On a hot, humid night last August, two wealthy Mexican brothers went out to party in Puerto Vallarta.
Ivan, 35, and Jesus Alfredo Guzmán, 29, had been vacationing in the resort city all week. Now it was Sunday, the night before Ivan's 36th birthday, and they booked a table at an upscale restaurant called La Leche to celebrate. Six men and nine women joined them there – young, attractive and well-dressed, driving Range Rovers and Escalades – where they sat at a long candle-lit table in the center of the all-white room, ordered champagne and sang "Happy Birthday." Three hours later they were wrapping up their night when, shortly after midnight, a half-dozen men with assault rifles burst in and surrounded them.
One gunman forced Ivan to his knees, then kicked him hard in the ribs, sending him sprawling to the floor. Jesus Alfredo was also held at gunpoint. The brothers and the other men were then hustled out to two waiting SUVs and driven off into the night, while the women were left unharmed. The whole operation took less than two minutes – the restaurant's owner would later describe it as "violent, but very clean." And thus, without a shot being fired, the two youngest sons of notorious Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín Guzmán – a.k.a. "El Chapo" – had been kidnapped.
Chapo's sons had made the mistake of partying on the turf of Sinaloa's newest and most dangerous rival: an upstart cartel boss named Rubén Oseguera Cervantes – alias "El Mencho." A former Jalisco state policeman who once served three years in a U.S. prison for selling heroin, Mencho heads what many experts call Mexico's fastest-growing, deadliest and, according to some, richest drug cartel – the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG. Although he's basically unknown in the U.S., Mencho has been indicted in a D.C. federal court on charges of drug trafficking, corruption and murder, and currently has a $5 million bounty on his head. Aside from perhaps Rafael Caro Quintero – the aging drug lord still wanted for the 1985 torture and killing of a DEA agent – he is probably America's top cartel target. "It was Chapo," says a DEA source. "Now it's Mencho."
CJNG have been around for only about half a decade, but with their dizzyingly swift rise, they have already achieved what took Sinaloa a generation. The cartel has established trafficking routes in dozens of countries on six continents and controls territory spanning half of Mexico, including along both coasts and both borders. "[CJNG] have increased their operations like no other criminal organization to date," said a classified Mexican intelligence report obtained by the newspaper El Universal. This past May, Mexico's attorney general, Raúl Cervantes, declared them the most ubiquitous cartel in the country.
CJNG specialize in methamphetamine, which has higher profit margins than cocaine or heroin. By focusing on lucrative foreign markets in Europe and Asia, the cartel has simultaneously maintained a low profile in the U.S. and built up a massive war chest, which some experts estimate is worth $20 billion. "These guys have way more money than Sinaloa," says a former DEA agent who spent years hunting the cartel in Mexico (and who requested anonymity for security reasons). According to another U.S. investigator, "Mencho has been very, very aggressive – and so far, unfortunately, it's paid off."
Though most Americans might not realize it, Mexico's cartels have been almost uniformly weakened. The notoriously fearsome Zetas – ex-special-forces commandos who terrorized the country with mutilations and beheadings – have been crippled by costly turf wars and the arrest of their top leaders. Other once-powerful groups like the Knights Templar and Gulf Cartel have also been marginalized. Even mighty Sinaloa have descended into infighting following El Chapo's recent extradition to New York, as multiple factions, including Chapo's sons, his younger brother, and his former partner Ismael "Mayo" Zambada, battle for control.
This balkanization has made Mexico a breeding ground for violence. Since Chapo's arrest in January 2016, the country's homicide rate has increased more than 20 percent, with 20,000 murders last year alone – more than in Iraq or Afghanistan. In the first five months of 2017, the homicide rate leapt another 30 percent. Thousands of these killings can be chalked up to CJNG's push for territory. Vast burial sites have been discovered in states where the cartel has been most aggressive, like Veracruz, which the state attorney general recently described as a "giant grave"; in Colima, where CJNG and Sinaloa spent last year fighting for supremacy, the murder rate more than tripled.
"We've seen it become very bloody, and a lot of people attribute that to El Mencho himself," says Scott Stewart, a senior cartel analyst at Stratfor, a private intelligence firm. "Wherever they try to muscle in, it creates bodies."
