The video, filmed before dawn Sunday in a small town in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, is grainy. But the identity of the man detained by the soldiers filming the video is clear: It’s José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, known as “El Marro,” or The Sledgehammer, one of the country’s most-wanted crime bosses.
Small and stout, Yépez is forced to face a phone for a photo, dwarfed by the soldiers flanking him in the town of Juvenito Rosas, close to the city of Celaya. Then he is made to climb into a waiting military helicopter, which soon lifts off to take him to a maximum-security jail on the outskirts of Mexico City.
The faces of the state and federal forces executing the arrest in the video have been blurred out. That’s standard practice, a measure taken to prevent repercussions against them and their families for carrying out orders against high-level crime bosses. Five other members of Yépez’s gang were captured during the arrest, according to the state government, as well as a female kidnapping victim.
Yépez heads the Guanajuato-based Santa Rosa de Lima cartel, and is blamed by the government for much of the havoc being wreaked in the state, the result of a violent struggle for control of lucrative drug trafficking and fuel-theft markets against the powerful New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG).
Guanajuato has earned a reputation as one the most violent parts of the country. The arrest of Yépez comes weeks after the latest incident of brutal violence: the slaying of 27 recovering drug users in the small city of Irapuato.Both Yépez and CJNG denied any responsibility for the mass shooting, but it was interpreted by many as a warning from Yépez’s group to CJNG to cease its aggressive expansion across the state.
Yépez’s arrest is a symbolically important one for the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (also known by his initials AMLO). The move is an attempt to claw back a semblance of control in a state that has long been in criminal hands by an administration floundering to define a security strategy in one of the most violent years on record.
“How did this [criminal organization] grow so much in Guanajuato? The same… complicity, shady deals with the municipal and state authorities, and impunity,” said AMLO, following Yépez’s capture. AMLO has made fighting corruption one of the central themes of his administration so far.
But contrary to a win for authorities, the arrest is likely to hand a fresh victory to Nemesio Oseguera-Cervantes, also known as El Mencho, leader of the CJNG and one of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s most-wanted men. By taking El Marro out of the game, El Mencho’s battle for control of the state is won.
“El Marro’s arrest empowers the CJNG to extend its dominance across the entire state of Guanajuato and control — on top of fuel theft — trafficking routes for illegal substances that cross the state. It strengthens its position to confront the Sinaloa cartel and others in Mexico’s north,” said Juan Miguel Alcántara, a lawyer and security consultant and former public prosecutor in Guanajuato.
United States ambassador to Mexico Christophe Landau applauded the latest arrest by the AMLO government, saying, “Criminals think they’re so alive and so smart, but in the end, us good guys are going to win. Viva the rule of law!” The United States has partly funded Mexico’s crackdown against organized crime since it started in 2006.
But the kingpin strategy, which focuses on bringing down key crime bosses, leaves power vacuums that are quickly filled by other aspiring organizations and chiefs.
“This is one of the consequences of the kingpin strategy and why they shouldn’t use it in isolation,” security analyst Jaime López-Aranda Trewartha told VICE News.
On a reporting trip to Irapuato in the state of Guanajuato in July, drug users and those who work with them told VICE News that El Marro was losing his grip on the city, and that CJNG now controls most of the drug street sales points.
“People are uncertain about what is going to happen and how things are going to adapt,” said a source in Guanajuato who works with drug users (and asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals). “There’s a lot of uncertainty over whether his people will seek revenge against El Marro’s arrest.”
Just over a week before Yépez was taken down, local authorities also arrested his alleged right-hand man, which could mean the gang will struggle to muster new leadership, and strike back, quickly.
“If El Marro’s demise actually paves the way for one of the sides to win, then it might lead to a decrease in homicides. But I’m skeptical,” said López-Aranda.
CJNG now rivals Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel for dominance in Mexico. The life sentence handed down last year to Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, co-founder of the Sinaloa Cartel, caused a rift within the leadership of his organization and created an opportunity for CJNG to further expand its reach into key territories across Mexico.
Guanajuato is another significant gain for El Mencho’s organization. And he has, in part, the authorities to thank for his latest win.
Cover: José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, "El Marro", líder del cártel de Santa Rosa de Lima, fue detenido este domingo 2 de agosto de 2020 durante un operativo conjunto realizado por elementos del Ejército y la Fiscalía General del Estado de Guanajuato. Foto: Especial/RDB. (GDA via AP Images)