Map of the Mexican drug cartel territory

About the Mexican drug cartels

Drug cartels, criminal organizations developed primarily for the purpose of promoting and controlling drug trafficking operations, have expanded into other criminal areas including arms dealing, prostitution, racketeering, extortion, assassinations, and human slavery. Whereas they once agreed to cooperate with each other in the production and distribution of drugs (i.e. a true cartel), they now war with each other on a regular basis in a battle that has cost an estimated 700,000 lives.  Their geographical boundaries, which once stopped at the Mexican border, have expanded into Africa, South America, Europe, and of course, into the lands of their nearest neighbor, the United States.  Their profits from their criminal business are enormous.  In the suburban town of Badiraguato, near the center of the Sinaloa Cartel’s realm, despite being one of the poorest municipalities in Mexico, you will find shiny SUVs and mansions crowning the surrounding hills.  But you’re better off not asking questions there.

The organization of a Mexican drug cartel

Fortified Mexican drug lord mansionA drug cartel is built upon many complex layers but most Mexican cartels are organized into a four-level hierarchical organization..

At the lowest level are the Falcons (Halcones), cartel members who are considered the eyes and ears of the organization. Falcons’ primary tasks are to report the activities of rival groups and movements of military personnel. Some may be involved in low-level drug dealing or other minor criminal activities.  In terms of importance, they are expendable – and easily replaced.

Above the Falcons you will find the Hitmen (Sicarios) who as their name implies, are responsible for carrying out assassinations and other violent crimes.  The Hitmen carry out kidnappings, thefts, extortion, protection rackets, and are responsible for defending their territory from rival groups and the Mexican military.  These are the foot soldiers of the cartel.

The second highest position in a Mexican drug cartel are the Lieutenants (Lugartenientes) who are responsible for supervising the Hitmen and Falcons that operate within their assigned territory. Lieutenants have a bit of autonomy and may for instance, carry out low-level assassinations without first gaining permission from their bosses.  They are the future Drug Lords.

At the highest level in the cartel are the Drug Lords (Capos) who are responsible for managing the entire industry, appointing Lieutenants, forming alliances, and planning high-level assassinations and executions.  Capos are the big guys, the ones that call all the shots.


In addition to the formally defined levels of cartel organization, you will also find auxiliary positions such as drug producers, supplies, financers, money launderers, arms suppliers, etc. – positions that are important but not necessary for the logistics of the cartel’s operations.

And sadly, although not officially arms of the cartel, other organizations have been known to cooperate with the Mexican drug cartels including municipal police forces, federal police forces, state police forces, the Mexican Army, the Mexican Navy, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and even the profession soccer team, Club Tijuana.

The top Mexican drug cartels

There are around a half-dozen major Mexican drug cartels and dozens of minor cartels.  Due to constant warring, the landscape changes dramatically from year to year.  For instance, when this article was first written (2013), the major cartels were Gulf Cartel, Juarez Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel, South Pacific Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, and Los Caballeros Templarios.  By 2016, just three years later, the list had change to include the Sinaloa Cartel, The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), Gulf Cartel, Knights Templares, Los Zetas, Beltran-Leyva Cartel.

Each of the cartels operate differently and are involved with (or specialize in) various forms of criminal activities. In addition, each controls specific geographic areas and many war with each other over territory (especially true after a cartel’s drug lord dies).  Each cartel operates under a unique set of philosophies – while most believe violence and a heavy hand are the means to achieve their goals, some choose a “bribe over bullet” philosophy instead.

Here is a rundown of the major, prominent Mexican drug cartels throughout history.

Gulf Cartel

Guns recovered from Mexican drug cartelThe Gulf Cartel is the oldest organized crime syndicate in Mexico being founded in the 1930’s by Juan Nepomuceno Guerra (aka Don Juan) who began smuggling alcohol across the border to the United States during the Prohibition Era. After realizing great profit, Guerra quickly expanded beyond bootlegging into gambling houses, car theft networks, prostitution rings, illegal trafficking of drugs, protection rackets, human trafficking networks, paid assassinations, extortion, kidnappings, and other illegal activities. The Gulf Cartel grew to become Mexico’s largest criminal dynasty and earned a reputation of being especially violent and intimidating. Their drug trafficking trade was particularly profitable and by 1994, it is estimated that the Gulf Cartel supplied more than one-third of all cocaine shipments into the United States.

