It's the transportation hub of America. The city is located within a day's drive of 70 percent of the nation's population, and is crisscrossed by major interstate highways and railway lines. Chicago is also a huge drug market in its own right. Some 86 percent of people arrested in Cook County in 2012 tested positive for at least one illegal narcotic — the highest percentage of any big U.S. city. With his monopoly in the city, Guzmán doubled wholesale heroin prices, thus cutting profit margins for street dealers. That fueled greater competition for turf and exacerbated Chicago's epidemic of gang violence. "It used to be honor among thieves," said Harold Ward, a former gang member turned anti-violence campaigner. "Now, it's by any means necessary."Chicago Magazine elaborates:
It might seem odd that a city some 1,500 miles north of the Mexican border has become the nation’s narcotics center. But there are four main reasons: transportation, ethnic makeup, size, and gang culture.
Chicago is the transportation hub of America, a fact not lost on the Mexican cartels (just as it wasn’t on Capone and his fellow bootleggers almost a century ago). It’s ideally located within a day’s drive of 70 percent of the nation’s population. Six interstate highways crisscross the region, connecting east and west. Only two states (Texas and California) have more interstate highway miles than Illinois.
As for rail transport, Chicago welcomes six of the seven major railroads and accounts for a quarter of the country’s rail traffic. Water? The Port of Chicago is one of the nation’s largest inland cargo ports, and the city is the world’s third-largest handler of shipping containers (after Singapore and Hong Kong). And let’s not forget about Midway and O’Hare: More than 86 million passengers and 1.5 million tons of cargo passed through these airports combined in 2011, the latest year for which data are available.
Second, the Chicago metro area has a large Hispanic immigrant population, making it easy for Mexican cartel operatives to blend in. (Only Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Houston have more residents of Mexican descent, according to the 2010 census.)
Because many of these immigrants—especially those who are here illegally—are poor or underemployed, the area provides a fertile recruiting ground for cartel operatives.
According to a Cook County law enforcement officer familiar with the local drug trade, the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, which are more than 80 percent Hispanic, are el eje (the axis) of drug distribution in the city. They’re conveniently located near the Stevenson, Dan Ryan, and Eisenhower Expressways, Metra’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe line, and a major industrial corridor off Blue Island Avenue. (With 1.3 billion square feet of warehouse property, Chicago has one of the largest concentrations of industrial space in the nation, offering plenty of room for cartels to hide contraband.)
Third, the city is a huge market in its own right. Chicagoans’ taste for drugs is as big as—if not bigger than—that of most other Americans. For example, according to a report by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 86 percent of people arrested in Cook County in 2012 tested positive for at least one illegal narcotic—the highest percentage of any big city. Twenty-two percent tested positive for more than one.
While the amount of cocaine seized annually by law enforcement officials in the Chicago area has been declining in recent years, the amount of heroin has skyrocketed, rising sixfold from 2002 to 2012. Chicago’s rate of heroin-related emergency room admissions is three times the national rate.
Methamphetamine sales are way up, too. As U.S. authorities have cracked down on home-produced meth, the cartels have been breaking badder: inundating Chicago and other U.S. cities with extremely pure, relatively cheap meth straight from “superlabs” in Mexico. In 2002, law enforcement officials in Chicago seized 3.5 kilograms (8 pounds) of meth; in 2012 they seized more than 70 kilos (155 pounds).
Finally, Chicago’s deeply entrenched street gangs offer a ready-made retail network. Law enforcement officials estimate the number of street gangs in the city at more than 70 and the number of members at between 70,000 and 125,000. The DEA’s Jack Riley likens them to “100,000 Amway salesmen” for cartel-supplied drugs.
“It’s easy for the cartel to get the drugs to Chicago and then have people put them on the street,” explains Christina Egan, the former deputy chief of the narcotics and gangs unit for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago. “There’s a huge demand, and with the gangs in Chicago, it’s easy to service that demand.”It also fuels crime in the Windy City. A December 2013 Bloomberg article notes:
This steady flow of dangerous substances is sparking pitched and often deadly turf wars between Chicago’s splintered, largely African-American and Latino gangs.
“Most of Chicago’s violent crime comes from gangs trying to maintain control of drug-selling territories,” Riley says. “Guzman supplies a majority of the narcotics that fuel this violence.”
... With Guzman gaining near-monopoly control, [the gangs] can’t negotiate prices: He personally dictates how much distributors pay his operatives, court documents allege. In the past decade, wholesale heroin prices have doubled in Chicago to the current cost of $80,000 a kilogram, says Nick Roti, head of anti-gang enforcement for the city’s police. For street sellers to keep profits flowing, they must seize ground in sometimes lethal block-by-block combat.