As many as eight young workers were confirmed dead Tuesday in Mexico after they apparently tried to quit jobs at a call center operated by a violent drug cartel that targeted Americans in a real estate scam.
U.S. and Mexican officials confirmed the brutal story that unfolded late last month when relatives of the youths reported them missing after they did not return from work in an office near the western city of Guadalajara. Suspicions rose last week when heaps of hacked-up body parts were found in plastic bags.
Forensic examiners in the western state of Jalisco said in a statement Monday that tests had confirmed the bodies belonged to the missing call center workers.
A total of six men and two women were reported missing between May 20 and May 22, but the forensic examiners did not mention the number of confirmed identities. There had been doubts about whether one of the youths was among the bodies found.
While the families believed their children worked at a normal call center, the office was in fact run by the Jalisco New Generation cartel, Mexico’s most violent gang. The cartel has branched out beyond its traditional business of drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping.
Officials confirmed the cartel now operates call centers that scam money from Americans and Canadians through fake offers to buy their timeshares.
Jalisco officials did not offer a motive in the killings of the workers, all but two of whom were under 30. But a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue said it appeared the youths were killed by the Jalisco cartel after they tried to quit their jobs.
(Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images)
"Best guess is these kids had decided they wanted out of the business," the U.S. official said, adding the cartel was "sending a message to other defectors."
"It appears this has happened before," the official added.
The Jalisco cartel, known by its initials as the CJNG, is famous for its ruthless treatment of supposed traitors, informants or turncoats. For those who have worked for the cartel, knowingly or unknowingly, it appears to be an unwritten rule that the only way out of the gang is death or prison.
An activist group for families of the disappeared, "Por Amor a Ellxs" — roughly, "For Love of Them" — said there are around 15,000 missing people in Jalisco, out of a total of about 112,000 nationwide.
Call centers are a major source of employment in Mexico for young people or migrants who may have learned English in the United States, but who have returned to Mexico.
The timeshare fraud came to light in April, when the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against members or associates of the Jalisco New Generation cartel who apparently ran a similar operation in the Pacific coast resort of Puerto Vallarta, also located in Jalisco state, the gang's home turf.
Brian E. Nelson, the U.S. under secretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement in April that the "CJNG’s deep involvement in timeshare fraud in the Puerto Vallarta area and elsewhere, which often targets elderly U.S. citizens and can defraud victims of their life savings, is an important revenue stream supporting the group’s overall criminal enterprise."
The scammers contacted people seeking to sell timeshares in Puerto Vallarta properties.
In a 2023 alert, the FBI said sellers were contacted via email by scammers who said they had a buyer lined up, but the seller needed to pay taxes or other fees before the deal could go through. Apparently, once the money was paid, the deals evaporated.
The FBI report said that in 2022, the agency’s Internet Crime Complaint Center "received over 600 complaints with losses of approximately $39.6 million from victims contacted by scammers regarding timeshares owned in Mexico."
Ryan Donner, a broker at Ryan Donner & Associates, a real estate firm in Puerto Vallarta, said his firm had been asked for assistance by two people over the last two years who were apparently targeted by the scam.
"It’s infrequent, but yes, we have had it happen," said Donner, who was able to steer both people away from the scam before they paid any money.
Donner described the fraud as very sophisticated.
He said the scammers sent prospective sellers fake contracts and official-looking documents from the Mexican tax authority apparently saying taxes were due on the prospective sale.
"They have contracts, they have documents that appear to be official documents, it would be very easy to fall into the trap of paying them," Donner said.
"If a company contacts someone to say that they have a buyer for a property and all they need is money, that is a huge red flag for it being some sort of scam," Donner said. "That’s not how companies usually work."