After arrest of their leader in 1996, and after an internal struggle for leadership amongst the cartel’s members, new Drug Lords (with new philosophies) took seats in the organization and with enticements (huge salaries) were able to recruit over 30 deserters of the Mexican Army’s elite Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) to form the Gulf Cartel’s armed enforcement wing, the terrifying Los Zetas (who would later split off to form their own separate cartel). In addition to doubling up on physical strength, agreements between the Gulf Cartel and politicians and law enforcement officials were struck via bribery and extortion in order to ensure the Gulf Cartel could operate unimpeded.

The near death of DEA and FBI agents

An act of stupidity nearly doomed the organization in the late 1990’s. On a November afternoon in 1999, Gulf Cartel drug lord Osiel Cárdenas learned that a Gulf Cartel informant was being transported through Matamoros, Tamaulipas, by the FBI and DEA. DEA agent Joe DuBois and FBI agent Daniel Fuentes were riding in a white Ford Bronco with diplomatic plates, traveling along the streets of Matamoros, Tamaulipas. In the back seat of the car, a Mexican informant from a local newspaper guided the two agents on a tour of the city’s drug routes, including the homes of the prominent drug lords of the city. They even drove by Osiel Cárdenas’ house, a pink-colored mansion with tall walls, security cameras, armed guards and snipers positioned on the roof. According to DuBois, within moments, a Lincoln Continental was on their tail, then a stolen pickup truck with Texas plates. Just yards away from Matamoros’ police department, the federal agents were cut off and surrounded by several vehicles, a convoy of gunmen from the Gulf Cartel. Nearby, other men, dressed in police uniform, directed traffic away from the scene.

Osiel Cárdenas’ men surrounded the vehicle on a public street and demanded that the informant be released to him. According to the two agents, the Gulf Cartel soldiers outnumbered and outgunned them. Their only way out was to talk their way out. Osiel Cárdenas himself arrived seconds later in a white Jeep Cherokee, approaching the two agents with the swagger of the man in charge. In his waistband, he wore a Colt pistol with a gold grip; in his hands, a gold-plated AK-47. Cárdenas pounded the roof of the Ford Bronco and calmly asked for the informant to step outside the vehicle. Agent Fuentes flashed his FBI badge, giving Cárdenas a smile. Cárdenas told the agents that he would shoot them if they did not surrender their prisoner. The two agents refused to do so, saying they were dead either way. When Cardenas told DEA agent DuBois that he did not care that they were American law enforcement officials and that he would shoot them regardless, Agent DuBois replied: “You don’t care now, but tomorrow and the next day and for the rest of your life, you’ll regret anything stupid that you might do right now. You are fixing to make 300,000 enemies.

Site of a Mexican drug cartel hitFBI agent Fuentes chimed in and reminded Cárdenas how the U.S.had  launched a massive manhunt and investigation after the kidnap, torture, and assassination of the DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985 in Mexico. He reminded Cardenas that all of the killers and accomplices were captured in that U.S. operation. After a tense standoff, DuBois and Fuentes, along with their informant, were released.

The two agents and the informant headed onward to Brownsville, Texas. As for Cárdenas, the damage had been done by taking on the U.S. government, which placed pressure on the Mexican government to apprehend Cárdenas. Cardenas was captured and sent to the federal, high-security prison, La Palma.  However, it was believed that Cárdenas still controlled the Gulf Cartel from prison, and he was later extradited to the United States where he was sentenced to 25 years in a prison in Houston, Texas.

The two agents, Joe DuBois and Daniel Fuentes, were recognized by the U.S. attorney general for their ‘exceptional heroism,’ and both are still on the job. The Mexican reporter is living somewhere in the United States.

