HomeNewsAnalysisThe Current State of Mexico's Many Drug Cartels

The Current State of Mexico's Many Drug Cartels


It is tempting to separate Mexico's drug cartels into six hierarchical groups, each competing for trafficking turf. The reality, however, is that the Sinaloa Federation, the Gulf Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, the Zetas and La Familia, not to mention several new offshoot organizations, are fluid, dynamic, for-profit syndicates that sometimes operate under the umbrella of what are effectively conglomerates but more often than not operate as independent, smaller-scale franchises.

This article examines the current state of the Sinaloa Federation, the Zetas, and other Mexican cartels. It finds that due to law enforcement pressure in recent years, Mexico's drug trafficking organizations have increasingly splintered, and may well end up consolidated under the influence of the last cartel standing. That cartel would likely be the Sinaloa Federation, which remains the most powerful cartel in Mexico today.

The Sinaloa Federation

The Sinaloa Federation is the most powerful Mexican drug trafficking organization with the largest presence nationwide and globally. Based in the state of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico, it has operatives in at least 17 Mexican states. In recent years, its members are known to have operated in cities throughout the United States. At the helm of the cartel is Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, and he is accompanied by several other key figures, among them Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and Juan Jose Esparragoza "El Azul" Moreno. These three figures, in their 50s and 60s, have run the Sinaloa Federation through a hands-off, top-down management style since the 1990s. While the cartel itself may employ as many as 100,000 operatives, the leadership is believed to rarely communicate directly with them, preferring instead to issue wide-ranging orders and allow the plaza chiefs -- those in charge of specific trafficking zones -- to run their operations like franchises. For this reason, the Sinaloa cartel has long been known as the Federation.

In 2008 and 2009, however, the Sinaloa Federation suffered its first major ruptures when the Beltran Leyva brothers and Edgar Valdez Villareal (also known as "La Barbie") split off from Sinaloa to form their own independent outfits, the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Cartel del Pacifico Sur. As a result, one of the Beltran Leyva brothers and Villareal were arrested in 2008 and 2010 respectively, while another brother was killed in 2009. It is unclear whether Sinaloa leader Guzman and his inner circle informed the authorities of the three's locations as payback over the split, or whether they simply proved unable to run operations on their own. The Sinaloa Federation, however, would never be the same. While it would expand in size -- domestically and internationally -- it would suffer setbacks and lose clout near its home turf of Sinaloa and Durango, as well as in southwestern Mexico.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel Profile

Since 2008, dozens of high-level Sinaloa cartel lieutenants have been brought down by authorities, including Guzman's father-in-law and longtime associate, Ignacio Coronel Villareal (also known as Nacho Coronel), who was killed in a shootout in the central city of Guadalajara in July 2010, and Ismael Zambada's son Vicente Zambada Niebla, who is currently on trial in Chicago. The Sinaloa cartel has continued to expand in Mexico and globally, but has faced increasing pressure from rival groups, the Zetas in particular. While it is no longer as effective as it once was, the Sinaloa Federation remains the most expansive, organized cartel operating in Mexico today.

The Zetas

The Zetas are Mexico's most lethal drug trafficking organization. Originally a tight-knit group of approximately 30 former members of a Mexican Special Forces unit who operated as the paramilitary wing for the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas have grown exponentially since the early 2000s. True to their Special Forces origins, some of the recruits have received advanced weapons and communications training, which is what originally distinguished the group from other cartels in Mexico.

Nevertheless, today many Zetas members have had little training at all; since 2008, small groups of "thugs" sporting crew cuts and purporting to be members of the Zetas have appeared in small towns in Mexico, quickly claiming the turf as their own. The Zetas members have been involved in turf battles in Sinaloa cartel strongholds like the city of Culiacan and have been spotted as far south as Guatemala and Honduras. Yet aside from a few apparent attempts to consolidate the multitudes of groups calling themselves Zetas, the Zetas have remained splintered.

The authorities have continually hampered the Zetas' ability to use technology to communicate. In August 2012, for example, the military seized 15 communications installations, including a 50-foot telecom tower, in the northern state of Tamaulipas. In the past year, the authorities have also had success in arresting or killing some of the top Zetas leaders. On October 7, 2012, the Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, known as "El Lazca" or "Z-3" (indicating his high-rank within the original Zeta unit), was killed by the Mexican Navy. On July 15, 2013, Lazcano's successor, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales ("Z-40"), was arrested in Tamaulipas without a shot being fired and reportedly with the help of US intelligence. Law enforcement pressure during the majority of the Calderon administration was focused on the Zetas and La Familia, in large part because these two groups were the most intent on executing indiscriminate acts of violence.

