The Brutal Rise of El Mencho
With El Chapo behind bars, an even more dangerous drug lord has emerged. On the hunt for Mexico's next-generation narco
By Josh Eells
On a hot, humid night last August, two wealthy Mexican brothers went out to party in Puerto Vallarta.
Ivan, 35, and Jesus Alfredo Guzmán, 29, had been vacationing in the resort city all week. Now it was Sunday, the night before Ivan's 36th birthday, and they booked a table at an upscale restaurant called La Leche to celebrate. Six men and nine women joined them there – young, attractive and well-dressed, driving Range Rovers and Escalades – where they sat at a long candle-lit table in the center of the all-white room, ordered champagne and sang "Happy Birthday." Three hours later they were wrapping up their night when, shortly after midnight, a half-dozen men with assault rifles burst in and surrounded them.
One gunman forced Ivan to his knees, then kicked him hard in the ribs, sending him sprawling to the floor. Jesus Alfredo was also held at gunpoint. The brothers and the other men were then hustled out to two waiting SUVs and driven off into the night, while the women were left unharmed. The whole operation took less than two minutes – the restaurant's owner would later describe it as "violent, but very clean." And thus, without a shot being fired, the two youngest sons of notorious Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín Guzmán – a.k.a. "El Chapo" – had been kidnapped.
Chapo's sons had made the mistake of partying on the turf of Sinaloa's newest and most dangerous rival: an upstart cartel boss named Rubén Oseguera Cervantes – alias "El Mencho." A former Jalisco state policeman who once served three years in a U.S. prison for selling heroin, Mencho heads what many experts call Mexico's fastest-growing, deadliest and, according to some, richest drug cartel – the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG. Although he's basically unknown in the U.S., Mencho has been indicted in a D.C. federal court on charges of drug trafficking, corruption and murder, and currently has a $5 million bounty on his head. Aside from perhaps Rafael Caro Quintero – the aging drug lord still wanted for the 1985 torture and killing of a DEA agent – he is probably America's top cartel target. "It was Chapo," says a DEA source. "Now it's Mencho."
CJNG have been around for only about half a decade, but with their dizzyingly swift rise, they have already achieved what took Sinaloa a generation. The cartel has established trafficking routes in dozens of countries on six continents and controls territory spanning half of Mexico, including along both coasts and both borders. "[CJNG] have increased their operations like no other criminal organization to date," said a classified Mexican intelligence report obtained by the newspaper El Universal. This past May, Mexico's attorney general, Raúl Cervantes, declared them the most ubiquitous cartel in the country.
CJNG specialize in methamphetamine, which has higher profit margins than cocaine or heroin. By focusing on lucrative foreign markets in Europe and Asia, the cartel has simultaneously maintained a low profile in the U.S. and built up a massive war chest, which some experts estimate is worth $20 billion. "These guys have way more money than Sinaloa," says a former DEA agent who spent years hunting the cartel in Mexico (and who requested anonymity for security reasons). According to another U.S. investigator, "Mencho has been very, very aggressive – and so far, unfortunately, it's paid off."
Though most Americans might not realize it, Mexico's cartels have been almost uniformly weakened. The notoriously fearsome Zetas – ex-special-forces commandos who terrorized the country with mutilations and beheadings – have been crippled by costly turf wars and the arrest of their top leaders. Other once-powerful groups like the Knights Templar and Gulf Cartel have also been marginalized. Even mighty Sinaloa have descended into infighting following El Chapo's recent extradition to New York, as multiple factions, including Chapo's sons, his younger brother, and his former partner Ismael "Mayo" Zambada, battle for control.
This balkanization has made Mexico a breeding ground for violence. Since Chapo's arrest in January 2016, the country's homicide rate has increased more than 20 percent, with 20,000 murders last year alone – more than in Iraq or Afghanistan. In the first five months of 2017, the homicide rate leapt another 30 percent. Thousands of these killings can be chalked up to CJNG's push for territory. Vast burial sites have been discovered in states where the cartel has been most aggressive, like Veracruz, which the state attorney general recently described as a "giant grave"; in Colima, where CJNG and Sinaloa spent last year fighting for supremacy, the murder rate more than tripled.
"We've seen it become very bloody, and a lot of people attribute that to El Mencho himself," says Scott Stewart, a senior cartel analyst at Stratfor, a private intelligence firm. "Wherever they try to muscle in, it creates bodies."
Mencho has also displayed a savagery that's extreme even by narco standards. For the admittedly brutal Chapo, killing was a necessary part of business. For Mencho, it seems more like sadism as public spectacle. There have been mass killings, such as the 35 bound and tortured bodies dumped in the streets of Veracruz during evening rush hour in 2011. Two years later, CJNG operatives raped, killed and set fire to a 10-year-old girl whom they (mistakenly) believed was a rival's daughter. In 2015, CJNG assassins executed a man and his elementary-school-age son by detonating sticks of dynamite duct-taped to their bodies, laughing as they filmed the ghastly scene with their phones. "This is ISIS stuff," says one DEA agent who has investigated the cartel. "The manner in which they kill people, the sheer numbers – it's unparalleled even in Mexico."
The ISIS comparison is instructive for another reason. When Chapo was at the height of his power, following Mexico's bloody cartel wars of a decade ago, the country enjoyed a period of relative peace – what the novelist and drug-war chronicler Don Winslow has dubbed the "Pax Sinaloa." But much like how the Islamic State grew from the vacuum of post-Saddam Iraq, one unintended consequence of taking out Chapo may have been opening the door for someone even worse.
Only a handful of photos of Mencho are known to exist, and even the State Department's description of him is comically nondescript: He's five feet eight, 165 pounds, brown eyes, brown hair. Narco balladeers have celebrated his rumored love of fast motorbikes and $100,000 cockfights – one of his nicknames is "El Señor de los Gallos," "The Lord of the Roosters" – but otherwise, he's a cipher. "Over 25 years of working in Mexico, you'd run into guys who had met Chapo, who would talk about him," the former DEA agent says. "But with Mencho, you don't hear that. He's kind of a ghost."
In a way, kidnapping El Chapo's sons served as Mencho's coming-out party. "The plan was to kill them," a DEA source says. "[CJNG] were going to kidnap them, get the confessions they wanted, and then whack 'em."
But at the last minute, Chapo – at the time still locked up in Mexico – was able to negotiate a deal. In exchange for what the DEA source calls "$2 million and a whole lot of dope," both sons were released unharmed.
The ransom payment was largely ceremonial. "Mencho doesn't need the money," the source says. "He was sending a message. 'Your old man is locked up now. Don't think you're untouchable.' " From Cancún to California, the warning was clear. Mencho was coming for the throne.
