The 5 Blood-Soaked Drug Cartels Fueled by America's Drug War

The capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, was celebrated on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. But Guzman’s arrest will not change the grim reality of Mexico’s drug war: drug-related violence kills over 10,000 people a year in Mexico as cartels battle each other and civilians fall victim to the crossfire. A combination of bribery and intimidation has allowed cartels to infiltrate law enforcement and government at every level. The U.S.-led war on drugs, despite soaking up billions of dollars, has only brought about more war. It has done little, if anything, to stem the flow of drugs.

From modest, entrepreneurial beginnings, cartels now spar over an illicit drug trade worth hundreds of billions every year. In 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels, and violence exploded to its current levels. The struggle that has played out since then rewards the most violent, ruthless groups.

Two cartels, Sinaloa and Los Zetas, dominate Mexico’s drug trade, while others linger below, capitalizing on important choke points, and allying with one of the two giants for protection and use of smuggling routes.

Even if El Chapo has lived his last day as a cartel kingpin, the system that supports the cartels and the horrifying violence they commit is entirely unchanged.

A clear first step to help bring Mexico out of this quagmire is to legalize cannabis throughout the Americas. Estimates vary on how much cartels depend on marijuana sales, but they range from 30-50% of total revenue, according to Sean Dunagan, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and former intelligence research specialist at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Legalizing marijuana would take a giant chunk out of cartel profits, which would greatly reduce their power, he said. Of the drugs seized at the U.S.-Mexico border, Jamie Haase, a LEAP member who worked as a special agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says “97% of what we see is marijuana.” 

Uruguay has already legalized marijuana, and is keeping it cheap in an attempt to outprice cartels. Now other countries, including the U.S., need to follow suit.

The criminalized drug trade has fostered vast, diverse networks of ruthless gangs. To understand how little the capture of one drug lord really does to quell the drug war, here’s a look at the five cartels that sit at the top of the Mexican drug world.

1. Sinaloa

While many Americans learned of the Sinaloa cartel when news broke of El Chapo’s arrest, it has been smuggling drugs in, out of and through Mexico since 1989. In 2010, a U.S. official called Sinaloa “the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world.” Sinaloa is the dominant cartel on much of Mexico’s Pacific side, and its tendrils reach up into the U.S. and down into Venezuela and Colombia. Various reports have placed Sinaloa operatives throughout the Americas, Spain, and Malaysia. Sinaloa is also believed to be a major player in Australia’s cocaine trade.

The big prize, of course, is the U.S. market, and Sinaloa controls the smuggling routes along the U.S.-Mexico border from the Western end of Texas all the way to Tijuana. The U.S. doesn’t like to acknowledge that Sinaloa operatives are embedded in the woodwork of cities across the country, but the results speak for themselves.

“We pretend that the cartels don’t have an infrastructure in the U.S.,” says Fulton T. Armstrong, senior fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. “But you don’t do a $20 billion a year business. . . with ad-hoc, part-time volunteers.”

Sinaloa’s connections don’t just involve U.S. gangs, they implicate members of Mexico’s military, police and government. While other cartels pay off mayors and local police chiefs, Sinaloa is uniquely successful among today’s cartels in making inroads into governors’ offices and the federal government. Chapo Guzman’s bribes totaled $5 million each month, according to Haase.

“You can't pay someone $250 a month and be upset when they sell out,” notes Dunagan.

Authorities got the big name when they captured Chapo Guzman, but the massive international drug trafficking group he ran is alive and well. Guzman was a “figurehead,” and a “replacement is in place,” according to Haase. Chapo can live out his days in prison, knowing that without dramatic changes to American drug laws, it will be virtually impossible to dismantle the empire he built.

2. Los Zetas

While Sinaloa controls much of the western half of Mexico, the dominant cartel on the eastern side is Los Zetas. Originally the muscle for the Gulf cartel, Los Zetas split into an independent cartel in 1999.

