“Sol Prendido” for Borderland Beat
The gang is now headed by the capo’s sister, Karem Lizbeth – the only woman currently running a cartel – in alliance with the Gulf cartel and Colombian drug traffickers; homicides, extortion and drug sales are on the rise.
Without shoes and with his socks pierced. This is how Guanajuato’s most wanted criminal fell. When he was surrounded by state prosecutors, he felt cold in his feet and instead of his usual haughty tone he asked in a low voice to be allowed to put on a pair of boots before leaving the house. The request caused laughter among the agents: José Antonio Yépez, alias El Marro used to demand that his subordinates sleep in shoes in case they had to take to the streets at dawn to rescue him, and now he was breaking his own rule. Not even he could save himself.
It was 4 a.m. on August 2, 2020. After 17 months of hunting and five failed attempts, Operation Coup de Timon had triumphed: the founder of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, accused of setting fire to Guanajuato in his attempt to take over the Pemex pipelines, was arrested at his home in the municipality of Juventino Rosas.
There was a rush to get to him because in recent days he had let himself be seen as a wounded and unpredictable animal in a video he posted on social networks: he promised revenge throughout the state for the arrest of his mother and sister.
His arrest, in the midst of the pandemic, was considered President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s first blow against an organized crime boss. This was chorused by newspapers such as The New York Times and El Mundo. Ten months earlier, the federal government had failed in its attempt to apprehend Ovidio Guzmán, son of Chapo Guzmán. A trophy was needed and the head of El Marro solved the pressure: the former soldier of Los Zetas who created his own organization and increased homicides in the state fell barefoot and without resistance. José Antonio Yépez immediately became the 970th person arrested in the mega-operation also known as Timonazo.
“It was known that he lived far from his homes with pools and palapas lined with wood, that he had lived in the hills and moved constantly. His arrest occurred while he was holding a kidnapped person, for which he was sentenced to 60 years in prison (…) It has been the most important arrest in the current six-year term, not only in Guanajuato, but in the federal administration,” recalls Sophia Huett, executive secretary of the State Public Security System of the state.
In the morning, Guanajuato Governor Diego Sinhue boasted of the hunt as the first step towards recovering peace in the state. He even announced that as of the following day the state would have a new permanent operation: “Safe Guanajuato”. In the name was the hope of returning to an era of peace.
He was wrong.
Officials sometimes reduce public security policies to an equation: one less gangster on the street equals more security. However, such additions and subtractions often produce the wrong results. The fall of El Marro demonstrates this: it has been three years since the founder of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel has been sleeping in the maximum security prison El Altiplano, and violence remains in Guanajuato.
Between January and June of this year, the state governed by Diego Sinhue is number one in intentional homicides nationwide. There have been 1,389 murders, that is, one every three hours, according to the National Public Security System. Only the State of Mexico comes close, with 1,159 murders in the same period, but with an important difference: Guanajuato has six million inhabitants and the State of Mexico has 17 million.
The Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel was consolidated in 2015 and historical records allow us to measure how its presence continues to damage Guanajuato: that year, the entity registered 95,782 crimes and this 2023, the trend indicates that the year will end with more than 146,000 crimes. In 2015, Guanajuato had 3,60 investigations for drug dealing, and in this first semester alone the figure has jumped to 9,492.
This year there was a 58 percent increase in extortion complaints. From 2011 to 2021, femicides increased 732 percent. Six searcher mothers have been murdered since 2020, making Guanajuato the most lethal entity for tracing missing persons. The number of police officers shot to death has also increased: this year alone there are 51, most of them attacked when they are resting and without their service weapons, according to the Cobalt Blue Project, which specializes in police mortality information. And there are days -like last July 5- when in Guanajuato almost 25 percent of the daily homicides take place. El Marro is gone, but the cartel is not.
What has changed for the better since that August 2 is that the number of intentional homicides has gone down, according to Sophia Huett: in 2020, with El Marro free, Guanajuato counted 3,359 murders. By 2021 — with the capo already in prison — it dropped to 2,823. And in 2022, it fell to 2,634.
