|René Arzate García, high-ranking Sinaloa Cartel member in Baja California
Baja California drug dealers and assassins working for “El Pantera” and the Ensenada-based criminal cell Los Venados are in-charge of drug trafficking activities for the Sinaloa Cartel under René Arzate García. They have been threatening and murdering anti-drug agents in Ensenada.
They were the same ones who killed drug investigator Hiram Rivera Lizárraga in April 28. On May 15, cartel members tried to kill anti-drug chief Vicente Huerta, but he was alerted beforehand and was able to escape unharmed. A week later, on May 22, agent Manuel Avendaño Rojas was killed. He was a coordinator for the Ensenada anti-drug department. State investigators said that public officials knew Avendaño Rojas had faced death threats from cartel members but they did not protect him.
Authorities are clear about one thing: Jesús Salvador Villavicencio Meza AKA “El Venado” and / or “El Rayder”, his brothers Germán and César Ulises, along with Leopoldo Lizárraga Ochoa AKA “El Polo” or “El Pantera”, all criminal operators of the Sinaloa Cartel in René Arzate García’s cell. They are behind the murders and attacks against elements of the Drug Enforcement Unit of the State Attorney General’s Office (FGE) in Ensenada.
Background: Events prior to Manuel Avendano Rojas murder
The death threats made by Los Venados began on February 15 in Isla de Cedros, when some members of the state’s anti-drug force were sent there by the Governor Jamie Bonilla Valdez. The agents requested and executed search warrants in the drug locations controlled by the Villavicencio Meza brothers.
In response, criminals announced that they would kill the agents, their families, and burn all their belongings. They started by giving a warning to Rivera Lizárraga, who was stationed temporarily in Isla de Cedros on assignment.
The threatened agents were removed from Isla de Cedros and were given vacation time. But many of them returned to work. Search warrants and property seizures continued in the drug locations owned by the Villavicencio brothers, even after the murder of Rivera Lizárraga on April 28.
The Sinaloa Cartel grew uncomfortable with the anti-drug efforts carried out in Ensenada Municipality zones of Isla de Cedros, Villas del Real, Punta Banda and Acapulco. As a result, agents began receiving death threats to their personal phone numbers.
|Manuel Avendaño Rojas
Ensenada state investigators confirmed that approximately a week before agent Avendaño Rojas was assassinated, the state department agency where he worked began receiving threatening calls from suspected organized crime members. The death threats were communicated to the department’s head, but no action was carried out.
“The coordinator of homicides and anti-drug investigation task-force in Baja California, a man who goes by ‘Pelayo’, kept the information of the death threats to himself and did not share it with the rest of the department,” they explained. Avendaño Rojas was assigned to the anti-drug investigatory task-force, but since 2017 he ceased to be an active agent in investigations. For three years he had been commissioned in the Ensenada penitentiary, where he received and processed the captures made by his colleagues.
Avendaño Rojas had requested his departure from anti-drug investigatory task-force since 2016 without much success. That year, when he had just arrived from Mexicali, he was appointed head of the department when they had just started doing investigations in Ensenada. In a short period of time Avendaño Rojas made several property seizures and arrested drug dealer and Los Venados murderer Arley Aguilar Salgado three times.
Unhappy with the arrests and seizures, Aguilar Salgado denounced Avendaño Rojas before the State Commission for Human Rights and Internal Affairs, but it did not help him because he was still prosecuted for his crimes. Aguilar Salgado and his accomplices threatened him: “You’re going to get fucked.” This death threat was filed in a complaint three years ago.
Avendaño Rojas asked to get relocated but they simply re-purposed him to the Ensenada penitentiary. “He didn’t want any more administrative issues and drug-related problems. He was a low profile agent. Very calm. He was neither lazy or corrupt, despite being in the anti-drug investigatory task-force. On the contrary, he was focused because he had two young children,” one of his coworkers told Zeta reporters.
