Nayarit rarely makes the headlines in Mexico, far less in the rest of the world. But this fall, the arrest of Mexico’s former secretary of defense, General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, dragged this small and unassuming state into the spotlight. On October 15, Cienfuegos was detained in Los Angeles on charges including conspiracy to distribute heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana in the United States, allegedly working on behalf of the Nayarit-based ‘H-2 Cartel.’ Cienfuegos denied the charges against him, and after a month of behind-the-scenes wrangling, US attorney general William Barr decided that ‘sensitive and important foreign policy considerations’ outweighed the case against Cienfuegos, ordering his release so that he ‘may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged’ in Mexico. For many, Cienfuegos’ arrest and subsequent release is a conspicuous symbol of the intrinsic corruption that plagues the militarized drug war strategy.
But there is more to the story. The ‘H-2 Cartel’ was not some minor group that somehow managed to bribe the country’s top security official. Rather, it was an organization that not only controlled drug trafficking in Nayarit between 2011 and 2017, but also established close ties with much of the state’s political elite. The story of how that corruption played out in Nayarit brings into focus the interplay between military operations, political maneuvering and drug trafficking. Indeed, it is in some ways unsurprising that Cienfuegos would be connected with an organization based in Nayarit, where the unique dynamics of local politics, combined with the state’s low profile as a hub for trafficking, have long permitted a particular brand of what Benjamin Smith has termed ‘narco-populism’ to flourish. With any case against Cienfuegos now reliant on the information available to the Mexican prosecutor’s office—which, just days before Cienfuegos’ release, issued an arrest warrant for a former governor of Nayarit also accused of cooperation with the H-2 Cartel—it would seem that the Narco-Nayarit connection has never been more worthy of serious analysis.
With a total area of a little under 30,000 km2, Nayarit is roughly the size of Massachusetts, and 23rd out of Mexico’s 32 federal entities in terms of size. It sits halfway up Mexico’s Pacific coast, sandwiched between Sinaloa to the north and Jalisco to the south, while its mountainous interior also borders Durango and Zacatecas. Nayarit’s coast is a tropical zone fringed by mangrove swamps, where fishing and commercial agriculture are the lifeblood of the local economy. Indeed, Nayarit is Mexico’s second biggest exporter of mangoes, and primary producer of tobacco. Since 1970, eighty percent of Mexican tobacco has been grown in the vast plantations of the Nayarit coast, pulling in migrant workers from across central and western Mexico.
Further inland is Tepic, the state’s slightly gritty capital of 330,000, located in an altiplano zone of cane fields and coffee orchards towered over by huge volcanoes. Finally, Mexico’s largest mountain range, the Sierra Madre Occidental, completely dominates the western third of the state. This region is difficult to access, sparsely populated, incredibly poor (even by Mexican standards), and predominantly populated by Indigenous Wixárika (Huichol) and Náayari (Cora) people.
Nayarit’s hugely important agricultural sector has made the state a natural stronghold of the PRI, and in particular of PRI strongmen of a particularly brash and populist bent; only two non-PRI governors have ever run the state (once between 1999-2005, while in 2017 the state flipped to current president López Obrador’s insurgent MORENA party), while the PRI’s stranglehold on municipal-level politics has been even more complete.
The legacy of this political history and the facts of geography together define Nayarit’s place in the modern Mexican drug trade. The heavily indigenous highlands that were the backbone of 19th-century rebellion, are today one of Mexico’s primary opium-growing zones, thanks to a combination of widespread and severe poverty, rugged, mountainous topography, and the limited, ineffective and often corrupt presence of state and federal authorities. Similarly, the long coastline and strategic location between Sinaloa and Jalisco that, in the nineteenth century, had made Nayarit a stronghold of the British contrabandists, by the 1960s made the state a strategically important setting for the trafficking of drugs north towards the United States. This illicit trade was dominated by Sinaloans, although in many cases they operated from Guadalajara, the state capital of Jalisco. For Guadalajara-based Sinaloan capos like Ruperto Beltrán Monzón in the 1960s, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo in the 1980s, and Héctor El “Güero” Palma in the early 1990s, maintaining control over Nayarit, whose roads connected their native state with their new homes, was therefore doubly important.