The Metamoros gun battle

After the extradition of Cardenas to the United States, the Gulf Cartel was involved in a gunfight in Metamoros, Tamaulipas on November 6, 2010 that was so vicious, the University of Texas at Brownsville, located across the border, had to cancel classes and close their campus due to stray bullets passing across the border. On that day, the Mexican government called in over 600 marines, 17 armored vehicles, and 3 helicopters to wage war in the streets against the Gulf Cartel. The cartel countered with 80 reinforced SUVs packed with gunmen, several hundred hand grenades, automatic weapons, snipers, and an army of foot soldiers. By the end of the day, more than 100 people lay dead in the streets of Metamoros.

Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas part ways

It was around this time that the Gulf Cartel and their armed unit, Los Zetas, began to squabble with each other. The two eventually parted ways forcing the Gulf Cartel to unite with the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familiar Michoacana cartel for protection.  Los Zetas in return, subsequently partnered with the Beltran Layva Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel as a counter move against the Gulf Cartel.

No prison walls can hold them in

In several instances, the Gulf Cartel has organized massive prison breaks in an effort to free imprisoned cartel members. On May 16, 2009, using an armed commando unit with 10 trucks and a support helicopter, the cartel liberated 53 Gulf Cartel members. On March 25, 2010, 40 inmates escaped the federal prison in Matamoros, Tamaulipas and on September 10, 2010, 85 inmates escaped from prison in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. On December 17, 2010, 141 inmates escaped from a federal prison.

Status of the Gulf Cartel

The Gulf Cartel is currently based in Matamoros Tamaulipas, directly across the border from Brownsville, Texas but is facing tremendous pressure from rival cartels and its own Lieutenants after the demise of the cartel’s leadership in 2012. They are believed to have operations inside the United States as far north as Michigan and New York and are known to have strong ties to prison gangs in the United States.

Juarez Cartel

Juarez Cartel memberThe Juarez Cartel is based in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, directly across the border from El Paso, Texas. This is one of several cartels known for their use of terroristic methods, including decapitation and mutilation, in order to instill fear in their rivals and in some cases, the general public.  The cartel was formed in the 1970’s and quickly expanded operations into 21 Mexican states.

The Juárez Cartel relies on two enforcement gangs to exercise control over both sides of the border: La Linea, a group of corrupt (current and former) Chihuahua police officers, is prevalent on the Mexican side, while the Barrio Azteca street gang operates in Mexico and in Texas cities such as El Paso, Dallas and Houston, as well as in New Mexico and Arizona.


In 2007, the Juarez Cartel entered into a vicious battle with the Sinaloa Cartel for control of Juarez, an important trade route for the cartels. As of 2013, the battle between rivals has left thousands of people dead, the majority from within the ranks of the Juarez Cartel.  Once a powerful force in the Mexican underworld, the Juarez Cartel is now a mere ghost of itself.

Los Zetas

Los Zetas drug cartel torture victimLos Zetas is one of the most powerful, and violent, Mexican drug cartels in Mexico and is considered by the U.S. government to be the “most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating out of Mexico”. Their origins date back to 1999 when commandos of the Mexican Army’s elite forces deserted their ranks to work as the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, itself a powerful drug trafficking organization (see above). Los Zetas’ brutal attacks include beheadings, torture, and indiscriminate slaughter of their enemies. In addition to drug trafficking, Los Zetas are believed to operate protection rackets, assassinations, extortion, kidnappings, and various other criminal activities.

Los Zetas are based in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, directly across the border from Laredo, Texas. The Los Zetas cartel has control over 11 states in Mexico which makes it the largest cartel in terms of geographic area. Although based in Nuevo Laredo, Los Zetas distribute hundreds of soldiers throughout the country. They are known to place lookouts at arrival destinations such as airports, bus stations and main roads. In addition to conducting criminal activities along the border, they operate throughout the Gulf of Mexico, in the southern states of Tabasco, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Chiapas, and in the Pacific Coast states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacán, as well as in Mexico City. They are active in several states in the United States including California and South Carolina where they maintain ties with the American Surenos street gang.

