“Char” for Borderland Beat
This article was reposted from THE COURIER-JOURNAL
WRITTEN BY: KAROL SUAREZ & BETH WARREN
NOVEMBER 24, 2O19
MEXICO CITY — In the darkness, Mexican police officer Ivan Morales and more than a dozen soldiers climbed aboard five military helicopters at the Colima airport — six hours south of Puerto Vallarta— for a secret mission.
They weren’t told their target’s name, so they didn’t realize the danger ahead.
How we reported this story
Throughout 2019, Courier Journal reporters analyzed thousands of court records and transcripts of more than 100 CJNG-linked cases around the country and talked to more than 150 federal drug agents, police officers, defense attorneys, and prosecutors, as well as relatives, co-workers, and neighbors of those accused. The team traveled to 15 cities across the United States and to Mexico City and Guadalajara. Reporters also reached out to more than two dozen alleged cartel members or associates.
The U.S. is offering $10 million for the capture of El Mencho, who is blamed for thousands of kidnappings and brutal deaths in Mexico, as well as tens of thousands of fatal overdoses throughout America.
El Mencho commands an army of 5,000 and is protected by paramilitary-trained assassins. Some have died to keep their leader safe from police and rival cartels since CJNG’s inception in 2011.
But investigators rooted out El Mencho’s location in spring 2015, prompting the abrupt raid.
On May 1, 2015, military helicopters flew north over the mountain peaks of rural Jalisco, a western state known for its oceanside town of Puerto Vallarta. The pilots flew the soldiers above a convoy of CJNG trucks.
“Prepare for anything,” a commander shouted.
One explosive warhead pierced the rotor of Morales’ helicopter, igniting a fire. The aircraft plummeted into thick trees.
From his seat in the back, Morales, then 33, threw his arms upward, pressing his hands against the roof to brace himself. He heard the crunch and felt the jolt of hitting branches on the way to the ground.
Thick black and gray billows of smoke gushed in, obscuring his view.
“I thought I was going to die there,” Morales said.
Morales, who found out three months earlier that he was going to be a father, looked around the wreckage for an escape route. In the darkness, flames filled a doorway, illuminating his only path to safety.
“All I wanted was to go out, and I thought about it for my family, my son and my wife.”
Fueled by adrenaline, he ran from the wreckage.
He can’t recall how far he ran or how much time passed before he collapsed, was severely burned, and near death.
His colleague, the only other Mexican police officer on the mission, didn’t make it. Neither did eight SEDENA, or Mexican national defense, soldiers.
Morales kept telling the soldiers who hoisted him on the stretcher why he had to survive: “I’m going to be a dad!”
Suffering second and third-degree burns over 70% of his body, Morales nearly died of organ failure in a Mexico City hospital. His pregnant fiancee kept a vigil beside him.
“Knowing I was going to be a dad motivated me a lot to fight,” he said.
In the hospital, Morales married his love of two years, whom he didn’t want to publicly name for her protection.
After several surgeries and a month in recovery, he left the hospital on Oct. 9, 2015, wearing his navy blue uniform.
Six weeks later, his son was born.
After several surgeries and rehab, Morales was able to walk down the aisle of their Catholic church for a small wedding in front of family and friends.
Now, four years after the crash, it’s difficult at times for Morales to cope with his disfigurement. Strangers often stare and whisper.
He’s disabled, no longer able to be a policeman.
Some days, his son, now 3, sits in his father’s lap traces burn scars with his little fingers and asks what happened. Morales tells him he was hurt in an accident.
His son is too young for now to understand the ruthlessness of cartels. Morales dreads those future conversations.
After all he has lost, Morales still insists he has no regrets.
“I knew the risks,” he said. “I was committed to doing my job.”
Morales waits for another surgery to repair damage from the helicopter fire.
He also awaits the end of El Mencho’s reign.
“It is not hopeless.”
Ivan Morales, a Mexican federal police officer burned in a helicopter crash caused by a CJNG grenade, hugs his wife. He didn’t want to name her for her protection. CRISTOPHER ROGEL BLANQUET
Investigative reporter Beth Warren spent two days in Mexico City and Guadalajara, talking with U.S. agents and Mexican law enforcement on the front lines in the hunt for El Mencho. She reviewed thousands of documents in more than 100 court case files and sought prison interviews with two dozen cartel members and associates.
Karol Suarez is a Venezuelan-born journalist based out of Mexico City who covers Latin America. She reported from Mexico for The Courier-Journal on this project, interviewing Ivan Morales for this story. She has worked for media organizations reporting social-political issues in the region, including presidential elections, civil unrest, Central American migration, natural disasters, the environment, travel and sports. Karol is a field producer, reporter and a social media content producer. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications from the Yacambú University in her native Barquisimeto in Venezuela. She is fluent in English and Spanish.
Cristopher Rogel Blanquet is a Mexican photojournalist who worked for The Courier Journal on this project. He also documented the Syrian conflict in 2017. In his home country, he has covered the armed uprisings of Michoacán and the recent Central American exodus. In 2015, he won the photography prize of the National Trade Union School of Colombia for his coverage “The Opium Child,” published in the Mexican newspaper El Universal. His photographs are part of the multimedia work, “Disappeared,” also published in El Universal, which won the Ortega y Gasset Prize.