Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Monday, August 7, 2023

They Were 2 Chicago Pizza Delivery Guys. Then, They Ran a Mexican Drug Cartel, Feds Say

By Oscar Lopez and Frank Main; Chicago Sun Times

Adan Casarrubias Salgado (left), known as El Tomate, and his late brother Mario Casarrubias Salgado, nicknamed El Sapo Guapo, or the Handsome Toad. The Mexican government blacked out Adan Casarrubias Salgado’s eyes in the photo
Loaded with drugs, the buses left Iguala in southern Mexico every week bound for Chicago. 

Secret compartments made detection at the border almost impossible.

At warehouses in Aurora and Batavia, the heroin was unloaded, then distributed around Chicago and across the country.

Over a year, starting in July 2013, the Guerreros Unidos Mexican drug cartel imported about 2,000 kilograms of heroin to Chicago, authorities say. Millions of dollars were sent back to Mexico in the same compartments.

“When we came to the realization as to the volume of heroin that they were trafficking, the significance really hit home to us,” former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Mark Giuffre says. “Practically every week, shipments were coming in on these buses.”

Compared to more powerful organized crime groups like the Sinaloa cartel, at the time led by now-imprisoned Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, Guerreros Unidos was just a fledgling gang.

“They were up-and-comers,” says Jack Riley, who headed the agency’s Chicago office and became the No. 2 official with the DEA, helping make the case against El Chapo.

Though smaller than the Sinaloa cartel, Guerreros Unidos helped fuel Chicago’s growing appetite for heroin, bringing in quantities equal to tens of millions of doses on tour buses, authorities say.

“The GU’s heroin operations in the region were operating at a very high capacity at the very time heroin-related emergency room treatments and overdose deaths were rapidly increasing here,” Giuffre says.

What the cartel lacked in power and reputation, it compensated for in ingenuity. Its tactics included bribing Mexican police and military officials and installing hiding places on the buses so complex that, when U.S. authorities eventually seized one and took it apart, they couldn’t find any trace of the stash.

Students at Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College during a protest in Mexico City in July demanding justice for 43 students who attended the college before disappearing in 2014. Oscar Lopez / Sun-Times

“Guerreros Unidos were under the radar of law enforcement because big money was focused on El Chapo,” Giuffre says. “We were blind to what was happening.”

The cartel’s anonymity didn’t last for long. In the fall of 2014, Guerreros Unidos became infamous around the world for perpetrating one of the most heinous crimes in modern Mexican history: the disappearance and presumed massacre of 43 college students in Iguala in the state of Guerrero. The remains of only three of the students have been found.

The cartel’s reputed leaders — including brothers and former Chicago pizza deliverymen Adan Casarrubias Salgado, known as El Tomate, and the late Mario Casarrubias Salgado, nicknamed El Sapo Guapo, or the Handsome Toad — became suspects in that atrocity, which continues to shake the foundations of Mexican society.

Even now, nearly nine years later, the case remains shrouded in mystery. At the end of July, international investigators presented a final report that accused the Mexican army of stonewalling their investigation.

To get a better sense of what happened, and the role of Guerreros Unidos, the Chicago Sun-Times examined hundreds of pages of documents in the United States and Mexico, interviewed current and former law enforcement officers on both sides of the border and visited key places where the cartel operated in Chicago and Mexico.

Forensic examiners search for human remains below a garbage-strewn hillside near Cocula, Mexico, on Oct. 28, 2014. Getty Images

A raid in Ravenswood

A key piece of the story is how the DEA took down the cartel’s lucrative Chicago operation. That begins on the Northwest Side.

During a money-laundering investigation in August 2013, Giuffre detained a cartel courier carrying $200,000. That courier, arrested in a parking lot, gave up details of the operation.

The DEA raided his gray clapboard house on Winnemac Avenue in Ravenswood and seized another $231,000 plus 12 kilograms of heroin and 9 kilos of cocaine. Agents also arrested the courier’s boyfriend, an Army veteran who went on to become the DEA’s most important informant in the case.

“It became clear early on that this was not a money-laundering cell,” Giuffre says. “This was a heroin-trafficking cell that happened to launder some of its own money.”

The DEA launched a surveillance operation. It tapped cartel members’ phones, intercepting text messages, and followed them to cash drops and back-alley drug deals. Spanish translators helped decipher the codes used by the traffickers

A hierarchy emerged.

