Meet Juan José Ponce Félix, AKA El Ruso, the elusive figure in the internal Sinaloa Cartel dispute

This criminal leader is one of the closest allies of Ismael Mayo Zambada, known for confronting the faction led by the sons of Chapo Guzman.

The notorious Sinaloa Cartel, famed for its horizontal power structure with no central figurehead leading the drug trafficking syndicate, is embroiled in an internal conflict. The crux of the dispute lies between two factions: the sons of Joaquin El Chapo Guzman, known as Los Chapitos, and the group led by Ismael El Mayo Zambada.

The leader of Los Rusos, an armed faction providing security for El Mayo Zambada, has remained largely mysterious. Identified by two aliases – Jesus Alexander Sanchez Felix and Miguel Angel Gaxiola Quintero – by Baja California authorities, his real name remains elusive in official circles. However, within the criminal underbelly, he goes by “El Ruso.”

Each faction operates with its respective armed forces. For Los Chapitos, it’s Los Ninis, a small army of young hitmen. Providing muscle for El Mayo, on the other hand, are “Los Rusos,” headquartered near Mexico’s northern border.

Born in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, El Ruso, now 41, joined the world of organized crime at the tender age of 19. Today, he is a close ally of El Mayo Zambada and represents a significant threat to Los Chapitos within the Sinaloa Cartel.

Los Rusos is the armed wing that has a quarrel with Los Ninis, the armed wing of Los Chapitos (Photo: Especial).
Los Rusos is the armed wing that has had a falling out with Los Ninis, the armed wing of Los Chapitos (Photo: Especial).

El Ruso’s identity disclosed

For over two decades, El Ruso has managed to fly under the radar despite his extensive criminal engagements. However, an investigation launched a few years ago by the Baja California District Attorney’s Office brought his real identity to light: Juan José Ponce Félix, according to Zeta Tijuana.

The arrest of Ovidio Guzmán – El Chapo’s son – in October 2019 in Culiacán, Sinaloa, intensified the dispute between Los Ninis and Los Rusos. Los Ninis was responsible for creating diversions to allow for Guzmán’s release, while Los Rusos chose to stay out of the fray.

The upshot of this led El Mayo to dispatch El Ruso to Baja California, to keep the clashes from threatening the stability of the cartel in its primary stronghold. Yet, this move would yield serious consequences in the foreseeable future.

On May 14, 2021, an operation involving the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena) and the then State Security and Investigation Guard saw the apprehension of several individuals in Baja California, including two agents of the Attorney General’s Office (FGR).

The internal dispute between Los Rusos and Los Ninis of the Sinalia Cartel intensified since the "Culiacanazo" in October 2019 (Photo: Insight Crime).
The internal dispute between Los Rusos and Los Ninis of the Sinaloa Cartel has intensified since the “Culiacanazo” in October 2019 (Photo: Insight Crime).

El Ruso was reportedly at a taqueria called “El Moreno” at the time, prompting an operation to be set in motion across Mexicali’s Zona Dorada in the wee hours of the morning. Responding to reports of armed men, authorities suspected a criminal kingpin might be present.

The operation ended with 13 arrests and the confiscation of four vehicles, weapons, tactical vests, and ammunition. Two of the detainees were officials Doroteo Palafox and Victor Hugo Alva, who allegedly tried to secure their release with an $80,000 bribe. Yet, amidst the chaos, El Ruso managed to evade capture.

However, officers found two identification documents in one of the seized vehicles, shedding light on El Ruso’s true identity. The credentials were a National Electoral Institute (INE) certificate and a driver’s license, both in the name of Juan José Ponce Félix.

A subsequent analysis of his family situation was conducted, based on the photographs on the two licenses. It revealed that El Ruso, who possessed at least two other licenses, resided in Rosarito, Baja California, and Nogales, Sonora.

Alleged criminals placed narcomantas threatening the three levels of government; they were attributed to Ruso, Mayo Zambada's operator in the region (Photo: Twitter/@Jalisciense1c).
Alleged criminals placed narco messages threatening the three levels of government; they were attributed to Ruso, Mayo Zambada’s operator in the region (Photo: Twitter/@Jalisciense1c).

The following day, on May 15, 2021, narco messages signed by the “Fuerzas Revolucionarias del Ruso” were displayed throughout Mexicali, issuing threats against the three levels of government. The day after, nine of the 13 arrestees were released due to supposed discrepancies in the Municipal Police’s account.

As per the local media, Baja California officials discovered that Ponce Felix has six siblings (three brothers and three sisters), all of whom originally hail from Sinaloa and reside north of Culiacan in Sindicatura de Tepuche.

Only four of the arrested individuals – Junior Antonio Astorga, Irver Wenceslao Quintero, Kevin Daniel López, and Iván Doroteo Palafox – remained in custody. The association of the others with El Ruso could not be proven.

It is believed that Ponce Felix is currently residing in Culiacan, Sinaloa. The State Coordination Table for Peace and Security of Baja California reports that there is an outstanding arrest warrant for extradition against him. Despite this, he remains at large.