How the World’s Most Feared ‘Franchise’ Can Threaten to Kill a National TV Star
Just another example of how untouchable the “McDonald’s of Illegal Drugs” has become.
In a video that circulated widely throughout the country, a masked man surrounded by other masked and heavily armed men reads a death threat from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (known as CJNG for its Spanish-language acronym). The man singles out Milenio Television’s national anchorwoman Azucena Uresti, and vows to “come for you wherever you are, and make you eat your words.”
The equivalent of this in the U.S. would be for a group like the Hell’s Angels to lodge a public promise to kill a prominent personality like Katie Couric or Rachel Maddow. Except that in CJNG’s case they have a track record of carrying out such high-profile attacks, including a 2019 strike against Mexico City’s police chief that left the chief severely wounded and his bodyguards dead.
“If CJNG can get to one of the most protected police officials in the country, they can easily assassinate a reporter like Ms. Uresti,” Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former Chief of International Operations, told The Daily Beast. “When they make threats, they are not idle ones, and they carry them out with impunity.”
Mexico was named the most dangerous country in the world for journalists in 2020, as the country’s cartels are known for killing off their critics in the press. But most of the murders and forced disappearances are carried out against local reporters, making CJNG’s threat to a national figure a new standard of aggression.
“I am shocked that the Jalisco Cartel is now threatening journalists from national TV networks,” said Dr. Raúl Benítez-Manaut, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“I think it is a message to all the journalists on national TV, not only to [Uresti]. The CJNG is telling everyone to stop showing negative news about them—or else.”
In Uresti's case, the allegations of unfair coverage stem from her supposedly preferential treatment of CJNG’s opposition in an ongoing turf war in the western state of Michoacán. CJNG has made a concentrated effort to seize control of that region—which is a major hub for narcotics production and transport—from a smaller, ad hoc alliance of local gangs and civilian militias.
Vigil describes CJNG as “one of the most powerful and violent cartels in the world” that “operates like a paramilitary force” and controls whole swaths of the country.
“The government is powerless against them,” Vigil said.
So what is it about CJNG that makes it so formidable? And how are they able to get away with such brazen and violent behavior?
Part of the secret is continuity. CJNG’s leader, Nemesio Rubén Oseguera Cervantes—also known as "El Mencho"—is a shadowy and elusive figure who has evaded capture and remained in power for well over a decade, even as the kingpins from rival groups have come and gone.
El Mencho, who apparently authored the script of the death threat read on camera against Uresti, is known for avoiding cities and towns and sticking to rural regions where he is well protected by an army of loyal foot soldiers.
“El Mencho is a dictatorial leader whose orders are carried out meticulously,” said the DEA’s Vigil. “He is highly intelligent and totally ruthless.”
That ruthlessness includes out-muscling the competition with large concentrations of firepower that are often depicted on social media. Clearly marked convoys of CJNG’s armored vehicles are often filmed racing about the countryside in defiance of authorities.
Such tactics serve “a function of intimidating opponents—authorities as well as competing crime groups—into submission,” said Dr. Teun Voeten, a Dutch war correspondent and cultural anthropologist who specializes in Mexico’s cartel conflict.
“It also has a recruitment function: everybody wants to join a winning team in slick uniforms with tremendous firepower. Nobody wants to be part of a poorly armed group dressed in sneakers and sloppy jeans,” Voeten said.
According to Dr. Robert J. Bunker, Director of Research and Analysis for strategic consultancy Futures, LLC, CJNG is “extremely violent and warlike,” capable of “fielding company-sized mounted infantry forces fighting from armored vehicles with turreted .50 caliber guns.”
Bunker added that CJNG’s ground forces are “increasingly supported by ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) and weaponized drones armed with explosives.”
But Mencho’s rise to the top of the Mexican underworld is as much about brains as it is about brawn. He’s employed a clever organizational strategy that has allowed CJNG to extend its reach throughout Mexico and beyond.
“The CJNG is highly structured and much like a global corporation has tentacles in over 40 countries that function like subsidiaries,” said ex-DEA chief Vigil.
Anthropologist Voeten, who is the author of the new book Mexican Drug Violence: Hybrid Warfare, Predatory Capitalism and the Logic of Cruelty, referred to CJNG’s game plan as a “franchise model” that is “all about branding.”
“They [often] expand territory not by conquering and pushing out the local crime groups, but by making an alliance, an agreement with them. They can carry the name, uniform, brand, and logos. In return, they have to pay a percentage of their proceeds.”
Teun said such pacts also act as a kind of “mutual insurance” for both sides. “If one group is attacked, all local chapters will come to their aid,” he said.
Bunker agreed with Teun’s analysis, and harkened back to an even older analogy than that of the franchise, calling CJNG’s path to power a “neo-feudal system of vassalage.”
“Once a local criminal group petitions to become a (CJNG) affiliate Mencho must then approve it in a warlord-to-vassal type of relationship. The new group then accepts the narratives, symbols, and strategic guidance of CJNG, while retaining some local autonomy in its decision making,” Bunker said.
This practice has elevated Mencho “to supreme ‘Criminal Warlord’ status within Mexico,” he said.
When asked about the death threat against Milenio anchor Uresti for her supposedly negative reports on CJNG, Voeten called it “a new step in escalation” for intimidation of the press.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time a national anchor has been threatened—and not for exposing particular wrongdoings or corruption—but for portraying the CJNG in a generally negative way.”
Voeten then doubled down on his franchise theory:
“The way the CNJG is concerned with their image proves they are an ultra-capitalist corporation.”
Political scientist Benítez-Manaut said that at least 160 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, with 55 such murders coming within the last three years. He called Mencho’s shot across the bow against Uresti a “threat to freedom of expression.”
Even worse, he said that “the threat may work and some will censor themselves out of fear.”
Bunker shared this concern and said such a menacing ploy may have a “chilling effect” on journalistic investigations against the cartel precisely because the risk factor is so high.
“Mencho has the power projection capabilities throughout Mexico to put CJNG kill-teams and contract sicarios [assassins] anywhere on the ground in a day or so, in some cases within a matter of hours, to make good on his public threats,” Bunker said.
In the wake of Mencho’s message against her, Mexican authorities promised to protect Uresti from harm. But former DEA Agent Vigil, who spent almost 15 years stationed in Mexico, doubted whether the government could adequately protect any one person from this franchise cartel, which he likened to “the McDonald’s of illegal drugs.”
“The Mexican government can’t protect members of its security forces, much less a journalist,” Vigil said.