Mexico is home to the hemisphere’s largest, most sophisticated and violent organized criminal gangs. These organizations have drawn from Mexico’s long history of smuggling and its close proximity to the United States, the world’s largest economy, to grow into a regional threat. Their networks stretch from Argentina into Canada and Europe. They traffic in illegal drugs, contraband, arms and humans, and launder their proceeds through regional moneychangers, banks and local economic projects. Their armament, training and tactics have become increasingly sophisticated as the Mexican government has ramped up efforts to combat them, and they have faced increased competition within Mexico. They have penetrated the police and border patrols on nearly every level, in some cases starting with recruits for these units. They play political and social roles in some areas, operating as the de facto security forces.
- Criminal Groups
- Drug Trafficking
- Human Trafficking
- Money Laundering
With 9,330 km (5,797 miles) of coastline and a 3,141 km (1,952 mile) border with the United States, Mexico has become the gateway for illicit goods and migrants into the world’s largest economy. The country’s mountainous terrain, largely unguarded border with its Central American neighbors, and vast coastlines offer criminal networks numerous smuggling routes for illegal drugs, natural resources, arms and humans.
Several large drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) dominate the Mexican underworld. Other, smaller groups traffic contraband, weapons, humans and other illegal goods through and across the country’s borders. These groups operate with the complicity of, and often in conjunction with, government officials and members of the security forces.
Mexico has about 80,000 armed forces and another 370,000 police, split into federal, border, traffic, state and municipal police, although President Enrique Peña Nieto began his presidency by announcing that he would unify the latter two under a single command and would create a national gendarmerie. The police divide their functions between preventative and investigative. Mexico has increased its ties with the United States, although the U.S. drug, customs and intelligence agents have a limited capacity to operate in the neigboring country. The government has a $4 billion annual security budget.
Mexico’s role in organized crime has been defined by its neighbor’s status as the most powerful consumer economy in the world. The country’s 3,141 km (1,952 mile) border with the United States has long constituted one of the most prolific contraband routes in the world. For two centuries, entrepreneurs and contraband traders have moved goods across the vast, mostly ungoverned territories. Migrants have long crossed the·border, many remaining in places like California where agricultural work was steady.
By the 1960s, illicit drugs like marijuana and then heroin were being produced in Mexico, mostly in·Sinaloa state along the western coast, and smuggled into the southwest of the United States. These patterns repeated themselves on a larger scale as drug traffickers from Colombia moved their trafficking routes from the Caribbean towards Mexico in the early 1980s.
The shift opened the way for Mexico’s first large drug trafficking organizations. Honduran Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, for instance, split his time between Honduras, Colombia and Mexico, providing a bridge between the Medellin Cartel and what would become the Guadalajara Cartel. The Guadalajara Cartel was made up of a tightly knit group of traffickers from·Sinaloa·state. Many were related, by marriage or otherwise, or were acquaintances from small, rural farming towns where marijuana and poppy were cultivated. Under the leadership of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias "El Padrino," the cartel flourished in the early 1980s, providing the roots for nearly all of today’s drug trafficking activities. Around the same time, Jose·Garcia Abrego, one of the few criminal bosses who did not come from Sinaloa, established his operations in·Tamaulipas state on the Gulf Coast. Garcia·Abrego worked closely with Colombia's·Cali Cartel, rivals to the Medellin Cartel. He also developed powerful political allies, including Raul Salinas de Gortari, the brother of Mexico's future president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
The brazen way these drug trafficking organizations operated contributed to their later downfall. An undercover agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) infiltrated Abrego’s organization. The agent’s tape recordings would play a major role in the conviction of Abrego years later in a Houston courtroom. In February 1985, Guadalajara Cartel members kidnapped Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena, tortured and killed him. The U.S. pressured Mexico to act swiftly, and the traffickers went on the run. During the years that followed, many of them were arrested, including then nominal leader Rafael Caro Quintero, who was detained in Costa Rica in April 1985. Almost exactly four years later, Mexican authorities captured the Guadalajara Cartel head, Felix Gallardo.
From jail, Felix Gallardo attempted to divvy up the territory. There were three major groups: the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix clan; the Juarez-based Carrillo Fuentes clan; and the Sinaloa-based group led by Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo,"·and his partner Hector Luis Palma Salazar, alias "El Güero." The competition among them sparked conflict almost immediately. The Arellano Felix clan and the Sinaloa Cartel began a tit-for-tat that included a massacre at a Puerto Vallarta nightclub and the death of a Mexican archbishop who was supposedly mistaken for Guzman. Guzman was arrested shortly thereafter, in 1993, and the Arellano Felix operation flourished.
