The Narco Gangs and Human Smugglers of Ciudad Juárez
The city that is ground zero for migrant crossings has a bloody but fragile crime system
Mexico’s narco war has a habit of mixing grisly tragedy with dark comedy.
On January 1, the tragedy yet again hit Ciudad Juárez, the metropolis that sprawls south of the Rio Grande from El Paso, when a commando of gunmen stormed into the prison to free a gang boss known as El Neto. During the onslaught, prison guards handed over their weapons and were lined up on their knees. But before walking out of the jail, the gangsters shot dead ten of the surrendered guards in cold blood. Days later, their coffins were lined up and a fellow guard addressed them. “With great sadness, anger and impotence, we say the last goodbye to our friends, to our family of blue blood.”
Some guards, however, were not just victims but it appears corrupt. When the army retook control of the penitentiary they discovered what Mexico’s defense secretary described as “VIP cells,” which were stuffed with drugs, cell phones and guns, and boasted a safe with 1.7 million pesos, a bar with whisky and tequila and a jacuzzi. And in a touch of dark comedy, the soldiers pulled out a rare Egyptian cat that belonged to El Neto and was tattooed with symbols of his gang, Los Mexicles. By March, the cat was adopted and moved to a new home in Texas.
Mugshot from the Fiscalia de Chihuahua
Commentators first reacted by saying the Mexicles, a gang affiliated to the Sinaloa Cartel, had proven they were the rising power in Juárez, and El Neto, or Ernesto Alfredo Piñón de la Cruz, seen in his mugshot photo with a pirate eye patch, could be the new big capo. Founded in a Texas prison in the 1980s, the Mexicles had grown into a sprawling cross-border gang like their rivals the Barrio Azteca. Yet just four days after his escape, police tracked down El Neto in the city and shot him dead in a firefight.
“There were a lot of people who were furious with El Neto over killing the prison guards like that,” a federal agent stationed in Juárez tells me. “They wanted to take him out. He was done.”
I chat to the agent, who is flanked by bodyguards, over a long night of food and beers in Juárez bars. I am also with Luis Chaparro, a friend and great journalist who has covered the unwieldy city for years and lived it all his life. Luis spent time inside the Juárez prison with the Mexicles prior to the breakout. We are talking about the latest narco politics of Juárez, who now runs it and how the rackets have changed.
Juárez is the second biggest city on the Mexican border after Tijuana, with 1.5 million residents, yet following the 2014 arrest of the old boss Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, alias The Viceroy, it’s been blurry as to who is in charge. The reality, from what various sources describe, is that the city is carved up between Juárez Cartel affiliates and Sinaloa Cartel affiliates, with the division of territory marked by the broad Avenida Tecnológico that slices through the metropolis up to the border. But both sides are also further divided into an array of factions and sprawling narco-gangs that work together only loosely. The system is both bloody and fragile, symptomatic of the tangled crime structures that have emerged across Mexico after 17 years of a (corrupt) military crackdown on cartels.
Juárez flashed onto the U.S. front pages last week because of the expiration of Title 42, a pandemic measure used by the Border Patrol to expel asylum seekers. TV crews amassed on El Paso expecting a bumrush of migrants, but that didn’t happen and the story was a bit of a washout, mainly because Washington found new ways to expel people. Still, the Border Patrol has genuinely encountered a record-breaking number of migrants and asylum seekers over the last eighteen months and it has been overwhelming U.S. holding facilities and immigration courts.
With increased deaths of people wading into the Rio Grande Valley, the migrants moved upstream and the El Paso sector became the busiest crossing point. Thousands of voyagers from across Latin America piled up in Juárez, both hopefuls wanting to go north and deportees sent back. Some are in hostels, some sleep on the streets, others were taken into the immigration lockup, where there was a fire in March killing 40. And this has all provided a huge revenue to the cartels and their affiliate gangs who have taken over the human smuggling business and reap the booming profits.
Luis Chaparro with the Mexicles in the Juárez prison (Photo courtesy of Chaparro)
From La Nacha to The Great War
Juárez-El Paso has been a smuggling corridor since its border was demarcated in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe, with everything from liquor to pre-Hispanic artifacts to cocaine flowing north and from guns to dollar bills to exotic tigers rolling south. In the 1920’s, La Nacha, or Ignacia Jasso, became Mexico’s first heroin queen when she sold smack from her Juárez house to American GI’s and jazz musicians who ventured over.
Amado Carrillo Fuentes moved from Sinaloa and emerged as a Juárez trafficker in the 1980s, becoming the top dog after the 1993 murder of his boss, and former federal agent, Rafael Aguilar, maybe on his orders. Carrillo Fuentes of course earned his nickname, “The Lord of the Skies” for hauling cocaine in large aircraft and is believed to have been the richest trafficker in Mexico before he died from a plastic surgery accident in 1997 - which yes, is bloody suspicious.
Amado’s brother Vicente took over the Juárez Cartel and made it less lucrative but more violent, eventually going to war with El Chapo and other Sinaloa Cartel bosses in 2008. This battle, referred to in Juárez as simply “la guerra,” was the bloodiest front in all of Mexico’s drug war with over 10,000 murders in the city in four years.
The war became so perilous because so many factions took to the streets blasting. The Sinaloa Cartel sent in a paramilitary force called La Gente Nueva and the Juárez Cartel responded with its own paramilitary wing, La Linea. Juárez then unleashed the cross-border gang, El Barrio Azteca. The Aztecas had formed in a Texas prison in the 1980s among inmates from Juárez and El Paso (also known as Juaritos and Chuco Town) but as members were deported they grew in Mexico. They proved effective and ruthless in combat, carrying out horrific massacres. So the Sinaloans put money into their own affiliate street gangs, the Mexicles and the Artist Assassins. Also known as the AA’s, the latter were a local crew founded by graffiti artists; I saw a painting of one their first members, Saik, of a helmeted skull smoking a reefer. (It was quite good).
