“HEARST”, “Enojon”, and “Socalj” for Borderland Beat

A Cartel Arellano Felix operator named Christian Espinoza Silver, alias “El Chato”, who was affiliated with El Flaquito, was allegedly killed in the US city of San Diego. 

As El Chato was pulling into the parking garage of Palisade apartments, near the Westfield mall, an unknown man approached his vehicle and shot into it, hitting both El Chato and a 39-year-old man in the passenger seat. Chato died from his injuries at a hospital shortly after, while the passenger survived.


The shooter then fled the scene and is still at large. San Diego authorities have stated that the attack is believed to be “targeted”.

Did a rival Mexican drug cartel hire a hitman to carry out the murder of El Chato? Was the hitman from the US or from Mexico?

And did the posts of Chato’s social media influencer girlfriend, Vanessa Gurrola – who has previously dated Chapo’s son Ivan Guzman, lead to his death?

Background Information 

In the Mexican city of Tijuana, one of the prominent drug trafficking cartel groups is led by a man named Pablo Edwin Huerta Nuño, alias “El Flaquito”.

Flaquito’s group is affiliated with the Cartel Arellano Felix (CAF), which no longer exists as a large, monolithic entity, but has instead fractured into subgroups, each with their own unique set of alliances and rivalries.


One of the cartel members who reports under El Flaquito directly is a man named Héctor Manuel Gil García, who goes by the criminal aliases of “El Kado”, “El Kadito”, and “El Ka2ador”.

El Kado has been arrested in Tijuana before. In 2009, he was arrested for vehicle theft and in 2016, he was arrested for firearm possession and drug smuggling.

Kado’s statement to law enforcement was given early in Flaquito’s criminal career and it likely drerw law enforcement attention to Flaquito for the first time. 

Flaquito would go on become a major cartel leader in Tijuana and he developed a business arrangement with Sinaloa Cartel’s los Chapitos, the sons of El Chapo, through a man who worked under the Chapitos named Nestor Isidro Perez Salas, alias “El Nini”.

Even though El Kado gave up information to police, he and his loyalists were seemingly accepted back into Flaquito’s cartel group by at least the year 2019

El Kado is believed to have a number of men working under him, including a secretario – a term which refers to a person who handles the personal accounts and properties of a cartel leader. 

Kado’s secretario is a man named Christian Espinoza Silver, alias “El Chato”.

Over the last couple of years, El Kado has been quite active and he’s been attached to a number of bold moves made by Flaquito’s group. 


A local Facebook group alleged that in January 2020, El Flaquito, El Kado and El Chato unsuccessfully attempted to rescue Flaquito’s brother-in-law Jose Luis Escudero Escandon, alias “El Quieto”, from custody.

Flaquito and his cartel group continued to grow in power and developed a strong rivalry with another prominent drug trafficking group operating in Tijuana: the Arzate Garcia brothers. 

The brothers are Rene Arzate Garcia, alias “La Rana”, and Alfonso Arzate Garcia, alias “El Aquiles”. They work under the Sinaloa Cartel – Mayo faction. 

Despite Flaquito and the Arzate Garcia brothers both being affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel, they fall under different factions within the cartel, with Flaquito being associated with the Chapitos side, while the Arzates are associated with the Mayo side. Cartel members who work under different factions will fight against each other bitterly, no differently than they would fight against members of a rival cartel group. 


The Recent Criminal Activity of Flaquito, Kado & Chato

Over time, Flaquito’s group has gained a reputation for stealing the drug shipments of rival cartel groups. They are thought to often work alongside corrupted government personnel, such as National Guard soldiers who receive weekly bribes, during these thefts. 

In April 2023, Flaquito and his men reportedly orchestrated a fake raid with National Guard soldiers, stealing a drug shipment from the Mexicali Valley which belonged to another cartel leader.

This earned the group a considerable amount of heat, which is a term for pressure and attention from law enforcement and rival cartel groups. Narco banners began appearing in Tijuana which called out Flaquito for the theft and threatened the members of Flaquito’s group. 

