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Alleged Ojinaga cartel boss facing new drug, human smuggling charges

A view of the landscape near Ojinaga in northern Chihuahua, Mexico.
hannah gentiles
Hannah Gentiles for Marfa Public Radio
A view of the landscape near Ojinaga in northern Chihuahua, Mexico.

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An alleged cartel boss in the Mexican border city of Ojinaga is facing new drug and human smuggling charges after his arrest last summer near Presidio, Texas, according to a federal indictment unsealed on Monday.

Sergio Menchaca Pizarro - also known as “El Menchaca” - was arrested in August 2023 after Border Patrol agents spotted him walking along a remote stretch of highway that hugs the Rio Grande in Presidio County.

According to court records, Border Patrol agents discovered Menchaca was a U.S. citizen during an immigration check and detained him for entering the U.S. by crossing the river instead of using a proper port of entry. An initial grand jury indictment charged Menchaca with that offense and two marijuana trafficking-related counts.

Menchaca was ordered detained pending trial in August after a judge found “clear and convincing evidence” that he was a “danger to the community” and a flight risk.

While the arrest garnered some news coverage in the U.S. and Mexico, the criminal case against Menchaca had not explicitly referenced allegations of cartel ties until the new indictment was unsealed.

The new indictment accuses Menchaca of being the local boss in Ojinaga for La Línea cartel “during the majority of the time period” described in the allegations. Menchaca, the indictment says, “acted as one of several principal administrators, organizers and leaders” of a large-scale marijuana growing, processing and smuggling operation based in the Ojinaga area.

The indictment also alleges that Menchaca - along with multiple other unnamed people charged in the case - were involved in smuggling people into the U.S. since early 2020. (Parts of the criminal case remain sealed.)

Menchaca and the multiple unnamed defendants are facing six counts under the new indictment. The earlier charge for crossing improperly into the U.S. appeared to have been dropped.

An attorney for Pizarro did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the cartel-related allegations.

Howard Campbell, a longtime drug war expert at the University of Texas at El Paso, said while he wasn’t familiar with Menchaca or the case against him, cartel activity in the Ojinaga area has historically been “small potatoes” compared to major Mexican border cities like Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.

“It’s important that the top guy in that particular border town got busted, but it doesn’t change anything at the national level,” Campbell said. “And he’ll be replaced.”

Still, Menchaca’s arrest has reportedly been linked to the discovery last year of a mass grave in the Ojinaga area.

Citing confidential sources, the Dallas Morning News reported in September that Menchaca had “provided information about the mass grave’s location,” and that Mexican authorities were investigating whether the people found dead were among a group of migrants who had disappeared two years earlier.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.