A Portland businessman ran a gun cell for CJNG cartel boss El Mencho. – Courier Journal

PORTLAND, Ore. ― A master bricklayer who helped build Portland area homes also secretly ran a gun trafficking cell that armed a ruthless Mexican cartel with military-grade weapons.
David Acosta Rosales, a Mexican native who secured green-card status 25 years ago, built a life in the quaint middle-class suburb of Troutdale, 30 minutes east of downtown Portland and known as the western gateway to the Columbia River Gorge.
From here, Acosta filled orders from a top U.S. enemy, the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, or Jalisco New Generation Cartel, based in the bustling Mexican city of Guadalajara in the western state of Jalisco.
Known as CJNG, the billion-dollar cartel boasts of more than 5,000 members, an army larger than its key rival, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Acosta and others like him across the U.S. contribute to the incessant flow of guns headed south to Mexico to arm CJNG and its rivals.
Some federal agents call it the “iron river,” and cartel members dub it the “hormiga,” Spanish for ant, akin to an ant trail. Mexico has only one gun store, and it issues fewer than 50 gun permits a year.
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Mexican officials estimate the bulk of weapons used in deadly cartel wars, an estimated half a million guns every year, come from the U.S. due to lax regulations and the prevalence of gun shops. Last year, the Mexican government sued top U.S. gun manufacturers in federal court in Boston in a largely symbolic case that was dismissed Oct. 1.
Acosta, 52, and his crew sent CJNG several of the brands singled out in Mexico’s lawsuit, according to court records.
These types of weapons in the hands of Mexican cartel members is “a high concern,” said Jonathan T. McPherson, head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Seattle Field Division, which also includes Oregon.
“It’s a priority of ours to identify and investigate individuals or criminal organizations responsible for the illegal trafficking of firearms, those who are able to obtain high-powered weapons that pose a significant threat to the general public as well as law enforcement.”
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For this report, The Courier Journal sorted through hundreds of pages of court records and transcripts and interviewed agents, prosecutors and defense attorneys in Portland, Seattle and Lake Oswego. Acosta’s attorney declined to comment. Most who did asked not to be named, citing the volatility of the cartel.
CJNG is known as one of the most violent cartels. Its members have used sniper rifles against police, beheaded and dumped enemies in mass graves, hung bodies from major bridges and dissolved rivals or thieves in acid baths. The cartel maintains a stronghold across Mexico by bribing judges, police and border officials and killing those who refuse the bribes.
During a deadly 2020 ambush, cartel members opened fire on a caravan in an assassination attempt on Mexico City Police Chief Omar Hamid Garcia Harfuch, who was struck in the shoulder, clavicle and knee. The chief fought back, vowing to continue to fight “cowardly organized crime” and singling out CJNG in tweets from his hospital bed.
CJNG members have been detected on every continent except Antarctica, and DEA agents blame the cartel, along with the infamous Sinaloa Cartel, for the bulk of illegal drugs in the U.S., including illicit fentanyl, which is driving up the overdose death toll, which surpassed 108,000 last year.
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In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions teamed with the DEA and U.S. Treasury Department for a joint news conference announcing indictments in D.C. against the cartel leader and warning of the dangers of CJNG.
“The CJNG has emerged as the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico and is considered by the Department of Justice as one of the five most dangerous transnational criminal organizations in the world,” according to the joint news release, which blamed the cartel with importing tons of drugs into the U.S.
The Courier Journal spent nine months in 2019 detailing CJNG’s reach deep into the U.S., including drug cells in small farming towns and coastal cities.
In the Portland case, Acosta built a gun cell that sent more than 150 sniper rifles and other high-powered guns to CJNG, knowing its members wanted to “make a mess” against enemies, according to prosecutors’ sentencing memo lobbying for a significant prison stint for Acosta. Some of the guns cost more than $8,000.
ATF agents arrested Acosta in a Troutdale strip mall parking lot in October 2020 as he tried to drive off in a U-Haul carrying a grenade launcher, similar to one of the weapons CJNG used in 2015 to blow a Mexican military helicopter out of the sky as it flew toward a compound to arrest its elusive cartel boss, Rubén Oseguera Cervantes, known as “El Mencho.”
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He has remained on the run for more than a decade despite being on the DEA’s Most Wanted list with a $10 million reward for a tip on his hideout.
Inside the U-Haul, agents also found a belt-fed machine gun that weighs about 100 pounds and uses .50-caliber bullets.
The U.S. military uses similar weapons mounted on tanks and Humvees, and they have the power to rip through armored vehicles and engine blocks, McPherson said. Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon explained the danger in court motions, stating this type of firepower has an accuracy range of more than one mile and, at short distances, can blast through concrete.
“This is the type of gun that is used by the CJNG to mount on top of their trucks so that they can drive them around and terrorize and kill people,” prosecutors argued in court motions.
Acosta tried to distance himself from the crime, saying he didn’t really know what was in the back of the U-Haul. He didn’t know that when he paid $16,000 to the seller, he was handing a stack of cash to an undercover agent. The evidence was strong and included audio of Acosta discussing the guns and video of him inspecting them.
Prosecutors argued that Acosta should remain behind bars pending trial because he had access to hundreds of thousands of dollars of cartel money and could keep buying guns illegally or could escape to Mexico. His attorney argued during a detention hearing that Acosta didn’t want to cross the border, as “there would be potential danger to him at this point down in Mexico.”
