“MX” for Borderland Beat
A tobacco company suspected of having ties to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and with several of its partners and legal representatives is being investigated by Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF). The company continues to expand its operations in Mexican territory and has announced the opening of a plant for the production of cigars in the state of Campeche, which holds elections for governor this year.
According to public records, the company Tobacco International Holdings (TIH) or Corporativo TIH is owned by José Guadalupe Varela González, a businessman who in 2006 was investigated for drug trafficking. The man was released through a legal motion and gave up one of his properties in Chihuahua.
TIH’s operations have been characterized by intimidation and aggressiveness. They have reportedly issued death threats to small businesses, marketers, and large distributors so that they do not sell their competitors’ brands, an action that in October 2018 earned it the nickname of Cártel del Tabaco or “Tobacco Cartel” in a journalistic investigation of Milenio Diario.
In their investigation, journalists Carlos Puig and Galia García also revealed the participation of the former agent of the Attorney General’s Office (PGR), Carlos Alberto Cedano Filippini, in a plot that includes false operations to “seize” and destroy the cigars of all brands other than those sponsored by the “Tobacco Cartel”, a modus operandi that is still in force and that Proceso magazine was able to verify in the state of Guanajuato.
|Carlos Alberto Cedano|
The entry of the CJNG into the cigar market in Mexico gives this criminal group the possibility of embedding itself in an industry that in 2019 had sales of more than 4 billion dollars, according to data from Euromonitor.
To this day, the TIH continues to lobby and act against stores and merchants with impunity. The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has not managed to stop the company that threatens to kill those who sell cigarettes from other companies.
On the contrary, from operating in eight states in 2017, it now has a presence in ten states. In addition, from starting with a business structure of three companies in 2018, it has moved to a gear that makes use of at least nine companies. All companies repeat some of the shareholders or their legal representatives, according to the data reviewed by Proceso.
Even in August of last year, a new company linked to the Tobacco Cartel, Sijara International Manufacturing, opened a new plant in Campeche with the presence of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governor, Carlos Miguel Aysa González.
According to a state government bulletin, the CEO of Sijara International is José Guadalupe Varela González, that is, the same owner of Corporativo TIH. Varela offered the state authorities an investment of 670 million pesos, but it also represents an opportunity for the TIH to expand in southeastern Mexico.
Testimonials to which Proceso had access reveal that in ten states of the country, there are cities or municipalities where only TIH cigars can be distributed and sold. An alleged order from the CJNG, distributed verbally and through flyers with the “signature” of that criminal group, prohibits the sale of other brands of cigarettes.
“[The competition] lost the plaza,” explained a merchant last January.
The states in which death threats and destruction of competing packs have been reported are Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Sinaloa, Sonora, Coahuila, Nayarit, Veracruz, Tabasco, Michoacán and Guanajuato, states in which the CJNG also operates.
“[The competition] cannot be sold here. They were banned, from here to up there, in Guadalajara. Nobody is going to sell them. The business belongs to the CJNG, which produced its own brand is called Economicos,” said a merchant who requested anonymity for security reasons.
|Brands from the CJNG|
“There are already two people who did not listen. The CJNG came back to their business and took everything they had and warned them. The CJNG didn’t do anything to them, thankfully, but they just took all the cigarettes they had and warned them: ‘it’s not going to be sold. Next time we find out you’re selling these, something more serious will happen to you’. Even one of the vendors paid no attention and right now he is in the north, he had to escape, they kidnapped him and beat him up,” says another of the testimonies.
In the Central Supply Center in León, Guanajuato, one can only buy the CJNG cigar brand: Economicos. This brand is the most popular among those offerred by TIH, Proceso confirmed in a tour.
When the existence of the Tobacco Cartel was revealed in October 2018, it was still possible to get competitive cigars in the main industrial city of Guanajuato. But today it is already impossible. The new situation coincides with the advance of the CJNG in the entity and the fall of the leader of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, José Antonio Yépez, “El Marro”, the CJNG’s main adversary in the area.
It was at the end of 2017 when at least eight states – Sinaloa, Sonora, Coahuila, Nayarit, Veracruz, Jalisco, Tabasco and Michoacán – began to register false operations against cigarettes from brands that do not belong to TIH. Police or presumed police officers present themselves with fake documents in stores and wholesale businesses.
After making a false inspection, they seize and destroy cigars from brands that are not from the CJNG. They threaten store owners and distributors and tell them that by order of the cartel they can only sell certain brands. Some others are handed flyers with a list of “allowed” cigarettes and another list of those considered illegal.
