Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Mexico have emerged with alarming speed during the last several years, plunging the country’s northern border states into a virtual war zone as they compete for lucrative smuggling routes into the United States.[1] Although Mexican President Felipe Calderon has moved to decisively dislodge the cartels’ power base since taking office in 2006, several prominent organizations continue to exist, benefiting from pervasive corruption that has extended to the highest echelons of Mexico’s law enforcement bureaucracy.

While DTOs have obvious ramifications for Mexican stability, their activities have also directly impinged on U.S. security, with high-level criminality north of the border frequently “migrating” south. This has been particularly evident in Arizona, which currently has among the highest rates of drug-related kidnappings in the United States. Another state experiencing difficulties is Texas, where merchants and wealthy families in frontier towns periodically face extortion threats and which occasionally witnesses narco-murders.[2] On a wider level, syndicates have directly contributed to a growing problem of inner-city gang violence; Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Dallas and San Francisco are all cases in point.[3] DTOs have also become actively involved in the American people smuggling “business.” It is now a common practice for cartels to assist migrants looking to enter the United States illegally on condition that they carry cocaine packs with them.[4] Finally, there is some concern about a possible nexus emerging between the Mexican drug trade and terrorism. According to U.S. officials, Lebanese Hizb Allah has already secured a highly lucrative source of financing by helping to launder cocaine profits for groups such as the Los Zetas through a range of Shi`a-owned businesses in West Africa.[5]

This article provides brief background information on the seven DTOs that remain at the forefront of the cocaine trade in Mexico: the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas, La Familia, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Beltran Leyva Organization, the Carrillo Fuentes Syndicate (Juarez Cartel), and the Arellano Felix Organization (Tijuana Cartel).

The Gulf Cartel
The Gulf Cartel is based out of Matamoros in Tamaulipas State, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. The group’s origins date back to bootlegging in the 1970s, with the move to cocaine trafficking occurring during the 1980s and 1990s. For many years, the Gulf Cartel was considered the most powerful of the Mexican DTOs, enforcing its control through a highly feared paramilitary arm known as the Los Zetas. Since 2007, however, the prominence of the group has begun to wither, both as a result of the elimination of much of its leadership—including the syndicate’s longtime godfather, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, and his brother, Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen[6]—and due to the defection of the Los Zetas in 2009, which now act as an independent organization. The group’s current leader is Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez (“El Coss”) who is desperately trying to prevent the Zetas from making in-roads into its northern Tamaulipas trafficking corridor, which runs between Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo on the Texan border.[7] As part of this effort, the Gulf Cartel has developed and deployed “narco-tanks”—trucks fitted with air conditioning and steel plates that can only be breached with anti-tank grenades—to patrol its smuggling routes. Four of these vehicles were seized from a garage in Camargo in June 2011.[8]

Los Zetas
The Los Zetas were founded by former members of the Grupos Aeromoviles de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE), an elite special forces unit that deserted from the Mexican military between 1996 and 2000.[9] It acted as the paramilitary arm of the Gulf Cartel, but in 2009 it emerged as an increasingly significant DTO in its own right. The organization is currently competing with the Gulf Cartel for control over trafficking routes in Tamaulipas State, although it has also expanded its presence to Zacatecas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Campache, the capital territory, Quintana Roo and Chiapas. The group has also worked with the Beltran Leyva Organization in an effort to extend influence into Cuidad Juarez—the locus of one of the main trafficking routes into the United States. Although the Los Zetas have been described as one of the most violent DTOs in Mexico, its ability to consolidate control over the country’s northern border provinces has been curtailed by the arrest of several top commanders since 2008. Prominent in this regard are Mateo Lopez (“Comandante Mateo”), Efrain Teodoro Torres (“Z-14”), Daniel Perez (“El Cachetes”), Manuel Perez Izquierdo (“El Siete Latas”), Marco Garza de Leon Quiroga (“El Chabelo”) and Jaime Gonzalez Duran (“El Hummer”). The first five were all high-ranking members in the group’s overall leadership structure, while the sixth was responsible for coordinating and overseeing cocaine imports from Central America.[10] One of the group’s founders and long-term leaders, Heriberto Lazcano (“El Lazca”), remains at large, along with his number two, Trevino Morales (“Z-40”).[11]