Jalisco is, in many ways, the quintessential Mexican state. Mariachi music was born there; so were tequila and sombreros. The state's motto is "Jalisco es México." For decades the state was a neutral zone for the cartels: Many wealthy narcos kept homes in the capital, Guadalajara – a picture-postcard colonial city nicknamed "The Pearl of the West" – while beachside resort towns like Puerto Vallarta were a favorite vacation spot not just for drug lords but Mexican politicians as well.
But Jalisco is also, strategically speaking, hugely important real estate for the drug trade. As Mexico's second-largest city and a major financial and transportation hub, Guadalajara offers plentiful opportunities for money-laundering and recruitment. Jalisco also sits near Mexico's two largest seaports, Manzanillo and Lázaro Cárdenas – which come in handy for shipping out multi-ton drug loads. "If I had to pick a major factor [that enabled Mencho's rise]," says Special Agent Kyle Mori of the DEA's Los Angeles field division, "it's that he had a huge geographical advantage."
Mori, 35, is square-jawed and earnest, with the friendly authority of a park ranger, albeit one who carries a Glock. But he's also "a bulldog when it comes to investigations," says his supervisor, DEA Special Agent in Charge James Comer. Prior to joining the DEA, Mori worked as an L.A. County sheriff's deputy on patrol in Compton. Now, as the agency's foremost investigator into CJNG – and the agent who helped prepare the 2014 indictment against Mencho – he knows the cartel probably better than anyone in America. "I've been working these guys pretty much since I started," Mori says. "This is what I do."
The first time Mencho popped up on Mori's radar was a fluke. Back in 2010, Mori was working on an unrelated money-laundering case with a field agent in Guadalajara who told him about a fresh target, a new cartel: "They're a huge problem down here in Jalisco. When Chapo gets picked up, these guys are gonna run the show."
At the time, CJNG were billing themselves as saviors. Answering to the name Mata Zetas – or Zeta Killers – they dressed in black paramilitary gear and posted propaganda videos in which they claimed to be fighting the Zetas for the people of Mexico. "We do not extort, kidnap, rob, oppress or in any other way disturb the national well-being," one video said. "Our only objective is to finish off the Zetas."
But as Stratfor's Stewart says of the drug war, "There really aren't any Robin Hoods in Mexico." It was soon revealed that CJNG weren't good guys at all, but just another cartel trying to protect its nascent methamphetamine empire.
In a 2008 diplomatic cable ("Chemical City: Guadalajara, Jalisco and the Meth Trade"), a U.S. official detailed how Jalisco had become Mexico's capital for synthetic drugs. Unlike heroin or marijuana, meth didn't require large plots of land or good weather – just isolated areas in which to build labs. Guadalajara also had a thriving pharmaceutical industry, with young chemists full of technical know-how. And then there were the Pacific ports, which allowed CJNG to smuggle in vast quantities of precursor chemicals from India and China, and smuggle out the finished product.
"These guys were huge early adopters of methamphetamine," Stewart says. "They also understood the economics: Unlike cocaine, which they had to buy from the Colombians, with meth, they controlled the lion's share of the profits."
But according to a DEA analyst, "The problem with meth guys is that they're unhinged." Compared to the more established cartels, Mencho and CJNG were "hillbilly, backwoods guys who made their reputation crushing up pseudoephedrine," the analyst says. "They didn't have to wine and dine Bolivian suppliers, or fly to South America to do international negotiations. They're not sophisticated. They're very rough."
But as Mencho quickly built his business, his operation grew more complex. He invested heavily in submarines, which he used to bring in narcotics from South America. (According to the former DEA agent, he even hired Russian naval engineers to help design the subs.) He avoided American scrutiny by focusing on overseas markets such as Australia, where – as Mori explains – a kilo of cocaine can fetch quadruple the price it does in the States. ("You send five tons to Australia, it's like doing 20 here," he says.) Mencho also employed more earthly techniques, like using fashion models to smuggle in drugs. According to the former field agent, CJNG traffickers would pose as magazine photographers, complete with fake credentials, and fly into Mexico with "talent" from Colombia and Venezuela. Authorities would be so distracted by the women that the drugs would slip right in.
Mencho leveraged his power using the twin tools of corruption and intimidation. Captured CJNG members have testified about how he hates disobedience and likes to make his victims beg forgiveness before killing them. "This is a guy who'll execute your whole family based on not much more than a rumor," a source says. "He just has zero regard for human life." According to one source who met Mencho, he's a shrewd businessman who doesn't drink, doesn't have lovers like other cartel leaders do and trusts almost no one.
The former field agent says he's heard multiple taped phone calls of Mencho talking to cartel underlings. "These guys are killers themselves, and they were afraid," the agent says. "He was ordering them around. I don't think I heard any where he was calm. But he wasn't a hothead. The yelling was very controlled. He knew what he was doing."
Mencho's ferocity inspired similar devotion from his troops. "One time there was a big shootout at a fair," the former agent recalls. "Someone threw a grenade, and some [CJNG] guys fell on it to avoid Mencho getting killed." According to the agent, Mencho's ruthlessness also made it hard to recruit informants against him. The agent once had a source who got close – he had an address for Mencho. But when the cartel realized he was sniffing around, they kidnapped the man as well as his teenage son. "They found the father's body a month later," the agent says. "He'd been tortured. They never found the kid."
Mencho also bought off cops. Jalisco's governor, Aristóteles Sandoval, has said that when he first took office, the state's "greatest vulnerability was the infiltration of organized crime" into its police forces. According to a report by Reuters, at one point CJNG had more than half of Jalisco's municipal police on the payroll – some at more than five times their salaries. "People stopped trusting the police," said Jalisco Attorney General Eduardo Almaguer. And the cops Mencho couldn't buy, he terrorized. According to the former DEA field agent, CJNG inspired an extraordinary degree of fear in Mexican police, above and beyond that of most cartels. "They were afraid of [Mencho]," he says. "They didn't want to piss him off."
Then there was the time (never publicly reported) that Mencho sent a severed pig's head to the attorney general in Mexico City as a warning. "They put it right on his doorstep, in an ice chest," the former field agent says. "I was surprised it was only a pig."
A recently surfaced telephone call shows how casually Mencho wields the threat of violence. On the recording, he can be heard talking to a local police commander (call sign "Delta One") whose officers were apparently being too zealous for Mencho's liking. An abridged translation follows:
Mencho: Delta One?
Commander: Yes, who's speaking?
M: Listen up, you son of a bitch. This is Mencho. Tell your guys to back the fuck off, or I will seriously fuck you up. I'll kill even your fucking dogs, motherfucker.
M: Yes, sir. I'll tell them to stand down—
M: Don't hang up on me, you son of a bitch. I know where you are – you were just in Chapala [a wealthy suburb of Guadalajara].
C: No, sir. I'm not hanging up. I'll tell them to stand down.
M: I thought you said we would get along, motherfucker. You'd better get on board or you'll be the first to go, understand?