The intimidation ends with the destruction of the cigars that are not covered by TIH. The goal is to control the market.
The testimonies of those affected point to Carlos Alberto Cedano Filippini, a former Attorney General’s Office (FGR) agent who has been prosecuted for drug trafficking in Mexico and the United States, as the head of the false operations. Other relatives of Carlos Alberto Cedano also appear in the network of companies and operators, such as his brothers Hugo Antonio and Genaro, who continue in the ranks of the FGR.
|Hugo Antonio Cedano|
According to official records, until December 2014, Carlos Alberto served as Federal Investigation Agent (AFI), assigned to the PGR delegation in Jalisco since 2007. After finishing high school, Carlos Cedano joined the PGR in 1996 as a Federal Judicial Police (PJF) officer.
His police career was interrupted in 2008, the year in which he was detained by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers along with another AFI agent, Víctor Manuel Juárez Cruz, at a residence in Los Angeles, California. The US authorities found them in possession of US$600,000, which investigators suspected were drug proceeds. They were issued several criminal charges that stemmed from an investigation involving the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Los Angeles Police Department.
On April 1, 2009, Carlos Cedano Filippini and Víctor Manuel Juárez Cruz pleaded guilty to the crime of drug trafficking and were sentenced, but a judge ruled that their time served before counted for their sentence length and were released. On April 7, 2009, both AFI agents were deported to Mexico under ICE custody, according to a statement from that US agency.
One day after his repatriation, on April 8, 2009, Carlos Alberto Cedano Filippini began in Mexico a frontal battle against the PGR with a dual purpose: to retain his post in the AFI and to combat the investigations that had been initiated in Mexico for drug trafficking and money laundering. Immediately, he filed a motion against an arrest warrant derived from the investigation case PGR / SIEDO / UEIORPIFAM / 70/2009.
However, he was unable to prevent his capture or subsequent arrest. After being in temporarily detention for 90 days, on June 29, 2009, the First District Judge in Criminal Proceedings in the State of Nayarit, issued a formal prison order for his probable responsibility in money laundering and illicit enrichment.
Already in prison, his legal defense presented a new motion to move to reverse the criminal process, but the motion was denied. At the same time, he issued multiple lawsuits against the PGR to try to avoid his dismissal from that institution. However, he lost the lawsuits and in 2015 he was permanently discharged.
In his wealth declarations, the former FGR agent reported unjustified income and the purchase of luxury vehicles since 2003, but was not investigated in Mexico until he was arrested in the United States.
Despite his criminal record, in October 2015, he was appointed “Director of Area B” in the State Coordination of the Investigative Ministerial Police of the PGR offices of Michoacán. This was during the administration of former attorney Martín Godoy, who was the head of the Prosecutor’s Office. Currently, Cedano Filippini, a native of Tecuala, Nayarit, is currently under federal investigation, Proceso confirmed.
The Cedano Filippini brothers
The Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) of the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit (SHCP) announced on June 2, through a statement, that as part of the “Blue Agave Operation”, it allegedly blocked 1,939 accounts linked to the CJNG.
Among those blocked are those owned by Cedano Filippini and his brothers Hugo Antonio and Genaro, active members of the Federal Ministerial Police of the Attorney General’s Office.
According to files 578/2020, 577/2020 and 652/2020, which are in the federal courts of Jalisco and Nayarit, the three Cedano Filippini brothers seek to unfreeze their bank accounts after the order given by the head of the UIF. However, so far they have not succeeded.
In their respective lawsuits, filed on June 29, 2020 before the courts of Zapopan, Jalisco, the Cedano Filippini brothers point to the UIF as the responsible authority; as well as Arturo Herrera, Secretary of Finance and Public Credit, and Juan Pablo Graf, head of the National Banking and Securities Commission (CNBV). The lawsuit filed by Cedano Fillippini have already been rejected and a complaint appeal is currently being processed before a federal court to try to reverse this ruling.
Meanwhile, the lawsuits filed by his brothers Hugo and Genaro are pending resolution, but they have already lost the provisional suspensions to recover the liquidity of their bank accounts. Hugo Antonio, the youngest of the three brothers, joined the PGR in December 1999 as a PJF officer. Between 2003 and 2017 he was assigned to Guerrero, Colima, Mexico City, and Sonora, reaching the rank of non-commissioned officer.
