CALI, Colombia—A municipal police chief in northern Mexico has been arrested for an alleged role in the deaths of three women and six children—all dual U.S.-Mexican citizens—on November 4.
Fidel Alejandro Villegas, aka El Chiquilín (The Kid), is the police chief of Janos, Chihuahua. The municipality borders the U.S. and sits about 105 miles across the state line from the site of the massacre in neighboring Sonora. It’s also on the same route the families had planned to travel on the day they were ambushed.
The victims were members of the LeBaron and Langford clans, which are part of a breakaway sect of Mormons long established in both Chihuahua and Sonora.
Villegas, who was detained on Thursday, is now awaiting trial in Mexico City. He is the fifth person to be arrested as part of an investigation that has at times seemed scattershot, since the other suspects have all been picked up under questionable circumstances.
Mexican federal officials claim the mothers and children were accidental victims in a turf war between rival crime groups. And prosecutors allege Villegas is tied to one of those groups, called La Línea, which is the armed enforcement wing of the Juárez Cartel and has a strong presence in Janos.
Surviving members of the Mormon families reject the official “accident hypothesis” and claim they were targeted deliberately on a remote stretch of highway last month, and family spokesperson Julián LeBaron says he was less than surprised by the alleged involvement of a high-level police officer in the region.
“The entire northwest [of Mexico] has a reputation that all police officers work for organized crime,” he said in an interview with Aristegui News, shortly after Villegas’ arrest. “And that's what high school kids tell you. It’s not a mystery.”
Villegas’ detention raises as many questions as it answers. How was a police chief from a jurisdiction more than a hundred miles away from the crime scene, and in another state, actually involved? So far authorities have released scant details.
Robert Bunker, an expert on international security at the University of Southern California, told The Daily Beast that corruption among security forces in Mexico has “metastasized over decades” to the point where it is “endemic.”
The most infamous case of cops working with organized crime was the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero state in September 2014, when police and soldiers allegedly teamed up with cartel sicarios to do away with the victims.
Bunker noted that a law officer like Chief Chiquilín Villegas could have provided “departmental resources—vehicles, uniforms, intelligence, weapons or even personnel—to help facilitate the ambushes.”
Another possibility, as Bunker noted, is that the investigation of Police Chief Villegas will be used to expose people who have “more intimate knowledge of the cartel and its operations.”
Emmanuel Gallardo, an independent Mexican journalist who specializes in organized crime, agrees. “They’re going to investigate his bank accounts and his financial history for evidence of bribes and paybacks and where they might have come from.”
A similar background investigation led to another high-profile arrest earlier this month, when Genaro García Luna, the central government's former National Security Minister and mastermind of the country’s ongoing Drug War, was arrested by U.S. authorities on charges of conspiring with the Sinaloa Cartel.
“First Luna and now Chiquilín,” Gallardo said. “This shows again the relationship the cartels have with the state. We cannot think of Mexican authorities and organized crime as separate entities. They are part of the same problem, part of the same world.”
“This is why Mexicans are frustrated. Why they are afraid,” Gallardo said. “When a violent crime happens you can’t go to the police because there is a high probability the same cops who are listening to your complaint are working with drug traffickers and assassins. This is the reason that 98 percent of homicides go unsolved in Mexico.”
Added to the persistent failure to nail the killers is the equally persistent inclination of authorities to round up “the usual suspects,” then let them go.
The first man arrested in the LeBaron case, just two days after the shooting, already has been released. Three other men were rolled up in Janos the first week of December, amid government claims that they were high-ranking members of La Línea. But protests erupted after friends and family members claimed the men had been framed. Janos Mayor Sebastián Efraín Pineda also backed the families, telling news outlets he knew the arrestees personally and that “they’re not criminal leaders.”
In that incident, authorities stand accused by the families of planting evidence and of trying to force confessions from the detained suspects.
“Scapegoating to create guilty parties” remains a frequent problem in Mexico, journalist Gallardo said, citing the case of French national Florence Cassez, who was imprisoned for seven years in Mexico on trumped up kidnapping charges before judges overturned her sentence.
“They can make you confess with several techniques,” said Gallardo. These including physical torture, death threats to loved ones, even starvation. “This is not like the States, where you can complain of human rights abuses. Here they can torture with impunity. They know how to push prisoners to say anything they want them to say,” Gallardo said.
After the LeBaron killings, which made headlines around the world, the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is “throwing suspects at the problem as it engages in damage control,” said USC’s Bunker. “At this level of Mexican politics it is not about getting the perpetrators or championing the rule of law—it is about making the problem go away as quickly as possible.”
Whatever comes of Chiquilín’s involvement—or the lack thereof—the killing of those nine women and children continues to cause ripples throughout the Mexican underworld.
The area of eastern Sonora where the attack took place is said to be controlled by a faction of the Sinaloa Cartel under the rule of Iván Guzmán, 36, and Alfredo Guzmán, 30. These two sons of jailed kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán are known collectively as Los Chapitos.
The other principal bloc of the Sinaloa Cartel is dominated by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a shadowy figure often referred to as “El Capo de Capos,” the Boss of Bosses, due to his power and longevity.
As The Daily Beast reported shortly after the massacre, Zambada was none too happy about the bad publicity and the major heat brought down on the supposedly sovereign territory of the Sinaloa Cartel. The tension between El Mayo and Los Chapitos has continued to worsen, and could result in Mayo taking over the whole outfit from the Guzmán family.
A source within one of the cartels that operate in the area, who agreed to speak only under condition of anonymity, described El Mayo as “an old-school man with Old Testament laws,” who has little time for the “Narco Juniors’” seeming frivolity. “A couple of weeks ago the little Chapo boys were supposed to attend a meeting [with Mayo] on the mountain. They were ‘too busy to go.’”
Yet they have “plenty of time to post on Facebook about cars and pictures of money,” the source said, and added the Chapitos were “too impressed” with their position to be good bosses due to their “immaturity.”
“They are getting weaker every day,” he said.
Reporter Gallardo agreed with that assessment, saying: “El Mayo is respected. The Chapitos are young and spoiled.” Gallardo added that their growing vulnerability could have far-reaching consequences, in part due to a botched and bloody attempt to arrest two other, younger Guzmán brothers this fall.
“The eyes of the federal government and of Washington are on them all now,” he said. “They can handle local authorities, but not the White House [or] joint operations with the DEA.”
If Mayo, sensing weakness and ineptitude, moved against the younger faction, Gallardo said, the Chapitos “would just be killed. El Mayo has more resources and experience.”
However, conflict like that could bleed both sides, and “open the door for other groups to move in and start taking over their territory,” including arch rivals like the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and La Línea’s parent group, the Juárez Cartel.
Smelling blood, such enemies “would move in like hyenas,” touching off a kill-or-be-killed conflict between high-powered, paramilitary gangs, resulting in even higher levels of civilian deaths and collateral damage.
“The last thing the Mexican government wants,” Gallardo said, “is an all-out cartel war.” But the savage murder of those women and children on a lonely road in northern Mexico could lead to exactly that.