How a Mennonite farmer became a drug suspect

An illustration of an airplane on a narrow runway at night, with armed men in the foreground.

Mennonites are pious Christians who eschew much of the modern world. But in Mexico even they have not escaped the pull of the drug cartels.


Franz Kauenhofen was once a pious member of his Mennonite community in this tropical stretch of southern Mexico. He read the Bible, tended to his fields and reared his three children to obey the teachings of the church.

“He never bothered anyone,” a childhood friend recalled. “He was a very kind, very noble person.”

Mennonites are Christians who, like the Amish, believe that admission to heaven depends on dressing modestly, doing good works, embracing pacifism and eschewing many modern conveniences. Kauenhofen’s community — a hamlet known as Las Flores — allowed cars and electricity but banned televisions, computers, the internet and smartphones.

Despite such restrictions, Mennonites are among the most successful industrial farmers in Mexico. Kauenhofen owned at least 100 acres, where he and his farmhands grew soybeans.


But today at age 40, he sits in prison accused of running clandestine airstrips for drug planes and commanding groups of assassins. Prosecutors say he was on the payroll of the Sinaloa cartel, once headed by the infamous drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

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“He was a rising criminal,” said Hipólito Alonzo Quijano, director of the Campeche state criminal investigations agency. “And he was extremely dangerous.”

His story — pieced together from court documents, his own 19-page deposition and interviews with authorities and members of his community — offers a rare window into the insular culture from which he emerged and a potent illustration of the profound reach of the drug cartels in Mexican society.

The depth of Kauenhofen’s alleged involvement shocked even some of the country’s most seasoned drug fighters.

His arrest left the Mennonites of Las Flores and the surrounding area grappling with questions about their own complicity. Many in his church knew about his dark turn. At least some worked for him.

Inside the cartel, his background was a definite novelty. In a world where narcos sport colorful nicknames — Jefe, Más Loco, Taliban — he was known as El Menona. The Mennonite.


Kauenhofen’s ancestors were part of a migration of thousands of Mennonites to Mexico starting in 1922.

They had come from Canada, where Mennonites had lived in relative peace for more than a century after fleeing religious persecution in Europe. But once Canada entered World War I, they came to be resented for their language — a melding of German and Dutch, known as Plattdeutsch — and their ideological objection to joining the military.

They began casting about for a place to practice their religion in peace.

In a world where narcos sport colorful nicknames... he was known as El Menona. The Mennonite.

They found it in Mexico, where Álvaro Obregón, the president who lost his right arm fighting Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, was keen to rebuild the nation and promised religious freedom and exemption from military service.

Roughly 3,000 Mennonites first settled in the northern state of Chihuahua, where they turned vast tracts of desert into rolling green oases of corn and soybeans.

The Mennonite population in Mexico eventually grew to 100,000, concentrated in the north — and largely isolated from the rest of society. Men often learn Spanish to conduct business, but many women speak only Plattdeutsch. Kauenhofen, the seventh of eight siblings, grew up in the state of Tamaulipas.

In 2000, the year he turned 17, his family joined an exodus of Mennonites relocating to the southern state of Campeche on the Yucatán Peninsula and buying up large tracts of jungle. The Mennonites set out to tame it.

In Las Flores, nine founding families, including Kauenhofen’s, cut down thousands of acres of jungle to grow crops.

Today, Las Flores sustains 100 families. A collection of modest concrete homes with expertly trimmed front lawns, the town sits 9 miles from a paved road, with fields stretching in every direction.


The year Kauenhofen turned 21, he married a woman from a nearby community and his father gave him about a third of the family’s land. He and his wife moved down the road and in time had two boys and a girl.

The family’s future seemed secure.

But the Mennonites weren’t the only business owners interested in Campeche.

Most cocaine entering the United States once arrived on boats and planes from Colombia, through the Cayman Islands and on to Miami. But in the mid-1980s, after U.S. authorities began patrolling the Caribbean, the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar went looking for a new shipping route.

He found it in Mexico, brokering a deal with the Federation cartel to send cocaine through the states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Campeche.

“When they landed their airplanes they felt comfortable with the corrupt elements, corrupt military and state police that would safeguard their drug loads,” said Arturo Fontes, a former FBI agent who spent most of the 1990s investigating drug traffickers there.

The leaders of the Mexican cartel were not content with being middlemen. In a move that transformed the international narcotics trade, they began buying planeloads of cocaine to send to the United States themselves.

"When they landedtheir airplanes they felt comfortable with the corrupt elements ... that would safeguard their drug loads."

The fields created by the Mennonites proved ideal nocturnal landing strips.

The planes either refueled on their way to northern Mexico or unloaded their cocaine to be delivered to the United States by road. The scheme helped turn the Federation cartel — which eventually became known as the Sinaloa cartel — into the most powerful drug trafficking organization in Mexico and arguably the world.

