A ruthless Mexican drug lord’s empire is devastating families with its grip on small-town USA

Ciro Macias Martinez (left) led a dual life, working hard in the daytime as a groomer at famed Calumet Farm, home to Triple Crown and Derby winners. At night, prosecutors say he served as CJNG's Kentucky cartel boss. He's now in prison. Brizeida Janett Sosa (right), Macias' common-law wife, headed up the money laundering arm of the cartel's Kentucky cell. Her crew funneled more than $1 million for CJNG. KENTUCKY DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

Somewhere deep in Mexico's remote wilderness, the world’s most dangerous and wanted drug lord is hiding. If someone you love dies from an overdose tonight, he may very well be to blame.

He's called "El Mencho."

And though few Americans know his name, authorities promise they soon will.

Rubén "Nemesio" Oseguera Cervantes is the leader of Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, better known as CJNG. With a $10 million reward on his head, he’s on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Most Wanted list.

El Mencho’s powerful international syndicate is flooding the U.S. with thousands of kilos of methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl every year — despite being targeted repeatedly by undercover stings, busts and lengthy investigations.

The unending stream of narcotics has contributed to this country’s unprecedented addiction crisis, devastating families and killing more than 300,000 people since 2013.

CJNG’s rapid rise heralds the latest chapter in a generations-old drug war in which Mexican cartels are battling to supply Americans’ insatiable demand for narcotics.

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.

How we reported this story

Throughout 2019, Courier Journal reporters analyzed thousands of court records and transcripts of more than 100 CJNG-linked cases around the country and talked to more than 150 federal drug agents, police officers, defense attorneys and prosecutors, as well as relatives, co-workers and neighbors of those accused. The team traveled to 15 cities across the United States and to Mexico City and Guadalajara. Reporters also reached out to more than two dozen alleged cartel members or associates.

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.

In Mexico, El Mencho is a household name.

But in America, few know who he is or why his rise to power matters.

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.

"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.

"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.

The investigation documented how in each new community, CJNG uses local traffickers who can blend in to sell their drugs, with no regard for their race or ethnicity.

"If it’s coming from a cartel, they could have sold a pound to Asians, black guys, outlaw motorcycle gangs, white trash," said Lt. Jeremy Williams, of the Ashe County Sheriff's Office in North Carolina. His testimony helped convict a trafficker connected to CJNG in 2014.

"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.

"I was surprised that CJNG’s efforts and tentacles were reaching into Kentucky, that they had expanded their reach that rapidly,” said Evans, who previously headed the Louisville Field Division.

He got his first glimpse of CJNG’s success when he was overseeing drug cases in Los Angeles, a key cartel hub.

"I still expected that they would be in markets in the Southwest, a little bit into some of the other major corridors, such as Atlanta and Chicago,” Evans said.

Instead, The Courier Journal’s investigation documented cells where CJNG members moved in, settling into a luxury condo near downtown Nashville’s honky-tonk district; an upscale Hollywood high-rise apartment near Sunset Boulevard; and sidewalk-lined suburbs in Cairo, Illinois; Johnson City, Tennessee; and Kansas City, Missouri.

CJNG even established a cell in south-central Virginia, buying or renting a cluster of modest homes in Axton — an unincorporated community of roughly 6,500.

In Mexico, a DEA investigator said he was stunned when he learned CJNG cells were popping up in communities as small as Axton.

"What are they doing way out in the middle of nowhere?" he asked his team.

Hearing more details, the investigator, who asked not to be identified to protect his work, acknowledged to The Courier Journal: "It’s a great strategy."

CJNG members have followed relatives or friends who left Mexico for the U.S. to find jobs. The cartel exploits its connections with otherwise hard-working immigrants, said Dan Dodds, who leads DEA operations in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.

And court records detail how the cartel lures those who need money to serve as drug or cash couriers or money launderers.

For example, a Lexington waitress seeking cash to pay for dental assistant courses ended up making bank deposits that she didn’t know were for CJNG, according to court transcripts.