The Casarrubias brothers were leaders of the cartel in Mexico, authorities say.

And running the show in Chicago was Pablo Vega Cuevas, whose nickname among traffickers was “Transformer.” Playing off the movies, the DEA’s investigation was dubbed Operation Megatron.

Though they were born in Mexico, Mario Casarrubias and Adan Casarrubias lived for years in Chicago. They worked at Mama Luna’s pizzeria on Fullerton Avenue in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side. Workers at the restaurant say they still remember them handling deliveries.

The siblings also got in trouble.

Adan Casarrubias was charged in 1999 with involvement in drug smuggling.

U.S. authorities seized more than 5,500 pounds of marijuana and 48 pounds of cocaine they said had been hidden in a load of cookies on a Chicago-bound tractor-trailer in Texas — a shipment valued at $7.8 million. He was taken into custody in Chicago and sent to Texas, where he pleaded guilty to money-laundering charges and got a 21-month prison sentence.

His brother had his own run-ins with the law. Mario Casarrubias was arrested in 2002, accused of stealing stereo equipment from a car in Lincoln Park. He pleaded guilty and got probation. He was arrested again in 2004 after the police said he shot at a car five times, and the cops seized a .357-caliber Magnum revolver.

“People always try to fight me,” he said when asked why he had the gun, according to a police report.

He pleaded guilty to gun possession and spent nine months in the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Pablo Vega Cuevas, who pleaded guilty to running a cell in Aurora for the Guerreros Unidos, in an arrest photo. Aurora police department

Guerrero: a ‘criminal death spiral’
Eventually, the brothers moved back to Mexico and graduated to the major leagues of organized crime, according to Mexican authorities, who say Mario Casarrubias began working as a bodyguard for the Beltran-Leyva cartel, a splinter group of El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel.

But, after the killing of cartel kingpin Arturo Beltran-Leyva in 2009, the Beltran-Leyva group began to fall apart. It fragmented into smaller gangs that fought each other over territory.

That set off a wave of violence, particularly in southern Guerrero state, which had become Ground Zero for the heroin trade.

A crackdown on the over-prescribing of painkillers like OxyContin in the United States in the late-2000s created a surge in demand for illegal opioids from people suddenly cut off from their pain pills. Mexican cartels soon filled the gap, ramping up their production and trafficking of heroin.

Guerrero’s humid climate and rugged hillsides, its impoverished farmers eager for extra income and its entrenched government corruption made it ideal for growing the poppies used to produce heroin.

“You had the perfect circumstances within Guerrero,” says Paul Craine, former regional director of the DEA in Mexico. “In a very, very short period of time, you have a lot of different things happening that send the state of Guerrero into this criminal death spiral.” 

Among the groups that rose from the remnants of the Beltran-Leyva organization and gained a foothold in Guerrero’s burgeoning heroin trade was the Guerreros Unidos cartel.

Authorities say The Handsome Toad became its leader.

Meanwhile, in the United States, court documents show, the Vega brothers were making their own way into the underworld. Pablo and Marco Vega were born in Mexico but grew up in Aurora. The beige house where they lived still sports a metal crest with the Cuevas name: “God bless our family,” it reads in Spanish.

Years before he was accused of being a trafficker, Pablo Vega held blue-collar jobs, according to court records. In his 20s, he worked at a Yorkville tool factory and at a brake-shoe factory in West Chicago.

The brothers never graduated from high school and got into plenty of trouble with the law. Marco Vega had a particularly violent streak. In 1994, at 15, he was found guilty of beating another teenager with a billy club, leaving a one-inch gash on his head, as his brother held the boy down, according to police and court records.

Two years later, Marco Vega and four other teenagers attacked two young men at an Aurora restaurant, according to police. He was found guilty of aggravated battery and sent to a youth facility.

In 1999, Marco Vega, then 20, was arrested after police seized 12 pounds of marijuana and $26,000 from a home in Aurora. He forfeited the money. But his lawyer successfully argued that a judge should dismiss the criminal case, saying his client didn’t live there, records show. 

Marco Vega was back in court in 2001 for beating up his girlfriend. He pleaded guilty to domestic battery and domestic violence.

Months later, according to court records, he “threw her into a wall, pinned her to the floor and held his hand over her mouth so she could not breathe.” After violating his probation, he spent five months behind bars.