“There are no road blockades, no burning of vehicles, kidnapping is not a high incidence crime and vehicle theft has dropped,” says the official.
The summer of the “Timonazo” seemed to carry reasons for optimism. The imprisonment of El Marro had seriously wounded the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel. The government and society came up with plans to recover sports facilities and even improve housing. They even considered how to reconcile the Santa Rosa de Lima community with the neighbors of Celaya, who accused them of being responsible for the violence.
However, when the opportunity was unbeatable, the authorities failed to leave the finances of the criminal organization alive. The final blow missed its target and Jose Antonio Yépez’s family circle took the criminal structure into their own hands, doing what few expected: the cartel grew stronger.
“Famiglia”: when brothers take control
For El Marro, blood is everything. So much so that he taught his family circle how to operate the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel in case he was killed or captured. So that ‘plan B’ kicked off just the day after his fall, on August 3, 2022: his brother Rodolfo, El Rudy took his place with the goal of continuing the Guanajuato fire.
El Rudy, like El Marro, didn’t finish his basic education either. He dropped out of school to become a young truck driver and then a criminal operator.
In the municipality of Juventino Rosas, they remember that Rodolfo had a hard time reading and writing, so he always issued orders through voice notes via WhatsApp. Despite these limitations, Rodolfo Yépez managed to build a silent alliance with the Gulf Cartel and Colombian mercenaries who came to Guanajuato to reinforce his battle against the state and federal government and his mortal enemy, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
That criminal coalition was evidenced on November 20 of last year, when between 12 and 15 hitmen attacked the Celaya municipal command in the community of San Juan de la Vega. Their style of attack, from the first grenade thrown, made it clear to the police that they were up against gunmen with specialized training.
After the attack, a group of police followed the gunmen and a trail of blood led them to a house in the community of San Isidro de la Concepción. Upon bursting into the hideout, the police were greeted by shouts of “¡Puro Marro!”. The shooting left six gunmen dead and a bitter surprise for elements of the Secretariat of National Defense, who later investigated the identities of the deceased.
Jarinton Jesús López Sarmiento, a civilian killed in the confrontation, held a Colombian passport. The Guanajuato prosecutor’s office later learned that he was a member of the Colombian Army Special Forces and a member of a group of mercenaries trained in the United Arab Emirates. Another deceased had a similar profile: Colombian Geovanny Ferrer Estrada, who had a background as an elite soldier trained in the Middle East.
A third victim attracted attention: Jose Guadalupe Villanueva Lumbreras, who is linked to a cell of the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, Los Escorpiones. Lawyer Gabriel Regino, who is defending the municipal police officers facing murder charges for firing in self-defense against the gunmen, explains it this way: there are Colombian special forces working in conjunction with Gulf Cartel cells in support of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel.
“There is still a need to consolidate achievements. At the beginning it has been a success to build public security from the local level, with strong municipal police, with more than one billion pesos totally state-financed, to provide them with training and equipment,” Huett reflects. “What is missing is that the change of three and six-year terms does not throw away what has been achieved”.
It was in that same November 2022 that El Rudy was arrested. At a checkpoint on the Centinela-Rumorosa highway in Baja California, three soldiers stopped his vehicle. The drug lord was not carrying weapons or drugs, but he was carrying $60,000 in cash that he could not justify. When the soldiers confirmed his identity, they handcuffed him and sentenced him to a fate similar to that of his older brother.
However, today the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel is still alive despite more than a thousand arrests since its emergence. Its fight for illegal fuel extraction has extended to other crimes, from extortion and contract killings to the sale of “crystal meth” and the control of hotels where sexual exploitation gangs operate.
Three years since the fall of El Marro, the criminal structure has only changed its leader: according to military documents declassified by the Guacamaya Leaks hackers, at the top of the organization chart is now Jose Antonio Yepez’s sister, Karem Lizbeth.
The only woman currently running a cartel, she does so in Guanajuato. And she doesn’t go about it barefoot, but does so in heels.