Mexico is home to the hemisphere’s largest, most sophisticated and violent organized criminal groups. 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 to Canada and even into 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. This increased security pressure has caused a dramatic change in Mexico’s underworld, as the fall of numerous drug bosses has precipitated the fragmentation of monolithic cartels into a vast number of splinter groups. These groups are more local in scope than their predecessors and rely on a more diverse criminal portfolio to generate illicit revenue.
With 9,330 kilometers of coastline and a 3,141 kilometer 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, a border with its Central American neighbors and vast coastlines offer criminal networks numerous smuggling routes for illegal drugs, natural resources, arms and humans.
Mexico’s role in organized crime has been defined by its neighbor’s status as the most powerful consumer economy in the world. For two centuries, entrepreneurs and contraband traders have moved goods across the vast border region. Migrants too 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·the state of Sinaloa along the western coast. The drugs were typically into the southwest 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 Colombia’s Medellín 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 opium poppy were cultivated. Under the leadership of Miguel Ángel Félix 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, Juan García Abrego, one of the few criminal bosses who did not come from Sinaloa, established his operations in Tamaulipas state on the Gulf Coast. Abrego worked closely with Colombia’s Cali Cartel, rivals to the Medellín Cartel. He also developed powerful political allies, including Raúl 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 US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena, tortured and killed him. The United States 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 Guadalajara Cartel head Félix Gallardo.
From jail, Félix Gallardo attempted to divvy up the territory. There were three major groups: the Tijuana-based Arellano Félix clan, the Juárez-based Carrillo Fuentes clan and the Sinaloa-based group led by Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” as well as his partner Héctor Luis Palma Salazar, alias “El Güero.” The competition among them sparked conflict almost immediately. The Arellano Félix clan and the Sinaloa Cartel began a tit-for-tat war that included a massacre at a Puerto Vallarta nightclub and the death of a Mexican archbishop who was supposedly mistaken for Guzmán. Guzmán was arrested shortly thereafter, in 1993, and the Arellano Félix operation flourished.
Still, the most lucrative and powerful of these groups was the Juárez-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 Medellín 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 Beltrán Leyva clan; Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo”; and Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul.” Bloodshed inevitably followed, and has continued as criminal organizations position and reposition themselves, especially along the US-Mexico border.
The Sinaloa Cartel, led by Guzmán, was in the middle of most of these battles. The cartel’s power stems from its control over marijuana and poppy cultivation in the so-called Golden Triangle — which is made up of the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua — as well as on the cartel’s ingenuity and multinational approach. Guzmán, 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 Guzmán Loera, alias “El Pollo,” took control of the operations. His cohorts, in particular Zambada, the Beltrán Leyva Organization and Esparragoza, kept him flush with cash. And when it seemed that Guzmán 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 Guzmán himself. The new “federation” was developed after a meeting in 2002 that included the Beltrán Leyva clan, Zambada, Esparragoza and remnants of the Carrillo Fuentes clan in Juárez. 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 Guzmán and the Arellano Félix clan. At the same time, the “federation” sought to win corridors in the east from the 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 Cárdenas Guillén, 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. This new group would soon break out on their own, overtaking both the Milenio organization and their progenitors, the Zetas, 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. The Sinaloa Cartel responded with their own brand of paramilitary organizations. Under the leadership of Arturo Beltrán 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 Guzmán allegedly ordered a hit on Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, alias “El Niño de Oro,” the brother of Juárez Cartel leader Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. The Juárez Cartel responded by killing Guzmán’s brother, Arturo, who was jailed in a maximum security prison. The fight trickled into Ciudad Juárez, which quickly became 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 Beltrán Leyva clan, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, alias “El Mochomo,” in January 2008, Alfredo’s older brother, Arturo, blamed Guzmán. The Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) began an all-out battle against Guzmán, Zambada and Esparragoza that 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 Zetas 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 followed. Tijuana was also hit by violence when the the Arellano Félix clan began battling their former top hitman, Teodoro García Simental, alias “El Teo.”
The fighting accelerated after the Mexican government developed a policy of taking the battle to the criminal gangs. Beginning in late 2006, the administrations of President Vicente Fox and his successor Felipe Calderon 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. But despite the change in rhetoric, Peña Nieto has so far taken few concrete steps to move away from the militarized security strategy endorsed by his predecessors. In fact, there have even been calls by some policymakers to involve the military more deeply in the fight against crime.
