How the CJNG Mexican drug cartel is infiltrating U.S. towns
Led by drug lord 'El Mencho,' the cartel's reach has spread across the U.S. in the past five years, overwhelming cities and small towns with massive amounts of drugs
By Beth Warren
Louisville Courier Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Somewhere deep in Mexico's remote wilderness, the world's most dangerous and wanted drug lord is hiding. If someone you love dies from an overdose tonight, he may very well be to blame.
He's called "El Mencho."
And though few Americans know his name, authorities promise they soon will.
Rub'n "Nemesio" Oseguera Cervantes is the leader of C'rtel Jalisco Nueva Generaci'n, better known as CJNG. With a $10 million reward on his head, he's on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Most Wanted list.
El Mencho's powerful international syndicate is flooding the U.S. with thousands of kilos of methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl every year — despite being targeted repeatedly by undercover stings, busts and lengthy investigations.
The unending stream of narcotics has contributed to America's unprecedented addiction crisis, devastating families and killing more than 300,000 people since 2013.
CJNG's rapid rise heralds the latest chapter in a generations-old drug war in which Mexican cartels are battling to supply Americans' insatiable demand for narcotics.
A nine-month Courier Journal investigation reveals how CJNG's .
The investigation documented CJNG operations in at least 35 states and Puerto Rico, a sticky web that has snared struggling business owners, thousands of drug users and Mexican immigrants terrified to challenge cartel orders.
It also identified at least two dozen "cells," places where cartel members set up shop to do business and live in the communities.
The unparalleled speed of CJNG's growth has made the cartel a "clear, present and growing danger," Uttam Dhillon, DEA's acting administrator, has said.
The billion-dollar organization has a large, disciplined army, control of extensive drug routes throughout the U.S., sophisticated money-laundering techniques and an elaborate digital terror campaign, federal agents say.
Its extreme savagery in Mexico includes beheadings, public hangings, acid baths, even cannibalism. The cartel circulates these images on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to spread fear.
"They're killing the next generation, and one of them was my son," said Brenda Cooley of Louisville, who son Adam died of a fentanyl overdose in March 2017 on the eve of entering a rehab facility.
'Putting poison on the streets'
Using hundreds of court records and exhaustive interviews, Courier Journal reporters pieced together CJNG's network, from the suburbs of Seattle, the beaches of Mississippi and South Carolina, California's coastline, the mountains of Virginia, small farming towns in Iowa and Nebraska, and across the Bluegrass State, including in Louisville, Lexington and Paducah.
A cartel member even worked at Kentucky's famed Calumet Farm, home to eight Kentucky Derby and three Triple Crown winners.
Ciro Macias Martinez led a double life, working as a horse groomer by day and overseeing the flow of $30 million worth of drugs into Kentucky by night before being imprisoned in 2018 for meth trafficking and money laundering, federal records show.
El Mencho's drug empire "is putting poison on the streets of the U.S.," said Chris Evans, who runs the DEA's day-to-day global operations.
CJNG has skirted Mexican and U.S. inspections at legal border crossings by hiding drugs in semitrailers hauling tomatoes, avocados and other produce, dumping at least 5 tons of cocaine and 5 tons of meth into this country every month, according to DEA estimates.
While officials can't say how much of the U.S. drug trade comes from CJNG, they predict the powerful organization is poised to supplant the more well-known and established Sinaloa Cartel as the world's most powerful drug trafficking organization.
The Courier Journal's investigation documented how in each new community, CJNG uses local traffickers who can blend in to sell their drugs, with no regard for their race or ethnicity.
"If it's coming from a cartel, they could have sold a pound to Asians, black guys, outlaw motorcycle gangs, white trash," said Lt. Jeremy Williams, of the Ashe County Sheriff's Office in North Carolina. His testimony helped convict a trafficker connected to CJNG in 2014.
"Once the cartel brings a huge load across (the border) and throws it out there for everyone to sell, it's out of their hands. They've got their money."
El Mencho and his cartel, with more than 5,000 members worldwide, have a clear-cut objective:
"They want to control the entire drug market," said Matthew Donahue, who oversees foreign operations for the DEA.
"If that takes them killing other cartels or killing innocent people, they will do it."
Smaller towns; more unchecked opportunities
CJNG members have followed relatives or friends who left Mexico for the U.S. to find jobs. The cartel exploits its connections with otherwise hard-working immigrants, said Dan Dodds, who leads DEA operations in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.
And court records detail how the cartel lures those who need money to serve as drug or cash couriers or money launderers.
For example, a Lexington waitress seeking cash to pay for dental assistant courses ended up making bank deposits that she didn't know were for CJNG, according to court transcripts.
