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Thursday, August 19, 2021

Criminal Dynasty. The Upsurge, Splendor and Demise of the Cártel de Santa Rosa de Lima (Part One)

 "Redlogarythm", "HEARST" for Borderland Beat

Borderland Beat thanks security analyst and public security specialist David Saucedo for his time and knowledge, as well for the interview he gave us

The story of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel (CSRL) is the tale of how a small criminal organization with a local operation was able to grow to become a major regional power that had the capacity to penetrate both legal and illegal businesses, with enough community support to successfully hide its leaders from government authorities and rival criminal groups for over five years.

However, the end of the monopoly over the huachicol market, the offensive of the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación and the beginning of the Golpe de Timón operation in 2019 marked the demise of the CSRL. The pressure by federal security forces, the change in PEMEX´s oil distribution mechanisms as well as a steady stream of mid-level leaders and key financial operators being arrested all contributed to the eventual demise of the once buoyant criminal organization. The organization is now reduced to only selling meth and extortions, no more than a constellation of autonomous cells operating at a local level.  

The main objective of this article is to analyze both the CSRL´s leadership history and its structure in order to demonstrate how family members played a key role within the group’s structure. In addition, this article will focus on financial operations that the CSRL’s kingpin José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro”, used to mask his wealth. It will explain how the relatively antiquated methods that were used to launder his money in turn led to the relative ease with which authorities were able to tear down his empire.  

The Santa Rosa de Lima cartel (CSRL) began as no more than a remnant of the Los Zetas’ operations in the southeastern region of Guanajuato. In Guanajuato, Los Zetas’ criminal portfolio consisted mainly of the extortion of small businesses and the theft of hydrocarbons, known as huachicoleo. In Guanajuato, huachicoleo is both extremely popular and profitable owing to the fact that one of Mexico's six oil refineries operates within it. When the local gangs affiliated with Los Zetas’ criminal franchise empire gained independence around 2014 to 2015, they took control over the huachicol operations in the state. They transformed it into a booming black market that provided fuel for anyone -households, small businesses, maquilas, gas stations- while undercutting the legal price. During this time of 2014 to 2015, hydrocarbons (which include gasoline and diesel fuel) were obtained either by stealing oil cargo shipments directly or through illegal intakes. “Intakes” refers to a criminal method of siphoning out oil directly from distributor pipelines.

In October 2017, things began escalating in Guanajuato when a video was uploaded to the internet which depicted several dozen heavily armed individuals surrounding a man in a balaclava. In the video, the man in the balaclava gave a speech directed to the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) which accused them of trying to infiltrate into their state. Through his speech, the speaker positioned himself as both the defender of the state and as the representative of a new organization: the Cártel Santa Rosa de Lima. We now know that this individual was José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro”, but who was this man?  

Born from parents Rodolfo Juan Yépez Godoy and María Eva Ortiz, José Antonio Yépez Ortiz was just one of at least four siblings who we now know are: Rodolfo, Karem Lizbeth and Juana. He grew up in a working class family who lived in Santa Rosa de Lima municipality, Guanajuato. Much like any other young person trying to strike it out on their own, José Antonio joined the large non-skilled labor force of Guanajuato by taking a job as a bricklayer for local construction companies.

At some point following his bricklaying job, José Antonio joined the ranks of one of the multiple criminal cells operating in the region doing low level crimes. It is not certain which group he belonged to during this period; however it was likely a Los Zetas-affiliated group.  

 El Marro joining a criminal organization was not out of the norm for the time or the region. In fact, his father Rodolfo Juan Yépez Ortiz had been involved in minor vehicle theft several years prior. As part of this new organization, El Marro began conducting theft operations in Querétaro, the state neighboring Guanajuato. It is in Querétaro that we get his first officially known criminal activity when, in 2008, he was arrested and accused of both robbery and organized crime. El Marro was released shortly after this arrest.  

One of the first El Marro´s police mugshots. His face wouldn´t be known publicly until 2018.

Following this, El Marro’s history within the ranks of Guanajuato´s organized crime groups becomes murky, marred by a series of unverified events shrouded in mystery and myth. He is believe to have worked under David Rogel Figueroa, alias “El Güero”.

El Güero & Los Zetas

El Güero was a former commander of the State Preventive Police in Tapachula, Chiapas. Güero had to abandon his post in the ranks of the police in September 2007 because it was discovered that he was providing police intelligence to a local criminal group who was affiliated with Los Zetas. El Güero then left the state of Chiapas, moved to Guanjuato and became a leader of a criminal group conducting huachicol operations in Villagrán, which is just 25 kms (15 miles) away from the oil refinery in Salamanca. El Güero's larger cartel allegiance at this time cannot be known with a hundred percent certainty however, it should be noted that Güero had previously been discovered sharing intelligence to a Los Zetas affiliate group. In addition, it is believed that during this time, Los Zetas had a virtual monopoly over all criminal activities in Guanajuato state. Therefore it is fair to say Güero was most likely a member of Los Zetas.  

El Marro and Güero crossed paths within the criminal sphere of Guanajuato and by 2014, El Marro began working for Güero. This means it is fair to say El Marro, much like Güero, was most likely a member of Los Zetas during this time. This differs from the prevailing belief that Marro was a member of the CJNG during this period, which is something other publications have previously claimed. It was during El Marro’s time in this group that the once almighty Zetas criminal federation was being torn apart, both by a frontal assault of federal forces and behind the scenes by the erratic leadership of Omar Treviño Morales, alias “Z-42”.

As security consultant David Saucedo points out, in an interview exclusively conducted with Borderland Beat, the Zetas’ operations in Guanajuato was only considered a minor front within the context of Mexico’s criminal panorama in the 2010s. The Guanajuato branch of the Zeta federation chose not to publicly promote themselves as they were mainly using the state as a base from which they launched attacks on groups in the neighboring state of Michoacán. The Guanajuato Zeta branch was a kind of spearhead within the larger Gulf Cartel offensive in their war against La Familia Michoacana. 

