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The Cartels Next Door: Far from dead, Juárez Cartel flexes its muscles

SECOND IN A SERIES: The Juárez Cartel is one of the heavyweights among Mexican drug cartels that earn billions in profits as they funnel heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana into drug-hungry countries such as the United States. Crime, death and ruined lives flow right along with those drugs to places as varied as New York City, West Virginia, Albuquerque and Española.

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The death of the Juárez Cartel has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, it is alive and well and doing a booming business.

The cartel boss, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, and two of his top associates are locked up, but that is nothing more than an inconvenience because there are hundreds of cartel members operating out of the northern border city and throughout the Mexican state of Chihuahua – and reaching into the United States.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes

Men like Ignacio “Nachito” Villalobos Salinas – he has been the main supplier of drugs of all types through the Columbus-Palomas port of entry in recent years and in the words of one federal judge “a notorious drug trafficker.”

Villalobos is a member of La Linea (The Line), the enforcement arm of the Juárez Cartel.

In 2010, he was running guns for La Linea in an operation that had the mayor, a city commissioner and the police chief from Columbus buying AK-47-type weapons in the United States and helping smuggle them into Mexico for the Juárez Cartel.

That investigation was brought up short when word of the wiretaps on Columbus officials was leaked to the police chief from a longtime friend who was married to a then-assistant U.S. attorney.

Villalobos faded out of the news but by 2015 he was in charge of running the Juárez Cartel’s operation in Palomas.

He was reporting to Edgar Estopellan Torres, who in turn reported to Arturo Vasquez, who was the boss of La Linea.

Full service

Members of the Juárez Cartel received drugs hidden in secret compartments in tractor-trailers at this South Valley auto body shop for redistribution in the state and elsewhere. (Federal Court Exhibit)

Members of the Juárez Cartel received drugs hidden in secret compartments in tractor-trailers at this South Valley auto body shop for redistribution in the state and elsewhere. (Federal Court Exhibit)

Villalobos was running a full-service drug network – cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana. The fact the contraband had to cross an international border to reach lucrative markets in the U.S. was simply a logistical challenge that was met in a variety of ways:

• “Backpackers” carried loads of marijuana across the desert to Interstate 10 near Deming, where it could be picked up by couriers in pickup trucks.

• Larger loads of marijuana were hidden in secret compartments in tractor-trailers driven through the Juárez-El Paso port of entry to Albuquerque.

• Cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine also were hidden in false compartments in tractor-trailers, pickup trucks and cars.

Jesus Muñoz Lechuga

Jesus Muñoz Lechuga

The drugs were transported to an auto body shop in Bernalillo County’s South Valley operated by Jesus Muñoz Lechuga, another member of the cartel, who was in the country illegally.

Muñoz used the name Anchondo to lease the property, which is owned, according to Bernalillo County Treasurer’s Office records, by Jerry Padilla Jr., who was convicted of running a large-scale drug operation in the 1990s and whose brothers ran the Los Padillas street gang.

Padilla has not been implicated in the latest investigation.

Muñoz unloaded the shipments at the body shop and coordinated deliveries to buyers through texts with Villalobos or Estopellan. Muñoz would then ship the drugs to buyers in New Mexico, Oklahoma City, Atlanta and other cities.

Typically, the money would be sent back to Estopellan by couriers using the same hidden vehicle compartments used to transport the drugs into the U.S.

One of Muñoz’s couriers, Leonardo Martinez Olivas, who was also in the country illegally, told the court he was coerced into helping the network by threats the cartel would murder his wife and son.

On the radar

Federal agents in the U.S. had been tracking Villalobos since he escaped their net during the 2010 gunrunning investigation.

 Federal agents search the hidden compartment of a truck for bundles of marijuana while serving search warrants on a Juárez Cartel operation based in Bernalillo County's South Valley. (Federal Court Exhibit)

Federal agents search the hidden compartment of a truck for bundles of marijuana while serving search warrants on a Juárez Cartel operation based in Bernalillo County’s South Valley. (Federal Court Exhibit)

Villalobos managed to survive the long war between the Juárez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel that killed tens of thousands of people in northern Mexico, and stayed in the drug business.

In October 2014, a federal agent arranged to purchase 10 kilograms of cocaine from Villalobos’ organization. Agents seized 5 kilograms but not Villalobos.

Then federal agents began tapping the phones of people working for Villalobos through servers in the U.S.

The text traffic provided agents with real-time information about when and where drugs and money were going.

By the time agents were ready to sweep up the network in October 2015, several of the main players, including Muñoz, had fled back to Mexico. Villalobos never left Mexico.

The 10-month investigation led to the seizure of 6 kilograms of cocaine, almost 3 kilograms of methamphetamine, a half-pound of heroin and 1,000 pounds of marijuana. Federal agents also seized more than $260,000.

Twelve people were arrested here in New Mexico. Ten pleaded guilty. Two were convicted at trial in Las Cruces last October.

And eight men – the heart of this one network – are fugitives, believed to be in Mexico.

The general expectation of U.S. law enforcement is that this group was again smuggling drugs into New Mexico before the ink was dry on the guilty pleas of their associates.

In control

The Juárez Cartel became firmly established in the early 1990s when Amado Carrillo Fuentes, “The Lord of the Skies,” took over the corridor.

Money seized during the investigation of Villalobos' drug smuggling operation. (Federal Court Exhibit)

Money seized during the investigation of Villalobos’ drug smuggling operation. (Federal Court Exhibit)

He established close ties with Colombian cocaine kingpins and persuaded them to send their product into the United States through Mexico.

Those deals brought Carrillo Fuentes a tremendous amount of influence on all the major drug cartels in Mexico and billions of dollars in profits.

He died in the late 1990s, and his brother, Vicente, took over the Juárez Cartel. He had an uneasy alliance with leaders of other cartels, including Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Guzmán had already been involved in a series of “wars” with other cartels before he and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes started killing each other’s relatives. That led to thousands of killings throughout northern Mexico reaching its height in mid-2010.

Will Glaspy is the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s El Paso division, which oversees a region from the Big Bend area in Texas to the Arizona-New Mexico line.

“As far as we’re concerned, the Juárez Cartel has always maintained control” of the Juárez corridor, he said in an interview, “I don’t know if they ‘won,’ but they gained control of it, and for other reasons, probably, violence was reduced.”

But the Sinaloa Cartel also uses the Juárez corridor, as does the Sinaloa Cartel’s most recent rival, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel. U.S. law enforcement is still trying to figure out what arrangements have led to this crazy quilt of rivals using the same bridges to El Paso to transport drugs.

Guzmán has been extradited to the United States and faces federal charges of heading an organized criminal enterprise.

Vicente Carrillo Fuentes is in a federal maximum security prison in Mexico.

The United States also has asked for Carrillo Fuentes to be extradited, but that has hit legal roadblocks in Mexico.

The Juárez Cartel is now run by two men most Americans have never heard of: Carlos Quintana Quintana and Julio Olivas Torres.

Yet it continues to affect the U.S. drug market by supplying drugs to Denver, Chicago, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Georgia and Kansas City through New Mexico and West Texas.

It has long been one of the bigger exporters of Colombian cocaine into the United States. And according to DEA intelligence reports, the Juárez Cartel has significantly increased the cultivation of opium poppies in the state of Chihuahua.


As a bonus to our readers, Journal investigative reporter Mike Gallagher provides additional background and insights about the Juárez cartel in a video interview.

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