La Familia
La Familia emerged as an independent group in 2006 with the purported dual aim of “defending citizens, merchants, businesses and farmers” from all forms of crime, and filling the security void left by the central government. Its founder, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez (“El Mas Loco,” or the “Craziest One”), required all members to carry a “spiritual manual” that contained references to pseudo-Christian aphorisms for self-improvement, which gave the organization overtones as a religious cult. Since its creation, however, La Familia has systematically morphed into a DTO, becoming especially notorious for what it refers to as “social work”—the ruthless execution (usually by beheading) of those who do not conform to the parameters of its self-defined “law enforcement” code. The group has a confirmed presence in 77 cities across the state of Michoacan (its main base), Queretaro, Guanajuanto, Jalisco, Colima, Aguascalientes and Guerro, as well as the Federal district.[12] Despite this wide geographic “footprint,” La Familia has suffered considerably from both leadership decapitations and desertions. In December 2010, its founder Gonzalez was killed during a shoot-out with security forces; this setback was followed six months later when his successor, Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas (“El Chango,” or “The Monkey”), was captured in the city of Aguascalientes, roughly 265 miles southeast of Mexico City. Compounding the group’s problems has been internal hemorrhaging, with growing numbers of members leaving to join a splinter group known as Caballeros Templarios (Knight’s Templar). Enrique Plancarte Solis and Servando Gomez Martinez established the latter entity in March 2011 as an alternative vehicle for achieving “public justice,” and the group now poses a serious challenge to La Familia’s continued organizational cohesion, if not existence.[13]

The Sinaloa Cartel
The Sinaloa Cartel was established as La Alizana de Sangre in the mid-1990s. After its founder, Hector Luis Palma Salazar (“El Guero”), was arrested in 1995, Joaquin Guzman (“El Chapo,” or “Shorty”) took control and remains the current leader. He is the most wanted drug lord in Mexico and is thought to have a personal fortune of $1 billion.[14] The Sinaloa Cartel controls most of the state by the same name and retains important bases in Baja California, Durango (where Guzman is believed to be hiding), Sonora, Jalisco and Chihuahua. The group is known to have established distribution cells across the United States, sending cocaine shipments via tunnels dug below the southern U.S. border. It is also thought to have set up additional Andean hubs to facilitate the transshipment of Peruvian and Colombian cocaine through West Africa to Europe. Although the Sinaloa Cartel has witnessed the arrests of high-ranking members, including the infamous Teodoro Garcia Simental (“El Teo,” who was behind much of the drug-related violence that plagued the border provinces in 2008 and 2009)[15] and Ovidio Limon Sanchez (who managed Sinaloan cocaine movements bound for the American market), it remains the most powerful and influential DTO in Mexico.[16] The group has been battling for control of two key trafficking routes that respectively abut New Mexico and California, each of which it is now thought to largely dominate: one in Cuidad Juarez, where it has been competing with the Carrillo Fuentes Syndicate, Beltran Leyva Organization—both former allies—and the Los Zetas; and one in Tijuana, which is also contested by the Arellano Felix Organization.[17]

The Beltran Leyva Organization
The Beltran Leyva Organization was largely the product of four brothers who were born in the state of Sinaloa in the 1960s: Marcus Arturo (“El Barbas”), Carlos (“El jefe de jefes”), Alfredo (“El Mochomo”) and Hector (“El Ingeniero”). The quartet was originally closely allied with the Sinaloa Cartel, but broke with the group in 2008 after Alfredo was arrested following an alleged Sinaloan betrayal. Initially, the organization proved capable of resisting competition from its parent syndicate as well as infiltrating counternarcotic units and assassinating some of their most senior officers.[18] The Beltrans’ influence, however, has diminished due to the loss of some of its most prominent members. The first major setback occurred in December 2009 when its leader at the time, Arturo, was killed. This was followed by a string of apprehensions in 2010 that netted Carlos Beltran in January, Gerardo Alvarez-Vasquez (“El Indio”) in April, Edgar Valdez Villarreal (“La Barbie”) in August and Sergio Villarreal Barragan (“El Grande”) in September. Another senior lieutenant, Oscar Osvaldo Garcia Montoya (“El Compayito”), was detained in April 2011.[19] His capture has been described as eliminating the “last Beltran-Leyva link of any importance.”[20] This would appear to be an overstatement. The group has forged alliances of convenience with the Carrillo Fuentes Syndicate and the Los Zetas and continues to engage the Sinaloans for control of territory in Cuidad Juarez.[21] It also retains at least a residual leadership structure that is overseen by Hector, one of the original founding brothers.

