Over a breakfast of chilaquiles and coffee at a traditional restaurant in Guadalajara, a tequila producer named Eduardo Pérez recently described how suspected members of the city's dominant drug cartel demanded extortion payments in order to keep himself and his business "protected."
"They warned me that if I didn't pay, then I'd be in trouble," Pérez told VICE News. "I changed my phone number and everything, but the extortion continued."
For almost two years, Pérez paid his extortionists 200,000 pesos each month (about $13,400) to avoid repercussions. He was eventually forced to close his business because of the payments to suspected extortionists linked to the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG.
The drug gang is currently muscling itself into headlines and onto the country's security agenda by carrying out ambushes against police forces. The latest attack, on Monday night, left 15 Jalisco state police officers dead, including one female agent.
"You have to pay the famous quotas. If you don't, then they'll start to harm you or your business," said Pérez, who owns a tequila company in Jalisco, one of Mexico's largest and most important states.
"This isn't just happening to us," he added. "It's happening in all kinds of different industries in this region. It's really frightening."
A bullet punctured the windshield of a vehicle in the community of Ocotlán, Jalisco, after a March 19 shootout that left 11 people dead. (Photo by Victor Hugo Ornelas/VICE News
With that sense of fear spreading, the United States this week placed the suspected leader of the New Generation cartel, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, or "El Mencho," and one other suspected capo on its so-called kingpin list.
The designation announced in Washington prevents US citizens from conducting business with the suspected capos, and freezes any assets belonging to the men in the US.
But the CJNG has been terrifying citizens in Jalisco for several years now. It produces ominous YouTube videos showing fully armed and masked gunmen promising death to its many rivals in Mexico's organized-crime landscape.
The group is believed to be involved in widespread kidnapping, extortion, and gasoline theft in western Mexico.
'If someone were going to kill me they would have done it by now.'
Jalisco, the cartel's birthplace, is best known as the home of tequila. Like France's Champagne, the agave-derived spirit is protected by a denomination of origin, which limits production to the region centered around Jalisco and the town of Tequila.
But even this, one of Mexico's most symbolically important industries, is suffering at the hands of organized crime.
Pérez reluctantly shut down operations after the constant payments, as the strain on his company's finances took its toll. Although he has since quietly resumed operations without major problems, he said he knows other tequila producers who are still being extorted, and "are scared for their lives and those of their families."
While Pérez said he could not be totally sure who was responsible for extorting him, Jalisco's tequila-producing region lies right in the heart of Nueva Generación territory.
Jalisco's world-famous tequila industry is also said to be under the thumb of the New Generation cartel. (Photo by Bernardo De Niz/AP)
Juan Manuel Estrada, a private investigator, told VICE News that crimes such as extortion and human-trafficking have become increasingly common in Jalisco since the cartel's emergence.
A somber man with graying hair and a penetrative stare, Estrada runs Fundación Find, a Jalisco-based agency dedicated to locating missing persons. One case he is currently focused on is the disappearance of two Guadalajara contractors, Omar Eduardo Madrigal and Francisco Javier Pérez, who were abducted on February 9.
The pair had applied for a contract to run a landfill in Colima, a Pacific coastal state that borders Jalisco. Ignoring threats calling for them to abandon the project, they agreed to meet local officials at the landfill site, in the town of Tecomán.
"The officials from Colima never showed up," Estrada said. "Instead, a group of criminals arrived in three trucks."
The assailants kidnapped the two men and shot a companion of theirs dead. "This case is typical of what happens if you don't do what they tell you to do," he said.
Estrada has himself been threatened because of his investigative work. He showed us photographs of a severed pig's head and impaled chickens that were delivered to his home with the message, "Greetings to the family."
Estrada, however, shows little fear. "If someone were going to kill me, they would have done it by now," he said decidedly.
If it is sometimes difficult to identify who is behind such crimes in Jalisco, this may be because CJNG values discretion highly. This was illustrated on February 28, when Mexican marines arrested a cartel leader named Abigael González Valencia, in the popular beach resort of Puerto Vallarta.
González Valencia offered his captors 50 million pesos ($3.3 million) so his face would not appear on television. The offer was reportedly rejected, although the arrest was still largely overlooked by the Mexican news media.
While Oseguera Cervantes, "El Mencho," is thought to lead the cartel, some reports indicate that González Valencia, who is his brother-in-law, was in fact his superior and the true leader of Nueva Generación.