If Sinaloans dominated the higher echelons of the Nayarit’s drug trade, from the 1980s growing numbers of Nayarit natives also began to move from drug production into the more profitable business of trafficking. Sam Quinones has revealed that the traffickers who dominate the heroin trade in the US Midwest are all predominantly from Nayarit. Most of them hail more specifically from the town of Xalisco, just outside the state capital of Tepic, where opium gum from Nayarit’s mountains was processed into black tar heroin and then sent off north for distribution and sale.
Although the drug trade in Nayarit operated with the direct involvement of government representatives at all levels, the army occasionally attacked traffickers and often arrested, tortured and/or imprisoned peasants caught cultivating poppies and marijuana. Nor were skirmishes between rival traffickers, and the killing of state officials on the orders of organized crime, unheard of in the state. But violence related to the drug trade only began to surge in Nayarit after President Calderón’s 2006 declaration of ‘war’ on the nation’s cartels. By 2010, Tepic had a murder rate of 229 for every 100,000 inhabitants, and was ranked the thirteenth most dangerous city in the world. 2011 was even bloodier, with 456 murders recorded across the state.
It is ironic, then, that it was precisely the Federal government’s militarized crackdown on the cartels—and the extreme and generalized violence that accompanied it—that allowed the so-called ‘H-2’ cartel to extend its influence to the heart of the government itself; first by gaining unprecedented sway over state authorities in Nayarit, and from there suborning General Cienfuegos Zepeda, the very man supposedly leading Mexico’s fight against organized crime.
The difference between a state being a venue for drug production, trafficking, and conflicts between rival cartels, and one in which the cartels have actually taken control of the local authorities (or in which the authorities have in fact become ‘narcos’ themselves), is an inherently political one. Nayarit’s transformation to an ‘estado narco’ was tied up with the long history of PRI control in the state, and, more specifically, with the nature of Roberto Sandoval Castañeda’s tenure as state governor between 2011 and 2017—which not coincidentally overlapped with General Cienfuegos’ term as Secretary of Defense during the PRIista administration of President Peña Nieto, from 2012 to 2018.
Sandoval—or simply ‘el Roberto,’ as he is still known in Nayarit – began his political career under the patronage of PRI state governor Ney González (2005-2011). He became municipal president of Tepic in 2008, and succeeded González to the state governorship in 2011, using the PRI’s impressive local political machine, together with a carefully cultivated ‘cowboy’ image, and assurances that only he could put a stop to the violence then wracking the state, to appeal to Nayarit’s beleaguered and predominantly rural electorate.
Rarely seen in public without a sombrero and an embroidered Wixárika shoulder bag, Sandoval’s self-proclaimed ‘people’s government’ undertook numerous eye-catching projects, such as building a public sports and concert arena (which soon flooded), huge water-capture tanks in the poor outskirts of Tepic (which were never connected to the local water supply), and a sports center shaped like a giant cowboy hat. Sandoval was a cowboy in other senses too. He used his power to amass enormous landholdings and expand his own personal ranching operations. In less than eight years, he went from self-proclaimed rags to being one of Nayarit’s richest men, or, to use a measure more in keeping with his cowboy image, “from having two horses, [to] 800 pure-bred Andalusians,” which he kept on a luxurious 17-hectare ranch complete with an artificial, palm-tree lined lake. And all this he accomplished, it is alleged, through embezzlement of state funds, extorsion of businesses, overseeing kidnapping for ransom and seizures of land and property, and, of course, close collaboration with drug traffickers. All of these activities were overseen by his chief ally and enforcer, Edgar Veytia: the same man charged with the local prosecution of the Mexican state’s ‘war on the drug cartels.’
State attorney general Veytia was the man who made good on Sandoval’s promises to halt the killing in Nayarit: the sheriff to the governor’s cowboy. He was “the very image of a Mexican lawman, with a round, jowly face and thick mustache, a pistol shoved into his belt. In Nayarit, he declared, there was “no room for organized crime.” Homicides fell 75 percent in four years.’ Public shoot-outs between rival cartel gunmen grew rarer, and by 2016, Nayarit ‘ranked at No 2 on the Mexico Peace Index,’ and was lauded by President Peña Nieto as an example of PRIista policy success. But what Veytia had actually done was to “hand over the drugs market [to the mafia]. Nayarit put the safety of the state in the hands of organized crime – and in the short term, it worked.”