In July 2023, El Kado, using his alternate alias of “Ka2ador”, signed a narco banner left in Ensensada which threatened men who work under El Aquiles, like Jesús Rafael Yocupicio, alias “El Cabezón” and Franklin Ernesto Huezo Hernández, alias “El Ranchero”.


In September 2023, a dead body and a narco message signed by the Sinaloa Cartel (CDS) was left in Tecate, a Mexican city near Tijuana.

In the message, El Kado was named and threatened alongside another Flaquito subordinate – a man named James Brayan [sometimes spelled Bryan, Bryant, or Brian] Corona, alias “El Apache”. 


El Apache is a US-born man who leads a group of cartel members operating in various cities in Baja California, like Tijuana and Tecate. Apache has been working under Flaquito for about two years now, a shorter time than others, but he’s quickly become one of the most well-known subordinates of Flaquito.

On November 17, 2023, Flaquito and his men reportedly orchestrated a fake seizure of a drug shipment that belonged to El Aquiles, coordinating with a number of police officers, National Guard soldiers, and investigators from the state Attorney General’s Office. The drugs seized were never entered into evidence and were conveniently lost. 

Evidence of local law enforcement personnel colluding with El Flaquito in carrying out this fake seizure has been detailed by city’s primary newspaper Zeta Tijuana, in stories like this.

An important conduit who helps Flaquito coordinate with corrupt law enforcement is a man known only by the alias “El Federal”, who has yet to be identified. More information on him is detailed in the aforementioned Zeta Tijuana article.

This theft of a drug shipment earned Flaquito and his men even more heat, with banners naming and threatening his group appearing in the streets of Tijuana again.

That same month, El Nini – Flaquito’s primary connection with los Chapitos – was arrested. It is widely believed that the Chapitos brothers handed over information on Nini and his location to the government, as a way of mitigating the law enforcement pressure bearing down on themselves for their prolific fentanyl trafficking.

People began to wonder if Flaquito would continue to work with los Chapitos after the arrest of Nini, since Flaquito and Nini had been friends since the early days of their criminal careers. 

In December 2023, all the heat on Flaquito caught up to him when there was a high-profile attempt to kill El Flaquito in which he was shot and hospitalized, but he somehow survived and escaped the hospital, evading capture despite it being surrounded by law enforcement (more details in this story).

The Murder of the Missing Persons Advocate & Cartel-Run Facebook Groups

The attention and pressure on Flaquito and the men who worked under him, like El Chato, continued to build.

In January 2024, an intelligence official quoted by Zeta said that “All those who are related to the criminal operations of Pablo Edwin Huerta Nuño ‘El Flaquito’, Héctor García ‘El Kado’ or James Brayan Corona ‘El Apache’, have a target on their backs.”

In February 2024, banners were left in Tecate that labeled El Apache and Chato’s boss El Kado as the killers of innocent people. These banners were signed by the Sinaloa Cartel.

The banners claimed that one of their subordinates, a man named Jesús Martínez Delgadillo, alias “El Sonrics”, had killed Angelita Meraz León, a woman who led a local group which advocated for missing persons. 

These types of groups are common across the country, with members trying to bring attention to missing person cases which have been neglected by law enforcement. 

In Mexico, these missing persons cases are often cartel-perpetrated homicides and law enforcement may be regularly receiving bribe money from cartel members, incentivizing them to not really investigate these cases. 

When trying to press law enforcement to do more doesn’t work, members of these missing persons groups will sometimes search remote areas themselves, looking for the body dump sites used by cartel groups. And these groups are regularly successful in finding mass graves, such as this case from July 2023 in Tamaulipas

Because of their work, advocates for missing persons are often targeted by cartel groups, who don’t want the cases looked into further.

The banner also claimed that the Facebook groups “La Raza de la Tia, La Raza de la Tia Apoyo and Tecate sin Lacras” were actually run by CAF and spreading misinformation which tried to portray the “innocent” people that CAF members killed as “bad”.