Even with the overall objective being that of the Gulf Cartel’s warpath, the Zeta’s operational bases in Guanajuato still employed local criminal organizations to engage in low level crime on their behalf. These low level crimes included: transport theft, extortion and drug distribution. These organizations in turn, benefited greatly from Los Zetas protection they received in turn. It is within this framework that Guanajuato became a huachicol hot spot.  

Hydrocarbons & A Change of Leadership

It should be remembered that in the 2010s, the theft of oil was organized by PEMEX, the oil distributor itself. It was the leadership, management and workers of PEMEX who organized the systematic plunder of hydrocarbons hand in hand with criminal groups. As David Saucedo points out "El Marro [...] didn´t invent huachichol. Oil theft was a criminal activity invented by corrupt workers and union members inside PEMEX". But this changed very quickly.

At some point around 2014-2015, local criminal organizations realized that they could earn more by operating without Los Zetas. The local Guanajuato criminal groups began negotiating the number of tanker trucks to be diverted from the Salamanca refinery directly with the managers, cutting out the Los Zetas middlemen. Thus, they successfully displaced the Guanajuato Zetas leaders and began organizing the theft market independent of the Zeta organization. This further enabled the criminal groups to begin controlling the oil theft market. Or at the very least it gave them a better position from which to negotiate the price per cargo from. In illicit economies, there is no resource to implement one's will except with violence and so this ousting of Zeta middlemen was not easy. There were many killings done in order to further remove the Zetas from the oil theft market. As a result, after a few bloody years, Guanajuato´s local criminal cells had become independent from Los Zetas and were in control of one of Mexico´s most lucrative illicit markets.

It was also at this time that El Marro took control of El Güero’s organization. If by this point El Marro was still a subordinate of Güero or a primus inter pares is unknown, however the sudden disappearance of El Güero left El Marro free to build his own criminal group. And so he did, all while placing members of his family and select friends in positions of power within the structure of his group. These friends and family became the core of what would later be known as Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel.

 It is important to stress this fact: El Marro built the CSRL from people in his inner social circle. Some years later, in 2019, when the federal government placed him as a priority objective, it was made public that the most important financial operatives and the fundamental operational leaders of the CSRL were all either close relatives or select friend plucked out of around three or four independent groups El Marro had known since his early days of petty theft. David Saucedo, one of the most knowledgeable authors on Guanajuato´s criminal panorama confirms this, stating that what would later be known as the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel was always "a familial organization".

The Financial Portfolio of a Criminal Empire

By 2015-2016, El Marro was already operating one of Mexico's most lucrative huachicoleo rings. Despite this, he was far from being in control of all the territory of Guanajuato. At this point in time, his group was thought to be in control of the southeastern industrial corridor of the state. Héctor de Mauleón, a respected author in the field of public security, estimates the number of municipalities that El Marro controlled at this time to be 26, while David Saucedo in the interview for this article estimated that El Marro never really controlled more than 16 municipalities.

The Laja-Bajío region. It was El Marro´s first zone of operations and its main operating theatre. Full Size Image of Map

So how lucrative exactly was El Marro´s operation back then? There´s no strong consensus on the size of Marro’s financial intake when he was the primary criminal leader of the Laja-Bajío corridor. Héctor de Mauleón suggests 40-50 tanker trucks were likely stolen each day directly from the refinery of Salamanca. This would generate a daily revenue to the tune of around 40 million MXP. Statements made by high ranking SEDENA personnel assert that the size of El Marro´s annual revenue far surpassed even 40 million MXP.

 In addition to oil tanker truck theft/diversion, there were also hydrocarbons that were obtained through the technique of direct extraction by pricking the pipelines. Thissystem was already popular in Guanajuato at the time and it is the method that made El Marro´s organization famous. Although it is possible that most of the gasoline being stolen by the CSRL at the time came from tanker trucks taken from Salamanca´s refinery directly. Finally, by 2017, El Marro had built several permanent underground intakes, which were indisputably the most lucrative method, in the municipalities of Salamanca and Celaya.

 We shouldn´t forget though that El Marro´s group wasn´t only involved in the sector of oil theft. His group had other criminal endeavors which became extremely lucrative as well. Some of these include: kidnapping for ransom, drug distribution as well as extortion and theft, specifically transport theft. El Marro´s area of operations was located in one of Guanajuato´s main transport routes and his groups regularly attacked and stole trailers, trucks and trains. The merchandise they obtained from these transport thefts -which varied from TVs to shoes, corn to construction materials- was later resold in the street markets or tianguis in the area.


This evolution of El Marro´s young organization was followed by the penetration of public entities, both at the local and state level. As David Saucedo points out "they started paying for political campaigns, financing candidates... They had the regional public prosecutors under their control." The co-opting of the public officials was only compounded by the fact that El Marro had already developed a profound relationship with the local police forces, especially with members of the Municipal Police force of the Laja-Bajío area.

It was also at this time that El Marro´s group started gathering more members and establishing contacts with other criminal organizations. "El Marro increased its capacity until he had become the head of a regional mafia" asserts David Saucedo. "They had links with Michoacán-based criminal organizations to whom they provided hydrocarbons in exchange for methamphetamine". The relationship between the CSRL and groups such as Los Viagras has already been acknowledged by all parties involved. And later, when El Marro´s group increased their involvement in the drug distribution sector, it became clear that they were buying their blue meth either from Sinaloa or Michoacán because they did not have the resources to create their own product. Apart from that, El Marro established contact and gathered a certain number of Guanajuato-based criminal organizations such as the Lara Belman clan or the Los Rayos group, all of them devoted to low level criminality. Much like El Marro’s group, these were family organizations as well, formed from brothers and uncles mainly, and although they worked on behalf of El Marro´s group they still retained some degree of independence, as would be shown some years later when some of them split off, becoming independent or joining CJNG´s franchise empire.

 At this point -around 2016 to 2017- El Marro was at the height of his power. He controlled a regional criminal organization devoted to oil theft, drug distribution, kidnapping, transport theft and extortion. His family-based group guaranteed a relatively stable and leak-proof infrastructure that employed nearly 200 individuals directly. The members of El Marro´s organization were divided into cells stationed in certain municipalities. The membership of the cells varied greatly. Some of these cells were composed of just 5 to 6 individuals while others numbered nearly 23 members. The criminal activities of the cells were also diverse in scope. Some cells were composed exclusively of enforcers, who were devoted to extortion rackets and homicides, while other cells primarily operated huachicol and drug distribution operations.  