C: No, sir. We don't have to go there. We do not have to go there.
M: If you want friendship, you have a great friend here. But if not, then you can go fuck yourself.
C: Sir, you know me. You know I'm your friend. I'll make some calls right now. I'll call you back at this number—
M: No, no, no. Don't call this number. I'll call you. And don't turn off this phone, or else I'll take that as a negative [sign].
C: Yes, sir. You know me, sir. You know there's respect.
M: OK, then. Sorry for the bad language.
While CJNG were ramping up operations, the DEA was preoccupied with Chapo's Sinaloa cartel, helping Mencho fly under the radar. "All the cables out of headquarters, all the intelligence reports, were focused on Chapo," the former field agent says. "The bosses in D.C. were like, 'We've never heard of [CJNG].' They didn't think they were important." Partly as a result, Mori's investigation had difficulty gaining traction. "We hit a dead end," he says. "We didn't get close to Mencho, didn't get any sources, didn't get any wiretaps. We knew we had this big player, this up-and-coming narco – but we had no 'in' to investigate him."
So the case was put on the back burner, and for the next few years, CJNG became an afterthought. "A few people at headquarters and in Mexico saw what was going on," Mori says. "But if you asked most DEA agents [back then] if they knew who Mencho was, they would say no."
Yet, just a few years later, this former small-timer would become one of the most sought-after kingpins on the planet, with an army of 5,000 troops – roughly the same size as the DEA – and a personal net approaching one billion. "How does somebody go from being a nickel-and-dime street dealer to being one of the most prolific, most wanted traffickers in the world?" Mori asks.
The answer is: He goes to America.
The town of Naranjo de Chila is a dusty mountain pueblo in southwestern Michoacán, a lifetime from the high-rises of Guadalajara. It was here, on July 17th, 1966, that Rubén Oseguera Cervantes was born – one of six brothers in a family of poor avocado farmers. The town sits on the edge of Mexico's Tierra Caliente, or "Hot Land" – a harsh, impoverished region famous for producing agricultural products both legal and less so. To help earn money for his struggling family, young Rubén dropped out of school in the fifth grade and started working in the fields; by 14, he'd graduated to guarding marijuana crops.
Mencho must have dreamed of more than avocados, however, because within a few years he had packed up and moved north to California. By 1986, he was living in the Bay Area, where he was arrested by San Francisco police for possession of stolen property and a loaded gun. A booking photo from the incident shows a 19-year-old Mencho wearing a hoodie and a blank expression, acne on his baby face. Two months later, his first child was born.
It's unclear if Mencho served any time for the incident, but according to Univision, he crossed the border several more times throughout the late Eighties, smuggling drugs under a variety of aliases (Rubén Ávila, Roberto Salgado). According to DEA and Mexican reports, it was also during this time that he got his introduction to the meth trade.
At the time, meth production was concentrated in California's Central Valley, at so-called superlabs in cities like Fresno and Bakersfield. It was there, along with his wife's brother Abigael Gonzalez Valencia, that Mencho learned what would become the family business.
By 1989, Mencho was back in San Francisco, where he was arrested again, this time for selling drugs. (In that booking photo, he sports an acid-washed jean jacket and a wry smile; he doesn't look like a man eager to be rehabilitated anytime soon.) He was deported a few months later, but by September 1992, he was back in the Bay Area yet again, where he was busted once more – this time on federal charges.
According to court records, here's how it went down. Mencho's older brother Abraham was at a San Francisco bar called the Imperial to do a heroin deal: five ounces for $9,500. Mencho, who was 26 at the time, tagged along as a lookout. But though he was the younger brother, Mencho was savvy enough to recognize that the buyers paid not in loose bills, but with a neat stack of hundreds. In a wiretapped conversation that followed, he warned Abraham that the men were undercover cops and said he wouldn't deal with them anymore.
But once was enough: Three weeks later, Mencho and his brother were arrested.
Twenty-five years later, neither the prosecutor nor Mencho's court-appointed defense attorney can recall many details about the case. But court transcripts portray Mencho as a shrewd defendant, by turns combative and deeply loyal to his brother, even displaying occasional flashes of dark humor. (At one point Mencho grumbled about his lawyer, "Whenever I talk to him, he tells me the same thing. . . . So I try to talk with him as little as possible.")
Mencho insisted he was innocent, that he had nothing to do with the deal and that the agents were lying about seeing him handle the dope. But the prosecutor said the brothers were a package: If Mencho didn't plead guilty, then Abraham – with two felony drug convictions already to his name – would be facing a possible life sentence. Mencho went back and forth on what to do. "Given a jury trial, I think I would be able to win it by myself," he told the skeptical judge. But in the end, he decided to plead guilty to protect his brother. During sentencing, he asked the judge to please "give me the least possible." Her response: "I would suspect you would do that."
Mencho was sentenced to five years at Big Spring Correctional Center, a private prison in West Texas that housed mainly undocumented immigrants. (According to Univision, some of the gang members he met in prison he would later recruit to join CJNG.) He had served three years when, in January 1997, he was released on parole. U.S. marshals deported him back to Mexico – a hardened felon at 30 years old.
The next few years are fuzzy, but according to Mexican and DEA reports, Mencho washed up in a Jalisco town called Tomatlán, where – improbably – he became an officer with the Jalisco state police. (It wouldn't be the first time a narco had infiltrated the Mexican state police, which – unlike their federal counterparts – are widely viewed as corrupt.) Eventually, Mencho made his way to Guadalajara, where he fell in with the Milenio Cartel – the group that would ultimately catapult him to power.
Milenio had once been their own organization, but by the turn of the century they were essentially a subsidiary of Sinaloa, under the leadership of Nacho Coronel – a Sinaloa co-founder and the uncle of El Chapo's wife. Coronel was a ruthlessly brutal capo who ran the Guadalajara plaza, or trafficking zone, for Sinaloa. Mencho joined his protection detail – as, Stratfor's Stewart says, "basically a bodyguard-slash-enforcer-slash-hitman." With his law-enforcement background, Mencho would have been trained to handle security and counter-intelligence. According to some reports, he even led his own network of sicarios,or assassins.
One of Coronel's nicknames was "The King of Crystal," for his dominance of the meth trade, which – following a U.S. crackdown – had, like so many industries, shifted south of the border. As a result, meth production was flourishing in the rugged mountains around Jalisco. Thanks to his experience in the States, Mencho was well-positioned to take advantage.
By 2009, Mencho had risen through the cartel's ranks to become a top Milenio lieutenant. Then, in October, one of Milenio's leaders was arrested, and nine months later, Coronel himself was killed, shot during an army raid on his Guadalajara mansion. The top two bosses in Jalisco had suddenly been taken off the table. An ambitious Mencho stepped up to take their place.