Los Zetas drug cartel victim hung from highway overpassBy 2010, Los Zetas, who at the time were still the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, had become more powerful than its parent organization in terms of revenue, membership, and influence. In addition to the uneven balance of power, philosophical differences existed between the two arms.  A break from the more even-handed Gulf Cartel was inevitable as the Gulf Carter ruled with steadier hands while Los Zetas often chose violence over negotiation.

Violence in the midst of Los Zetas  is a way of life and when Zetas get violent, they do so in a big way.  On August 24, 2010, 72 migrants were found dead in what became known as the San Fernando massacre. Los Zetas topped themselves in 2011 when 193 people were killed in the same area. During their split with Gulf Cartel, 31 Gulf cartel inmates were killed on January 4, 2012 and 44 Gulf cartel members killed on February 19, 2012 in another prison riot.

Operation Cartel

On October 6, 2011 a man identifying himself as a member of Anonymous posted a video on YouTube under the account MrAnonymousguyfawkes stating that Los Zetas had kidnapped one of their group members and demanded that Los Zetas Cartel release the individual. If he was not freed, the man in the video threatened to expose photos and the names of several people who collaborate with the cartel, such as police officers, government officials, and taxi drivers. The man in the video stated that they were “fed up” with the situation in Mexico where citizens were being kidnapped by the cartels and subjected to unjust violence. Thus began “Operation Cartel” or OpCartel as it became known in the hacker underground.


OpCartel raised concern that Los Zetas had experts in computer intelligence who were believed to track down the “anti-cartel” campaigns online.  This of course, would explain the high rate of journalist executions that were occurring at the time. Additionally, the cartel is believed to assign soldiers to monitor forums, news websites, and blogs to help them keep up with what is being published in the media that could negatively affect their interests.

On November 4, 2011, Anonymous posted on the Iberoamerican Blog that the kidnapped member had been released and that they had confirmed his identity. They also stated that they would not be moving forward with releasing the information they had of several cartel members.

The mass execution and overpass hanging of rivals

On May 12, 2012, Mexican authorities responding to an anonymous tip found 50 mutilated bodies dumped on the side of a highway between Monterrey and the United States border. The bodies were wrapped in plastic and had been decapitated with the hands and feet chopped off. Days earlier, 23 bodies had been found – nine hanging from a highway overpass and the other 14 decapitated. Messages left at the scene attributed the killings to Los Zetas.

Current status of Los Zetas

On October 9, 2012, their leader, Herlberto Lazcano was killed in a firefight with Mexican marines.  As of December 2015, Los Zetas began identifying itself as Cartel del Norte or Cartel of the North.

Sinaloa Cartel

Money recovered from a Mexican drug cartelThe Sinaloa Cartel, aka Guzmán-Loera Organization , Pacific Cartel, Federation, and Blood Alliance, was formed in 1989 and are based in the city of Culiacan, Sinaloa with operations in the Mexican states of Baja California, Durango, Sonora, and Chihuahua.  After Mexico’s war on drugs was announced, and 2/3 of the Mexican cartel leaders imprisoned, the Sinaloa Cartel carried on virtually untouched. Some say they won the drug war. Some say they won with the help of the Mexican government.

The United States Intelligence Community considers the Sinaloa Cartel “the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world” and in 2011, the Los Angeles Times called it “Mexico’s most powerful organized crime group”. The regions that they control are major producers of Mexican opium and marijuana. In addition to drug trafficking, they are known to be involved in money laundering, murder, kidnapping, and especially bribery. In fact, the Sinaloa Cartel has come to be known as masters of the strategy of “bribe over bullet”.

Early iterations of the Sinaloa Cartel saw members split off and form competing cartels including the Guadalajara Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel. They have a presence in 17 Mexican states and are primarily involved with the smuggling and distribution of Colombian cocaine, Mexican marijuana, methamphetamine production, and distribution of Asian heroin into the United States. It is now believed to be the size of the Medellin Cartel during its prime.

