Wife of “El Chapo” Pleads Guilty to Drug and Money Laundering Charges

06/14/2021 (written by rramos) – The U.S. Department of Justice announced on June 10 that Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of jailed Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, pleaded guilty to several criminal charges related to drug trafficking and money laundering. The charges included conspiracy to distribute cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the United States; conspiracy to launder drug proceeds; and violating the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act by engaging in financial transactions and dealings with property belonging to Guzmán, who remains sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. 

According to Anthony Nardozzi, the federal prosecutor handling the case, Coronel’s role in the Sinaloa Cartel also included delivering messages from her imprisoned husband to cartel operatives after Guzmán’s 2016 arrest, allowing him to remain involved in the group’s operations from behind bars. Additionally, Nardozzi stated that Coronel had collaborated with El Chapo’s sons to “plan and coordinate” attempts to help Guzmán escape from prison, including his successful 2015 breakout from Altiplano federal prison in Mexico. 

Coronel’s defense attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, told the Associated Press that his client did not plead guilty as part of a deal to cooperate with federal investigators, but instead was aiming to receive a shorter prison term when she is sentenced in September. Nevertheless, Mike Vigil, a former head of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) speculated that Coronel may ultimately decide to work with authorities in exchange for getting her 9-year-old twin daughters (fathered by Guzmán) and herself into some sort of witness-protection program in the United States. 

Source: Dana Verkouteren, Associated Press

U.S. Investigators Targeting Families of Sinaloa Cartel Leaders

Emma Coronel’s guilty plea comes as U.S. authorities continue to target close relatives of the Sinaloa Cartel’s leading figures. Within the family of “El Chapo” Guzmán, U.S. law enforcement agencies have steadily increased their attention on his sons, often referred to collectively as “Los Chapitos.” Two sons from his first wife, Jesús Alfredo and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar, are regarded as particularly important actors within the Sinaloa network. Jesús Alfredo has appeared on DEA’s most wanted list since 2018, while Iván Archivaldo remains sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department under the Kingpin Act for being identified as a “key Sinaloa Cartel operative.” Another two sons, Ovidio and Joaquín Guzmán López, both from El Chapo’s second marriage, were accused by U.S. prosecutors of participating in the cartel’s drug trafficking activities in an indictment unsealed in February 2019. U.S. investigators’ interest in Ovidio was illustrated by the failed operation to arrest him in Culiacán, Sinaloa in October 2019, an operation that reportedly originated from the aforementioned U.S. indictment against him earlier that year. 

Another Sinaloa Cartel kingpin whose family continues to be pursued by U.S. authorities is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, who had been among El Chapo’s closest associates for many years. In April 2021, Ismael Zambada Imperial, known also by the criminal alias “Mayito Gordo,” pled guilty to drug trafficking charges in a federal court in San Diego. Along with Zambada Imperial, three other sons of El Mayo have also been in the crosshairs of U.S. investigators. Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada Niebla, who was a key witness in El Chapo’s criminal trial, and Serafin Zambada Ortiz have both been convicted of criminal charges in the United States, while Ismael Zambada Sicairos, known as “Mayito Flaco,” remains at large after being indicted in 2014. The U.S. Treasury Department has also reportedly sanctioned multiple companies established by El Mayo’s wife, Rosario Niebla Cardoza, and several of his daughters that U.S. authorities allege are used for laundering ill-gotten proceeds from cartel operations.  

Internal Disputes Continue to Rage On in Mexico

As the U.S. Government continues to go after the inner circles of the Sinaloa Cartel’s most prominent members, the organization itself remains engulfed in an internal conflict in which El Mayo and Los Chapitos are apparently competing for influence within the group. The dispute is playing out in a series of violent confrontations in some of the Sinaloa Cartel’s traditional strongholds in northwestern Mexico, such as Sonora, Sinaloa, and Durango. Intra-Sinaloa Cartel violence has been particularly acute in the strategically important border state of Baja California. The state’s capital city of Mexicali, which saw a marked increase in homicides throughout the early months of 2021, suffered additional clashes linked to infighting between El Mayo and Los Chapitos as recently as May 2021.

Although some observers have argued that Emma Coronel’s recent guilty plea paves the way for her to provide U.S. authorities with critical information regarding the inner workings of the Sinaloa Cartel, it is unclear if these insights (even if shared with investigators) will be able to help prevent further divisions within the organization once headed by her husband. 