But the cartel's leadership had other ideas. After one of his colleagues got the nod instead, Mencho – like a corporate vice president upset about being passed over for CEO – broke off and started his own splinter group, which promptly declared war on Milenio and Sinaloa. The fighting raged in the streets of Guadalajara, destroying the city's long-standing truce, and Jalisco's murder rate more than doubled. "The guys who were loyal to Milenio were killed," says Mori. "Everyone else was forced to flee. And Mencho won – that was the beginning of CJNG."
Two hours south of Puerto Vallarta, on a glittering stretch of the Pacific called the Costalegre (or "Happy Coast"), there's a five-star eco-resort called the Hotelito Desconocido – "the Little Unknown Hotel." Two dozen thatched-roof bungalows nestled amid a UNESCO bird paradise, the property has been written about in Architectural Digest and The Wall Street Journal and has cultivated an air of luxury and discretion: Previous guests have reportedly included Hollywood A-listers such as Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts and Blake Lively.
Unfortunately for the Hotelito's owners, in August 2015, it was seized by the Mexican government after American officials declared it a cartel front. According to U.S. investigators, the property had deep ties to CJNG and their sister organization, Los Cuinis – an affiliated trafficking group led by Mencho's brother-in-law Valencia. The cartels reportedly used the hotel to launder money and hold secret meetings; as it turns out, the property is near Tomatlán, the same town where Mencho served as a cop. The Hotelito's owner – Mencho's sister-in-law – was later arrested in Uruguay with her husband, after the Panama Papers revealed they owned millions in illegal assets.
The agency behind the Hotelito's unmasking was the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control, or OFAC. "Our job is similar to any law-enforcement agent's – we just don't arrest people," an OFAC investigator says. Instead, when OFAC suspects someone of supporting a cartel, it can "designate" that person under the Kingpin Act, thereby freezing assets and, in essence, locking the suspect out of the financial system. OFAC added Mencho to its financial blacklist in 2015 and, in a series of actions since, has exposed a vast web of CJNG-related holdings, including an agricultural company, an advertising firm, a vacation-rental business, a tequila brand and a chain of sushi restaurants.
"The idea is to squeeze Mencho through his business associates," the investigator says. "By putting things on the list, we kind of shine a light and say, 'The guy who owns this company is actually a front for El Chapo or El Mencho, and he's been laundering money for 20 years – so you probably shouldn't be doing business with him.' "
As OFAC was exerting financial pressure on Mencho, Mexican law enforcement was also stepping up the hunt. They'd had several close calls before: In March 2012, the Mexican army (known by the acronym SEDENA) raided a Guadalajara apartment building where Mencho was believed to be hiding. A shootout followed, but Mencho was able to escape. A few months later, Mexican federal police staged another raid, attacking a rural CJNG compound with five Black Hawk helicopters; in the ensuing firefight, six CJNG members were killed. Reports surfaced that Mencho had been captured by the government, although that turned out to be false. According to a DEA source, "They literally missed him by minutes."
The following spring, CJNG taunted authorities with a faux press conference posted to YouTube, featuring 50 mercenaries in balaclavas and body armor holding weapons in front of a huge CJNG banner. At the end, a spokesman delivered a message from "el señor," meaning Mencho: "Bark, dogs," he said in Spanish. "But while you're barking, know that I am advancing."
And then Mencho declared war. On March 19th, 2015, a detachment of federal police was on a stakeout in a Jalisco town called Ocotlán when CJNG gunmen ambushed it, killing five officers. Two weeks later in Guadalajara, the cartel carried out an assassination attempt on Jalisco's commissioner of public security, Alejandro Solorio, spraying his armored truck with more than 200 bullets. "When we tried to strike back," Solorio said later, "they threw two grenades at us."
Then, the week after Easter, the big one. A convoy of elite Fuerza Única police was driving from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara when – around 3 p.m. on a winding two-lane mountain road – it came across a burned-out car blocking its way. The convoy stopped, and that's when CJNG attacked, bombarding the pinned-down cops with machine guns and grenade launchers. Fifteen officers were killed in the bloodbath – the deadliest day for Mexican law enforcement in about a decade. CJNG suffered no casualties.
Mexico's secretary of defense delivered a full-throated denunciation of CJNG, calling them "people without scruples or conscience who, with their vile actions, harm Mexicans, their families, their heritage and their way of life." "This cowardly attack," Solorio declared, "will not go unpunished."
A few weeks later, the Mexican army struck back with Operation Jalisco – a planned decapitation strike. In the pre-dawn darkness on Friday, May 1st, a detachment of elite SEDENA paratroopers and federal police – carried by two EC-725 "Super Cougar" helicopters – descended on a ranch in southwestern Jalisco where Mencho was believed to be hiding. But once again, the cartel was waiting for them. As the first soldiers rappelled from a chopper, cartel gunmen in armored trucks and camouflage uniforms reading "CJNG Special Forces High Command" opened fire with assault rifles and Russian-made RPGs. One of the helicopter's rotors was hit, sending it crashing down in flames. Eight soldiers and one police officer were killed. The lone survivor, an intelligence officer named Iván Morales, suffered burns to more than 70 percent of his body.
The attack marked a deadly milestone: the first time a Mexican military aircraft had been destroyed by a cartel. In the hours that followed, Mencho doubled down on the terror, setting fire to dozens of hijacked buses, trucks, gas stations and banks throughout Jalisco, snarling traffic and bringing the state to its knees. The U.S. consulate warned its citizens to shelter in place; the Mexican government had to send in 10,000 troops to secure the state. According to the former DEA agent, the chaos was designed to help Mencho escape – a tactic the cartel reportedly learned from Israeli commandos. "I've heard about Israelis meeting with them – snipers and stuff," the agent says. "It's a technical use of force you've never seen with Mexican cartels."
"It was a pretty amazing rapid deployment of forces," says one federal investigator. "In hardly any time at all, Mencho got his organization to create chaos in the second-largest city in Mexico. 'Oh, you're coming after me? I'll show you who's really in charge.' " This aggression, the investigator says, was almost unprecedented. "[CJNG] weren't just reacting to raids. They were actively going out and seeking confrontation with authorities. You could argue that you hadn't seen that type of initiative since Pablo Escobar."
Had the war between CJNG and the military continued to escalate, there's a good chance Mencho may have been captured or killed. Instead, he caught a lucky break thanks to his old-boss-turned-nemesis – El Chapo.
A federal investigator explains: "After May 2015, Mencho had pretty much been declared public enemy number one in Mexico. But then on July 11th, what happens? Chapo escapes. Obviously, the Mexican government is embarrassed as hell. And they shift all their resources back to capturing Chapo. I think CJNG took that opportunity to re-evaluate their strategy."
The cartel stopped ambushing police and dialed back the violence. "They're still killing people," the investigator says. "The difference is, they're killing their rivals."
And right now, nowhere is this bloody approach more apparent than in Tijuana.
