“Sol Prendido” for Borderland Beat
A massive trove of leaked files reveals Mexico’s military spying on one cartel while seemingly turning a blind eye toward rival groups.
After a hunt that had lasted months, the Mexican army was closing in on an infamous Jalisco New Generation Cartel commander known as El M2. It was late January 2022 in the lawless Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán, where M2 and his gunmen were waging a brutal turf war near the hometown of his cartel’s top boss. This would prove to be the decisive battle.
M2 had prepared for this moment. He’d been paying off local townspeople with a few hundred pesos a week to support the CJNG cause. Soldiers encircled his position, landing in helicopters and bearing down with armored vehicles. M2 issued a command over his organization’s radio network: Ring the church bells.
When the bells tolled in the cathedral in Loma Blanca and several other small towns nearby, citizens that formed the cartel’s “social base” flooded the streets, hurling rocks and obscenities at the soldiers to slow their advance. M2 sent orders over the radio for his gunmen to plant improvised landmines along the highway and nearby roads, destroy the pavement with heavy machinery, and launch drones equipped to drop makeshift bombs from the sky.
“Anyone who comes around, mátalo a la verga,” he said, using a Spanish vulgarity that roughly translates as “kill the pricks.” “I don’t want anyone to enter. Kill all those fuckers. Whatever happens will happen, soldiers or our rivals, kill them all.”
Exactly what happened next has long been a source of mystery and intrigue, an unfinished chapter in the gruesome real-life telenovela of Mexico’s narco wars. But now, using a trove of emails and classified intelligence reports leaked from the Mexican army, VICE News was able to retrace M2’s final shootout in Michoacán, independently confirming for the first time what transpired and revealing the dramatic aftermath.
Through our reporting, which included an exclusive face-to-face interview with M2—real name: Miguel Ángel Fernández Valencia—a year prior to his death, we have also uncovered new details about his early exploits as drug trafficker in the United States and his cartel’s struggle to seize control of Michoacán.
The documents show how the Mexican military spies on cartel operators, using sophisticated surveillance technology to track their movements and eavesdrop on their conversations. The source materials—dubbed “Guacamaya Leaks”—were obtained by anonymous hackers and shared publicly in September 2022. The Mexican government has not contested the authenticity of the leaked files. The press office of Mexico’s Secretariat of National Defense acknowledged receiving an inquiry from VICE News, but did not address questions about M2 and the situation in Michoacán.
The army leak includes millions of unvetted documents, many of which rely on informants within the cartels or intercepted communications. VICE News fact checked and corroborated the records used for this story wherever possible.
The documents also reveal new information about the United Cartels, an alliance of criminal groups in Michoacán that has been at war with CJNG for more than three years. Perhaps most troubling, the documents suggest the Mexican army is turning a blind eye to the continued presence of the United Cartels, which now controls the territory once claimed by M2. Dozens of reports reviewed by VICE News show that the Mexican army has extensive knowledge of the United Cartels’ operations and the whereabouts of key leaders, yet seemingly chooses not to act.
“Many of the questions we have about the military strategy [in Michoacán] have not been resolved,” said Catalina Pérez Correa, a professor at Mexico’s Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), who studies militarization of the drug war. “Are they just looking to manage the violence in some way, such as having organized crime groups not even controlled but simply managed? Or are they really trying to put an end to organized crime?”
In October 2020, VICE News traveled to Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente to report on a cartel war that was raging out of control and wreaking havoc on the local economy. Michoacán exports billions of dollars worth of limes and avocados to the United States, and cartels skim off the top by forcing businesses to pay protection money. The city of El Aguaje, once home to bustling ranches and sprawling lime orchards, became a ghost town full of abandoned houses pockmarked by shootouts that raged for hours in the streets.
With borders that stretch from the Pacific Ocean into the heart of Mexico, Michoacán has long been a hub for drug trafficking. Cartels use the coastline to land speedboats laden with cocaine from Colombia. Precursor chemicals from China flow through large industrial seaports, fueling clandestine fentanyl and meth labs hidden in the rugged mountainous interior. Major highways offer direct access to Mexico City and coveted smuggling routes north toward the U.S. border.
“Since I was a little kid I moved kilos up there,” M2 told us.
His story began in Michoacán, in the tiny town of La Peña Colorada. He was one of 14 brothers from a region with few economic prospects other than hard agricultural labor or drugs. He migrated to the U.S., living in California, Utah, and Idaho, where court records show he was charged in May 2006 with meth trafficking.
