“MX” for Borderland Beat
|The CJNG also used explosives with gasoline to attack the officers (credit: El Sur)|
Exactly five years ago, on 6 April 2015, a convoy of the Jalisco State Police was ambushed by suspected members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) in one of the deadliest single-attack incidents against Mexico’s security forces in the ongoing drug war. The attack occurred in a mountain road in San Sebastián del Oeste, Jalisco. Fifteen policemen were killed and five were wounded; no CJNG casualties were confirmed.
According to police reports, as the police convoy reached a part of the road surrounded by mountains, the CJNG opened fire at the police units from the sides using high-caliber machine guns, grenade launchers, and explosives with gasoline. The element of surprise prevented the police from repelling the aggression. The CJNG members burned several vehicles along the highway to halt reinforcements. The attack lasted roughly 30 minutes. When government reinforcements reached the scene, the CJNG gunmen had left.
The attack also showcased the manpower and sophistication of the CJNG. The complexity of the attack showed that the CJNG had expertise in military tactics, guerrilla warfare, ambush and counter-ambush training, and in use of explosives. According to investigators, the CJNG carried out the ambush to avenge the arrests and deaths of their fallen comrades from government crackdowns.
Analysis of attack and formation
Investigators believe that the CJNG outnumbered the Jalisco State Police during the ambush. According to Luis Carlos Nájera Gutiérrez de Velasco, the Attorney General of Jalisco, the CJNG had at least 80 gunmen on their side. The Jalisco State Police had around 40. In an interview with the press, he explained the formation of the police units prior to being attacked by the CJNG.
The Jalisco State Police was traveling in 10 vehicles; each vehicle paired up with another one – a standard protocol to prevent attacks from organized crime – while crossing through the mountain road where they were ambushed. Of the 10 vehicles, only 4 were attacked. Each of those 4 vehicles had 4 officers in them, totaling 16 (out of those 16, only one survived, by faking his own death). The CJNG gunmen were hiding in the mountains’ sides in a curve.
|The CJNG burned several vehicles in other locations to halt police reinforcements (credit: Milenio)|
The gunmen attacked from at least 12 different shooting spots from the top of the mountains. They used a number of high-caliber assault rifles and ammunition. Among them were AK-47s, AR-15s, 40 mm grenades, and M-60 machine guns, which are capable of firing over 500 shots per minute. Nájera Gutiérrez de Velasco explained that the turning point of the attack occurred when the CJNG threw explosives attached to 20 liters of gasoline from the top of the mountains. This burned 4 police vehicles. In addition, the CJNG burned several vehicles in other locations to slow down reinforcements from arriving at the scene.
Nájera Gutiérrez de Velasco admitted that one of the biggest obstacles of the investigation was understanding how the CJNG found out the exact day, time, and place the police convoy was going to pass through the area where they were ambushed. He believes that the CJNG had precise information on the police’s journey, and does not discard the possibility that an outsider might have given the CJNG information on the police’s arrangements, or that someone inside the police ranks was passing along information to them.
CJNG employed expert combatants
Jalisco authorities believe that the attack was planned by members of the CJNG who were experts in military tactics, ambush and counter-ambush training, and guerrilla warfare. Sophisticated attacks like the ones seen in San Sebastián del Oeste had not occurred before in Jalisco in the ongoing drug war. The attack showcased the CJNG’s manpower, discipline in combat, and ability to coordinate complex attacks without experiencing any casualties.
In addition, they stated that those who planned the attack were experts in explosives, which made them think that the CJNG had members with former military or police training with experience in such combat.
Nájera Gutiérrez de Velasco told the press that investigators had evidence that the CJNG was recruiting foreign paramilitary gunmen as foot soldiers in Jalisco. They also had evidence that the CJNG was innovating its arsenal and making its own versions of the AR-15 and M16 assault rifles.
Possible motives and reactions
The police suspected that the attack was a retaliation for the 23 March death of CJNG regional boss Heriberto Acevedo Cárdenas (“El Gringo”). In addition, they stated that the attack was also provoked by the arrest of 15 suspected CJNG members following an assassination attempt against Francisco Alejandro Solorio Aréchiga, Jalisco’s security commissioner, on 30 March.
That same month, on 19 March, the CJNG ambushed and killed 5 National Gendarmerie officers in a shootout in Ocotlan, Jalisco. At that time, it was one of the deadliest incidents against security forces in Mexico, and the first and deadliest against the National Gendarmerie, the newest police force in Mexico.
|Heriberto Acevedo Cárdenas, “El Gringo” (credit: Milenio)|
Two days after the ambush, the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned the CJNG under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (“Kingpin Act”) for its involvement in international drug smuggling operations.
The sanction was a joint investigation conducted by the Treasury and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) office in Los Angeles as part of a larger effort with their Mexican counterparts to sanction drug trafficking groups in Mexico. The sanction extended to El Mencho, his brother-in-law Abigael González Valencia, and Los Cuinis.
As part of the sanction, all the U.S.-based assets and/or assets in control of U.S. individuals on behalf of El Mencho, González Valencia, the CJNG, and Los Cuinis, were frozen in the U.S. In addition, the act prohibited U.S. citizens from engaging in business activities with them.
|Kingpin Act designation against the CJNG and its leaders two days after the ambush (credit: OFAC)|
According to the OFAC’s announcement, the CJNG was one of Mexico’s rapidly growing criminal groups. Through their “use of violence and corruption”, they said, the CJNG was able to consolidate itself as one of Mexico’s leading drug trafficking organizations.
The Mexican government arrested multiple suspects who masterminded or were directly involved in the attacks. Among them was Julio Acevedo Cárdenas, a relative of El Gringo. Over the course of 2015 and well into 2018, violent incidents between the CJNG and the national police continued. But El Mencho, the top leader of the CJNG, continues to remain at large.