Sources

“Jesús Alfredo Guzmán: Estados Unidos incluye al hijo de “El Chapo” en la lista de los 10 fugitivos más buscados.” BBC. September 14, 2018.  

Romo, Vanessa. “Sons Of ‘El Chapo’ Indicted On Drug Conspiracy Charge.” National Public Radio. February 21, 2019. 

McGinnis, Teagan. “The Capture and Release of Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacán, Sinaloa.” Justice in Mexico. November 5, 2019. 

“Forman 6 mujeres escudo financiero del ‘Mayo’” El Universal. June 24, 2020. 

“Los Chapitos.” InSight Crime. July 2, 2020. 

Gutiérrez González, Rodrigo. “Cuál es el verdadero papel de Ovidio Guzmán en el Cártel de Sinaloa?” La Silla Rota. October 15, 2020. 

Vela, David Saúl. “DEA busca a 9 líderes del narcotráfico en México, Caro Quintero es el número 1 de la lista.” El Financiero. November 23, 2020. 

“Las esposas que tuvo Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán.” El Tiempo. February 2, 2021. 

Castillo García, Gustavo. “Al alza, la disputa en estados del norte por trasiego de fentanilo.” La Jornada. March 14, 2021. 

Domínguez, Francisco. “De enero a marzo, Mexicali registra el mayor número de homicidios en 16 años.” Monitor Económico de Baja California. April 14, 2021. 

“Authorities Arrest ‘El Durango’, High-Ranking Sinaloa Cartel Member in Sonora.” Borderland Beat. April 21, 2021.

“Violento enfrentamiento entre sicarios y policías en la tierra del Mayo enciende las alarmas.” InfoBae. April 22, 2021. 

Davis, Kristina. “Son of Sinaloa Cartel kingpin pleads guilty in San Diego.” San Diego Union-Tribune. April 30, 2021. 

Thornton, Kelly. “Sinaloa Cartel Leader Convicted.” U.S. Department of Justice. April 30, 2021. 

“‘Los Mayos’ atacan Mexicali.” Zeta Tijuana. May 3, 2021. 

Cohn, Scott. “El Chapo’s wife, Emma Coronel, could hold the keys to dismantling the world’s most dangerous drug cartel.” CNBC. June 4, 2021. 

“Sanctions Pursuant To The Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.” U.S. Department of the Treasury. June 8, 2021. 16. 

“Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, pleads guilty to helping run his criminal empire.” Chicago Tribune. June 10, 2021.

“Wife of “El Chapo” Pleads Guilty to Drug Trafficking and Money Laundering.” U.S. Department of Justice. June 10, 2021. 

Balsamo, Michael. “Wife of drug kingpin ‘El Chapo’ pleads guilty to US charges.” Associated Press. June 10, 2021. 

Hsu, Spencer S. “Wife of ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán pleads guilty to aiding husband’s drug-trafficking empire.” Washington Post. June 10, 2021. 

Tau, Byron & de Córdoba, José. “El Chapo’s Wife Emma Coronel Pleads Guilty to Helping Run Global Drug Cartel.” Wall Street Journal. June 10, 2021. 

Violence Against Police in Guanajuato Highlights Complex Security Situation

04/21/21 (written by rramos) – Guanajuato’s state police force (Fuerzas de Seguridad Pública del Estado, FSPE) announced on April 5 that two of its officers were killed following a confrontation with armed civilians in the city of Irapuato. FSPE personnel were conducting patrols when they were suddenly ambushed by a group of armed men traveling in a pick-up truck that featured homemade armor plating. Milenio reported that after the attackers were repelled by the state police, investigators found multiple long guns and bulletproof vests with the logo of an unspecified criminal group at the scene. 

This latest assault comes on the heels of similar incidents in other parts of Guanajuato in recent weeks. In the city of Silao, to the northwest of Irapuato, a state police officer was kidnapped and later killed by armed civilians on March 31. Roughly a week and a half prior on March 20, the bodies of three agents from the federal Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) were found inside an abandoned truck in the rural community of Campuzano, southeast of Guanajuato City. 

