LOS ANGELES – One of the world's most wanted criminals, the murderous head of the Jalisco Nueva Generacion Cartel (JNGC), Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias El Mencho, has turned into a new Chapo Guzman for US authorities, and not just because of his growing power over international drug trafficking.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official who leads the investigation to capture him told Univision Noticias that El Mencho also has found his best hideout in mountainous areas of three Mexican states controlled by his crime organization.
“He hides in mountainous parts of Jalisco, Michoacán and Colima. We believe he's not in the cities any more,” said Kyle Mori, the DEA special agent in Los Angeles who leads the team tirelessly trying to track down the Michoacan capo also known as 'Lord of the Roosters.'
Trying to avoid compromising the investigation started eight years ago, when the DEA noticed the JNGC's fast growth in Mexico, Mori paused when asked specifically whether El Mencho is hiding in luxury cabins, humble homes or even caves.
“I'll say this: It's a combination of a lot of things. I don't believe he spends a lot of time in the same place, or in the same type of home. It's a combination of everything that you can imagine,” he said. “He's definitely moving constantly.”
DEA intelligence reports suggest that Oseguera Cervantes has created his own “Golden Triangle” in the same general area where El Chapo Guzman once hid for many years, a region fertile for the cultivation of poppies and marijuana that covers parts of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa.
The El Mencho bastion, however, covers a large region where narcotics are cultivated and clandestine laboratories operate and includes two major seaports – Lazaro Cardenas in Michoacan and Manzanillo in Colima – where his cartel receives shipments of precursor chemicals for making synthetic drugs. The region also includes Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, Mexico's third-largest city and home to a vigorous economy that allows it to hide its money laundering operations.
The southern and western mountains of the Sierra Madre are now the refuge of this cartel chief, blamed for the increase of violence in Mexico. His rise in the world of drug trafficking has been linked to the extradition and sentencing to life in prison of his former boss, El Chapo Guzman.
A traditional Mexican song known as a corrido by the group Los Plebes del Rancho already noted his rise as the new “Lord of the Mountain” – “Few know his face/He rarely comes down to towns/He moves between the mountains/From up there he runs everything.”
The US Department of Justice says the capo has used bullets and bribes to expand his cartel to 23 of Mexico's 32 states and many US cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, El Paso, Laredo, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Orlando, New York, Denver, Atlanta and Chicago.
Federal charges filed against Oseguera Cervantes, his son El Menchito and their accomplices also reveal that the cartel has extended its tentacles throughout the world in barely a decade. That's why the US government in November posted a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture and branded his cartel as one of the top five threats facing the United States.
“He's made few errors. He's smart”
El Mencho has achieved in a few years what it took Guzman decades to do, according to Mori.
“He's made few errors, has a lot of street experience, and that's made it very difficult for us to manage the investigation to arrest him,” the DEA official acknowledged. “He's an intelligent guy, very good at what he does. He's avoiding capture, earning millions of dollars. It's like a cat and mouse game. He makes moves, and we have to make our moves to capture him.”
Agents tracking the capo have noticed one important fact: He does not take unnecessary risks by moving around in cities. His behavior is similar to that of Ismael 'El Mayo' Zambada, current head of the Sinaloa cartel, who has been in the drug trafficking business for more than 50 years yet never set foot in a prison.
“You've heard the stories of El Chapo going into a restaurant. They take away the phones of everyone there, pay the bills for everyone and then disappear in Culiacan” in the state of Sinaloa, Mori said. “El Mencho will not do that. He doesn't mind living in the mountains like a rancher. That makes it complicated to capture him,” he added. "Where was 'El Chapo' captured? Always in cities (Mazatlan in 2014 and Los Mochis in 2016). 'El Mencho' wouldn't do that, "the anti-narcotics agent stressed.
Other factors favoring Oseguera Cervantes, the DEA special agent added, is that he does not consume drugs, enjoys good health and an enviable physical condition and has the discipline of a soldier. “All those factors contribute to his running his cartel like a business,” he added.
On top of that, he is widely feared because of the horrendous crimes attributed to his cartel and circulating on YouTube videos. His gunmen proudly display their weapons before the cameras, threaten his rivals and hang signs everywhere taking responsibility for the terror they create.