Six or seven months ago, the agent requested a new assignment. He wanted to re-investigate the drug issue from a different angle: he requested his change to the Care Center for Missing or Absent People.
Murder of Manuel Avendano Rojas
According to what his colleagues, on the morning of May 22, Avendaño Rojas ended his 48 hour shift and left for his mother’s house, where he was staying temporarily.
The facts indicate that the assassins followed him. Avendaño Rojas turned on Riverol and 13th Streets in the downtown zone of Ensenada and got out of the car. The assassins pulled him next to him and shot him. At 8:45 am on that Friday, a call was made to the department where he worked: “At least ten gunshots were heard on Riverol Street.” Upon arrival, the municipal police found the body on the sidewalk. Witnesses reported that the killers arrived and fled the area on a motorcycle.
|Police cordoned a crime scene after the murder of an anti-drug agent
According to the autopsy, the body of the officer, who was lying on the sidewalk in sight of family members, had 27 entry and exit injuries from a firearm. 23 bullet shells were collected at the site. According to the ballistics test result, the weapon used by the aggressors “was clean” and had not been used in other crimes.
Unlike prosecutor Rivera Lizárraga, Avendaño Rojas was not dimissed with honors. His companions were informally invited to accompany the family at 11:30 am on Sunday, May 24 at El Ángel funeral home, where they carried out a protocol roll call.
One agent complained about the protection they receive: “The dog’s (K9) work is worth more than that of a true police officer. Dogs are recognized and dismissed with honors. But a police officer who is killed for doing his work is abandoned and the family is abandoned. Without pension, without medical service, without anything,”, he claimed. The insurance payment that families receive is barely MXN$80,000 (US$3,670).
Huerta’s assassination attempt
On May 15, Ensenada public coordinator Huerta, who was Rivera Lizárraga’s boss, left his offices to go buy food before heading home. On the way, he realized that a car was following him, changing lanes, and attempting to pair up with him. He decided to call for support. Over the phone, his agents told him where to drive to. Huerta drove to a city square.
When reinforcements arrived at the scene, they discovered the vehicle that was chasing him. The driver was not inside. However, they discovered a gun and a document in the name of an Ensenada cartel member linked to the Villavicencio brothers. Later that day, a woman arrived at the scene and tried to recover the car. It turned out to be the girlfriend of a drug dealer from Los Venados.
“They did not commit the crime. But the weapon and all other factors indicate they were trying to kill Huerta”, one investigator said. Huerta was removed from office and relocated from Ensenada. After Avendaño Rojas murder, Zeta news magazine reported that a state police commander arrived in Ensenada and told the local police that they would be conducting more operations against Los Venados. However, he reportedly also told his police force to negotiate with local gangsters: “Find the local plaza bosses and tell them not to heat up the turf so that everyone can work quietly”, he said.
“El Venado” and “El Polo” are identified as heads of the cells allegedly responsible for the death threats and murders of these agents.
Jesús Salvador Villavicencio Meza (“El Venado”) has been detained three times for injury, attempted murder, drug possession and corruption. On all occasions he was released. Leopoldo Lizárraga Ochoa (“El Polo”) was captured in Sinaloa for drug possession in 2009 and for robbery in 2012; in 2015 he was arrested for theft in Ensenada.
|Leopoldo Lizárraga Ochoa AKA “El Polo” or “El Pantera”
The wave of violence in Ensenada has left five agents killed in 2020. The first one killed was the municipal agent Juan Francisco Chávez Ibarra on March 9; followed by firefighter Héctor Murillo Dávila on April 13; the commander in the Valle de Guadalupe, Víctor Manuel Ruiz Ponce, on May 2; Hiram Rivera Lizárraga was killed on April 28; and Manuel Avendaño Rojas on May 22.
Murders in Ensenada are also in a record-high. According to National Guard figures, after Tijuana, Ensenada has the highest homicide rate in Baja California with 130 murders; 52 more than those presented in the same period in 2019.