The Gulf Cartel is one of the oldest and most powerful of Mexico’s criminal groups but has lost territory and influence in recent years to its rivals, including its former enforcer wing, the Zetas. In the cartel's heyday, its boss, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, was considered the country’s most powerful underworld leader, and the Zetas the most feared gang.
The Gulf Cartel’s (Cartel del Golfo - CDG) origins can be traced to 1984, when Juan García Abrego assumed control of his uncle’s drug trafficking business, then a relatively small-time marijuana and heroin operation. García Abrego brokered a deal with the Cali Cartel, the Colombian mega-structure that was looking for new entry routes into the US market after facing a clampdown on their Caribbean routes by US law enforcement. It was an agreement that, from the business side, proved irresistible both for the Cali Cartel's leaders, the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, and for the Mexicans: García Abrego would handle cocaine shipments via the Mexican border, taking on all the risks, as well as much as 50% of the profits.
When García Abrego was arrested and deported to the United States in January 1996, the CDG was reportedly pulling in billions in revenues each year, cash that had to be smuggled back across the border in suitcases, jets, and through underground tunnels. This drug trafficking organization built a wide-reaching delivery network across the United States, from Houston to Atlanta, New York to Los Angeles, but its influence was most acutely seen in its imitators. Other kingpins, like the head of the Juárez Cartel Amado Carillo Fuentes, alias "El Señor de los Cielos," (Lord of the Skies), quickly followed in García Abrego’s footsteps and began demanding more control over distribution from their Colombian partners instead of settling for a share in the transportation fees. As a result, by the end of the 1990s Mexican traffickers had built a series of cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin networks that rivaled Cali in size, sophistication, and profit. And, by buying out government aides, ministers, the federal police force, and even the Attorney General’s Office, the CDG was soon rivaling Cali in terms of political corruption.
But it took García Abrego’s heir, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, to develop the CDG’s military wing in ways never envisioned either in Cali or Medellín. Cárdenas recruited at least 31 former soldiers of Mexico’s Special Forces to act as security enforcers, for at least three times their previous pay. They were expert sharpshooters and were trained in weapons inaccessible to most of their drug-trafficking rivals. Capable of rapid deployment operations in almost any environment, they matched perfectly Cárdenas’ more brutal, confrontational leadership style. Cárdenas was arrested in 2003 after the US Department of State placed a $2 million reward on his head. But his former protection unit, which soon began operating as an independent group known as the Zetas is perhaps the Gulf Cartel's bloodiest and most influential legacy in Mexico’s drug war.
Today, the Gulf Cartel no longer exists as a unified organization. The group has split into many different factions, each vying for control over Tamaulipas’ extensive borderlands. The factions include the Scorpions, Cyclones, Rojos, Metros, and Panthers. These groups utilize their control of the border to engage in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, and migrant smuggling, among other criminal enterprises. While these factions hold significant power, the golden era of García Abrego’s Gulf Cartel is long gone.
After Cárdenas’ extradition to the US in 2007, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez, alias "El Coss," was believed to be leading the group’s day-to-day operations, until he was captured in September 2012. Cárdenas’ brother, Antonio Cárdenas Guillén, alias "Tony Tormenta," handled the cartel’s drug trafficking business until he was gunned down in November 2010.
The arrest of El Coss left the CDG without any clear successor and began a period of unstable leadership for the group.
In January 2013, one of the contenders to succeed El Coss, David Salgado, alias "El Metro 4," was murdered by unknown assassins.
Mario Ramirez Treviño, alias "X20," a hitman and internal rival of Salgado, briefly took the organization's top spot following the murder. He was arrested in Tamaulipas in August 2013 in a Mexican army operation, following the arrest of 24 members of his group a week earlier.
As with the arrest of previous leadership, his arrest left another power vacuum in the increasingly fragmented cartel.
Eventually, Julián Manuel Loisa Salinas, alias “El Comandante Toro,” assumed leadership of the group and commanded a group of hitmen in the border town of Reynosa in the CDG’s traditional hub of Tamaulipas. However, Loisa Salinas was gunned down by Mexico’s federal forces in April of 2017. Shortly after that, the Mexican army captured yet another CDG leader, José Antonio Romo López, alias “La Hamburguesa,” in May of that same year, again throwing the leadership of the group into uncertainty.
Amid “rapid turnover” in the group’s leaders, José Alfredo Cárdenas Martínez, alias “El Contador,” the nephew of former cartel capo Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, was the only one of the group’s leaders that remained. However, his tenure was also cut short by authorities, who arrested him in 2018 in Tamaulipas and then again in 2022.
Rapid turnover in leadership went hand in hand with the group’s fragmentation. In order to project its influence and cover territory, the Gulf Cartel often formed relationships with local gangs. As the pressure applied by law enforcement, voids in leadership, and constant violence all impacted the cartel’s central structure, local groups became more independent, continuing their control of illicit economies.
It’s unclear where exactly the group’s leadership stands now, as fragmentation has made leaders more difficult to discern. José Alberto García Vilano, alias "La Kena" or “Ciclón 19,” is thought to be the leader of the Cyclones, and is currently at large. A presumed leader of the Metros in Reynosa, Ernesto Sánchez Rivera, alias “Metro 22,” was arrested by authorities in March 2023.
The cartel’s traditional center of operations is in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, with its most important operational bases in the border cities of Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa. Control of these cities is critical from an operational and financial standpoint, facilitating the group’s control of the flow of arms, drugs, and migrants.
As it splintered, the group’s reach within Mexico became more limited, with factions primarily based out of Tamaulipas. However, splinter groups such as Grupo Sombra -- present in parts of San Luís Potosí, Hidalgo, and Veracruz -- have limited presence around the country.
At its peak, the group was known to have established itself in at least 11 other states, including in Oaxaca, Michoacán, and possibly the Yucatán peninsula.
Allies and Enemies
In April 2010, the federal police confirmed that there was an alliance between the Familia Michoacana and the CDG against their common rival, the Zetas, which has been pushing aggressively into the Gulf’s traditional stronghold in Tamaulipas.
It was little surprise to crime watchers in Mexico. The CDG has a violent history of seeing former allies turn against it. A previous alliance, brokered in prison between Cárdenas and Benjamín Arellano Félix, one of the heads of the Tijuana Cartel, held for about a year until the agreement broke down in 2005, leading to another outbreak of killings in the border states. Another temporary division of territory with the Sinaloa Cartel also broke down in 2007, causing havoc nationwide.
Today, factions of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas often engage in open warfare in Tamaulipas, and the multitude of groups makes alliances and rivalries difficult to establish. Amidst the weakening of the area’s two predominant actors, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) has sought expansion into the area, leading to concerns of more violence as it challenges the hegemony of the remnants of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas.
The Gulf Cartel is now no longer the organization that it was. Still, powerful criminal groups using the Gulf Cartel name continue to vie for control over the borderlands’ lucrative criminal economies.
In March 2023, four US citizens were kidnapped in Matamoros, allegedly by members of a faction of the Gulf Cartel. Two of the four were killed, sparking outrage in the United States. This event, combined with a flood of fentanyl entering the US through its southern border, has raised pressure on Mexico to act against “cartels.” Gulf Cartel groups may be prime targets for crackdowns by Mexican law enforcement.