Editorial: The view from a damaged Chicago: El Chapo owes $12,666,181,704? At least.

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Published in Op Eds

Crime kingpins often flaunt their empires by wallowing in obscene expressions of extravagance. In his heyday, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman loved to wallow. One of his houses in Mexico featured a zoo with lions, tigers and panthers, and a small train that meandered through the estate. He had yachts and private jets. He flew to Macau to gamble, Switzerland to receive anti-aging treatments.

Now, prosecutors say, it's America's turn to find ways to spend the former Sinaloa drug cartel kingpin's Everest-scale tranche of cash. With El Chapo facing a sentencing hearing July 17 that almost certainly will put him behind bars for the rest of his life, prosecutors have filed a forfeiture request asking that a federal judge order the convicted drug lord to return ill-gotten gains:

Your bill, Mr. Guzman. $12,666,181,704. Pay up.

That's the amount -- down to the last dollar -- that prosecutors say Guzman amassed in profits during his murderous reign as the world's most notorious drug lord. Included in the federal government's breakdown, according to The New York Times: more than $11 billion from the trafficking of 600,000 kilograms of cocaine; $846 million from the movement of 420,000 kilograms of marijuana; and $11 million from 200 kilograms of heroin.

Prosecutors say their estimate is conservative -- the actual amount may be much higher.

While Americans everywhere would welcome the recouping of as much or all of the $12-plus billion, in Chicago the feds' collection effort has unique resonance. For years, Chicago served as the American nerve center for El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel. The city became a way station for as much as 1,500 kilos of cocaine and heroin each month that would get distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Only twice has the Chicago Crime Commission applied the label of Public Enemy No. 1 -- first for Al Capone, and later for El Chapo.


Guzman's point men in Chicago were twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores from the city's Little Village neighborhood. In the end, they flipped on El Chapo and secretly recorded him. Pedro Flores testified against Guzman at the cartel leader's trial in New York, testimony that helped secure a conviction against El Chapo in February.

A kingpin's comeuppance doesn't have to end with a conviction and life prison term. As he sits in his cell, El Chapo can ponder a future filled with jumpsuits and jail food. But we hope he also spends his days and nights thinking about the dispersal of his vast wealth, as it gets siphoned into federal coffers.

El Chapo's empire was built on lives destroyed by drugs, on turf war hits, on innocents killed in crossfires. The damage he and his operatives caused just in metropolitan Chicago was horrific. Now, if prosecutors succeed in their forfeiture request, his empire can pay for positive endeavors and initiatives that enhance America, rather than imperil it.

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