In 2009, Marco Vega was deported to Mexico, court records show.

A 2014 law enforcement surveillance photo of a warehouse in Aurora where the Guerreros Unidos cartel was suspected of unloading heroin hidden on passenger buses from Mexico.

Switching cartel sides
According to testimony from a former cartel member obtained by the Sun-Times, Marco Vega began working for Los Rojos, another group that splintered from the Beltran-Leyva cartel and became one of Guerreros Unidos’ biggest rivals. He was sending shipments of cocaine and methamphetamine every two weeks on passenger buses from Apaxtla in Guerrero to Chicago, Houston and Atlanta, the cartel member testified.

Then, in 2010, Marco Vega, nicknamed “Minicooper,” switched sides, joining the Casarrubias clan and becoming one of the top lieutenants in Guerreros Unidos.

According to testimony from another former cartel member, referred to in records as “Juan” by Mexican authorities, Marco Vega would buy large quantities of the opium gum produced by farmers in the hills of Guerrero. The gum was cooked into heroin and shipped to the United States.

His brother was put in charge of distributing the drug across Chicago and to Oklahoma, Atlanta, South Carolina, New Jersey and Los Angeles, according to Juan’s testimony.

With Pablo Vega set up in the Chicago area and the Casarrubias brothers working in Iguala and surrounding towns, the Guerreros Unidos operation was in full swing, relying on Mexican police, military and local politicians on the take — as well as the cartel’s ingenious mechanism for hiding heroin on buses.

In the summer of 2013, things started going awry. First, there was the seizure of nearly half a million dollars in drug proceeds by Giuffre and his DEA team, which the cartel seemed to take in stride.

Then, in March 2014, Marco Vega took a trip on a lake in Mexico to celebrate his wife’s birthday, according to a law enforcement source. When his wife fell into the water, he and his bodyguard jumped in to save her, but Vega never came back up, the source says. According to the source, there has been speculation that Vega’s death might have been a hit.

The following month, Mexican authorities arrested Mario Casarrubias. They said he was “one of the main traffickers of drugs to Chicago,” transporting them on fruit trucks and passenger buses.

Another brother, Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, took charge of Guerreros Unidos, with Pablo Vega becoming second-in-command, according to Juan, the former cartel member.

In July 2014, a high-level cartel member, Gonzalo “The Uruguayan” Souza Neves, was arrested by the Mexican army along with an associate. Authorities seized 24 kilograms of drugs and $250,000 in cash, according to the Mexican government.

In a written statement, Mexican authorities said Souza Neves oversaw drug trafficking via “hidden compartments” on vehicles, particularly buses, to Chicago.

The same month, a chance encounter almost blew up the cartel’s whole operation — and the DEA’s investigation. Pablo Vega and another cartel member were stopped by police in Webb County, Texas, for a traffic violation. Texas police seized $21,000, some sewn into the traffickers’ waistbands or hidden in their shoes. The two were released without charges. But Vega was spooked.

“Move the truck,” he texted a cartel member back in Chicago, referring to a vehicle used to transport drugs, according to a criminal complaint. “Put it away. We got f-----  over here.” 

Vega texted his sister, instructing her to move two safes with drug money out of his home in Aurora. He also instructed his associates to remove cash and drugs from one of the warehouses.

For months, the operation went cold.

Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado

Terror in Iguala
Despite its lucrative business, the Guerreros Unidos cartel might have gone down in history as just one more in a long line of mid-sized Mexican drug-trafficking groups.

On the night of Sept. 26, 2014, everything changed.

About 100 students from a teachers’ college in Guerrero commandeered several buses in Iguala, planning to use them to ride to a protest. For years, the practice of hijacking buses had mostly been tolerated by authorities and bus companies.

That night, though, police officers and other gunmen in Iguala began firing at the unarmed students. Several were wounded. Dozens were taken away in police vehicles.

By dawn, six people were dead, and 43 students had vanished. Exactly what happened is still unclear. According to Juan, the government informant, there was a war going on among rival gangs for control of the area at the time of the attack.

Text messages intercepted by the DEA and published in a report by international investigators last year suggest that Guerreros Unidos might have believed an opposing group entered Iguala along with the students.

For Giuffre, as well as independent researchers, the students’ hijacking of buses — one of which could have been carrying drugs bound for Chicago — is a possible motive for the attack.