The leadership structure used by El Marro´s organization at the time is still clouded by unknowns. It is undeniable that each cell had its leader, and in fact in most of them contained a notable figure well known for his or her criminal past. But it seems that at its time of splendor -between 2015 and 2017- the CSRL maintained a power core still composed by El Marro, his closest relatives and a certain number of vital collaborators, just as it had in the beginning. A second level of leadership below this core contained individuals who led some of the groups allied with him.

El Marro´s criminal empire size at the height of his power. Back then he controlled as much as 16 municipalities and extended his operations even to other localities. Full Size Image of Map

El Marro had also created an undeniable base of social support within the regional communities, as these communities were composed of hundreds of families that profited from the group´s operations. These would be the individuals that from 2019 on would create roadblocks and riots each time federal forces launched operatives against El Marro´s infrastructure. These people were contacted, paid and mobilized directly on the orders of El Marro´s closest collaborators -mostly family members- and at some point in time received regular payments paid in cash by hand by either one of El Marro´s sisters or one of his mother-in-laws.

By the end of 2016, the criminal organization that would later be known as the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel was operating at full capacity. The number of illegal intakes pumping hydrocarbons directly from PEMEX´s pipelines was skyrocketing. The degree of control it maintained over Salamanca´s refinery was omnipotent-a fact that will later explain why there was so much carnage among workers when El Marro started losing control over the facilities between 2018 and 2019.

El Marro had also made an empire of the systematic plundering of transport networks. They organized assaults against tractor trailers travelling on the interstate highways and cargo rail convoys which stopped at certain railway nodes.The region in the center of Mexico contains more than half of the trailer theft incidents. The states within this region are: Mexico state, Puebla (where this market is controlled by huahicol organizations linked to Zetas Sangre Nueva groups), and Guanajuato (which amounted for 12% of the total trailer thefts in mid-2020). Other hotspots include the states of Veracruz and Jalisco. The methodology and trends in the theft of road transport cargo has been analyzed by Borderland Beat previously, and we refer our readers to those previous reports for a better understanding of the phenomenon.

Train Robbery

The train robberies he organized made El Marro infamous among the citizens of the Laja-Bajío region. The unique characteristics of this illicit market made it the perfect endeavor from which to recruit whole households. Members of a household who had previously participated in transport theft could then also be used as halcones, as protesters blocking law enforcement during operations and as a workforce for oil-theft tasks. Assaults against trains always occur when the convoy of rail cars is stopped. This stop occurs either through the crossing of an obstacle of considerable size -often a stolen car- in the middle of the railroad tracks or by conducting the assault when the train halts at a station. At that point a large crew of individuals -men, women and children- who have been awaiting nearby arrive in vans, cars, trucks and pickups and proceed to rob the wagons. Seals are broken, deposits of grain, sugar or oil are emptied and all the available merchandise is loaded into the vehicles before the individuals then disappear into urban areas, where the product of the assault is distributed and sold locally on the black market. By late 2016, Guanajuato accounted for 11.8% of all train robberies in Mexico, and the rate would increase even after El Marros capture in August 2020.

Example of coordinated train assault. Such operations were part of El Marro´s criminal portfolio until his capture in late 2020

 It is important to note that the people participating in these train assaults are mostly normal citizens compelled to do so by economic distress. They are contacted by local criminal organizations and offered a part of the spoil if they participate in the assault. Because of this, the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel was considered an organization that provided locals with some degree of economic agency.

Familia Ante Omnia

During all these years, El Marro kept expanding his criminal organization, but the core of the group remained the same, composed mainly of family members. As later arrests would reveal -especially those during "Operativo Golpe de Timón" in March 2018- El Marro employed his parents, brothers, sisters, wives, in-laws and lovers with key roles within the CSRL´s structures.

El Marro´s family tree. All of his relatives would play different and major roles in the criminal organization he led. Full Size Image of Family Tree

His mother Doria Villalobos Cabal acted as the organization´s paymaster. Doria Villalobos personally handed out cash payments to dozens of individuals who were acting as halcones on behalf of the group. She also mobilized and paid hundreds of people to confront the security elements when they tried to enter into CSRL strongholds. His lovers acted as frontmen, hiding assets and funneling money for the organization. His sister Karem Lizbeth Yépez Ortiz conducted financial operations on behalf of the group until the day that she was allegedly gunned down by members of the CJNG on the day of her wedding. El Marro’s father and brother both acted as lieutenants, conducting criminal operations for El Marro, while another of his lovers became the founder of multiple transportation companies used for distributing stolen oil as well as for laundering money.  

The extent of El Marro´s family network as well as CSRL´s financial operations will be analyzed in the second chapter of this series.

Partnered Cells

José Antonio Yépez Ortiz partnered with other criminal organizations who were already acting in the Laja-Bajío area. These were mostly small criminal cells composed of individuals linked through familial ties. These cells were mainly involved in minor criminal activities, chief among them being robbery. These partnered small cells were used as local branches by what would later be known as the CSRL. The partnership with El Marro allowed them to enter into the huachicol market. Out of all the partnered cells of the CSRL, the Lara Belman clan stood out as the most prevalent actor.  

The Lara Belman family group was the cell that operated the closest to El Marro’s inner sanctum. The founders of the clan were José Mario Lara Mendoza, alias “El Magiaand Juan Lara Mendoza, who is the current mayor of Villagrán, one of the municipalities with highest CSRL presence. In 2018, El Magia was identified to have been the man acting as El Marro´s right hand.

El Magia had three sons who were: Noé Israel Lara Belman, alias “El Puma”, Fabián Lara Belman, alias “La Vieja”, and Luís Ángel Lara Belman, alias “El Tortugo”. All three were integral members of the group. Interestingly enough, El Magia and his brother Juan Lara Mendoza are relatives of El Marro’s uncles: Efraín Labrada Reyes and Raymundo Labrada Lara. Both Efraín Labrada and Raymundo Labrada are thought to have played key roles within CSRL´s structure.