Mencho has also displayed a savagery that's extreme even by narco standards. For the admittedly brutal Chapo, killing was a necessary part of business. For Mencho, it seems more like sadism as public spectacle. There have been mass killings, such as the 35 bound and tortured bodies dumped in the streets of Veracruz during evening rush hour in 2011. Two years later, CJNG operatives raped, killed and set fire to a 10-year-old girl whom they (mistakenly) believed was a rival's daughter. In 2015, CJNG assassins executed a man and his elementary-school-age son by detonating sticks of dynamite duct-taped to their bodies, laughing as they filmed the ghastly scene with their phones. "This is ISIS stuff," says one DEA agent who has investigated the cartel. "The manner in which they kill people, the sheer numbers – it's unparalleled even in Mexico."
"In Mexico, you'd run into guys who had met Chapo," says a former DEA agent. "But not Mencho. He's kind of a ghost."
The ISIS comparison is instructive for another reason. When Chapo was at the height of his power, following Mexico's bloody cartel wars of a decade ago, the country enjoyed a period of relative peace – what the novelist and drug-war chronicler Don Winslow has dubbed the "Pax Sinaloa." But much like how the Islamic State grew from the vacuum of post-Saddam Iraq, one unintended consequence of taking out Chapo may have been opening the door for someone even worse.
Only a handful of photos of Mencho are known to exist, and even the State Department's description of him is comically nondescript: He's five feet eight, 165 pounds, brown eyes, brown hair. Narco balladeers have celebrated his rumored love of fast motorbikes and $100,000 cockfights – one of his nicknames is "El Señor de los Gallos," "The Lord of the Roosters" – but otherwise, he's a cipher. "Over 25 years of working in Mexico, you'd run into guys who had met Chapo, who would talk about him," the former DEA agent says. "But with Mencho, you don't hear that. He's kind of a ghost."
In a way, kidnapping El Chapo's sons served as Mencho's coming-out party. "The plan was to kill them," a DEA source says. "[CJNG] were going to kidnap them, get the confessions they wanted, and then whack 'em."
But at the last minute, Chapo – at the time still locked up in Mexico – was able to negotiate a deal. In exchange for what the DEA source calls "$2 million and a whole lot of dope," both sons were released unharmed.
The ransom payment was largely ceremonial. "Mencho doesn't need the money," the source says. "He was sending a message. 'Your old man is locked up now. Don't think you're untouchable.' " From Cancún to California, the warning was clear. Mencho was coming for the throne.
Jalisco is, in many ways, the quintessential Mexican state. Mariachi music was born there; so were tequila and sombreros. The state's motto is "Jalisco es México." For decades the state was a neutral zone for the cartels: Many wealthy narcos kept homes in the capital, Guadalajara – a picture-postcard colonial city nicknamed "The Pearl of the West" – while beachside resort towns like Puerto Vallarta were a favorite vacation spot not just for drug lords but Mexican politicians as well.
But Jalisco is also, strategically speaking, hugely important real estate for the drug trade. As Mexico's second-largest city and a major financial and transportation hub, Guadalajara offers plentiful opportunities for money-laundering and recruitment. Jalisco also sits near Mexico's two largest seaports, Manzanillo and Lázaro Cárdenas – which come in handy for shipping out multi-ton drug loads. "If I had to pick a major factor [that enabled Mencho's rise]," says Special Agent Kyle Mori of the DEA's Los Angeles field division, "it's that he had a huge geographical advantage."
Mori, 35, is square-jawed and earnest, with the friendly authority of a park ranger, albeit one who carries a Glock. But he's also "a bulldog when it comes to investigations," says his supervisor, DEA Special Agent in Charge James Comer. Prior to joining the DEA, Mori worked as an L.A. County sheriff's deputy on patrol in Compton. Now, as the agency's foremost investigator into CJNG – and the agent who helped prepare the 2014 indictment against Mencho – he knows the cartel probably better than anyone in America. "I've been working these guys pretty much since I started," Mori says. "This is what I do."
The first time Mencho popped up on Mori's radar was a fluke. Back in 2010, Mori was working on an unrelated money-laundering case with a field agent in Guadalajara who told him about a fresh target, a new cartel: "They're a huge problem down here in Jalisco. When Chapo gets picked up, these guys are gonna run the show."
