Anatomy of a Bust
By Susan DeGrane
The bricks of cocaine formed a solid wall, 20 feet long, 4 feet high. Weighing more than a ton, the wall had an estimated street value of $143 million. Once the cocaine was cut, police say, it could have wound up as ten million bags of crack.
The February 23 bust was the largest drug seizure in the history of the Chicago Police Department. But it still wasn't the largest quantity ever captured in the metropolitan area--that honor goes to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Last May, over a 14-hour period, DEA agents seized 3,718 pounds of cocaine and $6.1 million in cash on the city's southwest side. Both cases indicate that greater amounts of cocaine are passing through Chicago.
While the city has always been a major drug distribution hub, larger quantities are arriving from Mexico, according to DEA spokesman Mark Hannan. He says drug shipments are increasingly routed through that country because of expanded commerce and traffic across the U.S. border brought about by the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In 1990, Chicago police seized 217 pounds of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $19.3 million. Four years later, annual cocaine confiscations reached 5,404 pounds, valued at almost $225 million. After a slight decline, drug trafficking here appears to be back on the rise. In only the first two months of this year, Chicago police captured 2,832 pounds of cocaine, valued at $158.6 million.
"The quantities now are unbelievable," says Chicago police commander Philip Cline of the narcotics unit. "You figure the French Connection was all about 100 pounds."
The federal government's figures support the trend. In 1993, DEA agents seized 627 pounds of cocaine in Chicago. By 1998, that amount had grown more than 15 times larger--last year agents snared 9,526 pounds.
"Typically police departments aim their efforts more at lower-end dealers," the DEA's Hannan says, "while our objective is to work up the chain to the highest possible source." This often means bargaining with street dealers instead of making arrests and taking them out of circulation.
Now Chicago police are also setting their sights on bigger game, beefing up efforts directed at those who transport and distribute larger quantities of drugs. Police narcotics agents pursue leads just about anywhere in the region, often traveling outside the city limits. The February 23 bust wasn't even in Chicago--it happened in an industrial park in the southwest suburb of Crestwood, near I-294 and Cicero Avenue.
With the assistance of suburban police and county sheriffs, Chicago officers move in inconspicuous swarms of ten or more vehicles that look nothing like squad cars--they drive vans, station wagons, SUVs, pickup trucks, and sedans. The vehicles are equipped with special radios, computers, sledgehammers, battering rams, and plenty of maps.
The officers are quick-change artists, switching hats and jackets, donning sunglasses, and even swapping vehicles in order to avoid detection. "The traffickers are doing their own surveillance," says Cline. "They're on the lookout for us....If they feel the heat, they're not going to unload."
Cline says narcotics officers must be superior drivers, able to maneuver easily in unfamiliar territory. Some of the best are longtime veterans, with 15 years on the force. Some are women. And many have experience as detectives.
Officers usually put in long hours of surveillance for several weeks preceding a bust. Shifts stretch well beyond the regular eight hours. Workdays spill into weekends and holidays. Some narcotics cops even operate out of rented places close to suspected distribution points. Remaining undetected while watching a business or residence can be tricky, but also "extremely boring," says Sergeant John Escalante. "You can't read a magazine or book or newspaper, or balance your checkbook. Sometimes you can find yourself talking to yourself. And you've got to stay alert."
"You could be watching for months, and a bus could go by and you'd miss everything," says Cline, "which is why if the guys want to grab a sandwich or do anything they've got to get somebody to cover for them."
Some officers squirrel away snacks. The more health conscious pack lunches, but drive-through food remains a staple. "It's like an office, and it's like your home," says Escalante. "These people literally live in their vehicles."
Still, he says, "Once a suspected trafficker hits the road, things do get interesting. Things start to move. The adrenaline starts pumping."
On the morning of the Crestwood bust, Escalante drove more than 300 miles, navigating a circuitous course from Downers Grove to Crestwood in pursuit of two alleged drug traffickers driving in separate vans, one red and the other purple. "We were lucky," he says. "The vans were so brightly colored it made it a whole lot easier to keep track of them.
"They did all sorts of odd things. We call these 'heat moves.' Like they went inside of a Levi's outlet and just stood inside and looked out the window to see if anyone was following. That's a very common move. Another good one is, they'd pull into a gas station, pull up to the pump. They don't buy any gas. Boom! They take off again.
"One came up to a light, made a turn, hit the first alley, then came right back around. They do that to see if anybody's following them.
"The fun part is staying with them. Every once in a while they'll do something really amazing we haven't seen before, and we'll say, 'Hey, did you see that? This guy's good!'"
Escalante kept in touch with 11 other officers by radio. "Sometimes it amazes me that even when we're a team, how long we can go and not see each other," he says. "It can be days." Some of the vehicles stay close together, while other drivers go off on their own, trying to predict the route.
Most of the February 23 pursuit did not unfold at high speeds, but rather at an erratic pace. On I-294, the two men slowed down to 30 miles per hour before speeding up to 70 or 80. They stopped dead in a toll booth, and for several minutes watched other drivers pass in order to see who might be hanging back to follow them.
"We saw other drivers giving them the finger and strange looks, and of course they had no idea what these guys were doing," Escalante says.
Once police were forced to pursue the vans through a rural area. "When you're on a dirt road, how do you hide 12 vehicles?" asks Escalante. "It's a whole lot easier to follow in traffic. We had to split up and meet up further down the line."
Driving on I-294, the vans waited until the last possible moment to exit at Cicero Avenue. "It didn't look like they were going to turn at all," Escalante says. "Obviously we were relieved when they got off. At least we wouldn't be out of the state."
Fortunately an officer at the head of the pack had decided to exit early and stationed himself in a parking lot on Cicero. The rest of the team was forced to continue on I-294 all the way to the I-57 interchange.
The van drivers continued in fits and starts: they made some odd moves in the parking lot of an auto-parts store, they stopped to hold a conference, and once they switched vehicles. Finally they reached the industrial park and backed into the garage of a nondescript brick building, an auto-detailing shop at 4727 W. 137th. Soon they departed again, with the narcotics officers close behind. At 24th and Harlem, the police pulled the vans over and arrested both drivers.
Back in Crestwood a couple of cars pulled into the shop, and police began to worry they'd lose some of the drugs if they waited for a search warrant. So at around 1:30 PM, the narcotics officers called the Crestwood police and then entered the shop. No one resisted. "There were ten people there," Escalante recalls. "Some were legitimate employees actually working there in the detailing shop, and there were customers. At the time we didn't know who was involved."
After a dog sniffed out the drugs, two more suspects were charged with possession of a controlled substance. All four are now awaiting trial in Cook County Jail.
"It would have made the case so much better with a search warrant," says Escalante. "It's hard to beat a conviction with a search warrant."
The bust came as a surprise in Crestwood, a low-crime community with a four-man police force. "This sort of thing is not common," says Crestwood police chief John Hefley. "This just tells you that dealers are so mobile. They can operate anywhere. It doesn't mean they tend to operate out of Crestwood."
Chicago police filled out paperwork, photographed evidence, questioned witnesses, and took an inventory of the seizure, which in addition to the 1,145 kilos of cocaine included 170 pounds of marijuana and about $17,000. Escalante says it took the entire night. He didn't get home until dawn. With three hours of sleep, he was back on the job the next morning.
"Eventually we realized the size of the recovery, but it took a while for it to sink in," he says. "We were all tired. A couple of hours went by before we realized we shattered the old record from four years ago...by 400 kilos."