The temperature was about to plummet to single digits in early February of this year when a Chevy Traverse and a Dodge Charger pulled out of the parking lot of the Cicero Hotel near Midway Airport at 5:12 a.m.
Even in the deep of a Chicago winter, the Chevy was running hot -- filled with a secret stash of fentanyl, according to drug investigators.
Behind hidden compartments in the SUV, authorities say there were 50 pounds of a painkiller that usually ends up mixed with heroin, often with deadly results. The fentanyl in this shipment had allegedly originated with the omnipotent Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, once commanded by the iron fists of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
In the Cicero Hotel parking lot on that day, Feb. 8, 2019, the drug shipment, referred to as "dog food" in conversations between cartel operatives, was quickly on the road headed to the east coast.
Not long after departing the Cicero Hotel, U.S. Drug Enforcement agents from Chicago and elsewhere seized the fentanyl that had been stuffed behind secret panels in a so-called "trap car."
"It's enough to kill thousands and thousands of people," said Ray Donovan, special agent in charge of the New York Drug Enforcement Administration field office.
Donovan was among law enforcement officials and prosecutors in the Bronx on Wednesday announcing 22 indictments. Authorities also said they found an assault-style rifle in cartel hands. The group faces charges of heroin and fentanyl distribution along a supply route from Mexico to New York.
Roberto Gonzalez Franco, of Los Mochis, Mexico, is said to have been the supervisor of the shipment from Mexico to Chicago and is accused of managing the Cicero Hotel transshipment point.
Gonzalez Franco and two other defendants are charged as major traffickers, meaning they could get life in prison if convicted.
"This organization allegedly spanned street dealers in the South Bronx to significant suppliers in Mexico linked to the Sinaloa cartel," Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said. "These indictments charge traffickers whose poison kills an average of 20 Bronxites a month."
The fact that Sinaloa's main U.S. supply line still snakes through Chicago is important to local and U.S. drug investigators because the patriarch of the cartel, El Chapo, is facing life in prison. As the ABC7 I-Team has reported, two of Chapo's sons are believed to having taken over cartel operations for their incarcerated father.
Under El Chapo, Sinaloa cartel heroin, cocaine, fentanyl and methamphetamines accounted for 80 percent of the street drugs sold in Chicago, according to federal law enforcement agents.
In the Chicago-connected Bronx case, defendants were part of two different crime groups that trafficked kilo-amounts of fentanyl and heroin each month, according to the indictment. The drugs were allegedly sold to distributors in the Bronx, Philadelphia, Albany and other northeastern cities. Street-level dealers would then sell them to customers in $10 and $20 packets.
17 of 22 defendants were arrested in late May, according to officials who say the gun they seized was a Mossberg .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle. They also confiscated 89 rounds of ammunition.
Gonzalez Franco, the Mexican suspect who allegedly came to Chicago, has a visa that permitted travel only 75 miles from the southern border, but investigators say he went across the U.S. on cartel missions. The Cicero Hotel is 2,085 miles from Tijuana via U.S. interstate highways.
An employee of the Cicero Hotel told the I-Team that authorities subpoenaed their security camera footage several weeks after the alleged cartel guests checked out, but that the video did not show any crimes being committed.
Not everyone involved in the operation was charged. Authorities say one of the dealers died of a heroin overdose.
Post-El Chapo, Sinaloa cartel narco highway still runs through Chicago