Murders by the cartel often involve beheadings or bodies dissolved in vats of alkali and are filmed and posted on the Internet as warnings to others.

The battle between Sinaloa Cartel and Tijuana Cartel

Beginning in 1992, the Sinaloa Cartel began waging a war against the Tijuana Cartel (Arellano-Félix Organization) over the Tijuana smuggling route to the border city of San Diego, California. On 8 November 1992, the Sinaloa Cartel struck out against the Tijuana Cartel at a disco club in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, where eight Tijuana Cartel members were killed in the shootout. In retaliation, the Tijuana Cartel attempted to set up Guzmán at Guadalajara airport on 24 May 1993. In the shootout that followed, six civilians were killed by the hired gunmen from the Logan Heights, San Diego-based 30th Street gang. The dead included Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo. The church hierarchy originally believed Ocampo was targeted as revenge for his strong stance against the drug trade. However, Mexican officials believe Ocampo just happened to be caught in cross fire.

Infamous Sinaloa leader: Joaquin Guzman aka El Chapo or Shorty

As of 2013, their leader, Joaquin Guzman (aka El Chapo or Shorty, he stands just 5 ft. 6 in. tall) had risen to the top of the FBI and Interpol’s most wanted lists after Osama bin Laden was killed. At 57-years-old, he reportedly married an 18-year-old Mexican beauty queen. When his son was shot dead in 2008, he sent 50,000 red roses to the funeral.


UPDATE: 2/23/14 The Arrest of El Chapo

The world’s most wanted drug lord was arrested yesterday.  A half-dozen Mexican commandos burst into Room 401 of the Miramar condominium building in the beach town of Mazatlan and found the world’s most wanted drug lord not armed to the teeth but shirtless and curled up in bed with his beauty-queen wife.  An assault rifle was at his side, but he didn’t try to grab it.

Mexican troops were helped by U.S.-supplied wiretaps and surveillance technology that allowed them to track the cellphone locations of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and his crew as they tried everything to avoid capture — even fleeing through sewer tunnels.  The arrest of El Chapo was the final link in a chain of arrests, each of which netted a cellphone creating a “breadcrumb trail” to El Chapo.  Police told reporters:

“It was a traditional drug investigation where one phone begets another phone that begets another phone.  It was really drug investigations 101.”

The Washington Post explained how the arrest was made:

The Americans shared the intelligence from the Arizona arrest with the Mexicans early this month. “We shared it live so they could do verifications as we were collecting it. They knew the cities,” another U.S. official said. That led to another big break on Feb. 13, when Mexican marines raided a farmhouse outside Culiacan, the Sinaloan capital. At the ranch, the marines arrested five people described as cartel hitmen, including Jose Enrique Sandoval Romero, known as “El Loco,” and two of his brothers, according to Mexican officials.

Using information from that arrest, the marines went to some of Guzman’s safe houses in Culiacan, including one where his ex-wife lived, officials said. In one home, they found one of Guzman’s couriers, who disclosed locations of more safe houses. Guzman was hiding in another of the houses, the officials said. As the marines tried to knock down its steel-reinforced door, they said, Guzman escaped through a trap door under the bathtub. He descended a steel ladder that led to a network of tunnels that wove through the sewer system and connected at least seven other houses, U.S. and Mexican officials said.

“He was able to escape from us at least twice,” said the U.S. federal law enforcement official. “He had a direct sense that we were after him.”

Guzman was moving quickly. He would leave behind grenades, rifles, ballistic vests and armored cars. “He was on the run, and he had to leave behind his personal protection,” one federal law enforcement official said.

As police closed streets in Culiacan and searched houses, top officials of the Mexican navy and the federal prosecutor’s office were holding emergency meetings to coordinate the hunt for Guzmán, who had escaped from a high-security prison in 2001. U.S. officials said he had since become the world’s most powerful drug lord.

