On March 15, 2016, Maurice Brown, an alleged member of the Brooklyn-based Bushwick Crew, posted a photo of himself on his Instagram account holding stacks of cash inside a strip club. He added a hashtag that read, “CHAPODABOSS,” apparently referring to Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, the longtime leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel whose high-profile trial is set to begin this November in the very same borough Brown's crew was said (by police) to be based.
Brown's post was among 40 pages of exhibits federal prosecutors included in a superceding racketeering indictment against him and four other alleged members of Bushwick Crew earlier this month. The feds described the group as a violent street gang that flooded New York City with heroin and fentanyl and even executed rivals in cold blood during a roughly seven-year period ending in 2017.
While prosecutors and law enforcement have declined so far to identify Bushwick Crew's drug source, organized crime experts told VICE the gang appeared to have ties to Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, which they said continued to operate a highly efficient drug network from Los Angeles to New York City despite their leader's incarceration. The case against the gang pointed to the power of internationally notorious drug cartels to ensnare relatively young people in brutality across the world even after key leaders were incarcerated.
“Based on US maps produced by the US Drug Enforcement Administration showing where Mexican cartels operate and the timeframe the Bushwick Crew was distributing heroin, it is most likely Sinaloa that supplied them,” Nathan Jones, a security studies and criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas, told me. “If you look at the maps, these guys were based in New York and moved heroin from Los Angeles and Chicago. That is primetime Sinaloa Cartel territory.”
Earlier this month, the five alleged Bushwick Crew members were arrested and held without bond. They "engaged in a large-scale heroin distribution conspiracy with international Mexican cartel connections that trafficked hundreds of kilograms of heroin into New York City,” according to a detention memo by US Attorney Richard Donoghue. They joined several other alleged gang members who were arrested and federally charged last summer as part of a two-year investigation.
The memo claimed the five recently-indicted alleged Bushwick Crew members—Brown, Jaquan Cooper, Lance Goodwin, Tyquan Griem and Norman Marrero—effectively served as enforcers who escorted drug traffickers, forcibly collected drug debts, and committed acts of violence against anyone who interfered with their operations or offended them. Among their gruesome alleged crimes: The 2013 torture and murder of Gary Lopez and Rudy Superville, two men cops said tried to rob one of the Bushwick Crew’s main heroin distributors. (Griem was not implicated in those murders, but was accused of murdering another man named Kelvin Johnson.)
According to court documents, Brown, Cooper, and Griem pleaded not guilty. Goodwin and Marrero were arrested in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, respectively, and ordered to be extradited back to Brooklyn. As of publication, they had not been arraigned nor entered formal pleas. Meanwhile, Steven Brounstein and Gary Cutler, attorneys for Brown and Cooper, declined comment. Griem's lawyer Samuel Gregory did not return a phone message and two emails seeking comment. Goodwin and Marrero were still waiting to have public defenders appointed to represent them in Brooklyn federal court.
Robert J. Bunker, an instructor with the University of Southern California’s Safe Communities Institute, specializes in transnational criminal organizations and global terrorist groups. He echoed Jones in his assessment of the Cartel most likely involved here. "The Los Angeles and Chicago distribution points are indeed linked to Sinaloa," he said in response to written questions. “Second, the crew distributed multi-kilo loads of heroin (and fentanyl) from January 2010—July 2017, which requires continuity of operations. Competing cartels to Sinaloa—such as the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel—have risen and fallen during that time span.”
Bunker argued Brown’s social media postings also offered anecdotal proof of the Bushwick-Sinaloa link. “Doing 'shout outs' to Chapo while working as a distributor for a competing cartel would both be ludicrous and a sign of disrespect that can easily get you killed in the drug-trafficking business,” he told me.
Sinaloa remained one of the most dominant drug-trafficking groups in the Western hemisphere in spite of infighting between factions and the arrest of other major leaders aside from El Chapo, according to a February Mexican cartel report by the global consulting firm Stratfor. “At the beginning of 2017, things did not look good for the Sinaloa cartel,” the report stated. “El Chapo's arrest and extradition left a vacuum in the Sinaloa cartel, which close associate Damaso Lopez Nunez (aka El Licenciado) tried to exploit to take control of the organization.”
However, the report went on to note that Lopez Nunez’s “insurrection (and organization) has been crushed and that it no longer poses a threat to the factions of the Sinaloa cartel headed by Ismael Zambada Garcia (aka El Mayo) and Guzman's sons, Alfredo Guzman Salazar and Ivan Archivaldo Salazar.”
Jones said the Bushwick Crew reminded him of the US drug distribution network run by Pedro and Margarito Flores, who became star witnesses against El Chapo and other Sinaloa Cartel leaders in a major drug-trafficking case out of Chicago. Their cooperation helped lead to the arrest of more than 50 people, of whom approximately 40 had been convicted by March 2015, according to the Chicago Tribune.
"This Bushwick Crew is in the mold of the Flores group," Jones said. "They had engrained connections to the cartel and to local gang members, whom they used as enforcers. The only difference is the Flores were more low profile. This group seems a lot more flashy.”
According to the detention memo, Bushwick Crew members Luis Lopez and Peter Vasquez—who were charged last July—had direct contacts with a Mexican cartel and would routinely receive shipments of dozens of kilograms of heroin worth millions of dollars from other states. “The Crew’s stash houses contained as much as 40 kilograms of heroin during the first wave of arrests in July 2017,” the memo states. “The significant quantities of heroin would frequently require the transportation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, which lower-level members of the drug conspiracy were charged with carrying.”
The feds went on to claim law enforcement had seized nearly a million dollars of the crew’s drug proceeds, over ten kilograms of heroin, multiple kilograms of fentanyl, and an impressive fleet of exotic cars, including a Lamborghini Hurácan, Rolls Royce Ghost and a Mercedes CLS63.
Bunker suggested the Bushwick Crew compromised their operations by posting their lavish lifestyle on social media, increasingly drawing attention to themselves. “They essentially started to go Scarface with the bling, opulence, and parties, and thought they were untouchable,” he told me. “This is the last thing the Sinaloa Cartel would want in a major US plaza heroin distributor, as it is ultimately bad for business.”
Not that Sinaloa is in any kind of trouble here. In fact, Bunker theorized the Cartel had already found a new group to replace the Bushwick Crew supply chain, leaving local misery in the wake of their deadly profit-seeking machine.
"New distribution agreements with a more discrete and smarter criminal organization would have quickly been made,” he argued. “Lots of local gangs exist in that part of New York that would immediately jump at the opportunity of becoming Sinaloa’s new heroin distributors.”
Joseph L. Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant who is an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Mexican cartels, especially Sinaloa, have made inroads into the Big Apple for decades. "The cartels like to compartmentalize," he told me. "They make deals with these street gangs all over. In Texas and Arizona, the cartels have even gotten involved with white supremacist groups."
Giacalone pointed to the bust of Francisco Quiroz-Zamora, a 41-year-old alleged trafficker who cops said stored more than 20 kilos of fentanyl in two hotels in the Bronx and Manhattan; enough to kill millions. The DEA seized the deadly opiates during a pair of raids in June and August 2017.
In a press statement at the time, New York's DEA Special Agent in Charge James J. Hunt said the investigation into Quiroz-Zamora "provides the American public with an inside view of a day in the life of a Sinaloa Cartel drug trafficker."
"You don't have to go out on a limb to say the Sinaloa Cartel has its tentacles here in New York City," Giacalone told me.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter.