Mex­ico’s bold Jalisco car­tel places elite in its sights

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KEVIN SIEFF

MEX­ICO CITY — Be­fore they al­legedly tried to as­sas­si­nate this city’s po­lice chief, the foot sol­diers of Mex­ico’s most pow­er­ful drug car­tel al­ready had left a bloody wake across the coun­try.

The Jalisco New Gen­er­a­tion Car­tel has killed judges, con­gress­men, dozens of po­lice of­fi­cers and thou­sands of civil­ians. Its fighters once shot down a mil­i­tary he­li­copter with a rock­et­pro­pelled grenade. The car­tel con­trols the move­ment of more than a third of all drugs con­sumed in the United States, U.S. of­fi­cials say, and has ex­panded into Europe and Asia.

And yet, un­til last month, many here saw the rise of the car­tel as an in­ter­nal mat­ter for the par­ties in an in­ter­minable drug war. Then the group sent

three dozen men armed with mil­i­tary-grade weapons into one of the coun­try’s most ex­clu­sive neigh­bor­hoods, au­thor­i­ties say, to kill the cap­i­tal’s top se­cu­rity of­fi­cial. Omar Gar­cía Har­fuch was shot three times in the June 26 at­tack but sur­vived. Three peo­ple were killed.

Since then, sev­eral Mex­i­can of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the gov­er­nor of the west­ern state of Jalisco, En­rique Al­faro Ramírez, and the head of the coun­try’s hu­man rights com­mis­sion, Rosario Piedra Ibarra, have said that they re­ceived death threats from the car­tel. For now, at least, it ap­pears that Mex­ico has ar­rived at a mo­ment of reck­on­ing, as the coun­try’s elite look more closely at the new, more brazenly vi­o­lent face of the coun­try’s crim­i­nal un­der­world.

“We are see­ing the threat to in­sti­tu­tions, a re­al­ity al­ready vis­i­ble in some states and now re­flected in Mex­ico City,” Al­faro told re­porters.

Un­like the drug car­tels of Pablo Es­co­bar’s Colom­bia, Mex­i­can drug-traf­fick­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions have rarely tar­geted top of­fi­cials, in part to avoid a clash with the state and in part be­cause they have found bribery a more use­ful tool than as­sas­si­na­tion. Though lo­cal politi­cians have been fre­quent tar­gets, state gov­er­nors and fed­eral of­fi­cials have not.

That made the as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt against Gar­cía Har­fuch and news of threats against prom­i­nent of­fi­cials par­tic­u­larly star­tling. Two weeks be­fore Gar­cía Har­fuch was tar­geted in an at­tack on his con­voy, gun­men killed a well-known fed­eral judge, Uriel Vil­le­gas Or­tiz, and his wife, Verónica Bara­jas, in the state of Colima. Vil­le­gas Or­tiz had be­come fa­mous in pre­sid­ing over the case that en­abled the ex­tra­di­tion to the United States of Rubén Oseguera, known as El Men­chito, a son of the head of the Jalisco car­tel.

Last year was the dead­li­est in Mex­ico’s re­cent his­tory, with 35,588 homi­cides. This year, de­spite the novel coron­avirus, the vi­o­lence has con­tin­ued near record highs. An­a­lysts blame much of the killing on turf wars be­tween the Jalisco car­tel and its ri­vals as it ex­pands into new ter­ri­tory.

U.S. of­fi­cials have mapped the rapid ex­pan­sion of the car­tel, known as CJNG for its ini­tials in Span­ish. It is now the pri­mary drug-traf­fick­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion in 24 of Mex­ico’s 32 states, ac­cord­ing to the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion. U.S. of­fi­cials have doc­u­mented the car­tel’s strat­egy of us­ing ex­treme vi­o­lence to over­whelm lo­cal pop­u­la­tions.

“They just had this rapid as­cen­sion be­cause of their non-value of hu­man life, no mat­ter who you are,” said Matthew Don­ahue, the DEA’S deputy chief of op­er­a­tions.

The car­tel emerged in 2010, first as an ally of the Si­naloa car­tel of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and then, by 2013, as an in­de­pen­dent or­ga­ni­za­tion traf­fick­ing drugs through some of Mex­ico’s cen­tral and west­ern states. The or­ga­ni­za­tion de­vel­oped al­le­giances with smaller groups, some­times so­lid­i­fied through mar­riages.

By 2014, car­tel leader Neme­sio Oseguera Cer­vantes, known as El Men­cho, was in­dicted by a dis­trict court in Wash­ing­ton on charges of run­ning a “con­tin­u­ous crim­i­nal en­ter­prise,” and for the al­leged “man­u­fac­ture, im­por­ta­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of co­caine, mar­i­juana and metham­phetamine.” He is among the DEA’S most-wanted fugi­tives; the U.S. gov­ern­ment has of­fered a $10 mil­lion re­ward for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to his cap­ture.

In sub­se­quent years, Jalisco New Gen­er­a­tion ex­ploded across the coun­try, re­cruit­ing lo­cal gangs and small-scale or­ga­ni­za­tions along the way, unit­ing a range of crim­i­nals un­der a sin­gle ban­ner. It was an ar­range­ment that al­lowed for rapid growth; rather than build­ing a traf­fick­ing in­fra­struc­ture, it co-opted and re­shaped an ex­ist­ing one.

“It’s much more an ecosys­tem than it is a ver­ti­cally in­te­grated or­ga­ni­za­tion,” said Ale­jan­dro Hope, a se­cu­rity an­a­lyst who writes a well-known col­umn in Mex­ico’s El Uni­ver­sal news­pa­per.