At the time, CJNG were billing themselves as saviors. Answering to the name Mata Zetas – or Zeta Killers – they dressed in black paramilitary gear and posted propaganda videos in which they claimed to be fighting the Zetas for the people of Mexico. "We do not extort, kidnap, rob, oppress or in any other way disturb the national well-being," one video said. "Our only objective is to finish off the Zetas."
"This is a guy who'll execute your whole family based on not much more than a rumor," a source says. "He just has zero regard for human life."
But as Stratfor's Stewart says of the drug war, "There really aren't any Robin Hoods in Mexico." It was soon revealed that CJNG weren't good guys at all, but just another cartel trying to protect its nascent methamphetamine empire.
In a 2008 diplomatic cable ("Chemical City: Guadalajara, Jalisco and the Meth Trade"), a U.S. official detailed how Jalisco had become Mexico's capital for synthetic drugs. Unlike heroin or marijuana, meth didn't require large plots of land or good weather – just isolated areas in which to build labs. Guadalajara also had a thriving pharmaceutical industry, with young chemists full of technical know-how. And then there were the Pacific ports, which allowed CJNG to smuggle in vast quantities of precursor chemicals from India and China, and smuggle out the finished product.
"These guys were huge early adopters of methamphetamine," Stewart says. "They also understood the economics: Unlike cocaine, which they had to buy from the Colombians, with meth, they controlled the lion's share of the profits."
But according to a DEA analyst, "The problem with meth guys is that they're unhinged." Compared to the more established cartels, Mencho and CJNG were "hillbilly, backwoods guys who made their reputation crushing up pseudoephedrine," the analyst says. "They didn't have to wine and dine Bolivian suppliers, or fly to South America to do international negotiations. They're not sophisticated. They're very rough."
But as Mencho quickly built his business, his operation grew more complex. He invested heavily in submarines, which he used to bring in narcotics from South America. (According to the former DEA agent, he even hired Russian naval engineers to help design the subs.) He avoided American scrutiny by focusing on overseas markets such as Australia, where – as Mori explains – a kilo of cocaine can fetch quadruple the price it does in the States. ("You send five tons to Australia, it's like doing 20 here," he says.) Mencho also employed more earthly techniques, like using fashion models to smuggle in drugs. According to the former field agent, CJNG traffickers would pose as magazine photographers, complete with fake credentials, and fly into Mexico with "talent" from Colombia and Venezuela. Authorities would be so distracted by the women that the drugs would slip right in.
Mencho leveraged his power using the twin tools of corruption and intimidation. Captured CJNG members have testified about how he hates disobedience and likes to make his victims beg forgiveness before killing them. "This is a guy who'll execute your whole family based on not much more than a rumor," a source says. "He just has zero regard for human life." According to one source who met Mencho, he's a shrewd businessman who doesn't drink, doesn't have lovers like other cartel leaders do and trusts almost no one.
The former field agent says he's heard multiple taped phone calls of Mencho talking to cartel underlings. "These guys are killers themselves, and they were afraid," the agent says. "He was ordering them around. I don't think I heard any where he was calm. But he wasn't a hothead. The yelling was very controlled. He knew what he was doing."
Mencho's ferocity inspired similar devotion from his troops. "One time there was a big shootout at a fair," the former agent recalls. "Someone threw a grenade, and some [CJNG] guys fell on it to avoid Mencho getting killed." According to the agent, Mencho's ruthlessness also made it hard to recruit informants against him. The agent once had a source who got close – he had an address for Mencho. But when the cartel realized he was sniffing around, they kidnapped the man as well as his teenage son. "They found the father's body a month later," the agent says. "He'd been tortured. They never found the kid."
Mencho also bought off cops. Jalisco's governor, Aristóteles Sandoval, has said that when he first took office, the state's "greatest vulnerability was the infiltration of organized crime" into its police forces. According to a report by Reuters, at one point CJNG had more than half of Jalisco's municipal police on the payroll – some at more than five times their salaries. "People stopped trusting the police," said Jalisco Attorney General Eduardo Almaguer. And the cops Mencho couldn't buy, he terrorized. According to the former DEA field agent, CJNG inspired an extraordinary degree of fear in Mexican police, above and beyond that of most cartels. "They were afraid of [Mencho]," he says. "They didn't want to piss him off."