El Sonrics later responded to this banner and said it was actually the Sinaloa Cartel who had killed Angelita. He further alleged that the Sinaloa Cartel were guilty of “killing the young American in Mil, mistakenly executing them because they had a vehicle similar to the one we use to pay Pinocchio.”

None of this is necessarily uncommon. Often when a person who is considered to be innocent is killed, cartel groups will make public banners claiming that another group killed the person, hoping their claims will lessen the public image of their rival and draw more law enforcement focus to them. It’s rare, however, these banners ever provide actual evidence to support their claims.

Flaquito’s miraculous escape from the hospital and the accusations about the murder of Angelita Meraz only added more pressure on Flaquito, Kado, and all their subordinates, causing most of them to flee the city of Tijuana and finding another location to lay low in for the time being. 


El Chato seemingly traveled to the city of San Diego, hoping to hide out in the US, although its not exactly clear when Chato traveled there.

The Social Media Influencer Girlfriend

While all of this was going on, El Chato was allegedly dating the social media influencer Libia Vanessa Gurrola Peraza, whose name is often shortened to “Vanessa Gurrola”. 

Vanessa is a social media model and she currently has 1 million followers on instagram. 

Her first brush with mainstream fame occurred when she was rumored to be dating Ivan Guzman, one of the Chapito brothers. 

Mexican news articles which said that Vanessa looked similar to El Chapo’s wife, Emma Coronel, began appearing by at least 2018, such as this example from the newspaper El Sol de Mexico

Vanessa later went on to date El Chato. She claims to have been with Chato for seven years, meaning they got together around the year 2017. The couple was reportedly engaged when Chato died.

 

When news of Chato’s death broke, Vanessa began posting old videos and photos that showed her and Chato together on her Instagram stories, as shown in the video below. 

Note that content posted to stories is temporary and disappears after 24 hours. 

It’s unclear if Vanessa ever posted content showing Chato before his death, all we know is there were no main feed posts showing Chato when we checked on February 19, 2024. 

Vanessa may have deleted old posts which showed Chato, or she may have always kept that content private and is only sharing it now that he is dead. 

Regardless, Vanessa’s recent flood of Chato content reveals that he was actually with her at a number of the parties and vacations she’d posted about over the years. This allows us to retroactively track where Chato was and approximately when he was there. See some of the examples below:

Posted October 2019

El Chato and Vanessa went to a Halloween party

Link To Her Instagram Feed Post

Posted January 2021 

El Chato and Vanessa visited Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico 

Link To Her Instagram Feed Post

Posted September 2021

El Chato and Vanessa visited Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico (might be pics from the previous trip)

Link To Her Instagram Feed Post

Posted January 2022 

El Chato and Vanessa visited Disneyland, California 

Link To Her Instagram Feed Post

Posted October 2023

Chato and Vanessa visit Universal Studios, California, USA

Link To Her Instagram Feed Post

Once you can assign an approximate date for Vanessa and Chato’s vacations, they can be inserted in the overall timeline of Chato’s cartel career.

For example, Chato and Vanessa were taking cute-sy photos of themselves taking a bite out of the same donut on a vacation at Universal Studios Hollywood only one month after the Sinaloa Cartel had dumped a dead body in the streets of Tecate as part of the narco message which named and threatened El Chato’s boss. 

Soon after their Universal trip, Chato’s boss was directly involved in organizing the theft of a drug shipment with corrupt Tijuana cops, who were later shot to death in their vehicles by cartel hitmen. 

All the trips to Paris and 5-figure Birkin bags shown in Vanessa’s Instagram seem a bit more sinister when it becomes clear they are financed through bloodshed in the streets of Tijuana. 

It appears that when El Chato fled Tijuana, Vanessa Gurrola either moved with him to (or at the very least, she frequently visited) his place in San Diego. 

In the clip shown above, Chato and her can be seen walking around a downtown area. At one point they walk past a glass window with the words “Hernholm Group”. A quick Google Street View analysis shows that they were walking on West Washington Street in San Diego. 

If Vanessa had been posting content like that when Chato was alive, it could have been used by his enemies to find him but again, we have no idea if she posted things like that before he died or she is only sharing it now that he’s dead.

