GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Early one morning in May 2019, a man stumbled naked through a middle-class neighborhood in central Guadalajara before collapsing on a street corner. He bore obvious signs of torture: His body was covered with cuts and blood. When police raided the nondescript house he’d escaped from, they found a horrific scene: nine living kidnap victims and the skulls of seven others.
Nearly two years later, there's little evidence of the gruesome events that took place at that quaint orange house on Rio Bravo street in an otherwise typical residential neighborhood in central Guadalajara. There’s a small sign saying Clausurado (“Closed”), a padlock secures the front gate, and a weathered flyer for a nearby sushi restaurant hangs off the door.
A neighbor, who declined to give their name, told VICE World News that they'd never heard screams or smelled odd odors, but they’d occasionally heard the sound of “a mechanical drill, like they were preparing something,” coming from the inside of the house. They were never quite sure who was living there, “like, all the time someone would go inside, and afterwards, other people would come and then some would go, and only at night.”
Only when the police came and quarantined the area, and as forensics vehicles lined the street, did the neighbor begin to hear the grisly details of what was an extermination house. The victims described how they were kidnapped and constantly tortured, then one by one others would be brought to a back room and strangled to death. Their bodies were then dismembered and disposed of at separate sites.
In the two weeks following, authorities found two clandestine graves connected to the house, one containing 25 corpses in the municipality of Tlajomulco de Zuñiga, and another with 30 bodies in the El Campanario neighborhood of the Zapopan municipality, which at that point was the largest grave in Jalisco history.
But it wouldn't hold that record for long. The discovery of the Rio Bravo house broke a dreadful levy, and a flood of similar kill houses and mass graves began to appear across the city.
Isabel Velarde drank an iced frappuccino in a coffee shop, wistfully recalling her teenage years in the early ’80s, when she'd stay out late with her friends in her hometown of Guadalajara, the state capital of Jalisco and one of Mexico's most populous cities. Back then, she and her friends had little fear of the renowned drug traffickers based there, known as the Guadalajara Cartel, because “they had codes.”
“No one bothered us. It was the opposite: They protected us,” said Velarde.
The oft-mythologized story of the Guadalajara Cartel was most recently featured on the Netflix series Narcos Mexico, which details how the demise of what's broadly considered the country's first modern drug cartel spawned numerous infamous and brutal kingpins, like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Amado Carrillo Fuentes, known as the Lord of the Skies.
But even after the eponymous cartel fragmented around 1990, the city of Guadalajara remained a relatively safe haven for narcos to live and raise their families, and especially to launder money. The influx of cash helped Guadalajara become Mexico's second city and an economic and cultural hub, like the Chicago to Mexico City's New York/Washington/LA hybrid.
The Guadalajara Cartel is history now, and a new cartel has taken on the state's name: the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known by its Spanish acronym CJNG. The rise of the CJNG over the past decade ties directly to the downward spiral of Guadalajara and the rest of the state into violent disorder. Since December 2018, Jalisco has registered more disappearances than any other Mexican state, accounting for more than 20 percent of all cases in Mexico.
“The government doesn't have order. There's no longer a rule of law,” said Velarde, visibly upset. “It's a narco-state.”
Her son Germán disappeared in 2017, and after that she spent nights hiding under parked cars on the streets of Guadalajara investigating people she suspected of being involved. Nearly four years later, her son's case remains unsolved, one of the 80,000 reported disappearances in Mexico since 2006.
“I've spoken with Jalisco government officials, detectives… They tell us that there have always been disappearances, there have always been murders. Yeah, maybe, but not at this magnitude,” said Velarde.
Days after Velarde reminisced about the good old days in Guadalajara, gunmen attempted to kidnap a man in an upper-class area in the same part of town where she’d enjoyed her frappuccino. A shootout erupted in broad daylight on February 8 between law enforcement and two rival groups, ending with at least one dead and three wounded. Later that same week, 18 garbage bags filled with hacked-up body parts were discovered a short drive away.