She got her older sister, a struggling single mom, involved to make quick money.

Both are now in prison for money laundering, and her sister, who has two children living in Kentucky, faces deportation.

In cases in which immigrants resist the cartel's offer, CJNG members often threatened violence — to them or their loved ones back in Mexico, according to court cases and law enforcement officials.

Sheriff's investigators say a Paducah, Kentucky, business owner who fell behind on a drug debt was warned last year by the cartel: "If we don’t get our money, we’re gonna kill you and your family.”

The cartel's expansion into smaller, unexpected communities began to mushroom about five years ago as U.S. intelligence analysts tracked its movements far beyond border towns and major hubs.

Smaller towns. Smaller police forces. More unchecked opportunities.

"Big cities have big police departments and DEA, FBI and (Homeland Security Investigations) and an ability to look at intelligence and focus on their cells and contacts,” said the DEA's Donahue.

"But it’s a little different when you go to Boise, Idaho, and other small towns where they don’t have the resources to really focus on an international cartel."

Americans who may not know of CJNG today should take note, Dodds said.

"I promise, you will hear more about El Mencho."

The Courier Journal's investigation into CJNG's surge comes during a recent wave of significant violence among warring drug cartels in Mexico.

In mid-October, 13 Mexican police officers were killed in an ambush in El Mencho's home state of Michoacán in western Mexico. Attackers in armored vehicles opened fire with high-caliber weapons, gunning down officers driving five SUVs.

CJNG took credit on social media for the massacre.

In a Nov. 5 tweet, after nine people — including six children — with dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship were killed by cartels (though different ones than CJNG), President Donald Trump vowed to assist Mexican officials "in cleaning out these monsters."

"The cartels have become so large and powerful that you sometimes need an army to defeat an army!"

But Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declined Trump's offer for U.S. troops, saying his country doesn't need help.

Critics say the Mexican president, known as AMLO, seems more concerned about using federal troops to keep South American immigrants out of his country than challenging the cartels.

The cartels, including CJNG, are feeling empowered because of the rampant violence in Mexico, said Paul Craine, a retired DEA supervisor who oversaw the U.S. hunt for El Chapo.

"That’s why these guys are flourishing.”

A high-ranking state official in Jalisco said Americans are too quick to blame Mexico for the U.S. drug crisis.

“We have all had a drug consumption problem," said the official, who asked not to be identified for his protection. "A very big, increasing problem.

"Your weapons laws (in the U.S.) are too weak," with American guns often ending up in the hands of cartel members in Mexico, he said.

"We have a problem of corruption. So instead of blaming, we should look for solutions.”

In America, Hispanic workers find themselves looked at with suspicion because of political rhetoric that brands the drug trade and immigration as one and the same, say advocates for those workers.

Immigrants, some fleeing criminal violence themselves, can be victimized by cartels on both sides of the border and unfairly targeted by U.S. political rhetoric or perceptions stoked by cartel crime.

"Our community is paying a steep price," said Carlos Guevara, a senior policy adviser for UnidosUS, America’s largest Latino civil rights organization.

For 53-year-old El Mencho, success did not come early. He dropped out of sixth grade to help his family pick avocados.

The teenager sneaked into the U.S. and tried to build a customer base as a street-level dealer. But he kept getting caught.

As a young adult, he and his older brother, Abraham Oseguera Cervantes, sold heroin to two undercover police officers at a San Francisco bar in 1992 and were sent to federal prison on drug trafficking charges.

El Mencho was deported in 1997 and then traveled to Tijuana. There, he built a thriving drug trafficking business, but the city's dominant cartel ordered him to leave when leaders became threatened by his success.

He briefly worked as a police officer in Tomatlán, a small town in Jalisco, learning the inner workings of law enforcement, said DEA Special Agent Kyle Mori, who is heading the U.S. criminal investigation against El Mencho from Los Angeles.

El Mencho eventually joined the Milenio Cartel, gaining a reputation as a cunning sicario, or hitman, and then a boss of hitmen in Guadalajara, Jalisco's capital city.

