The Gulf Cartel is one of the oldest and most powerful of Mexico’s criminal groups but has lost territory and influence in recent years to its rivals, including its former enforcer wing, the Zetas. In the cartel’s heyday, its boss, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was considered the country’s most powerful underworld leader, and the Zetas the most feared gang.
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.
Gulf Cartel Factbox
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.
Today, the Gulf Cartel has managed to stick around despite deep internal divisions and ongoing offensives from competing criminal groups to move in on territory under the group’s control in northern Mexico and along the US-Mexico border.
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.
Mario Ramirez Treviño, alias “X20,” a hitman and internal rival of Metro 4, briefly took the organization’s top spot following the January murder. He was arrested in Tamaulipas in August 2013 in a Mexican army operation, following the arrest of 24 members of his group a week earlier. He was placed in a Mexican jail, but is also wanted in the United States on drug trafficking and organized crime charges.
As with the arrest of previous leadership, his arrest left another power vacuum in the increasingly fragmented cartel.
Eventually, Julián Manuel Loisa Salinas, alias “El Comandante Toro,” assumed leadership of the group and commanded a group of hitmen in the border town of Reynosa in the Gulf Cartel’s traditional hub of Tamaulipas. However, Loisa Salinas was gunned down by Mexico’s federal forces in April of 2017. Shortly after that, the Mexican Army captured yet another Gulf Cartel leader, José Antonio Romo López, alias “La Hamburguesa,” in May of that same year, again throwing the leadership of the group into uncertainty.
Amid “rapid turnover” in the group’s leaders, José Alfredo Cárdenas Martínez, alias “El Contador” and the nephew of former cartel capo Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, was the only one of the group’s leaders that remained. However, his tenure was also cut short by authorities, who arrested him in early 2018 in Tamaulipas.
It’s unclear where exactly the group’s leadership stands now, but alliances with smaller splinter cells and fortifying their traditional bases of operations have allowed the Gulf Cartel to retain a significant place in Mexico’s organized crime landscape.
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.
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. The group also maintains a presence in the states of Nuevo León, San Luis Potosí and Coahuila.
Allies and Enemies
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 nationwide.
Today the Gulf Cartel is still engaged in battles in key northern states with its former enforcement wing Los Zetas, as well as offshoots of the group including the Northeast Cartel.
For a time, the Gulf Cartel faced the Frankenstein-like task of facing down a monster of its own creation in the Zetas. Overall, it appears as though the group has been able to weather the storm. The Zetas are a shadow of their former selves now splintered into several offshoots. For its part, the Gulf Cartel is still in control of a key criminal enclave in Tamaulipas that allows the group to continue trafficking large drug shipments across the US-Mexico border. It seems the cartel’s focus on consolidating power in their traditional strongholds has paid off while other groups battle to expand their operations.