Local police in Bellevue, Idaho, tried to make a traffic stop and he took off in his Mercury Sable, ramming a cop car before eventually being caught with over four ounces of crystal. He’d crossed the border illegally after previously being deported, which led to federal charges that sent him to prison until the end of 2014.
By the time M2 was deported back to Mexico again, he spoke fluent English and had developed an appreciation for Bob Marley and Santana, which he learned to play on the guitar in prison. A talented norteño singer himself, soon he would be the subject of drug ballads or narcocorridos written about his exploits as a ruthless enforcer for the CJNG’s supreme leader, El Mencho.
El Mencho, born Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, has a $10 million bounty on his head from the U.S. government. He was born in a small town near El Aguaje, along Michoacán’s border with his stronghold in the neighboring state of Jalisco. In late 2019, he deployed a small army of sicarios, led by M2, to wrest control of the Tierra Caliente away from the United Cartels.
To meet M2 for an interview, VICE News had to criss-cross disputed cartel territory, ultimately arriving at a makeshift checkpoint on the highway southwest of El Aguaje. CJNG men dressed like commandos, with camouflage, body armor, and automatic weapons, stopped our vehicle and checked our press credentials before allowing us to proceed.
M2 arrived in a black Ford Raptor pickup truck, modified with armor plating and bulletproof glass in the windows. The massive barrel of a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle—a weapon capable of taking down a military helicopter—poked through a gunport cut into the front windshield. A half-dozen other armored pickup trucks full of gunmen completed his entourage.
M2 was tall and wiry, with a chiseled face framed by a ballistic helmet, dark tinted glasses, and a bushy goatee. Beneath his bulletproof vest, he wore a polo shirt with a garish blue and white pattern, tucked into jeans cinched with a large gold and silver belt buckle. When he smiled, his front teeth glimmered with gold caps. He was armed with a FN SCAR rifle, the same model used by U.S. special forces, with a grenade launcher mounted under the barrel and extra grenades strapped to his chest. On his hip was a Colt pistol with “M2” in gold on the handle.
We met in the morning, but he ordered one of his men to fetch a six-pack from the only store in town, cracking a Corona Light as he sat down for the interview, which took place inside of a cemetery next to the grave of a fallen CJNG fighter.
At the time, M2 asked to remain anonymous, identifying himself as “simply a commander here in the Michoacán region.” Because his words can no longer be used against him in court, and because of the significance of his death, we are now confirming his identity as a source.
He claimed the CJNG was different from other cartels, focusing only on drug trafficking and not preying on locals.
“Nobody can say that we’re doing kidnapping, robberies, or extortion,” M2 said. “This is not our line of work. We are drug traffickers. We produce, export, and sell drugs. That’s how our ‘papa’ [El Mencho] makes money. That’s our business. We absolutely do not depend on extortion, kidnapping, protection rackets—none of that.”
The CJNG does, however, have a documented history of engaging in all of those criminal activities. Although it’s possible M2 operated by his own code, he was undoubtedly sowing terror across the Tierra Caliente. Displaced people from Michoacán describe forced recruitment of young men by CJNG, with those who refused to join beaten, murdered, or disappeared.
The United Cartels were even worse, M2 alleged, and he claimed state authorities were supporting his rivals.
“They are coming after me and pushing me out of places to accommodate our enemies,” he said. “We are people of laws. And we are people who agree we need a government. But we are not in agreement with the behavior of this government in our state.”
M2 offered no proof to back up his claims. But he also seemed to sense the writing on the wall, one way or the other.
“The government is the one who will decide when they want this to end,” he said. “When the government does their work, when the government does what it’s supposed to do, this will end and things will get better.”
With M2 and the United Cartels at war, the situation in the Tierra Caliente spiraled out of control—and Mexico’s army started paying attention. Leaked files show a document dated Jan. 24, 2021, with an overview of the military’s “Aguililla Agenda,” detailing cartel movements in the area and the military units responsible for those territories.
By August 2021, military reports show growing concern about the CJNG continuing to make advances near the city of Tepalcatepec, controlled by a United Cartels leader named Juan José Farías Alvares, alias “El Abuelo.” A leaked report from Aug. 30 describes how United Cartel members “are expecting the advance of armed CJNG cells.”