Of all Mexico's drug plazas, arguably the most valuable is Tijuana. Nearly all traffic into Southern California passes through the city, at which point it's an easy trip through the western U.S. to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, Chicago, or even Canada. Roughly $225 million worth of narcotics is seized in the DEA's San Diego corridor each year – no doubt just a fraction of what gets through. By that measure, control of Tijuana could be a billion-dollar industry.
Up until a few years ago, the city was firmly in the grip of the Sinaloa Cartel. But starting around 2013 or so, CJNG began to muscle their way in. According to journalist Adela Navarro, their recruiting pitch was simple: "Join us, or we'll kill you." A captured cartel lieutenant who fought against Mencho described a similar strategy: "Everyone who pushed dope was kidnapped or killed," the man said. "If you were working, you started working for him – otherwise, you're gone." (He went on to add, "It's a fucking war with no end and no point.")
Navarro, a striking woman with a no-nonsense manner, is the editor of ZETA, Tijuana's award-winning investigative newspaper. The paper is legendary for taking on narcos: Its founding co-editor Héctor Félix Miranda was murdered in 1988 for allegedly unmasking a cartel-affiliated businessman; his co-editor Jesús Blancornelas was shot four times in a 1997 assassination attempt after publishing several exposés about the Tijuana Cartel. Over the door to the paper's office, a cozy, cream-colored building on a tree-lined street in central Tijuana, is a sign bearing ZETA's famous slogan: libre como el viento – "Free Like the Wind."
Navarro says that by 2015, Sinaloa and CJNG had reached an uneasy peace in the city – dividing up corners, trafficking routes and even corrupt officials, so that they weren't killing each other and bringing down heat. ("They basically cut a trade deal," Mori says.) Tijuana was a microcosm of the country as a whole: That summer, Tomas Zerón, head of Mexico's Agencia de Investigación Criminal (the country's equivalent of the FBI), declared, "There are only two cartels left in Mexico: Sinaloa and CJNG."
But a few months later, Chapo was arrested. The fragile détente collapsed.
Since Chapo's recapture in January 2016, Tijuana's murder rate has exploded. Last year it jumped an astonishing 36 percent; the city's 910 homicides were an all-time record. (By way of comparison, Chicago had 762 homicides in 2016, and twice the population.) Navarro's colleague Rosario Mosso, the ZETA editor responsible for tracking Tijuana's murders, recalls victims piling up as fast as she could count. "One after another," she says. "Hanging bodies, severed heads." This past March, the killings hit a new monthly peak, with 121. At its current pace, Tijuana will see more than 1,300 murders in 2017 – another -record-shattering year.
Navarro says the situation isn't as bad as it was in 2008, when Sinaloa were battling the Arellano-Félix Cartel and civilians were being kidnapped and murdered in broad daylight. This time, at least so far, the killing has mostly been confined to Tijuana's criminal population. "If you look at who they're killing, it's drug dealers," Navarro says. "But once you've eliminated your enemies, who's next? Well, society is next."
Mosso, too, fears things will get worse before they get better. "At this point, I believe the authorities have lost control," she says. "It's not going to end until these two groups sort out their differences, or one of them takes over." And she's worried it will be Mencho, who's seen not as a folk hero, but as a terrifying menace.
"CJNG have a level of violence we've never seen," says Mosso. "They set fire to buses, or go out and kill entire villages. So people are afraid. The authorities have told us, 'If Jalisco takes over, then we're all in serious trouble.' "
For now, Mencho's fortunes continue to rise. There are signs he's pushing deeper into other Sinaloa-held territory, including Baja California, Sonora and even Chapo's home state of Sinaloa itself. "The thing I'm watching right now," says Stratfor's Stewart, "is the push up into Chihuahua" – the Mexican border state that's home to the valuable El Paso-Juarez crossing. "Right now, it's kind of shared. But if [CJNG] can shut off those plazas, cut off Sinaloa, they can really damage their ability to move dope."
But there are also indications the noose may be tightening. In December 2015, one of Mencho's brothers, alleged CJNG financial boss Antonio "Tony Montana" Oseguera, was arrested in Jalisco. CJNG's purported second in command – Mencho's own son Rubén Oseguera Jr., a.k.a. "Menchito" – has also been arrested and, last December, was indicted in a U.S. federal court. Several top CJNG plaza bosses have also been captured or killed. And in March, Mexico agreed to extradite Mencho's brother-in-law Valencia to the U.S. under the same indictment in which Mencho is charged.
If Mencho were captured tomorrow, the U.S. would likely request his extradition, just as it did with Chapo. At that point it would be up to Mexico whether to comply. Mori, for one, hopes Mexico would: "There's this misconception among DEA agents of, 'I took $3 million off this guy, that's a big fucking deal,' " he says. "Trust me, it's not. That's the cost of doing business. The only thing these guys care about – the only thing – is being extradited to the United States."
But the former DEA field agent doubts it will ever get that far. "Mencho's such a killer," he says. "I'd be surprised if they captured him alive."
In the meantime, says Mori, "we're basically just searching for him." Any operation to take Mencho out is Mexico's responsibility – the United States "can only advise and assist, and hopefully work with them on a bilateral operation. But suffice it to say," Mori continues, "at this point, we haven't had a lot of good opportunities to nab him."
Mori suspects Mencho is hiding in a remote mountainous area somewhere, likely in Jalisco or Michoacán. "I think he feels safe and secure in that terrain he knows well," Mori says. "I think he's extremely selective about whom he talks to and with whom he meets. I think he moves around a lot, and I think he has near-unlimited money and near-unlimited manpower. And when you have those things, you can hold out for quite a long time."
Emboldened By Trump, U.S. Border Officials Are Lying To Asylum Seekers And Turning Them Away
A new border crossing called PedWest opened last year between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Ysidro, in San Diego, California. To cross from Mexico to the United States by foot you walk through a gate, past a little gatehouse. Sometimes there are people just outside the barrier who have just been deported, carrying in hand a plastic bag of their belongings and some papers, looking disoriented. You walk up a long ramp, zigzagging a few times, and at the top pass Mexican federal police officers in camouflage and helmets, carrying machine guns. Then into a long glass passageway, decked with surveillance cameras and signs saying not to take pictures, skateboard, bike, or talk on your cellphone. To the left you can see the concrete trough of the Tijuana river, a mere dribble of water through piles of litter. In the distance a yellow line crosses it, demarcating the international boundary. It’s a long walk through the tunnel, descending in a spiral that’s been nicknamed el caracol, the snail. A façade imitating a rusted fence welcomes you to the entry to the U.S. inspection area, and security guards funnel you into line according to whether you have a commuter pass or other means of speeding through immigration. For thousands of people each day, this is a routine passage between two border cities linked by commercial and family relations.
