NMG’s Michael Tarm wins Beat of the Week


Michael Tarm

Michael Tarm

Guild member Michael Tarm, AP’s federal courts reporter in Chicago, won last week’s Beat of the Week award for an unprecedented look at the U.S. operations of Mexican drug cartels.He found they’re sending top lieutenants to run drug rings in the suburbs of America’s heartland, not just in border states and big cities.

And those cartel operatives are being kept in line with threats of torture or death for their loved ones back in Mexico.

The story began with a routine check-in call with a retired law enforcement source. When the ex-organized crime investigator mentioned the growing number of drug-running suspects here tied to cartels in Mexico, Tarm began painstakingly documenting nearly 100 such cases from trial files. That was particularly difficult because a defendant’s cartel involvement isn’t disclosed until a trial ends.


In one rich vignette, Tarm told of a cartel operative who was wiretapped. He had near-daily phone chats with his “manager” back home, revealing details of his history, from being trained in Mexico’s mountains to his assignment to the Chicago area.

Tarm backed the court case data up with information from interviews with prosecutors, defense lawyers and other experts on the drug war, who helped him frame the story.

During his investigation, Tarm learned notorious drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was listed as Chicago’s Public Enemy No. 1, just like Al Capone.

An independent crime-tracking group, the Chicago Crime Commission, labeled Guzman more dangerous than Capone because Guzman heads the Sinaloa cartel that supplies most narcotics sold in Chicago and other U.S. cities. That’s despite Guzman never having been to the Windy City.