Carrillo Fuentes Syndicate (Juarez Cartel)
The Carrillo Fuentes Syndicate is based in the northern city of Cuidad Juarez in Chihuahua State, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. The organization is led by Vincente Carrillo Fuentes (“El Viceroy”),[22] has a standing alliance with the Beltran Leyva Organization and is similarly fighting the Sinaloans for control of Juarez. It maintains a highly brutal enforcement wing known as La Linea that is composed of corrupt police officers. The unit’s long-time commander, Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez (“El Diego”), was captured in August 2011. He has admitted to personally ordering 1,500 killings and is also thought to be the mastermind behind the 2010 killings of a U.S. Consulate employee, her husband and another worker at the U.S. mission in Cuidad Juarez.[23] At its height, the Carrillo Fuentes Syndicate was assumed to be responsible for about half of all the illegal drugs that pass through Mexico to the United States by using a street gang, Barrio Azteca, to coordinate sales, distribution and, when necessary, contract killings in cities such as Austin, Dallas and El Paso.[24] According to some American sources, these activities earned the organization as much as $200 million per week.[25] Although the syndicate’s control over trafficking routes through Chihuahua has been significantly dented by Sinaloan competition, it continues to be an important player in the overall Mexican drug scene. The group’s members also retain a reputation for extreme violence; for example, they were implicated in the infamous Cuidad Juarez serial-murder site that was first reported in 2004 and which has since been dubbed the “House of Death.”[26]

Arellano Felix Organization (Tijuana Cartel)
The Arellano Felix Organization, which operates primarily in the state of Baja California but also has an important presence in Zacatecas and Sinaloa, was at one time one of the largest and most violent DTOs in Mexico. It was initially organized around five brothers and four sisters who inherited the organization from Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo after he was arrested in 1989 for complicity in the murder of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official.[27] Four of the main siblings as well as other senior lieutenants have since been arrested or killed, including Benjamin Arellano Felix (the cartel’s principal drug lord), Eduardo Arellano Felix, Ramon Eduardo Arellano Felix, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, Francisco Sillas Rocha and Armado Villareal Heredia.[28] These losses have dramatically curtailed the organization’s penetration and reach, with competitors such as the Sinaloans increasingly muscling into its home turf and taking control over some of its key smuggling routes.[29] That said, the cartel continues to operate in Baja California, retains a presence, albeit a declining one, in 15 other states and still controls important street-level trafficking cells in the United States. The current leader is thought to be Luis Fernando Sanchez, the nephew of Enedina Arellano Felix (one of the sisters who originally inherited the cartel from Gallardo).[30] He reportedly works closely with Edgardo Leyva Escandon, a trained sniper who has been tied to the assassinations of several drug kingpins and who is also wanted on weapons and ammunition smuggling charges. The United States has posted rewards of $2 million apiece for information leading to the arrests or convictions of the two men.[31]

These seven organizations can essentially be split into two main competing blocs: the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel and La Familia, which formed a cooperative union known as the New Federation in February 2010; and a loose pattern of shifting coalitions among the remaining four syndicates. This alliance structure appears to have some longevity built into it, given bonds of beneficial business relationships and, just as importantly, vendettas and unpaid blood debts.

Given ongoing demand for cocaine in North America and Western Europe, pervasive corruption in Mexico and the enormous profits that can be made from the illegal drug trade, the problems associated with DTO competition and violence south of the U.S. border are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. While alliances may fluctuate—and despite the loss of several prominent narco “kingpins”—there is no indication that any of the seven organizations are about to collapse, disband or voluntarily cease their activity. This has serious implications for the United States, which remains the world’s number one consumer of Andean-sourced narcotics.

Thus far, the United States has tended to emphasize supply interdiction in its overall counternarcotics efforts. This policy has clearly not worked, which is reflected by the endemic instability that now besets Mexico—the corridor for roughly 95% of the cocaine flowing out of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. In looking to the future, it is evident that the United States will need to develop a more balanced approach that both bolsters support to the Calderon government while simultaneously addressing the demand-side—that is, the American side—of the drug equation.

Dr. Peter Chalk is a Senior Policy Analyst with the RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, California. He has worked on a range of projects examining transnational security threats in Latin America, Africa and Asia. He is Associate Editor of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism—one of the foremost journals in the international security field—and serves as an Adjunct Professor with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

[1] An estimated 47,515 people have died in Mexico drug-related violence since 2006. See “Mexico Drug War Deaths over Five Years Now Total 47,515,” BBC, January 12, 2012.