Other members of the Lara Belman clan include relatives such as: Jose Serafín Lara Fajardo, Serafín Lara Ruiz, Gilberto Lara Ruiz, and José Carmen López Belman, who is alleged to be the current plaza boss of Celaya. As well as Eusebio Gutiérrez Belman, alias “El Titis” who was identified in March 2018 as one of El Marro´s closest confidants.  

Another family clan entrenched within El Marro´s organization is the “Los Rayos” organization, an unidentified criminal group operating in the area of Salamanca with the task of administering huachicol distribution. The leaders are all members of the same family. They mainly consist of the half-brothers Marco Antonio, alias “El Ñekas” or “El Diablo”. El Ñekas has been accused of being the mastermind behind a 2019 massacre in a vulcanizadora, or tire repair shop that was filmed with a Go-Pro camera. Other members of the Los Rayos clan include El Ñekas’s brother,José Raúl, as well as their uncle José de Jesús Martínez, alias “El Chucho”.

Another partnered criminal cell who worked under El Marro´s protection was “Grupo Sombra”. Grupo Sombra was first mentioned in March 2018 as part of a massive intelligence data leak. In 2018, Grupo Sombra was only considered to be a minor organization. They were primarily devoted to low level crimes such as extortion and kidnappings and believed to be present in the municipalities of Irapuato, Salamanca and Silao at the time of the intelligence leak. The group would later gain notoriety when its leader Antonio Hernández Cervantes, alias “El Tony” was captured and interrogated by members of CJNG´s Grupo Élite in August 2019.

Some analysts have linked Grupo Sombra to the group “Fuerzas Especiales Grupo Sombra” (FEGS), who is an offshoot of the Gulf Cartel organization and currently based out of Veracruz. FEGS has been operating since 2018 and In a surreal irony, the group is best known for both gruesome execution videos and social donation campaigns. During these campaigns items were given out to members of the local community as a kind of charity or giving back to the area. However there is no concrete evidence that definitively links Grupo Sombra to FEGS. It is however likely that Grupo Sombra arrived in Guanajuato along with the Zetas as part of the Gulf Cartel’s larger offensive against Michoacán in the late 2000s.

Currently Guanajuato is known as one of Mexico's most violent states. Although the capture of El Marro and the demise of his organization during the second half of 2020 has relatively abated the violence levels in most areas, it is still undeniable that the state is still one of Mexico's most violent entities as 1 of every 10 murders committed in Mexico still happens inside Guanajuato. It's also undeniable that Guanajuato´s level of violence is caused by the struggle between local criminal groups trying to retain control of their illicit markets against the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación who has penetrated the state following their aggressive expansion strategy which started in 2014/2015. As such the current state of affairs in Guanajuato cannot be understood without understanding how the feud between the CJNG and the CSRL started.  

The Invader: The CJNG’s Plan - Phase One

Although the CJNG tends to be presented as a newcomer within news media and they are generally viewed as a relatively new invader in contrast with local groups, some of which (such as the Unión de León) have operated in the state for over 25 years- the truth is that the Jalisco-based criminal group has had a presence in Guanajuato almost since its very inception as an independent criminal group. Borderland Beat has obtained confirmation that CJNG already was operating inside Guanajuato by 2012, when 7 enforcers affiliated to the group were captured in the city of León. 

In addition to the 2012 incident, it seems that even in regions dominated by El Marro’s influence, the CJNG may have built small, localized operations. In November 2013 a cell of seven men were arrested on homicide charges in Apaseo el Alto and Celaya. These seven men identified themselves to law enforcement personnel as members of the CJNG, however the veracity of their claims was never verified.

Although it is possible that CJNG´s early presence was due to the fact that Guanajuato shares border with neighboring Jalisco it is indisputable that the organization led by Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes alias El Mencho was already operating inside the State, albeit in its Western side particularly, very far from El Marro´s area of influence.

The clash between the CSRL and CJNG must be understood within the larger context of CJNG´s history and its aggressive expansion strategy. The Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación was born in the state of Jalisco, but it contains a leadership structure composed almost entirely of people from Michoacán. The Valencia clan as well as the Oseguera family were both from the Tierra Caliente region and had previously worked for a faction of the Sinaloa Federation known as the Milenio cartel. After their break from the federation, they gained their independence around 2013, although the exact date is yet to be established. The group created its headquarters in the state of Jalisco, but expanded very quickly into the neighboring states of Colima, Nayarit (where their control of key state politicians, including the Governor, was all encompassing) and Michoacán. In the case of Michoacán, CJNG did not infiltrate directly but rather used the Autodefensa uprising of 2013/2014 as a proxy weapon against the still active Knights Templars Cartel, although their “autodefensa'' former comrades eventually turn on the CJNG around 2017, the fallout of this turn is still causing the current security crisis in the state.

This first phase was accompanied by the taking of Veracruz, a state where the CJNG had a built a strong presence since as early as 2011, when as part a Sinaloa Federation enforcement cell they were used as battering ram against the pervasive Los Zetas cells devoted to extortion and kidnapping.

The CJNG’s Plan - Phase Two

Once these four states were mostly under their control -around 2015- CJNG started the second phase of their long-term strategy: to consolidate what they have gained. It was around this time that the CJNG started profiting from the contacts they already had with both buyers and sellers beyond Mexican borders. The list of clients and providers for the CJNG grew to include chemical laboratories in India and China which they bought chemical precursors, Chinese criminal organization with whom they laundered money, Bolivian, Peruvian and Colombian cocaine dealing syndicates, US-based gangs and independent dealers, Australia and New-Zealand groups in search of methamphetamine and cocaine, European and Eastern Europe mafias. This list goes on. The CJNG quickly became an international Drug Trafficking Organization (DTO).  

This, of course, rang alarm bells within the United States’ intelligence community and the American government quickly labelled the CJNG as Mexico´s most promising criminal organization. The Mexican government -more reluctantly than with conviction- had to make a move against this new group that was becoming the new face of Mexican criminality. After all, the last Los Zeta leader, Óscar Omar Treviño Morales Z-42, had been captured that same year and authorities were lacking monsters from which they could baptize as a new menace to international security. Theiranswer came in the form of an operation against CJNG´s leader -El Mencho- when the Mexican security forces launched Operación Jalisco on May 1st 2015.

