Menacing, crudely written signs hung from highway bridges or left with mutilated corpses have delivered the message: Mexico’s fastest-growing drug trafficking group, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, is now in Tijuana — and fighting to expand its influence.
The group’s growing presence coincides with a surge in homicides in Tijuana that started last spring, authorities said, and have continued in these first weeks of the new year, with many of the perpetrators and victims described as low-ranking members of the city’s neighborhood drug trade.
Drug-related killings accounted for more than 80 percent of Tijuana’s 670 homicides in 2015, the highest number in five years, according to the Baja California Attorney General’s Office. A total of 71 homicides last month marked the most violent January in the city since 2010.
|In Tijuana’s Colonia Libertad Parte Alta, a man waiting inside his vehicle for one of his children outside a gym and was ambushed by at least two people who shot him and fled the scene.|
With the participation of Nueva Generación, the battle for control of Tijuana’s neighborhood drug trade and lucrative smuggling routes to the United States has entered a new phase, one that has left the Sinaloa cartel increasingly on the defensive and led to the defections of some of its members, according to law-enforcement officials.
Nueva Generación “is the new player in town that is trying to gain control of the Tijuana plaza,” said Gary Hill, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s San Diego office.
While the extent of Nueva Generación’s physical presence and influence is the subject of some debate, there is consensus about this: The group is now involved in both the street-level sales, narcomenudeo, and cross-border smuggling activities, called trasiego.
Daniel de la Rosa, Baja California’s public safety secretary, said Nueva Generacion has focused on forging alliances with members of the Tijuana underworld in a challenge to the Sinaloa cartel, which has been widely acknowledged in recent years as the city’s dominant drug trafficking group. Their rivalry preceded the recent recapture of the Sinaloa organization’s longtime leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
“As far as a visible head of Grupo Jalisco Nueva Generación, we don’t have one,” de la Rosa said last week. “You don’t see the presence of their operators, their hit men, criminal logistics. The only thing that we’ve detected is smuggling, and the protection of their loads heading to the United States, and the importing of cash and weapons from the United States.”
For years, Tijuana was known as the domain of the Arellano Félix Organization, and that family’s control extended over both the smuggling of drugs to the United States and the local drug trade, authorities said.
That supremacy unraveled amid the detentions and deaths of its leaders and challenges from rivals in the drug trade. The final blow came in 2008, when an Arellano former lieutenant, Teodoro García Simental, mounted a bloody challenge to his former bosses, with backing from the Sinaloa cartel.
Now, it seems the tables have been turned.
To gain control in Tijuana, Nueva Generación has been recruiting former members of the Arellano Félix Organization and persuading Sinaloa operatives to switch sides, according to one U.S. law-enforcement official. “They’re not just lightly treading through here. They’re setting up shop and digging in their heels,” he said.
Authorities said the pressures have prompted the Sinaloa cartel’s alleged leaders in Baja California — brothers Alfonso Arzate and René Arzate — to flee the state. But even in absentia, the brothers, who are under indictment in San Diego on drug trafficking charges, “still have their influence,” said Hill from the DEA’s San Diego office.
A key figure said to have switched his allegiance from the Sinaloa cartel to Nueva Generacion is Arturo Gómez Herrera, better known by his nickname, “El Gross.”
According to Tijuana police, “El Gross” now leads a criminal cell that has been fighting for control of the drug trade in Tijuana’s impoverished Sanchez Taboada neighborhood. Last week, police announced the arrest of a 19-year-old they said was a hit man working for “El Gross” and connected him to the killings of at least five neighborhood drug dealers.
Rise to power
|Nemesio Oseguera Ramos, aka “El Mencho”|
Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, often called CJNG, is a relatively new player in Mexico that emerged from a power struggle among drug traffickers in the country’s central region. The group rose to power around 2009 with the decline of the Valencia-Milenio cartel, according to the U.S. State Department.
The current leader is said to be 49-year-old Nemesio Oseguera Ramos, “El Mencho,” a native of Michoacan “who has been significantly involved in drug trafficking activities since the 1990s,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Oseguera served nearly three years in a U.S. prison following a 1994 federal conviction of heroin distribution in California’s Northern District. In 2014, he was indicted in U.S. federal court in Washington, D.C. And last April, the U.S. Treasury Department named Oseguera a “kingpin,” a designation that involves freezing any of his or his group’s U.S.-based or U.S.-controlled assets and prohibiting transactions with them.
The U.S. State Department is offering up to $5 million for information leading to his capture and conviction. “Through extreme violence, corruption and extortion, CJNG has increased its presence in Mexico, engaging in turf battles throughout the country and steadily expanding its territory and control,” reads the agency’s description of the organization.
On both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, law-enforcement authorities and drug experts are watching the group closely. “What happens with Nueva Generación over the next year is going to reshape the landscape of drug trafficking in Mexico,” said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego who studies the drug trade and Mexico’s justice system.
Alejandro Hope, a Mexican analyst and the security and justice editor of the website El Daily Post, expects Nueva Generación and other cartels to continue fragmenting.
“The large-scale, vertical, highly visible, highly identifiable cartels that were so prominent between the 1980s and the 2000s are increasingly a thing of the past,” Hope said. “Thinking about cartels is a misnomer about what is going on in Mexico. The fragmentation that has dominated the Mexican underworld is here to stay. Ten years from now, neither Sinaloa nor Nueva Generación will exist.”
Drop in common crimes
The rising count of homicides in Tijuana has been in counterpoint to the fall in common crimes there, as well as a sharp drop in kidnappings last year, according to law-enforcement statistics.
Police forces in Baja California have worked to reduce corruption and step up training and certification programs — and that shows in the results, said Gustavo Fernández del León, president of the Tijuana business group Coparmex. “We see a renewed police, we see coordination in fighting common crimes,” he said.
But even though most of the killings appear to target members of the drug trade, “we cannot accept it,” Fernández said. “We need to demand that federal authorities intervene with greater efficiency so that this does not continue.”
State officials said in many of the homicides, the victim and assailant were acquaintances. “They’re street traffickers who know each other. They go to their houses and kill them there, or abduct them and then dump their bodies,” said de la Rosa, the Baja California public safety secretary. “In some cases, they might have a confrontation in a bar.”
José María Gonzalez, Baja California’s deputy attorney general for organized crime, sees a direct connection between the presence of Nueva Generación and the increased violence. “It went up because a third group is in the process of becoming established that previously had not been playing a role in the local drug market,” he said.
In some cases, the killers have left signs on victims’ bodies, proclaiming their allegiance to Nueva Generación and its local offshoot, which calls itself Nueva Generación Tijuana. But in many instances, those who investigate these crimes are hard-pressed to identify which groups are involved.
“We’re dealing with the lowest level; all they know is that there’s a dispute for the local trade,” González said. “When we show them the groups that they may belong to, they don’t even know. They just say, ‘This guy came up to me, he asked if I wanted to sell these packets, that I could earn 20 to 30 to 50 pesos for each one.’”
For Tijuana human-rights activist Victor Clark, authorities are too quick to dismiss the crimes as disputes between low-level members of the drug trade.
“The idea is that these are minor players and it’s not important. But they fail to explain that they form the base of the structure of drug trafficking organizations,” Clark said. “This is organized crime, and nothing else.”