José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro,” is the leader of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel and one of those most responsible for the growing violence that has plagued the state of Guanajuato in 2019 and 2020.
In addition to leading a tough fight against the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) in this region, he was one of Mexico’s most wanted criminals.
He was captured by Mexican security forces in Guanajuato on August 2, 2020. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison in January 2022, a ruling that was ratified in October 2022. Despite his imprisonment, violence in Guanajuato has continued.
Yépez Ortiz was born in the town of Santa Rosa de Lima in the municipality of Villagrán, central Guanajuato state. Although it is unclear how he first got involved in crime, his name began to circulate in the media in 2017 when he appeared in a viral video in the company of dozens of armed men threatening the CJNG.
His criminal rap sheet includes a 2008 arrest for theft and organized delinquency, although he did not serve his full sentence after paying an expensive bail bond and being released.
In 2014, he dabbled in fuel theft as the second-in-command to David Figueroa, alias “El Güero,” a former high-ranking police officer, who has been identified as a founding member of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel.
By 2017, Yépez had assumed control of the organization and was already starting to gain notoriety after the conflict with the CJNG intensified over control of the oil theft business, known as “huachicoleo.”
Since then, and unlike other oil theft gang leaders who maintain a lower profile, El Marro has become one of the leading names in the Mexican criminal underworld, despite the local nature of his organization.
His notoriety led to the Mexican authorities declaring that bringing down the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel (CSRL) was a top priority. In 2019, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced the creation of a joint operation against the fuel smuggler aimed at dismantling the organization.
While authorities tracked continuously, El Marro managed to escape several sting operations. In March 2019, when security forces made their way into the town of Santa Rosa de Lima, Yépez Ortiz reportedly managed to escape through a series of tunnels that connected his house with neighboring homes. In October 2019, authorities conducted a similar operation with no success.
Attempts to arrest him were hampered in part by the fact that he counts on broad support among communities around Guanajuato, with protests and roadblocks organized to stop military operations to catch him.
Nevertheless, authorities seized much of his assets and have captured several members from within his close circle, among them his father and his wife. Yépez Ortiz responded with violent demonstrations of power, including the murders of local public officials and roadblocks.
He was finally arrested in August 2020 in Guanajuato.
As the leader of the CSRL, El Marro directed fuel theft operations in the state of Guanajuato, the cartel’s center of operations. While this is the CSRL's lifeblood, it has also engaged in extortion.
It is estimated that the organization at its height could extract between 40 and 50 barrels of fuel a day from the pipes belonging to the national oil company Pemex, which could bring in estimated profits of $800,000-$1.2 million a day.
The CSRL's capacity to steal important quantities of fuel and move it on has been made evident through the seizures of several fleets of vehicles containing numerous barrels of fuel, pick-up trucks and more than 200 cars.
Following these successive crackdowns on fuel thieves in 2019, the CSRL saw itself squeezed financially and the group has expanded its criminal portfolio, profiting from other activities such as kidnapping, contract killings, extortion, money laundering and drug trafficking.
The organization gets its name from the community of Santa Rosa de Lima in the municipality of Villagrán, the area where it was created in central Guanajuato state.
The CSRL had a strong presence in the municipalities of Celaya, Salamanca, Santa Cruz, Juventino Rosas, Irapuato and Valle de Santiago.
Its fighting with the CJNG has largely taken place in a corridor encompassing the municipalities of León, Salamanca, Irapuato, Celaya and Los Apaseos, an area with plenty of pipelines belonging to Pemex. It has also regularly carried out oil theft in the neighboring states of Queretaro and Hidalgo.
Allies and Enemies
The battle between the cartels has increased violence in Guanajuato, making it the most murderous state in Mexico in 2019.
The local nature of the CSRL has allowed Yépez Ortiz to build alliances within the communities where his cartel operates, by giving gifts to local politicians and offering payments to local residents who, in addition to collaborating with his criminal enterprise, may offer a degree of protection.
Within the criminal underworld, there are unconfirmed reports of El Marro receiving help from El Mayo, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, as well as protection from Los Viagras, a group with roots in Michoacán. These allies may support the CSRL by loaning materials and manpower to support the fight against the CJNG, a common enemy.
Although El Marro long managed to stay one step ahead of the law, the CSRL was unable to withstand the sustained onslaught of government attacks and persistent clashes with the CJNG.
Although President Andrés Manuel López Obrador openly spoke about not wishing to go to war with criminal gangs in Mexico, he made ending oil theft a focal point of his security strategy, especially bringing down El Marro.
Yépez Ortiz suffered important losses, with his bank accounts frozen and many of the organization’s assets seized, as well as the arrests and murders of members of his inner circle, before himself being captured in August 2020.