MEXICO CITY/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A major bust by U.S. drug authorities targeting Mexico's fastest-growing gang will likely do little to stem the rise of the ultra-violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and its shadowy leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias 'El Mencho'.
Over the past decade, Oseguera, a 53-year-old former policeman, has masterminded the CJNG's emergence as a criminal empire spanning five continents and a rival to the Sinaloa Cartel of captured kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, now in a U.S. prison.
From the swathes of Mexico's western Jalisco state that he controls, Oseguera is accused of flooding U.S. streets with synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and fentanyl, that cause tens of thousands of deaths every year.
El Mencho's success has made him a prized target, with U.S. authorities placing a $10 million bounty on his head in 2018.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) stepped up the fight last week with its largest swoop against the CJNG on U.S. soil, arresting more than 600 people accused of being linked to its sprawling criminal network.
U.S. authorities also struck two body blows against the assassin-turned-cartel boss last month, arresting his daughter in Washington and extraditing his son from Mexico to the United States.
"He's one of our number one targets," a senior DEA official told Reuters, citing soaring output from CJNG labs churning out heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl for the United States.
The DEA official, who asked not to be identified, said the agency estimates the CJNG produced about 106 metric tons of heroin in 2018, a four-fold rise from 2013, and was also making "pharmaceutical grade" methamphetamine pills in jungle labs.
The volumes were unprecedented in Mexico, the official said.
U.S. officials touted the success of last week's raids in disrupting the CJNG, saying they also made "significant seizures of money and drugs".
But experts were sceptical, citing the scale of the CJNG's organization and its base in Mexico - where the U.S. government estimates it is present in three quarters of the states - built on violence and fear.
"It's not going to have an impact," said Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of international operations. "It would be tantamount to closing down a few franchises of McDonald's while the global chain continues to exist."
'HE CONTROLS THE STATE'
Oseguera's ascent from a former foot soldier to one of Mexico's most feared capos has been marked by business acumen and a willingness to use grisly violence meted out by CJNG henchmen, including beheadings.
The Mexican state has not been spared. The cartel has massacred security forces, most recently in October, when alleged CJNG gunmen ambushed and killed 14 police officers in the western state of Michoacan.
In 2015, as Mexican forces closed in on Oseguera, tipped-off CJNG henchmen downed a military helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade to buy time for their leader to escape.
The CJNG's expansion was helped by a balkanization of the cartels that followed the neutralization of capos over the past decade under the U.S.-backed "Kingpin" strategy employed by Mexico.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador assumed power in late 2018 vowing to adopt a less confrontational approach to tackling gang violence by focusing on the root causes of crime, poverty and corruption.
But El Mencho's turf wars with the Sinaloa Cartel have contributed to runaway levels of violence in Mexico. Murders hit an all-time high of 34,582 last year.
One senior Mexican security official said Oseguera was the most wanted organized crime leader in the country, along with his rival "El Marro", whose smaller Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel is accused of industrial-scale fuel theft from pipelines, threatening the president's goal of reviving state oil company Pemex.
Inside Jalisco, Oseguera has bought off hundreds of police to cover his back and operates with near-total impunity, according to Mexican and U.S. officials.
"He's in an area where even Mexican authorities won't go into," said the senior DEA official. "(He) controls almost the entire state."
Despite his reputation, Oseguera has kept a low profile and avoided the kind of media glare that washed over "El Chapo" Guzman.
"He's been careful and paranoid ... trying to stay off the radar," said Falko Ernst, an International Crisis Group analyst.
He has also learnt from the success of rivals, experts say.
Born in the rugged and impoverished Tierra Caliente region, famed for opium and marijuana plantations, Oseguera worked the fields as a boy with his avocado-farming family before joining the flood of young Mexicans into the United States in the 1980s.
He became involved in the heroin business and was arrested by police in the early 1990s. He spent three years in a U.S. prison before being deported, according to the DEA and analysts.
Back in Mexico, El Mencho joined the police before enlisting with the Milenio Cartel, a satellite of Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel, eventually becoming a senior enforcer after stints as a sicario, or hitman.
"He received a Harvard-type education from some of the best cartel leaders," said Vigil.
In 2009, Oseguera tried to take charge of the Milenio Cartel when its boss was killed in an army raid. Rebuffed, he struck out alone, declared war on Sinaloa, and founded a new outfit in alliance with Los Cuinis, a gang of money launderers, according to security analysts and local media.
That new cartel, the CJNG, would blend traditional Sinaloa-style drug trafficking with the ultra-violence of the Zetas Cartel, who used paramilitary tactics to diversify into criminal enterprises such as extortion and theft.
"Jalisco combines both those models," said cartel expert Ioan Grillo, author of book "El Narco". "(He has) a very potent organization, and they will fight to protect him."
(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Dan Flynn and Daniel Wallis)