That time is no more.
Shortly after sunrise on Friday, June 26, Mexico City Police Chief Omar García Harfuch was ambushed near his home in an upscale residential community. The unprecedented attack was carried out by a paramilitary force of more than two dozen men armed with automatic weapons, grenade launchers, and .50 caliber sniper rifles.
Twenty-eight sicarios (hitmen) divided into four separate estacas (kill squads) had set up roadblocks on the Paseo de la Reforma, the most famous boulevard in the capital, which leads to neighborhoods full of sprawling mansions and embassy compounds. The police chief survived the barrage fired at his armored SUV, but he took three bullets and two of his bodyguards and a bystander were killed.
García Harfuch, who is expected to recover, tweeted from his hospital bed that: “Our nation must continue to confront those cowards of organized crime.”
Mike Vigil, formerly the DEA’s chief of international operations, called the attack “brazen” in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“We’ve had other attacks in Mexico City but nothing like this,” Vigil said. He described CJNG as a “hyper-violent” and “supersized cartel” capable of shooting down army helicopters and attacking military convoys.
The cartel’s operation against García Harfuch “was committed with absolute impunity and no regard for the rule of law,” Vigil said.
The attack comes at a time when violence stemming from organized crime is spiking across Mexico. Scores of bodies have been found in mass graves or dumped on roadsides, and federal officials and law enforcement officers are increasingly under attack. Last year was Mexico’s most violent year on record, with some 35,000 documented homicides—the true number is likely much higher as many murders go unreported—and 2020 is already on pace to eclipse those numbers. Nationwide at least 226 police officers were murdered between January and May of this year, or one-and-a-half dead cops each day.
“People in Mexico City thought they lived in this nice, safe bubble,” Manny Gallardo, a Mexican journalist who specializes in covering the cartels, told The Daily Beast.
“But now the war has come home to them.”
INSIDE THE ATTACK
Wiretaps obtained a few weeks ago by Mexico’s National Intelligence Center [CIN] had hinted that CJNG was planning to target a government official, according to Mexican press reports. The leak didn’t reveal who the mark would be, but CIN analysts had speculated García Harfuch could be one of the intended victims, according to Vigil.
CJNG’s leader, a former police officer named Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, aka El Mencho, had been looking to strike back after authorities froze cartel assets and arrested certain high-ranking gang members—including Mencho’s son, Rubén Oseguera, aka Menchito, who was extradited to the U.S. in February.
Journalist Gallardo said Mencho may have chosen Police Chief García Harfuch because he’d played a role in the government’s recent crackdown. García Harfuch arrested some of Mencho’s top lieutenants, including the commander of CJNG’s Mexico City cell and the leader of the powerful Union de Tepito gang, which was the cartel’s principal ally in the capital.
The chief rolled up gangsters at least as far away as the city of Guadalajara, where he arrested a ruthless CJNG assassin who murdered two Israeli citizens last July, according to Gallardo.
Robert Bunker, a security specialist at the University of Southern California, called the attack against the police chief a declaration of war against the Mexican state that “has further undermined federal authority.”
“Another firebreak has been crossed in the criminal insurgency raging across Mexico,” Bunker told The Daily Beast.
Authorities have made more than two dozen arrests, including the alleged mastermind behind the plot, CJNG’s José Armando Briseño, or Vaca (Cow), El Universal reported.
But Gallardo said those captured were in essence fall-guys or patsies—deliberately chosen for what he calls a “suicide mission” because they were expendable. “CJNG has highly trained commandos but they didn't want to risk them,” he said, and added that the failure to use elite shock troops is likely what led to a botched mission and the chief’s escape.
“The pandemic has erased many jobs, and a lot of people are desperate. That makes for easier recruitment by the cartels. So they hired some untrained newbies for the [hit on Harfuch] . This is how organized crime takes advantage of poverty and ignorance in Mexico.”