As for the Mennonites of Campeche, many had left northern Mexico because they feared the violence unleashed by drug cartels competing for smuggling routes to the United States. Now they were learning that no place in Mexico was insulated from the narcotics industry.

How and when Kauenhofen entered the drug world remains unclear to authorities, and his attorneys declined to talk about the case or make him available for an interview.

Quijano, the police investigator, said that in 2009 Kauenhofen befriended a neighboring farmer who turned out to be a drug trafficker — an account that lines up with rumors that began circulating in Las Flores around the same time.

“From that time onward he had friendships with dangerous people,” said one community member who grew up with Kauenhofen and went to church with him. Like others living in or near Las Flores, he asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from drug cartels.

He said that Kauenhofen started showing off a brand-new AR-15 assault rifle to friends.

Church members said the ministers were concerned enough about Kauenhofen that they talked with his father, a preacher in the church, about how to steer him back to a more righteous course.


But Kauenhofen was about to plunge much deeper into the underworld.

An illustration of a man who has been gunned down inside a store.

That story begins in 2012, when his wife developed a serious intestinal problem.

The family drew heavily on a Las Flores medical fund created for such situations. Each family contributed 1.5% of its annual harvest income. But as medical bills piled up with surgery after surgery, the fund’s treasurers began complaining to Kauenhofen that he was depleting the reserves. People who knew him said he withdrew more than $500,000.

Then one day in 2015, the treasurers cut him off.

His problems got worse when he ran afoul of an ironclad church stricture against smartphones. Landlines and basic cellphones were allowed, but the ministers of Las Flores believed the technology known here as “el touch” was cursed by the devil.

Though cellular signals and Wi-Fi networks are spotty in Las Flores, Kauenhofen had come to rely on WhatsApp to communicate with doctors 140 miles away in Mérida — where his wife received much of her care — and to stay in touch with his non-Mennonite field hands, according to friends.

That didn’t matter to local church leaders. Kauenhofen had to relinquish his device or face excommunication.

“Owning a ‘touch’ is the greatest sin a person can commit, in the eyes of the ministers,” said Heinrich Wiebe, a 63-year-old church member in Las Flores.


He said at least 10 people, including two of his 14 children, were excommunicated for refusing to give up their smartphones. Kauenhofen knew the risk.

“We talked to him and talked to him,” said a childhood friend. “But he just would not stop using his smartphone.”

The fields created by the Mennonites proved ideal nocturnal landing strips.

Then, one Sunday morning in church in 2018, ministers stood up and brought articles of excommunication against Kauenhofen, who was sitting in the pews.

They asked that all in favor rise to their feet. A majority did, some only reluctantly because they liked Kauenhofen and knew of his debts. “It was because he was a rebel,” lamented his childhood friend. “We don’t use technology, and he didn’t want to let it go.”

Ministers couldn’t kick him out of Las Flores, but the excommunication meant complete shunning. Church members who encountered him were required to turn their backs and walk away.

Kauenhofen was unwilling to repent.

If there were any doubts in Las Flores about Kauenhofen’s involvement with cartels, they were quickly put to rest.

The evening of his excommunication, he sent gunmen to the homes of two ministers, according to multiple Las Flores community members. But the ministers had gotten word and fled. One ran out his back door, through his field and into the hills. The other fled north to Chihuahua.

The next morning, Mexican soldiers descended on Las Flores and began searching for Kauenhofen but didn’t find him and left.

Community members said he and the two ministers eventually came to an agreement: Kauenhofen would be free to conduct his drug business as long as he stayed away from the church. The ministers relinquished his soul to the devil.


“They never bothered him again, because they were afraid,” said a close relative of Kauenhofen. “It was up to God now.”

Free from the restraints of church and scripture, Kauenhofen found the fields accommodated more than just soybeans.

In his deposition, he describes how in late 2018, a man who called himself El Carpintero showed up at his house.

“I was told you had the guts to do some work,” said El Carpintero, who invited Kauenhofen to clear a landing strip so planes packed with cocaine could refuel. His cut: $20,000 per plane.

Kauenhofen said he agreed because his wife’s medical needs had left him $150,000 in debt.

A month later, a colleague of El Carpintero asked Kauenhofen for help with another landing. This time, nearly 20 people armed with high-powered weapons assembled to receive half a ton of cocaine.

Their employer: the Sinaloa cartel.

All the while, Kauenhofen and his family continued to live in Las Flores. He worked his fields, shipping soybeans to silos in a nearby Mennonite community that doesn’t recognize ex-communications carried out by the Las Flores chapter of the church.


“His cover was that he was a farmer,” Quijano said. “That is how he hid who he really was, a criminal.”