American investigators sifted through the trove of new intelligence, and “all the agencies started to strategize, looking at stash houses, associates — and the puzzle started coming together,” according to Mike Vigil, a retired senior DEA official who worked for 13 years in Mexico and was briefed on the arrest.

Mexican officials said the United States contributed with technology that allowed them to track cellphones and satellite phones used by the cartel.

On Wednesday and Thursday, three more Guzmán lieutenants were arrested in Culiacan, officials said. One of the men had a stockpile of thousands of cocaine-filled bananas and cucumbers.

At that point, “Chapo and his guys realized they needed to drop the cell communication,” another federal official said. “They knew something was up.”

On Friday, instead of heading back to the mountains, Guzman traveled by road to Mazatlan, about 135 miles south of Culiacan.

Meanwhile, one of the wiretaps that originated out of the Nogales arrest had picked up the number for a new cellphone. It turned up in the pocket of Guzman’s traveling companion, a man known as “El Condor.”

Guzmán had arrived at the condo with El Condor and a woman whom U.S. officials initially described as his secretary and lover. But senior American officials, as well as Zeron of the Mexican attorney general’s office, said the trafficker was with his wife, Emma Coronel, and their toddler daughters. twin 2-year-old daughters. The girls were born in a Los Angeles County hospital and are U.S. citizens.The Mexican navy commandos burst into the room at 6:40 a.m. and found Guzmán asleep.

Update: 7/12/15 El Chapo escapes from prison – again…

From the Washington Post:

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the world’s most famous drug lord, has escaped from a maximum security prison in Mexico for the second time in his drug-running career, a spectacular breach of security that set off a massive manhunt early Sunday.  For the past year and a half, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel had been incarcerated in the Altiplano, a federal facility set amid farmland west of the capital that holds the top captured drug bosses and has been described as the country’s most impenetrable prison.

That all changed late Saturday night, when Guzman slipped out of the prison through a rectangular passage in the shower area of his cell that led to a nearly mile-long tunnel running underneath the prison, said Mexico’s national security commissioner, Monte Alejandro Rubido.

In a brief morning news conference, Rubido said that Guzman was last seen in the prison about 8 p.m., while receiving his daily dose of medication. After guards realized he had disappeared, they found a hatch that led by ladder down to the tunnel, which was illuminated, perforated with PVC piping for ventilation and equipped with an adapted motorcycle-on-rails to whisk the drug lord to freedom.

The escape of Guzman is a staggering blow for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who had been building a strong reputation for arresting top drug bosses from all the major cartels.  It promises to be a major irritant in the relations between the U.S. and Mexican governments. American officials had pressed for Guzman’s extradition so that he could be prosecuted for drug crimes and held in the type of facility where he would be more secure.

Guzman is the only drug trafficker to escape from two maximum security prisons in Mexico, and the only one to escape from Altiplano, built in 1990. “This will only add to his legendary status as a drug trafficker,” said Vigil.

Update: 1/8/2016 El Chapo is captured again (his third recapture)

According to the official report published by Mexican Navy, citizens reported “armed people” in a house at the coastal city of Los Mochis in northern Sinaloa, which was then placed under surveillance for one month. Monitored communications indicated the home was being prepared for the arrival of “Grandma” or “Aunt”, which authorities suspected was code for a high-priority potential target. After the gunmen returned to the house, placing a large order for tacos at a nearby restaurant and picking up the order in a white van after midnight, the residence was raided in the early hours of 8 January 2016 by 17 marines from the Mexican Navy’s Special Forces with support from the Mexican Army and the Federal Police. The Federal Police captured Guzmán, along with cartel lieutenant Óscar Iván Gastélum Aguilar (“El Cholo”), following a shootout with the marines.

