However, since Cardenas’ arrest in 2003, and his extradition in 2007, the cartel's power has declined significantly, and its area of operation has been greatly reduced. More trouble emerged in 2010, when the Zetas broke away to form an independent organization. A brutal turf battle ensued in Mexico’s eastern border states, including Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, and violence has soared. Desperate, the Gulf Cartel has reportedly made an alliance with its former rivals, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Familia Michoacana.
The Gulf Cartel’s origins can be traced to 1984, when Juan Garcia Abrego assumed control of his uncle’s drug trafficking business, then a relatively small-time marijuana and heroin operation. Garcia 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 Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, and for the Mexicans: Garcia Abrego would handle cocaine shipments via the Mexican border, taking on all the risks, as well as much as 50 percent of the profits.
When Garcia Abrego was arrested and deported to the United States in January 1996, the Gulf Cartel 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 Juarez Cartel Amado Carillo Fuentes, alias "El Señor de los Cielos," (Lord of the Skies), quickly followed in Garcia 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 Gulf Cartel was soon rivaling Cali in terms of political corruption.
But it took Garcia Abrego’s heir, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, to develop the Gulf Cartel’s military wing in ways never envisioned either in Cali or in Medellin. Cardenas 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, were trained in weapons inaccessible to most of their drug-trafficking rivals, capable of rapid deployment operations in almost any environment, and they matched perfectly Cardenas’ more brutal, confrontational leadership style. Cardenas 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 this group's bloodiest and most influential legacy in Mexico’s drug war.
After Cardenas’ extradition to the US in 2007, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias "El Coss," was believed to be leading the group’s day-to-day operations, until he was captured in September 2012. Cardenas’ brother, Antonio Cardenas Guillen, alias "Tony Tormenta," handled the cartel’s drug trafficking business until he was gunned down in November 2010.
In April 2010, the federal police confirmed that there was an alliance between the Familia Michoacana and the Gulf Cartel 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 Gulf has a violent history of seeing former allies turn against it. A previous alliance, brokered in prison between Cardenas and Benjamin Arellano Felix, 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 nation-wide.
The cartel’s traditional center of operations is in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, with its most important operational bases in Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa. These areas are critical from an operational and a financial standpoint. The cartel makes a substantial amount of money simply charging others for passage through the area. Other key northern cities include Monterrey, in Nuevo Leon, which the cartel lost control of to the Zetas following an intense struggle for control, but appears to be trying to regain. Southwards, the group is known to have established itself in at least 11 other states, as well as in the cities of Miguel Aleman, in Oaxaca, Morelia in Michoacan, and possibly also the Yucatan peninsula.
The Gulf Cartel is now confronted with the Frankenstein-like task of facing down a monster of its own creation. There are some indications that they have been able to drive a few elements of the Zetas out of Tamaulipas. But the latter organization is holding on tightly in the border towns, and the Gulf has already lost much of its former monopoly over Mexico’s east coast to the Zetas.
There has also been turmoil within the Gulf Cartel; the death of Tony Tormenta opened a bitter divide between a faction loyal to El Coss, known as the Metros, and those loyal to the Cardenas Guillen family, known as the Rojos.
The arrest of El Coss left the group without any clear successor. In January 2013, one of the contenders to succeed El Coss, David Salgado, alias "El Metro 4," was murdered by uknown assasins, leaving the group's future murkier than ever.
“Mexico’s Drug Related Violence,“ Congressional Research Service, 27 May 2009. (pdf)
Dane Schiller, “The Insidious Rise of Gulf Cartel “ Houston Chronicle, 4 January 2010.
Ricardo Ravelo, "Osiel: Vida y tragedia de un capo," (Mexico City, 2009).