Passed over for promotion, El Mencho teamed with his in-laws who ran an affiliated cartel and forged his own criminal organization in early 2011 — CJNG.

He quickly amassed a private army, with CJNG members recruiting or kidnapping hundreds of men in their 20s and boys as young as 12. The DEA's Donahue said many were taken to remote paramilitary camps where they were trained as assassins.

Those who tried to run were tortured, killed and sometimes cannibalized by fellow recruits in what U.S. federal agents describe as a disturbing rite of passage.

His followers have spread to nearly all of Mexico's 32 states, including the cities of Guadalajara and Tijuana, both crucial to moving drugs into the U.S.

From there, El Mencho's empire went global, with a steady — and growing — customer base in the U.S., as well as in Australia, Europe and Japan.

In 2015, El Mencho flexed that power to strike back at law enforcement who tried to stop him.

Tipped off that a police caravan was on its way to grab El Mencho, CJNG hitmen hid along the route in April 2015 and ambushed four police vehicles. Cartel members fired hundreds of rounds and hurled grenades and jugs of gasoline.

Fifteen officers died.

A month later, Mexican authorities learned of El Mencho’s new hiding spot and organized a secret mission to capture him.

Federal police officer Ivan Morales, his partner and soldiers with the Mexican national defense climbed aboard helicopters and headed toward a CJNG compound in the Jalisco mountains.

As they hovered over a cartel convoy, CJNG members fired Russian-made rocket-propelled grenade launchers, shooting down Morales’ helicopter into a cluster of trees.

Eight soldiers and Morales’ partner died. Flames left Morales disabled and disfigured.

"I thought I was going to die," he said.

Just hours after the crash, the cartel carried out coordinated attacks in 39 cities, blowing up banks, gas stations and setting cars and semis on fire on major highways to slow down police reinforcements.

"When they shot the helicopter out of the sky is when everyone respected CJNG as a powerhouse cartel and a rival of Sinaloa," Donahue said.

The violence of 2015 was a wake-up call, said Terry Cole, a former New York City police officer who oversees DEA agents in Guadalajara as the assistant regional director for North and Central America.

"That's the type of terrorists we’re dealing with here."

Through corruption and intimidation, CJNG has thrived, even as it found additional ways to make money.

The cartel has run brothels in Mexico, often using teens and women forced into CJNG's web.

It also operated a tequila label, casinos, two shopping centers, a medical clinic, real estate companies and a Pacific Ocean resort frequented by Americans, according to U.S. Treasury Department records.

Adults and children are forced to work in CJNG's crude meth super labs — vats on patches of dirt hidden in the jungle. Entire families who resist have been slaughtered, Donahue said.

The cartel also recruits spies in the Mexican government and police to keep its leaders out of jail and avoid drug busts. Those who refuse bribes are threatened or killed.

A veteran Jalisco police officer, who asked not to be identified for his safety, said CJNG has officials on its payroll at the local, state and federal levels. The information leaks make catching El Mencho extremely difficult, he said.

He shares intel with the DEA, but not his own people.

"If you provide information to the Mexican government, it’s probably the last thing you would say."

CJNG's plan to move into small-town America and cash in on the country's addiction crisis played out in Lexington, Kentucky.

There, amid the lush pastures and white rail fences, a Mexican immigrant with a sinister secret quietly groomed prized thoroughbreds at historic Calumet Farm, according to court records.

Ciro Macias Martinez was praised by his supervisor and fellow farmhands alike for his punctuality, work ethic and soothing manner with horses at the breeding and training farm in the heart of Kentucky.

But when the day’s chores were done, Macias didn't socialize with others over drinks or dinner.

At night, from 2015 through April 2017, Macias directed the flow of $30 million worth of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, crystal meth and fentanyl from Mexico to Kentucky's two largest cities: Lexington and Louisville.

During that time, overdoses sent more victims to Kentucky's morgues than bullets and car crashes combined — with the commonwealth suffering the fifth-highest overdose death rate in the nation.

