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El Neto: From teenage crime boss to VIP prisoner

The capo was identified as a brutal underworld leader in 2007, when he was only 18. He once oversaw a series of robberies, kidnappings and gruesome murders in the Mexican state of Chihuahua

Elementos del ejército mexicano afuera del Cereso #3 de Ciudad Juárez (Chihuahua), este domingo 1 de enero.
Members of the Mexican Armed Forces outside a prison in Ciudad Juárez, in the state of Chihuahua, on Sunday, January 1, 2023.JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ (REUTERS)

El Neto’s history of crime began in adolescence. In 2007 – when he was only 18-years-old – Mexican authorities identified him as a violent criminal leader. He led a wave of robberies, kidnappings and gruesome murders that shocked the state of Chihuahua. By 2009, his fame got the best of him: he was identified, arrested and jailed. But that was not the end of his story.

On Sunday, January 1, 2023, El Neto escaped from Cereso No. 3 State Prison in Ciudad Juárez, along with 24 fellow inmates. The jailbreak involved a mass shooting that left 17 people dead, including 10 guards.

Last August, there was a riot at the same prison, along with coordinated shootouts and arson attacks across the city. The purpose was to ensure that the capo would not be transferred to a more restrictive federal prison. That August day of fire and bullets – known as “Black Thursday” – caused 11 fatalities and blocked El Neto’s transfer.

Now, less than five months later, not only is El Neto not in a federal prison, he’s back on the streets.

Ernesto Alfredo Piñón de la Cruz, alias 'el Neto', tras su primera detención, en agosto de 2009.
Ernesto Alfredo Piñón de la Cruz – alias “El Neto” – after his first arrest in August 2009.RR.SS.

El Neto’s real name is Ernesto Alfredo Piñón de la Cruz. At the age of 32, he is the leader of Los Mexicles, a criminal gang that is principally responsible for stoking violence in Juárez. Despite being in a prison cell, he had millions of pesos in cash, phone access, as well as other VIP comforts, all discovered by the authorities following his escape.

When El Neto was arrested more than a decade ago, he was charged with 30 kidnappings and various counts of homicide. He was eventually sentenced to 224 years in prison.

El Neto is remembered as a ruthless boss, who used to ship the heads of his victims in coolers. In 2010 – one day before he was sentenced – some of his henchmen attacked the convoy that was taking him to court. But the action failed, and the boss was wounded. Nevertheless, his loyalists never stopped trying to free him. And on January 1, they finally succeeded.

Los Mexicles – a group largely made up of gang members who were deported from the United States – have long been suspected of being an operating arm of the feared Sinaloa Cartel. However, according to some reports, they may have changed sides in recent years – it’s possible that they’re now aligned with the Juárez Cartel.

The criminal organization began its escapade with robberies, kidnappings and extortion. Following the arrest of El Neto, the members got involved in drug dealing, while also providing muscle to the different leaders of warring cartels.

El Neto replaced Jesús Eduardo Rodríguez Soto – known as “El Lalo” – as the leader of Los Mexicles. El Lalo has also been imprisoned since 2009. From behind bars in Cefereso 15 – a prison located in Villa Comaltitán, in the State of Chiapas – he leads all sorts of illegal activities in the city. He has also led fights for control of the prison, clashing with Los Aztecas, a rival gang. In 2017 and 2019, riots in Cefereso 15 – orchestrated by El Lalo – led to 17 and 26 deaths respectively.

Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval has announced that a unit of almost 1,000 troops from the Army, National Guard and State Police will be searching for El Neto. Regardless if he is caught or not, his escape makes it clear that the fight against insecurity in Mexico is certainly not being won by the government.

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