A leader of a drug cartel linked to the unsolved disappearance of 43 students in Mexico in 2014 is in U.S. custody in the Chicago area, where he faces criminal charges that could put him away for the rest of his life.
Adan Casarrubias Salgado, 53, and his brothers Sidronio, Angel and Mario were leaders of the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel. But now Adan Casarrubias Salgado — also known as “El Tomate,” “Tomatito,” “Star” and “Silver” — is charged with conspiracy, drug trafficking and money laundering.
Federal authorities say he distributed multiple kilograms of heroin in the Chicago area in 2014 and transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars in proceeds back to Mexico. He pleaded not guilty during an arraignment Friday before U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly, following his extradition from Mexico.
“Exercising strong federal laws and extradition is critical to weakening transnational drug cartels that send deadly drugs to the U.S.,” said Robert J. Bell, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s special-agent-in-charge in Chicago. “The DEA appreciates doing its important work with our close partners to keep Americans safe.”
Mario Casarrubias Salgado, nicknamed The Handsome Toad or El Sapo Guapo in Spanish, founded the cartel around 2011, sources say. He was formerly a bodyguard to Arturo Beltran Leyva, the late kingpin of another cartel in Mexico.
Mario Casarrubias Salgado, a Mexico City native, once lived in Logan Square and created a heroin distribution network from Mexico to Chicago using Mexican passenger buses. He served nine months in an Illinois state prison in 2005 for illegal gun possession, records show.
After prison here, he went to Mexico where he worked for the Beltran-Leyva Organization cartel. But when police captured a drug shipment he oversaw, he feared he’d be killed and quit, creating Guerreros Unidos with his brother Angel “El Mochomo” Casarrubias Salgado, law enforcement sources say.
Mario Casarrubias Salgado died last year in a prison in Mexico, where he was serving a 10-year sentence on gun and drug charges.
Marco Vega Cuevas, who grew up in Aurora, also was one of the leaders of the cartel. He drowned in a lake in Mexico on March 20, 2014, at 35, supposedly trying to save his wife after she fell in. Marco’s brother, Pablo Vega Cuevas, also from Aurora, became the Chicago-area cell leader for the cartel, federal prosecutors have said. He has pleaded guilty to drug charges and is awaiting sentencing in federal court in Chicago.
Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado was arrested in October 2014 in connection with the kidnappings and suspected murders of the students in the town of Iguala in Guerrero state.
Mexican authorities said they believed the police chief of Iguala orchestrated the kidnappings and killings on the orders of Sidronio, who was arrested but released from prison in 2019 after a judge determined he was tortured into a confession. In 2020, his brother Angel Casarrubias Salgado was arrested on suspicion of ordering the killings of the students, but he was released from custody, too, according to news reports.
The students, who attended a rural teachers’ college, had traveled to Iguala on Sept. 26, 2014, to steal buses to use in a protest march in Mexico City, the authorities said. One theory is they were unwittingly on a passenger bus loaded with Guerreros Unidos’ heroin destined for Chicago.
A possible link between the cartel and the students’ disappearance was a photo the DEA obtained from Mexican authorities that showed a bullet-riddled bus with a monarch butterfly painted on the back. The bus was similar to the Monarch passenger buses that hauled the cartel’s heroin from Mexico to Chicago, a law enforcement source said, adding that agents found the photo interesting but inconclusive evidence of a connection between the students’ disappearance and the cartel’s Mexico-to-Chicago drug operation.
In May 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Mexico to meet with President Andre Manuel Lopez Obrador and agreed to send intelligence to Mexico’s public prosecution office about Guerreros Unidos’ possible involvement in the disappearance of the students. But when that information was delivered, Mexican prosecutors said they already had it, the source said.
It’s unclear whether U.S. officials were able to provide Mexico with any more evidence about the case.