She got her older sister, a struggling single mom, involved to make quick money. Both are now in prison for money laundering, and her sister, who has two children living in Kentucky, faces deportation.
In cases in which immigrants resist the cartel's offer, CJNG members often threatened violence — to them or their loved ones back in Mexico, according to court cases and law enforcement officials.
Sheriff's investigators say a Paducah, Kentucky, business owner who fell behind on a drug debt was warned last year by the cartel: "If we don't get our money, we're gonna kill you and your family."
The cartel's expansion into smaller, unexpected communities began to mushroom about five years ago as U.S. intelligence analysts tracked its movements far beyond border towns and major hubs.
Smaller towns. Smaller police forces. More unchecked opportunities.
"Big cities have big police departments and DEA, FBI and (Homeland Security Investigations) and an ability to look at intelligence and focus on their cells and contacts," said the DEA's Donahue.
"But it's a little different when you go to Boise, Idaho, and other small towns where they don't have the resources to really focus on an international cartel."
Americans who may not know of CJNG today should take note, Dodds said.
"I promise, you will hear more about El Mencho."
The rise of El Mencho and CJNG
Success did not come early for the 53-year-old El Mencho. He dropped out of sixth grade to help his family pick avocados.
The teenager sneaked into the U.S. and tried to build a customer base as a street-level dealer. But he kept getting caught.
As a young adult, he and his older brother, Abraham Oseguera Cervantes, sold heroin to two undercover police officers at a San Francisco bar in 1992 and were sent to federal prison on drug trafficking charges.
El Mencho was deported in 1997 and then traveled to Tijuana. There, he built a thriving drug trafficking business, but the city's dominant cartel ordered him to leave when leaders became threatened by his success.
El Mencho eventually joined the Milenio Cartel, gaining a reputation as a cunning sicario, or hitman, and then a boss of hitmen in Guadalajara, Jalisco's capital city.
Passed over for promotion, El Mencho teamed with his in-laws who ran an affiliated cartel and forged his own criminal organization in early 2011 — CJNG.
He quickly amassed a private army, with CJNG members recruiting or kidnapping hundreds of men in their 20s and boys as young as 12. The DEA's Donahue said many were taken to remote paramilitary camps where they were trained as assassins.
Those who tried to run were tortured, killed and sometimes cannibalized by fellow recruits in what U.S. federal agents describe as a disturbing rite of passage.
His followers have spread to nearly all of Mexico's 32 states, including the cities of Guadalajara and Tijuana, both crucial to moving drugs into the U.S.
From there, El Mencho's empire went global, with a steady — and growing — customer base in the U.S., as well as in Australia, Europe and Japan.
In 2015, El Mencho flexed that power to strike back at law enforcement who tried to stop him.
Tipped off that a police caravan was on its way to grab El Mencho, CJNG hitmen hid along the route in April 2015 and ambushed four police vehicles. Cartel members fired hundreds of rounds and hurled grenades and jugs of gasoline.
Fifteen officers died.
CJNG's diversified business operations
Through corruption and intimidation, CJNG has thrived, even as it found additional ways to make money.
The cartel has run brothels in Mexico, often using teens and women forced into CJNG's web.
It also operated a tequila label, casinos, two shopping centers, a medical clinic, real estate companies and a Pacific Ocean resort frequented by Americans, according to U.S. Treasury Department records.
Adults and children are forced to work in CJNG's crude meth super labs — vats on patches of dirt hidden in the jungle. Entire families who resist have been slaughtered, Donahue said.
The cartel also recruits spies in the Mexican government and police to keep its leaders out of jail and avoid drug busts. Those who refuse bribes are threatened or killed.
A veteran Jalisco police officer, who asked not to be identified for his safety, said CJNG has officials on its payroll at the local, state and federal levels. The information leaks make catching El Mencho extremely difficult, he said.
He shares intel with the DEA, but not his own people.
"If you provide information to the Mexican government, it's probably the last thing you would say."
CJNG's network moves into more unsuspecting towns
CJNG's strategy to dominate the drug trade in America has been repeated in town after town with law enforcement working to sniff out the cartel's new networks.
Their battle has been waged across America over the past seven years, federal court records show:
- In Hickory, North Carolina: CJNG used local drug dealers to move meth into the poor, addicted mountain region. One couple created their own small "redneck drug dealing" ring before law enforcement shut it down.
- In Axton, Virginia: Investigators uncovered a hidden hub of stash houses run by alleged CJNG members, part of a drug trafficking web in Virginia that stretched to other mid-Atlantic states.
