Sinaloa and Tijuana Cartels compete for control a crucial Baja California port

Latin America World

“MX” for Borderland Beat

Recent murder scenes in Ensenada, Baja California
Murders reported in the port city of Ensenada, Baja California, are a direct result of the turf war between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel (CAF), who compete for control of the retail drug sales and port facilities in the region. Two high-profile murders highlighting the growing gang violence occurred this month. Yesterday, Borderland Beat reported that port cities like Ensenada are major battlegrounds in Mexico’s ongoing drug war.
On March 7, high-ranking CAF member Jael José Morales Leonel (“El 30”) was murdered. Two days later, police chief Juan Francisco Chávez Ibarra was killed as well. Morales Leonel was the chief CAF drug dealer in Ensenada; Chávez Ibarra reportedly worked for the Sinaloa Cartel and was killed by men working for CAF boss David López Jiménez (“El Cabo 20”). In this report originally published by the Tijuana-based and award-winning magazine Zeta, Borderland Beat will cover the two murders and attempt to explain the turf war unfolding in Ensenada.

March 7 murder
High-ranking CAF member Morales Leonel was killed inside the Papas & Beer bar in downtown Ensenada. Shortly after 2 a.m. on Saturday March 7, gunmen went into the bar and shot him. He was mortally wounded and died minutes later. A stampede broke out inside the bar as confusion and chaos ensued. Diana Monserrat, a 20-year-old lady who was inside the bar, was injured by the gunfire. Authorities stated that she was not tied to Morales Leonel or organized crime. Ensenada residents Chris Regland and Alfonso Reséndiz were also wounded.
Before paramedics arrived at the scene, two young men and a lady tried to stop his bleeding by covering his gunshot wounds and doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Another lady carried on the phone while they tried to keep him alive. A man who videotaped the incident told them: “He’s going to die”.
Jael Jose Morales Leonel and the murder scene
Bar attendees talked about what occurred. One of them told reporters that the gunfire came from a nearby table. The police confirmed that Morales Leonel was shot three times. At least two hitmen arrived at the bar with the intent to kill him. The police said they had fully identified them.
“Morales Leonel controlled the retail cocaine sales in Ensenada, including its downtown bars. He was also responsible for drug trafficking activities in the U.S.”, a police officer confirmed. Mexican drug ballad singer Miguel Comando, who has written songs about multiple CAF members, wrote one about Morales Leonel. The song is titled El de Ensenada (The One from Ensenada) and it is available on YouTube.
Background
Sometime between December 2018 and January 2019, the CJNG suffered an internal strife and several of its members left to join the CAF. El Cabo 20 was one of them and began working under CAF chief Pablo Edwin Huerta Nuño (“El Flaquito”). Morales Leonel soon followed them.
Morales Leonel was assigned as the head of drug sales in Ensenada and they assigned him under José Cristian Gómez Rosales (“El Pitey”), who served as the CAF’s liaison with the local police. According to police reports, El Pitey is being investigated for his connection with ex-police chief Gerardo Sosa Olachea. There is a phone conversation he had with the ex-police chief’s son Héctor Sosa Flores, where they arrange drug trafficking activities in Baja California. The police chief resigned after the phone conversation was made public.
José Cristian Gómez Rosales (“El Pitey”)
Morales Leonel lived in Ensenada and had an extensive criminal background. In 2005, 2008 and 2008, he was charged with battery, attempted robbery and robbery, respectively. He had an arrest warrant issued in 2009 for another robbery charge. In 2016 and 2017, two more arrest warrants were issued for property damage and battery.
El Pitey was born in Tijuana and is 28 years old. He has two houses in Tijuana: one in Durango neighborhood and another in División del Norte. His house in Ensenada is in El Roble. In 2015 and 2016, he was arrested for drug trafficking in Sánchez Taboada neighborhood in Tijuana. This area is widely regarded as a CJNG stronghold. In 2018 and 2019, he was arrested for drug trafficking and illegal possession of firearms. In all cases, however, El Pitey was released.