Then there was the time (never publicly reported) that Mencho sent a severed pig's head to the attorney general in Mexico City as a warning. "They put it right on his doorstep, in an ice chest," the former field agent says. "I was surprised it was only a pig."
A recently surfaced telephone call shows how casually Mencho wields the threat of violence. On the recording, he can be heard talking to a local police commander (call sign "Delta One") whose officers were apparently being too zealous for Mencho's liking. An abridged translation follows:
Mencho: Delta One?
Commander: Yes, who's speaking?
M: Listen up, you son of a bitch. This is Mencho. Tell your guys to back the fuck off, or I will seriously fuck you up. I'll kill even your fucking dogs, motherfucker.
M: Yes, sir. I'll tell them to stand down—
M: Don't hang up on me, you son of a bitch. I know where you are – you were just in Chapala [a wealthy suburb of Guadalajara].
C: No, sir. I'm not hanging up. I'll tell them to stand down.
M: I thought you said we would get along, motherfucker. You'd better get on board or you'll be the first to go, understand?
C: No, sir. We don't have to go there. We do not have to go there.
M: If you want friendship, you have a great friend here. But if not, then you can go fuck yourself.
C: Sir, you know me. You know I'm your friend. I'll make some calls right now. I'll call you back at this number—
M: No, no, no. Don't call this number. I'll call you. And don't turn off this phone, or else I'll take that as a negative [sign].
C: Yes, sir. You know me, sir. You know there's respect.
M: OK, then. Sorry for the bad language.
While CJNG were ramping up operations, the DEA was preoccupied with Chapo's Sinaloa cartel, helping Mencho fly under the radar. "All the cables out of headquarters, all the intelligence reports, were focused on Chapo," the former field agent says. "The bosses in D.C. were like, 'We've never heard of [CJNG].' They didn't think they were important." Partly as a result, Mori's investigation had difficulty gaining traction. "We hit a dead end," he says. "We didn't get close to Mencho, didn't get any sources, didn't get any wiretaps. We knew we had this big player, this up-and-coming narco – but we had no 'in' to investigate him."
So the case was put on the back burner, and for the next few years, CJNG became an afterthought. "A few people at headquarters and in Mexico saw what was going on," Mori says. "But if you asked most DEA agents [back then] if they knew who Mencho was, they would say no."
Yet, just a few years later, this former small-timer would become one of the most sought-after kingpins on the planet, with an army of 5,000 troops – roughly the same size as the DEA – and a personal net approaching one billion. "How does somebody go from being a nickel-and-dime street dealer to being one of the most prolific, most wanted traffickers in the world?" Mori asks.
The answer is: He goes to America.
The town of Naranjo de Chila is a dusty mountain pueblo in southwestern Michoacán, a lifetime from the high-rises of Guadalajara. It was here, on July 17th, 1966, that Rubén Oseguera Cervantes was born – one of six brothers in a family of poor avocado farmers. The town sits on the edge of Mexico's Tierra Caliente, or "Hot Land" – a harsh, impoverished region famous for producing agricultural products both legal and less so. To help earn money for his struggling family, young Rubén dropped out of school in the fifth grade and started working in the fields; by 14, he'd graduated to guarding marijuana crops.
Mencho must have dreamed of more than avocados, however, because within a few years he had packed up and moved north to California. By 1986, he was living in the Bay Area, where he was arrested by San Francisco police for possession of stolen property and a loaded gun. A booking photo from the incident shows a 19-year-old Mencho wearing a hoodie and a blank expression, acne on his baby face. Two months later, his first child was born.
It's unclear if Mencho served any time for the incident, but according to Univision, he crossed the border several more times throughout the late Eighties, smuggling drugs under a variety of aliases (Rubén Ávila, Roberto Salgado). According to DEA and Mexican reports, it was also during this time that he got his introduction to the meth trade.
At the time, meth production was concentrated in California's Central Valley, at so-called superlabs in cities like Fresno and Bakersfield. It was there, along with his wife's brother Abigael Gonzalez Valencia, that Mencho learned what would become the family business.
