At least three people – including a pregnant woman in her early 20s – languish in critical condition in Guanajuato, Mexico, after their hands were chopped off and their bleeding bodies were thrown from the back of a truck last week.
"This happened to me for being a thief, and because I didn't respect hard-working people and continued to rob them," the chilling note strapped to their bodies read. "Anyone who does the same will suffer. Signed Elite Group."
The Elite Group is the top tier enforcement wing of the Jalisco New General Cartel, often referred to as CJNG. And the lifelong, medieval punishment of physical disability is one that has become synonymous with both state and non-state actors over the years, from ISIS and al-Qaeda to the Iranian regime.
The incident is only one of many deeds of bloodshed to have been carried out by the CJNG, whose barbarity is said to be on ascendance in recent weeks and months — spilling on to U.S. soil and livelihoods.
CJNG remains the domineering force in its namesake state of Jalisco – where the former governor was gunned down on Friday, in what many believe to have been the work of the cartel – and its trail of terror is steadily proliferating.
Much of the violence is attributed to the battle for territorial surface and thus the control of the illicit drug flow into the United States. CJNG, which routinely faces off with its No. 1 nemesis, the Sinaloa Cartel, dominates the majority supply of everything from methamphetamine and heroin to the devastating synthetic opioid fentanyl into its northern border and beyond.
"The tug of war between CJNG and Sinaloa is getting more violent, likely driven by a stronger CJNG, which managed to make several territorial gains while Sinaloa saw bouts of infighting after El Chapo's capture," Ines Echeagaray, a Mexico-based Senior Analyst at Global Risk Analysis, told Fox News.
2020 has been an especially savage year in the border city of Tijuana, racking up almost 2,000 murders almost on par with 2019 — and once again earning the label of having the highest murder rate per capita of any city in Mexico.
Since the arrest and extradition to the U.S. of Sinaloa frontman Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán in 2016, analysts say that the CJNG has steadily encroached on new terrain – including Tijuana – bringing with it a recipe for bloodletting and groups waging a war of dominance.
DEA agents take a suspect into custody during an arrest of a suspected drug trafficker on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 in Diamond Bar, Calif. In early-morning raids Wednesday, federal agents fanned out across the U.S., culminating a six-month investigation with the primary goal of dismantling the upper echelon of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known as CJNG. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
Signs have also pointed to CJNG widening its footprint in the capital, Mexico City, aligning itself with the Fuerza Anti-Union gang to tackle the city's most extensive criminal enterprise, La Unión Tepito.
Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, underscored that as the criminal environment has become more fragmented with many groups and affiliated gangs, the amount of killing and its unpredictability has become more generalized.
"Once 'safe' areas such as Mexico City and Puebla State and the tourist zones of the Yucatan Peninsula are now contested. Moreover, the spread of crime by gangs 'affiliated' with the cartels increases the number of Mexicans who are victimized by crime indirectly related to cartels," he said. "As well as those who suffer from a lack of economic opportunity because businesses cannot thrive, and a lack of quality of life because public services, in some ways, do not function well."
The CJNG has also been accused of directly extorting businesses in the capital. In June, operatives attempted to assassinate Mexico City's police chief, Omar Garcia Harfuch – hammering his body with at least three bullets and slaying two of his bodyguards. A young woman en route to selling street food was also fatally struck by a stray bullet through a car window.
But wrestling for land jurisdiction is only a piece of the CJNG puzzle. The group has also upped the ante for sea and air authority too – fighting the likes of Sinaloa and the vestiges of Los Zetas and Los Pelones to take heed over the vital port of Chetumal and the Yucatan Peninsula, according to an analysis by InSight Crime. Both serve as popular entry ports for the precursor chemicals in synthetic drugs, mostly brought in from China.
"Drug cartels generally do not control territory in the same way that governments or even gangs do, but traditionally exert influence over certain activities in certain areas or routes," Ellis explained. "Different groups are active in virtually all Mexican territory, with the Sinaloa federation being concentrated in the north/west portion of the country, and CJNG being concentrated in the south/central but extending across Mexico to Veracruz."
With a fast-swelling arsenal of advanced weapons – from stolen cars converted into armored vehicles to drones and high-powered machine guns – it's a force to be reckoned.
