Think Out Loud

How Seaside and other Oregon towns became targets of a Mexican drug cartel

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
March 7, 2023 6:56 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, March 7

The Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, also referred to as CJNG, is a Mexican drug cartel with cells throughout the United States. Cartel members lived in Oregon and distributed fentanyl, meth and other illicit drugs in the state and across the country. The pockets of activity affected Portland and Hillsboro but also smaller communities like Oregon City, Seaside and Hood River. Beth Warren is an enterprise and investigative reporter for the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. She reported on drug trafficking in Oregon and CJNG’s efforts to expand its drug smuggling operations throughout the U.S.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave MillerThis is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with a look into a Mexican drug cartel’s operations in Oregon. The Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación also known as CJNG is a global criminal enterprise. Their drug rings in Portland, Hillsboro, Oregon City, Seaside and Hood River were part of a massive distribution system that brought fentanyl, meth, and other illicit drugs throughout the state and across the country. Beth Warren is an enterprise and investigative reporter for the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s been reporting on CJNG for years now and she recently wrote about their operations in Oregon. She joins us now. Welcome to the show.

Beth Warren:  Thank you.

MillerSo you write for a paper in Louisville. Why were you interested in a drug bust all the way over here in Oregon?

Warren:  Yeah, that’s a great question. I was covering the opioid crisis in Louisville, which was at ground zero. We were losing over an average of a person a day to an overdose death. And so I had parents who lost their son to fentanyl asking where all these drugs coming from, that end up in Louisville, Kentucky. So, I went to Mexico with the DEA in 2019 to learn more about CJNG, which is one of the top two cartels bringing the bulk of the illegal drugs into the U.S. The other one, most people have heard of is Sinaloa, once headed by El Chapo. But a lot of people didn’t know about CJNG. So we ended up, myself and the team, doing a 28-page special section just on that cartel and how their strategy is to go all across the U.S. into unexpected places, not just the major cities, and that led to a grant. So I have been writing about cartel activity ever since.

MillerWell, as you noted, the Sinaloa cartel, I think it really is much more infamous, much more well known to Americans than CJNG. What should we know about them?

Warren:  They’re really the bigger threat right now. Their leader is called El Mencho and he’s been hiding out for basically a decade and is on the DEA’s Most Wanted list. There’s a $10 million reward for him and they still can’t get him. So basically, parents should be aware that the drug threats their teenagers and young adults face on the streets of America, whether you’re in a city or small town, are largely dictated by the CJNG and Sinaloa cartels.

MillerWhat makes CJNG so successful?

Warren:  Well, for starters, they have more members than the DEA. There’s over 5,000 members and they’ve been detected on every continent except Antarctica. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they have drugs there too. And the leader has an army of mercenaries. A lot of them are former police or former military. They’re highly trained, highly armed, and they’re armed with weapons from the U.S. and they’re a force to be reckoned with. They use fear and intimidation. They use social media to promote themselves and to scare people. And they also bribe people. And the people who aren’t willing to be bribed, they threaten to hurt them and they sometimes kill them. So they’ve killed judges, they’ve killed police officers and other officials. They tried to assassinate the Mexican police chief in Mexico City and he believes that was CJNG. So, I mean, they’re very effective.

MillerLet’s turn to the Oregon drug bust that you wrote about recently and the bust was a couple years ago. But there’s more information that came to light recently that led to your most recent article. Can you give us just a sense for the scale of the operation that was eventually uncovered by a combination of Oregon-based law enforcement and federal law enforcement?

Warren:  Yes, it was millions of dollars of drugs that this drug trafficking organization was bringing into the Portland area. And the leader was a CJNG associate. He had been caught in your area before, deported, he snuck back, got caught again, was sent up for 10 years in prison. When he got out, he was deported, then he snuck back. So he was determined, for decades, to bring illicit drugs into the Portland area on behalf of the cartel. And so, I found it interesting, and it’s just wormed its way through court. Covid slowed it down a little.

So there were hearings as late as last summer on this case. And so I thought finding an adjudicated case to highlight would show people this is not an anomaly. This is happening all over the U.S. But I found it interesting that it involved beautiful Seaside. And I also found it interesting that the savvy and dedication of John Walker who was, at the time, a Clatsop County sheriff’s investigator, and how he just was like a dog with a bone. He wouldn’t let it go and really helped an FBI task force put some of the pieces together.

MillerWhat did you hear from John Walker, this sheriff’s detective from Clatsop County, about what he did to try to actually make this case?

Warren:  He went undercover and did some buys. And the thing about it is, he was kind of a one man band which I also find interesting. Because of budget cuts, the narcotics team had been whittled down to just him. And I think it would have been easy for him to be discouraged. But he was just so determined to make his community safer. And he would team with surrounding agencies, he would ask for help and everything, but he was just very dogged and was hearing from informants where some of the major suppliers were in the community.


