On a warm day in May, members of a blossoming Mexican narco syndicate went on the attack. They blocked more than 30 roads with smoldering tankers, boxing in the city of Guadalajara. In broad daylight, they lit ATMs and banks on fire. When the military came after them, cartel members shot down a helicopter with RPGs and then executed the soldiers inside. It was a brazen and terrifying display of power. “There was panic. No one knew what was going to happen next,” says Pedro Guerrero Haro, a forensics investigator who ended up sorting through the mess.
As authorities celebrate recapturing Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the kingpin better known as El Chapo, experts say an even more dangerous figure is on the loose — one who hasn’t been arrested but who is believed to have orchestrated the bloody siege in Guadalajara. His name is Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes — or just El Mencho. Over the past few years, he’s risen to commanding heights in the landscape of Mexican narcotrafficking, rivaling the power El Chapo once had. The cartel he leads has chosen to seize power by any means necessary — including, apparently, rocket launchers. “He’s the top crime boss right now in Mexico,” according to Tristan Reed, a Mexican security analyst for the global intelligence firm Stratfor.
It takes a certain brilliance to map your way in today’s drug wars, in which erratic and ever-shifting narco networks battle it out in ever more brutal fashion. While the federales have had mixed success in recent years picking off the jefes — the catch-and-release saga of El Chapo is a case in point — even their victories have a downside, in that each one basically creates a power vacuum. A gaggle of smaller cartels are fighting to fill it, wreaking havoc on Mexico’s streets as they compete for market share. The stakes have only grown as the drug supply chain has extended from the U.S. to China to Europe.
All this chaos and change has given El Mencho his chance: He’s shown a foxlike dexterity for adapting to circumstance, whether it’s switching allegiances or moving to meth from heroin — all while going unseen. Indeed, while he hasn’t gotten much press outside Mexico, El Mencho and his Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación have expanded territory from coast to coast, becoming the most global of all the Mexican suppliers. “He’s different from some who might want to be feared but aren’t trying to build a territorial dynasty,” says Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. A businessman with a military mindset, El Mencho has focused on tightening and lengthening his supply chain, and demolishing competitors or anyone else who might get in the way.
Nearly as much lore as substance, the kingpin is rumored to be a former police officer originally from Aguililla city or Uruapan, both in Michoacán. The United States Treasury Department, which froze his assets in April, says El Mencho did time in U.S. prison for conspiracy to distribute heroin. Otherwise, he’s managed to evade the authorities, unlike his 24-year-old son, El Menchito, who’s been arrested three times now. Yet even those who’ve studied El Mencho closely can’t agree on his first name; some say it’s Nemesio, others Ruben. The law enforcement background would make sense, though, experts say, given his precise tactics and willingness to wage war against the government. Which, by the way, he seems to be winning.
About 60,000 people were murdered in Mexico between 2006 and 2012, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Mexican drug trade has long existed, of course, but the past 15 years have seen a deadly shift in the balance of power. When Mexico had a one-party political system, the government could more easily set the terms with cartels, Meade says. Typically, the exchange went like this: The government promised to leave cartels alone so long as its agents got their cut. But in 2000, the political system opened up to multiple parties, giving cartels more leverage. Instead of the government taxing the drug runners, it’s now the other way around: “The cartels set the terms,” says Meade. And their use of violence has shifted too. Murder is no longer a way of shielding the black market from public view; it’s become a tool “to terrify local governments and people into submission,” Meade says. According to numbers from Human Rights Watch, about 60,000 people were murdered in Mexico between 2006 and 2012, a death toll El Mencho is only accelerating.
Not long before the helicopter incident, his men assassinated 15 Jalisco police officers, according to Mexican authorities. A YouTube search produces gruesome videos of killing and torture that CJNG takes credit for. One, which was recently taken down, showed a father and his teenage son wrapped in explosives; they detonate the kid first so dad can watch. When businesses don’t pay their “taxes,” it’s a grenade through the front door, residents of Guadalajara say. Yet nothing compares to when El Mencho’s CJNG allegedly killed 35 members of Los Zetas, a rival gang, several years ago. Before killing their victims, cartel members tortured them, cutting off ears and limbs. The victims’ mutilated bodies were dumped on the highway at rush hour, news reports said.
As the past few years have shown, fighting the cartels is a deadly game of whack-a-mole. Take down El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel and a new, more heinous monster rises in its place. Indeed, El Mencho has seemed to learn from the mistakes of his high-profile predecessor, remaining a shadow in an already dark underworld. And as the authorities renew their chase of El Chapo, El Mencho will likely recede further — and flourish. Turns out, says Reed, “El Chapo’s escape may have bought El Mencho some more time to remain at-large.”
Why you should care
Because the Mexican cartels have more power than you think.