In the early morning hours of that day, members of the Federal Police and the Army (SEDENA) along with air support, began to raid certain areas of Jalisco, searching for Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes and other CJNG leaders. What had been just another narco take down operation against a criminal organization soon turned into a full scale disaster when members of the CJNG reacted quickly, organizing an insurgent-style counterattack on the federal forces. Vehicles were stolen at gunpoint, crossed along roads and set on fire. Road blockades were established by contingents of heavily armed men in 39 strategic points. The columns of vehicles trying to penetrate the municipalities where the CJNG´s leadership was hiding were attacked. AEC725 Cougar helicopter was shot down between Casimiro Castillo and Villa Purificación when an RPG hit the helicopter’s tail rotor.

One of the most interesting aspects of Operación Jalisco is that it provoked riots not only inside Jalisco, but also in Colima and Guanajuato. In the latter, the city of León was also the center of CJNG´s counterattack strategy as unidentified armed men set fire to three vehicles -a trailer, a taxi and a dump truck- in three different areas of the city, demonstrating that the CJNG had a more than firm presence in Guanajuato at that time then in years prior.

The CJNG’s Plan - Phase Three

By 2016, the CJNG had proven itself to be Mexico´s most prominent criminal organization behind the Sinaloa Federation, which still had Joaquín Guzmán Loera at its helm for the time, although he was in a precarious situation, at best. It was time for CJNG´s third phase: metastasis. In less than 5 years -between 2016 and 2021- the group would penetrate even more areas, seizing control over local criminal activities and displacing rival organizations. Soon the results of this aggressive strategy emerged. New cells appeared in the peninsula of Baja California (especially in the city of Tijuana), in Chihuahua, Zacatecas, San Luís Potosí and, of course, in Guanajuato.

In Guanajuato, the CJNG tried first to reach an agreement with local criminal organizations, chief among them was El Marro´s group. David Saucedo suggested to Borderland Beat that the expansion began in 2015 when they tried to negotiate with the Unión de León, saying "Mencho tried to negotiate with the kingpins of León, but that negotiation failed [...] They searched for a strategic alliance with local mafias, but these local groups [...] weren´t willing to surrender control of illicit activities to a foreign organization they didn´t know nor to become subjected to an authority that was in another part of the country". The conflict started at that point and from León it moved to the east, involving Silao, Pénjamo, Abaso, Guanímaro and reaching Irapuato. And it was at this point -in 2017- that the confrontation with El Marro began.

Again the CJNG tried to negotiate in the beginning. Several authors have confirmed that the CJNG sent emissaries to personally negotiate with El Marro in 2017. David Saucedo suggests that the group arrived in the Laja-Bajío area around 2016 and immediately entered into a confrontation with certain cells of the future CSRL.

CJNG´s objective was not the stolen hydrocarbon market. Mencho was not interested in stealing Marro´s huachicol market share. Instead, he wanted access to the Laja Bajío transport routes in order to grant safe passage to the cargo of drugs heading to the east and north, as well as protection from El Marro´s contacts within the Laja-Bajío police force. And asr a third condition: they would have to stop selling blue meth purchased from the Michoacán groups and begin distributing CJNG´s white meth. "After the first skirmishes and realizing how formidable an enemy El Marro could be, there was a negotiation attempt by El Mencho" says David Saucedo. "This negotiation agreement took place in Irapuato when El Mencho sent one of his nephews and El Marro some alleged emissaries, although not to negotiate but to kill him" And so the war started.

Italian Coffee at Solidaridad Boulevard, Irapuato, on January 17th 2017. Scene of El Marro´s attack against El Mencho´s emmisaries

The assassination Saucedo refers to has gone undetected or undiscussed by most security analyst, but it is confirmed that the alleged attempt occurred on on January 17th 2017. It is believed to have involved a nephew of Mencho, who has not been identified. On that day, at around 11:52 am, two individuals - J. Refugio Muñoz Bueno alias “El Cuco” and Paulo Orozco Velázquez- were killed when a commando of 16 men arrived in three vehicles. They attacked the two men who were waiting for a meeting inside the shop Italian Coffee on the Solidaridad Boulevard in Irapuato. Although both men were guarded by armed bodyguards who returned fire during the attack, Refugio Muñoz was killed on the spot while Paulo Orozco Velázquez was seriously injured. He was taken to a hospital and several individuals -some of them from Jalisco- arrived, apparently to ensure his safety. He died some time after being admitted to the hospital.

J. Refugio Muñoz Bueno alias El Cuco lying dead in the ground

So, was Paulo Orozco Velázquez a nephew of Mencho? According to David Saucedo either he or El Cuco were one of Mencho’s nephews. Following the incident, the potential truce fell to the wayside and war arrived to El Marro´s land.

The Official Beginning of the Cártel de Santa Rosa de Lima

In the first half of 2017, the Cártel Santa Rosa de Lima did not exist as a criminal organization. As David Saucedo says "The CSRL didn't exist back then. They had to organize themselves to fight CJNG and they first tried to appear as an autodefensa group". The first time the public heard the name of the “Cartel Santa Rosa de Lima” was in October 2017 when a infamous video depicting hundreds of armed men was released to both news publications and social media. In this video, the huachicolero leader identifies himself as "José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, representative of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel".  

El Marro and his lieutenants at first tried to pose as an autodefensa group. On March 2019, someone leaked an audio recording where Noé Israel Lara Belman, alias “El Puma” (who was one of El Marro´s closest lieutenants) and the former Cortázar mayor Hugo Estefanía Monroy could be heard talking about multiple issues such as the stealing of public construction contracts to the promotion of politicians. On that audio recording, El Puma confirms that El Marro´s first attempt was to pose as an autodefensa organization in an interview with Mexican journalist Denise Maerker: 

"That has always been the intention. When he [El Marro] made that fucking video with everybody behind him he had to talk in a calmly manner, saying that they were a bunch of united ranchers, farmers, Autodefensas that had become united to fight the Letra [Los Zetas] first, then the Familia [Michoacana], the Knight Templars and know with these ones [CJNG] And that we were against kidnapping, extortion and all that shit and we were going to leave the tube [huachicol] but not the weapons because we knew who we were dealing with".

