The 7 Biggest Cartels in Mexico

Posted by Jackson Bentley on Jul 12, 2018 8:00:00 AM
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Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Mexico are responsible for importing the majority of illicit substances in the United States. In recent years they have increasingly gained control of the retail level distribution of drugs. These organizations formerly coalesced under four significant organizations, but former Mexican president Felipe Calderon initiated an aggressive campaign to eliminate cartel leadership that resulted in even more splintering and drug-related violence in the region. South America and Mexico, in particular, are prime locations for producing and exporting drugs because of the climate and lack of jurisdiction governing the growth of drug-related cultigens such as cocaine and opium. 


The sunset over Mexico. Mexico is home to seven of the biggest drug cartels.


In the past three years, the DEA has outlined several major crime organizations in South America as the most dominant:


  • Sinaloa
  • Los Zetas
  • Tijuana AFO
  • Juarez CFO
  • Beltran Leyva
  • Gulf
  • La Familia Michoacana


It is estimated that under Calderon’s leadership and Mexico’s war on drugs, there have been roughly 100,000 drug-related deaths in the country since 2006.



Mexico is one of the largest exporters of heroin in the world and is a significant source of the drug in the United States. In the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment Report, research revealed that Mexican cartels expanded their operations in the U.S. significantly. In 2014 alone, heroin from Mexico accounted for 80% of all heroin in the U.S., and in 2015, 93% of heroin seized by the DEA came from Mexico. In 2016, poppy cultivation reached more than 32,000 hectares, which is enough to produce 81 metric tons of heroin.


Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has made strides in the fight against drug cartels. In 2014, for example, his administration was successful in apprehending Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the boss of one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels, the Sinaloa cartel. In 2015, one Congressional Research report estimated that more than 80,000 people had been killed in Mexico due to cartel-related incidents since 2006. Under the administration of Nieto, homicide numbers dropped down by 30%.


The drug trade in Mexico has been characterized by brutal violence and public displays of gang dominance through beheadings, car bombs, and numerous murders of politicians and journalists. Mexico’s National Public Security System reported that total homicides in the country increased by 22% between 2015 and 2016, reaching nearly 23,000. The area surrounding Mexico, known as the northern triangle of South American nations, includes Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela. According to Foreign Affairs magazine, roughly 1 in every four murders year round occurs in this area.


Today, the major Mexican drug trafficking organizations in Mexico are responsible for the importation of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine into the United States. They are also the main trafficking route for U.S. bound cocaine from the significant supply countries of Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. Cocaine out of Colombia accounts for 90% of the U.S. market, with the majority of it trafficked through Mexican DTOs.



Colombia is infamous for having been the home of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Nowadays, the market serves another drug: heroin. It is the second biggest Latin American supplier of the drug for the United States. While Mexico was known for its lower quality, lower price, and higher volume, Colombia was more synonymous with the pure “China White” heroin that comes in white powder form. Due to frequent rains in the Colombian region, opium is immediately processed from the opium pods to prevent it from being washed away. The majority of shipments out of Colombia are flown or delivered by boat northwards into Orlando, Chicago, New York, and Boston.


Origin of the Major DTO’s

The cartels within Mexico have evolved over an extended period of coalescing, disruption, and reorganization that remains in constant flux. Los Zetas, for example, began as highly trained Mexican military deserters who were former elite airborne special force members of the Mexican Army who became enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. This group splintered to form its own cartel and became a hyper-violent competitor to the Gulf Cartel. The dominant cartel, the Sinaloa, has become a more decentralized force that contains different factions and groups. The arrest of the significant Sinaloa kingpin El Chapo did not result in the dissolution of the cartel, and so many believe that his status was as more of a figurehead than a functional leader.


Described as Mexico’s oldest DTO, the Sinaloa cartel has grown to control some 40-60% of the country’s drug trade with annual earnings of $3 billion. Sinaloa has dominance trafficking into the Western United States, owning the trade routes into California, Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas. The next major organization controlling trade routes into the United States is the Juarez cartel. The Juarez cartel splintered initially from the Sinaloa Cartel in 2008 and sparked one of the most violent periods in Mexico’s history. This turf war cost over 10,000 lives between 2006 and 2012.


The Tijuana/Arellano Felix Organization (AFO)

This group has historically covered the trade routes between Baja and Southern California. It is based in the border city of Tijuana and was founded by a former police officer named Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. In 2008, the group faced massive splintering and internal fighting that lead to the strengthening of surrounding cartel organizations.



Mexico’s oldest and largest cartel, the Sinaloa controls the trade routes into the Western United States. The arrest of Sinaloa leader El Chapo in 2014 did little to disrupt the organization's network and may have lead to an increase in violence. It is believed that the group is comprised of multiple regional leaders and has much less vertical leadership than initially thought.


Juarez / Carrillo Fuentes Organization

The Juarez cartel was formerly Mexico’s most notorious and largest criminal organization. The rivalry between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartel turned the city of Juarez into one of the most violent in the world. Juarez trafficks a significant amount of both marijuana and cocaine and in recent years expanded into the cultivation and wholesale distribution of heroin.