El Abuelo’s people were overheard spotting a convoy of 15 CJNG vehicles, including “a monster,” essentially a homemade tank made by equipping a heavy truck with thick armor plates.
The next month, M2 and his gunmen took over Loma Blanca, which would become the site of his last stand, and a handful of other small towns. The army eavesdropped as some of El Abuelo’s men and supporters “contemplated abandoning Tepalcatepec with their families” and fleeing to another town controlled by the United Cartels about 50 miles away.
There’s evidence CJNG’s top leadership understood the cartel could not fight a war on two fronts against both the United Cartels and the Mexican army. In November 2021, army reports show, M2 was overheard telling his lieutenants that “El Patrón” had given instructions not to attack military personnel: “It should be avoided at all costs and don’t mention these orders over our radio frequencies.”
M2 was not pleased. The army listened as he told an associate: “How is this going to work? We’re going to stay ready to shoot the fuckers in green.”
Nevertheless, he obeyed orders and instructed his men, who had been using drones to drop improvised explosives, to stand down against the military in order to avoid “el pedo más grande,” literally meaning “the biggest fart” or loosely to cause a stink in CJNG territory.
The strategy seemed to work until the afternoon of Jan. 29 2022, two days before his 41st birthday, when M2 received an urgent report over the radio: The army had invaded El Aguaje and landed a helicopter on a nearby hilltop. Two other choppers were circling the area. M2 gave the orders to ring the church bells and deploy the roadside bombs, but it was too late. He was surrounded.
Grainy video footage filmed in Loma Blanca that circulated online after the shootout showed townspeople wielding sticks confronting army soldiers in full battle gear, shouting angrily and blocking the troops from advancing. A helicopter flies low overhead and gunfire can be heard in the background. Two soldiers were hospitalized with injuries, along with several civilians.
M2’s last stand occurred near Loma Blanca’s cemetery. According to a leaked military report, he was “shot in the chest” and took off running. Without their leader, the CJNG gunmen scattered in all directions. Amid the chaos, M2 disappeared. Nobody was sure what had happened to him, and leaked army reports show the CJNG leadership demanding answers from his deputies in Loma Blanca. Cartel members visited morgues in several nearby towns in search of his body.
M2’s wife and another romantic partner were kept in the dark, the reports show, even as the women pressed the cartel’s leadership for answers. With CJNG losing control of the area, a senior cartel boss arranged to have M2’s wife and kids moved to a more secure location. His other lover received a few possessions left at his home.
Still, nobody knew for sure whether he was dead or in hiding.
On Feb. 6, the army found a corpse “in an advanced state of decomposition” in a field near the scene of the shootout in Loma Blanca. The clothes matched the “cowboy” style worn by M2. Gruesome photos of the body leaked almost immediately, and days later the state prosecutor’s office in Michoacán issued a statement declaring M2 officially dead.
But in Mexico’s underworld there is a long and bizarre history of cartel leaders—including El Mencho—returning from the grave months or years after being presumed killed. Conspiracy theories spread online that M2 planted a fake body and has been hiding out ever since. Around the one-year anniversary of his death this week, the rumors sprung up again. One photo showed M2 looking ready for a night on the town, wearing a scarf and designer hat with a phone pressed to his ear.
José Ulises Lara Gracián, a veteran of Michoacán’s cartel wars who now lives in the U.S. and covers the conflict online, operating as the “Unidad de Inteligencia Ciudadana,” or Citizen’s Intelligence Unit, told VICE News that M2 is still alive. Lara claimed to have spoken to M2 since his purported death, but offered little in the way of supporting evidence. An interview M2 gave to Lara prior to the Loma Blanca shootout confirmed several biographical details, including that he was related to El Mencho by marriage and the nephew of another prominent trafficker nicknamed El Animal.
“I think the government knows where I am all the time,” M2 told Lara in the fall of 2021. “I have no one to hide from nor am I doing things to bow my head before anyone.”
VICE News reviewed the corpse images and found several similarities from our interview with him, including gold-capped front teeth and a collection of bracelets and talismans around his wrists.
M2’s close relatives visited the morgue in Michoacán’s state capital, the army noted, and identified his remains based on scars and distinctive skin marks. The body was taken to neighboring Jalisco and buried in a small town’s cemetery. Photos purportedly showing the grave draped in flowers have also circulated online this week.
After M2’s body was found, army reports say his “chief of operations” summoned the bodyguards who had fled the shootout. They were executed “because they should have protected him.”