But for someone fleeing violence, hoping to seek asylum in the United States, it is a gauntlet of possibility and fear. At the end of the line, they’ll approach a Customs and Border Protection officer in a booth and say that they are afraid to return to their home country.
Clara, a 28-year-old woman from Michoacán, a state in Central Mexico wracked by drug cartel violence, said she wasn’t nervous walking up the ramp and waiting in line with her three young children.
“I’m more afraid to go back to where I came from,” she said. In Michoacán, a man had followed her home and demanded money, saying he’d take her children if she didn’t pay up within eight days. The sum was about $150, but she knew he’d be back for more; cartel operatives had been going around the neighborhood. Clara lived alone with her 11-year-old son, 8-year-old daughter, and 6-month-old baby boy, and she called relatives in the United States for help. They wired her money for a plane ticket to Tijuana, and told her to try her luck asking for asylum; another relative in a similar situation had succeeded. (The Intercept is referring to Clara and other asylum seekers using pseudonyms to protect them from those they are fleeing and from possible retaliation by U.S. officials.)
By 8 a.m. the next morning, on June 13, she and her children were standing in front of a Customs and Border Protection officer at San Ysidro. When she said that she wanted to request asylum, she was taken into a separate room, asked some basic questions about who she was and why she was there, then made to wait nearly 24 hours, with a little food and no information. Near dawn the next morning, a U.S. official came in, repeated the same questions, and then told her that she did not qualify for asylum, because “the new government” had changed policy.
“It’s only for religious reasons, or if you’re gay, or if you’re fleeing the government. With the new government it’s changed,” Clara said the officer told her (she doesn’t know which agency the officer was from, but it was likely CBP.) She was given a document to sign indicating that she had agreed to go back to Mexico voluntarily. Two other Mexican women who were held with her that day were also denied entry, Clara told The Intercept in an interview at a women’s shelter in Tijuana, a few days after she tried to cross.
Even before “the new government,” Clara’s effort to obtain asylum may not have been successful. Mexicans historically have had a hard time showing that they fall into the right category of persecution, and aren’t just a victim of general violence. Clara might not have been able to convince a judge that she met the criteria or had proof that she and her children were in danger.
But the U.S. official was still not telling the truth: there’s been no official change of policy since Donald Trump took office, and her claim shouldn’t have been decided right then and there by CBP, whose officers do not have the authority to evaluate the validity of asylum claims.
Clara’s story is not unique. Legal and immigration advocacy groups today filed a class action lawsuit against CPB and the Department of Homeland Security alleging a pattern of misinformation, verbal and physical abuse, intimidation, and outright illegal turn-backs of people requesting asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lawyers involved with the suit said they’ve seen “a drastic increase in illegal turn-backs since Trump was elected.”
The suit, filed in federal court in the Central District of California on behalf of six anonymous plaintiffs and Al Otro Lado, a non-profit that works in Tijuana, alleges that CBP has “coerced asylum seekers into signing forms abandoning their asylum claims by threatening to take their children away, threatened to deport asylum seekers back to their home countries,” and forcibly removed people from ports of entry. The six plaintiffs, from Mexico and Honduras, had been threatened or had family members killed by cartels and gangs members, and had been forced “to return to Mexico and other countries where they remain susceptible to serious harm such as kidnapping, rape, trafficking, torture or even death.”
A CBP spokesperson, Jakie Wasiluk, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the class action suit, but said in a statement that “CBP has not changed any policies affecting asylum procedures,” adding that the agency “adheres to law and policy on processing asylum claims and does not tolerate abuse of these policies.”
CBP also stated that according to U.S. and international law, anyone can request asylum if they are afraid to return to their home country, and that “CBP officers are not authorized to determine or evaluate the validity of the fear expressed.” Rather, CBP is expected to process asylum-seekers for an interview with a trained asylum officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If that officer decides that the fear is credible, the petitioner can present their claim for asylum to an immigration judge.
Lawyers and charity groups working on the border documented an uptick in turn-backs and other irregularities with this process beginning in the summer of 2016, and it appeared to worsen after the election. A recent report by Human Rights First gathered over 125 cases of people being illegally turned back between November 2016 and April 2017. Over 32 Mexican nationals were refused by CBP at PedWest in November and December 2016 alone.
People have reported being told that the United States no longer has asylum, that Mexicans and mothers with children are ineligible, that they must go to the Mexican consulate, or already have a visa, among other false claims. In many instances, asylum-seekers were told that the refusal was the result of a change in policy because of Trump, as was the case with Clara and other individuals interviewed by The Intercept.
“There’s been no documentation of any centralized effort [by the U.S. government,] but the trickle-down effect of the rhetoric I think has opened up the floodgates of local officers who hold personal views that certain subgroups are taking advantage of the system,” said Shaw Drake, author of the Human Rights First report.
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly promoted the idea that immigrants game the asylum process this spring, when he said that, “the vast majority of people who come up here…say the exact same words because they are schooled by traffickers to say certain words, to give certain scenarios.” Border patrol agents I met at a conference in April repeated the same charge, and previous investigations have found skepticism about asylum claims among U.S. border officials. Rights groups counter that there is no evidence of widespread fraud in asylum claims.
The class action suit asks that the six plaintiffs be granted emergency entry to the United States and immediate access to the asylum process, given the dangers they currently face. It also asks for court-ordered oversight and accountability measures to be put in place. Illegal turn-backs might be visible to outside observers, but once people pass into CBP custody, the process is behind closed doors.
“Ultimately our recommendation is that these proceedings be video-taped or recorded,” said Joanna Williams, of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona (which is not part of the suit.) “Because there usually isn’t any evidence. We need to be able to establish fact-patterns, to see if it’s always the same officers.”
Two Nations, One Aquifer: Border wall can’t keep groundwater from draining away
Lauren Villagran / Journal Staff Writer - Las Cruces Bureauhttps://www.abqjournal.com/1023295/no-accord-over-aquifer-shared-by-nm-a...
SANTA TERESA – Deep underground, beneath the 18-foot steel wall that divides parts of the U.S. and Mexico border, the aquifer upon which both sides depend pays the barrier no mind.
The water is there for the taking, first come, first served.
The century-old international agreement that governs every drop of Rio Grande surface water doesn’t apply to the water that courses underground.
The binational aquifer – called the Mesilla Bolson on the U.S. side and Conejos Medanos on the Mexican side – is the freshwater source upon which southern New Mexico has anchored its hopes for its own economic future.
But a growing regional population and heavy groundwater pumping on both sides are leading to faster depletion than is sustainable long term, with no binational accords to govern use.
Scientists say the best quality water won’t last more than a decade.
“The aquifer has quite a life to it,” said John Hawley, a Ph.D. hydrogeologist who has studied the Mesilla Bolson on both sides of the border for six decades. “But it’s something that I predicted based on behavior of wells throughout the area: that this wasn’t a permanent reservoir of freshwater.”