Mencho joined the Sinaloa protection detail as "basically a bodyguard-slash-enforcer-slash-hitman," says one expert.
By 1989, Mencho was back in San Francisco, where he was arrested again, this time for selling drugs. (In that booking photo, he sports an acid-washed jean jacket and a wry smile; he doesn't look like a man eager to be rehabilitated anytime soon.) He was deported a few months later, but by September 1992, he was back in the Bay Area yet again, where he was busted once more – this time on federal charges.
According to court records, here's how it went down. Mencho's older brother Abraham was at a San Francisco bar called the Imperial to do a heroin deal: five ounces for $9,500. Mencho, who was 26 at the time, tagged along as a lookout. But though he was the younger brother, Mencho was savvy enough to recognize that the buyers paid not in loose bills, but with a neat stack of hundreds. In a wiretapped conversation that followed, he warned Abraham that the men were undercover cops and said he wouldn't deal with them anymore.
But once was enough: Three weeks later, Mencho and his brother were arrested.
Twenty-five years later, neither the prosecutor nor Mencho's court-appointed defense attorney can recall many details about the case. But court transcripts portray Mencho as a shrewd defendant, by turns combative and deeply loyal to his brother, even displaying occasional flashes of dark humor. (At one point Mencho grumbled about his lawyer, "Whenever I talk to him, he tells me the same thing. . . . So I try to talk with him as little as possible.")
Mencho insisted he was innocent, that he had nothing to do with the deal and that the agents were lying about seeing him handle the dope. But the prosecutor said the brothers were a package: If Mencho didn't plead guilty, then Abraham – with two felony drug convictions already to his name – would be facing a possible life sentence. Mencho went back and forth on what to do. "Given a jury trial, I think I would be able to win it by myself," he told the skeptical judge. But in the end, he decided to plead guilty to protect his brother. During sentencing, he asked the judge to please "give me the least possible." Her response: "I would suspect you would do that."
Mencho was sentenced to five years at Big Spring Correctional Center, a private prison in West Texas that housed mainly undocumented immigrants. (According to Univision, some of the gang members he met in prison he would later recruit to join CJNG.) He had served three years when, in January 1997, he was released on parole. U.S. marshals deported him back to Mexico – a hardened felon at 30 years old.
The next few years are fuzzy, but according to Mexican and DEA reports, Mencho washed up in a Jalisco town called Tomatlán, where – improbably – he became an officer with the Jalisco state police. (It wouldn't be the first time a narco had infiltrated the Mexican state police, which – unlike their federal counterparts – are widely viewed as corrupt.) Eventually, Mencho made his way to Guadalajara, where he fell in with the Milenio Cartel – the group that would ultimately catapult him to power.
Milenio had once been their own organization, but by the turn of the century they were essentially a subsidiary of Sinaloa, under the leadership of Nacho Coronel – a Sinaloa co-founder and the uncle of El Chapo's wife. Coronel was a ruthlessly brutal capo who ran the Guadalajara plaza, or trafficking zone, for Sinaloa. Mencho joined his protection detail – as, Stratfor's Stewart says, "basically a bodyguard-slash-enforcer-slash-hitman." With his law-enforcement background, Mencho would have been trained to handle security and counter-intelligence. According to some reports, he even led his own network of sicarios, or assassins.
One of Coronel's nicknames was "The King of Crystal," for his dominance of the meth trade, which – following a U.S. crackdown – had, like so many industries, shifted south of the border. As a result, meth production was flourishing in the rugged mountains around Jalisco. Thanks to his experience in the States, Mencho was well-positioned to take advantage.
By 2009, Mencho had risen through the cartel's ranks to become a top Milenio lieutenant. Then, in October, one of Milenio's leaders was arrested, and nine months later, Coronel himself was killed, shot during an army raid on his Guadalajara mansion. The top two bosses in Jalisco had suddenly been taken off the table. An ambitious Mencho stepped up to take their place.