“There is no direct evidence that those buses commandeered had concealed shipments of heroin or cash,” Giuffre says. “But there is a mountain of evidence that Guerreros Unidos controlled passenger buses with concealed compartments that moved massive amounts of heroin from Guerrero to Chicago.”

Who gave the order to attack the students also remains unclear.

Mario Casarrubias was in jail at the time of the attacks. But Mexican court documents suggest that the order to “f--- them up” came from him, Adan Casarrubias and two of their other brothers.

According to Juan’s testimony, Adan Casarrubias took part in “coordinating, directing and ordering what happened to the students.”

The students’ abduction — and their likely massacre by the cartel — was met with outrage, sparking protests across Mexico and condemnation from international human rights organizations.

The government of former President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed to solve the crime. But what followed, according to the team of international investigators, was a cover-up, with suspects tortured into giving false confessions and evidence planted or manipulated by Mexican government officials.

The government blamed the disappearances solely on Guerreros Unidos and local cops, absolving federal forces of blame for the attack and for involvement in the drug trade.

And the government’s initial probes obscured Guerreros Unidos’ heroin-trafficking and use of buses as a possible motive in the attack on the students — despite ample evidence of the drug operation.

“We know that every Friday a bus left that bus station bound for Chicago,” says Carlos Beristain, one of the international investigators. “Why doesn’t it appear in any reports?”

The Mexican attorney general’s office at the time tried to close the case, “hiding the responsibilities of different forces and institutions of the state,” the investigators said in a report in March.

According to the investigators, the Mexican military had spies infiltrated among the students and had real-time intelligence on the attack as it took place; soldiers and federal police were present at the times and places where the students were attacked and abducted.

Despite this, the investigators wrote, “No action was taken at the time to protect or rescue or search for the young men.”

Continue reading the article from the Chicago Sun Times here


  1. Wow, there’s gonna be a drought now on real heroin.

    1. Heroin is being replaced by blues/fent

    2. now? it's all fentanyl already at least where i live

    3. 12:34 this was back is 2013-2014

    4. Fent production is stopping in Mexico. Whatever is already here is here. La Original is coming back.

  2. No... Because that dude Haji bagcho is coming out. Do your homework on Heroine around the world


  4. This was an excellent story, and I read it a few days back, but followed since 2014, have a copy of the indictment when it was filed, and years later after some report from Procesco or one of those, went and read the texts where they discuss the killing of the students.

    We will never know exactly what happened, but it's pretty well outlined. The buses, the GU guys, army on payroll, mayor in on the coverup, rivals. It's all there.

  5. Wow been to aurora plenty of times, alot of paisanos and fine ladies in those areas. Who would of thought the cochos had a big operation in mini durango land. But i guess they are more about the music scene unlike guerrero people

    1. Lol I bet you felt cool after you posted that. Lame

    2. 7:19 why would i feel “cool” i use to frequent those areas back in the day thats all. you sound like a pretentious dumbass who still uses the word cool anyways

    3. @7:19 your comment makes no sense

    4. Ninos don't forget periods at the end, recess is in 10 minutes.

  6. Glad to see the little guys out there doing there thing. Thank you I appreciate you making sure I always have drugs. Keep up the good work!!

  7. So treat those pizza delivery guys with respect out there, you never know, they could be big cartel players

  8. GU didn't kill those normalistas. They may have killed the bystanders and other victims along with local police, but not the 43 disappeared. The army was tracking their movements through C4 since early in the day, and were in control of the cameras that recorded all of the buses routes, including the football team, and everything that happened along the way. DEA and US can only prosecute those given to them- they know full well the army run that game out of Guerrero and serve up people like Cassarubias and the Abarcas after days of torture when things go really badly wrong. Through back channels they say to men like Cienfuegos and Crespo, who they know full well protect those routes: ''OK, we will take your scapegoat sacrifice if it stops the flow for a while, but you know we know who really controls things..'' Then there is a reshuffle. It's been going on for years to cover the holes in army funding. Pena Nietos advisors judged the Normal Schools a bigger threat to National security than the traffickers, which was just a play by the army to increase their funding to combat poor Indios. I just hope there will be a reckoning for them on Mexican soil while the Normalistas parents are still alive.
    Great article Morogris, cheers.

  9. The Devil only accepts Sangre


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