Los Zetas, with its relatively young leadership, can make Sinaloa look quaint in comparison. Sinaloa sticks mostly to the drug trade, but Los Zetas makes money in just about any way armed gangs with established smuggling routes can, according to Dunagan: human trafficking, kidnapping, protection fees, even dealing pirated CDs and DVDs.

Most cartels resort to violence when other methods aren’t working, but Los Zetas kills without blinking, and has been blamed for some of the most horrific massacres in recent Mexican history, including the slaughter of 72 migrant workers and the killing of 193 people in a series of attacks on buses, as part of its war with the Gulf cartel.

"The Zetas act like urban guerrillas," says Florencio Santos, a police chief in Guadalupe. "They'll make a phone call to get the police out, then block the street in front of the patrol cars and open fire from the front and the side."

Sinaloa has won many people over in the communities in which they operate through bribery and propaganda, but Los Zetas know no such charm.

“[On Thursday] there were rallies to free Guzman,” said Dunagan. “No one rallied when [Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino] Morales was caught. If people had to choose between them, they would take Sinaloa.”

But that’s not a choice people have the luxury of making, and Los Zetas remains a cruel and powerful force in Mexico.

3. Gulf

Down the food chain from Sinaloa and Los Zetas is a shifting constellation of old cartels still hanging on and upstarts looking to carve out new territory. Continued prominence or even existence is not guaranteed for these groups, and all of them have some kind of allegiance, however tenuous, with one of the two giants.

Based alongside the U.S. border and the Gulf Coast, “Gulf” cartel is in a convenient location to bring in cocaine and heroin from Colombia, and shuttle it up to the United States. It also smuggles cannabis and meth, and does its share of human trafficking. The government of Tamaulipas, Gulf’s home state, has historically taken its bribes and looked the other way.

Since its split with Los Zetas, Gulf has been mired in a fight for survival. In February 2010, the two cartels broke out into war, with Sinaloa and Knights Templar joining Gulf, and Beltran Leyva siding with Los Zetas. Reports of murder and torture spilled into nine municipalities, and even crossed the border into the U.S.

Gulf’s prime real estate gives it tremendous power and makes it a huge target. Though Los Zetas have cut into its reach and power, Gulf has proven resilient.

4. Knights Templar

The Knights Templar cartel, an outgrowth of the now-defunct La Familia Michoacana, is more than just a money-making operation, it’s a cultish social movement, according to Dunagan. Leading members make videos, proclaiming the Knights Templar to be protectors of the Mexican people against “terrorists” like Los Zetas.

Based in Michoacán, a state in southern Mexico that borders the Pacific, the Knights Templar faces challenges from Los Zetas, local cartels, vigilante groups and the Mexican federal government, which wants to ensure the security of a key port in Michoacán. Despite all that, the Knights Templar is entrenched in Michoacán’s state law enforcement and government, according to Stratfor, and doesn't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

5. Beltran Leyva

Reports of the Beltran Leyva cartel (BLO)’s demise have been overstated, but the group is much weaker than it once was, according to Insight Crime. Founded by a quartet of brothers, BLO operated a number of smuggling corridors throughout Mexico, particularly on the Pacific side. Over time, BLO splintered into several groups due to infighting and the deaths of several key figures. Reports from January suggest a possible alliance with the Knights Templar, which would be a shift for both groups. The pairing could conflict with BLO’s connection to Los Zetas and the Knights Templar’s general ethos of existing to defend Michoacán, but life is ever tenuous in the world of cartels, and groups do what they have to in order to survive.


The enormous economic incentives to sell drugs to the United States will remain in place as long as criminalization is the law of the land. The U.S. spends $51 billion each year fighting the war on drugs, yet neither supply nor demand for illegal drugs has dropped at all in four decades. It is an open secret that the war on drugs has failed. The brave people fighting this war got their number-one target, and yet the dynamics of the drug trade are entirely unchanged. Real change starts with legalizing cannabis, and an open conversation on decriminalizing all recreational drugs. Those who fear the consequences of such a step should take time to reflect on the gruesome consequences already in play as a result of current drug policies.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}