David Saucedo also confirmed this version in an interview with Borderland Beat. "Initially, the idea of appearing publicly wasn´t in the form of a cartel but rather as an autodefensa group to acquire a cloak of protection by presenting themselves as farmers and ranchers that were just taking arms against CJNG´s manoeuvres. Evidently they were not an autodefensa group, they were a mafia" 

Both El Marro and El Puma had previously been affiliated with Los Zetas, who are markedly not an autodefensa but an unabashed outright crime group. Their prior criminal ties make it clear that their appearance of being an autodefensa group was merely a ruse used solely for the purpose of gaining some legitimacy over the CJNG in the eyes of the general public. .However, they were unable to maintain the guise of an autodefensa group for long. Either El Marro´s volatile nature or other unknown circumstances made it impossible for the group to continue pretending and the fight quickly became known as a feud between two criminal entities. It is possible that the initial autodefensa strategy was abandoned following the capture of El Marro´s second in command at that time: Eulogio Plaza Grande alias El Muletas. Muletas was captured on October 17, 2017, in Salamanca while he was driving a van full of assault rifles he first staged video announcing the appearance of the CSRL appeared no less than 24 hours later, on October 18, 2017.

The Man Himself

Although the CSRL only first appeared as a unified group on October 18, 2017, El Marro had already been on the radar of state authorities for several months prior. The first time the general public heard about El Marro as a criminal leader, at that time within the context of the huahicol rings operating in the Laja-Bajío area, was onMay 5th 2017. On that day, during an Irapuato press conference, General José Arturo Velázquez Bravo, the commander of the XVI Sarabia Military Zone, identified El Marro as a huachicolero leader for the first time. When questioned by journalists, General Velázquez Bravo stated that "the majority of these illegal [huachicol] intakes belong to a certain José Antonio Yépes de la Cruz [this was inexact, was we now know], a certain Marro, between Celaya and Salamanca, that is where this dude moves [...] El Marro is one of 20 objectives identified by the Army, all of them natives from the State [Guanajuato] and devoted to the theft of hydrocarbons"  

Cover of Leon´s AM journal May 6th 2017 edition. It was the first time El Marro was publicly identified as a huachicolero leader

General Velázquez Bravo´s statement is important because it gives us a unique insight into El Marro´s operational size in early 2017, when his battle against CJNG had not yet reached epic proportions. According to the General "the group led by José Antonio Yepes can steal as much as one million and a half liters of gasoline every 30 days using clandestine intakes between Celaya and Salamanca [...] One of these intakes can steal 18 million liters per year, and this dude had 10 or 15 intakes here, we continue finding intakes with the same characteristics, he is the State´s main objective".

Velázquez Bravo went on saying that "the Public Prosecutor´s office says they have identified as much as 100 properties linked to this dude. In the same way, violence [in Guanajuato] has a lot to do with him. This dude has been working in the area for around 8 years" He ended his declaration saying that "El Marro has been operating in the area for 8 years, it’s strange that you don’t know him".  

Only 24 hours after General Velázquez Bravo´s statement Guanajuato´s public prosecutor Carlos Zamarripa Aguirre held a press conference and also identified El Marro as the state´s top priority objective. The fact that a member of the Armed Forces had given more detail about Guanajuato´s criminal panorama than the State´s own prosecutor gives an idea of just how secretive Zamarripa´s administration had been and just how reluctant they were to provide public data about organized crime issues.

Several journals and magazines affirmed that El Marro was Guanajuato´s main huachicolero boss. In an article published on May 14, 2017, Proceso went even further, saying they had evidence of El Marro being captured in 2016They wrote he was handed over to the PGR and then released immediately after. This astonishing 2016 capture and release has been largely overlooked and forgotten.Proceso has never mentioned this event in later articles, however, if true, it would mean that by as early as 2016, El Marro was in such a powerful position that he was able to bribe not just Municipal and State authorities, but the federal intelligence agency of the PGR.

Nevertheless, El Marro’s moment in the spotlight did not last very long. A huachicolero leader acting within a state known for its lucrative stolen oil market was not an interesting as El Chapo´s escapades nor was it as violent as the rise of the CJNG, and so José Antonio Yépez Ortiz´s level of notoriety fell into darkness once more, until October.

General Velázquez Bravo´s statements must be understood within the context of Guanajuato´s 2017 criminal panorama. It was in that year that the state began having a reputation within the general public as being a center of violence and illicit markets. The levels of violence in the state began rising quickly, for no immediately apparent reasons -although as we have mentioned, the murder of El Mencho´s emissaries on January had just begun a war that the public was not even aware of yet.

However in 2017 the main concern about Guanajuato´s criminal panorama was not concerning the rising level of violence but rather the rampant huachicol market as well as the transport theft operations in the Laja-Bajío region. During the last moments of Peña Nieto´s administration, huachicol became a priority objective due to the sharp rise in illegal intakes all across the country. In addition the demise of PEMEX brought it increased attention. PEMEX’s end became an event shrouded in scandal which implicated the management of the company as well as its main workers union.

The number of illigal intakes being reported in Guanajuato skyrocketed since 2011, a time when El Marro started operating in the market, reaching its peak in 2017

The reports about illegal intakes being surrounded by thousands of people carrying cans and bottles with which they stole gasoline and kerosene in open day-light began becoming common and the illicit market of huachicol became infamous. Guanajuato was one of the several states -along with Puebla, Hidalgo, the State of Mexico, Veracruz, Tamaulipas and Jalisco- where oil theft became extremely lucrative. Although the data varies, everything indicates that El Marro´s empire began at the same time that Guanajuato´s number of clandestine intakes surged. In 2009 there were only 9 intakes that were reported by PEMEX in the state. By 2011 the number had risen to 42 and in 2012 , they reached 128 before climbing up to 411 in 2014. In 2015 the number doubled -844- and in 2017 it -El Marro´s best year- reached its maximum pike when 1,843 intakes were discovered.  

