Mexican cartels reportedly operate across the Western Hemisphere

Mexico's drug cartels now have a foothold in 16 countries in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Mexican Attorney General's Office, suggesting that these criminal networks have diversified their areas of operation in order to minimize risks.

According to El Universal, a report by the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) states that the Sinaloa Cartel has the widest presence in the Western Hemisphere, with connections in 13 countries. This includes virtually all of Central America, except for Nicaragua and Panama. The Sinaloans also have links to the US, Canada, and six countries in South America: Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Chile.

The Zetas and their progenitors the Gulf Cartel operate in nine countries, according to the PGR.

The reach of the other cartels is more limited. The Juarez Cartel has presence in the US and alliances in five other countries, the PGR report states. The Tijuana Cartel is only present in the US and Peru. The Familia Michoacana has links to the US, Colombia, and Guatemala, while the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) only have links in the US.

InSight Crime Analysis

One question raised by the PGR’s assertions is how to define cartel presence inside a country. Some of the report’s pronouncements are surprising: according to El Universal, the Zetas have a Brazil connection, while the battered Beltran Leyva Organization still has a network in five countries, including several Central American nations and the US.

While the Mexican cartels may indeed have business connections across the Western Hemisphere, the El Universal report does not always make clear when a cartel has an actual armed presence inside a country -- generally a rare case -- versus more indirect business contacts. El Universal’s report could create the impression that there is a straight chain of command from these countries back to the Zetas or the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, when this may not necessarily be the case.

Rather than focusing on the number of countries where Mexican drug cartels are present, a more pertinent question may be why it is in the cartels’ interests to expand in certain areas. For one thing, the PGR's report reaffirms the importance of Central America as a transit zone for the drug trade: all of the major cartels, except the Tijuana Cartel and the Knights Templar, are believed to have established links there.

That Mexican organized crime has chosen to diversify its production and distribution networks far outside Mexico -- not just for traditional drug imports like cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, but for methamphetamine as well -- suggests that the spreading out of their business network is actually a strategy intended to reduce threats from law enforcement. By shipping cocaine through Honduras or precursor chemicals from Argentina, groups like the Sinaloa Cartel have found more hospitable areas to base their operations. And the transnational nature of the business makes it harder for law enforcement from a single country to track.

The expanse of the Sinaloa Cartel in particular is indicative of the cartel's emphasis on innovation, and its continued push to find new markets for illicit drugs. The Sinaloa Cartel is known to have established distribution networks in Australia, and was recently accused to attempting to set up a new drug ring in Spain. The Sinaloa Cartel also reportedly tried and failed to set up shop in Paraguay