Monday, September 30, 2013
The Current Status of the Various Drug Cartels in Mexico
By Malcolm Beith
It is tempting to separate Mexico's
drug cartels into six hierarchical groups, each competing for trafficking turf. The reality, however, is that the Sinaloa
Federation, the Gulf Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, Los Zetas and La Familia, not to mention several new offshoot
organizations, are fluid, dynamic, for-profit syndicates that sometimes operate under the umbrella of what are effectively
conglomerates but more often than not operate as independent, smaller-scale franchises.
This article examines the current state of the Sinaloa Federation, Los Zetas, and other Mexican cartels. It finds
that due to law enforcement pressure in recent years, Mexico's drug trafficking organizations have increasingly splintered,
and may well end up consolidated under the influence of the last cartel standing. That cartel would likely be the Sinaloa
Federation, which remains the most powerful cartel in Mexico today.
The Sinaloa Federation is the most powerful
Mexican drug trafficking organization with the largest presence nationwide and globally. Based in the state of Sinaloa in
northwestern Mexico, it has operatives in at least 17 Mexican states. In recent years, its members are known to have operated
in cities throughout the United States. At the helm of the cartel is Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, and he
is accompanied by several other key figures, among them Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and Juan Jose Esparragoza "El
Azul" Moreno. These three figures, in their 50s and 60s, have run the Sinaloa Federation through a hands-off, top-down
management style since the 1990s. While the cartel itself may employ as many as 100,000 operatives, the leadership is believed
to rarely communicate directly with them, preferring instead to issue wide-ranging orders and allow the plaza chiefs-those
in charge of specific trafficking zones-to run their operations like franchises. For this reason, the Sinaloa cartel has long
been known as the Federation.
In 2008 and 2009, however, the Sinaloa Federation
suffered its first major ruptures when the Beltran Leyva brothers and Edgar Valdez Villareal (also known as La Barbie) split
off from Sinaloa to form their own independent outfits, the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Cartel del Pacifico Sur.
As a result, one of the Beltran Leyva brothers and Villareal were arrested in 2008 and 2010 respectively, while another brother
was killed in 2009. It is unclear whether Sinaloa leader Guzman and his inner circle informed the authorities of the three's
locations as payback over the split, or whether they simply proved unable to run operations on their own. The Sinaloa Federation,
however, would never be the same. While it would expand in size-domestically and internationally-it would suffer setbacks
and lose clout near its home turf of Sinaloa and Durango, as well as in southwestern Mexico.
Since 2008, dozens of high-level Sinaloa cartel lieutenants have been brought down by authorities, including Guzman's
father-in-law and longtime associate, Ignacio Coronel Villareal (also known as Nacho Coronel), who was killed in a shootout
in the central city of Guadalajara in July 2010, and Ismael Zambada's son Vicente Zambada Niebla, who is currently on
trial in Chicago. The Sinaloa cartel has continued to expand in Mexico and globally, but has faced increasing pressure from
rival groups, Los Zetas in particular. While it is no longer as effective as it once was, the Sinaloa Federation remains
the most expansive, organized cartel operating in Mexico today.
Los Zetas are Mexico's most lethal drug trafficking
organization. Originally a tight-knit group of approximately 30 former members of a Mexican Special Forces unit who operated
as the paramilitary wing for the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas have grown exponentially since the early 2000s. True to their
Special Forces origins, some of the recruits have received advanced weapons and communications training, which is what originally
distinguished the group from other cartels in Mexico.
many Los Zetas members have had little training at all; since 2008, small groups of "thugs" sporting crew cuts and
purporting to be members of Los Zetas have appeared in small towns in Mexico, quickly claiming the turf as their own. Los
Zetas members have been involved in turf battles in Sinaloa cartel strongholds like the city of Culiacan and have been spotted
as far south as Guatemala and Honduras. Yet aside from a few apparent attempts to consolidate the multitudes of groups
calling themselves Zetas, Los Zetas have remained splintered.