BEHIND THE VIOLENCE
In the run-up to the ambush in the capital, the last couple of months have been particularly bloody. Some of the more high-profile incidents include:
- On Sunday of this week at least 20 people, including Mexican Marines, were killed during a clash between rival gangs in the Michoacán region.
- In mid-June a federal judge and his wife were gunned down by CJNG sicarios in the state of Colima—the first time in more than 15 years that a national-level judge has been murdered in Mexico.
- A few days later a caravan of police vehicles was ambushed in western Guerrero state, leading to the deaths of eight officers with three wounded.
- Also in June, some 30 bodies were found dumped on roadsides across two northern states, apparently casualties of a power struggle within the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, formerly run by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
- In early June, seven cops were abducted and later found dead in the CJNG-controlled territory of Colima.
Experts say part of the rise in criminal activity is due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mexico has been one of the hardest-hit countries in Latin America, with 220,657 confirmed cases and more than 27,000 deaths at the time of this writing. The health crisis has diverted the attention and focus of security forces, while the cartels capitalize on the chaos to take over new turf, settle old scores, and even provide food and medical supplies to strapped communities in order to build their brand.
But the outbreak has also impacted both supply and distribution chains for narcotics, forcing drug lords and their minions to expand operations to diversify their revenue streams.
Slowed commerce between China and Mexico means the narcos have reduced access to vital precursor chemicals needed to produce drugs like crystal meth and fentanyl. Meanwhile the closed U.S. border has limited their ability to move what product they do have stockpiled. That scarcity is leading to ever more violent struggles between rival crime syndicates.
“With the pandemic negatively impacting illicit narcotics trafficking routes, cartel profits are down, which is resulting in criminal organizations fighting over dwindling profits,” said USC’s Bunker.
“Also with Mexican state and federal forces increasingly strained [by the pandemic] more opportunities exist for the stronger cartels and criminal gangs to move against plazas [drug shipping and production corridors] and regions held by weaker opposing groups,” he said.
Crime groups are also flexing their muscle in new directions since the pandemic, turning to other black-market options to fill their coffers, such as extortion, kidnapping, fuel theft, even taking over the regional avocado trade.
“The cartels have to have huge revenue streams to pay sicarios and money launderers, and to bribe public officials. Otherwise those people might go to work for a rival group,” said Vigil. “Nobody works for free.”
NEW TECH AND TERROR TACTICS
Another factor behind the rising tide of violence is that the cartels have adopted new tech and weapons systems for use against each other and government forces.
Crime groups are increasingly using anti-personnel car bombs, attack drones, and improvised armored fighting vehicles [AFVs], according to Bunker. The AFVs can range from bullet-proofed tactical trucks with machine guns mounted in the cargo bay, all the way up to the so-called “narco-tanks”—semis or dump trucks with welded sheet metal armor and multiple gun ports.
“The use of assault rifles, grenade launchers, body armor, .50 caliber sniper rifles, and rocket propelled grenades [RPGs] is pretty standard now in many of the cartel tactical units, along with caltrops and burning vehicle blockades for area denial, channeling, and kill-zone creation purposes,” Bunker said. (Caltrops are those spikes laid down across roads to blow car tires.)
Journalist Gallardo agreed that cartel capabilities are on the rise:
“I've interviewed sicarios trained by Colombian paramilitaries to fly drones and drop C4 on targets. They’re well trained in small-arms and infantry tactics, as well as how to dismember and torture people. That's how [the cartels] work today.”
Growing power and increasingly sophisticated methods of warfare often intimidate poorly funded local police, making cartel rule absolute in regions with little state presence.
“In isolated areas they can act without fear of government reprisal,” Vigil said, and in fact often serve as the de facto authorities, settling quarrels, and dispensing food and medicine.
As part of a comprehensive solution, Vigil said, “security forces need to provide a government presence throughout the country, especially where they have these voids that are filled by organized crime groups.”