Still, the most lucrative and powerful of these groups was the Juarez-based cartel led by Amado Carrillo Fuentes, alias "El Señor de los Cielos." Named for his use of airplanes to move product into the United States, his empire rivaled that of his former partner, Pablo Escobar of the Medellin Cartel. For a time, Carrillo Fuentes was able to create a so-called “federation” that kept most of the factions from fighting with one another. But his death in July 1997, following plastic surgery, opened the way for many of his associates to strike out on their own, including the Beltran Leyva clan; Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias "El Mayo;"·and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias "El Azul."·Bloodshed inevitably followed, and has continued as the large organizations position and reposition themselves, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In the middle of most of these battles was the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Guzman. The cartel's power stems from its control over marijuana and poppy cultivation in the so-called Golden Triangle, which is made up of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua states; as well as on the cartel's ingenuity and multinational approach. Guzman, for instance, commandeered an entire hangar at the Mexico City airport to serve his interests and built long tunnels into the United States from Mexico to get his product to market. While his 1993 arrest slowed his rise, he remained a force even while behind bars. His brother, Arturo Guzman Loera, alias "El Pollo," took control of the operations. His cohorts, in particular Zambada, the Beltran Leyva clan, and Esparragoza kept him flush with cash. And when it seemed that Guzman might be extradited to face trial in the United States, these allies engineered his escape from a high-security prison in 2001.
The escape set the stage for another “federation,” this time led by Guzman himself. The new "federation" was developed after an meeting in 2002 that included the Beltran Leyva clan, Zambada, Esparragoza and remnants of the Carrillo Fuentes clan in Juarez. It quickly took control of the Arizona-Mexico border area and also competed with the Tijuana faction for control of the Baja California entryway, sparking another round of fighting between Guzman and the Arellano Felix clan. At the same time, the “federation” sought to win corridors in the east from Gulf Cartel, provoking a battle over perhaps the border’s most prized legal passageway, Nuevo Laredo, which plunged that area into violence in 2003-2004.
For its part, the Gulf Cartel had morphed since the arrest of Abrego. The new Gulf Cartel leader, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, alias "El Mata Amigos," had beefed up his own personal security, luring 31 members of Mexico’s special forces into his group in the late 1990s. The new paramilitary group took on the name the Zetas, a reference to their government radio handles, and quickly spread the cartel’s reach using military tactics and macabre displays of force that included beheadings and targeting of rival cartel members' families. The Zetas also trained an upstart group of traffickers in Michoacan state along the eastern seaboard, an important cocaine depot and hub of methamphetamine production long controlled by an organization known as the Milenio group. The new group would soon break out on their own, overtaking both the Milenio organization and their progenitors the Zetas, and calling themselves the Familia Michoacana, the “family” part being a reference to the pseudo-religious philosophy espoused by its leaders. The Familia’s debut: rolling several severed heads into the middle of a crowded night club in 2006.
The breach of the drug traffickers’ “code” changed the fight, and the war among them worsened. Sinaloa responded with their own brand of paramilitary group. Under the leadership of Arturo Beltran Leyva, alias "El Jefe de Jefes," Sinaloa formed gangs and “special forces” that responded in kind to the Zetas’ use of force. The terror inevitably spread, as did the drug traffickers' business interests. Soon both the Zetas and the Familia were into other illicit businesses like kidnapping, extortion and piracy.
In the meantime, the large drug trafficking organizations began to fragment. The “federation” split in 2004 when Guzman allegedly ordered a hit on Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, alias "El Niño de Oro," the brother of Juarez Cartel leader Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. The Juarez Cartel responded by killing Guzman’s brother, Arturo, who was jailed in a maximum security prison. The fight has trickled into Ciudad Juarez, now considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, in large part because of the battles between these two drug trafficking organizations.
The traditional cartels also fractured. When authorities arrested the youngest of the Beltran Leyva clan, Alfredo Beltran Leyva, alias "El Mochomo," in January 2008, Alfredo’s older brother, Arturo, blamed Guzman. The Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) began an all-out battle against Guzman, Zambada and Esparragoza that has left hundreds dead throughout the country. The BLO also allied themselves with their former rivals, the Zetas, who were breaking from their former masters, the Gulf Cartel. The split came to a head in 2010, when the Gulf Cartel killed a Zeta operative and refused to turn over the commander who had carried out the hit. Battles between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel for control of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon have followed. Tijuana was also hit by violence when the the Arellano Felix clan began battling their former top hitman, Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias "El Teo."
The fighting accelerated after the Mexican government developed a policy of taking the battle to the criminal gangs. First the Vicente Fox administration and then the Felipe Calderon administration made it a priority to disrupt drug traffickers’ operations in Mexico using more army and police, better intelligence gathering equipment, more training and new laws that gave more tools to the justice system to develop cases against these traffickers. After six years of what became known as "Calderon's War", and over 47,000 organized-crime-related deaths, President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in January 2013 with promises of a paradigm shift. The central tenant of this shift was to focus on crime prevention, in contrast with the reactionary strategy of Calderon.