[2] Brian Ross, Richard Esposito and Asa Eslocker, “Kidnapping Capital of USA,” ABC News, February 11, 2009; Fred Burton and Scott Stewart, “The Long Arm of the Lawless,” Stratfor, February 25, 2009; Randal Archibold, “Wave of Drug Violence Creeping into Arizona from Mexico, Officials Say,” New York Times, February 23, 2009; David Danelo, “Space Invaders: Mexican Illegal Aliens and the US,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, October 29, 2008.

[3] The Carrillo Fuentes group frequently uses Barrio Azteca to carry out contract killings in Texas and New Mexico. Another organization generating concern is the Mexican La Eme, which has expanded into the barrios of eastern Los Angeles where it works as a freelance debt collector and enforcer for cartels seeking to extend local market control. See, for instance, Jay Albanese, “Prison Break: Mexican Gang Moves Operations Outside US Jails,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, December 4, 2008; Adam Elkus, “Gangs, Terrorists and Trade,” Foreign Policy in Focus, April 17, 2007; John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” Small Wars Journal, 2008; Clare Ribando, Gangs in Central America (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2005).

[4] Tim Padgett, “People Smugglers Inc.,” Time Magazine, August 12, 2003; Heather MacDonald, “The Illegal-Alien Crime Wave,” City Journal, Winter 2004; Jameson Taylor, “Illegal Immigration: Drugs, Gangs and Crime,” Civitas Institute, November 2007; “National Drug Threat Assessment 2010,” National Drug Intelligence Center, U.S. Department of Justice, February 2010.

[5] Jo Becker, “Beirut Bank Seen as a Hub of Hezbollah’s Financing,” New York Times, December 13, 2011. Gunmen from Los Zetas were also alleged to have been involved in Iran’s purported recent plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington. If true, it is not unreasonable to assume that Hizb Allah acted as the go-between for the plan given its close relations with Tehran and suspected ties to the Mexican syndicate. For more on the supposed plot, see Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, “Iranians Accused of Plot to Kill Saudi’s U.S. Envoy,” New York Times, October 11, 2011.

[6] Cardenas was arrested in 2003 but continued to run the Gulf Cartel from prison. He was extradited to the United States in January 2007.

[7] Fred Burton and Stephen Meiners, “Mexico and the War Against the Drug Cartels in 2008,” Stratfor, December 9, 2008; Sylvia Longmire, “Mexico’s Drug War: TCO 101: The Gulf Cartel,” www.borderviolenceanalysis.typepad.com, accessed December 12, 2011; George Grayson, “Mexico and the Drug Cartels,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, August 2007; Jo Tuckman, “Body Count Mounts as Drug Cartels Battle Each Other – and the Police,” Guardian, May 27, 2008; “5630 Execution Murders in 2008: Mexican Drug Cartels,” Right Side News, January 1, 2009.

[8] “Mexican Army Destroys Drug Cartel ‘Narco-Subs,’” BBC News, June 6, 2011.

[9] According to Mexican authorities, as many as 1,000 members of GAFE have defected from the army since the late 1990s. Those critical to the formation of Los Zetas included Arturo Guzman Decena (“Z-1,” now dead), Maximino Ortiz, Víctor Hernandez Barron, Augustin Hernandez Martinez, Juan Carlos Tovar, Pedro Cervantes Marquez, Ramiro Rangel and Samuel Flores (all arrested).

[10] George Grayson, “Los Zetas: The Ruthless Army Spawned by a Mexican Drug Cartel,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, May 2008; Oscar Becerra, “A to Z of Crime: Mexico’s Zetas Expand Operations,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, January 27, 2009; Burton and Meiners; Sullivan and Elkus; Tuckman; “Mexican Police Capture Regional Leader of Violent Drug Cartel,” Latin American Herald Tribune, June 6, 2011;  “‘Zetas Drug-Cartel Boss’ Captured in Mexico,” al-Jazira, October 17, 2011.

[11] “Mexico Security Memo: A Zetas Challenge to the Mexican Government,” Stratfor, December 8, 2011.

[12] Oscar Becerra, “Family Business: La Familia: Mexico’s Most Violent Criminals,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, October 7, 2009; George Grayson, “La Familia: Another Deadly Mexican Syndicate,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 2009.