By the end of 2019, Kauenhofen said in his deposition, he commanded a team of six sicarios — professional assassins — who defended his territory. Five of them were ex-members of the Kaibiles, an elite special forces unit in the Guatemalan military known for brutality during that nation’s long civil war, according to Campeche’s attorney general, Renato Sales Heredia.

"His cover was thathe was a farmer.That is how he hid who he really was,a criminal."

Kauenhofen also testified that he oversaw an additional 20 cartel members who provided logistics and security for planeloads of cocaine.

He continued to dress like everyone else. But he amassed a fleet of trucks, four-wheelers, motorcycles and an arsenal of weapons — including high-powered machine guns capable of taking down helicopters — to safely escort shipments to Sinaloa, according to the deposition.

“I compare it to the series ‘Breaking Bad,’” said Sales, referring to the television hit depicting a high school chemistry teacher who turns to drug trafficking to pay his medical bills. “He needed money, and little by little he got more involved to the point where he couldn’t get out anymore.”

In his deposition, Kauenhofen specifically mentioned 15 different planeloads of cocaine during his four years working for the Sinaloa cartel, and he alluded to many more. He said each landing earned him $325,000.

“Each plane was loaded with 500 kilos of cocaine,” he said. “And when we unloaded the drugs, we would take it to another location by truck. We would find a spot and then dig a hole, and bury the drugs there.”

By late 2021, Kauenhofen controlled clandestine airstrips in four municipalities in central Campeche, according to Mexican military intelligence documents.


That same year, prosecutors said, Kauenhofen commissioned two narcocorridos, ballads that pay tribute to drug lords.

“Planes loaded down are coming to the jungle,” croons the singer in a band named Grupo Delta. “We’re opening paths, making secret airstrips.”

The song continues: “Family is first and blood is the most sacred thing. We will continue to work as long as God gives me life. He compensates you when you endure the punches.”

Kauenhofen makes clear in his deposition that he had few qualms about using violence to protect his business, even against fellow Mennonites.

He told prosecutors that in May 2021, his brother-in-law, Abraham Loewen Harder, helped him bury two loads of cocaine and $370,000 in cash in a field.

An illustration of two men digging a hole to bury drugs.

But when Kauenhofen went to retrieve it a few months later, $300,000 was missing.

The next time the two men met, both arrived armed, Kauenhofen with four sicarios carrying automatic weapons. Loewen Harder stood little chance. Kauenhofen told authorities he ordered his execution and that the hit men buried him.

Later that year, Kauenhofen hired one of his tractor drivers, whom he called El Chilango slang for a Mexico City resident — to help unload cocaine from the planes and work as a lookout to prevent raids by authorities.

But it seemed that the military showed up every time El Chilango gave a hand, and when Kauenhofen’s sicarios caught him talking to the military on the phone, they took him to a nearby field and shot him.

The next to die were a gas station manager he suspected of being an informant as well as the station’s cash register attendant. Their bodies were left at the scene.

Kauenhofen also used his newfound power as a drug capo to settle an old score, according to his deposition.

"I compare it to the series, "Breaking Bad." He needed money, and little by little ... he couldn’t get out anymore."

Back in 2013, a local farmer named Adán Rivero had lent him the equivalent of $5,800 at an interest rate that Kauenhofen considered exorbitant. Three years later, his debt had ballooned to $50,000, and Kauenhofen gave him a John Deere tractor to settle it — or so he thought.

In September 2021, Rivero showed up at Kauenhofen’s home claiming the debt had not been fully paid and demanded the deed to one of his properties.

Kauenhofen wasn’t home, but when he got word of the visit, he sent his sicarios to kidnap Rivero and hold him for ransom. When the family failed to promptly pay it, Kauenhofen ordered Rivero killed.

Soon, the corpses of three more young men, who the sicarios suspected knew of the killing, joined Rivero in the same hidden grave.

In late 2022, Kauenhofen’s teenage daughter texted him about rumors that he was stealing motorcycles, robbing stores and breaking into homes.

“Papá, are you a thief?” she asked.

“That’s not true,” Kauenhofen told his daughter, he said in his deposition. Then he set out to find the source of the rumors, paying drug addicts in the nearby town of Pich for information until one gave him the name of a local drug dealer.

Kauenhofen said that he had the man kidnapped, collected $10,000 in ransom from his family, then ordered his execution anyway.


The killings and disappearances were no mystery to the Mennonites of Campeche.

The Mexican military — which had noted an increase in unregistered planes landing in Mennonite communities and stepped up its patrols in the area — was also on to Kauenhofen. By last September, he was considered one of the most dangerous traffickers in Campeche, according to a leaked Mexican military intelligence report published by the U.S.-based nonprofit transparency group DDoSecrets.

