MEXICO CITY - It started with his mom's credit card, claimed Ismael Almada in March 2020, as he voluntarily spilled his guts to U.S. law enforcement officers during an interview in the Mexican city of Guadalajara. He'd originally used his mom's card to order weapons accessories and tactical gear off eBay for his security business that focused on anti-spyware and surveillance technology, before eventually moving to PayPal to make the trail of U.S. goods to Mexico a bit more clandestine.
He needed to. Most of the illegal imports went to the infamous Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known as the CJNG for its Spanish acronym.
Weeks before, his brother, Carlos Almada, died under suspicious circumstances, and Ismael had a reason to suspect that the feared founder of the CJNG, Nemesio Oseguera (aka El Mencho) wanted him dead. After a long legal battle, U.S. authorities extradited El Mencho's son, Rubén Oseguera or “El Menchito,” in February 2020 to face drug charges in D.C., and potential witnesses, like Carlos, were turning up dead.
Ismael arrived in the U.S. days after he gave his confession in Mexico and voluntarily turned himself over to authorities. While a criminal complaint that VICE World News had access to from his original detention details the brothers connections to the CJNG smuggling ring, all traces of Ismael Almada's case and the complaint subsequently disappeared from the U.S. government's Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER).
But Ismael’s story provides a detailed look at not only how the CJNG acquires military grade gear, but also how a younger generation of cartel members connected to the 31-year-old El Menchito operate within the organization.
U.S. authorities first got tipped off to the Almada brothers when PayPal flagged several suspicious accounts in June 2019 that were purchasing a wide range of military-grade weapon accessories from eBay. Federal investigators would later link around 50 PayPal accounts to the brothers that used addresses in both Los Angeles and the Mexican state of Jalisco, where Guadalajara is the capital.
Soon after, authorities subpoenaed eBay and were given access to their records, and later, received access to a Gmail account connected to the brothers after also subpoenaing Google. What they found was startling.
The same day that the government received the records from eBay, July 20, 2019, the email account bought a “Blackhawk 40mm Grenade Triple Pouch.”
And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Investigators found approximately 300 separate transactions, including “night vision goggles, laser sights, armored vests, safety respirators ... additional ammo pouches, gun accessories, muzzle brakes,” as well as the grenade-launcher accessories.
The CJNG in particular has made a show of flexing its muscles and military might. In July, a video emerged of dozens of alleged CJNG members dressed in tactical gear with military-grade weapons next to a parade of homemade tanks and armored pickup trucks. But their fondness for military gear began much earlier. In 2015, CJNG members shot down a military helicopter using a grenade launcher and have repeatedly clashed with law enforcement around Mexico.
The Almada case shows how many of these accessories may have entered Mexico via internet shopping and messenger delivery. Records showed that the purchases were sent to a shipping business known as MM Cargo until 2018, when their principal point of contact rebranded themselves as a separate shipping business known as Calix Packing, both based in the Los Angeles Fashion District.
But the company grew wary of working with the Almadas, who they knew only by pseudonyms.
Around the time that authorities first caught wind of the Almada brothers, Ismael received a message from the shipping business in July 2019 claiming that they were unable to send certain weapons accessories to Mexico, including a sword that he had purchased from Ebay.
“This is what we have not been able to send you, four little boxes, the sword, plus the sword case,” wrote the member of the shipping business, including a photo of the items, in communications that were later shared with U.S. law enforcement.
“If you can please send me the sword, it is a wall ornament, and it's not even sharp,” replied Ismael. “And let's see if you can give us a hand to send it and it will be the last time that we send those products.”
“I'm sorry sir, look we talked to the shipping company and we cannot send you anything like that, we can't send you anything because the boxes go through X-ray and that will be a big problem.”
Later that same day, several gun holders arrived for Ismael at the shipping company offices, and the courier service again texted him saying “we cannot send them.”
“But that's legal. They even sell them in the jewelry stores,” replied Ismael.
“They are weapons parts and we can't. If transportation saw them and if they get stopped, they will send me the infraction ticket, and we can't risk it.”
“They have always sent me, but alright,” said Ismael.
Less than two weeks later, Ismael pressed again, “remember you used to send by two different packaging companies, you think the other can bring my stuff?”
“No sir, none of the packaging companies want to do it,” the shipping business replied.
On September 28, 2019, authorities raided a house in Guadalajara and arrested Carlos Almada along with three alleged CJNG associates. Inside the property they discovered 22 assault rifles, two grenade launchers, tactical gear, as well as packages of cocaine and meth. News reports claimed that the weapons came from Los Angeles, although it's unclear how they were imported. Authorities did however find a shipping label inside the house addressed to Calix Packing.
At the time of his arrest, Mexican authorities claimed that Carlos Almada was a prominent boss in the Guadalajara area, and sent him to the infamous Puente Grande prison outside of the city.
Puente Grande is perhaps best known for being the prison from which Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán first escaped from in 2001, who was allegedly snuck out hidden in a laundry cart. After that, the prison became a base of sorts for the CJNG, where videos of cartel parties inside its walls have gone viral. The Mexican government shut Puente Grande for good in October and moved its inmates around the country in an effort to get rid of the lawlessness within the prison walls.
The closure didn't come soon enough for 27-year-old Carlos Almada, who prison officials discovered dead in his cell in March last year in what was first reported as a suicide but has since has been flagged as a potential homicide. He’s one of at least five CJNG affiliates reportedly targeted for extradition that died under mysterious circumstances in Puente Grande since 2018.
Weeks after his brother's death, Ismael Almada, believed to be 35 or 36 years old, placed the blame for the smuggling ring primarily on his younger brother when speaking with U.S. authorities, telling a story of how Carlos became involved in the cartel. According to Ismael's testimony in the criminal complaint, Carlos joined a CJNG predecessor organization at 15 years old, and “quickly moved up through the ranks and eventually became a key member for the CJNG in Guadalajara.”
He claimed that his brother moved hundreds of kilos of cocaine from Colombia to Jalisco while also sourcing “weapons purchased from the unidentified weapons broker and the tactical equipment and weapons accessories purchased from Ebay for resale and use by CJNG members in Mexico at the direction of [Gonzalo] Mendoza Gaytán.”
Gonzalo Mendoza Gaytán, alias El Sapo (The Frog), is considered to be one of the top lieutenants under El Mencho. In May 2019, the DEA sanctioned him under the kingpin act and said that he is “responsible for kidnappings and numerous killings.”
Mexican authorities arrested Mendoza Gaytán’s brother, father, and mother in 2012 for allegedly working with the CJNG, and the 32-year-old is often mentioned as a potential successor to El Mencho now that the drug lord’s son is facing a long prison sentence in the U.S.
Throughout Mexico, the CJNG is involved in bloody conflicts with rival groups and the authorities as the cartel tries to expand its territory while simultaneously protecting its top leaders like El Mencho and El Sapo. The downfall of the Almada’s Ebay weapons accessories smuggling ring may prove a cautionary tale for other CJNG members, but certainly will not stop the flow of arms to Mexico. Whoever replaces the brothers in CJNG now will probably think twice about buying military-grade accessories from popular websites using their mother’s credit card.