MEXICO CITY — Before they allegedly tried to assassinate this city's police chief, the foot soldiers of Mexico's most powerful drug cartel already had left a bloody wake across the country.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel has killed judges, congressmen, dozens of police officers and thousands of civilians. Its fighters once shot down a military helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade. The cartel controls the movement of more than a third of all drugs consumed in the United States, U.S. officials say, and has expanded into Europe and Asia.

And yet until last month, many here saw the rise of the cartel as an internal matter for the parties in an interminable drug war. Then the group sent three dozen men armed with military-grade weapons into one of the country’s most exclusive neighborhoods, authorities say, to kill the capital’s top security official. Omar García Harfuch was shot three times in the June 26 attack but survived. Three people were killed.

Since then, several Mexican officials, including the governor of the western state of Jalisco, Enrique Alfaro Ramírez, and the head of the country’s human rights commission, Rosario Piedra Ibarra, have said that they received death threats from the cartel. For now, at least, it appears that Mexico has arrived at a moment of reckoning, as the country’s elite look more closely at the new, more brazenly violent face of the country’s criminal underworld.

Omar García Harfuch, Mexico City’s secretary of public security, was shot and injured in an assassination attempt on June 26. Two of his bodyguards were killed. (Reuters)

“We are seeing the threat to institutions, a reality already visible in some states and now reflected in Mexico City,” Alfaro told reporters.

Unlike the drug cartels of Pablo Escobar’s Colombia, Mexican drug trafficking organizations have rarely targeted top officials, in part to avoid a clash with the state and in part because they have found bribery a more useful tool than assassination. Though local politicians have been frequent targets, state governors and federal officials have not.

That made the assassination attempt against García Harfuch and news of threats against prominent officials particularly startling. Two weeks before García Harfuch was targeted in an attack on his convoy, gunmen killed a well-known federal judge, Uriel Villegas Ortiz, and his wife, Verónica Barajas, in the state of Colima. Villegas Ortiz had become famous in presiding over the case that enabled the extradition to the United States of Rubén Oseguera, known as El Menchito, a son of the head of the Jalisco cartel.

Last year was the deadliest in Mexico’s recent history, with 35,588 homicides. This year, despite the novel coronavirus, the violence has continued near record highs. Analysts blame much of the killing on turf wars between the Jalisco cartel and its rivals as it expands into new territory.

U.S. officials have mapped the rapid expansion of the cartel, known as CJNG for its initials in Spanish. It is now the primary drug trafficking organization in 24 of Mexico’s 32 states, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. U.S. officials have documented the cartel’s strategy of using extreme violence to overwhelm local populations.

“They just had this rapid ascension because of their non-value of human life, no matter who you are,” said Matthew Donahue, the DEA’s deputy chief of operations.

The cartel emerged in 2010, first as an ally of the Sinaloa cartel of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and then, by 2013, as an independent organization trafficking drugs through some of Mexico’s central and western states. The organization developed allegiances with smaller groups, sometimes solidified through marriages.

By 2014, cartel leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, known as El Mencho, was indicted by a district court in Washington, D.C., on charges of running a “continuous criminal enterprise,” and for the alleged “manufacture, importation and distribution of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.” He is among the DEA’s most wanted fugitives; the U.S. government has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture. 

In subsequent years, Jalisco New Generation exploded across the country, recruiting local gangs and small-scale organizations along the way, uniting a range of criminals under a single banner. It was an arrangement that allowed for rapid growth; rather than building a trafficking infrastructure, it co-opted and reshaped an existing one. 

“It’s much more an ecosystem than it is a vertically integrated organization,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst who writes a well-known column in Mexico’s El Universal newspaper.

One byproduct of the cartel’s recruitment campaign was that teenage drug dealers and petty thieves suddenly found themselves working as transnational criminals. Local officials noticed the shift as if it had happened overnight: Troubled boys were suddenly driving expensive pickups and wielding military-grade weapons.

“These are young people who were engaged in other types of crimes such as petty theft, and then suddenly we see them at incidents related to organized crime,” said Pedro Alberto Cortés Zavala, the secretary of security in the municipality of Irapuato, Guanajuato state. “Young people who are immersed in addiction problems are easy prey for these organized crime groups.”

Cortés Zavala, who is the city’s top security official, spoke a week after gunmen targeted a drug rehabilitation facility in his city, killing 28 people. That attack appears to have been carried out by the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel against the Jalisco cartel. The fierce ground war between the two groups in Guanajuato has transformed the state from one of Mexico’s most peaceful into its deadliest. 

In Guanajuato and elsewhere, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has debated how to respond to the cartel’s expansion and the surging violence it has brought. The populist leader campaigned under the slogan “Abrazos, no balazos” — “Hugs, not Bullets” — suggesting that he would not launch a military offensive to curb the Jalisco cartel’s influence.

Last year, when the arrest of alleged Sinaloa cartel member Ovidio Guzmán, El Chapo’s son, drew cartel fighters into the streets of Culiacan, authorities opted to release him. López Obrador said the decision averted unnecessary bloodshed, but it was widely seen as a sign of governmental weakness.

In Guanajuato, many analysts think the administration is merely waiting for one cartel to destroy the other so that relative peace can return under the monopoly of a single group.

“Obviously, we shouldn’t accept one group or the other,” Cortés Zavala said. “But that’s the kind of dynamic we’ve seen in other cities in Mexico.”

The DEA last year carried out a roundup of Jalisco cartel operatives and traffickers in the United States, making more than 600 arrests. Security officials in the United States have been frustrated with the Mexican government’s lack of a coherent strategy against the Jalisco cartel and the hampering of anti-drug operations by persistent corruption.

“They’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place right now with the murders going up, the drug trafficking going up, traffickers gaining more money to be able to corrupt more people and to have international influence and contacts,” Donahue said.

Mexican officials, for their part, have been outspoken about the need for the United States to crack down further on the flow of guns south into Mexico.

“We believe that we are very far from achieving the goal of reducing the flow of weapons that nurture organized crime and that generate violence in our country,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly about the issue.

At the site of the assassination attempt against García Harfuch in Mexico City’s tony Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood, the police recovered Barrett semiautomatic rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. García Harfuch’s armored Chevrolet Suburban had been struck by dozens of bullets. 

But when police interviewed suspects in the attack, they said, the men all claimed to be guns for hire, some of them low-level members of local criminal groups who had been armed and paid by the cartel.

“Sometimes the authorities and media try to build these guys up as criminal masterminds, but that’s not what’s going on,” Hope said. 

In the absence of conclusive testimony from suspected attackers, the question of why the cartel would attempt such a high-profile killing remains unanswered. Some analysts think that El Mencho, thought to be hiding in the mountains of Jalisco, Colima and Michoacan, is sick with a liver problem and that the attack might have been a show of force from someone trying to ascend through the cartel’s ranks. 

In the hours after the attack, senior Mexican officials, including the mayor of Mexico City, refused to speculate on who might have been responsible. But from the hospital, García Harfuch posted a tweet.

“This morning we were cowardly attacked by the CJNG,” he wrote. 

The president has said the cartel most likely attacked García Harfuch for his crackdown on its expansion. 

“It has to do, without a doubt, with the work that is being carried out to guarantee peace and tranquility both in Mexico City and in the country,” López Obrador said.