Cartel gunmen ambushed a state police convoy on a remote stretch of highway in Jalisco on Monday, killing fifteen officers in the most recent bloody incident to rock the western region of Mexico.
Authorities blamed the ambush on Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, a criminal group that is little known outside western Mexico but which some observers say may be among the country's most powerful — and deadly — drug cartels today.
Jalisco public security commissioner Alejandro Solorio denounced the ambush as a "cowardly attack." It occurred in the municipality of San Sebastián del Oeste, a rugged area between the tourist port of Puerto Vallarta and the state capital Guadalajara.
The assailants, who had blocked the highway with burning vehicles to prevent reinforcements from arriving, also shot at the state officers with grenade launchers. The attackers reportedly escaped without suffering casualties.
One female officer was among those killed and five other police were hospitalized with injuries.
Nueva Generación — or New Generation — is just five years old and has been largely overshadowed by Mexico's more infamous cartels in the country's soaring drug violence, such as the Zetas and the Knights Templar.
In that time, it has quietly built an extensive criminal empire and now appears to be escalating its conflict with state authorities just two months before the local elections in Jalisco.
Messages displayed in Tijuana on Easter Sunday suggest its reach is also extending to the US border.
The group is said to hold an iron grip over much of western Mexico, including Guadalajara, the country's second largest city and an important financial hub.
Hours after the deadly highway ambush, authorities found the police chief of the town of Zacoalco de Torres, south of Guadalajara, beaten and killed. Miguel Angel Caicedo Vargas was found with a note pinned to his chest with a knife, reading, "This is for what you did to El Gringo," VICE News has learned.
State police killed "El Gringo," or Heriberto Acevedo Cárdenas, a regional Nueva Generación leader, along with three others in Zacoalco de Torres on March 23.
The cartel responded by attempting to assassinate Solorio, the state security commissioner, in the northern outskirts of Guadalajara on March 30. Solorio managed to escape unharmed, but the killing of the Zacoalco de Torres police chief confirmed that the group carried out its threats of revenge against officials.
CJNG, as the cartel is also known, is becoming a direct threat to the Mexican government, capable of assassinating officials, outgunning federal forces, and transforming any highway or urban area into its battleground in a manner previously seen only in well-known trouble spots like Tamaulipas, Guerrero, and Michoacán.
VICE News obtained a report from the federal attorney general's office via a public information request dated March 3, which revealed that Nueva Generación also operates outside the state of Jalisco, in Mexico City, and the states of Colima, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, Nayarit, and Veracruz.
Messages displayed in Tijuana on Easter Sunday suggest its reach is also extending to the US border. The Tijuana narco-banners said that CJNG was moving into town to "start the clean up" against others it called criminals.
"Without a doubt, it's an expanding organization," Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security analyst, told VICE News.
Among its chief assets, Hope noted that Nueva Generación exerts influence over Mexico's "methamphetamine corridor." This strategically important stretch of coastline includes the major ports of Manzanillo, Colima and Michoacán's Lázaro Cárdenas, the primary points of entry for chemical precursors used in meth production.
An offshoot of the Sinaloa federation and another group called Milenio, Nueva Generación sprung up to fill a vacuum created when the region's dominant capo, Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel — known as the right-hand-man of Sinaloa chief Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman — was killed in a military raid at his home in Guadalajara in 2010.
The cartel is alleged led by Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias "El Mencho," a shadowy figure who shies away from the ostentatious media presence of other drug capos. A former police officer from the state of Michoacán, he worked in two Jalisco towns before joining the Milenio cartel, and eventually forming Nueva Generación.
Since then, the group has aggressively pursued its rivals. In 2011, CJNG deployed a paramilitary unit to try to eliminate the Zetas in the eastern state of Veracruz, dubbing themselves the "Zeta Killers." More recently, the group waged war against the Knights Templar cartel in neighboring Michoacán.
The bodies of 101 suspected victims of the latter campaign were exhumed from mass graves across Jalisco in late 2013 and early 2014. It is widely believed that Nueva Generación was responsible for arming some of the vigilante groups that have fought the Knights Templar in Michoacán.
Nueva Generación have also wreaked havoc in Guadalajara by blockading major avenues with burning buses on three occasions in as many years. Provoked by the arrests of senior members, the blockades, which have left innocent bystanders dead, were interpreted as decoy tactics, used to enable other leaders to escape amid the chaos.
Increasingly empowered, the cartel has targeted ever-more prominent figures. In March 2013, Nueva Generación assassins gunned down Jalisco's tourism secretary, Jesús Gallegos Álvarez, as he drove through Guadalajara's upscale Puerto de Hierro district.
An alleged culprit later confessed that El Mencho had ordered the hit because he suspected the secretary was laundering money on behalf of the Knights Templar.
In September 2014, Guadalajara was rocked by another assassination. Surveillance footage captured the moment that assailants kidnapped federal congressman Gabriel Gómez Michel as he was being driven to the airport. The following day, authorities recovered Gómez's charred body from his burnt-out vehicle in neighboring Zacatecas state.
Surveillance footage shows the kidnapping of Mexican congressman Gabriel Gómez Michel.
Once again, Nueva Generación was the prime suspect. The motive was unclear but any dispute may have stemmed from Gómez's earlier tenure as mayor of El Grullo, a remote town in the southern Jalisco highlands. El Grullo is considered a Nueva Generación stronghold where El Mencho moves freely.
The rise of Nueva Generación and its war with the authorities is dominating the news in Jalisco and there is concern that if the group's assaults continue, the violence could impact the state's municipal and congressional elections on June 7.
"It would be very unfortunate if these incidents were to inhibit or distract voters because participation at the polls is the only means that citizens have of countering these kinds of actions against the state and the population," Guillermo Alcaraz Cross, the president of Jalisco's Electoral Institute and Citizen Participation Council, told VICE News.
Víctor Hugo Ornelas contributed to this report. Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter @DuncanTucker.