One byprod­uct of the car­tel’s re­cruit­ment cam­paign was that teenage drug deal­ers and petty thieves sud­denly found them­selves work­ing as transna­tional crim­i­nals. Lo­cal of­fi­cials no­ticed the shift as if it had hap­pened overnight: Trou­bled boys were sud­denly driv­ing ex­pen­sive pick­ups and wield­ing mil­i­tary-grade weapons.

“These are young peo­ple who were en­gaged in other types of crimes such as petty theft, and then sud­denly we see them at in­ci­dents re­lated to or­ga­nized crime,” said Pe­dro Al­berto Cortés Zavala, the sec­re­tary of se­cu­rity in the mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Ira­pu­ato, Gua­na­ju­ato state. “Young peo­ple who are im­mersed in ad­dic­tion prob­lems are easy prey for these or­ga­nized crime groups.”

Cortés Zavala, who is the city’s top se­cu­rity of­fi­cial, spoke a week af­ter gun­men tar­geted a drug re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fa­cil­ity in his city, killing 28 peo­ple. That at­tack ap­pears to have been car­ried out by the Santa Rosa de Lima car­tel against the Jalisco car­tel. The fierce ground war be­tween the two groups in Gua­na­ju­ato has trans­formed the state from one of Mex­ico’s most peace­ful into its dead­li­est.

In Gua­na­ju­ato and else­where, Pres­i­dent An­drés Manuel López Obrador has de­bated how to re­spond to the car­tel’s ex­pan­sion and the surg­ing vi­o­lence it has brought. The pop­ulist leader cam­paigned un­der the slo­gan “Abra­zos, no bal­a­zos” — “Hugs, not bul­lets” — sug­gest­ing that he would not launch a mil­i­tary of­fen­sive to curb the Jalisco car­tel’s in­flu­ence.

Last year, when the ar­rest of al­leged Si­naloa car­tel mem­ber Ovidio Guzmán, El Chapo’s son, drew car­tel fighters into the streets of Cu­li­acán, au­thor­i­ties opted to re­lease him. López Obrador said the decision averted un­nec­es­sary blood­shed, but it was widely seen as a sign of gov­ern­men­tal weak­ness.

In Gua­na­ju­ato, many an­a­lysts think the ad­min­is­tra­tion is merely wait­ing for one car­tel to de­stroy the other so that rel­a­tive peace can re­turn un­der the monopoly of a sin­gle group.

“Ob­vi­ously, we shouldn’t ac­cept one group or the other,” Cortés Zavala said. “But that’s the kind of dy­namic we’ve seen in other cities in Mex­ico.”

The DEA last year car­ried out a roundup of Jalisco car­tel op­er­a­tives and traf­fick­ers in the United States, mak­ing more than 600 ar­rests. Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in the United States have been frus­trated with the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment’s lack of a co­her­ent strat­egy against the Jalisco car­tel and the ham­per­ing of anti-drug op­er­a­tions by per­sis­tent cor­rup­tion.

“They’re kind of stuck be­tween a rock and a hard place right now with the mur­ders go­ing up, the drug traf­fick­ing go­ing up, traf­fick­ers gain­ing more money to be able to cor­rupt more peo­ple and to have in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence and con­tacts,” Don­ahue said.

Mex­i­can of­fi­cials, for their part, have been out­spo­ken about the need for the United States to crack down fur­ther on the flow of guns south into Mex­ico.

“We be­lieve that we are very far from achiev­ing the goal of re­duc­ing the flow of weapons that nur­ture or­ga­nized crime and that gen­er­ate vi­o­lence in our coun­try,” said a se­nior For­eign Min­istry of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to comment pub­licly about the is­sue.

At the site of the as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt against Gar­cía Har­fuch in Mex­ico City’s tony Lo­mas de Cha­pul­te­pec neigh­bor­hood, the po­lice re­cov­ered Bar­rett semi­au­to­matic ri­fles and hun­dreds of rounds of am­mu­ni­tion. Gar­cía Har­fuch’s ar­mored Chevro­let Sub­ur­ban had been struck by dozens of bul­lets.

But when po­lice in­ter­viewed sus­pects in the at­tack, they said, the men all claimed to be guns for hire, some of them low-level mem­bers of lo­cal crim­i­nal groups who had been armed and paid by the car­tel.

“Some­times the au­thor­i­ties and me­dia try to build these guys up as crim­i­nal mas­ter­minds, but that’s not what’s go­ing on,” Hope said.

In the ab­sence of con­clu­sive tes­ti­mony from sus­pected at­tack­ers, the ques­tion of why the car­tel would at­tempt such a high­pro­file killing re­mains unan­swered. Some an­a­lysts think that El Men­cho, thought to be hid­ing in the moun­tains of Jalisco, Colima and Mi­choacán, is sick with a liver prob­lem and that the at­tack might have been a show of force from some­one try­ing to as­cend through the car­tel’s ranks.

In the hours af­ter the at­tack, se­nior Mex­i­can of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the mayor of Mex­ico City, re­fused to spec­u­late on who might have been re­spon­si­ble. But from the hospi­tal, Gar­cía Har­fuch posted a tweet.

“This morn­ing we were cow­ardly at­tacked by the CJNG,” he wrote.

The pres­i­dent has said the car­tel most likely at­tacked Gar­cía Har­fuch for his crack­down on its ex­pan­sion.

“It has to do, with­out a doubt, with the work that is be­ing car­ried out to guar­an­tee peace and tran­quil­ity both in Mex­ico City and in the coun­try,” López Obrador said.

SER­GIO MALDONADO/REUTERS

A drug re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fa­cil­ity in Ira­pu­ato, Gua­na­ju­ato state, where 28 peo­ple died this month in an at­tack by gun­men. A ri­val group ap­pears to have tar­geted the Jalisco car­tel.

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