The early morning raids were carefully calibrated. Teams of heavily-armed agents donned protective gear in the darkness, then struck at homes in California, Texas and New Jersey using battering rams and bolt cutters. Those analysts watching on screens at the federal command centre in northern Virginia saw scores of gangsters rounded up, along with huge quantities of drugs.
This wave of assaults last week marked the end of phase one of ‘Project Python’, a previously-secret mission to confront one of Mexico’s most terrifying drug cartels. It led to the capture of more than 600 people linked to the gang. “They promise hope and they deliver despair,” one Drug Enforcement Administration official told a receptive journalist. Agents boasted they’d seized 20,000 kilograms of drugs along with $22m in cash and other assets.
Their target had been the Jalisco New Generation (JNG) cartel, a gang that stands out for its hideous savagery even by the debased standards of the Mexican drug war. It is led by Nemesio ‘El Mencho’ Cervantes, a former police officer with a $10m bounty on his head, whose bodyguards once shot down a military helicopter to prevent his arrest. His moustachioed face stares down from billboards across California, as the authorities appeal for help in re-capturing a shadowy figure once jailed for three years in San Francisco on drug charges.
This highly-disciplined character leads a group that has used appalling violence to become probably the world’s key trafficker of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and crystal meth; it controls at least one-third of the lucrative United States market. Using extortion, kidnapping, torture and murder it has muscled in on several other key sectors of the Mexican economy, from farming to mining — as I saw for myself last month, while visiting the state of Michoacán.
Cervantes was born here 54 years ago, one of six boys in a poor family of avocado farmers. I was there to report on how the drug cartels have muscled on production of the fruit as a new source of cash. Initially, they used avocado farming as a way to launder their mountains of money, but soon found it had become as lucrative as heroin, thanks to growing demand from Western consumers. Mexico grows almost half the avocados sold globally — and most of its ‘green gold’ comes from Michoacán.
This fertile state was already at the core of cartel operations. I was staying in Uruapan, home to a club where five decapitated heads were rolled across the dance floor in 2006, in a move which kick-started Mexico’s war on drugs. The day I arrived, 11 bodies were found in a shallow grave. The following day, as I walked to my hotel, I stumbled across the scene of a mass shooting that had left nine teenagers dead. Soon after my departure, another farmer was kidnapped from his avocado orchard and killed, then 24 more corpses were discovered nearby with several of them showing signs of torture.
It is like the Wild West. Farmers speak of being extorted, indigenous people are armed with semi-automatic weapons to protect forests, trucks are hijacked daily and even taco sellers pay protection money. One journalist described fleeing the country after being summoned by a cartel chief who said he would pay $50,000 a month to have his public image improved. Vigilantes ran one town, boasting of having 2,000 weapons to protect 15,000 people. Police are distrusted since many are in the pay of cartels. Yet corruption is complex: as one source explained to me, often officers don’t have any choice, since if they refuse to help the gangs they — or their children — are killed.
The beautiful but brutalised state depicts with stark clarity the impact of the global war on drugs. Uruapan is in the midst of a vicious struggle for supremacy between JNG and a local cartel called Los Viagras (so called after the spikily-erect hair of one of its founders). Last year, the Jalisco mob strung up nine bodies from a bridge alongside a banner threatening Los Viagras, with 10 more corpses — many dismembered — left on the road below in a macabre show of force. To fight them is to attempt to cut heads off a hydra, as local leaders shift loyalties and new groups spring up. One source sent me a list of 20 different gangs contesting the terrain while the state’s security director told me the cartels have 200,000 members in Michoacán alone.
This huge figure puts the US arrest of 750 JNG goons in grim perspective. Now consider the cause of this spiralling violence in Mexico, which last year left 35,000 people dead in its worst year for murder since records began. For the emergence of this cartel highlights how criminal gangs descend into increasing barbarity as they battle to control illicit markets. JNG has filled a void left by the capture of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, which weakened his powerful Sinaloa cartel. Typical of their depraved tactics was an incident five years ago in which dynamite was taped to a man and his son, then detonated — with the execution filmed on the sicario’s phone.
The unintended consequence of taking out Guzman, who was jailed in the US last year, was the ending of a period of comparative peace that one analyst called ‘Pax Sinaloa’. His removal unleashed a fight for supremacy in which someone even more sinister seems to have triumphed —namely El Mencho, who oversees smuggling operations today on every continent.
The escalation of violence is a familiar story. We have seen the same thing here in Britain. Neil Woods, a former undercover cop, detailed in two superb books how risking his life for public safety made minimal impact on stopping the flow of drugs. He witnessed over his career a spiral of savagery as crooks fought to control the trade, the spoils of victory going to the most violent among them.
This partly explains the disturbing rise in knife crime in Britain, which in turn is associated with county line supply models that exploit vulnerable children to sell drugs. Politicians, though, continue to push the same old failed drug polices, which only inflame the violence — from Manchester to Mexico.
Meanwhile, we are seeing a surge in stronger synthetic drugs which are harder to detect and can be more dangerous. History has shown how prohibition fosters potency, from the days of moonshine replacing beer a century ago in the US through to skunk replacing milder cannabis more recently on our streets. Stronger products mean smaller quantities for smuggling and bigger margins. It is noticeable that JNG first emerged from Jalisco, Mexico’s centre for such products. Now, this gang is trafficking vast quantities of methamphetamine and fentanyl across the US, where the drugs are fuelling homelessness and addiction.
Ironically, one reason these cartels moved into avocados is the recent fall in the price of heroin due to the emergence of new rivals, especially in Asia. Another reason has been the legalisation of cannabis in Canada, parts of the US and, effectively, in Mexico, which has cut off another supply of illegal cash. But this shift has happened too late to stop the cartels from becoming so strong they have corroded their country. And in any case the rise in the synthetic drug demand is filling that gap. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a veteran socialist and close friend of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, won power two years ago by promising to end violence with focus on the economy and a policy of “abrazos, no balazos“ (hugs not bullets). But the economy has stagnated, despite the avocado boom, and violence worsened.
Uttam Dhillon, acting head of the DEA, boasted after the raids last week that his team had carried out “one of the largest, concentrated actions against a single criminal organisation in many years”. He argued that the arrests would have “significant impact” since they were inhibiting the cartel’s ability “to regenerate and to continue to threaten our communities with their deadly drugs”. It’s nonsense. He should listen to his own agents who say that El Mencho is a far more deadly foe than his predecessors with his extreme use of terror and violence — and he should question why the murder and mayhem grows worse for all the DEA’s noble efforts.