But the cartel's leadership had other ideas. After one of his colleagues got the nod instead, Mencho – like a corporate vice president upset about being passed over for CEO – broke off and started his own splinter group, which promptly declared war on Milenio and Sinaloa. The fighting raged in the streets of Guadalajara, destroying the city's long-standing truce, and Jalisco's murder rate more than doubled. "The guys who were loyal to Milenio were killed," says Mori. "Everyone else was forced to flee. And Mencho won – that was the beginning of CJNG."
Two hours south of Puerto Vallarta, on a glittering stretch of the Pacific called the Costalegre (or "Happy Coast"), there's a five-star eco-resort called the Hotelito Desconocido – "the Little Unknown Hotel." Two dozen thatched-roof bungalows nestled amid a UNESCO bird paradise, the property has been written about in Architectural Digest and The Wall Street Journal and has cultivated an air of luxury and discretion: Previous guests have reportedly included Hollywood A-listers such as Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts and Blake Lively.
Unfortunately for the Hotelito's owners, in August 2015, it was seized by the Mexican government after American officials declared it a cartel front. According to U.S. investigators, the property had deep ties to CJNG and their sister organization, Los Cuinis – an affiliated trafficking group led by Mencho's brother-in-law Valencia. The cartels reportedly used the hotel to launder money and hold secret meetings; as it turns out, the property is near Tomatlán, the same town where Mencho served as a cop. The Hotelito's owner – Mencho's sister-in-law – was later arrested in Uruguay with her husband, after the Panama Papers revealed they owned millions in illegal assets.
The agency behind the Hotelito's unmasking was the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control, or OFAC. "Our job is similar to any law-enforcement agent's – we just don't arrest people," an OFAC investigator says. Instead, when OFAC suspects someone of supporting a cartel, it can "designate" that person under the Kingpin Act, thereby freezing assets and, in essence, locking the suspect out of the financial system. OFAC added Mencho to its financial blacklist in 2015 and, in a series of actions since, has exposed a vast web of CJNG-related holdings, including an agricultural company, an advertising firm, a vacation-rental business, a tequila brand and a chain of sushi restaurants.
"The idea is to squeeze Mencho through his business associates," the investigator says. "By putting things on the list, we kind of shine a light and say, 'The guy who owns this company is actually a front for El Chapo or El Mencho, and he's been laundering money for 20 years – so you probably shouldn't be doing business with him.' "
As OFAC was exerting financial pressure on Mencho, Mexican law enforcement was also stepping up the hunt. They'd had several close calls before: In March 2012, the Mexican army (known by the acronym SEDENA) raided a Guadalajara apartment building where Mencho was believed to be hiding. A shootout followed, but Mencho was able to escape. A few months later, Mexican federal police staged another raid, attacking a rural CJNG compound with five Black Hawk helicopters; in the ensuing firefight, six CJNG members were killed. Reports surfaced that Mencho had been captured by the government, although that turned out to be false. According to a DEA source, "They literally missed him by minutes."
The following spring, CJNG taunted authorities with a faux press conference posted to YouTube, featuring 50 mercenaries in balaclavas and body armor holding weapons in front of a huge CJNG banner. At the end, a spokesman delivered a message from "el señor," meaning Mencho: "Bark, dogs," he said in Spanish. "But while you're barking, know that I am advancing."
And then Mencho declared war. On March 19th, 2015, a detachment of federal police was on a stakeout in a Jalisco town called Ocotlán when CJNG gunmen ambushed it, killing five officers. Two weeks later in Guadalajara, the cartel carried out an assassination attempt on Jalisco's commissioner of public security, Alejandro Solorio, spraying his armored truck with more than 200 bullets. "When we tried to strike back," Solorio said later, "they threw two grenades at us."
Then, the week after Easter, the big one. A convoy of elite Fuerza Única police was driving from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara when – around 3 p.m. on a winding two-lane mountain road – it came across a burned-out car blocking its way. The convoy stopped, and that's when CJNG attacked, bombarding the pinned-down cops with machine guns and grenade launchers. Fifteen officers were killed in the bloodbath – the deadliest day for Mexican law enforcement in about a decade. CJNG suffered no casualties.
Mexico's secretary of defense delivered a full-throated denunciation of CJNG, calling them "people without scruples or conscience who, with their vile actions, harm Mexicans, their families, their heritage and their way of life." "This cowardly attack," Solorio declared, "will not go unpunished."