The state has been an epicenter of violence directed against police. According to the non-governmental organization Causa en Común, Guanajuato ended 2020 as the deadliest state in Mexico for law enforcement personnel, with the total number of slayings of police officers increasing 5% last year compared to the total seen in 2019. 

Current State of Play in Guanajuato’s Criminal Landscape

Frequent attacks against government security forces are one of the consequences of Guanajuato’s volatile security environment. Beginning roughly in 2017, a brutal conflict between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG) and the locally-based Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel (Cártel de Santa Rosa de Lima, CSRL) has consistently made Guanajuato one of Mexico’s most violent states. Authorities had hoped that the August 2020 capture of the CSRL’s high-profile leader, José Antonio “El Marro” Yépez Ortiz, would help quell the fighting, with Governor Diego Sinhue calling the arrest “a great step towards reclaiming peace” (author’s own translation). 

However, violence in Guanajuato has continued as the state’s organized crime landscape appears to have grown more complex after the capture of El Marro. In October 2020, Alfonso Durazo Montaño, then-federal security secretary, stated that infighting had erupted within the CSRL following El Marro’s detention, with various factions violently competing to assume leadership of the organization. In line with this assessment, various potential replacements have been identified in rapid succession since the arrest. These have included El Marro’s father and brother, a close associate named Adán “El Azul” Ochoa who was arrested after fleeing persecution by CJNG hitmen, and most recently, an operative known as “El Dalugas” captured in March 2021 who had previously been identified by state authorities as El Marro’s lead hitman.  

Meanwhile, the CJNG has been attempting to expand its presence across Guanajuato, presumably to take advantage of the CSRL’s weakened position. According to El Universal, however, the CJNG has remained unable to establish complete control over the state due to three concurrent turf wars. In particular, the CJNG’s expansion efforts in Guanajuato have met resistance in: 1) traditional CSRL strongholds in the southeast, such as Celaya and Los Apaseos, where CSRL operatives continue to enjoy deeply-rooted local support, 2) León, Guanajuato’s largest city, where a local-level gang known as Unión de León reportedly refused to ally with the CJNG, and 3) areas of southern Guanajuato near the border with Michoacán, where elements linked to Los Viagras criminal group (which has fought an extended struggle with the CJNG in Michoacán) are reportedly active and have allegedly provided support to the CSRL. 

Fighting in these areas of Guanajuato has continued to rage on in 2021. In the southeast, narcomantas (posters featuring messages written by criminal groups) discovered at the end of March point to continued CSRL opposition to the CJNG’s entry into cities like Celaya. David Saucedo, a security analyst, told Zona Franca in an interview that an ongoing rise in homicides in León has been due in part to the Unión de León’s ongoing resistance to CJNG incursions into the city. As for Guanajuato’s southern border with Michoacán, the Defense Ministry (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) announced on April 8 that it would be sending an additional 700 troops to towns like Uriangato and Moroleón in response to simultaneous clashes between various groups, including the CJNG and CSRL.

Positive Signs Raise Uncertainty

According to El Financiero, Guanajuato ended 2020 as the state with the greatest total number of homicides, the second consecutive year in which Guanajuato led the nation in that regard. However, the number of homicides in the state appeared to drop considerably in the first two months of 2021, falling from 815 in January and February of 2020 compared to only 596 in the same period this year. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was quick to attribute the reduction in homicides to the deployment of the National Guard (Guardia Nacional, GN).

However, the reasons behind the decrease in homicides in 2021 so far may have more to do with the state of Guanajuato’s organized crime situation than any government policy. In a separate interview, Saucedo argued that the fall in homicides could be due to the CJNG slowly consolidating its grip on an increasing number of municipalities. This would not be the first time that the establishment of relative hegemony by one criminal group in a hard-hit area of Mexico resulted in a drop in violence. When homicide rates began to fall in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, around 2013 following the brutal Sinaloa Cartel-Juárez Cartel turf war, some analysts asserted that the improving situation was more likely due to the Sinaloa Cartel winning control of the city than any of the security strategies pursued by government authorities. Given the persistent instability that has characterized Guanajuato’s security situation, it may be premature to start celebrating the positive signs that have been seen in the early parts of 2021. 

Sources

Pachico, Elyssa. “Juarez Murder Rate Reaches 5-Year Low.” InSight Crime. January 4, 2013.

Heinle, Kimberly. “Attacks Against Police Highlight Violence in Guanajuato.” Justice in Mexico. December 25, 2019. 