Since 2002, the Mexican government has arrested or killed several top drug traffickers, among them Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, arrested in 2003 and later extradited to the United States; Arturo Beltrán Leyva, killed by Mexican marines in December 2009; Teodoro García Simental, arrested in January 2010; Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, arrested in September 2012; Heriberto Lazcano, killed in October 2012; and Guzmán himself, arrested in February 2014 after rising to become the world’s most wanted criminal. The Mexican government was dealt an embarrassing blow when Guzmán escaped from a maximum security prison for a second time in July 2015. However, he was recaptured in his home state of Sinaloa six months later and was extradited to the United States in January 2017 to face trial there.
In response to increased security pressure, Mexican criminal organizations have adapted. They have positioned themselves throughout the Andes of South America to take advantage of a shake-up in the distribution chain. In Colombia, these Mexican organizations are now negotiating directly with the Colombian cocaine 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 and 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.
Many of the large and powerful drug cartels that once dominated Mexico’s underworld are now shadows of their former selves. The Gulf Cartel, the Beltrán Leyva Organization, the Zetas, Familia Michoacana, the Juárez Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel and the Knights Templar all saw top leaders killed or arrested in past years, leaving their organizations in varying states of decline. The exception is the Sinaloa Cartel, which despite the recapture of El Chapo remains the most prolific drug trafficking organization in the Western Hemisphere.
Several smaller criminal organizations have risen to prominence in the wake of the collapse of the larger cartels, most notably the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). However, the group lacks the organizational structure and international reach of its predecessors. These smaller criminal groups rely on a wider range of criminal activities to offset some of the losses from international drug trafficking. In addition to “predatory” activities such as extortion and kidnapping, this includes trafficking 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 370,000 police, split into federal, border, traffic, state and municipal police. President Peña Nieto has slowly implemented a plan to unify the latter two under a single command and create a national gendarmerie. The police divide their functions between preventative and investigative. Reports suggest that as many as one in ten of Mexico’s police officers may be unfit for service, and corruption is a common problem. Most Mexicans believe the police are under the control of organized crime, according to a recent study, and underreporting of crimes is a serious and ongoing issue.
Mexico’s roughly 80,000-strong armed forces are also involved in domestic security operations. However, despite attempts at reforms, the military continues to commit abuses during the course of its crime-fighting duties, almost all of which go completely unpunished. In addition to long-standing human rights concerns, critics have also pointed out that the deepened involvement of the military in domestic security has not led to long-term reductions in criminality or violence.
Mexico has a long history of complicated security ties with the United States. Although the two countries have cooperated in the past on many issues related to organized crime, friction in the bilateral relationship has often been evident, and US anti-drug, customs and intelligence agents have a limited capacity to operate in the neighboring country. Mexican crime groups have also demonstrated an ability to infiltrate and corrupt US law enforcement agencies.
The Mexican government spent an estimated $11.7 billion on security in 2015, an amount that was up significantly since 2009. But a July 2017 report found that this increase in spending had not translated into lasting security gains for the country.
Mexico’s federal courts system is headed by the Supreme Court, and features an Electoral Tribunal as well as circuit and district courts. The criminal justice system has been marked by corruption, high rates of impunity and a significant backlog of cases.
In an attempt to increase transparency and expand the rights of the accused, congress passed an amendment in 2008 mandating the courts to switch from a written inquisitorial system to oral adversarial trial proceedings by mid-2016. Over a year after the implementation deadline, there had been some progress, but much remains to be done.
One notable feature of Mexican legal tradition is the “amparo,” which is similar to an injunction in the United States. Many drug lords have filed amparos in order to delay their extradition proceedings, often for extended periods of time.
Mexico’s prisons are generally overcrowded and understaffed, resulting in squalid living conditions, periodic outbursts of violence and widespread corruption. Although prison guards are often the most vulnerable in part because of their low pay, El Chapo’s July 2015 escape underscored how even high-level prison officials could be prone to corruption.
According to the most recent statistics from the International Centre for Prison Studies, Mexico’s prison system is operating at 125 percent its maximum capacity. This overcrowding has been fueled in part by a practice known as “arraigo,” in which suspects can be held for up to 40 days without charges, with a possible 40-day extension if they are suspected of organized crime. A large proportion of inmates in Mexico are being held in pretrial detention.