CHICAGO — Chicago twins Pedro and Margarito Flores were just 16 when their older brother Armando was arrested in the late 1990s for selling narcotics out of a Cicero auto dealership.
Armando was later sentenced to five years in federal prison, and his absence created a vacuum for his younger brothers to fill. Within a few years, the twins had risen to the highest levels of Chicago’s drug-trafficking underworld, where their position as major distributors for Mexico’s notorious Sinaloa cartel made them fantastically rich and ultimately provided a direct pipeline to the boss himself, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
The twins’ decision to cooperate with federal authorities in 2008 led to arguably the biggest drug case ever brought in Chicago, with charges against El Chapo himself as well as many of his top underbosses, culminating with Pedro Flores testifying against Guzman at his trial in New York in 2018.
Now, as the twins remain in a federal witness protection program, their older brother’s story has once again become entwined with their own.
On Thursday, Armando Flores, now 53, pleaded guilty to money laundering charges alleging he helped collect millions of dollars in drug proceeds and other assets in Mexico and the U.S. after their brothers had agreed to cooperate with authorities and buried the cash under his back porch in Texas.
Over the ensuing years, Armando Flores participated in a scheme to disperse the money to the twins’ wives, Vivianna Lopez and Valerie Gaytan, without the knowledge of federal investigators, according to his 21-page guilty plea entered before U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly.
As early as 2009, Armando Flores had another person, identified only as Individual C, pick up about $1.9 million in drug proceeds from one of his brothers’ former couriers and leave it in a car parked in a Chicago garage, where it was later retrieved by Flores and the twins’ wives.
The next year, Gaytan went to Armando Flores’ home in Round Rock, Texas, which is near Austin, to pick up an estimated $2.3 million hidden in a U-Haul truck carrying secondhand furniture, according to the plea.
Later, Armando Flores mailed drug proceeds in increments of about $9,000 through the U.S. Mail, sometimes exchanging worn or dirty bills for clean $100 bills at a gas station currency exchange near his home, according to the plea.
He also laundered the money by purchasing lavish trips for the wives through a travel agency in Texas, according to the plea.
Armando Flores admitted in the plea that he participated in the conspiracy in exchange for a cut of all the money he delivered. He faces up to about 20 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but if he continues to cooperate, federal prosecutors said they intend to ask the judge for a significant break.
Both Lopez and Gaytan have pleaded not guilty. They’re free on bond in secret locations after their arrests last year in separate areas of the country. Prosecutors said they have agreed with defense counsel for both women not to file anything in the public record that could disclose their locations.
Also charged was Laura Lopez, 59, of Chicago; and Bianca Finnigan, 32, of Sycamore, Illinois, who is the sister of Vivianna Lopez. They have previously pleaded not guilty.
The indictment against Armando Flores and their others was the latest twist in what has been one of the most stunning drug cases in Chicago history.
In December 2018, Pedro Flores testified in the landmark trial against Guzman in New York, where prosecutors played phone calls recorded by the twins that were crucial in the federal effort against the drug lord. On one call, jurors heard Guzman’s own voice greeting Flores with “Amigo!” and discussing a price break on a shipment of heroin destined for Chicago.
Guzman was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The twins were sentenced in 2015 to 14 years in prison and were released in 2020 into witness protection.
Meanwhile, the new charges alleged the wives spent more than $165,000 in drug money on private school tuition for their children, $100,000 in international and domestic travel, $80,000 for Vivianna Lopez’s rent and $11,000 in child support for one of their husband’s kids.
One of the wives also spent $31,000 of laundered drug money on her laundry business, the indictment alleged.
The indictment seeks forfeiture from Vivianna Lopez and Gaytan in the amount of $504,858.