González, Juan Manuel. “Los Viagras, el grupo criminal que protege al ‘Marro’ en Michoacán.” La Silla Rota. March 13, 2020. 

Calderón, Laura Y. “Organized Crime and Violence in Guanajuato.” Justice in Mexico. August 2020. 

García, Carlos. “Detienen a ‘El Marro’.”  La Jornada. August 2, 2020. 

Espino, Manuel. “Padre y hermano controlan cártel a la caída del ‘Marro’.” El Universal. August 3, 2020. 

Arrieta, Carlos. “Pese a captura, la guerra de ‘El Marro’ aún no termina.” El Universal. August 4, 2020. 

Pérez, Scarleth. “La Unión León, no se unió al CJNG; sin alianzas defienden la plaza.” La Silla Rota. August 31, 2020. 

Muñoz, Alma E. “Se divide el ‘cártel de Santa Rosa’, tras captura de ‘El Marro’: Durazo.” La Jornada. October 4, 2020. 

López Ponce, Jannet. “’El Azul’, el ‘rey’ del cártel de Santa Rosa de Lima que duró 72 días en el trono.” Milenio. October 26, 2020. 

Dittmar, Victoria. “Mexico Facing Predictable Bloody Fallout After El Marro’s Arrest.” InSight Crime. November 12, 2020. 

Morán Breña, Carmen. “El Walo, otro nombre para explicar la violencia en Guanajuato.” El País. December 5, 2020. 

Vela, David Saúl. “Guanajuato será, por segundo año al hilo, el líder en asesinatos.” El Financiero. December 22, 2020. 

Silva, Martha. “Guanajuato cierra el 2020 como el estado más peligroso para los policías: 83 fueron asesinados.” Sin Embargo. January 1, 2021. 

“Tres organizaciones criminales se disputan León: especialista.” Zona Franca. January 6, 2021. 

“La explicación de la baja de homicidios en Guanajuato: el CJNG estaría ganando la batalla al Cártel de Santa Rosa de Lima.” InfoBae. February 27, 2021. 

“Así es la guerra en el Bajío del Cártel Jalisco.” El Universal. March 1, 2021. 

Guerrero Gutiérrez, Eduardo. “Todos unidos contra ‘El Mencho’.” El Financiero. March 1, 2021.

“Capturan a ‘El Dalugas’, líder del Cártel de Santa Rosa de Lima.” Quinto Poder. March 17, 2020.

Luna, Óscar. “Asesinan a tres agentes de la  FGR en Guanajuato.” Reforma. March 20, 2021.

Torres, Bryam. “Bajan homicidios en Guanajuato; presume AMLO a Guardia Nacional.” AM. March 23, 2021. 

“Fuerzas de Seguridad Pública abaten a cinco hombres tras ataque a policía en Silao.” El Sol de México. March 31, 2021. 

Solís, Carolina. “Sigue la guerra entre el CSRL y CJNG en Celaya; amanecen cuerpos desmembrados en distintos puntos.” Debate. March 31, 2020. 

“Enfrentamiento armado entre policías y civiles deja 5 muertos en Irapuato.” Milenio. April 5, 2021. 

Espinosa, Véronica. “Enfrentamiento en Irapuato deja dos policías y tres presuntos sicarios muertos.” Proceso. April 5, 2021. 

Orozco, Mariana. “Enfrentamiento en Irapuato deja seis muertos entre ellos dos elementos de la FSPE de Guanajuato.” Debate. April 5, 2021. 

Ángel, Arturo. “Violencia crece en diez estados, pese a mayor despliegue de la Guardia Nacional.” Animal Político. April 7, 2021. 

Reyes, Óscar. “Llegan 700 militares más para Guanajuato.” El Sol del Bajío. April 8, 2021.

