EL 85: Doing what drug lords do best

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 Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat  from OZY

Narcocorridos, the Mexican
ballads about drug trafficking and its attendant violence, have succeeded in
making manifest an unshakable reality. The bloody day-to-day of drug crime is
not what really gets criminals out of bed in the morning. The inevitable
cinematic glamour masks the motivating principle behind drug lording and that,
as Nelly once suggested, “must be the money.”

When Zhenli Ye Gon, a
Chinese-Mexican associate of fugitive drug lord Érick Valencia Salazar, or El
85 as he’s known for reasons unknown, was raided back in 2007, authorities
found $205 million in cash in Zhenli’s home. Just laying around.

Ye Gon extradited from U.S. back to Mexico

So when the U.S. government
offers, in total lowball fashion, first $5 million and then $10 million for the
capture of El 85 — who didn’t so much escape as he was released from Puente
Grande prison when a judge determined that his due process had been violated
and there wasn’t not sufficient evidence against him — it’s pretty clear: The
U.S. either has no real interest in catching El 85 or it’s horribly misguided
about what it will take to capture him. Even though the average annual salary
in Mexico is $28,316, a reward of $10 million is not nearly enough unless
someone has figured out how to spend money when they’re dead.

The either 37- or 43-year-old El
85 — his age is a subject of dispute — has ascended in a cartel life fueled by
the old standby cocaine as well as the new trade in drug precursors like
ephedrine and synthetics like fentanyl. Ephedrine, as fans of Breaking Bad know
well, is a precursor to crystal meth.

While figures on what’s being
produced are sketchy, if what U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are
catching is any indication — 59 tons of meth so far in 2020, 1.5 times higher
than the amount seized in 2019 — there’s money in them there hills. Money that
El 85 chose to not walk away from.

From leading the Milenio cartel
first and then an offshoot, Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG), and then CJNG
splinter Nueva Plaza, El 85 has a steady record of “achievement.” He handled
the shipment of raw product from Colombia and China into Mexico and then the
shipment of repackaged or manufactured product out of Mexico and into the U.S.

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound kingpin
did all this while battling not only rival gangs like La Resistencia or Los
Zetas but also the Mexican army, which under President Andrés Manuel López
Obrador has been taking a more aggressive public stance on drug interdiction
and trying to drive down cartel-related violence.

“There’s a lot of
hyperfragmentation in the government’s response to criminal institutions,” says
Falko Ernst, senior analyst for Mexico at the International Crisis Group in
Mexico City, “which makes it unlikely to slow the slide into a perpetual state
of armed conflict.”

Since no group can function well
without the tacit involvement of local populations, CJNG is attempting to win
over ordinary citizens. “The group has continued such outwardly ‘altruistic’
actions in strategic areas during the coronavirus pandemic,” reported InSight
Crime about CJNG’s toy distribution to kids in communities in Veracruz in June.
The cartel, which is battling Los Zetas splinter groups in the eastern state,
has launched a charm offensive. And its mission to win hearts and minds is not
only taking place in Veracruz but throughout Mexico. Among CJNG’s other
charitable actions: the delivery of boxes of goods. Granted, they’re not luxury
goods, but still, Robin Hood would be proud.

Such actions don’t conceal the
daily non-charm offensive of El 85’s group: the homicides, kidnappings and
disappearances, with mass graves recently discovered in Jalisco. The CJNG is
responsible for the murders of local and federal police officers. At its most
gloriously excessive, the cartel used grenade launchers to shoot down military
helicopters. This past June it was widely held that CJNG was behind the
attempted assassination of Mexico City’s public security secretary, Omar García
Harfuch, and the murder of a Colima judge and his wife.


“There’s no disincentive to the
violence and crime,” says Cassius Wilkinson, a security analyst at the Emerging
Markets Political Risk Analysis group in Mexico. “The judiciary is weak, and so
the risks are low.”

So, realistically speaking, no
one is looking very hard for El 85? “The list of reasons for why they would
comes from the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration],” Wilkinson says. But what
doesn’t come from the DEA — which did not respond to our questions about
ponying up more reward cash — is the low-end estimate of how much money the DEA
is up against. That, says Wilkinson, is billions.

And that money is “not just from
narcotrafficking either,” he continues, “but [also] from fuel theft, extortion,
local drug dealing and money laundering. Mexico is not freezing or seizing

So $10 million reward or not, El
85 is more than likely less concerned about the DEA and much more concerned
about what got him arrested in the first place: fake friends. Though
unconfirmed, it is widely believed that El 85 was tossed to the wolves by a business
associate. Possibly, in true no-honor-among-thieves fashion, El Mencho.

This would largely account for
the fracturing that has affected CJNG and guaranteed its remaining behind the
Sinaloa cartel of El Chapo fame. Dissident factions are formed by progressively
smaller groups of people who trust each other even less, not more. Billions of
dollars can do that to an organization.

“No matter what Netflix and
Hollywood would have you believe,” concludes Ernst, “it’s hard to keep things
together given the stress, psychological stability issues and just pure
ambition. The Jalisco cartel [CJNG] has been trying for 10 years and still
can’t maintain organizational coherence.” In 2006, there were six large
criminal groupings in Mexico, according to Ernst. In 2020, there are an
estimated 198.

It’s a fact that makes it much
easier for El 85 to get lost. And much easier to make enemies


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