DEA: High-flying cartel planned to smuggle drugs into Bolingbrook

Suspect likely chose Bolingbrook field for its lack of law enforcement, agent says

February 10, 2013|By Steve Schmadeke, Chicago Tribune reporter

(Tribune illustration)

At a meeting in a Chicago business last spring, the leaders of a drug trafficking organization allegedly made a lucrative offer to an informant posing as a pilot.
Jose Mares-Barragan, 31, and another unidentified drug leader told the informant they had tons of cocaine ready to ship and the pilot could make almost $40,000 flying 25 kilos on a light aircraft from California to the small airport in Bolingbrook, according to a charging document.

They also offered $500,000 per flight to take massive amounts of cocaine between South and Central America, where they said the narcotics would be loaded and unloaded by government workers, court records show.

"If he wants to go big, we can go big," Mares-Barragan, who allegedly worked for the Sinaloa cartel, said at the recorded meeting. The drug ring also allegedly discussed in an unrecorded conversation using a plane to move millions of dollars a month in cash from Australia to the U.S. to buy cocaine to sell back in Australia, court records show.

Mares-Barragan, of Castaic, Calif., was arrested after the informant agreed to bring 26 kilos of cocaine into Clow International Airport, apparently on the same weekend it was hosting its 12th annual Cavalcade of Planes, a regional festival that draws thousands of airplane enthusiasts.

Clow airport, situated just yards from strip malls and subdivisions typical of Chicago's suburbs, seems an unlikely hub for a large drug trafficking operation.

But there's a growing use of smaller airports by regional drug rings hoping to move large amounts of narcotics, said Jack Riley, the Drug Enforcement Administration's special agent in charge of its Chicago division.

"Really we're beginning to see that more and more domestically," he said. "Of course, the Mexican organizations will move it across the border virtually any way possible. But the regional organizations are moving dope and money into smaller airports where there's really less law enforcement and most of them don't even file a flight plan. It's very effective."

The use of aircraft rarely forms the basis for charges in federal drug trafficking cases, which typically involve drugs hidden in semi trucks, cars or even people.

In this case, the pilot was to fly to Bolingbrook on a June weekend and return to California with bundles of cash for the Mexican suppliers. DEA agents arranged the pickup of the cocaine in Palm Desert, Calif., and then at some point swapped it for sham narcotics, which were stuffed into a black duffel bag.

Two people were arrested at the airport in Bolingbrook and agreed to cooperate with authorities. Agents also arrested a man, who did drug deals from a "Mr. Sandman" email address, who wanted to buy 13 kilos, records show.

Charging documents allege Mares-Barragan wrote emails saying he was "stressing big time" over the shipment to Bolingbrook and that his supplier asked him to take 40 kilos but he only felt comfortable with 26 "because it's too much if something happens."

His attorney, Paul Brayman, declined comment on the pending case.