The municipality of Tepalcatepec in Mexico's southern state of Michoacán has long been one of the country's most violent areas, with the CJNG fighting off a range of rivals. The arrest there of the leader of the Rojos, a gang heavily tied to the neighboring state of Guerrero, suggests that yet more criminal groups may be entering the fray.
On April 16, Mexican authorities tracked down and detained Juan Miguel N., alias “El Johnny,” a leader of the Rojos in Tepalcatepec, according to a Defense Ministry press release.
El Johnny was allegedly the group’s main international trafficker of “drugs from South America,” likely meaning cocaine, which he imported into Mexico for onward smuggling into the United States. He now faces extradition to the United States.
In a subsequent press conference, Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, Mexico's undersecretary for security and public protection, confirmed that the Rojos are based “in Morelos, Guerrero, Puebla and the State of Mexico,” but did not address what El Johnny was doing in Michoacán.
Last month, InSight Crime reported on how the devastating conflict in Michoacán continues to escalate, with crime groups now successfully using roadside bombs and grenade launchers. The municipality of Tepalcatepec, where El Johnny was captured, has emerged as a staging ground for drone warfare.
InSight Crime Analysis
The arrest of a Rojos leader and apparent cocaine trafficker in the combat hotspot of Tepalcatepec is intriguing. The Rojos have traditionally been connected to the heroin trade, but may be looking for new means of criminal income as profits from this drug dwindle.
Moreover, Tepalcatepec is a key stronghold and drug trafficking route for the Cárteles Unidos (CU), a local criminal coalition formed to fight off the invasion of the state by the powerful Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).
The Rojos have also fought the CJNG, working with the rival Sinaloa Cartel in the states of Morelos and Guerrero. The CU and Rojos may be natural allies against the CJNG as the CU also control access to Michoacán’s Pacific coast, where shipments of synthetic drugs and, to a lesser extent, cocaine arrive for northward transit towards the US.
El Johnny may have been in Tepalcatepec to do business with the Cárteles Unidos, likely negotiating the arrival and transit of cocaine shipments, possibly in return for support against the CJNG.
A move towards Michoacán and the cocaine trade would make sense for the Rojos. Since 2016, the group has faced increasing competition in Guerrero and has been deprived of stable access to their local port of Acapulco. Meanwhile, the increasing supply of fentanyl in Mexico has slashed demand for the heroin trade.