Far from a law enforcement hero, however, Edgar Veytia was in fact the very picture of a miscreant. He grew up a dual citizen in San Diego, California, before heading south into Mexico to begin a career of violent crime. He bought a bachelor’s in forensic science in Tepic, married into a local political family, bought a local transport franchise, and made friends with Roberto Sandoval, who appointed him as Director of Roads and Transit when he became Tepic’s municipal president in 2008. When Sandoval acceded to the state governorship he named Veytia the state’s assistant attorney general— but never appointed anyone as head of the state justice department, leaving Veytia its de facto chief. Known to many in Nayarit as ‘El Diablo’ or ‘La Bestia,’ Veytia was described by witnesses to his abuses as ‘the military arm of Sandoval’s governorship,’ using the Policía Nayarit—the black-uniformed, balaclava-clad paramilitary police he set up as the state’s main anti-cartel force—as his own personal army. And it was from this position that he was able to consolidate a pre-existing relationship with the head of the Beltrán Leyva cartel in Nayarit—Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, whose codename—H-2—would eventually become shorthand for the criminal organization in the state.
The Beltrán Leyva organization were Sinaloans who had once controlled trafficking in Nayarit and several other areas of western Mexico as part of the wider Sinaloa cartel, until a violent break with ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán and his allies in 2008—the same year that Sandoval and Veytia assumed positions in Tepic’s municipal government. Since then, H-2 and his men had fought hard against El Chapo’s group to maintain control of Nayarit— and found a vital ally in Veytia, who from 2011 helped them to locate and assassinate their rivals. He used all of the forces at his command to give H-2 complete control of drug trafficking in the state: according to witnesses in Compostela, for example, every week Policía Nayarit officers would escort a truck full of H-2 gunmen into their town to help them to ‘disappear people.’ Veytia also made sure that any H-2 members who were arrested were always quickly freed.
In October 2013, Veytia even provided security at a wedding at Santa María del Oro lake, where Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez and Héctor Beltrán Leyva, were entertained by famous norteño singer Remmy Valenzuela. Until, that is, a helicopter-load of marines dropped out of the skies, sparking a fierce battle with the Policía Nayarit, which gave Veytia’s most important ‘guests’ enough time to escape. Several police officers surrendered and were arrested by the marines, but unsurprisingly all were released from a Tepic jail shortly afterwards.
Both sides gained from this partnership: Sandoval grew extremely rich, as did Veytia, who earned money from embezzlement, kidnapping, murder-for-hire, extorsion, and the seizure of peasants’ lands. The ‘minimum tariff’ for the release of a loved one abducted by Veytia’s forces was set at 300,000 pesos (approximately $15,000 USD), although sometimes Veytia also demanded property. In one case he gained a building in an up-and-coming tourism hotspot that was later valued at five million pesos (a quarter million dollars), and in another, threatened to have the farmers of La Peñita de Jaltemba, on the Nayarit coast, murdered unless they gave him control of communally-owned village lands. Soon Veytia expanded into trafficking drugs himself. He was rumored to have used his bus franchise to smuggle marihuana, as well as heroin processed in laboratories that he operated in Nayarit’s mountains. US authorities estimated he earned a total of $250 million from such illicit activities. And at the same time, Patrón Sánchez rose up within the ranks of the Beltrán Leyva organization, taking full command of the group after Héctor Beltrán Leyva was arrested in 2014, thus expanding his personal influence beyond Nayarit into parts of Sinaloa, Jalisco, Colima and Guerrero. Indeed, it would appear that their collective successes were sufficient to attract the attention of Mexico’s Secretary of Defense, General Cienfuegos Zepeda, who decided he wanted a share for himself.
While it is too early to know the full story, according to court documents Cienfuegos advised Patrón Sánchez about US investigations into his activities; as alerted him to the presence of informants within his organization (which led Patrón Sánchez to order at least one murder); and made sure his subordinates in the Mexican security forces refrained from interfering in the H-2 cartel’s operations, including kidnappings, torture, jail-breaks, the trafficking of drugs and weapons, and dozens of murders. One might also conjecture that Cienfuegos’ protection extended to Patrón Sánchez’s political partners in crime, too. For example, after Veytia’s police officers spoiled the attempt to capture Héctor Beltrán Leyva in Santa María del Oro in 2013, the Navy Secretary apparently demanded Veytia’s arrest, but Roberto Sandoval successfully interceded on his behalf with the Secretary of the Interior. We can imagine that if Cienfuegos may well have backed Sandoval, making his pleas that much more persuasive. If this was the case, we can only imagine what Veytia – who thanked Sandoval for his intercession with a gift of Spanish horses worth a million dollars and 300 hectares of recently-seized peasant lands – gave to the Secretary of Defense in exchange for his support.
