- Narcotrafficker Érick Valencia Salazar, aka El 85, was arrested in 2012 and released five years later. He hasn’t been seen since.
- The current reward for his capture is a neat $10 million.
Narcocorridos, the Mexican ballads about drug trafficking and its attendant violence, have succeeded in making manifest an unshakable reality. The bloody day-to-day of drug crime is not what really gets criminals out of bed in the morning. The inevitable cinematic glamour masks the motivating principle behind drug lording and that, as Nelly once suggested, “must be the money.”
When Zhenli Ye Gon, a Chinese-Mexican associate of fugitive drug lord Érick Valencia Salazar, or El 85 as he’s known for reasons unknown, was raided back in 2007, authorities found $205 million in cash in Zhenli’s home. Just laying around.
So when the U.S. government offers, in total lowball fashion, first $5 million and then $10 million for the capture of El 85 — who didn’t so much escape as he was released from Puente Grande prison when a judge determined that his due process had been violated and there wasn’t not sufficient evidence against him — it’s pretty clear: The U.S. either has no real interest in catching El 85 or it’s horribly misguided about what it will take to capture him. Even though the average annual salary in Mexico is $28,316, a reward of $10 million is not nearly enough unless someone has figured out how to spend money when they’re dead.
There’s no disincentive to the violence and crime. The judiciary is weak, and so the risks are low.
Cassius Wilkinson, security analyst, Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis
The either 37- or 43-year-old El 85 — his age is a subject of dispute — has ascended in a cartel life fueled by the old standby cocaine as well as the new trade in drug precursors like ephedrine and synthetics like fentanyl. Ephedrine, as fans of Breaking Bad know well, is a precursor to crystal meth.
While figures on what’s being produced are sketchy, if what U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are catching is any indication — 59 tons of meth so far in 2020, 1.5 times higher than the amount seized in 2019 — there’s money in them there hills. Money that El 85 chose to not walk away from.
From leading the Milenio cartel first and then an offshoot, Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG), and then CJNG splinter Nueva Plaza, El 85 has a steady record of “achievement.” He handled the shipment of raw product from Colombia and China into Mexico and then the shipment of repackaged or manufactured product out of Mexico and into the U.S.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound kingpin did all this while battling not only rival gangs like La Resistencia or Los Zetas but also the Mexican army, which under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been taking a more aggressive public stance on drug interdiction and trying to drive down cartel-related violence.
“There’s a lot of hyperfragmentation in the government’s response to criminal institutions,” says Falko Ernst, senior analyst for Mexico at the International Crisis Group in Mexico City, “which makes it unlikely to slow the slide into a perpetual state of armed conflict.”
Since no group can function well without the tacit involvement of local populations, CJNG is attempting to win over ordinary citizens. “The group has continued such outwardly ‘altruistic’ actions in strategic areas during the coronavirus pandemic,” reported InSight Crime about CJNG’s toy distribution to kids in communities in Veracruz in June. The cartel, which is battling Los Zetas splinter groups in the eastern state, has launched a charm offensive. And its mission to win hearts and minds is not only taking place in Veracruz but throughout Mexico. Among CJNG’s other charitable actions: the delivery of boxes of goods. Granted, they’re not luxury goods, but still, Robin Hood would be proud.
Such actions don’t conceal the daily non-charm offensive of El 85’s group: the homicides, kidnappings and disappearances, with mass graves recently discovered in Jalisco. The CJNG is responsible for the murders of local and federal police officers. At its most gloriously excessive, the cartel used grenade launchers to shoot down military helicopters. This past June it was widely held that CJNG was behind the attempted assassination of Mexico City’s public security secretary, Omar García Harfuch, and the murder of a Colima judge and his wife.
“There’s no disincentive to the violence and crime,” says Cassius Wilkinson, a security analyst at the Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis group in Mexico. “The judiciary is weak, and so the risks are low.”
So, realistically speaking, no one is looking very hard for El 85? “The list of reasons for why they would comes from the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration],” Wilkinson says. But what doesn’t come from the DEA — which did not respond to our questions about ponying up more reward cash — is the low-end estimate of how much money the DEA is up against. That, says Wilkinson, is billions.
And that money is “not just from narcotrafficking either,” he continues, “but [also] from fuel theft, extortion, local drug dealing and money laundering. Mexico is not freezing or seizing assets.”
So $10 million reward or not, El 85 is more than likely less concerned about the DEA and much more concerned about what got him arrested in the first place: fake friends. Though unconfirmed, it is widely believed that El 85 was tossed to the wolves by a business associate. Possibly, in true no-honor-among-thieves fashion, El Mencho.
This would largely account for the fracturing that has affected CJNG and guaranteed its remaining behind the Sinaloa cartel of El Chapo fame. Dissident factions are formed by progressively smaller groups of people who trust each other even less, not more. Billions of dollars can do that to an organization.
“No matter what Netflix and Hollywood would have you believe,” concludes Ernst, “it’s hard to keep things together given the stress, psychological stability issues and just pure ambition. The Jalisco cartel [CJNG] has been trying for 10 years and still can’t maintain organizational coherence.” In 2006, there were six large criminal groupings in Mexico, according to Ernst. In 2020, there are an estimated 198.
It’s a fact that makes it much easier for El 85 to get lost. And much easier to make enemies.