The San Diego Shooting

On February 17, 2024, a man approached a vehicle as it turned off Nobel Drive in the University City neighborhood of San Diego. 

The vehicle, a BMW X6 SUV, was pulling into the parking garage of Palisades apartments, a building close to the Westfield UTC mall, which is a popular outdoor shopping center. 

El Chato and an unknown 39-year old-man were driving a BMW X6 SUV into the apartment’s garage when a man walked up and began firing, at approximately 8:41 pm.

Both men inside the SUV received multiple gunshot wounds. Apartments nearby were also hit. The shooter fled on foot, heading west, shortly after.

The San Diego Union Tribune states that the shooter was wearing a camouflage jacket, black pants, and a black backpack.

When police officers arrived on scene, the 39-year-old Hispanic man was found wounded near the vehicle and El Chato was lying in the street.

Both men were taken to a hospital nearby. One of the men was filmed by the news channel CBS 8 as he was loaded onto a stretcher and into an ambulance.

At the hospital, El Chato was pronounced dead, while the 39-year-old man survived. According to police Lt. Jud Campbell, the man who survived, was considered to be in stable condition as of Wednesday.

The area was cordoned off by police and evidence was collected from the scene.

Officers initially responded as if it was an active shooter at the mall nearby.

On Sunday, just one day after the shooting, San Diego Police released a statement giving the basic details of the time and place that a shooting occurred, as well as saying they were still working to identify the name of the man killed. They also stated that the shooting appeared to be a targeted attack.


Later that same day at least two social media accounts claimed that El Chato had been the man killed in the shooting. The accounts also uploaded images of Chato’s face unblurred, along with details about how he worked under Flaquito. (More on these two accounts later.)


The Mexican newspaper AFN Tijuana later confirmed this claim in an article, while citing unnamed sources. Their story used a photo of Chato with Vanessa Gurrola partially cropped out but she was not named in the piece. They also added that El Chato was believed to be the son of the cartel figure Raúl Silver Quintana.

It’s interesting to note that the social media accounts and AFN Tijuana didn’t appear to know the real name of El Chato and instead only referred to him by his criminal alias. 

On Tuesday, San Diego’s Police Chief David Nisleit was asked if they had read AFN Tijuana’s claims about the identity of the deceased during a press conference. 

He responded, saying “The only thing I’ll say is I’m aware of that information, as are our investigators, and that’s obviously part of the investigation. But I will not go into the investigation and what we know. It’s way too premature to talk about that at this time.”

The Baja California Attorney General told reporters she was not aware of whether the San Diego shooting involved cartel members from Tijuana but said she would help US officials if they requested information.   

On Thursday, San Diego authorities officially released the real name of El Chato (Christian Espinoza Silver) and confirmed that he was a Mexican citizen, but gave out no further information on him. They declined to name the man who survived the attack.

The Apartment

The location of the shooting leads to some obvious questions. Did Chato rent a unit in Palisades apartments? 

It’s not clear but the vehicle Chato was inside when he was shot was driving into the parking garage for residents of the apartment building (as opposed to visitor parking). 

Vanessa also filmed Chato in the kitchen of what looks a lot like a Palisade apartment, as seen in the video below. 

Could the Palisade apartment shown in her video belong to Vanessa, instead of Chato? 

It could but keep in mind that Palisade apartments was labeled as one of San Diego’s most expensive apartment complexes by the San Diego Union-Tribune and Vanessa’s primary source of income appears to be social media modeling for businesses based out of Mexico, and the Mexican peso to US dollar exchange rate is not doing that well.

In light of this, it seems more likely that Chato was the one who financed the Palisade apartment.  

Apartments often require financial statements, such as paychecks from an employer, in order to lease a unit. Whatever documents were used to lease their alleged unit will likely be of interest to US law enforcement, especially the DEA, as it may reveal Chato’s “paychecks” from businesses which are being used as money laundering fronts. 