- In Omaha, Nebraska: Cartel members bought cars with drug profits and sent them back to Mexico for resale, another way to launder the cartel's wealth. The FBI broke up the ring in a case that is still active.
- In Gulfport, Mississippi: A state trooper working with a DEA task force nearly brought down El Mencho after tracking messages the cartel boss' girlfriend texted to him at his Mexican hideout. He sent her $1 million worth of meth.
To build their lucrative drug networks in the U.S., CJNG bosses mandated discretion to dodge police attention. In America, El Mencho expects cartel members and associates to avoid violence, hide wealth and disguise their CJNG affiliations, agents say.
But some CJNG bosses didn't follow those rules.
Members of a cartel cell in Kansas City, with drug houses in both Kansas and Missouri between 2013 and 2016, splurged on $10,000 tickets to rapper Pitbull's concert and a Louis Vuitton purse.
And, in a 2019 case pending in federal court, an accused cartel lieutenant connected to Chicago drug trafficking settled into a $2 million Nashville condo.
Other bosses used threats of violence in the U.S., despite El Mencho's warnings against it.
In a Chicago money-laundering case, a Guadalajara businessman working with CJNG urged an informant to settle his drug debt quickly, describing how cartel members settled another man's debt: "They chopped off his fingers."
And federal prosecutors alleged in court that convicted drug trafficker Jesus Enrique Palomera, the leader of a cartel cell in Tacoma, Washington, ordered the kidnapping and murder of a man whose fingers and toes were chopped off — a common method of torture in Mexico. ((link))
During a brief telephone call from prison in August 2019, Palomera said he is a family man who never harmed anyone.
"I know I'm not that person," he said, refusing to elaborate. "My family knows I'm not that person. I don't really care what the prosecutor says."
U.S. takes aim at cartel
The U.S. increased its pressure on CJNG in 2015, when the U.S. Treasury Department designated El Mencho a "kingpin."
The designation allowed the department to levy sanctions against Mexican businesses linked to the cartels, including a sushi restaurant, a tequila business, shopping centers, a medical clinic, two newspapers and famed Hotelito Desconocido, visited by Hollywood stars.
The strategy: Make it illegal for any U.S. citizen or company to spend money at a cartel-affiliated business and forbid any U.S. bank to approve loans or credit card transactions for those CJNG-backed enterprises.
While some moves targeted the cartel's finances, others were more personal.
In June 2015, the Mexican military arrested El Mencho's son and second-in-command, Rub'n Oseguera Gonz'les. Unlike his reclusive father, the 25-year-old lived in a luxury high-rise apartment in downtown Guadalajara and often stepped out in designer clothes to eat in fancy restaurants.
When authorities arrested him, they found two assault rifles, one inscribed with "Menchito" — little Mencho — and another engraved with "CJNG 02 JR."
American authorities are still seeking his extradition to the U.S. to face drug charges.
Mexican marines almost captured El Mencho in October 2018. They stormed a hideout west of Guadalajara, but the cartel leader climbed into a vehicle and was rushed to safety.
After his escape, the U.S. took its manhunt public.
On Oct. 16, 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, standing next to a large "Wanted" poster of El Mencho, announced a $10 million reward for his capture and unveiled detailed indictments against him and CJNG. And Treasury Department officials unveiled sanctions on more than 60 businesses linked to CJNG.
Will El Mencho ever be captured?
On the run and out of sight, El Mencho is described by some veteran agents as a ghost. From the shadows, he continues to lead CJNG with ruthless authority.
U.S. drug agents believe he's in western Mexico, hiding in remote jungles or mountains of Jalisco, Colima or Micho'can.
Agents say El Mencho typically travels in a convoy, surrounding himself with dozens of well-trained mercenaries armed with military-grade weapons that can tear through tanks, even aircraft.
"It's gonna be hard to catch him slippin'," said Kyle Mori, a DEA agent overseeing the U.S. criminal investigation against El Mencho.
"He doesn't make a lot of mistakes."
But DEA agents across the border are sharing intelligence and working with their Mexican counterparts to devise ways to dismantle CJNG and arrest its leaders.
Still, El Mencho's empire is growing.
"It was almost unbelievable, the things we were hearing, the amount of drugs," said Benjamin Taylor, who oversees investigations for Homeland Security in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Even after El Mencho's girlfriend went to prison, the cartel quickly returned to the Gulf Coast with more loads of drugs.
Make no mistake, Taylor said. CJNG is "among us."
"That's kind of hard to believe, but it's true."
Journalists Jonathan Bullington, Kala Kachmar, Chris Kenning and Karol Suarez contributed to this story.