El Pitey is also linked to the 22 January 2020 attack against policemen in Tijuana. In the attack, civilian Jesús Héctor Cabrera Mendoza and officer Marco Antonio Reyes Nahon were killed. The CAF reportedly ordered the attack as retribution for the seizure of 360 kg (793 lbs) of crystal meth and large sums of currency from one of the houses owned by Cabo 20 in Tijuana days prior, as reported by Borderland Beat.
March 9 murder
Police chief Chávez Ibarra was 43 years old when he was killed. He spent nearly half of his life as an officer of the Ensenada Municipal Police force. The night of his murder, he had gone to the gym and was killed in a drive-by shooting while inside a police vehicle.
A few minutes later, a young man wrecked his vehicle a few blocks away from the crime scene. According to the municipal police, the young man collided his vehicle because he was being chased by officers for his involvement in the murder. The young man tried to flee by jumping across several house fences but was apprehended by the police. State authorities stated that they were trying to find evidences against him to see if he was linked to both murders.
Murder scene where police chief Juan Francisco Chávez Ibarra was killed
In a press conference, Ensenada police chief Luis Felipe Chan Baltazar said that Chávez Ibarra did not issue a formal complaint claiming he felt he was in danger or that he had faced any death threats. In addition, Chan confirmed that Chávez Ibarra never requested the police to allow him to take a firearm home. The police did not discard the possibility that Chávez Ibarra’s death was linked to organized crime. Since Chávez Ibarra was off-duty when he was killed, no funeral arrangements will be covered by the police force unless his family requests for a special arrangement.
Chávez Ibarra was ousted from the police force after Chan grew suspicious of his organized crime links. However, the Ensenada mayor Armando Ayala Robles moved him to another police force and removed his criminal charges. Chávez Ibarra was disarmed in 10 January 2020.
Two hypotheses
Investigators say there are two hypotheses for Chávez Ibarra’s murder:
1. The first one suggests that Chávez Ibarra was killed on orders of David López Jiménez (“El Cabo 20”), a regional leader of the CAF in Baja California. Chávez Ibarra reportedly provided the Sinaloa Cartel with police protection for drugs smuggled in via the port.
2. The second one suggests that Chávez Ibarra was killed for working for the Sinaloa Cartel and being linked to Morales Leonel’s murder two days earlier.
An anonymous state police officer who spoke to reporters from the Tijauan-based Zeta magazine said that the Baja California government was looking to arrest a “scapegoat” and charge him with Chávez Ibarra’s murder to cover-up the case.  One of the suspects charged for Chávez Ibarra’s murder told investigators that he worked for El Cabo 20, but the police officer told reporters that the suspect was not linked to Chávez Ibarra’s murder.
The anonymous source told reporters that Chávez Ibarra may have been linked to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the CJNG. Since the Sinaloa Cartel worked very closely with the Ensenada Municipal Police, Chávez Ibarra was killed by gangsters.
Potential aftermaths
In Tijuana, the cells of El Cabo 20 are fracturing and there is intra-cartel conflict. These turf wars have not fully migrated to Ensenada, but authorities suspect it may be a matter of time before Ensenada becomes a major battleground between the CAF and the Sinaloa Cartel.
In Baja California, the Sinaloa Cartel is commanded by Rene Arzate Garcia (“La Rana”). In November 2018, Sinaloa Cartel and the CAF had a pact of non-aggression; El Flaquito, to show he was committed to the cause, gave up his accomplices Edgar Ruiz y Leonardo Cárdenas to the Sinaloa Cartel. Both were assassinated. This peace treaty appears to no longer be in place.
Below are the Sinaloa Cartel members who operate out of Ensenada:
1. Jorge Alberto Arce Guillén (“El Tigre” and/or “El Brusco”)
2. Víctor Manuel Padilla Murillo (“El Chatarras”)
3. Carlos Adrián Casas Reyes (“El Ocho”, “El Mercenario” and/or “El Tragedias”)
4. Ramiro Corrales Montenegro (“El Cinco”)
5. Alexis Mendoza Guillén (“El 15”)
6. Manuel Calderón Leyva (“El Plumas”).

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