Authorities had discovered numerous clandestine graves and extermination sites before, but the house on Rio Bravo street marked a new low in the morbid history of clandestine graves and missing people in Guadalajara. By the end of 2019, authorities had discovered 28 similar houses, mostly rental properties.
“All these points were very much related to each other. I wouldn't say that it was every week, but since then we've discovered at least a couple each month, sometimes more, sometimes less,” explained an investigator from the state prosecutor's office who worked in the disappearance unit and investigated a number of the cases. They agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity.
On November 6, 2019, members of Mexico's National Guard chased a suspicious vehicle to a small warehouse on a major traffic artery in a part of the city called Tlaquepaque, known as the bodega de Toluquilla. A shootout erupted with members of a criminal group, and the National Guard eventually arrested 15 people and freed eight kidnapping victims.
Interviews with those arrested led authorities to two separate sites within a few hundred feet of each other in a neighborhood called El Mirador in the nearby municipality of Tlajomulco de Zuñiga. By July 2020, authorities had unearthed 50 bodies at the first site and over 100 at the second.
Again, it was the highest number of bodies found in clandestine graves in Jalisco state history at that point in time.
Mass graves have been discovered throughout Mexico for years, most notoriously in a large swath of land in Veracruz state known as Colinas de Santa Fe, where 298 skulls were discovered in 156 separate graves between 2016 and 2019, allegedly victims of the CJNG and other criminal organizations.
But the investigator was shocked by two aspects of what they’ve seen in Guadalajara since 2019:
First, the systematic nature of how the extermination sites were used to torture, murder, and then dismember the bodies in very public rental properties throughout the city. Second, the volume of bodies found relative to the size of the grave sites. Small plots of land where the body parts were transported to and disposed of, primarily in vats of acid, accounted for a higher number of deaths per square foot than that found at other past mass graves.
The investigator explained that the disappearances mostly came down to the dynamics generated by rival efforts to control the internal drug market within Guadalajara and the surrounding areas, and “eliminating the competition.”
The officer estimated that 75 percent of those involved had either a “direct or indirect relation” to the cartels, but as the investigation proceeded, the officer was surprised to learn how indirect the relationship between the victim and the criminal group often was. The majority were simply clients who might have had information about who is selling drugs, and where, according to the investigator.
Then, there's the other 25 percent with no relation to the drug trade at all.
The existence of extermination houses in and around Guadalajara entered the public eye after the disappearance of three local film students in March 2018. Protests broke out around the country over the disappearance of Javier Salomón, Daniel Diaz, and Marco Avalos and made international news when prominent Mexican filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro took on the cause. But one month later, authorities arrested several CJNG members who’d allegedly mistaken the students for criminal rivals as they filmed a school project on an empty property, then kidnapped, tortured, and dissolved their bodies in acid at an extermination house.
The CJNG members were reportedly dressed as police when they picked up the students. Since then, according to the investigator, it’s common that kidnappers dress as cops when abducting people because it “generates a conversation that the authorities are compromised.”
But the investigator also conceded that sometimes, they are.
When Aristóteles Sandoval became Jalisco’s governor in 2013, he stated that “Jalisco's greatest vulnerability was the infiltration of organized crime in its security apparatus,” and promised to address corruption.
But Sandoval's controversial six-year term saw violence continue to rise as the CJNG expanded from a relatively unknown criminal group to an established presence not just in Jalisco but throughout the country. Two years after leaving office, the former governor was assassinated in the bathroom of a restaurant in the seaside Jalisco city of Puerta Vallarta on December 19, 2020. Authorities arrested numerous people working at the restaurant who were paid to clean up the crime scene before investigators could arrive, but they have yet to arrest the actual killers or the material authors who ordered the hit.
Six weeks after Sandoval's assassination, Adriana Méndez said that nothing has changed since the former governor those comments in 2013. She spoke sitting in a small office in a row of small townhouses on a run-down street in the dangerous outlier neighborhood of Tlajomulco de Zuñiga. Taped to the wall above Méndez's desk is a series of mugshots with three faces circled in red—the men she believes are responsible for her son Emilio's 2018 disappearance. After months of futile attempts trying to work with the state investigators, she gave up, because she “didn't have the opportunity to help.”