A CJNG source, who was active in Michoacán around the time of these events, confirmed to VICE News that the bodyguards were indeed killed, but offered no comment on M2’s death: “There’s nothing more to say,” the source said. “He’s dead and there’s nothing else to talk about”
The army overheard someone in El Aguaje tell M2’s widow that the cartel “was planning to leave, because M2 was the only one putting up a fight.” They listened as El Abuelo’s people monitored the CJNG retreat, observing “armed cells” marching into the hills toward Jalisco at dawn.
In the following days, the Mexican army swept into El Aguaje and the surrounding areas. The high-profile operation received international press attention, portrayed as the Mexican government restoring order and ridding Michoacán of CJNG. Journalists were allowed to enter El Mencho’s hometown, and the army released photos of minesweepers removing improvised explosives left behind along the roads.
The mayor of Aguililla, once part of M2’s fiefdom, was gunned down in broad daylight a few weeks after holding a ceremony to celebrate the army bringing an end to the cartel war.
And in the year since, the Jalisco cartel has crept back into Michoacán. Just two weeks ago, CJNG members were blamed for an attack that killed three members of the indigenous Nahua community in Santa María Ostula, which has its own citizen-led police force to prevent the cartel from taking over their natural-resource rich lands. Another community leader in the nearby town of Aquila vanished on Jan. 14, along with a prominent environmental lawyer.
Beyond the return of CJNG, the Mexican army appears to tolerate the continued presence of the United Cartels. The leaked files show extensive monitoring of El Abuelo and his ally El Gordo, a leader of Los Viagras. While such surveillance was the prelude to the operation that killed M2, the United Cartels seemingly operate with impunity. Intelligence reports suggest the locations and day-to-day operations of Abuelo and Gordo are not a mystery for the Mexican army. The only question is why they have yet to take action.
Members of the United Cartels sometimes call themselves the “Pueblos Unidos,” conjuring an image of townspeople banding together to defend against El Mencho’s invaders from the neighboring state. In years past the Michoacán state government provided arms and police uniforms to these so-called autodefensas, including El Gordo of Los Viagras.
VICE News obtained video footage from inside a medical clinic of three men who claim to have been wounded by gunshots during the Loma Blanca melee. One of the men alleges the army had arrived to help the CJNG’s rivals.
“It’s the fucking government that is supposedly taking care of the people, right?” the man says. “And it’s shooting at us civilians. Why are they shooting us? Instead of defending the people, they bring those dogs from the United Cartels.”
There have been several recent cases involving alleged corruption by high-ranking Mexican security officials. Around the time of our interview with M2, in October 2020, the U.S. arrested (and later released under pressure from Mexico) Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, a former defense secretary who was accused of taking cartel payoffs—a case Mexican authorities chose not to pursue. Mexico’s former secretary of public security, Genaro García Luna, is currently on trial in New York after pleading innocent to allegedly taking hundreds of millions in cartel bribes.
Pérez Correa, the CIDE security researcher, pointed to the 2014 Ayotzinapa case, which involved the mass kidnapping of 43 college students training to become teachers. The investigation into the crime revealed links between a local drug cartel, police, and the military, including officials who have since been arrested and charged with ordering the students to be murdered and disappeared.
“It really is the whole state that is participating,” Pérez Correa said. “It is very difficult to think of a policy that is going to reduce organized crime when you have sectors of the army, sectors of the police, that do not really allow you to make a distinction between authorities and criminals.”
Even M2, who surely benefitted from CJNG bribery, bemoaned pervasive corruption prior to his death. He told us he had four sons, and it was his dream for them to one day be able to feel safe in his homeland. For over 15 years, Mexico’s military has been deployed to fight in Michoacán’s cartel wars. Perhaps in another decade or so, he said, there would finally be peace.
“I’d like to bring them here and be able to walk around these places without having to bring armed people with me or carry a gun myself,” he said. “That’s what I want, I want that in 15 years Michoacán could be a place governed by a legitimate government, a government that knows what it has to do and delivers on its promises.”
The last intelligence report on M2 is dated Feb. 10, 2022, and it says control of his “armed cell” had fallen to his deputy. The gunmen had last been seen heading into the mountains around Aguililla, El Mencho’s home municipality.
The army would keep watching, but now they had one less target: “Therefore, monitoring is concluded for Miguel Ángel Fernández Valencia alias M2.”