A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the wives of twin Chicago drug traffickers who cooperated against Sinaloa boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman did not have immunity from prosecution, a considerable setback for the women who are accused of laundering millions of their husbands’ drug proceeds over a 12-year period.
Valerie Gaytan and Vivianna Lopez, the wives of Chicago twins Margarito and Pedro Flores, had asked U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly to dismiss the money laundering charges against them, arguing over the course of several hearings in July that they had been assured by prosecutors that their husbands’ unprecedented cooperation against Guzman meant they would not face charges themselves for their own actions.
On Tuesday morning, Kennelly denied that request, saying there was no convincing evidence there was ever an immunity agreement in writing for Lopez or Gaytan and certainly not for future conduct involving the alleged laundering of the funds at issue in the indictment.
Kennelly, who delivered his ruling at a telephonic hearing Tuesday, said that while the women contend that certain promises were made, there was no indication that there was any “meeting of the minds” about a formal agreement, and certainly nothing was obtained in writing.
Kennelly said the Flores twins’ plea agreement also makes no mention of immunity and was clear that no other promises had been made. He also said that jail calls played by prosecutors at the hearing were a “pretty strong indication in my view that immunity had not been obtained at that point.”
The ruling clears the way for the case to go to trial in June. Kennelly set a status hearing for Dec. 21.
Gaytan, 47, who is married to Margarito Flores, and Lopez, 42, who is Pedro Flores’ wife, were indicted in U.S. District Court in Chicago last year on money laundering charges. 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 spent much of the money on private school tuition for their children, international and domestic travel, rent and 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, who helped them break into the drug business three decades ago; and Bianca Finnigan, 33, of Sycamore, Illinois, who is Lopez’s sister.
The evidentiary hearings held by Kennelly in July provided an unusual behind-the-scenes look at the trafficking operations of the Flores twins, who rose from the streets of Little Village to run a massive drug-trafficking operation before they agreed to cooperate against El Chapo in 2008. The twins were eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison and were released last year.
And in a highly unusual move, Pedro Flores testified via video link that he and his brother were promised early on by investigators that his wife and other family members would not be prosecuted for any drug-related activities.
“I thought my family was good,” Flores told the judge.
Prosecutors, though, repeatedly asserted at the hearings that there was never any immunity deal for the wives, which could only be finalized in a written document approved by the highest levels at the U.S. attorney’s office. And even if such protection was offered, it would not have excused the wives from future crimes, prosecutors have argued.
Also testifying was Gaytan, who said she was the one who flew to Chicago in April 2008 to tell the family’s criminal defense lawyer that the Flores twins were considering cooperating against the cartel. She said the brothers were adamant that any deal include immunity for the rest of the family.
In her testimony, Gaytan also admitted that she did not disclose millions of dollars in drug proceeds that she’d collected from numerous couriers between 2004 and 2008.
Under questioning from both her attorney and federal prosecutors, Gaytan insisted the government was mostly concerned about one stash of between $4 million and $5 million that they had arranged to be picked up from an associate in Maryland and stored under the floorboards of Gaytan’s home in Plainfield.
“They were asking me about specific properties, specific money,” Gaytan said. “The scope was very constricted.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Erskine, to counter Gaytan, read directly from the wives’ 2017 tell-all book, “Cartel Wives,” at the hearing, including one passage where Gaytan said that the family was taking a leap of faith and had been given “no promises.”
Gaytan said that she was not referring to the government with those words, but rather “life in general.”