Rising Violence Along Baja California-Sonora Border Tied to Larger Organized Crime Disputes

04/08/21 (written by rramos) –

Continuous Increase in Homicides in Mexicali

Recent data from government agencies and civil society appear to indicate a considerable increase in homicides in Mexicali, the capital city of Baja California. On March 25, Juan Manuel Hernández Niebla, president of the Citizen Public Security Council of Baja California (Consejo Ciudadano de Seguridad Pública de Baja California, CCSPBC) told El Heraldo de México that homicides in Mexicali rose 32% in January and February of 2021 compared to the same period last year. Official figures released by the state Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General del Estado, FGE) three days earlier had shown an even larger jump, with reported homicides in the municipality increasing 43% in the first two months of this year compared to the same period in 2020. According to the FGE, a significant portion of homicides in 2021 so far have been concentrated in the Mexicali Valley region, which lies east of Mexicali’s urban core and is composed of various rural communities situated near Baja California’s border with Sonora. 

The steady growth in homicides in Mexicali in the early part of 2021 reveals a worrying trend that appears to have taken hold of the city within the past year. In December 2020, data from the National Citizen Observatory (Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano, ONC) showed that Mexicali had suffered a 36% increase in homicides during the first 10 months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. If the growth in murders seen at the beginning of this year continues, the city may experience another year-on-year increase in homicides by the end of 2021.

Photo: Radio Patrulla.

Cross-Border Criminal Activity in San Luis Rio Colorado

The uptick in violence is not confined to Mexicali. Located across the state border in neighboring Sonora, the municipality of San Luis Rio Colorado has also seen a rise in violent crime during the same period in which Mexicali has faced higher murder rates. Local media outlets reported in July 2020 that figures from the National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP) showed a 6% increase in homicides in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. That year, San Luis Rio Colorado had suffered a dramatic spike of nearly 250% in the number of homicides recorded in the city.  

Due to the geographic proximity between the Mexicali Valley (where most of the homicides in Mexicali have been concentrated) and areas of San Luis Rio Colorado that have seen criminal activity, authorities have assessed that incidents of violence seen on both sides of the state border are likely interconnected.

Organized Crime Conflicts Driving the Surge in Violence

The upsurge in violence in both Mexicali and San Luis Rio Colorado appears to be driven by larger conflicts that have implications beyond the Baja California-Sonora border region. According to Zeta Tijuana, public security agencies in Baja California have determined that the sharp rise in homicides in Mexicali is due largely to two criminal groups, both with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel. One group has been identified as Los Rusos, led by Jesús Alexander “El Ruso” Sánchez Félix and Felipe Eduardo “El Omega” Barajas Lozano. The other group is Los Salazar, a longstanding branch of the Sinaloa Cartel known for its strong criminal influence in Sonora. 

Both Los Rusos and Los Salazar are themselves linked to the larger struggle within the Sinaloa Cartel between the sons of jailed kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, known collectively as Los Chapitos, and their father’s former associate, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García. “El Ruso” and “El Omega” have been identified as members of the faction headed by El Mayo, while Los Salazar are widely reported to be associated with Los Chapitos. Media reports indicate that Los Salazar have been gradually entering Mexicali from San Luis Rio Colorado as part of Los Chapitos’ broader efforts to target Sinaloa Cartel operatives who have remained loyal to El Mayo. This has meant that Los Salazar have been locked in an ongoing clash with “El Omega” and “El Ruso” for control of Mexicali. For his part, “El Ruso” has at times been active in San Luis Rio Colorado as part of a continuous struggle with Los Chapitos. These cross-border incursions by both sides have turned the region between Mexicali and San Luis Rio Colorado into yet another theater of operations in the larger conflict between Los Chapitos and El Mayo. 

There are recent indications that the fighting that has straddled the border between Baja California and Sonora may intensify further. In early March 2021, government intelligence officials determined that Los Salazar had formed an alliance with Los Garibay, a local criminal group active in the Mexicali Valley. Authorities reportedly expect that this partnership will enable Los Salazar to more effectively compete against the forces of “El Omega” and  “El Ruso.” In particular, Los Garibay, with their familiarity of the local terrain in the Mexicali Valley, may provide assistance to Los Salazar in navigating the area’s numerous rural roads, thereby allowing Los Salazar to move between Sonora and Baja California more easily. With these recent developments, it is likely that high levels of violence will persist along the border between the two states. 

Sources

Navarrete Forero, Maria Alejandra. “Narco Funeral Draws Attention to Los Salazar in Mexico.” InSight Crime. August 20, 2019. 

Rodríguez, Leonardo. “Incrementan los niveles de violencia en SLRC.” El Sol de Hermosillo. December 7, 2019. 

