Feds: Wives of twin Chicago drug traffickers accused of laundering money ‘acted like what they were doing was illegal’

·4 min read

The wives of twin Chicago drug traffickers who cooperated against Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman didn’t act like they had immunity when they collected and spent piles of narcotics proceeds while their husbands were in prison, a federal prosecutor argued in court Monday.

Instead, Valerie Gaytan and Vivianna Lopez had millions of dollars buried under a porch in Texas, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Erskine told a federal judge. They allegedly enlisted a small circle of trusted family members to help get the cash to them through money orders and the U.S. mail, he said. And they kept secret ledgers scrawled on a notebook pad detailing the dates packages arrived and the amount in each.

“(Gaytan and Lopez) were not acting like they had immunity,” Erskine told U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly. “They acted like what they were doing was illegal.”

Erskine’s argument came at the end of an unusual evidentiary hearing that has played out over three sessions in U.S. District Court, where Gaytan and Lopez are challenging a money-laundering indictment filed against them last year by claiming they’d been granted immunity due to their husbands’ unprecedented cooperation against “El Chapo” and other high-ranking cartel members.

In her closing argument Monday, Lopez’s attorney, MiAngel Cody, said that by charging the wives, prosecutors sent a “chilling message” to other would-be informants that the government was willing to “break its own promises and cannibalize its own cooperators” — even when they’d risked everything to help investigators.

Kennelly, who heard testimony over two days last week, said he hopes to rule on the motion to dismiss the indictment as early as Aug. 11.

Gaytan, 47, and Lopez, 42, were indicted in U.S. District Court in Chicago last year on money laundering charges alleging they’d hidden millions of their husbands’ drug proceeds from the government over a 12-year period.

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.

Lopez’s aunt, Laura Lopez, 59, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Last week, Pedro Flores testified via a 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.

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.

Prosecutors, though, have repeatedly said 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.

Last week, prosecutors played jail calls between the twins and their wives in 2010 showing they had growing concerns over the lack of a written immunity deal.

“There is no paper yet,” Gaytan, said in one call, adding that their lawyer was trying to figure out why there was a delay in getting a written agreement. “There is no paper for any type of protection. That’s what he’s worried about.”

In another call a few days later, Pedro Flores worried out loud to his wife that a deal over immunity would be worthless if it wasn’t in writing. “What do we have to protect us? Nothing,” he said at one point.

Erskine said in his argument Monday that immunity deals are a “hyper-formalized process” and that the twins clearly knew “if you don’t have it in writing there is no agreement.”

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

asweeney@chicagotribune.com