Since 2002, the Mexican government has arrested or killed several top drug traffickers, among them Osiel Cardenas Guillen, arrested in 2003 and later extradited to the United States; Arturo Beltran Leyva, killed by Mexican marines in December 2009; Teodoro Garcia Simental, arrested in January 2010; Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, arrested in September 2012; Heriberto Lazcano, killed in October 2012; and Guzman himself, arrested in February 2014 after rising to become the world's most wanted criminal. Mexico has also increased its cooperation with the United States government, which, under the Merida Initiative, is sending almost as much aid to Mexico as to Colombia under Plan Colombia. It has increased the number of extraditions to the United States and is overhauling its justice systems and police units.
In response, the Mexican criminal organizations have adapted. They have positioned themselves throughout the Andes to take advantage of a shakeup in the distribution chain. In Colombia, these Mexican organizations are now negotiating directly with the Colombian cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) providers such as the Rastrojos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). The economics are simple: What is a 20 to 30 percent stake for transporting cocaine from Mexico to the United States becomes a 70 to 80 percent stake by obtaining it at the source. They are also establishing permanent bases in Central America, undermining governments in those smaller, less stable nations. Finally, they are moving into new businesses such as the mass production of synthetic drugs, human trafficking, and kidnapping to make up for lost revenue. Still, the in-fighting continues. And the new alliances -- the Sinaloa-Gulf-Familia (and possibly Tijuana) versus BLO-Zetas-Juarez -- seem as tenuous as the old.
Mexico has long been a transit country for contraband of all types. It has also produced marijuana and heroin for decades. The two have merged in recent years to make Mexico an epicenter of drug trafficking activity, and the heart of the mega-operations in the region.
The function as a transit country for mostly cocaine traffickers gave the criminal organizations in Mexico a point of leverage with their sellers that grew with time: since they were taking the risk, they would reap the rewards. Rather than simply providing the transportation service, the Mexican organizations also began to set up their own distribution networks in the United States. Organizations involved in the heroin trade were particularly quick to enter into the cocaine trade because of their experience controlling the entire chain of distribution. The result, some say, was the inevitable transformation of the Mexican transportation network into large, mega-operations that now go all the way to the source countries to obtain cocaine hydrochloride (HCl), therefore gaining more of the profit at the sales point.
Meanwhile, Mexican production of illegal drugs has grown. The U.S. government estimates that poppy production doubled between 2008 and 2009 to 15,000 hectares. And the United Nations says that Mexico, with an estimated 15,000 hectares of illicit poppy cultivation, is now the third largest cultivator in the world after Afghanistan and Myanmar, and the largest in the hemisphere by far. Marijuana production, which began en masse in the 1960s to feed the United States consumption, continues to provide a steady revenue stream for criminal organizations in Mexico. The most recent U.S. estimates say there were 12,000 hectares cultivated in 2009, up 35 percent from 2008. Mexico is also the largest producer of synthetic drugs in the region. Methamphetamine availability is at its highest in five years, the U.S. government said in a recent study, mostly due to the Mexican traffickers' ability to circumvent local laws restricting the importation of the precursors, development of new sources for the precursors, the use of substitute precursors, and the development of large-scale laboratories.
Mexico has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world, and the most recent government assessment by a congressional committee indicated that it had increased five-fold in the last five years, with complaints rising from 0.89 per day to 3.72 per day. This, however, does not reflect the true number of kidnappings, which Mexico’s Human Rights Commission says is three times as high. The crime is concentrated in eight states: Chihuahua, Distrito Federal, Baja California, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas. These eight states are also where many drug trafficking groups operate. However, the congressional study said that the majority of the kidnappers were not linked to major criminal organizations, and 80 percent of them had a job and a family. Twenty percent were members of law enforcement, military or other government entity. The biggest proportion of victims were between 21 and 35 years old.
Ninety percent of illegal immigrants going into the United States enter through Mexico. The result, the United Nations says, is a $7 billion market in trafficking people. This lucrative trade has drawn the attention of large criminal organizations in recent years, most notably the feared Zetas drug cartel, which has its base in border states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. International gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha 13 or MS-13, also participate in the trade, which specializes in mostly poor Latin American migrants that brave the trip usually using multiple forms of transportation including boats, trains, trucks and on foot.
The U.S. government estimates that Mexican criminal organizations make between $10 billion and $15 billion annually from drug trafficking alone. Human trafficking is a $7 billion market just in this hemisphere, according to the United Nations, and arms trafficking is a $1 billion market worldwide. Tighter controls and restrictions in the U.S. have it imperative to move money back to Mexico. Mexican cartels also have to move money to source countries. The result is the development of a multiplicity of ways to move money electronically, through moneychangers or via bulk cash shipments in vehicles moving south. Control of this money is more difficult given the numerous ways to camouflage or move it. Once in Mexico, there are less controls, enforcement is more lax and corruption higher, giving the Mexican criminal organizations ample opportunity to hide it in capital investments throughout the country.