Gómez, Óscar. “Aumenta en 2020 el índice de homicidios en SLRC.” Tribuna de San Luis. July 25, 2020. 

Melgoza Vega, Humberto. “En San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora, se ha desatado una lucha a muerte por el control del corredor de la droga.” Animal Político. October 23, 2020. 

Jones, Nathan P., Sullivan, John P., & Bunker, Robert J. “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 31: Escalating Violence in the Greater Tijuana Plaza.” Small Wars Journal. December 4, 2020. 

“Histórica cifra de asesinatos en Mexicali narco, la principal causa.” Zeta Tijuana. January 11, 2021. 

“‘Los Chapitos’, en la pugna por BC.” Zeta Tijuana. February 1, 2021. 

“‘Los Chapitos’ disputan BC con ‘El Mayo’, reclutan a ‘Menchos’ para enfrentarlo.” Vanguardia. February 3, 2021. 

Gómez, Óscar. “Grupos armados desatan violencia en SLRC y su valle.” Tribuna de San Luis. February 23, 2021. 

“Los Salazar y Los Garibay, por el control del Valle de Mexicali.” Zeta Tijuana. March 1, 2021. 

“Los Chapitos and Los Salazar form a truce with Los Garibay to enter Baja California.” Borderland Beat. March 9, 2021. 

“‘El Zabe’, le llaman. Es el hombre de Los Salazar en Mexicali, donde se libra una guerra sin cuartel.” Sin Embargo. March 17, 2021. 

Villa, Eduardo. “Grupo armado ‘levanta’ a dos personas de un convivio familiar, en Mexicali.” Zeta Tijuana. March 20, 2021. 

“Encabeza BC Estados más violentos del Noroeste.” El Imparcial. March 22, 2021. 

Garibay, Atahualpa. “Baja California tiene uno de los índices delictivos más altos del país.” El Heraldo de México. March 25, 2021. 

Tapia, Mariela. “Incrementaron homicidios en BC, pese a “disminución” de incidencia delictiva: Consejo Ciudadano.” La Voz de la Frontera. March 25, 2021. 

Federal judge murdered in Colima

Authorities respond to the scene where Judge Uriel Villegas Ortiz (pictured to the right) and his wife, Verónica Barajas, were murdered. Photo: El Pais.

06/18/20 (written by kheinle) — A federal judge and his wife were killed on June 16, 2020 in Colima, Colima. Around 11:30am, gunmen fired nearly 20 rounds at Judge Uriel Villegas Ortiz and his wife, Verónica Barajas, as they left their residence, killing them both. The couple’s two young daughters and an employed domestic worker survived the attack. Judge Villegas was currently serving as a district judge in Colima’s Center for Federal Criminal Justice (Centro de Justicia Penal Federal en el Estado de Colima) at the time of his death.

Mexico’s Federal Judicial Branch (Poder Judicial de la Federación, PJF) immediately condemned the attacks. “We want to send a clear and categorical message: judicial activity will continue moving forward and we will not be stopped, much less by intimidating acts, in order that we fulfill the mission with which the Constitution has charged us and that which we have sworn to defend for the sake of every person’s rights,” wrote the PJF. The president of Mexico’s Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, SCJN), Judge Arturo Zaldívar, addressed Villegas’ murder during the middle of a court hearing on June 16, using it as a call to better protect members of the judiciary. “We call on the appropriate authorities to guarantee the security of magistrates, federal judges, and their families,” he said, “and that they investigate and hold those responsible.”

Nemesio Oseguera González, “El Mencho,” the leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Photo: U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

In theory, all federal judges are to have armored vehicles and bodyguards for protection, writes Reforma. Based on initial media reports, however, it does not appear that Villegas and his family had such protection at the time of the attack. Such measures were likely warranted considering Villegas was the sitting judge on a high-profile case in 2018 that involved the son of the presumed leader of the notorious Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG). Working then on Jalisco’s Federal Penal Processes as the Sixth Judge (Juez Sexto de Procesos Penales Federal), Villegas ordered the transfer of Rubén Oseguera González, “El Menchito,” to a federal maximum security prison (Centro Federal de Readaptación Social, CEFERESO). El Menchito was extradited to the United States in February 2020 to face drug trafficking charges. He was considered the CJNG’s second in command behind his father, Nemesio Oseguera González, “El Mencho,” who is also wanted by the United States for similar charges.