Guanajuato Coordination Group

The fight against organized criminality in the state of Guanajuato had not been in the headlines largely because the levels of violence were not nearly as high as in other parts of the country, but during the administration of Governor Miguel Márquez Márquez (2012-2018) a few steps were taken in this area. By October 2015, the Guanajuato Coordination Group had already been formed. The Coordination group was conceived as a platform through which security authorities from across several levels could exchange intelligence data and perform investigations as well as joint operations against certain types of criminality. It was headed by the Governor and composed ofelements of the SEDENA (XII Military Region and XVI Military Zone), the Federal Police, the State´s Public Prosecutor office, Guanajuato´s Public Security Secretariat, the PGR and the CISEN.  

Its first results came just one month after its creation . On November 2015, thanks to the cooperation between Guanajuato´s and Querétaro´s Coordination Groups, CJNG´s main boss acting in Guanajuato was captured in the city of Querétaro. Martín Navarro Escutia alias “El Cebollón” had been in charge of extortion rackets, drug trafficking and oil theft in the states of Guanajuato and Querétaro. Interestingly enough he had been captured one year earlier, on May 2014, in the city of Apaseo el Alto, in the heart of the Laja-Bajío area. Again he was released immediately, for no immediately apparent reason. He had reportedly been the mastermind behind the attack against the offices of the Ministerial Police and State´s Public Prosecutor. Interestingly enough, the Apaseos area would later be one of the main fronts of the war between El Marro and the CJNG.

Martín Navarro Escutia alias El Cebollón mugshots and capture press report. He was one of the first CJNG leaders in Guanajuato and in 2014 was identified operating within El Marro´s territory

The fact that the CJNG’s El Cebollón had been active in the same region where El Marro also operated, as well as the fact that Cebollon was involved in oil-theft activities suggests that contrary to the official version, the CJNG was very deeply involved in the huachicol business as well. When El Cebollon was captured, 265,000 liters of stolen gasoline were also seized. It is important to note that Jalisco is currently one of the states with the highest amount of illegal gasoline intakes. If we presume that all of the illicit markets within Jalisco state belong primarily to Mencho’s organization, then surely we should conclude that the CJNG is involved in oil theft, at the very least during their early consolidation years (2014-2015).

Operativo Jabalí

On January 15, 2016, Guanajuato´s Coordination Group issued a statement, numbered SSEPG/029/2016 which announced that the group´s new priorities were the maintenance of security of train transports, PEMEX pipeline networks, interstate roads and the border regions of the state.

These priorities however proved futile since the number of gasoline intakes increased by 40.79% between 2016 and 2017. In 2017 the levels of oil theft in Guanajuato had reached such alarming levels that in April 2017 Mexico´s Army (SEDENA) launched Operativo JabalíThis operation aimed to target the rampant huachicol and train theft operations in the Bajío. El Marro´s area of influence began to be patrolled by 500 soldiers regularly. The results of Operativo Jabalí were somewhat meager when you consider the size of El Marro´s organization, although some of their seizures help to illustrate just how vast his criminal portfolio was. Less than a month after the implementation of Operativo Jabalí only several thousands liters of stolen hydrocarbons had been recovered. But other items were also found, mainly the product of the systematic plundering of trains and trailers. The spoils included cars, motorbikes, audio systems, tyres, maize bags, trailers, solar panels and crystal meth just in Celaya. In Salamanca the results were similar: sacks of sugar stolen from a train, weapons, huachicol equipment and vehicles. Other interesting findings were 336 pairs of fake Nike sneakers, 11 slot machines and around 23,700 CDs and DVDs, probably evidence of Mexico´s rampant illegal downloading market.

Soon, what had been presented as a master move against the huachicol mafia revealed itself as another outdated and useless security operation. By July 2017, Operativo Jabalí was detecting two illegal intakes each day within Guanajuato. One month earlier, in May, it had been reported that from every 10 illegal intakes being discovered in Mexico, 4 of them were located in the state of Guanajuato and Puebla. Some intakes were reopened again 15 different times and Guanajuato´s Public Prosecutor Carlos Zamarripa publicly admitted that the level of corruption inside Salamanca´s refinery was directly connected with the unparalleled levels of theft. "This is a reality that we have mentioned loudly as well as quietly; Salamanca´s refinery has a problem regarding the security of its pipelines. I say this because of the numbers of illegal intakes that have been found [...] and there´s no collaboration for their part [...] We have detected cases in which tanker trucks leaving Salamanca´s facilities when checking them are found with faked administrative documents"

Rising Tide

The number of homicides skyrocketed during the same time as illegal gasoline intakes spiked. Guanajuato had never been a peaceful state, it is important to acknowledge this..However in comparison with other entities -such as Sinaloa, Guerrero, Michoacán, Veracruz, Chihuahua or Tamaulipas- the levels of violence in Guanajuato have remained relatively constant. Between 2000 and 2008, the homicide average was approximately 222.22 deaths per year. Things began escalating in 2009 (likely as a result of Los Zetas arriving within the state) when 491 people were killed. From that year onwards the rate of killings began increasingly slowly but constantly: 445 in 2010, 615 in 2011, 684 in 2012, 702 in 2013, 800 in 2014, 970 in 2015 and 1,232 in 2016. Across these years there was an average of 742 individuals being killed. This increase in homicide rates is curious although not surprising and must be understood within the context of Mexico´s second period violence, denoted by the 2006 offensive against criminal organizations by Calderon´s administration.

Nevertheless things were going to change fast and violently. Between 2016 and 2017 the rate of homicides doubled. In 2016, 1,232 people were killed, and in 2017 the rate accounted for 2,285, an increase of nearly 85% in just one year. This rang alarm bells and Guanajuato began being seen not just as a huachicol paradise but as an entity just as violent as other killing fields such as Tamaulipas or Michoacán.

Annual trend in the homicide rate of Guanajuato. The beginning of the CSRL vs CJNG feud in 2017 marked a significant increase

Road ambushes, raids against private businesses, executions inside bars and restaurants, massacres inside rehabilitation centers, corpses left in the middle of the night with "narco-messages" addressing unknown criminal factions... these all became a part of Guanajuato´s daily life. So, why were these killings happening with such regularity?