“The prosecutor's office is useless,” said Méndez. “I'm going to tell you one thing that I'm sure of: The prosecutor's office is mixed up with the mafia.”
Méndez worked in a forensics laboratory in the United States in the late 1990s, and later as a surgeon's assistant in a Guadalajara hospital after returning to Mexico. When she watched the way the investigators handled her son's case, her years of experience around U.S. forensics investigators told her that the local officials were incompetent. In 2019, as disappearances around the state continued, she founded a collective of family members also looking for their missing loved ones. She taught her fellow members how to do the dirty work that the state couldn’t or wouldn’t.
“I have the ability to investigate, and to teach [the families] how to work in the field, how they can detect graves, where there's a body. The smell of a [dead] animal and a human is very different,” said Méndez.
Her desk is an overflowing testament to the collective of now over 100 people that she somewhat sardonically named El colectivo +1 = a todos, which basically translates to “one more collective, same as the rest.”
The emergence of groups of family members searching for Mexico's disappeared has become commonplace in the last decade, with similar collectives existing in nearly all 32 states. There are at least four similar groups of families in Guadalajara who are looking for their missing loved ones.
Méndez called Guadalajara a “graveyard.” Outside her house, she pointed to a nearby field where she said someone was recently shot and killed, then to a dilapidated house with blankets covering the windows where drugs were sold. A young man in a long T-shirt and baggy pants walked past carrying a circular saw.
“The ones that they kidnapped were mostly thieves and those that sell drugs,” said Méndez. “But recently a lot of younger guys are disappearing, women, but not just women, little girls. Older men. And no one knows why.”
The one thing Méndez did know?
“No one has control.”
As drug money poured into the city to be laundered throughout the ’90s and 2000s, Guadalajara became an even more prominent economic hub and cultural epicenter. It also came to serve as a home base of sorts for a man named Ignacio Coronel, known as the Crystal King. Coronel had become one of the principal producers and traffickers of methamphetamine and worked closely with the Sinaloa Cartel.
A U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008 released in a WikiLeaks dump a couple years later, called “Chemical City: Guadalajara, Jalisco, and the Meth Trade,” goes into depth about the crucial role the city and state played in the production of methamphetamine under Coronel's reign.
“Ending Guadalajara's status as Mexico's drug chemical capital will require a sustained long-term effort,” the American authors of the cable wrote.
The opposite happened.
“[Ignacio Coronel] prohibited the sale of meth in [Guadalajara] because he knew that it made everything out of control, it made people uncontrollable,” said a member of the Tlaquepaque special forces, who was dressed in tactical gear with an automatic weapon draped over their shoulder. The officer agreed to meet on the side of a dusty road as their partner surveyed the street, standing guard to make sure they weren’t ambushed—a common occurrence for members of the special forces.
In July 2010, the Mexican military gunned down Coronel at a house in a posh neighborhood of Zapopan. Soon after, several of his top lieutenants and family members were also arrested or killed.
“Before [Coronel's death], it was very rare to find meth or people that sold it here,” said the officer. “So it seems like it was on purpose to remove that restriction, so that meth could be here in Guadalajara. Now it's everywhere.”
The officer was born and raised in Guadalajara and joined the special forces around the time of Coronel's death. Over the past decade, they weren’t sure how many shootouts they'd been involved in. The officer witnessed the city's downward spiral firsthand.
The absence of Coronel led to a schism within his group, with one faction led by a former underling named Nemesio Oseguera, alias El Mencho, who would go on to found the CJNG and become one of the most wanted traffickers on Earth. The DEA announced a $10 million bounty on his head in 2020.
The complicated web of failed alliances and backstabbing led to a war between the CJNG and numerous groups across Mexico, including the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas. That war arrived in Guadalajara on November 24, 2011, when the bodies of 26 alleged members of the CJNG were discovered in three abandoned cars around the city, signed by the Zetas.
