Criminal Surveillance


In an example of spillover border violence, a Texas federal trial resulted in the recent conviction of two Mexican nationals and Beltran-Leyva cartel members for interstate stalking. They conspired to assassinate Los Zetas cartel attorney Juan Jesus Guerrero Chapa in a Southlake, Texas safe-haven. The cartel kingpin had taken hiding in a luxurious million dollar home in upscale Dallas suburb. The Texas residence was meant to be secret. Chapa sought an anonymous existence knowing well that the cartel desired to murder him.


Juan Jesus Guerrero Chapa was a one-time interim leader of the notorious Gulf cartel. He was the primary attorney for Mexican drug lord Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, former leader of both the Cártel del Golfo and Los Zetas. He was also a US government informant.


The assassination was carried out on the evening of May 22, 2013. The ambush attack occurred when Chapa was seated and parked in the Southlake Town Square. Here two men pulled behind the Land Rover in a Toyota Sequoia. One exited the Sequoia to approach the passenger side to fire multiple 9mm rounds through the window, striking and killing Chapa where he sat. His wife was standing nearby but left alone unharmed.

The assassination was ordered years before by El Gato, leader of the Beltran-Leyva cartel. This operation – overseen by regional territory leader, ‘Plaza Boss’ and Commandante Alberto “Chico Malo” Mendoza – began by enlisting a prized surveillance cell led by Gerardo Ledezma-Cepeda. This cell labored for two years traveling between Mexico and the US from March 2011 to May 2013.


For the physical and technical aspects of the operation, the team leader included his son, Jesus Gerardo Ledezma-Campano Jr. (32), and his cousin Jose Luis Cepeda-Cortes (59). They had prior law enforcement experience working for the San Pedro Police Department in Monterrey. All savvy in the art of surveillance.

The plan began from a distance with a search of electronic records to acquire open source target information. They would develop their knowledge of Chapa’s Texas activity, his relationships, activity and transactions. They would study the local population and Southlake area where Chapa was situated to understand the mood and establish a baseline. They acquired two safe-houses to support them.


Between electronic information and details gleaned from technical options, the surveillance cell set out to develop a pattern of life for Chapa to aid in the assassination plan. In this operation, the cell decided to deploy as many as six GPS vehicle tags to track and locate key vehicles connected to Chapa, his family, and close associates. Their target was surveillance aware, and the plants would need to be ‘deep’ and undetected.


They also elected to collect details through static and mobile video surveillance. With video and game cameras deployed covertly, the surveillance cell had better control of the residence and area. A combination of close and long-range standoff cameras created an intelligence picture of Chapa’s coming and going, his habits, and security measures.

An outdoor wireless mesh network may have offered a practical and inexpensive method to deliver the combination of HD video, voice over wireless, GPS tags for tracking, alongside triggers and cues with both client and backhaul connections. IP cameras work as routers in a networked system using a base station and wireless LAN controller. And long range directional links could have extended the mesh network to 3 miles or more. Or was a simpler approach chosen.

We know that the overall system utilized surveillance cameras and game cameras placed in various locations throughout Chapa’s neighborhood, deeply emplaced GPS tags on vehicles owned by Chapa and his relatives, and the use of a fleet of non-descript rental vehicles to switch during the mobile aspects of the surveillance. This was a formidable equation.

The activity may also have leveraged cartel experience in wide area clandestine radio networks used to communicate and run intelligence operations from Mexico to Central America. We have developed knowledge about cartel structure from recent efforts to reduce and disrupt these same radio systems. The use of simple but reliable long-range communication systems composed of radio antennas, signal relays, base stations, and handheld radios is low-cost and easy to maintain.


From the radio related interdictions, we learn that cartel surveillance cells on the ground, whether individuals or small groups, are called halcón or ‘hawks.’ These surveillance cells report up to sector chiefs or ‘plaza’ bosses. In the Chapa case, Gerardo Ledezma-Cepeda directed target and pattern of life details regarding to Plaza Boss’ Alberto “Chico Malo” Mendoza. Chico Malo would have controlled the command post for the operation, the cartel ‘Central.’


This type of information sharing enabled the cartel’s strategic level intelligence assets to digest and process the detail. In turn, Chico Malo could re-task or refine the priority intelligence requirements for the planned assassination. And when satisfied deploy his assassins, sicarios now armed with necessary details to be successful.

For Juan Jesus Guerrero Chapa the final scenario was a soft-stop and ambush on a parked vehicle. This was over in seconds. The hard work that primed the brief but lethal encounter was a matter of months and years. Remember that all attacks are preceded by hostile surveillance — whether hasty and  short or long and dedicated. Your survival may hinge on studying and recognizing its many forms. Semper in Via!

About the Author: Aaron Cunningham is the acting President of ITTA

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