[13] Randal Archibold, “Mexican Police Arrest Leader of Crime Gang,” New York Times, June 22, 2011; Randal Archibold, “Politics Enables Mexican Fugitive To Defang Law,” New York Times, December 15, 2010; “Falling Kingpins, Rising Violence,” Economist, December 18, 2010; “A Leader of Mexico’s Caballeros Templarios Arrested,” Borderland Beat, November 10, 2011; “Mexico Police Raid ‘La Familia Drug Cartel,’ Killing 11,” BBC News, May 28, 2001.

[14] In 2009, Forbes included Guzman on its list of the world’s richest men (701 out of 739).

[15] Simental’s trademark was to boil rivals and enemies in barrels of lye–a practice that became known as pozole after the name for Mexican stew.

[16] The U.S. intelligence community has gone further, describing the cartel as the “most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world.”

[17] Burton and Meiners; Tuckman; Richard Marosi and Ken Ellingwood, “Mexican Drug Lord Teodoro Garcia Simental, Known for his Savagery, is Captured,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2010; Marc Lacey, “Top Mexican Drug Suspect Arrested,” International Herald Tribune, January 14, 2011; “Mexico Arrests High-Ranking Sinaloa Cartel Operator,” Latin American Herald Tribune, November 14, 2011; “US Intelligence Says Sinaloa Cartel Has Won the Battle for Cuidad Juarez Drug Routes,” CNS.com, April 9, 2010.

[18] One of the most senior members killed by the Beltrans was Edgar Millan Gomez–the Federal Police director. He was assassinated in May 2008.

[19] “Mexico Captures Brother of Slain Cartel Boss,” New York Times, January 3, 2010; “Alleged Top Drug Trafficker Caught Near Mexico City,” USA Today, April 22, 2010; Randall Archibold, “Mexican Police Arrest Man Believed to Be Drug Kingpin,” New York Times, August 31, 2010; “Mexico Arrests Suspected Drug Kingpin,” BBC News, September 12, 2011; “Falling Kingpins, Rising Violence”; “Mexico Arrests Trafficker Accused of 900 Murders,” Daily Telegraph, August 12, 2011.

[20] Angelo Velasco, “Cae el líder de La Mano con Ojas; lo vinculan con 600 homicidos,” Excelsior, August 12, 2011.

[21] See, for instance, Samuel Logan, “Beltran Leyvas Down But Not Out,” ISN Security Watch, January 8, 2010.

[22] The United States has posted a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Vincente Carrillo Fuentes.

[23] “Mexican Drug Cartel Enforcer Who ‘Ordered’ 1500 Killings is Captured After US Tip Off,” Mail Online, August 1, 2011.

[24] “Barrio Azteca Gang Behind Juarez Drug Violence,” Drug Crime, April 12, 2010; Marc Lacey and Ginger Thompson, “Drug Slayings in Mexico Rock U.S. Consulate,” New York Times, March 14, 2010; Marc Lacey, “Raids Aim to Find Killers of 3 in Mexico,” New York Times, March 18, 2010.

[25] Howard La Franchi, “A Look Inside a Giant Drug Cartel,” Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1999.

[26] David Rose, “House of Death,” Observer, December 3, 2006; Alfredo Corchado, “‘Drug Wars’ Long Shadow,” Dallas Morning News, December 13, 2008; Radley Balko, “The House of Death,” Reason, September 30, 2008.

[27] Tim Steller, “Mexican Drug Runners May Have Used C-130 from Arizona,” Arizona Daily Star, April 15, 1998.

[28] The fifth Felix brother, Francisco Rafeel, was arrested in 1993 and after serving a 10-year sentence was extradited to the United States; he was released from prison in El Paso on February 2, 2008 and returned to Cuidad Juarez. There are two other brothers, Carlos Alberto and Luis Fernando, neither of whom are wanted by the authorities.

[29] See, for instance, Elizabeth Diaz, “Analysis: Mexico’s Tijuana Cartel Weaker as Ex-Boss Comes Home,” Reuters, March 14, 2008; Tuckman; “Mexican Drug Lord Is Arrested,” Reuters, October 26, 2008; “Mexico Seizes Top Drug Suspect,” BBC News, October 27, 2008.

[30] “New Arellano Félix Cartel Leaders,” Justice In Mexico Project, December 4, 2010; “Mexico Seizes Top Drug Suspect.” Enedina is also suspected of playing a role in the cartel’s current activities and as a businesswoman has allegedly facilitated its money laundering operations.

[31]  “Edgardo Leyva Escandon,” NarcoticNews.com, accessed December 13, 2011; Anna Cearley, “DEA Man Seeking Man Linked to Arellano Boat,” San Diego Tribune, September 6, 2006.

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