Agents say Macias didn't involve Calumet in his drug crimes. His boss, Eddie Kane, Calumet's general manager, declined repeated requests for comment.

Macias' associate, Imanol Pineda Penaloza, headed a cell in Louisville while running his drug business through his used tire shop, Los 3 Hermanos.

Macias found success following the cartel's three-pronged business model:

Selling drugs in bulk to local traffickers, who then sold to area dealers.

Paying semitruck drivers to haul hidden caches of drugs into the U.S. and return cash to Mexico.

Using others to deposit drug profits in cartel-controlled bank accounts.

Macias recruited Brizeida Janett Sosa, the mother of his youngest child, to help organize the money laundering scheme, court records would later show.

She recruited helpers, too, and they frequently made deposits of less than $10,000 — amounts small enough to dodge federal reporting requirements — at bank branches in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, as well as Greensboro and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

In eight months, Sosa’s crew laundered about $1 million for CJNG, stacking drugs and cash behind a wall of their trailer.

Ciro Macias Martinez (left) led a dual life, working hard in the daytime as a groomer at famed Calumet Farm, home to Triple Crown and Derby winners. At night, prosecutors say he served as CJNG's Kentucky cartel boss. He's now in prison.

To help Macias smuggle drugs into the U.S., cartel leaders used a Toyota Camry with a secret compartment on the armrest that opened through a sequence of steps: Turn on the heater. Close the air vents. Pull up the seat.

It could hide 9 kilos of drugs and a pile of cash.

Betrayal led to the drug ring's collapse.

Someone aware of the Lexington-Louisville operation talked to a DEA agent in 2016, who, in turn, flagged investigators in Kentucky.

On April 13, 2017, federal agents arrested Macias on his way to Calumet Farm. They seized more than $1 million in drug money his couriers were hauling to Mexico.

Macias and Sosa were convicted of meth trafficking and money laundering and are serving 31 and 15 years, respectively, in federal prison.

Eleven months after the Lexington raid, a SWAT team crept in the darkness and blasted off the front door of the tire shop owner's house in Louisville.

Pineda Penaloza and his crew were convicted of drug trafficking and are now in federal prison.

"The threat of Mexican cartel violence and the drugs they bring into our nation can’t be overstated," said Russell Coleman, the top federal prosecutor for the Western District of Kentucky. His office has prosecuted Sinaloa and CJNG members.

Yet, no sooner had authorities busted Kentucky's CJNG ring than the cartel replaced Macias, sending in another team. It hauled in more than 3 kilos of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid so potent that an amount as small as Abraham Lincoln's cheek on a penny can be fatal.

CJNG wasn't the only cartel in the Bluegrass State in 2017, but authorities say it was the main supplier of fentanyl — when Louisville's Adam Cooley, who sought heroin, snorted 20 times a lethal dose.

CJNG's Kentucky strategy has been repeated in town after town across America, in places better known for cheese, cows and corn.

Pointing to more than 70,000 Americans who overdosed and died in 2017, Coleman said, “We’re fighting a war for our families, and (the cartels) are winning.”

That fight has been waged across America over the past seven years, federal court records show:

In Hickory, North Carolina: CJNG used local drug dealers to move meth into the poor, addicted mountain region. One couple created their own small "redneck drug dealing" ring before law enforcement shut it down.

In Axton, Virginia: Investigators uncovered a hidden hub of stash houses run by alleged CJNG members, part of a drug trafficking web in Virginia that stretched to other mid-Atlantic states.

In Omaha, Nebraska: Cartel members bought cars with drug profits and sent them back to Mexico for resale, another way to launder the cartel's wealth. The FBI broke up the ring in a case that is still active.

In Gulfport, Mississippi: A state trooper working with a DEA task force nearly brought down El Mencho after tracking messages the cartel boss' girlfriend texted to him at his Mexican hideout. He sent her $1 million worth of meth.