Violence then spread as the CJNG waged war on the state authorities in an attempt to make the state their bastion.
CJNG gunmen killed Jalisco's tourism secretary as he drove through an upscale suburb in March 2013. In 2014, a Jalisco federal congressman was kidnapped. His charred body was later found in a burned-out car in a neighboring state. In 2015, the CJNG attempted to assassinate Jalisco's head of public security, murdered 15 police officers in one of the deadliest days in Mexican law enforcement history, then shot down a helicopter using a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in an incident that also killed six soldiers not far from Guadalajara.
The following year, the U.S.’ Drug Enforcement Administration said in its yearly drug threat assessment that although the CJNG was “the most recently formed” of the six major groups listed, they were “one of the most powerful.” The agency singled out the CJNG’s prominence in the production and exportation of methamphetamine, but the group soon quickly came to rely on the internal drug market pushing meth throughout Jalisco and much of Mexico over the past decade.
The CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel were declared the “two most dominant transnational criminal organizations in Mexico” in 2020 by the DEA, with the CJNG maintaining a presence in 23 of Mexico’s 32 states.
And until recently, Guadalajara had remained one of their principal strongholds, but over the past few years, more and more CJNG associates have been arrested there. El Mencho’s son and wife were caught in Zapopan in 2015 and 2018 respectively. It’s now believed that El Mencho has moved his principal center of operations to a rural area that straddles the border of Jalisco and the state of Michoacan. Continued incursions by CJNG into Michoacán has fueled another deadly and ongoing conflict nearby.
"Why'd they lose control? Because they never fully had [Guadalajara] under control," the officer said. Much of the recent uptick in violence has been connected to a fracture in the CJNG after a prominent lieutenant broke off in 2017 to create a new group called "La Nueva Plaza."
But according to law enforcement sources, the criminal landscape is much more complicated. A variety of actors in the city, including well-known groups like the Sinaloa Cartel, have maintained a presence for decades. There are other ambitious cartels looking for new territory in the lucrative Guadalajara drug trade. And numerous local street gangs based in neighborhoods around the city further complicate matters.
The officer gave an example of a small area in the Tlaquepaque municipality that had yet to be conquered by the CJNG. A local nameless gang that runs the area was able to repel the CJNG's attempted invasions due to their vantage point on a hill.
“There's a group here that doesn't follow the cartel guidelines, but the [CJNG] is trying to get them to align,” said the officer. “It is a very prosperous area for drug consumption and therefore generates a lot of profit.”
Such attempts by the CJNG to force smaller groups to join forces with them or be eliminated have caused their rivals like the Nueva Plaza and the Sinaloa Cartel to adopt a similar modus operandi, using murder and abduction as a weapon of war. “Like in every war, there's collateral damage,” said the officer.
These types of conflicts are simmering across the city, and the state of Jalisco ranked number five in Mexico in terms of the number of homicides in 2020. And this year is shaping up to be even worse. In the first month of 2021, Jalisco ranked second in the country, with over 280 homicides in January, and on March 6 the federal government sent 600 troops to Guadalajara in an effort to quell the violence.
In October 2020, another mass grave was found in the municipality of El Salto in a small plot of land called El Sabino. By January, authorities announced they'd discovered the remains of 131 bodies at the site—the most in Jalisco state history, yet again.
Early last month, weeks after authorities finished combing the gravesite, Raul Muñoz sat in the passenger side of a car and pointed out a house as a young man knocked on its door. When it opened, another man holding a gun ushered him in.
“A safe house,” said Muñoz, one of many stops on a tour through El Salto to show the extent of the control that the CJNG had on that part of the municipality.
He got out of the car next to the Ahogado lake across from Guadalajara's international airport and pointed to the highway bridge that crosses the putrid-smelling body of water.
“We've seen vehicles, guarded by armed men, throwing plastic drums, duffle bags, garbage bags here. If one day the government comes and drags the area, they're going to find a lot of bodies.”