SEE ALSO: Zetas Profile

Without these leaders, the Zetas will likely remain a ragtag operation, intent on violence and willing to engage in almost any illicit activity for profit, but increasingly disorganized and, as a result, less in control of drug trafficking and less capable of undermining the authorities and the state. It is also likely that the Sinaloa Federation will repeat a move from its 2004 playbook and try to take control of the lucrative Nuevo Laredo trafficking corridor given the corner in which the Zetas find themselves.

Mexico's Other Cartels

There are more than a handful of other cartels operating in Mexico, but none on the level of the Sinaloa Federation or the Zetas. There are already indications that the Sinaloa Federation may try to strike an alliance with the remnants of the Gulf Cartel, which, since the extradition of Osiel Cardenas Guillen in 2007 (he received a 25-year sentence in Houston in 2010), has been considerably weakened. Its members have been in constant conflict with the Zetas, from Tamaulipas all the way to Guatemala. Once the most powerful drug trafficking organization on Mexico's East Coast, the Gulf Cartel's current level of influence is unclear. It is reasonable to assume it still controls the majority of drug trafficking operations in Tamaulipas, but it is impossible to be completely confident of the Gulf Cartel's current condition given the fog that surrounds the criminal underworld in Tamaulipas.

Of the other groups, the Tijuana Cartel is perhaps the least menacing. Since the fall of the last of the group's long-time leaders, the Arellano Felix brothers in 2008, the group has stayed largely off the radar. It is believed that a sister of the Arellano Felix brothers, Enedina, may be trying to run operations, but there are indications that the Sinaloa Federation has moved in on their territory. A similar situation exists in Ciudad Juarez, where just one of the original Carrillo Fuentes brothers, Vicente, remains in charge of what used to be the powerful Juarez Cartel but is now an increasingly fluid operation that resembles gang-on-gang warfare more than intra-cartel violence, with the high-level drug trafficking operations apparently conducted by members of the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels. In some ways, Sinaloa has always had a foot in Juarez: in the 1990s, Esparragoza Moreno was considered the "number three" for the Sinaloa Federation as well as the "number two" for the Juarez Cartel, even though the two organizations were officially rivals.

What remains in the rest of Mexico is a hodgepodge of offshoot groups that are increasingly staking their claim to disputed turf from Veracruz to Guadalajara to Acapulco. La Familia, a pseudo-religious group based in the central state of Michoacan which preached wholesome values all the while peddling methamphetamine on the side, has all but shattered under law enforcement pressure, but the so-called Knights Templar has risen in its place. The Knights Templar, like La Familia, operates behind a facade of pseudo-religiosity, calling into question just how separate it is from what was once La Familia. Given La Familia's growth during the early years of the Felipe Calderon administration, it is unlikely the organization simply disappeared entirely.

Groups such as Jalisco Cartel - New Generation (CJNG), based in Guadalajara, and the Matazetas (the "Zeta Killers" who are purportedly an offshoot of the aforementioned Jalisco organization now based largely in Veracruz) have appeared on the scene in the last two or three years, attracting attention with beheadings, other violent killings and narcomantas (banners) laying claim to their turf. Yet a closer examination reveals that these may not actually be new organizations at all: the New Generation was a name commonly thrown around Guadalajara in association with Sinaloa Federation kingpin Coronel Villareal as early as 2008, while the name Matazetas appeared as early as 2004 in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo when Sinaloa Federation operatives challenged the Zetas for their turf. It is nearly impossible to confirm whether the new organizations are offshoots of the major cartels or not. Although many disgruntled operatives are often tempted to try to form their own organizations, sometimes even with their leadership's blessing, it is rarely clear whether they operate independently or under an umbrella.


If there is one certainty that has emerged from roughly six years of fighting the cartels in Mexico, it is that the country's drug trafficking organizations are more fragmented than ever, and now lack the leadership of organized, business-oriented kingpins.

There are several scenarios for the future. If offshoots like La Generacion Nueva, the Zetas and the Matazetas -- which have shown a propensity for wanton violence that is unparalleled in Mexican history -- continue to gain a foothold, Mexico may become such difficult terrain through which to move drugs that the traffickers shift back to the Caribbean, which they abandoned in the 1990s after increased US law enforcement pressure around the islands. Traffickers also may opt to use Central America as a hub, given its lack of strong institutions.

There is also the possibility that the Sinaloa Federation and Gulf Cartel will seek to consolidate control over the various offshoots and incorporate them into their larger organizations. If this happens, violence would likely diminish, but drug trafficking would flourish, and both US and Mexican law enforcement along the border would be put under increasing pressure.

*Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist and author of The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World's Most Wanted Drug Lord. This article originally appeared in the CTC Sentinal and is reprinted with permission. See the orginal article with references here.

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