An 83-Year-Old Chicago Cop Takes on El Chapo Guzman

PHOTO: Art Bilek, Executive Vice President of the Chicago Crime Commission, left, announces that Joaquin "El Chapo Guzman, a drug kingpin in Mexico, is Chicagos Public Enemy No. 1. during a news conference Thursday, Feb. 14 in Chicago.Spencer Green/AP Photo
Art Bilek, Executive Vice President of the Chicago Crime Commission, left, announces that Joaquin "El Chapo'' Guzman, a drug kingpin in Mexico, is Chicago's Public Enemy No. 1. during a news conference Thursday, Feb. 14 in Chicago. It is first time since prohibition, when the label was created for Al Capone, that anyone else has been designated Public Enemy No. 1.

You may have heard last week that Mexican drug trafficker Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán was named Chicago's "public enemy number one."

But did you know that this idea came from an 83-year-old former cop, who was born when alcohol was still prohibited in the United States?

Art Bilek, is the executive vice president of the Chicago Crime Commission, a non-profit group that lobbies for improvements in the city's criminal justice system. He decided to bestow El Chapo with the "public enemy" moniker after reading four books about the drug war in Mexico.

"I read all of those books front to cover and I said, 'if we let this man get ahold of us up here, the way Al Capone did when he was 'Mr. Big' of crime in Chicago, well...we'll wish we hadn't,' " said Bilek, who was a beat cop in the 1950s, a detective in the 1960s and a professor of criminal justice in the 1970s.

DEA officials in Chicago argue that El Chapo Guzmán and his Sinaloa cartel are loosely responsible for the drug-related violence that has plagued this city in the past few years. They say that drugs supplied to the city by this crime organization fuel turf wars between local gangs, who are fighting over places to sell marijuana, cocaine and heroine.

But what difference does it make to call El Chapo "public enemy number one"?

Bilek hopes that by raising this gangster's profile and "calling him out for what he is," he will get local officials and federal law enforcement groups to take tougher actions against the Sinaloa cartel and those who distribute its products in the United States. Ultimately, he wants El Chapo arrested and extradited to the United States.

And he is not alone in this crusade. The local office for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also thinks it's a good idea.

"It is our hope that by the Chicago Crime Commission naming Chapo Guzman public enemy #1, it will encourage citizens to get more involved in reporting narcotic related activities that they may be aware of in their communities," Owen Putman, a spokesman for the DEA's Chicago bureau, wrote in an email.

Bilek says that in 1930, the Chicago Crime Commission mounted a similar PR campaign against Al Capone, who was then also labeled by the non-profit as "public enemy number one." On that occasion, members of the Crime Commission pushed the local press to talk about Capone's links to violence. They also took a train to Washington D.C., where they met with the attorney general, and pressured the federal government to come up with a solution for Chicago's crime problem.

A year after the Crime Commission's visit, Al Capone was arrested for tax evasion, and sent to Alcatraz prison.

"Guzmán is so much more dangerous, so much more evil, so much more powerful in my mind, that I feel that we have an imperative to do something about this man," Bilek said.

Of course, not everyone agrees that catching kingpins is the best way to stop drug violence. Or that the Sinaloa cartel is more violent than other groups, like the feared Los Zetas gang.

Some drug policy analysts think that Mr Bilek's "public enemy" push is on the verge of the absurd.

Sanho Tree, the director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a D.C. think tank, said the idea was "bloody-minded" and "ignorant."

"The problem with Al Capone was not so much Capone himself, it's the fact that alcohol prohibition gave these criminals the perfect opportunity to make a lot of money," he said. "As soon as you legalized alcohol again, the massacres stopped."

Daniel Robelo, a research coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance, echoed that sentiment.

"Even if El Chapo was to be taken out tomorrow, there would only be a momentary disruption of the drug trade, if any at all," Robelo said. Capturing El Chapo could splinter the Sinaloa cartel and lead to violent competition for its drug trafficking routes, he added.

Bilek doesn't think those comments are completely off. He agrees that ending alcohol prohibition ultimately had a bigger effect on crime reduction in Chicago than the arrest of Al Capone. He also said that the legalization of certain drugs could do more to undercut gang violence in the Chicago area than arresting El Chapo Guzmán.

But he also argues that for the moment, the best thing that his organization can do is to seek tougher action against El Chapo and other top criminals.

"I don't have the kind of lobbying power [to change drug laws] and I don't know if it's ever going to happen in America, because America is very conservative," Bilek said. "The only shot I've got is to get the gang that's the most dangerous right now," he said. "And I believe that's the Guzman gang."