.”
Gaytan, meanwhile, admitted in the book that she started hanging out with gang bangers and drug dealers as a teenager in the rough-and-tumble Brighton Park neighborhood. She dropped out of the University of Illinois at Chicago to enroll in cosmetology school, she wrote.
Later, with the help of money earned through drug trafficking, she would open up one of the city’s most popular salons, the Julian De Val Salon in the heart of Little Village, according to court records obtained by the Tribune.
By the time she was 21, Gaytan was dating a well-connected cocaine trafficker named Valentino Reveles, whom she married in 1997. A year later, Reveles was arrested on drug charges and she filed for divorce while he was in custody. Gatytan started dating Rudy “Kato” Rangel, the feared then-leader of the Latin Kings street gang.
According to court records, Reveles began cooperating with authorities and told them about Gaytan’s involvement in his drug trade, including coming along with him on transactions of multiple kilos of cocaine at a Dominick’s grocery store parking lot and helping launder proceeds through structured bank deposits and money orders.
Reveles also told a federal grand jury that he took Gaytan on trips to Hawaii, Miami and Las Vegas, giving her $10,000 in cash to gamble at casinos and up to $5,000 at a time to just “carry around,” federal court records show.
Gaytan was indicted on money laundering charges related to Reveles’ operation in December 2000. Her attorney later wrote in a court filing that investigators had approached her and tried to get her to cooperate against her new love interest, Rangel, but she refused.
By the time Gaytan pleaded guilty in 2001 and was sentenced to five months in prison, she had already married Rangel in a private civil ceremony, court records show.
She was still on home detention the next year when she asked the judge for permission to remove her ankle monitor for a wedding ceremony with Rangel at the Sofitel hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on Nov. 23, 2002, which featured a “dinner and dancing“ reception for 200 guests in the grand ballroom, according to a court filing.
“It is the hope of the defendant to not have an electronic monitor on her ankle when she renews her wedding vow and hosts a wedding reception with her family and friends,” her lawyer wrote. The judge granted the request.
Five months later, Rangel was murdered at a West Side barbershop in what authorities have said was a contract killing by a rival gang. It was at Rangel’s funeral that Margarito Flores, whom she knew from mutual acquaintances as “Junior,” approached her with sympathy and a romance began to kindle.
“Junior and I didn’t care about being around famous people and living that life,” Gaytan wrote in “Cartel Wives.” “When everyone would head out to the club, we’d go to the grocery store, then head back to the hotel, chill out in our PJs, and eat cereal … We just talked and laughed. It was the simple times that made us fall madly in love.”
When U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo sentenced the twins to 14 years each in prison in January 2015, El Chapo was still months away from his astonishing tunnel escape from a high-security prison in Mexico. The judge warned the brothers that they and their relatives would be looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives.
“Every time you’re outside in a vehicle and you see a motorcycle come up behind you, you’re going to be wondering if that is the motorcycle that is going to take your life,” Castillo said.
The judge also went along with the deal calling for the twins to forfeit about $3.66 million in illicit proceeds, allowing the wives to keep $300,000 for living expenses while their husbands were in prison. But Castillo said he harbored no illusions that there was more money out there.
“I think everyone in this city, everyone in this city thinks that you have money. Everyone,” Castillo said. “But we’re not going to do anything about that.”
Three years later, after Chapo’s recapture and extradition to the U.S., the twins were still in protective custody when Pedro gave his long-awaited testimony at the Sinaloa boss’s trial at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn.
In his direct testimony on Dec. 18, 2018, Flores acknowledged that he’d told investigators about the role his immediate family played in collecting drug debts, but when asked whether his wife was ever charged, he answered, “No, she was given immunity,” according to court records.
Later, on cross-examination, Pedro Flores was asked by Guzman’s attorney whether Vivianna received prosecutorial immunity despite her alleged involvement in hiding drug proceeds.
“Your wife never got charged with it, did she?” the defense attorney asked. Flores answered, “No. She received immunity.”
The topic was not explored further by either side. Lopez’s attorney, MiAngel Cody, wrote in a court filing in December that either Flores was lying under oath or the wives were indeed offered immunity, and “the government cannot have it both ways.”
“While the government has repeatedly bolstered Mr. Flores as a truthful cooperator, its charges against Ms. Lopez implies the opposite,” Cody wrote.
In response, prosecutors have said there is nothing in its records reflecting the wives ever had an immunity letter from their office or any reports from investigating agencies mentioning anything about an agreement to give them protection from prosecution.
Prosecutors also noted that, even if the wives had received immunity in the past, it would not have excused “future criminal conduct” as outlined in the indictment.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment for this story. Cody and Gaytan’s attorney, Michael Clancy, also had no comment.
As El Chapo was awaiting trial in New York, the Flores brothers’ wives were allegedly spending money at a breakneck pace, and the feds were paying attention.
On July 18, 2018, Gaytan and Lopez were returning from a trip to the exotic Caribbean islands of Turks and Caicos when customs agents stopped them at JFK International Airport in New York, according to federal court records
Gaytan was carrying five cellphones, including two with Chicago area codes even though she was supposedly living in hiding out of state. But what really caught the attention of investigators was a seemingly innocuous sheet of notebook paper found in Lopez’s belongings, prosecutors alleged.
It was the sort of notebook found on many kitchen counters, with the label “SWEET IDEAS” at the top and thick lines for jotting down grocery lists or projects to do. The page found with Lopez, however, was filled with scrawled notes about packages.
“2 package — 20,000 Jan March,” the note read, followed by another mention of four packages from October, November and December. “4 packages took package 1 + took 20 from package 2.”
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Federal prosecutors alleged it was a “straightforward drug-money ledger” laying out a schedule for the disbursement of funds.
The stop at JFK was a key moment in an investigation into the wives’ spending that accelerated in 2018 when an informant reported that Gaytan had been using a travel agency near Armando Flores’ home to book lavish vacations to places like Dubai, Europe and Las Vegas, where they attended a Jennifer Lopez concert.
After they were booked, Armando Flores would arrive in a white pickup truck to deliver the cash payments, sometimes up to $30,000, to the travel agency. The money was often in wads that “smelled funny” and were rolled up haphazardly in rubber bands, the informant allegedly told investigators.
About a year after the JFK stop — on July 4, 2019, Vivianna Lopez’s 39th birthday — border control agents at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport had another “contact” with the wives as they arrived from a flight from Europe, according to court records.
The wives had allegedly booked the trip to Rome and Greece for 10 to 12 people through the same Texas travel agency, court records show, and it had been “paid for in cash.”