"The CJNG is one of the most powerful (cartels) and in a short time may become the dominating force in Mexico if not restrained. The CJNG could take on the Sinaloa area, Baja California and the Golden Triangle, which it currently does not have in its control, but it's trying," said Wesley Tabor, a retired assistant special agent in charge of Los Angeles Field Division of the DEA. "They are also very adept at using social media, such as Facebook and even Tik Tok, to show their strength and aggressiveness."
Soldiers stand guard in front of a modified and armored truck as it is displayed to the media at a military base in Reynosa, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas June 5, 2011. Soldiers seized a couple of modified and armored trucks at a warehouse in the municipality of Camargo during a patrol on Saturday, local media reported. According to the military, the vehicles were used by the CDG (Gulf Cartel) to transport drugs and hitmen. (REUTERS/Stringer)
Unlike most cartels and affiliated crime units that permeate Mexico, the CJNG has long posted its most extreme real-life horror films on display for the world to see across social media — beheaded bodies left to hang and rot on bridges in broad daylight and beatings so brutal that the sound of bones cracking can be heard.
It is a tactic later mimicked by the likes of ISIS, a digital bid to intimidate and inflict anxiety on enemy factions and send a warning to government law enforcement who dare to meddle in their monetary schemes. Furthermore, it's part of their propaganda drive to recruit the many youths seeking that "narco"-glamorized life, flashed and filtered by images of beautiful women, mounds of money and a depository of deadly arms.
"You ask almost any young boy in Jalisco what they want to be when they grow up," one former intel officer, now based in Mexico City, lamented. "And it is a football (soccer) player of a narco."
While the CJNG makes no efforts to hide its beef with adverse cartels and Mexican military and law enforcement, civilians are all too often caught in the cryptic crossfire.
Echeagaray pointed out that CJNG, although very violent, does not target civilians systematically.
"They are, however, big on extortion and can turn to violence if victims refuse to cooperate," she asserted. "That said, shootouts and attacks on authorities have happened in cities like Guadalajara in the middle of the day with no regard to innocent civilians' lives."
In the past, student filmmakers have been kidnapped and tortured to death, journalists frequently killed before they can even begin to probe a likely CJNG crime, dozens of lawmakers and judges have been butchered and death threats have haunted scores of Mexican officials. According to Mexico News Daily, more than 500 people in communities around the municipalities of Aguililla and Buenavista have deserted their homes and fled in fear for their lives as the fighting soars.
And for those who make the gut-wrenching decision to stay, life has been reduced to the desperate, defensive gambit of digging trenches across highways in western Michoacán. It is a forsaken endeavor to deter CJNG hitmen from infiltrating their neighborhoods.
Observers and anti-trafficking personnel who closely monitor the CJNG, which emerged around 2009 after splintering from the Sinaloa cartel, broadly conclude that much of its bloody approach can be attributed to its ruthless leader, Nemesio "El Mencho" Oseguera. The 56-year-old rose from the humble roots of an avocado growing family, dropped out of primary school to work in the fields, to become one of the most potent drug lords on the planet.
"El Mencho, a former police officer, knows that violence and fear are what keep these cartels in power within Mexico. He isn't your typical cartel leader. He doesn't make wild errors; he doesn't hesitate; one word for el Mecho is 'calculated,'" Wesley said. "If one wants to gain power, control and territory, it's a must that they conquer non-alliance cartels and gain the assistance of police and government entities to assist them in their global success."
According to U.S. officials, the CJNG is now the primary drug trafficking outfit in 24 of Mexico's 32 states. In addition, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has a $10 million bounty on El Mencho's head, given that his rule and his rapid rise to power also bears a devastating impact across the U.S.
"While the distribution in U.S. markets is principally through affiliated gangs and proxy groups, the CJNG is thus indirectly responsible for the production of illicit drugs that kill thousands of Americans," Ellis said. "As well as the violence and corruption that puts at risk the neighbor with which the United States shares an enormous land border, and in which thousands of U.S. companies operate, and U.S. citizens live."
Experts estimate that the CJNG also brings in the millions in a multitude of methods aside from the drug trade – including illegal mining, human trafficking, money laundering, and the extortion of farmers and their families for a cut in avocado exports and the forced protection payment – or else meet a premature death.
"Police and civilians are dying, and the CJNG and continues unfettered, flooding the U.S. with methamphetamine and other drugs," Tabor added. "The violence in Mexico and elsewhere is something that doesn't stop at the border. Think of this violence extending into every facet of their global operations."