During the raid, codenamed Operation Black Swan, Guzmán and Gastélum managed to briefly escape through a secret tunnel, hidden behind a mirror in a closet, that led to the city’s sewer system, ran for about 1.5 km, surfaced, and stole a vehicle at gunpoint. A statewide alert was issued for the stolen vehicle, and the Federal Police located and intercepted it about 20 km south of Los Mochis near a town called Juan José Ríos. Guzmán attempted to bribe the officers with offers of cash, properties, and offers of jobs. When the officers refused, Guzmán told them “you are all going to die”. The four police officers sent pictures of Guzmán to their superiors, who were tipped that 40 assassins were on their way to free Guzmán. To avoid this counter-attack by cartel members, the policemen were told to take their prisoners to a motel on the outskirts of town to wait for reinforcements, and later, handed over the prisoners to the marines. They were subsequently taken to Los Mochis airport for transport to Mexico City, where Guzmán was presented to the press at the Mexico City airport and then flown by a Navy helicopter to the same maximum-security prison from which he escaped in July 2015.

South Pacific Cartel

The South Pacific Cartel (Cartel del Pacifico Sur or CPS) is one of the newest cartels – it was formed in 2010. Based in the Mexican state of Morelos, they were formed from remnants of the Beltran-Leyva Cartel. Their claim to fame has been the employment of a 12-year-old gunman and executioner. When the youth was arrested in 2010, he confessed to the beheading of at least four people on behalf of the South Pacific Cartel.

Acting much like a street gang, they often tag scenes of violence with their initials (CPS).

Tijuana Cartel

The Queen of the PacificThe Tijuana Cartel, formed in 1989, is one of the biggest and most violent criminal groups in Mexico. It is known that the Tijuana Cartel has infiltrated the Mexican law enforcement and judicial systems and is directly involved in street-level trafficking within the United States. They are responsible for the transportation, importation, and distribution of multi-ton quantities of cocaine and marijuana, as well as large quantities of heroin and methamphetamine. They are also known to be extremely violent.

The Tijuana Cartel was founded by Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo while he was imprisoned. During his absence from day-to-day operations, the Guadalajara cartel was weakened and hence broke into two factions, one of which included the Tijuana Cartel, that was to be led by Felix Gallardo’s seven nephews and four nieces. Of the seven brothers, four have been captured (of which two have been extradited to the United States), one shot dead by police, and the remaining two are not wanted for any crimes. Of the four sisters, one has been captured and extradited to the United States (Sandra Avila Beltan, the “Queen of the Pacific”) and two are believed to be active in the cartel’s operations.  Their leadership has been significantly weakened.

The cartel is active in at least 15 Mexican states with important areas of operation in Tijuana, Mexicali, Tecate, Ensenada in Baja California, and in parts of Sinaloa and Zacatecas.

Current status of the Tijuana Cartel

The Tijuana Cartel has been significantly weakened after high-profile kidnappings of white-collar entrepreneurs tarnished their reputation and arrests of several cartel leaders once again weakened their organizational structure.  They are still a powerful force in the region but may be on their way out.

Los Caballeros Templarios

The Los Caballeros Templarios, or Knight Templar Cartel, are the newest kids on the block – and one of the stranger cartels. Formed in 2011 from remnants of the La Familia Michoacana drug cartel, they are based in the Mexican state of Michoacan where they keep tight control of the area. One local commented, “Nobody enters without them knowing about it, they have lookouts everywhere.”

New members are initiated wearing the costume of medieval warriors, complete with plastic helmets and swords. The Knights Templar Cartel indoctrinates its operatives to “fight and die” for what they call “social justice”.  Their leader was quoted as saying:

“We are not interested in causing chaos or terror and we want you to understand that because of the adverse circumstances we are here today as a necessary evil.”

On 17 March 2012 in the state of Guanajuato, the Knights Templar Cartel put up several banners on bridges welcoming the Pope Benedict XVI, and pledging to not provoke any violent acts during the pope’s visit. The 14 banners read, “The Knights Templar Cartel will not partake in any warlike acts, we are not killers, welcome Pope.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel was born from a 2009 power vacuum left by deaths and captures of Sinaloa cartel leaders.  By 2011, Jalisco New Generation Cartel had declared war on all other Mexican cartels.  By the end of the year, they claimed the lives of more than 100 enemy cartel members.  By 2014, they had claimed several hundred lives.

