CHANTILLY, Va. – In the darkness, the team suits up quietly, putting on their helmets and tactical gear. Federal agents lug battering rams, bolt cutters and heavy weaponry by foot up a hill on a residential California street that's softly aglow from street lamps. Then the agents turn onto the walkway of their target's home.
“Police! Search warrant!” one officer yells as agents bang on the front door. “Police search warrant!” And then three thunderous bangs as the task force breaks down the front door.
Moments later, a reputed member of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known as CJNG, is walked out in handcuffs.
In early-morning raids Wednesday, agents fanned out across the United States, culminating a six-month investigation with the primary goal of dismantling the upper echelon of CJNG and hoping to get closer to capturing its leader, one of the most wanted men in America. There's a $10 million reward for the arrest of Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera.
The gang controls between one-third and two-thirds of the U.S. drug market. It is so violent that members leave piles of bodies in streets and hanging from overpasses in Mexico, and they fill the city of Guadalajara with mass graves. They carry machine guns and hand grenades. They once used rocket launchers to shoot down a Mexican military helicopter.
More than 600 people have been arrested during the operation in recent months, more than 15,000 kilos of meth was seized and nearly $20 million taken as search and arrest warrants were executed. About 250 were arrested Wednesday.
“El Mencho and his associates prey on the addicts, and they prey on small towns where they can act as bullies and infiltrate these small towns,” said Wendy Woolcok, the special agent in charge of Drug Enforcement Administration's special operations division. “They promise hope, and they deliver despair.”
For the U.S, combating Mexico’s fastest-growing and most violent gang is a top priority. Law enforcement officials believe the gang has drug distribution hubs in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston and Atlanta. It is believed to have a presence in 24 of Mexico’s 32 states.
Unlike other cartels, CJNG shows no reluctance in directly attacking police and army patrols and is blamed for the deadliest attacks against law enforcement forces in Mexico. In eliminating rivals, it has carried out spectacular acts of violence.
“Their propensity to violence is a big part of it, they're very violent organization, they're a well-armed organization, but really the gasoline that was thrown on the fire was synthetic drugs,” said Bill Bodner, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s field office in Los Angeles.
The Associated Press had exclusive access to the raid outside Los Angeles and the national command center. In California, about a dozen team members prepped early Wednesday for their target. They searched the home, a stately, salmon-colored Spanish Colonial-style with a large chandelier in the foyer, palm trees in the front yard, and crawled on the ground to look under cars, including a black Lexus, in the driveway. No shots were fired.
Victor Ochoa, 34, was arrested on drug charges. The DEA alleges he acts as a stash house manger for the cartel. He remained in custody at the Los Angeles County jail Wednesday evening and it wasn't clear whether he had a defense attorney.
At the command center tucked inside a nondescript government building in northern Virginia, a group of a dozen analysts and agents sat behind computer screens inside a conference room that’s been converted into a command center. As agents were banging down doors across the country, the phones rang at the command center and analysts recorded the number of arrests and amount of drugs seized on printed worksheets.
An analyst entered the information into a DEA computer screen as other analysts ran phone numbers, addresses and nicknames found inside the homes being searched.
The special agent in charge of the special operations division assembled with her team in front of a heat map — red dots glowing darker and darker as more arrests are made, primarily in Texas, California and New Jersey. By 9 a.m., more than 60 people had been taken into custody.
Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, called the operation “the most comprehensive action to date in the Department of Justice’s effort to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately destroy CJNG”
While Mexican drug cartels made their money predominantly from marijuana in past decades, the market has somewhat dissipated with the state-level legalization of cannabis in dozens of states across the U.S.
Now, they’ve turned to methamphetamine and fentanyl, selling it at almost 14 times the price it cost to make and flooding the streets of the U.S., fueling homelessness and the opioid crisis, and leaving behind another trail of bodies: from overdoses.
The Jalisco Cartel was formed in 2010 from a wing of the Sinaloa cartel based in the western city of Guadalajara. While it once specialized in producing methamphetamine, like most Mexican cartels it has expanded into multidrug shipments including fentanyl, cocaine, meth and heroin.
The cartel is led by the elusive Oseguera, whose bodyguards once shot down a Mexican military helicopter to prevent his arrest. In recent weeks, prosecutors have brought charges against his son, Nemesio Oseguera, also known as “El Menchito” and his daughter, Jessica Johanna Oseguera.
And officials say he’s more dangerous than reputed Mexican drug kingpin and escape artist Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who as leader of the Sinaloa cartel ran a massive drug conspiracy that spread murder and mayhem for more than two decades.
“I think the threat from El Mencho and CJNG is greater right now because in my opinion, at the time Chapo was captured or at the time he was kind of at his at his heyday, so to speak, the Sinaloa Cartel was fractured, it was a little broken up,” Bodner said.
El Chapo was a little flashier, but Mencho and the Jalisco gang see their drug business as just that -- business, Bodner said.
“They have a little bit more discipline. They're not necessarily into the partying and living the good life, it's just about the business of drug trafficking and control, and that's what makes them scarier, Bodner said.
The Jalisco cartel is also known for brazen tactics such as driving around in convoys of pickup trucks marked with the letters “CJNG” and for circulating videos of heavily-armed cartel gunmen in military-style dress. While Mexico says it is no longer concentrating on detaining drug lords, the Mexican government has extradited Oseguera’s son and has detained some of his associates.
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.