There are multiple takers on both sides of the border – cities, industry, farms. New Mexico has long been the largest user of the aquifer.
But what brought the lack of a groundwater agreement into full relief was a massive pipeline that went in just south of the border less than a decade ago. Overnight, it turned on demand roughly equal to what the second-largest city in New Mexico consumes on an annual basis.
Stephen Mumme, a political science professor at Colorado State University and expert on U.S.-Mexico water policy, said: “It’s a race to the bottom. There is no doubt about it.”
Charts of U.S. Geological Survey monitoring wells in southern Doña Ana County, near the border, show the depths needed to reach water: The trend lines plunge. The water table has dropped 30 to 50 feet over the past 10 years, according to Stacy Timmons, a hydrogeologist and aquifer mapping program manager at New Mexico Institute of Technology.
“That is basically indicating that there is a great deal of pumping going on that is removing groundwater,” she said. “With an extended drought that started in the early 2000s, we are seeing water levels that are precipitously dropping unlike anything we have ever seen since record keeping began.”
Demands on aquifer grow
Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim’s Grupo Carso built the pipeline under contract with the Ciudad Juárez water authority. In 2010, the pipe began siphoning water from the aquifer to sate the city’s urban sprawl.
On the U.S. side, the demands on the aquifer are growing, too.
New Mexico’s industrial hub of Santa Teresa is counting on the Mesilla Bolson to supply the manufacturing and logistics businesses and subdivisions of single-family homes sprouting at the border. A little farther north, the population of Las Cruces, the state’s second-largest city, has climbed 37 percent since 2000 to more than 101,000 people, according to the U.S. Census. Meanwhile, driven by historically high pecan prices, Mesilla Valley farmers have been drawing down groundwater at unheard-of levels to feed water-hungry orchards.
Water managers say critical, if informal, cooperation on groundwater between the U.S. and Mexico has stagnated over the past decade. Talks are unlikely to resume with binational relations strained by the border wall debate and while Texas and New Mexico fight over groundwater in a case headed for the Supreme Court.
“When they turned that well field on (in Conejos Medanos), you could really feel the effect, an immediate response in the groundwater in the U.S. side in the Mesilla Bolson,” said Phil King, a civil engineer and water researcher at New Mexico State University. “We don’t have a groundwater treaty, so there is nothing to stop them.”
Few experts think water in the Mesilla Bolson is going to run out. As John Fleck, director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico, explains in his book “Water Is for Fighting Over,” desert dwellers have proved themselves remarkably adaptable to water worries.
“When people have less water,” he writes, “they use less water.”
Rather than sheer scarcity, hydrogeologists say it’s more likely that water quality will deteriorate, salting up little by little – something that is already happening on the shallower, Mexican side of the aquifer.
Hawley predicts the same effect could be seen on the U.S. side in as few as 10 years – sooner than planners and developers may be ready for.
“We should be working on that aquifer together,” Hawley said, “to develop it jointly as a binational partnership.”
Hard to replenish
Below the riverbed, from points north of Las Cruces south across the Mexican border, the Mesilla Bolson holds an ancient deposit of water: an estimated 65 million acre feet of fresh and moderately brackish water, much of it dating to the Ice Age.
That amount of water is roughly 30 times the capacity of Elephant Butte Reservoir, the largest surface reservoir in the state. Underground, the water is held between grains of sand, silt and clay – like a wet sandbox. The Bolson’s freshwater supply represents perhaps only a tenth of the total resource, according to Hawley.
For many thousands of years the Mesilla Bolson has been replenished by rain, snowmelt and the river. But the intense pumping of the past 10 years, and a potential long-term shift toward a more arid climate, is threatening that historic recharge.
“In the last 15 years, there have been these large declines without recovery,” said Alex Rinehart, a hydrogeologist at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources. “The pumping has exceeded the rate of recharge from the river. The deeper the aquifer gets, the harder it is to recharge the aquifer.”
There is a silver lining this year: Heavy snowpack in the mountains of northern New Mexico were feeding the Rio Grande at levels not seen since 2008, raising hopes for freshwater recharge.
But NMSU’s King warns that the snowmelt isn’t behaving the way it used to; for one, it’s evaporating faster under hotter temperatures.
“We just haven’t seen the same kind of watershed dynamics that we saw historically,” King said. “This crazy weather we’re having here, you are seeing the snowmelt coming off earlier and faster.”
Water rights limbo
In August 1973, the International Boundary and Water Commission met in Mexico City to settle a dispute over salinity in river water that the U.S. delivered to Mexico. The agreement, known as “Minute 242,” identified the need for a treaty on shared groundwater basins.
“The U.S. and Mexico are in agreement that we need a groundwater agreement of some sort but that’s where it ends,” said Gilbert Anaya, chief of the environmental management division at the U.S. side of the IBWC. “It doesn’t say how we’re going to do it.”
Minute 242 is “the second-most important agreement on water we have with Mexico,” said Mumme, the CSU water policy expert, the first being the 1944 U.S.-Mexico treaty that governs deliveries of river water between the countries. A 1906 treaty was the original binational treaty on the Rio Grande.
For decades there have been on-and-off efforts to share information on binational aquifers, if not hammer out an accord on their use.
The latest such effort: Congress authorized the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act in 2006 to encourage cooperation. Mexico agreed in 2009 to work on the project, which would gather data on binational aquifers.
The effort informally united local water managers and academics from southern New Mexico, West Texas and Ciudad Juárez to exchange data on water use. The team also discussed regional plans for urban growth, big agriculture, conservation and water-sharing ideas, but the effort was never fully funded and petered out.
Standing in the way of greater binational cooperation today are internal disagreements within the U.S., most notably New Mexico’s border with Texas. In Texas v. New Mexico – headed for review by the U.S. Supreme Court – the juggernaut to the east claims groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico is depleting the Rio Grande of water that belongs to Texas.
There are institutional barriers, too.
In Mexico, the federal government governs groundwater. In the U.S., every state has its own rules. New Mexico uses a complex system of water rights that have to be proven and consistently used. In Texas, landowners can claim rights to the water beneath their land.
“There ought to be more discussion between the U.S. and Mexico, and I think the problem is really the United States,” Mumme said. “It has always been the United States, because of our system of jealously guarded water rights. People don’t want to have their water utilization managed.”
“It’s been complicated,” said Manuel Herrera, technical director of the Ciudad Juárez water utility. “The three entities” – Mexico, New Mexico and Texas – “haven’t come to an agreement to do a project. It’s a problem we’re going to have to deal with at some point.”
Samantha Barncastle, legal counsel for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which manages surface water owed to southern New Mexico farmers and downstream users, put it this way: “It’s very easy to take the 30,000-foot view and say, ‘Well, we should be managing this across borders.’ But when you look at how within borders we can’t even manage it among ourselves, let alone bring in another nation, it’s sometimes easier to not kick the sleeping dog.”