However mutually beneficial the relationships had been, in 2017 the alliance between Patrón Sánchez, Veytia, Sandoval and Cienfuegos fell apart in truly spectacular fashion. On 9 February, Patrón Sánchez and seven of his men were killed in a joint operation in suburban Tepic. The operation was a joint effort between Veytia’s police forces and the Navy, a surprising partnership given previous events. Dramatic videos of the two-hour battle were widely shared online and broadcast on national television, including footage of a naval helicopter gunship raining fluorescent red fire down on a safehouse. For the first time in years, the drug trade in Nayarit received global media attention. The next morning, a joint force of marines and Veytia’s officers killed the Beltrán Leyva organization’s second-in-command, Daniel Isaac Silva Gárate (codenamed H-9), in an ambush in another part of Tepic. It would seem that the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, who now moved into Nayarit en masse, had outbid Patrón Sánchez and become Veytia’s new paymasters.
Just five weeks later, however, Veytia miscalculated – or was perhaps himself betrayed – and on one of his twice-monthly trips to San Diego to visit his family was detained at the US border. A federal grand jury in New York City charged with conspiracy to manufacture, distribute, import and distribute heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana between 2013 and 2017. After a two-year trial, Judge Carol Amon found him guilty on these charges on 26 September 2019 and sentenced him to 20 years prison. Veytia’s arrest led the Mexican Federal prosecutor’s office and lawmakers in Nayarit to open a joint investigation into Sandoval in mid-2017. Subsequently, in early 2019, the US Treasury Department applied sanctions to Sandoval and his wife and two adult children ‘who have acted or purported to act on his behalf by holding his ill-gotten assets in their names.’
Then, in February 2020, and apparently on the basis of evidence given by Veytia as part of a sentencing deal, the U.S. State Department indicted Sandoval, alleging he had ‘misappropriated state assets and received bribes from narcotics trafficking organizations, including the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) [and] the Beltran Leyva Organization.’ On 13 November, at the same time as the Mexican government was pressing for the release of General Cienfuegos in the US, the Mexican prosecutor’s office issued a warrant for Sandoval’s arrest on charges of ‘embezzlement, graft and corruption.’ His name was added to INTERPOL’s red list, while Mexican President López Obrador urged him to turn himself in and face justice— although to date his whereabouts remain unknown.
But it now appears that Sandoval’s was not the only name Veytia shared with U.S. authorities. In August 2019, just a month before Veytia’s final sentencing, an indictment was filed in the same Court of the Eastern District of New York accusing Cienfuegos of also collaborating with Nayarit’s ‘H-2 cartel.’ According to journalist Laura Sánchez Ley, Veytia had turned informant in order to secure a shorter jail sentence. It was this indictment that led to the Cienfuegos arrest in the United States and revealed his place in the Nayarit corruption story. With his return to Mexico, though, Cienfuegos’ fate is now tied far more tightly to that disgraced ex-governor Sandoval—currently a fugitive and likely still on Mexican soil—than it is to Veytia.
Cienfuegos’ surprise detention, and even more unexpected release, is emblematic of the deeply intertwined nature of military power, political influence and economic opportunity— both licit and illicit—in Mexico. The strength of the PRI political machine in a small, provincial but strategic agricultural state enabled an openly corrupt political clique to cut lucrative deals with local drug traffickers. This allowed them, together, to institutionalize corruption, embezzlement, land-grabs and violence, as well as drug production and trafficking, in the area under their joint control. And these practices were so profitable that officials at the heart of President Peña Nieto’s PRI federal government—indeed, the commander-in-chief of the same army prosecuting Mexico’s ‘war’ on drug trafficking—decided to get in on the action themselves and take their own cut of the reward.
That Edgar Veytia was eventually arrested, tried and convicted for his part in this story, and that an arrest warrant has since been issued for Roberto Sandoval, is somewhat heartening. Yet the fact of General Cienfuegos’ recent release is testament to the difficulties of obtaining real justice for the people of Nayarit. While some of the victims of Veytia and Sandoval’s reign of terror have recently been able to come forward with their stories of kidnappings, disappearances, and torture, such ‘truth telling’ is cold comfort to those who have been affected by the even deadlier violence that has wracked Nayarit in the years since Veytia’s detention in the United States. Ultimately, Veytia’s incomplete attempt to deliver the state directly into the hands of the CJNG unleashed a new wave of local violence.