How El Marro, Santa Rosa de Lima cartel leader, dodged an arrest operation two years before his actual capture

Declassified files unveil a thwarted 2018 operation, risks, and the intricate web leading to a cartel kingpin's eventual downfall.

“El Marro,” also known as José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, was almost detained two years prior to his actual capture, per confidential documents from the Mexican National Defense Secretariat (Sedena) obtained through the Guacamaya hack. However, last-minute concerns led authorities to abort their operation.

In late 2018, the Sedena and the Mexican National Intelligence Center (CNI) tracked down the exact location of the criminal kingpin thanks to a series of follow-ups. El Marro was hiding at a farm in Quinta “Las Moras,” located in the municipality of Villagrán.

Declassified documents reveal that authorities had been able to isolate this location through wiretaps of cartel members and drone surveillance in municipalities such as Celaya, Comonfort Cortazar, and Juventino Rosas.

A confidential document from Sedena’s Deputy Chief of Intelligence disclosed that an operation to apprehend “El Marro” at the Quinta “La Moras” in San Salvador Torrecillas was planned for December 30, 2018. This was believed to be the date of a New Year’s celebration, where El Marro was expected to meet other members of his criminal organization.

The document noted: “Through technical monitoring, information was obtained that as of 12:00, December 30, 2018, José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, ‘El Marro,’ leader of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, will hold a New Year’s Eve celebration for members of his organization and apparently their families. He is expected to attend, as well as between 800 and 1,000 people.”

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The plan of action commenced at 11:00 a.m. with the deployment of drones. The military’s strategy was to encourage Marro to exit the premises upon receiving notice of his identification by the drones.

However, before the authorities could take their first step, the operation was abruptly called off. The reason was the potential for civilian and military casualties in a probable showdown with the cartel’s henchmen.

An official statement explains: “The number of people between families and members of said organization in the meeting place constitutes a risk for a capture operation on the main target, so taking advantage of the presence of unmanned aircraft in the area, it was coordinated with the XOO Command so that through a deception operation to the meeting point the target is forced to abandon it to follow up with the unmanned aircraft, a point where some operation can be carried out with less risk for the population and the troops.”

Despite the initial operation’s cancellation, efforts to apprehend El Marro didn’t halt. Slowly, his inner circle began to collapse as a result of these interventions. His sister-in-law, recognized as the cartel’s financial operator, was the first to be caught. She was followed by his wife, then his parents, and finally, on August 2, 2020, in the municipality of Santa Cruz de Juventino Rosas, Yépez Ortiz was captured.