But the military found little cooperation from the people of Las Flores.

“All of Las Flores was terrified,” said Abram Loewen, a Mennonite who lived nearby but had relatives there. “Because the military was after him, and they came in with everything and no one knew what was going to happen.”

"Papá, are you a thief?"

According to Quijano, the lead investigator, Kauenhofen employed one of his sons, his brother and at least three other Mennonites. In 2019, Mexican troops found 1,500 pounds of cocaine stashed in two houses in Las Flores, and arrested two Mennonites, according to local news reports.

Quijano suggested that some people have refused to cooperate with the military because they fear retaliation.

Others just wanted to be left alone. Las Flores had always been skeptical of outsiders, including government authorities, and problems tended to be handled internally by the church.

There was another reason that nobody wanted to cross Kauenhofen: Despite the bodies that kept turning up, other kinds of crime — long attributed to non-Mennonites in the area — had dropped. One farmer said he could leave a tractor in the field and not worry about it.

Kauenhofen may have been brutal when it came to his enemies, but as his power grew, he seemed to take pride in maintaining order in the community.

At one point during his deposition, he explained that he was furious when some of his henchmen stole cash from the gas station when they killed the two workers there.


He recounted telling them: “What example are we setting if we too are stealing?”

By early 2023, the military had seized at least 12 cartel planes, and authorities were closing in on Kauenhofen.

It was around midnight last Jan. 10 when state police 30 miles east of Las Flores stopped a white truck that was linked to an investigation into a clandestine grave that had recently been discovered near the Yucatán state border.

Quijano said that when the occupants began shooting, police returned fire, killing the driver. Three other men jumped out and commandeered a passing car, kicking out the four Mennonites inside.

Despite the bodies that kept turning up, other kinds of crime ... had dropped.

In the heat of confusion, police shot three of the Mennonites to death.

Arrested over the next few days, the three gunmen turned out to work for Kauenhofen, and they provided information about the vehicles he drove.

Police set up checkpoints outside Las Flores.

On Jan. 20, 2023, at 11 a.m., Kauenhofen attempted to walk past a checkpoint on a stretch of road that farmers often used to get to their fields. Officers arrested him immediately.

“He was very calm,” Quijano said. “He knew we were closing in on him.”

Quijano said Kauenhofen offered the police the equivalent of nearly $60,000 to let him go. When they declined, he offered $120,000, then $1 million.

“He said he didn’t have more money than that,” Quijano said. “Everything else was invested in land and ranches.”

In his mug shot, Kauenhofen appears clean-shaven in a red-and-white plaid shirt, his eyes downcast.

More than two decades after Kauenhofen’s family helped found Las Flores, Mennonites there are once again looking for a new place to call home.


The Campeche government has cracked down on the razing of more Maya forest, and that has left the next generation of farmers with little opportunity to buy more land for crops.

Twenty families are in the process of moving to Angola, the Portuguese-speaking nation in southern Africa. The government there has promised them religious freedom and lush, forested land for as far as the eye can see.

“The Angola government is looking for farmers,” said Abram Loewen.

An illustration of members of the Mennonite community praying around a dinner table.

Kauenhofen is now in a maximum-security prison in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. A trial date has not been set. There are no juries in Mexico, so a judge will decide his fate.

The three henchmen who were arrested led authorities to the remains of Rivero, who had lent money to Kauenhofen, and the three men buried alongside him. Kauenhofen said in his deposition that he was surprised to learn later that the sicarios had tortured Rivero, cutting off an arm and a leg.

“They did that on their own,” he said. “I had nothing to do with it.”

Kauenhofen now stands accused of ordering the deaths of eight people.

Quijano, the investigator, said that Kauenhofen seemed resigned during his deposition. “He felt defeated, lost and exposed,” he said.

Kauenhofen knew that things had spiraled out of control for him, Quijano said. And he knew the day had come to pay for his sins.


“He was repentant,” Quijano said. “More than anything, he wanted to feel OK with himself.”

Kauenhofen’s wife and children fled Campeche immediately after his arrest and moved to Chihuahua. His elder son recently returned to Las Flores, where along with Kauenhofen’s brother and cousin, he was arrested on suspicion of cocaine possession and breaking into a home and stealing more than $4,000 and a truck.

As the news about Franz Kauenhofen’s arrest spread, Gerardo Friessen, 53, a farmer and cheesemaker in the neighboring community of La Trinidad, said he and his fellow Mennonites began to worry it might change how the outside world sees their community.

“We are people that work at home, work the land, milk cows and make cheese,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t miss the drug-laden planes landing nearby.

At the same time, some miss the order that Kauenhofen imposed on the community. Farmers have noted that theft is back up since he was arrested and that field machinery can no longer be left unattended.

Fisher is a special correspondent.