Early one morning in May 2019, a man stumbled naked through a middle-class neighborhood in central Guadalajara before collapsing on a street corner. He bore obvious signs of torture: His body was covered with cuts and blood. When police raided the nondescript house he’d escaped from, they found a horrific scene: nine living kidnap victims and the skulls of seven others.
Nearly two years later, there’s little evidence of the gruesome events that took place at that quaint orange house on Rio Bravo street in an otherwise typical residential neighborhood in central Guadalajara. There’s a small sign saying Clausurado (“Closed”), a padlock secures the front gate, and a weathered flyer for a nearby sushi restaurant hangs off the door.
A neighbor, who declined to give their name, told VICE World News that they’d never heard screams or smelled odd odors, but they’d occasionally heard the sound of “a mechanical drill, like they were preparing something,” coming from the inside of the house. They were never quite sure who was living there, “like, all the time someone would go inside, and afterwards, other people would come and then some would go, and only at night.”
Only when the police came and quarantined the area, and as forensics vehicles lined the street, did the neighbor begin to hear the grisly details of what was an extermination house. The victims described how they were kidnapped and constantly tortured, then one by one others would be brought to a back room and strangled to death. Their bodies were then dismembered and disposed of at separate sites.
In the two weeks following, authorities found two clandestine graves connected to the house, one containing 25 corpses in the municipality of Tlajomulco de Zuñiga, and another with 30 bodies in the El Campanario neighborhood of the Zapopan municipality, which at that point was the largest grave in Jalisco history.
But it wouldn’t hold that record for long. The discovery of the Rio Bravo house broke a dreadful levy, and a flood of similar kill houses and mass graves began to appear across the city.
Isabel Velarde drank an iced frappuccino in a coffee shop, wistfully recalling her teenage years in the early ’80s, when she’d stay out late with her friends in her hometown of Guadalajara, the state capital of Jalisco and one of Mexico’s most populous cities. Back then, she and her friends had little fear of the renowned drug traffickers based there, known as the Guadalajara Cartel, because “they had codes.”
“No one bothered us. It was the opposite: They protected us,” said Velarde.
The oft-mythologized story of the Guadalajara Cartel was most recently featured on the Netflix series Narcos Mexico, which details how the demise of what’s broadly considered the country’s first modern drug cartel spawned numerous infamous and brutal kingpins, like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Amado Carrillo Fuentes, known as the Lord of the Skies.
But even after the eponymous cartel fragmented around 1990, the city of Guadalajara remained a relatively safe haven for narcos to live and raise their families, and especially to launder money. The influx of cash helped Guadalajara become Mexico’s second city and an economic and cultural hub, like the Chicago to Mexico City’s New York/Washington/LA hybrid.
The Guadalajara Cartel is history now, and a new cartel has taken on the state’s name: the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known by its Spanish acronym CJNG. The rise of the CJNG over the past decade ties directly to the downward spiral of Guadalajara and the rest of the state into violent disorder. Since December 2018, Jalisco has registered more disappearances than any other Mexican state, accounting for more than 20 percent of all cases in Mexico.
“The government doesn’t have order. There’s no longer a rule of law,” said Velarde, visibly upset. “It’s a narco-state.”
Her son Germán disappeared in 2017, and after that she spent nights hiding under parked cars on the streets of Guadalajara investigating people she suspected of being involved. Nearly four years later, her son’s case remains unsolved, one of the 80,000 reported disappearances in Mexico since 2006.
“I’ve spoken with Jalisco government officials, detectives… They tell us that there have always been disappearances, there have always been murders. Yeah, maybe, but not at this magnitude,” said Velarde.
Days after Velarde reminisced about the good old days in Guadalajara, gunmen attempted to kidnap a man in an upper-class area in the same part of town where she’d enjoyed her frappuccino. A shootout erupted in broad daylight on February 8 between law enforcement and two rival groups, ending with at least one dead and three wounded. Later that same week, 18 garbage bags filled with hacked-up body parts were discovered a short drive away.
As drug money poured into the city to be laundered throughout the ’90s and 2000s, Guadalajara became an even more prominent economic hub and cultural epicenter. It also came to serve as a home base of sorts for a man named Ignacio Coronel, known as the Crystal King. Coronel had become one of the principal producers and traffickers of methamphetamine and worked closely with the Sinaloa Cartel.
A U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008 released in a WikiLeaks dump a couple of years later, called “Chemical City: Guadalajara, Jalisco, and the Meth Trade,” goes into depth about the crucial role the city and state played in the production of methamphetamine under Coronel’s reign.
“Ending Guadalajara’s status as Mexico’s drug chemical capital will require a sustained long-term effort,” the American authors of the cable wrote.
“It’s getting worse. It’s the same as we had with other governments,” said a detective who has worked in the prosecutor’s office over two dozen years in various areas from homicides to disappearances.
All three law enforcement officials interviewed by VICE World News, who do not know the involvement or identities of each other, estimated that roughly around a third of the local authorities had been corrupted, from low-level cops to higher-ups in the prosecutor’s office.
“Sometimes when you’ve gotten some intel about cartels, some people involved in drug trafficking, they stop you. They don’t want you to investigate,” said the longtime detective.
They told a story about how recently they had arrested an armed man who admitted to being a member of a rival cartel of the CJNG and took him to jail.
“My superiors, instead of saying to me, ‘Congratulations, you got this fucking asshole,’ they were mad at me because I did my job and I did it right,” said the detective.
Inside the prosecutor’s office, there’s a constant fear of both organized crime and their fellow officers. The detective mentioned the December 2020 murder of two members of the Guadalajara prosecutor’s office but didn’t “want to pay too much attention.”
“It’s not my business. It’s dangerous for me,” said the detective. “If I start to ask around about [the recently murdered officers], they’ll probably think that I have something to do with the contras.”
The contras, or enemies, is an ominous thought, since it’s never known who is an enemy of who. Maybe the officers were mixed up with the mob, or maybe they were investigating it.
“It will never be solved,” said the detective. The murders of public officials—much like most murders in Mexico—hardly ever are.
On June 22, 2019, simultaneous coordinated attacks took place on members of the prosecutor’s office in various spots around the city, leaving two dead and others injured. Later it was discovered there had been a hit list with a number of detectives’ names on it. The next month, the top prosecutor in the nearby municipality of Poncitlan was murdered. At least 75 police have been killed in Jalisco since 2018. The majority of their murders remain unsolved.
“There’s a lot of people that get killed by the mafia and [the authorities] don’t put too much money and too much energy into investigating,” said the detective. “We’re just numbers in the prosecutor’s office. If something happens to us, they won’t do anything.”
The detective understood why citizens no longer had faith in the Jalisco authorities.
“It’s too sad. I’m very disappointed in the government because they don’t give you the tools to really and truly fight against the cartels.”