On Friday 17 July 2020, a video materialized on social media purportedly showing Cártel Jalisco Nuevo Generación (CJNG) Grupo Elite, a mysterious special forces squad of sicarios in a convoy of 22 vehicles. Their reputation is fearsome and almost no one in this field—including many people much smarter than me and with much better sources than mine—has ever questioned the group's authenticity. Brookings scholars, journalists at The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street, Ioan Grillo—all of them—no one besides a handful of people ever questioned publicly whether this was real or not.

When you see something that isn't true, you can often immediately sense that something isn't right. Some details just don't add up. It's the ability that allows us to make decisions and judgements almost instantly when processing new information. Combine that with the fact that security forces in Mexico lie all the time and with enough practice you can tell bullshit the moment you see it.

A number of things stood out in this video. First, lets take a look at the video:

"CJNG Grupo Elite"

I went out on a bit of limb by stating what I thought as soon as the video came out, which was that it was extremely implausible that a criminal group would devote as much time and effort into sourcing materials, vehicles and fabricating the artisanal armor for such an impressive and professionally made fleet. Does a criminal group really have the means, motive and opportunity to do something like this?

The means theoretically wouldn't be a problem for a criminal organization with enough resources at their disposal, but what else could they get for the same investment? Would a criminal group spend a couple million $$$ for essentially a one-off video shoot? What else could they get for that amount of money that might be significantly more useful to them? Several hundred gunmen? Weapons? Bribes?

Another barrier that would have to be overcome is technical skill. Unless the criminal organization has members with a background and years of experience in metal fabrication (in which case, why would they turn to a life of crime in the first place?), they would have to outsource this work. It's possible they could kidnap some welders (supposedly it's happened before), but that's yet more work and risk. Facilities are another requirement which criminals would have to find, as well as sourcing material.

On the other hand, the military already has materials and supply chains on hand which include armor quality steel. Technical skill and facilities aren't a problem for the military either; they already train welders and have facilities for fabrication work.

For both a criminal organization and the military, opportunity would consist of the ability to do all of this work without being detected. For criminals, everything that went into procuring the means to make these vehicles would mean additional risk to their operational security. For a criminal group, every step of the process would have to be done without getting caught. For the military, acquiring the means without being detected isn't nearly as challenging because they already have the autonomy to operate in secret. They have facilities in which they can work without any risk of being discovered because they already own and protect the premises with armed guards.

The single most important part is motive. First, consider who exactly is the intended audience of these videos? Would El Marro or the security forces be frightened by seeing 22 professional looking vehicles? In my opinion, not really. They have as many weapons, or more in the case of the military. CJNG can accomplish intimidation of police and rival groups with much less money and effort. So why go to the trouble then? The only thing this will do is piss the government off by making the state look weak. There seems to be little strategic value in provoking the state by making it look weak, although it's debatable whether criminal groups are rational actors. Instead, the intended audience seems primarily to be the public. It's not a secret that a division exists between the security forces and the presidential administration. Retired generals have publicly expressed concerns with the federal government's approach to security. Was the video made to psyche out El Marro, or was the video made to influence international public opinion? In my assessment, international public opinion is a much bigger prize and therefore a more plausible motive.

Not only that, but the men in the video for the most part don't really look like most of the killed or captured members of CJNG that I've ever seen. The men in the video are (for the most part) taller, older and more muscular, like how you might expect from someone that does physical training on a regular basis. This isn't an especially compelling argument, but associates of criminal groups on average tend to be younger, shorter and skinnier. To me, the guys in the videos just look like cops or soldiers rather than criminals who live as outlaws.

In my view, the easiest way to tell between what I believe are authentic communications from criminal groups and fabrications put out by the state are that inauthentic videos put out by the state are a cop's idea of what the public thinks that cartels look like. They try too hard and it shows every single time. There's a self-awareness to the videos made by the state and if you watch enough of them, you'll hopefully see what I mean.

An authentic video (in my opinion)

This is all speculation and opinion, I could be wrong and have been many times before. But this video doesn't seem authentic to me. That's just what I think.

I decided to at least try to geolocate it, and so that's what I did. The first step was to watch the video several times looking for small contextual identifiers that could be used to pinpoint a location or general area.