A few weeks later, the Mexican army struck back with Operation Jalisco – a planned decapitation strike. In the pre-dawn darkness on Friday, May 1st, a detachment of elite SEDENA paratroopers and federal police – carried by two EC-725 "Super Cougar" helicopters – descended on a ranch in southwestern Jalisco where Mencho was believed to be hiding. But once again, the cartel was waiting for them. As the first soldiers rappelled from a chopper, cartel gunmen in armored trucks and camouflage uniforms reading "CJNG Special Forces High Command" opened fire with assault rifles and Russian-made RPGs. One of the helicopter's rotors was hit, sending it crashing down in flames. Eight soldiers and one police officer were killed. The lone survivor, an intelligence officer named Iván Morales, suffered burns to more than 70 percent of his body.
The attack marked a deadly milestone: the first time a Mexican military aircraft had been destroyed by a cartel. In the hours that followed, Mencho doubled down on the terror, setting fire to dozens of hijacked buses, trucks, gas stations and banks throughout Jalisco, snarling traffic and bringing the state to its knees. The U.S. consulate warned its citizens to shelter in place; the Mexican government had to send in 10,000 troops to secure the state. According to the former DEA agent, the chaos was designed to help Mencho escape – a tactic the cartel reportedly learned from Israeli commandos. "I've heard about Israelis meeting with them – snipers and stuff," the agent says. "It's a technical use of force you've never seen with Mexican cartels."
"It was a pretty amazing rapid deployment of forces," says one federal investigator. "In hardly any time at all, Mencho got his organization to create chaos in the second-largest city in Mexico. 'Oh, you're coming after me? I'll show you who's really in charge.' " This aggression, the investigator says, was almost unprecedented. "[CJNG] weren't just reacting to raids. They were actively going out and seeking confrontation with authorities. You could argue that you hadn't seen that type of initiative since Pablo Escobar."
Had the war between CJNG and the military continued to escalate, there's a good chance Mencho may have been captured or killed. Instead, he caught a lucky break thanks to his old-boss-turned-nemesis – El Chapo.
A federal investigator explains: "After May 2015, Mencho had pretty much been declared public enemy number one in Mexico. But then on July 11th, what happens? Chapo escapes. Obviously, the Mexican government is embarrassed as hell. And they shift all their resources back to capturing Chapo. I think CJNG took that opportunity to re-evaluate their strategy."
The cartel stopped ambushing police and dialed back the violence. "They're still killing people," the investigator says. "The difference is, they're killing their rivals."
And right now, nowhere is this bloody approach more apparent than in Tijuana.
Of all Mexico's drug plazas, arguably the most valuable is Tijuana. Nearly all traffic into Southern California passes through the city, at which point it's an easy trip through the western U.S. to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, Chicago, or even Canada. Roughly $225 million worth of narcotics is seized in the DEA's San Diego corridor each year – no doubt just a fraction of what gets through. By that measure, control of Tijuana could be a billion-dollar industry.
Up until a few years ago, the city was firmly in the grip of the Sinaloa Cartel. But starting around 2013 or so, CJNG began to muscle their way in. According to journalist Adela Navarro, their recruiting pitch was simple: "Join us, or we'll kill you." A captured cartel lieutenant who fought against Mencho described a similar strategy: "Everyone who pushed dope was kidnapped or killed," the man said. "If you were working, you started working for him – otherwise, you're gone." (He went on to add, "It's a fucking war with no end and no point.")
Navarro, a striking woman with a no-nonsense manner, is the editor of ZETA, Tijuana's award-winning investigative newspaper. The paper is legendary for taking on narcos: Its founding co-editor Héctor Félix Miranda was murdered in 1988 for allegedly unmasking a cartel-affiliated businessman; his co-editor Jesús Blancornelas was shot four times in a 1997 assassination attempt after publishing several exposés about the Tijuana Cartel. Over the door to the paper's office, a cozy, cream-colored building on a tree-lined street in central Tijuana, is a sign bearing ZETA's famous slogan: libre como el viento – "Free Like the Wind."
Since El Chapo's recapture, Tijuana's murder rate has exploded. "One after another," says one local investigative journalist. "Hanging bodies, severed heads."