The US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated both men, along with the groups Nueva Generación and Los Cuinis, a little known sub-organization also controlled by González Valencia, under the Kingpin Act on Wednesday.
Relatively little is known in public about El Mencho, but the OFAC revealed in its announcement that he served three nearly years in a United States prison stemming from a 1994 conviction for conspiracy to distribute heroin.
It also noted that Nueva Generación has "ties to other criminal organizations around the world, including in the United States, Latin America, Africa, Europe, and Asia."
Two boys pass a bullet-ridden home in Ocotlán. (Photo by Victor Hugo Ornelas)
Nueva Generación has grown confrontational since the arrest of González Valencia in February. One of the cartel's most audacious assaults came on March 19, when it ambushed a federal police convoy in the quiet lakeside town of Ocotlán, Jalisco.
The ferocious shootout took place in the heart of a residential neighborhood, with terrified locals cowering in their homes as grenades exploded outside and stray bullets shattered windows.
Eleven people were killed, including five members of the Gendarmerie federal police force, three Nueva Generación gunmen, and three bystanders. Another eight officers and at least 20 civilians were hospitalized after the attack.
One 55-year-old man, who asked to be referred to only as Eduardo, described to VICE News the day after the attack how panicked residents sought cover from the gunfire.
"I told my son to take a knife from the kitchen in case they tried to enter our home. I grabbed another and I asked my wife to look after our grandchild," Eduardo said. "They were shooting from above. We could hear them running along the roof, and were scared they'd want to hide inside our home."
The ambush — which some speculated was a diversion meant to allow El Mencho to escape town — began around 9 pm and lasted for almost two hours.
On the same street, eleven-year-old Poncho had been left home alone while his parents visited his grandmother in a hospital. "I texted my dad and he told me to hide under the bed and not come out," said Poncho, who admitted he was in tears as the shots thundered outside.
The next morning, Octolán resembled a war zone. Streets were stained with blood and strewn with shattered glass. Thirty-one homes and 29 vehicles were damaged, and police recovered over 2,000 spent cartridges.
Among the dead is Isaac Solís, 15, who was shot through the heart. By the following day, authorities had yet to wash away a ten-meter trail of blood leading to the doorway where his lifeless body was found.
The CJNG has published numerous videos showing its weaponry and muscle.
As for speculation that Nueva Generación has infiltrated the state security apparatus, a Guadalajara-based independent investigator, Jesús Peréz Caballero, said the cartel could not have prospered without government protection, whether at a municipal, state, or federal level.
"There's an element of Darwinism in the way [CJNG] has grown and adapted," Caballero told VICE News.
He noted the shrewd timing of Nueva Generación's offensives against rivals, and its willingness to co-opt vigilante movements and fight in tandem with federal forces against common enemies, such as the Knights Templar in Michoacán.
Peréz Caballero also pointed to the gang's use of YouTube to denounce the kidnapping and extortion practices of its declared enemies, and its promises "peace and tranquility" in Nueva Generación territory.
In 2011, suspected members of the Zetas cartel hung narco-banners throughout the streets of Guadalajara, alleging that Carlos Nájera, then Jalisco's public security secretary and now the attorney general, was protecting the Nueva Generación cartel.
While cartel propaganda is hardly a reliable source of information, in 2008, municipal and state police officers accused Nájera of collaborating with the Sinaloa and Milenio cartels, the two organizations from which the Nueva Generación cartel sprang. Nájera's office turned down VICE News requests for an interview.
A week after the shootout in Ocotlán, Jalisco Gov. Aristóteles Sandoval rejected a wave of public outcry, and refused to dismiss Nájera for the worsening security situation in Jalisco.
The image-conscious governor has often sought to downplay the cartel's influence in the state and regularly omits the word "Jalisco" from its full name — Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación — in public statements.
While this may offer superficial help to prevent the state from being tainted by an association with drug violence, it provides little comfort for the residents of Ocotlán, and countless others who have already suffered from Nueva Generación's aggression.
A local woman, who declined to give her name for fear of reprisal, told VICE News that her family locked themselves in a bedroom after hearing screams and gunshots on the night of the Ocotlán attack.
"We hid where we could and from that moment the shooting was relentless. It was a massacre," the woman said. "We'd never experienced anything like it."