Mexico’s Federal Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) immediately launched an investigation into Villegas’ homicide. Villegas was the first federal judge murdered since October 2016 when Judge Vicente Bermúdez Zacarías was killed in Metepec, México (Estado de México, Edomex). In October 2019, the FGR arrested Judge Bermúdez’s wife and two accomplices for their responsibility in his death.

Sources:

Otawka, Harper. “Mexican Federal Judge shot and killed while jogging in the city of Metepec.” Justice in Mexico. October 27, 2016.

Garcia Soto, Salvador. “La extradición del Menchito.” El Universal. February 27, 2020.

Castillo, Gustaov et al. “Asesinan a juez federal en Colima.” La Jornada. June 16, 2020.

Lastiri, Diana. “Poder Judicial califica como acto intimidatorio el asesinato de juez en Colima.” El Universal. June 16, 2020.

Fuentes, Victor. “Ejecutan a juez federal en Colima.” Reforma. June 16, 2020.

Villa y Caña, Pedro. “Un rumor, la detención o muerte de ‘El Mencho’: AMLO.” El Universal. June 15, 2020.

Website. “Most Wanted Fugitives: Nemesio Oseguera-Cervantes.” United States Drug Enforcement Agency. Last accessed June 17, 2020.

The Capture and Release of Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacán, Sinaloa

11/05/19 (Written by T McGinnis) – On October 17th, heavy fighting erupted in the Mexican city of Culiacán, Sinaloa after security forces detained Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of the jailed drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. According to El País, authorities initially reported that they found Guzmán during a routine search and arrested him due to the significant role he has played in his father’s illicit activities. However, as noted by the Los Angeles Times, the story evolved rapidly. Mexican officials later acknowledged that the operation had been planned, but suggested that it was physically carried out by rogue security forces without proper authorization. In either case, authorities lacked a search warrant upon entering Guzmán’s property, calling the legality of the mission into question from the beginning. Following this blunder, the cartel launched a large attack in retaliation. As videos and pictures of dead bodies and families scrambling for shelter surfaced and subsequently flooded the media, the public watched as the death toll gradually rose in the days following the violence. Univision later confirmed on October 21st that at least 13 people were killed and dozens more were injured.

According to Milenio, in reaction to the violence, authorities ultimately freed Ovidio Guzmán López and retreated, subsequently defending this course of action by arguing that the most important objective remains to avoid the loss of human lives. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spoke publicly regarding the matter stating, “We don’t want bloodshed. We do not want that. From anyone. We are also hurting with respect to the loss of the life of an alleged criminal. We are not oblivious to the pain caused by the death of any person.” Reiterating the position that his administration has taken from the outset, Obrador insisted that “you can’t fight fire with fire.” However, this response raised strong criticisms of López Obrador’s security strategy, which thus far has failed to quell Mexico’s rising tide of violence, which has reached more than 3,000 murders each month as noted by El Universal.

Indeed, critics charged that the cartel’s victory represented a stunning “humiliation” for the Mexican government. According to The New York Times, though Obrador rightly maintains that he inherited the problem of unchecked corruption, those who oppose the strategy of release and retreat utilized by the government last month argue that these actions send the wrong message and set a dangerous precedent. Cartels may now more strongly assume that through the leveraging violence, they can get their way and further their interests. Additionally, while the López Obrador administration may opt not to go after drug traffickers, vocal critics like Ioan Grillo point out that the drug “war does not stop even if the government is not attacking them.”

López Obrador has also been criticized for the lack of an effective security strategy, despite his efforts to build a new National Guard to restore order. Indeed, many members of the National Guard have been diverted from their public security role to focus on stopping Central American migrants from entering the United States. Meanwhile, López Obrador’s efforts have been beset by protests from federal law enforcement officers who object to the dissolution of their agency, the Federal Police, and their incorporation into the National Guard during the recent reorganization of security forces, as noted last month by Justice in Mexico. Engelbert Ruiz, a Federal Police Officer, commented that “What is really happening is that they are simply changing our uniforms [with] no explanations, clarity, no rights or guarantees.”