CJNG is also using a mix of street gangs and white-collar businessmen to move the drugs and hide the money.

In Illinois, the cartel teamed with Vice Lords gang members to grow a drug network that stretched from Southern California through the Midwest and into Nashville and Paducah, Kentucky — known for its riverwalk murals and the National Quilt Museum.

After agents toppled the drug ring, the cartel turned on the gang. Chicago prosecutors allege in court filings that Luis Alderete was a “high-level cartel operative” who shopped for a hitman on Facebook to “take care” of a gang member in Cairo, Illinois, to silence him.

Alderete also is accused of asking a criminal informant in Paducah for assault rifles and a grenade launcher to supply a cartel "war" in Mexico, said Jesse Riddle, the Narcotics Unit captain with the McCracken County Sheriff’s Office in Paducah.

Alderete was indicted in September 2019 in Chicago on charges of trafficking more than a kilo of heroin and at least 400 grams of fentanyl from May to June of this year.

While Luis Alderete maintains his innocence, court records show that his brother, Roberto Alderete, identified Luis as a cartel lieutenant. Roberto is awaiting sentencing in Paducah in August for trafficking meth while armed with a gun.

Further details Roberto Alderete revealed about CJNG remain hidden in sealed documents.

CJNG also has enlisted white-collar expertise.

In an international operation that stretches back to 2011 dubbed "King's Gold," Homeland Security investigators in Chicago uncovered a money laundering organization that funneled more than $101 million to CJNG and another cartel.

Court documents outlined how it worked:

Two masterminds now in prison orchestrated the scheme from Guadalajara: Carlos Parra Pedroza, alias “Walt Disney,” who owned a jewelry store; and Diego Pineda Sanchez, an accountant.

CJNG members or associates would sell drugs to traffickers in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, California, Texas, Kentucky, Illinois and North Carolina.

Dozens of couriers throughout the U.S. would then collect the drug profits and use the dirty money to buy scrap and fine gold.

Businesses in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Los Angeles would buy the gold and then send the payments through wire transfers to Mexico — including to Parra Pedroza's precious metals business.

Prosecutors say Parra Pedroza and Pineda Sanchez would keep a percentage, with the rest going to cartel members in Mexico.

Parra Pedroza and Pineda Sanchez received 13 and 15 years, respectively, in prison after both pleaded guilty to money laundering.

Pineda Sanchez's attorney, Lawrence Beaumont, disputed his client's involvement.

"He was very minutely involved. He was not a millionaire," Beaumont said. "If he was, I didn’t charge him enough."

To build their lucrative drug networks in the U.S., CJNG bosses mandated discretion to dodge police attention. In America, El Mencho expects cartel members and associates to avoid violence, hide wealth and disguise their CJNG affiliations, agents say.

But some CJNG bosses didn’t follow those rules.

Members of a cartel cell in Kansas City, with drug houses in both Kansas and Missouri between 2013 and 2016, splurged on $10,000 tickets to rapper Pitbull’s concert and a Louis Vuitton purse.

And, in a 2019 case pending in federal court, an accused cartel lieutenant connected to Chicago drug trafficking settled into a $2 million Nashville condo.

Other bosses used threats of violence in the U.S., despite El Mencho's warnings against it.

In a Chicago money-laundering case, a Guadalajara businessman working with CJNG urged an informant to settle his drug debt quickly, describing how cartel members settled another man’s debt: "They chopped off his fingers."

And federal prosecutors alleged in court that convicted drug trafficker Jesus Enrique Palomera, the leader of a cartel cell in Tacoma, Washington, ordered the kidnapping and murder of a man whose fingers and toes were chopped off — a common method of torture in Mexico.

During a brief telephone call from prison in August 2019, Palomera said he is a family man who never harmed anyone.

"I know I’m not that person," he said, refusing to elaborate. "My family knows I’m not that person. I don't really care what the prosecutor says.”

Alarmed by CJNG's surging violence in Mexico and continued expansion across this country, U.S. officials have pushed back.