In 2014, CJNG shot down a Mexican military helicopter killing three soldiers.  That same year they formed more than 40 roadblocks using burnt-out cars, firebombed banks and torched gas stations.

The cartel is active in at least 3 Mexican states.

Minor Mexican drug cartels

Minor Mexican drug cartels include Colima Cartel, Guadalajara Cartel, Milenio Cartel, Oaxaca Cartel, Sonora Cartel, Barrio Azteca, Cartel Independiente de Acapulco, La Nueva Adminstracion, Cartel del Centro, Cartel de La Calle, Cartel de la Sierra, La Mano Con Ojos, Artistas Asesinos, Los Mexicles, Los Chachos, La Barredora, La Oficina, and Los Texas.

Cartels that are minor players today can become major players virtually overnight.

Disbanded or merged Mexican drug cartels

La Familia Cartel

Mexican drug lords live in lavish housesThe La Familia Cartel was founded in 2006 and lasted only five years before disbanding in 2011. The La Familia crime syndicate was based out of the state of Michoacan and initially, was formed in order to provide protection and support for Michoacan’s poor and underprivileged. Their brand of justice was particularly brutal while their leader, Moreno Gonzalez referred to the assassinations and beheadings as “divine justice”. In one instance in Uruapan in 2006, the cartel members tossed five severed heads onto the dance floor of the Sol y Sombra night club along with a message that read: “The Family doesn’t kill for money. It doesn’t kill women. It doesn’t kill innocent people, only those who deserve to die. Know that this is divine justice.

It was not long before La Familia’s operations expanded beyond the protection of innocent civilians and into illegal criminal activities. Ports in Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan were used to import narcotics from Peru and Colombia and methamphetamine was produced inland near the highlands of Sierra Madre (at one time the La Familia Cartel was the largest supplier of meth to the United States). From there, La Familia began extorting protection money from local businesses and acted as a debt collector by kidnapping and torturing defaulters.

Attacks on Federal Police stations

On July 11, 2009, a cartel lieutenant—Arnoldo Rueda Medina—was arrested; La Familia members attacked the Federal Police station in Morelia to try to gain freedom for Rueda shortly after his arrest. During the attacks, two soldiers and three federal policemen were killed. When that failed, cartel members attacked Federal Police installations in at least a half-dozen Michoacán cities in retribution. Three days later, on July 14, 2009, the cartel tortured and murdered twelve Mexican Federal Police agents and dumped their bodies along the side of a mountain highway along with a written message: “So that you come for another. We will be waiting for you here.

Infiltration of government institutions

La Familia has infiltrated government institutions on several occasions. Julio Cesar Godoy Toscano, who was elected on July 5, 2009 to the lower house of Congress, was accused of being a top-ranking member of La Familia drug cartel. On December 14, 2010, Godoy Toscano was impeached after which he fled and remains a fugitive.

The death of the La Familia cartel

Site of a Mexican drug cartel assassinationIn 2009, their founder and leader, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez (aka El Mas Loco or The Maddest One), converted to Christianity and wrote his own Bible which was compulsory reading for his troops. In that year, he offered to disband their cartel with the condition that both the Federal Government and the State and Federal Police commit to safeguarding the security of the state of Michoacan. President Felipe Calderon refused to even talk to them. A year later, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez was killed. Disagreement on a successor amongst leaders prompted the Mexican Federal Police to declare the La Familia cartel had been disbanded.

Two co-founders of the organization have split off and formed a separate cartel, Caballeros Templarios (named after the historic Knights Templar group).

Los Negros

Los Negros operated from 2003 to 2010 at which time, under the direction of blonde-haired, blue-eyed American La Barbie, was merged into the Sinaloa Cartel. The cartel was originally formed to counter the Los Zetas gang and military security forces. Los Negros was known to employ gangs such as Mexican Mafia and MS-13 to carry out murders and other illegal activities. They gained notoriety for their propensity to utilize the media to communicate with the general public.


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