Navarro says that by 2015, Sinaloa and CJNG had reached an uneasy peace in the city – dividing up corners, trafficking routes and even corrupt officials, so that they weren't killing each other and bringing down heat. ("They basically cut a trade deal," Mori says.) Tijuana was a microcosm of the country as a whole: That summer, Tomas Zerón, head of Mexico's Agencia de Investigación Criminal (the country's equivalent of the FBI), declared, "There are only two cartels left in Mexico: Sinaloa and CJNG."
But a few months later, Chapo was arrested. The fragile détente collapsed.
Since Chapo's recapture in January 2016, Tijuana's murder rate has exploded. Last year it jumped an astonishing 36 percent; the city's 910 homicides were an all-time record. (By way of comparison, Chicago had 762 homicides in 2016, and twice the population.) Navarro's colleague Rosario Mosso, the ZETA editor responsible for tracking Tijuana's murders, recalls victims piling up as fast as she could count. "One after another," she says. "Hanging bodies, severed heads." This past March, the killings hit a new monthly peak, with 121. At its current pace, Tijuana will see more than 1,300 murders in 2017 – another -record-shattering year.
Navarro says the situation isn't as bad as it was in 2008, when Sinaloa were battling the Arellano-Félix Cartel and civilians were being kidnapped and murdered in broad daylight. This time, at least so far, the killing has mostly been confined to Tijuana's criminal population. "If you look at who they're killing, it's drug dealers," Navarro says. "But once you've eliminated your enemies, who's next? Well, society is next."
Mosso, too, fears things will get worse before they get better. "At this point, I believe the authorities have lost control," she says. "It's not going to end until these two groups sort out their differences, or one of them takes over." And she's worried it will be Mencho, who's seen not as a folk hero, but as a terrifying menace.
"CJNG have a level of violence we've never seen," says Mosso. "They set fire to buses, or go out and kill entire villages. So people are afraid. The authorities have told us, 'If Jalisco takes over, then we're all in serious trouble.' "
For now, Mencho's fortunes continue to rise. There are signs he's pushing deeper into other Sinaloa-held territory, including Baja California, Sonora and even Chapo's home state of Sinaloa itself. "The thing I'm watching right now," says Stratfor's Stewart, "is the push up into Chihuahua" – the Mexican border state that's home to the valuable El Paso-Juarez crossing. "Right now, it's kind of shared. But if [CJNG] can shut off those plazas, cut off Sinaloa, they can really damage their ability to move dope."
But there are also indications the noose may be tightening. In December 2015, one of Mencho's brothers, alleged CJNG financial boss Antonio "Tony Montana" Oseguera, was arrested in Jalisco. CJNG's purported second in command – Mencho's own son Rubén Oseguera Jr., a.k.a. "Menchito" – has also been arrested and, last December, was indicted in a U.S. federal court. Several top CJNG plaza bosses have also been captured or killed. And in March, Mexico agreed to extradite Mencho's brother-in-law Valencia to the U.S. under the same indictment in which Mencho is charged.
If Mencho were captured tomorrow, the U.S. would likely request his extradition, just as it did with Chapo. At that point it would be up to Mexico whether to comply. Mori, for one, hopes Mexico would: "There's this misconception among DEA agents of, 'I took $3 million off this guy, that's a big fucking deal,' " he says. "Trust me, it's not. That's the cost of doing business. The only thing these guys care about – the only thing – is being extradited to the United States."
But the former DEA field agent doubts it will ever get that far. "Mencho's such a killer," he says. "I'd be surprised if they captured him alive."
In the meantime, says Mori, "we're basically just searching for him." Any operation to take Mencho out is Mexico's responsibility – the United States "can only advise and assist, and hopefully work with them on a bilateral operation. But suffice it to say," Mori continues, "at this point, we haven't had a lot of good opportunities to nab him."
Mori suspects Mencho is hiding in a remote mountainous area somewhere, likely in Jalisco or Michoacán. "I think he feels safe and secure in that terrain he knows well," Mori says. "I think he's extremely selective about whom he talks to and with whom he meets. I think he moves around a lot, and I think he has near-unlimited money and near-unlimited manpower. And when you have those things, you can hold out for quite a long time."