Beginning in 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department designated El Mencho a "kingpin," along with his brother-in-law, Abigail González Valencia, leader of the Los Cuinis cartel.

That designation allowed the department to levy sanctions against Mexican businesses linked to the cartels, including a sushi restaurant, a tequila business, shopping centers, a medical clinic, two newspapers and famed Hotelito Desconocido, visited by Hollywood stars.

The strategy: Make it illegal for any U.S. citizen or company to spend money at a cartel-affiliated business. It also forbids any U.S. bank to approve loans or credit card transactions for those CJNG-backed enterprises.

While some moves targeted the cartel’s finances, others were more personal.

In June 2015, the Mexican military arrested El Mencho’s son and second-in-command, Rubén Oseguera Gonzáles. Unlike his reclusive father, the 25-year-old lived in a luxury high-rise apartment in downtown Guadalajara and often stepped out in designer clothes to eat in fancy restaurants.

When authorities arrested him, they found two assault rifles, one inscribed with "Menchito" — little Mencho — and another engraved with "CJNG 02 JR."

American authorities are still seeking his extradition to the U.S. to face drug charges.

Mexican marines almost captured El Mencho in October 2018. They stormed a hideout west of Guadalajara, but the cartel leader climbed into a vehicle and was rushed to safety.

After his escape, the U.S. took its manhunt public.

On Oct. 16, 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, standing next to a large "Wanted" poster of El Mencho, announced a $10 million reward for his capture and unveiled detailed indictments against him and CJNG.

Treasury Department officials stood with Sessions and announced more sanctions on businesses linked to CJNG and its affiliate, Los Cuinis. More than 60 were targeted, including a biotech consulting company, a bakery and hillside vacation cabins.

"We consider this cartel to be one of the five most dangerous transnational criminal organizations on the face of the Earth, and it is doing unimaginable damage to the people of this nation," Sessions said.

Officials in Attorney General William Barr's office declined to comment on The Courier Journal's findings.

On the run and out of sight, El Mencho is described by some veteran agents as a ghost. From the shadows, he continues to lead CJNG with ruthless authority.

U.S. drug agents believe he's in western Mexico, hiding in remote jungles or mountains of Jalisco, Colima or Michoácan.

"All intelligence indicates he’s still there, moving regularly," said Craine, the retired DEA supervisor who led the successful hunt for El Chapo.

Even if U.S. and Mexican investigators can track El Mencho's location, capturing him won't be easy.

Agents say he typically travels in a convoy, surrounding himself with dozens of well-trained mercenaries armed with military-grade weapons that can tear through tanks, even aircraft.

"It's gonna be hard to catch him slippin'," said Mori, the DEA agent overseeing the U.S. criminal investigation against El Mencho.

"He doesn't make a lot of mistakes."

Moreover, the U.S. lacks the authority to make arrests in foreign countries, said Evans, a senior DEA official.

"If an agent saw him, we couldn’t say, 'Hey, we’re gonna grab El Mencho right now, take him and put him into custody.' We're guests in their country.”

But DEA agents across the border are sharing intelligence and working with their Mexican counterparts to devise ways to dismantle CJNG and arrest its leaders.

They’re also working to train Mexican police to improve the country's “solve rate” for kidnappings and murders, which is less than 5%. Many are committed by cartels.

Throughout Mexico, more than 40,000 children and adults remain missing. Ransom-seekers and other cartels are responsible for many of those disappearances, with CJNG to blame for thousands, DEA agents say.

The U.S government has crippled dozens of businesses that supported CJNG and sent El Mencho’s son and chief financial backer to prison, along with members of his inner circle.

Still, El Mencho’s empire is growing.

"It was almost unbelievable, the things we were hearing, the amount of drugs," said Benjamin Taylor, who oversees investigations for Homeland Security in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Even after El Mencho's girlfriend went to prison, the cartel quickly returned to the Gulf Coast with more loads of drugs.

Make no mistake, Taylor said. CJNG is "among us."

"That’s kind of hard to believe, but it’s true."

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