CHICAGO – A first-of-its-kind headquarters has opened in Chicago for 70 federal agents, police and prosecutors to work side-by-side, year-round to fight drug traffickers – a set-up meant to end inter-agency rivalry and miscommunication that can hamper investigations.
The recent, fanfare-free opening of the Chicago Strike Force building comes as Mexican cartels now supply over 90 percent of the narcotics in Chicago, and as street gangs vying for turf to sell those drugs kill each other and bystanders caught in the crossfire.
Inter-agency and -department cooperation is hardly a novel concept, but typically takes the form of occasional meetings or temporary joint task forces on specific investigations, said Jack Riley, the head of Chicago's DEA office.
"But you can't talk to your counterparts in once-a-week meetings – you have to talk as things are happening," said Riley, who took the lead in pushing for the facility. "When we get information here, it's not put in a pile and forgotten. It's acted on, now."
Riley gave The Associated Press an exclusive tour of the three-story brick building. Citing security, he asked the AP not to reveal its exact location.
The staff includes city and suburban police, as well as agents from the DEA, FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the IRS and a half-dozen other agencies. In another rarity, U.S. and state prosecutors also work alongside one another. Riley declined to reveal its budget.
It'll take time to see if the headquarters makes anti-trafficking efforts in Chicago more efficient, said Fred Burton, a security analyst for the global intelligence firm Stratfor.
"It sounds great on paper," he said. "But getting federal agencies to act in unison can be like herding cats."
Over the years, competition has led to situations where agencies end up unknowingly targeting the same traffickers, creating the risk that they could inadvertently foil each other's investigations, Riley said.
Thus, the headquarters was designed to foster camaraderie. Employees' desks all sit in a warehouse-sized room with no dividers or signs identifying who belongs to what agency. Response teams are comprised of members from each agency.
A major focus of their investigations will be the point of contact between major traffickers and local gangs, who serve as street-level salesmen. That's when traffickers are especially vulnerable, Reilly says, because they meet at unfamiliar places or use phones that can be wiretapped.
The ultimate goal is to arrest suspects, squeeze them to cooperate and then move along the cartel's chain of command to indict everyone from the street dealer to the kingpins in Mexico. They hope to replicate investigations like one that led to the 2009 indictment of key leaders of the Sinaloa cartel and the extradition of Sinaloa lieutenant Vicente Zambada, who'll stand trial in Chicago this year.
Beat officers should also benefit from the new headquarters, Riley said. A single office with a range of experts on everything from which gang controls what block to cartel structures in Mexico should help officers in the field make sense of anything suspicious, he said.
"They can call and say, 'Hey, I saw this guy who I think is a gang member hand a bag to this other guy. Does it mean anything? "' he said. "Before, there really wasn't a good place to call. There is now."