Water use in the border region is not a zero-sum equation. The economic future of each side depends on the other.
“It’s a common source,” said Estevan López, former commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation and former director of New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission. “If each side is going willy-nilly and turning a blind eye to the other, obviously that’s going to have impacts on that common source. It’s just not a good way of doing planning.”
The Trump administration’s saber-rattling over a border wall isn’t helping matters, say researchers and water managers.
“It is going to take a lot of local-level reaching-out, expressions of goodwill, trying to counteract trends in U.S.-Mexico relations,” Mumme said. “Does it throw a monkey wrench into local diplomacy along the border? Absolutely. How long that effect will last is hard to say.”
Oscar Ibáñez, a water researcher at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez, said that, locally, “the political will is there.”
“On the border, all the decisions taken by (Washington and Mexico City) affect us,” Ibáñez said. “Border residents have to survive in the context of decisions made by the two countries – that’s not an option. But every time we cooperate, everything goes better.”
New York Times
Mexico City is sinking
Drilling for water weakens foundation
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Bottom of Form
MEXICO CITY – On bad days, you can smell the stench from a mile away, drifting over a nowhere sprawl of highways and office parks.
When the Grand Canal was completed at the end of the 1800s, it was a symbol of Mexico City’s civic pride: 29 miles long, with the ability to move tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater per second. It promised to solve the flooding and sewage problems that had plagued the city for centuries.
Only it didn’t, pretty much from the start. The canal was based on gravity. And Mexico City, a mile and a half above sea level, was sinking, collapsing in on itself.
It still is, faster and faster, and the canal is just one victim of what has become a vicious cycle. Always short of water, Mexico City keeps drilling deeper for more, weakening the ancient clay lakebeds on which the Aztecs first built much of the city, causing it to crumble even further.
It is a cycle made worse by climate change. More heat and drought mean more evaporation and yet more demand for water, adding pressure to tap distant reservoirs at staggering costs or further drain underground aquifers and hasten the city’s collapse.
Much is being written about climate change and the impact of rising seas on waterfront populations. But coasts are not the only places affected. Mexico City – high in the mountains, in the center of the country – is a glaring example. The world has a lot invested in crowded capitals like this one, with vast numbers of people, huge economies and the stability of a hemisphere at risk.
This is the first urban century in human history, the first time more people live in cities than don’t, with predictions that three-quarters of the global population will be urban by 2050.
Mexico City occupies what was once a network of lakes. In 1325, the Aztecs established their capital, Tenochtitlán, on an island. Over time, they expanded the city with landfill and planted crops on floating gardens called chinampas, plots of arable soil created from wattle and sediment. The lakes provided the Aztecs with a line of defense, the chinampas with sustenance. The idea: Live with nature.
Then the conquering Spaniards waged war against water, determined to subdue it. They replaced the dikes and canals with streets and squares.
They drained the lakes and cleared forestland, suffering flood after flood, including one that drowned the city for five straight years.
Mexico City today is an agglomeration of neighborhoods that are really many big cities cheek by jowl. During the past century, millions of migrants poured in from the countryside to find jobs. The city’s growth, from 30 square miles in 1950 to a metropolitan area of about 3,000 square miles 60 years later, has produced a vibrant but chaotic megalopolis of largely unplanned and sprawling development.
Overseeing the city’s water supply is Ramón Aguirre Díaz, director of the Water System of Mexico City. “Climate change is expected to have two effects,” he said. “We expect heavier, more intense rains, which means more floods, but also more and longer droughts.”
The problem is not simply that the aquifers are being depleted. Mexico City rests on a mix of clay lakebeds and volcanic soil. Areas like downtown sit on clay. Other districts were built on volcanic fields.
Volcanic soil absorbs water and delivers it to the aquifers. It’s stable and porous. Picture a bucket filled with marbles. You can pour water into the bucket, and the marbles will hardly move. Stick a straw into the bucket to extract the water, and the marbles still won’t move. For centuries, before the population exploded, volcanic soil guaranteed that the city had water underground.
Mexico City’s water crisis today comes partly from the fact that so much of this porous land has been developed. So it is buried beneath concrete and asphalt, stopping rain from filtering down to the aquifers, causing floods and creating “heat islands” that raise temperatures further and only increase the demand for water. This is part of the sprawl problem.
Deep below the historic center, water extracted from aquifers now can end up just beyond the city limits, in Ecatepec, at one of the largest pumping stations along the Grand Canal. The pump, completed in 2007, was built to move 11,000 gallons per second – essentially water that now needs to be lifted up from where the canal has collapsed, just so that it can continue on its way.
The man in charge of this herculean undertaking is Carlos Salgado Terán, chief of the department of drainage for Zone A in Mexico City. According to Salgado, the Grand Canal today is working at only 30 percent of capacity because of subsidence, the gradual caving in or sinking of an area of land. He admitted that it was a Sisyphean struggle to keep up with the city’s decline. Parts of the canal around Ecatepec have sunk an additional 6 feet just since the plant was built, he said.
In the district of Tlalpan, Claudia Sheinbaum, a former environment minister who developed the city’s first climate change program, is now a local district president. “With climate change, the situation will only get much worse,” she said. She seconded what Aguirre had said about the threat of drought. “Yes,” she said, “if there is drought we are not prepared.”
For the time being, Well 30 helps supply Tlalpan with drinking water. One recent morning, large trucks, called “pipas,” crowded a muddy turnoff beside the highway. From a low cinder-block building, painted red, scrawled with graffiti and crowned in barbed wire, sprouted two long, angled pipes connected to dangling hoses. These pipes plunge 1,000 feet down to reach an aquifer. Trucks wait their turn to fill up, positioning themselves beneath the hoses.
City officials are defensive about its inability to supply every resident with clean water, insisting that the numbers of those unserved were exaggerated. They list progressive new programs to combat pollution, preserve green spaces and reduce the demand for cars by improving mass transit.
Another plan envisions a public park that would double as a rainwater collection basin. And there’s a long-term agenda to turn the airport into a green, mixed-use district.
Meanwhile, the Mexican federal government envisions constructing a giant new airport on a dry lakebed, exactly the worst place to build. It recently cut to zero federal money budgeted for fixing the city’s pipes, Metro and other critical infrastructure. Partly this is just politics. The mayor of Mexico City has talked about running for president. The current administration doesn’t want to do him any favors. At the same time, the federal government has its own agenda, promoting highways, cars and sprawl.
“There has to be a consensus – of scientists, politicians, engineers and society – when it comes to pollution, water, climate,” Sheinbaum, the former environment minister, stressed. “We have the resources, but lack the political will.”
It turns out Sheinbaum herself lives in a house that can count on water from the tap only twice a month.
So she, too, orders pipas to come to fill her cistern.