According to the Diario de Yucatán, compounding an already complicated set of internal tensions, “Mexican media outlets reported that elements in the army were unhappy with the outcome of Thursday’s debacle in Culiacán.” As noted by sources, such as Mexican News Daily, this rift between President López Obrador and military forces continued to grow in the days following the operation. On October 22nd, retired military general Carlos Gaytán gave a highly critical speech regarding the worrisome status of “today’s Mexico” under the Obrador administration. “…We cannot ignore that the head of the executive has been legally and legitimately empowered. However, it’s also an undeniable truth that fragile counterweight mechanisms have permitted a strengthening of the executive, which has made strategic decisions that haven’t convinced everyone, to put it mildly.” Though Gaytán never explicitly referred to the Culiacán operation, established sources within the military informed The Washington Post that the speech served as a response to the mission on behalf the armed forces.

However, other sources point out that the story of Ovidio Guzmán’s release remains subject to two very different interpretations. According to Consulta Mitofsky for El Economista, “in Sinaloa, 79% of the population and 53% nationally, considered that the federal government did the right thing by freeing Ovidio Guzmán López from the threat of the Sinaloa Cartel to attack the citizens.” The state of Sinaloa, the cradle of Mexican drug trafficking, is overwhelmed by the presence of crime and an ever-increasing tendency of cartels to use insurgent tactics to achieve their political aims, such as the use of roadblocks to hinder military reinforcement. Vladimir Ramirez, a political scientist in Culiacán, explained that although the gunmen did not intentionally target noncombatants initially, the menace posed by the cartel remained clear. The citizens of Sinaloa, who have been subject and well-exposed to cartel reign, recognized this. The usual elusive quality of cartel gunmen had, in this case, materialized; their visible and violent presence forcing families to hide in small, anxiety-provoking spaces as described by Televisa. “It was a threat of terrorism,” Ramirez said. “The government acted with great responsibility.” Additionally, El Universal reports that during the operation, Aguaruto prison experienced a breakdown in security, resulting in the escape of approximately 50 prisoners, most of whom originally forfeited their rights due to ties with organized crime. Additionally, many approve of the government’s strategy of release and retreat because according to Milenio, cartel hitmen threatened to kill hostage soldiers and their families if Guzmán remained held by authorities.


Photo: El Economista 

Moving forward, it remains to be seen whether the Mexican president will heed critics’ warnings by cracking down on drug traffickers or continue to pursue a self-described approach focused on “hugs, not gunfights” (abrazos, no balazos). Clearly, though, what occurred in Sinaloa on October 17th has increased pressure on the López Obrador administration to develop a coherent and effective strategy to reduce both violent crime and the threat of Mexico’s powerful organized crime groups.

Sources:

Camhaji, Elijah. “Ovidio Guzmán, el hijo de El Chapo cuya detención ha desatado la violencia en Culiacán.” El País. October 18th, 2019.

Milenio Digital. “Gobierno va tras hijo de ‘El Chapo’; ‘que no haya impunidad’, dice AMLO.” Milenio. October 22, 2019.

Espino, Manuel. “Semestre récord en violencia en México.” El Universal. 2 Jul. 2019. 

“En Sinaloa, Gabinete de Seguridad optó por proteger la vida de las personas: presidente AMLO.” Sitio Oficial de Andrés Manuel López Obrador. 18 Oct. 2019. 

Consulta Mitofsky. “Liberación de Ovidio Guzmán: dos visiones diferentes.” El Economista. 22 Oct. 2019. 

Heinle, K. “AMLO deploys National Guard amidst controversy.” Justice in Mexico. 24 Jul. 2019. 

Linthicum, Kate & Sanchez, Cecelia. “Eight killed in Mexico as cartel gunmen force authorities to release El Chapo’s son.” Los Angeles Times. October 18, 2019. 

Grillo, Ioan. “Drug Cartel Control Is No Peace.” The New York Times. October 22, 2019. 

Megamedia. “Trasciende molestia del jefe del Ejército con AMLO tras la fallida operación en Culiacán.” Diario de Yucatán.October 20, 2019. 

Noticieros Televisa. “Miedo y ansiedad: lo que dejó la violencia del Cártel de Sinaloa en Culiacán.” Televisa. 29 Oct. 2019. 

Beauregard, Luis Pablo. “El hijo de El Chapo, tras su detención en Culiacán: ‘Ya paren todo, ya me entregué, no quiero más desmadre.’” El Universal. 30 Oct. 2019.