The Mexican government poured in the troops to quell the bloodshed but it only got worse because a lot of them were corrupt. The Sinaloans had many federal cops and soldiers on their payroll and the Juarenses had state and city police on theirs. Fighting-age lads from the barrios were recruited by both sides and were “wiped out like cockroaches,” as a mother of a gang member said to me at the time.
The war and corruption was described in detail in a 2020 Texas trial of Juárez underboss, Luis Castillo Rubio, alias El Pariente. The trial unveiled a treasure trove of info and the fact it had zero media coverage reflects the demise of local U.S. newspapers.
Among the murderous witnesses was Emilio Ramírez, a former police detective in Chihuahua, where Juárez is located. Ramírez described how he was the No. 2 in a group called the Condors of corrupt police who worked for the cartel. “One of my main responsibilities is to safeguard the plaza [territory] in Ciudad Juárez, as well as the state of Chihuahua, to make sure that other cartels wouldn't go try to come and sell, export, or pass drugs through Juárez,” he told the court. “Because nobody was allowed to sell cocaine except for the Juárez Cartel.”
Also taking the stand was José Antonio Acosta Hernández, alias El Diego, a head of La Linea who had confessed to being directly or indirectly involved in 1,500 murders - an authentic war criminal. Diego described how he ordered a car bomb against the federal police in 2010. “Ninety percent of the federal police force worked for the Sinaloa cartel, that's why we set up the car,” Diego told the court. He also described how the Barrio Azteca carried out the massacre of 15 high school kids at a party, a tragedy that shook Mexico.
The war made Juárez the most murderous city on the entire planet in 2010. But it finally ended by mid 2012 when the monthly murder rate went down by about 85 percent compared to its peak. The best explanation I have heard of how the war stopped was that a truce was brokered between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels, likely with law enforcement involvement. I first heard this on a trip there in 2013 from a spokesman for the city police who described the division of territory. A Mexican Congressman and former federal official Manuel Espino also spoke of the truce in a forum in the Senate last year. “These things give results. I saw it in Ciudad Juárez,” Espino said.
Yet the division has always been fragile and the city is again rumbling.
From Cocaine Kings to Meth Pushers and Polleros
As we drink beers and eat steaks, the federal agent explains the current division of territory in the city. The Sinaloa Cartel affiliates dominate the areas to the east of the Avenida Tecnológico, including the urban sprawl and then south to the rural Valle de Juárez. The Mexicles and Artists Assassins are each about 2,000 strong, he says. The Juárez Cartel affiliates dominate the area to the west including the centro and the smuggling areas across from Sunland Park. The Barrio Azteca is about 4,000 strong. La Linea, meanwhile, is a powerful force in smaller Chihuahua towns to the west and and south of Juárez pushing into Sonora.
All of the gangs are into the lucrative migrant smuggling and a huge amount of local drug dealing, especially of crystal meth. (I have more here on the business of the human smugglers, or polleros, and here on Mexico’s growing drug use). Fighting over this corner drug selling, even among the same gangs, is to blame for a lot of the Juárez murders, which have crept back up to about 100 a month.
The gangsters are still moving larger loads of drugs though Juárez into the United States. But U.S. seizures show it is now much less important than Tijuana. In 2022, U.S. customs and border agents in El Paso nabbed 5,000 pounds of crystal meth and 389 pounds of fentanyl. Meanwhile, in San Diego, they grabbed about 20 times as much - 97,000 pounds of meth and almost 8,000 pounds of fentanyl.
Since Carrillo Fuentes was arrested in 2014, it is unclear if a new single leader has taken over the Juárez Cartel. The federal agent says there are plaza bosses who oversee each area and and work together to coordinate the bigger drug trafficking. There are also rumors of certain characters who could be the top dog. Luis, however, believes it is no longer a coherent organization but just a collection of different groups and factions without a central leadership.
Either way, it reflects the kingpin strategy pursued for many years in Mexico. Most of Mexico’s capos of the 2000s and 2010s are dead or in jail. Major traffickers now have less incentive to stick their head out and be seen as the boss. Yet without such overt leadership, there can be more fighting between competing factions. And it is tempting for another cartel to take over and really ramp up the fentanyl trafficking.
The Juárez war also changed the crime structures in the city by empowering the street gangs, the Mexicles, Aztecas, and the AA’s. Both cartels pumped them full of guns and allowed them to take territory as a bastion against their enemies. And naturally, these gangs don’t want to give up their arms and turf.
In 2017, I interviewed two Barrio Azteca members in a Juárez safehouse. Carlos was in his forties, with a shaven head, handlebar moustache, tattoos, and scars from knives and bullets. He spoke Spanish with a lot of border slang, talking of “gangas,” “homies” and “clickas.” When I asked Carlos about deportations, he said it would give them more manpower. “They will send us all the bad guys and we will get bigger and bigger. The more and more we are, the more powerful the gang will become.” With a lot of broke and desperate migrants stuck in the city now, it could mean more members.
These growing Juárez gangs have become a new hybrid organized-crime group that mixes the brotherhood, language and style of U.S. gangbangers with a cartel level of armaments and ruthlessness. As the execution of prison guards shows, it’s a hazardous combination.
On NarcoReport, I talk with Luis Chaparro about the fall and rise of the Juárez Cartel. Watch it on video above, or listen while cruising to the audio below.
Narco Politics by Ioan Grillo is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Text copyrighted by Ioan Grillo and CrashOutMedia.