The Gulf Cartel

This cartel is based in the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Its origins can be traced back to the 1920s bootlegging era as well as the 1980s cocaine smuggling era. This cartel enlisted the aid of corrupt military personnel to be their army, but this eventually resulted in the creation of the Los Zetas cartel.


Los Zetas

Formerly former elite airborne special forces units from the Mexican Army, the Zetas became one of the most violent cartels in Mexico after splitting from the Gulf Cartel. Their primary income does not come from smuggling, but taxing the coming and going of illicit drugs while inflicting extreme violence, both on the public and members of DTOs within Mexico. Los Zetas are known for being a more expansive organization delving into fuel theft, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, and arms dealing.


Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO)

The Beltran cartel was initially part of the Sinaloa federation before splitting in 2008. They are mainly based in the state of Sonora and have close ties to the Juarez and Zetas cartels to move drugs across the border.


La Familia Michoacana (LFM)

The LFM Cartel has become notorious for extreme violence and military tactics as well as its religious affiliations through the last decade. This organization began with the intent of protecting Mexico’s poor and urban communities from the violence of drug-related crime while still smuggling and selling illicit substances in the United States. An offshoot of this organization became known as the Knights Templar cartel.


Knights Templar

This cartel began as a vigilante group claiming to protect citizens and residents from other DTO’s while also engaging in drug smuggling. Like LFM, this cartel also claims religious ties and is committed to social justice. Smaller incarnations of the Knights Templar have arisen in states such as Michoacan to protect citizens. These organizations are known as “autodefensas” or self defenders and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. In 2014, the Mexican government began incorporating members of the autodefensas groups into their corps, creating a generation of Rural Police Forces. These groups have continually been corrupted and absorbed into large cartels or paramilitary organizations.


Cartel Jalisco-New Generation (CJNG)

The CJNG first appeared on the scene in 2011 with the murder of 35 Zetas Cartel members. This group is based in central Mexico and is purported to be run by former Sinaloa members. The group is responsible for distributing cocaine and methamphetamine along the entire Pacific coast, even into Canada.


The Merida Initiative

President Pedro Nieto took office in 2012 under the campaign promise of reducing drug-related violence throughout Mexico. This plan, dubbed the Merida Initiative, was a bilateral anti-crime package launched to provide Mexico with the infrastructure it would need to combat crime. This included scanners, drones, arms, and other equipment that would help fight DTO’s across the country and summed a total of $2.6 billion from the United States. However, budget cuts due to low oil prices resulted in the scaling back of this program from roughly 40,000 to only 5,000 security personnel. This personnel was dispatched to protect citizens from drug crime-related violence.


Attempts to reduce the amount of violence and corruption have seen little to no success. Within the government and police force, there has been a continued streak of cooperation with drug trafficking organizations that allows for these cycles of violence to last. Mexico’s military, the Mexican Army, has repeatedly been charged with torture and extrajudicial killings for which few convictions have been achieved. Less than 1% of the accusations of torture since 2006 have resulted in conviction by the Mexican Attorney General. El Chapo’s escape from a Mexican federal prison in 2015 resulted in the arrest of hundreds of government personnel, and it is believed that Guzman received assistance from the highest levels of government. The former governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, became a fugitive in 2016 when he was accused of defrauding the government of more than $2.6 billion for his enrichment.


Drug Trafficking Typologies

A helpful method for organizing Mexican cartels was created by researchers at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. Here are the classifications laid out:


National Cartels

These organizations control numerous drug routes and entry points along the border. They also operate major international trade routes and have ties within the police and government to help facilitate trafficking. These include Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel.


Regional Cartels

The local cartels play a secondary role in the drug trade because they have limited control over drugs smuggled through their trade routes. They are characterized by relying less on the drug trade and more on side activities such as extortion, kidnapping, theft, and smuggling goods. These include the Golfo, LFM, Los Caballeros Templarios, and the Beltran Leyva cartel.


Toll-Collector Cartels

The primary income of these DTO’s comes from collecting tolls on other organization’s drug shipments. They typically control the border areas and are confined mainly to this mode of income. If they lose control of a border area, they will disappear or become absorbed.


Local Drug Trafficking Cells

These DTO’s are comprised mostly of disbanded and dissolved portions of more massive cartels. Their range of operations is primarily minor smuggling and small-scale drug trafficking. There are over 200 of these cells currently in action.


What Does the Future Look Like?

Despite the efforts of Mexico’s government and assistance from the United States, cartel violence, and drug trafficking efforts have remained stable. The most significant target of these efforts, the Sinaloa, have not been displaced. The continual flux of the drug trafficking organizations in Mexico indicates that any stabilization or peace within the area would likely take more than just the elimination of top leaders and prevention efforts at the border. The challenge remains mainly dismantling an entrenched organized mafia and endemic corruption in the political system. Accordingly, the only way to end the problem would require institutional reform that would restore enforceable law and faith in that law.


In Conclusion

The United States is the primary market for the smuggling of illicit substances. The damage these substances wreak is measured by the death toll across the Americas, the economic costs associated with restricting their flow, and the destruction of families and communities that ensues from their arrival. Visit Landmark Recovery to learn more about our drug and alcohol recovery centers so you can finally receive the drug and alcohol rehab you deserve.



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Topics: Drug

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