In one audio recording, a cartel leader is heard threatening a Mexican police chief to stop arresting his gunmen. “Ease up your XX people XXX. Otherwise I am going to XXX you and all your dogs,” the cartel leader warns. The police official replies meekly that he'll follow orders. “Mister, you know me, you know I am a friend.”
“They are very violent. Decapitations, dissolving bodies in acid, public executions, ripping out the heart, killing women and children, bombings against people. It happens almost every day,” Mori lamented. “El Chapo was violent, but El Mencho has taken it to a new level.”
The DEA believes the JNGC is already Mexico's largest criminal organization and has at least equaled the U.S. distribution networks of the Sinaloa Cartel. It's rise is due to its extreme violence, like the Zetas, and it is developing a financial model similar to El Chapos' cartel.
The JNGC cartel is believed to have 5,000 members, not counting independent distributors, gangs with which it has reached business agreements and corrupt police who protect it.
“Combine all those things and they almost create a super cartel,” Mori warned. “In my opinion, the JNGC is moving more drugs toward the United States, is responsible for more violence in Mexico and is moving a larger volume of money than the Sinaloa Cartel, he added.
Tracking El Mencho, almost an obsession
Kyle Mori was investigating a separate DEA case in Guadalajara in 2011 when he first heard that Oseguera Cervantes would soon become a big fish in the drug trafficking world.
“At that time, there were a lot of people who were reporting through our (US) consulate and our (DEA) office there that El Mencho was very important and would be the next Chapo,” recalled the DEA official now tracking the U.S. Public Enemy No. 1.
Mori, 37, who started his law enforcement career in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, did not let go of the case and his investigations led to multiple federal charges against the capo and his relatives filed in 2014, accusing them of drug trafficking and money laundering. Three years later, federal prosecutors filed more charges against El Mencho.
Today, his only mission is to capture the drug trafficker. He has nine DEA agents working for him, and gets help from FBI, ICE, and US Marshals agents. That's why the DEA office in Los Angeles is handling the most important case against Oseguera Cervantes and is the base for all communications related to the reward for his capture.
A poster with the $10 million reward hangs from the wall in his office, in a building in downtown Los Angeles that houses several federal agencies. He also has a stack of smaller fliers with the reward offer, and a bulletin board with his only goals – the names of El Mencho and his top lieutenants.
“It's something I do every day, Saturdays, Sundays, 365 days a year because he's very violent, very powerful,” Mori said. “We owe it to the citizens of the United States to get rid of these leading narco traffickers who put so much poison on our streets … and our southern neighbors.”
Not one day goes by without Mori communicating with US colleagues in Mexico involved in the case and with Mexican law enforcement officers there. He said he keeps up a constant dialogue with the agents, and trusts and respects them. He adds that there are only few “rotten apples” in law enforcement on the other side of the border, although US officials who helped to recapture El Chapo have said that at one point they only trusted the Mexican Marines.
“There are Mexican police and military officers who work too hard, shoulder to shoulder with us, every day,” he insisted.
The Mexican officials' commitment, Mori added, was shown May 1 2015, when cartel gunmen shot down a Mexican armed forces helicopter, killing several soldiers, that was part of an operation to capture Oseguera Cervantes. The cartel set fire to cars, banks and gas stations that day in Guadalajara to try to block streets and disrupt the soldiers' plans.
It was not the only time that authorities came close to capturing El Mencho, according to Mori. “There have been other times in recent years when we have been very close to capturing him. But close is not important. It's important to capture him and make sure he faces US justice.”
The US government is trying to get close to the Michoacan capo and hammer his cartel by intercepting precursor chemicals arriving from Asua, identifying his properties and front men and tracking the cartel's activities through informants, telephone taps and other means. Mori said he has identified some of the ways El Mencho uses to communicate from the mountains with his most trusted lieutenants.
“In the past, we used Blackberry telephone technology to infiltrate the highest levels of his organization. We've (also) used many informants through the years,” he added.
His computer is full of photos of the drug trafficker in various stages of his life, including one from his arrest in California in 1986 to another with his son El Menchito.
But he has only one big goal: “I don't know if we'll get him tomorrow, but I am sure his day will come.”