Pedro and Margarito Flores led an unusual childhood. Growing up in the Chicago neighbourhood of Little Village with their father, a high ranking wholesale cocaine dealer, the identical twin brothers were normalised to the world of drug crime from a young age.
Initially they followed in their father’s footsteps, running drugs with the Latin Kings gang. And yet, the brothers’ combined characters and unwavering commitment to each other endeared them to a host of unscrupulous characters. Uniquely able to connect previously disparate Hispanic and black gangs, the brothers rose quickly through the street gangs, eventually becoming two of the USA’s biggest wholesalers of cocaine and heroin.
The brothers were seen as businessmen, CEOs of the street with the integrity to match. Inseparable since birth, many attribute their success to the brother’s steadfast relationship and the rare underworld values they shared; values such as restraint and loyalty that would later become iconic of their demeanour. When Pedro was kidnapped in 2003, Margarito paid the full $2 million USD ransom immediately, absorbing the cost rather than seeking to strike back. Even when presented with the kidnapper on a platter, the brothers turned the other cheek, choosing to focus on growing their business rather than engaging in gang-warfare.
Thanks in part to their father’s contacts in Mexico, the Sinaloa cartel, and the notorious Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, soon became their main supplier. Yet in 2008 a split within the cartel forced them into a choice between two new factions. Having previously worked with both sides and with the two new leaders locked in vicious opposition, entering into business with one would undoubtedly result in repercussions from the other. Faced with a clear lose-lose situation the brothers made a surprising choice. They flipped, turning their back on their heritage and strong ties within the global narcotic industry, and came forward to Chicago police in hopes of a plea bargain.
With estimates of maneuvering over 71 tonnes of cocaine and nearly $2 billion USD in cash, the brothers represented a considerable coup for the police force, but their connections to El Chapo himself held an even bigger bounty. In a bold move the brothers agreed to wear wires and proceeded to record over 70 different conversations with El Chapo and his highest ranking members over the following months.
The decision to turn their back on their community, illicit as it may be, could not have been easy for the Flores brothers. The society in which we live has long been seen to exert considerable influence on our personal conceptualisations of morality and, having grown up deep within the narcotic underworld, the brothers’ moral compasses are likely to be skewed. With a natural inclination to downplay the real-world impacts of their line of business and a personal belief system that values loyalty and integrity above all, the fact the brothers turned their back on their community becomes all the more intriguing.
For many psychologists and philosophers morality is viewed as a learnt system, with children born as ‘blank slates’ free from pre-ordained moral judgements. Our morality is seen to derive from interactions with our environment and the people that populate it. But if our sense of right and wrong is based upon our upbringing, what pushed the brothers to make such an uncharacteristic decision?
One possible answer: the instinct for survival. The need to prevail at all costs, to pass our genes down generations; it is a universal trait shared by almost every living being. Many evolutionary scientists, including Darwin himself, believe the human conception of morality and ethics to be merely an adaptation to help us survive. By developing universal laws of co-operation and outlining what community views as right and wrong, we are shown how to act. Behaving within the norms of our community, cohesion is increased, helping to promote the survival of society in general. In this way, morality may be a universal trait of humanity, but self-preservation is the driving force behind the behaviour itself.
Growing up in a neighbourhood dominated by illicit trade would largely normalise a life of crime, weakening instinctive judgements between right and wrong. Yet when faced with a threat to family survival, it seems that in this case, the instinct for self-preservation won out.
Internal conflicts such as these require us to reflect on our basic human emotions and assess which choices pose the least threat to our character. In life or death situations our instinct for self-preservation kicks in, overriding collective representations of morality or ethics. For the Flores brothers, preservation prevailed over the community values they demonstrated back in 2008. It did not, however, call into question their commitment to each other.
Upon their release from jail, likely to be in 2021, these brothers will have yet another hefty decision to combat. In order to ensure their survival, the U.S. Government will place them within the Witness Protection Program, with the process requiring them to forge new identities of their own. For the program to work there can be zero contact between them upon release. U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo sketched the reality if they don’t submit to the court’s recommendations. “For the rest of your life, every time you start a car, you will be wondering, ‚‘will this car start or will it explode?’”
So once again the Flores brothers will need to deliberate the essence of their character. Will they adhere to the courts instruction to separate and not contact one another once they get out? Or will their instinct towards each other be strong enough to overcome their desire for self-preservation? We are going to have to wait five years to find out.
Words: Skye-Maree Dixon