Mexican Drug Cartel Rules the Chicago Heroin Market

By Paul Gaita 12/24/13

A perfect storm of easy distribution routes, a terrible economy, and one of the largest Hispanic populations in the country has made Second City number one with heroin.

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Photo via Shutterstock

The city of Chicago has bloomed into ground zero for the heroin trade in the United States, thanks to a highly organized and motivated army of dealers overseen by Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Its leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, has been branded Public Enemy No. 1 by the Chicago Crime Commission – a title last held by legendary crime figure Al Capone.

About half of the estimated $65 billion worth of heroin and other illegal narcotics consumed by Americans each year enters the United States via Mexico, and drug enforcement experts estimate that more than half of that is controlled by the Sinaloa cartel. According to a 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, Chicago is the number one destination for the cartel’s heroin shipments, thanks in part to a perfect storm of economics, circumstance, and culture.

Chicago currently boasts the highest rate of heroin-related emergency room admissions in the country – three times the national rate. At 86 percent, the city also lays claim to the highest percentage of individuals testing positive for at least one illegal narcotic at the time of their arrest, according to a 2012 report by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Appetites of this size have driven street prices for heroin to the lowest in the country, which is fed by an army of dealers and subordinates that number in the thousands, according to a 2013 feature in the Chicago Reader.

A dreadful economic picture, combined with Chicago’s status as the transportation hub of America, have helped transform Chicago’s west side into one of the largest and most profitable open air drug markets in the U.S. With its central location, large inland ports, and the fourth largest Hispanic population in the nation, Chicago has provided fertile ground for a powerful and extremely violent organization like the Sinaloa cartel to operate within the borders of the United States with very little opposition.

Despite the 2009 arrest of Vicente Zambada Niebla, a.k.a. El Vicentillo, the son of Sinaloa’s number two, Ismael Zambada Garcia, heroin and methamphetamine use in Chicago remains at nationally high levels. The situation is so dire that the city’s police superintendent, Gerry McCarthy, has declared America’s war on drugs a “wholesale failure.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.