A ruthless Mexican drug lord’s empire is devastating families with its grip on small-town USABETH WARREN | COURIER JOURN
“Once the cartel brings a huge load across (the border) and throws it out there for everyone to sell, it’s out of their hands. They’ve got their money,” Williams said. El Mencho and his cartel, with more than 5,000 members worldwide, have a clear-cut objective: They want to control the entire drug market,” said Matthew Donahue, who oversees foreign operations for the DEA. “If that takes them killing other cartels or killing innocent people, they will do it.” CJNG’s rapid rise to power and its expansion have stunned and stymied America’s top drug fighters.
A nine-month Courier Journal investigation reveals how CJNG’s reach has spread across the U.S. in the past five years, overwhelming cities and small towns with massive amounts of drugs. The investigation documented CJNG operations in at least 35 states and Puerto Rico, a sticky web that has snared struggling business owners, thousands of drug users and Mexican immigrants terrified to challenge cartel orders.
It also identified at least two dozen “cells,” which the DEA defines as places where cartel members set up shop to do business and live in the communities. The unparalleled speed of CJNG’s growth coast to coast in less than a decade has made the cartel a “clear, present and growing danger,” says Uttam Dhillon, DEA’s acting administrator.
The billion-dollar criminal organization has a large and disciplined army, control of extensive drug routes throughout the U.S., sophisticated money-laundering techniques and an elaborate digital terror campaign, federal drug agents say. Its extreme savagery in Mexico includes beheadings, public hangings, acid baths, even cannibalism. The cartel circulates these images of torture and execution on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to spread fear and intimidation.
They’re killing the next generation’ In Mexico, El Mencho is a household name. But in America, few know who he is or why his rise to power matters. In this wanted poster, the U.S. announces a rare $10 million reward for help finding El Mencho, a ruthless cartel boss and billionaire. Brenda and Karl Cooley of Louisville certainly didn’t know his name when their son Adam overdosed on fentanyl in March 2017. Adam died midsentence while writing a thank-you note to a friend on the eve of entering a rehab facility. Who was to blame? his anguished parents asked.
The answer, The Courier Journal found, kept pointing to CJNG. “They’re killing the next generation, and one of them was my son,” Brenda Cooley said. Courier Journal reporters pieced together CJNG’s network, from the suburbs of Seattle, the beaches of Mississippi and South Carolina, California’s coastline, the mountains of Virginia, small farming towns in Iowa and Nebraska, and across the Bluegrass State, including in Louisville, Lexington and Paducah.
A cartel member even worked at Kentucky’s famed Calumet Farm, home to eight Kentucky Derby and three Triple Crown winners. Ciro Macias Martinez led a double life, working as a horse groomer by day and overseeing the flow of $30 million worth of drugs into Kentucky by night before being imprisoned in 2018 for meth trafficking and money laundering, federal records show.
El Mencho’s drug empire “is putting poison on the streets of the U.S.,” said Chris Evans, who runs the DEA’s day-to-day global operations. CJNG has skirted Mexican and U.S. inspections at legal border crossings by hiding drugs in semitrailers hauling tomatoes, avocados and other produce, dumping at least 5 tons of cocaine and 5 tons of meth into this country every month, according to DEA estimates. It shows no signs of slowing down.
This short film details The Courier Journal’s investigation into CJNG and its leader, El Mencho, began in early 2019 and what was uncovered.
ALTON STRUPP/COURIER JOURNAL
“It’s important for all Americans to understand the threat to their community and what might impact their everyday lives,” Evans said. While officials can’t say how much of the U.S. drug trade comes from CJNG, they predict the powerful organization is poised to supplant the more well-known and established Sinaloa Cartel as the world’s most powerful drug trafficking organization.
CJNG’s increased distribution of fentanyl across the country has helped the synthetic opioid unseat heroin as the nation’s No. 1 killer. The Courier Journal could not say with certainty who supplied the drugs that killed Adam Cooley. But federal agents say CJNG was Kentucky’s main supplier of fentanyl at the time of his death. Throughout 2019, reporters analyzed thousands of court records of more than 100 criminal drug cases around the country and talked to more than 150 federal drug agents, police officers, defense attorneys and prosecutors.
They also contacted more than two dozen accused cartel members or CJNG associates in prison and traveled to Mexico City, Guadalajara and 15 U.S. cities to see firsthand the far-reaching repercussions of El Mencho’s cartel.