Hunch was wrong
I overlaid several stills into a panorama to get an idea about the shape of hill/mountain we were looking for

The first places I looked were fruitless. I incorrectly guessed maybe it would be on the east side of the Sierra between Guadalajara and the coast. I got a breakthrough by querying Twitter for "Jalisco grupo elite" throughout the day until I found this tweet around 12:30 PM EDT. The tweet and a Facebook post in the link suggested the location was in Tomatlán on the coastal side of the Sierra, so I posted that on Twitter. This information seems to be based on something posted by a professional security analyst shortly after the video was released on Friday 17 July. For the safety of the individual, that's all I'll say. Another expert also indicated that the information they received was that the video was from the Sierra in Jalisco.

The breakthrough came when @bibken, someone who does have experience in geolocation, cracked the whole thing wide open.

Good thinking

We found it but still weren't 100% sure. It's always better to be cautious because, believe it or not, there's a lot of bullshit online. A mufo, @fucksteve1k posted and messaged with a couple of pictures circulating online about some 4WD vehicles stolen recently that, as it turns out, match some of the vehicles seen in the "Grupo Elite" video nearly exactly save for some new paint. The jeep was stolen in León, Guanajuato.

This was both exhilarating and also concerning. The images circulated on social media could be part of trolling op like those which are sometimes devised on 4chan and elsewhere. However, as far I knew, no influential public figures or journalists had come out publicly saying it was a hoax, so there wasn't really any motive that I could discern for creating phony evidence to discredit anyone influential.

Subsequently, two people sent me an article in which the Secretario de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana, Alfonso Durazo, announced publicly that the CJNG Grupo Elite videos were under investigation to determine their authenticity. He later tweeted that the video was a "montage" which essentially means a fabrication. I strongly agree with this assessment.

As far as I know, we didn't have anything to do with the announcement or however government officials determined that the video was fake, but it's nice to see that we arrived at a similar conclusion independently.

If confirmed, the implications of this could be massive. For now, the hypothesis should be rigorously tested by others with expertise in geospatial analysis.

After this was published I decided that it would be better to rule out alternative hypotheses that the video was made somewhere else since the way we arrived at Tomatlán was somewhat tenuous. It's certainly possible that whoever identified Tomatlán was simply mistaken, so we decided to look at Guanajuato and Jalisco and several other areas to rule out other possibilities. The physiogeography of Tomatlán is a nearly perfect match to wherever the video was filmed. The plant life, the color of the soil, the shape of the land are all consistent with the location in the video. Nowhere else that we could find was as close of a match. I personally spent about several days looking at Guanajuato and Jalisco and nowhere else in either state had the right combination of elements.

After searching pretty much the entire states of Jalisco and Guanajuato, I believe the only area that the video could have been filmed is somewhere in Jalisco between El Tule, Tomatlán and Campo Acosta.

We still need official confirmation to be certain. It would be very helpful for an expert with access to higher resolution aerial imagery to help test our hypothesis.

We also looked at how the video was distributed on Friday 17 July 2020. The first instance it was posted on social media that we could find was on Twitter at 22:59 UTC or about 6:59 PM EDT. The video was apparently abridged by the limits on the length of videos that users can post on Twitter which cut the video down from 2:50 to around 2:15-2:17. We were unable to find any instances where it was posted earlier than that on Facebook or YouTube. While it's possible the video could have been posted to these sites earlier and subsequently removed, the only evidence we have appears to support the hypothesis that the video originated from private WhatsApp chats, but more evidence is needed to be certain.

General model for how majority of content about the Drug War is distributed in Mexico. There should be a node for private WhatsApp groups between the police/military and Twitter.

I don't claim to show evidence here that this was SEDENA. It's theoretically possible that any sufficiently motivated group with the means and opportunity could accomplish this. But if this was filmed in Tomatlán like it appears is the case, why would the group in subsequent videos claim to be coming for El Marro in Guanajuato? Why were images of vehicles stolen in León, Guanajuato circulating virally on social media on Saturday? Why would this group steal at least one of the vehicles in Guanajuato and then take the vehicle to Jalisco to shoot the video if this was supposedly the beginning of an offensive operation against El Marro in Guanajuato? Is it conceivable that this was an operation by the state to circumvent the law and restrictions on the state's use of force while going after a group which has been a very persistent problem for the Mexican government in Guanajuato (El Marro/Cártel de Santa Rosa de Lima)? I think there's enough here to merit closer examination.

Image from Google Street View at 19°57'32.82"N, 105°16'8.24"W