If attorneys discussed specific safety concerns with the judge, those details are hidden in sealed documents. When cartel members or associates are arrested, they often are concerned that the cartel will have them killed to prevent them from sharing information with federal agents. And there are CJNG members in many jails and prisons across the U.S., according to DEA agents.
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Acosta’s attorney urged the judge to allow his client to return to his home while awaiting trial. He suggested an ankle monitor to prove Acosta remained there. He pointed to the two decades Acosta thrived at an area company before starting his own family masonry business. In court, his attorney called him a dedicated family man and pillar of the community who was known for lending a hand to friends, relatives and neighbors.
Prosecutors say Acosta also enticed at least one relative to pose as a gun buyer for weapons destined for a trip across the border.
Acosta reported directly to a high-ranking CJNG supervisor in Mexico, according to an agent who worked on the case but asked not to be named for his protection. That differs from drug trafficking cases where there are usually many layers between El Mencho’s inner circle and the head of the drug cell in the U.S.
Acosta and his crew bought high-powered weapons from gun shops in the Portland and Salem areas. From there, it’s an easy drive down Interstate 5 south to the border.
Acosta sent the cartel weapons “intended for mass destruction,” prosecutors said in a motion arguing for a hefty prison sentence.
Acosta, who was ordered to remain jailed pending trial, pleaded guilty in December in federal court in Portland and was sentenced to serve six years and three months in prison.
His attorney, Benjamin T. Andersen, had lobbied for less time, telling the judge: “He’s lived here legally” for decades,”but that’s all gone. He will be deported to Mexico. He will not be able to re-enter the United States and that, I think, is significant punishment.”
Acosta had a couple of prior convictions for driving while impaired, and his attorney blamed his past abuse of alcohol for his downfall. Prosecutors blamed greed.
Even when agents arrested one of his straw purchasers in April 2020, Acosta didn’t stop the gun cell. Instead, he upped the ante and began buying bigger items, like the grenade launcher, to make a bigger profit, they said.
John Gutbezahl, defense attorney for one of the admitted straw purchasers, Julio Aboytes Zavala, 35, said his client didn’t think about how his crimes would impact people in Mexico until after his arrest.
“He was approached and asked to buy firearms, no real questions asked,” Gutbezahl said during a recent interview at his office in Lake Oswego, an upscale community south of Portland. “He had financial pressures.”
He worked hard to provide for his family and his mother and used the money Acosta gave him to pay bills.
His attorney said Aboytes is now remorseful and embarrassed by his arrest. He’s serving a 15-month sentence and is scheduled for release in January and plans to return to his job.
“This is eating him up, having to be away from his family,” Gutbezahl said.
His attorney said Aboytes didn’t help obtain the most serious guns, and he’s lobbying for an earlier release. “He wasn’t involved in bazookas, grenade launchers and .50-caliber machine guns.”
After a few buyers bought more than one .50-caliber machine gun, a seller grew suspicious and alerted the ATF.
Agents made their first arrests in the case in April 2020, seizing dozens of guns bound for CJNG. Prosecutors maintain Acosta owed the cartel since he had been paid upfront to organize the purchases. He denied having a debt, but prosecutors say the cartel ended up with some of his land in Mexico.
Acosta is currently serving his sentence at a federal detention center in Seattle. He is expected to be deported after his release, forced to live apart from his family in the Portland area.
Acosta, according to prosecutors, “may have been a loving, caring family man,” but “for more than a year he operated a gun trafficking cell whose ultimate end was to tear families apart through brutal, unimaginable violence.”
Reporter Beth Warren: bwarren@courier-journal.com; 502-582-7164; Twitter @BethWarrenCJ.
How the CJNG cartel boss narrowly escaped capture
When prosecutors argued to keep Acosta in jail until his case was resolved, they pointed to his close ties to CJNG and referenced a 2019 Courier Journal article, “How a Mississippi trooper almost took down the world’s most powerful cartel boss.”
Then-trooper Jason Gazzo was part of a DEA task force targeting drug traffickers flooding the Gulf Coast with meth in 2012. He arrested a rare female drug ring boss who claimed to be El Mencho’s girlfriend, though he was married and lived in Mexico. She wanted more drugs and to set up her own drug cell in Mobile, Alabama. When cartel plaza bosses refused to send her large shipments, she complained directly to El Mencho through Blackberry messages, eventually tracked by the DEA.
Through his investigation, Gazzo learned of the cartel leader’s hideout at a CJNG compound in Tonaya, a village in the city of Mezquital in the northwest Mexican state of Durango ― a five-hour drive southeast of Puerto Vallarta. Acosta happens to be from Tonaya, where he made CJNG connections, prosecutors argued in their motion to keep him locked up.
Gazzo tipped off a DEA security analyst, stationed in Gulfport, Mississippi, who passed the information to Mexican agents.
On Aug. 25, 2012, the DEA analyst listened in on a phone call with the whooshing sound of blades from six military helicopters headed to arrest El Mencho at the Tonaya compound hidden in the jungle. El Mencho ordered his men to stay behind while he and his son, Rubén Oseguera González, escaped out the back. As the Mexican police and soldiers exchanged gunfire with El Mencho’s protection team, four cartel members were killed and three soldiers were injured.
El Mencho went on to survive other near captures through the years and, a decade later, the Mexican military and DEA are still trying to find him.
Reporter Beth Warren: bwarren@courier-journal.com; 502-582-7164; Twitter @BethWarrenCJ.

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