In the patrimonial declarations that he presented before the Ministry of Public Function between 2003 and 2008, he reported annual income of up to MXN$300,000 pesos per year for “undeclared” concepts.
The other brother, Genaro, was engaged in “personnel management” in a private company before joining the PGR. He has worked in the delegations of that agency in Chiapas, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, Sinaloa and Jalisco, an entity in which he was promoted to non-commissioned officer.
Genaro’s career through the PGR, now the FGR, has been marked by constant conflicts with the institution. In 2005, he filed an injunction against an arrest warrant and the integration of any preliminary investigation against him, according to file 544/2005. In 2014 he appealed against the PGR’s Professionalization Council and in 2015 he filed a lawsuit against any court order issued against him by criminal judges of Jalisco.
The business network
The structure used by the so-called Tobacco Cartel to expand its activities on behalf of the CJNG consists of a network of nine companies headed by Tobacco International Holdings Switzerland, which in 2020 requested to change its name to It’s Tobacco SA, and Tobacco International Holdings (TIH).
Tobacco International Holdings Switzerland, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, is the owner of the TIH, Economic and 51 other trademarks registered with the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI). Three of these brands were identified by the Federal Commission for the Protection against Sanitary Risks (Cofepris) as illegal in the years 2017 and 2018.
The brands are Armada, Black Jack, and Jaisalmer, which, along with other brands such as Laredo, Economicos, Peninsula, Roma, Senator or Studio 54, are sold to the public at 25 pesos per pack.
According to public registry docoments, TIH was incorporated in June 2017 in Guadalajara, Jalisco, with Grupo Tenval SA de CV as the majority shareholder. Three months later, in November 2017, Grupo Tenval withdrew and José Guadalupe Varela González, who was a representative of Grupo Tenval, joined the group of shareholders.
|Destruction of illegal tobacco in 2015|
The firm Grupo Tenval, created in 2012 and also registered in Guadalajara, is owned by Tobacco International Holdings Corp, a Panamanian company whose shareholders were Ernesto Vigilante Pérez, José Guadalupe Varela González and María Estela Filippini Mariscal, who is related to the Cedano Filippini brothers.
Ernesto Antonio Vigilante Pérez and Grupo Tenval also appear as shareholders of the company Braxico Manufacturing. Incorporated in 2019 and registered in Guadalajara, Braxico is in charge of manufacturing TIH’s cigars, which are later marketed by the company Bradis, SA de CV, where Carlos Antonio Cedano Guzmán, accountant by profession and son of Genaro Cedano Filippini, is registered as an employee. Carlos Alberto Guzmán Ibarra also appears as legal representative, according to an investigation conducted by Milenio Diario.
Official information reveals that on November 19, 2020, It’s Tobacco signed a license agreement for the use of its 53 brands with Management IPED for 5 years. Four days later, Management granted Braxico, Sijara International Manufacturing and Codex Importer Tobacco S.A de CV, the authorization to use the trademarks.
Codex is also represented by Carlos Alberto Guzmán Ibarra. Regarding Sijara International Manufacturing, the company was incorporated in June 2017 in Guadalajara, Jalisco, with Grupo Tenval as its majority shareholder. Five months later, in November 2017, the Grupo Tenval withdrew and after a capital injection, TIH assumed the majority of the shareholding.
Last August, according to company documents that were accessed and where Carlos Alberto Guzmán Ibarra also appears as legal representative, the general assembly of Sijara authorized the sale of TIH shares and recognized Aurea Crop SA de CV, a company created in August of this year, as a new shareholder. Its owners are Luis Alberto Aceves Ibarra and María Guadalupe Torres Valdivia.
In August 2020, José Guadalupe Varela González, general director of the Sijara International Manufacturing company, together with the governor of Campeche, Carlos Miguel Aysa González, inaugurated the installation of a tobacco industrial plant in the state capital with an annual production of 9 billion packs of cigars, mainly from the Laredo, Peninsula, Economicos, Studio 54, Botas, Senator, Paddock, C&T, Queen London, Tex Mex and Premium BTS brands.
The financial structure of the Jalisco Cartel
From 2015 to 2020, when the United States government presented the first results of the Python Project Operation, with which it sought to dismantle the CJNG and its financial work.
The investigations revealed a wide range of economic activities that the CJNG was involved in, including money laundering operations in tequila companies, restaurants, importers, gas stations, real estate agencies, and hotels. The production, distribution and sale of cigars has now been added on the list as the so-called Tobacco Cartel. This activity has been transcended political administrations and international borders.
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