Out of all the footage that Vanessa has shared of Chato, the most strikingly bizarre clip shows him following along with a yoga video, surrounded by at least five KAWS statuettes. 

How strange it is to think that there are sons and daughters lying dead in mass graves due to the whims and wants of a cartel figure who we can see sitting on a pillow, practicing the lotus pose, in a plush US high-rise.

The Shooter

Who shot El Chato and why? The shooter hasn’t been apprehended as of the writing of this article. Police did release the aforementioned description of his appearance (camo jacket, black pants, black backpack) but they did not release any images of the suspect. 

San Diego Police stated they believe the attack was targeted, meaning the shooter is not considered to be a danger to the general public. 

The Facebook account Gente de la Tia Juana (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3) and the Instagram account El Mitero TJ Resplado (Post 1, Post 2) claim that the hit on Chato was carried out by a member of the Mexican-American gang la eMe. These social media accounts are the same ones mentioned earlier, who first broke the news that the man killed in the shooting was El Chato. 

The accounts claim that El Apache, El Kado, and El Chato were previously hiding out in Mexico City but the plaza boss of the city had received a request to kill them so they left the city. 

They also accuse El Kado, El Apache, and all the men who work under them, as well as the captain of the State Police, of being informants for the DEA, saying that they received US visas through the DEA, as well as something about the FBI and CIA resenting them for this. 


The accounts offered no evidence to support their claims. 

Describing the credibility of these accounts as highly questionable might be a step too generous and it’s worth highlighting that these same accounts have been accused of being suspiciously sympathetic to Sinaloa Cartel’s El Aquiles in their posts (some of these accusations date back to 2016, so they are not merely a smear campaign in response to their recent claims), similar to the Facebook groups mentioned in the narco banner earlier. 

So there may be competing cartel news accounts putting out misinformation. There is “La Raza de la Tia, La Raza de la Tia Apoyo and Tecate sin Lacras” who are accused of having sympathies/ties to CAF. And there’s also Gente de la Tia Juana and El Mitero TJ Resplado who are accused of having sympathies/ties with El Aquiles of the Sinaloa Cartel. 

Where does this leave us? Who shot El Chato and were they paid to do it by a cartel group? We don’t know.  

All we can say is it seems likely that the shooting was in some way connected to Chato’s cartel activity and the shooter may have been hired by another party to carry out the attack.

The Other Shooting Victim

Then comes the next question, who was the other man in the car with Chato, the man who survived? And was he another cartel member who works under Flaquito? 

The only information released by San Diego police is that he is a 39-years-old Hispanic male. The man’s age may be our only clue to narrowing down the possibilities. 

El Flaquito is thought to be born in 1992, making him only 32 years old in 2024, which seems to eliminate him.

What about Chato’s boss El Kado?

The unfortunate thing about Kado’s age is that there may actually be two “El Kado”s, with previous reporting conflating an older man named Héctor Gil García, who participated in the 2009 vehicle theft, and another younger man who was arrested in 2016 and said to only be 18 years old at the time. 

If this were actually the same person, then “El Kado” would have been only 11 years old in 2009 when he was arrested for vehicle theft, so somehow reporting has conflated two different El Kados into being one person. Héctor’s nephew Manuel García Gil, who also worked under Flaquito and was killed in 2023, may be the younger man confused for Kado. Zeta Tijuana discusses this discrepancy further in this article

So the younger “Kado” would only be 26 years old and we can eliminate him, but the older “Kado” could be any age so he remains a possibility.

El Apache is another possibility but there’s no information about Apache’s age currently published by any news sources so it’s really impossible to determine who the other victim was at this time.

The man who was shot could easily be someone who isn’t a cartel member, maybe they were simply a friend or family member of Chato coming over for a visit. 

But you’ve got to imagine that if you were the San Diego police department, you’d double and triple check they weren’t a cartel member before you released them back onto the streets of the city. 

Further Reading

Read more about the recent attempt to kill El Flaquito and his escape from a hospital surrounded by law enforcement in the story linked here.


Read more about Flaquito’s entire criminal history and details about who makes up the leadership of his cartel group in the story linked here.