Muñoz, born and raised in El Salto, claimed to be one of the few public faces of a secretive vigilante movement around the Guadalajara region of around 300 people. The soft-spoken elderly man spent his formative years as a guerrilla fighter in both El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s and Mexico's Zapatista movement in Chiapas in the ’90s, before eventually returning home. It was soon after that that his son disappeared.
“I left the war. I didn't think the war would come to me.”
The vigilante autodefensa movement born in rural parts of Mexico around 2012 is newer to cities like Guadalajara, but Muñoz said he and his community felt they had no other choice because “we don't trust the authorities.”
“The group is made up of parents that have also suffered some sort of loss,” said Muñoz. “We're not against the authorities, nor are we trying to confront these groups. We're not interested in their drug production. We're interested in them stopping their extortion, kidnapping, taking women, our children, and forcing them into prostitution.”
He called his group's work “surgical.”
“When we see that somebody is crossing the line and their bosses don't have the will to keep them in line, and neither do the authorities, well, we'll take them for a walk, a trip, so that they can get to know the reality of life, the way their victims have lived it,” said Muñoz.
“Some people in the government know that we exist. They know us; they know we're going to be working.”
But they’ll continue working without the support of the authorities.
“We know the problems that the security institutions suffer from with infiltration and corruption,” said Muñoz.
Corruption within the Jalisco authorities, and specifically the city and state prosecutors office, has remained a constant talking point for politicians. But there’s been little action around the problem.
When the former mayor of Guadalajara, Enrique Alfaro, began setting the stage for his eventual run for the governorship of Jalisco, he claimed in 2017 that he would “clean out the scumbags from the prosecutor’s office” because there is a “network of corruption.” But after more than two years on the job, Alfaro has yet to make any significant steps toward fulfilling that promise. When asked about corruption in their ranks and what they were doing to combat it by VICE World News, the Jalisco state prosecutor’s office refused to comment.
“It's getting worse. It's the same as we had with other governments,” said a detective who has worked in the prosecutor’s office over two dozen years in various areas from homicides to disappearances.
All three law enforcement officials interviewed by VICE World News, who do not know the involvement or identities of each other, estimated that roughly around a third of the local authorities had been corrupted, from low-level cops to higher-ups in the prosecutor's office.
“Sometimes when you've gotten some intel about cartels, some people involved in drug trafficking, they stop you. They don't want you to investigate,” said the longtime detective.
They told a story about how recently they had arrested an armed man who admitted to being a member of a rival cartel of the CJNG and took him to jail.
“My superiors, instead of saying to me, ‘Congratulations, you got this fucking asshole,’ they were mad at me because I did my job and I did it right,” said the detective.
Inside the prosecutor's office, there's a constant fear of both organized crime and their fellow officers. The detective mentioned the December 2020 murder of two members of the Guadalajara prosecutor’s office but didn't “want to pay too much attention.”
“It's not my business. It's dangerous for me,” said the detective. “If I start to ask around about [the recently murdered officers], they'll probably think that I have something to do with the contras.”
The contras, or enemies, is an ominous thought, since it’s never known who is an enemy of who. Maybe the officers were mixed up with the mob, or maybe they were investigating it.
“It will never be solved,” said the detective. The murders of public officials—much like most murders in Mexico—hardly ever are.
On June 22, 2019, simultaneous coordinated attacks took place on members of the prosecutor's office in various spots around the city, leaving two dead and others injured. Later it was discovered there had been a hit list with a number of detectives' names on it. The next month, the top prosecutor in the nearby municipality of Poncitlan was murdered. At least 75 police have been killed in Jalisco since 2018. The majority of their murders remain unsolved.
“There's a lot of people that get killed by the mafia and [the authorities] don't put too much money and too much energy into investigating,” said the detective. “We're just numbers in the prosecutor's office. If something happens to us, they won't do anything.”
The detective understood why citizens no longer had faith in the Jalisco authorities.
“It's too sad. I'm very disappointed in the government because they don't give you the tools to really and truly fight against the cartels.”