Then he kind of worked it from there and secured a search warrant, and then stumbled on to some of the people that were running these drugs from Hillsboro to the coast. And then, that was as far as he went. He shared his intel with the WIN [Westside Interagency Narcotics] team in Washington County. And that task force has FBI agents on it. And FBI and Homeland Security investigations teamed to put the bigger puzzle together, which originated in Portland and then would go from Portland to Hillsboro, feed that cell, and then Hillsboro would send the drugs further to the coast.

MillerOne of the striking aspects of this bust is the extent to which younger family members were brought in couriers or helpers, as lower people in the chain sometimes who are more and more likely to, it seems, be found or be arrested. How common is this in terms of the overall workings of this cartel?

Warren:  It’s very common. And I found that interesting. It’s another thing that drew me to this case. I love the Shakespearean drama, the fact that there’s young, when I say young, like 20 year olds. And you’ve got a senior family member in a family that really values the hierarchy within a family structure. And that senior family member is saying, ‘hey, do me this favor.’ That doesn’t sound so scary. But then they get roped in before they really realize the extent of what they’re doing. And that’s backed up by prosecutors as well. They believed that there was the naivete of these younger relatives. So that’s why they were able to get less sentences. So it is common, within the cartel world, to have the leader - El Mencho is not out there doing these big deals. He has underlings that do it.

And there’s always going to be younger people to take some of the risks. And it’s the same way with street gangs, which I’ve written a lot about in the past. The cartels use street gangs in the U.S. to distribute a lot of the drugs and the street gangs will use teenagers to do some of these revenge killings or some of the deals. So they’ll tell them, ‘if you get caught, you’re only gonna face juvenile time’, which is not always true. But the juvenile falls for that. And so it’s people who are higher up in the food chain trying to insulate themselves.

MillerAlso trying to prevent the people who do get caught from talking, which is one of the things that you get into in your reporting. What did the cartel do to discourage people who have been nabbed by authorities from saying anything about the organization?

Warren:  They used threats and intimidation and in this case, I also found this to be very interesting that there were, in Mexico and Michoacán, a western state, that’s the state that the main drug trafficker in this case is from. Basically there were some headless bodies that were dumped outside of a business that’s associated with the Farfan family. And the main drug supplier in Portland was Victor Alvarez Farfan. And so what happened is that when they were arrested, the bodies were dumped and so they took it to mean that the cartel is paying attention to the court case in Portland and that if they talk, then the next people to die would be actual family members.

And so that kept some of the players in this, they were scared silent. So I wanted to point out to Americans who don’t understand why we can’t topple these drug rings, why we’re arresting people in the U.S. and not going after bigger people in Mexico. This is a key example of why it’s so difficult, because Victor Farfan, who would have known the higher up CJNG members, was certainly not going to talk, he never talked on them. He knew if he didn’t just do the time, they would know he talked and if they didn’t kill him, they could kill any family members. He still has family members in Michoacán. So it’s a very, very effective scare tactic that the cartels, not just CJNG, but a lot of Mexican cartels use, to stay dominant.

MillerThe bust at the heart of your reporting here involves something like 20 people and a number of different cities all across Oregon. But I also can’t help but think that or assume that it’s just a blip, a sort of a small piece of the cost of doing business for these massive cartels. Is that the way you think about it?

Warren:  You mean the fact that they lost the drug that was confiscated in this case?

MillerThat, and also the people who are part of their distribution network in this one corner of the country, I imagine that they just keep going?

Warren:  Oh. Right. And they certainly don’t care about the Americans that end up in prison as long as they’re silent. They don’t care that they’re destroying people’s lives. It’s a business, it’s definitely a business. And just like if you ran a department store, you’re gonna expect what they call shrinkage. Some people steal. Then in their world, people being arrested and some of the drugs being confiscated is just considered part of the cost of doing business. There’s always going to be another shipment. There’s always gonna be somebody else willing to take it across the border as long as there’s people in the US that are willing to pay to consume it.

MillerYou mentioned just now about either threats of violence or real violence, beheaded bodies of family members, of people who are arrested here being put in front of their, their family’s homes in Mexico. You’ve been reporting, though, on this cartel for years now. Do you have concerns about your own safety?

Warren:  Well, my partner is in Mexico City and certainly, when I go to Mexico, we are careful and she uses precautions as well. So I would say that we definitely use precautions. But anyway, I feel like we’re not outing people like the Mexican media. [They] write about the cartels on a much deeper level than we do. It’s almost like following an NFL team.

They will do blow by blow like when CJNG strikes a blow against another cartel in a certain region, vying for business, they’ll write about that. So they’re much more in danger, the Mexican media. They will out people. They will say this person, this political figure [who] is respected in the community is actually on the take for this cartel. So the kind of things they’re doing, I think are more dangerous. But that doesn’t mean we don’t take steps that we feel will help ensure safety.

MillerBeth Warren, thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Warren:  Thank you. I appreciate it.

MillerBeth Warren is an enterprise and investigative reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal based in Louisville, Kentucky.

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