Mexico captures ‘El Marro’, cartel boss accused of escalating violence

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Mexican police and military forces arrested the leader of the Santa Rosa de Lima gang on Sunday that has spread violence in north-central Mexico and waged a bloody turf battle for years with the Jalisco cartel.

Guanajuato State Armed Forces and officials said they captured Jose Antonio Yepez Ortiz, better known by his nickname “El Marro”, which means “The Sledgehammer”.

Yepez Ortiz was unusual among gang leaders because he posted videos with emotional appeals to his supporters, including one in June showing him appearing to cry after several of his supporters and relatives were arrested. In another video around the same time, he threatened to team up with the Sinaloa cartel to defeat Jalisco, the fastest growing drug cartel in Mexico.

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The turf battle with Jalisco has transformed the industrial hub of Guanajuato, with its foreign auto factories and parts suppliers, into Mexico’s most violent state, with 2,293 murders in the first six months of this year. The Santa Rosa gang has been blamed by some observers for the July attack on a drug rehabilitation center in the city of Irapuato, in which 27 men were killed.

But Mexico’s top civil security official Alfonso Durazo said Yepez Ortiz would be charged with organized crime and fuel theft, not murder.

Yepez Ortiz had been the subject of massive manhunts for years and was arrested along with five other suspects who allegedly detained a kidnapped businesswoman. He was among the most wanted suspects in Mexico, behind Jalisco Nemesio “El Mencho” cartel leader Oseguera and Sinaloa cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

His Santa Rosa gang was not a drug cartel, but rather a powerful and violent gang that grew up in a farming hamlet of the same name in the north-central state of Guanajuato stealing fuel from pipelines and government refineries and stealing freight from trains.

The Santa Rosa gang was also unusual in that it attempted to create a network of support among local residents by allowing them to take a small share in the loot from the robberies. But when authorities stepped up security around trains and pipelines over the past two years, the gang turned to extortion and widespread kidnappings. The gang would move from sector to sector, systematically demanding extortion payments from companies like tortilla shops or car dealerships.

However, the gang’s rule never affected the large corporations that built dozens of factories in Guanajuato, drawn by investor-friendly policies and excellent rail and road links.

True to his more modest circumstances, the little round-faced Yepez Ortiz was shown wearing a gray hoodie, ripped jeans and construction boots in official photographs distributed by the Guanajuato state government .

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Much of the mythology had developed around El Marro, including the belief that he and a group of supporters had been able to evade the police for years by encouraging townspeople to erect impromptu roadblocks to give him enough time to escape by dirt roads. on mountain bikes.

Guanajuato State Security Commissioner Sofia Huett said earlier this year that the gang may have branded itself as a cartel, but largely only operated in Guanajuato, dropping from a illegal activity to another.

“There was a time when it was gangs, not big cartels, that stole trains,” Huett said.

After security forces cracked down on the matter, the gang began drilling illegal taps into fuel lines and allowed residents to fill plastic tanks with gasoline or diesel. Still known for its propensity for violence, the Santa Rosa de Lima gang began stealing fuel directly from government oil refineries by truck; the smaller-scale taps were largely a way of gaining the support of the local population. But when the government began to tighten security, it turned to other crimes.

“With less access to gasoline, these groups migrated to other crimes, like street level drug trafficking and auto theft and extortion,” Huett said.

Santa Rosa de Lima was precisely the kind of local gang that the Jalisco Cartel skillfully picked up in the past in its relentless expansion across Mexico, co-opting local gang members into some sort of franchise system.

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There are reports that Oseguera sent a nephew to Guanajuato in 2017 to negotiate a deal with the Santa Rosa gang that would allow Jalisco to smuggle drugs into the state while the local gang kept the business from. fuel theft.

But the pugnacious Yepez Ortiz – his videos are punctuated with profanity – has vowed never to let the cartel in the neighboring state of Jalisco enter. A deadly quarrel ensued.

“They have very little capacity to build criminal alliances, and this gives rise to internal divisions and confrontations with outside groups who at one point sought to collaborate in criminal activity, but with whom they could not conclude. a deal, ”Huett said.

It was not clear whether Yepez Ortiz’s arrest would mean that Jalisco could now be on the verge of going to Guanajuato as it has in so many other states.

In July, the Jalisco Cartel released a video that Mexican defense officials said was filmed near the border of the states of Jalisco and Guanajuato.

Officials said the video showed a column of about 75 armed Jalisco Cartel men dressed in military-style fatigues with a dozen homemade armored vans, an anti-aircraft gun, nine belt-guns, ten sniper rifles. .50 caliber, six grenade launchers and 54 assault rifles.

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