The reason for the degree of violence that was unleashed in 2017 is found in the kind of war that the CSRL and the CJNG had begun fighting. It was notan open warfare, fought in the deserts, hills and Sierras such as the ones happening in Guerrero or Chihuahua. It was an urban conflict fought by enforcement cells through the use of street intelligence as well as government intelligence, which was facilitated by corrupt law enforcement officers. The structure of the organizations´ enforcement cells also helps to explain the irrational degree of violence that reached Guanajuato.  

The Franchising of a War Force

The CJNG did not enter into a direct confrontation with El Marro, instead they created groups operating inside CSRL zones of influence as part of their franchise strategy. As part of their expansion since 2012, the Jalisco organization had developed a system of franchises with which to contest territories without having to deploy their own members in regions they do not control nor know. Instead, what the CJNG often does is create a local franchise which is supported by the larger organization with money, weapons and drugs but is entirely composed of people from the area they are trying to penetrate. This franchise then operates under the CJNG brand however they are still in many ways independent so long as they stick to one very clear objective: gain control over the territory. Sometimes the CJNG co-opts established local criminal organizations that were already operating in the region, much like the Zetas used to do. But in other cases, the CJNG will build up the franchise from zero, recruiting its members -halcones, enforcers and drug distributors from inexperienced youngsters that fall very quickly onto the radar of rival groups. CJNG´s famous Grupo Élite has never been an elite group in charge of special operations. As the capture of dozens of its members has revealed, the average Grupo Élite member is between 20 to 30 years old, inexperienced and with previous records of drug distribution charges or drug addiction problems.

Such cells do not often last long since they are by nature designed to be dispensable. They are intended to be battering rams with which to create a climate of violence and with which to damage rival operations. Their leaders also tend to be pulled from locals during the initial stages of franchisement. A lot of them were poached from their rivals. They pulled Noé Israel Lara Belman alias “El Puma”, who was once one of El Marro´s closest lieutenants to their side. They also pulled local bosses such as Atonio Zúñiga Garcia alias “El Tonino”, a former CSRL plaza boss of Los Apaseos leaving the CSRL for the CJNG. But the CJNG tends to get rid of these men quickly, either through violence or through a convenient tip-off tending in them being arrested by law enforcement officers.

David Saucedo summarizes this CJNG strategy by saying that "This is a position, a strategy, that the Jalisco cartel has been following for a long time. Through promises, delusions, what they do is to co-opt CSRL leaderships. They succeeded with Lara Belman, they also managed the CSRL Celaya plaza boss to change sides, both joining the CJNG. But in the short time what we are seeing is that El Marro´s former allies end up either captured or dead. This leads us to conclude one thing: the Jalisco cartel only uses them. They induce leaders to treason and in the end, when they are not useful anymore, they get rid of them. And only then, they nominate people under their control."

This kind of co-option strategy has become almost akin to the signature of the CJNG. They have employed this strategy in Baja California, Chihuahua, Guanajuato and even Michoacán, where franchises by at least 2015. It seems that during this early period (2017-2018) CJNG´s infrastructure in the state of Guanajuato was overseen by Francisco Cerda Guillén alias El Señor de la Silla. The origins and story of this individual are clouded, marked by a distinct lack of information available. Cerda Guillén is likely from Michoacán. He was left in a wheelchair after suffering an armed attack. It is possible that he replaced El Cebollón in 2015, after he was captured in Querétaro. Rumours alleging that Cerda Guillén was CJNG´s leader of Guanajuato surfaced the internet on October 2018, when it was reported that he had died from a heart attack in the city of León, although several reports had already placed him as the man in charge of the state before his death.

Images of Francisco Cerda Guillén alias El Señor de la Silla, alleged CJNG commander for the State of Guanajuato until October 2018

Borderland Beat has recently discovered that Francisco Cerda Guillén had been operating in Guanajuato for more than 6 years prior to his 2018 death. In 2012, the dismantling of a drug trafficking cell that was in charge of funneling huge quantities of cocaine to the United States lead to the arrest of 7 individuals who stated they were members of the still relatively unknown Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación. They also stated that they answered to the orders of Francisco Cerda Guillén alias “El Panchito”, “El Chito” and “El Tocayo. Borderland Beat has also confirmed that El Señor de la Silla likely has three more brothers: Gabriel, Jorge (who was killed according to a narco-corrido ordered by El Señor de la Silla) and Juan Pablo (who was likely captured in Uruapan, Michoacán in 2009, on the grounds of trafficking marijuana through Michoacán and Tamaulipas). Interestingly enough, Gabriel Cerda Guillén was designated in August 2020 as the CJNG plaza boss for the city of Guanajuato (the capital of the state), which may indicate that the Guanajuato CJNGleadership could already be relying on veterans and not on local leaders . This deduction is further confirmed by the fact that El Cebollón´s brother Leonardo Navarro Escutiahas also been identified as the current CJNG plaza-boss of Apaseo el Alto.

So, is El Señor de la Silla really dead? There are two versions of his October 2018 death, either a heart attack which occured during a hardcore party or a heart attack during more normal circumstances. Although the state government confirmed the death several days after the rumours started spreading online, there has never been a definitive consensus about Cerda Guillén’s death. Borderland Beat has exclusively found that several of his family members (most likely his sons or nephews) began legal actions in January 2019 in regards to his will, probate and the division of his financial assets. This could indicate that El Señor de la Silla really did pass away in October 2018, although it could also be another smokescreen meant to hide another faked death, which all too often happens when it comes to Mexican criminal leadership figures.

January 24th 2019 edition extract of Guanajuato´s State Government Official Diary. It contains Decree N. 00806 announcing that any possible heir or creditor of El Señor de la Silla is called for distributing its inheritance.


  1. Excellent research. Best info I have seen on the CSRL yet.

  2. Good article..
    Milenio cartel was started in michoacan but got chased out to jalisco by familia michacana.

  3. Brilliant- So much detail, so much bullshit you cut through.

  4. is there any hope for guanajuato...

    1. There always will be hope. For anyone, anywhere. Hope is like sand in a hand. Once you think you have lost it, you can find it in the most remote places

  5. Marros keep on going


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