authorities have continually hampered Los Zetas' ability to use technology to communicate. In August 2012, for example,
the military seized 15 communications installations, including a 50-foot telecom tower, in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
In the past year, the authorities have also had success in arresting or killing some of the top Los Zetas leaders. On
October 7, 2012, Los Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, known as "El Lazca" or "Z-3" (indicating
his high-rank within the original Zeta unit), was killed by the Mexican Navy. On July 15, 2013, Lazcano's successor,
Miguel Angel Trevino Morales ("Z-40"), was arrested in Tamaulipas without a shot being fired and reportedly with
the help of U.S. intelligence. Law enforcement pressure during the majority of the Calderon administration was focused
on Los Zetas and La Familia, in large part because these two groups were the most intent on executing indiscriminate acts
Without these leaders, Los Zetas will likely remain a
ragtag operation, intent on violence and willing to engage in almost any illicit activity for profit, but increasingly disorganized
and, as a result, less in control of drug trafficking and less capable of undermining the authorities and the state. It
is also likely that the Sinaloa Federation will repeat a move from its 2004 playbook and try to take control of the lucrative
Nuevo Laredo trafficking corridor given the corner in which Los Zetas find themselves.
Mexico's Other Cartels
are more than a handful of other cartels operating in Mexico, but none on the level of the Sinaloa Federation or Los Zetas.
There are already indications that the Sinaloa Federation may try to strike an alliance with the remnants of the Gulf Cartel,
which, since the extradition of Osiel Cardenas Guillen in 2007 (he received a 25-year sentence in Houston in 2010), has been
considerably weakened. Its members have been in constant conflict with Los Zetas, from Tamaulipas all the way to Guatemala.
Once the most powerful drug trafficking organization on Mexico's East Coast, the Gulf Cartel's current level of influence
is unclear. It is reasonable to assume it still controls the majority of drug trafficking operations in Tamaulipas, but it
is impossible to be completely confident of the Gulf Cartel's current condition given the fog that surrounds the criminal
underworld in Tamaulipas.
Of the other groups, the Tijuana Cartel
is perhaps the least menacing. Since the fall of the last of the group's long-time leaders, the Arellano Felix brothers
in 2008, the group has stayed largely off the radar. It is believed that a sister of the Arellano Felix brothers, Enedina,
may be trying to run operations, but there are indications that the Sinaloa Federation has moved in on their territory.
A similar situation exists in Ciudad Juarez, where just one of the original Carrillo Fuentes brothers, Vicente, remains in
charge of what used to be the powerful Juarez Cartel but is now an increasingly fluid operation that resembles gang-on-gang
warfare more than intra-cartel violence, with the high-level drug trafficking operations apparently conducted by members of
the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels. In some ways, Sinaloa has always had a foot in Juarez: in the 1990s, Esparragoza Moreno was
considered the "number three" for the Sinaloa Federation as well as the "number two" for the Juarez Cartel,
even though the two organizations were officially rivals.
in the rest of Mexico is a hodgepodge of offshoot groups that are increasingly staking their claim to disputed turf from Veracruz
to Guadalajara to Acapulco. La Familia, a pseudo-religious group based in the central state of Michoacan which preached wholesome
values all the while peddling methamphetamine on the side, has all but shattered under law enforcement pressure, but the so-called
Knights Templar has risen in its place. The Knights Templar, like La Familia, operates behind a facade of pseudo-religiosity,
calling into question just how separate it is from what was once La Familia. Given La Familia's growth during the early
years of the Felipe Calderon administration, it is unlikely the organization simply disappeared entirely.
Groups such as Nueva Generacion, based in Guadalajara, and the Matazetas (the "Zeta
Killers," who are purportedly an offshoot of the aforementioned Jalisco organization now based largely in Veracruz) have
appeared on the scene in the last two or three years, attracting attention with beheadings, other violent killings and narcomantas
(banners) laying claim to their turf. Yet a closer examination reveals that these may not actually be new organizations at
all: the Nueva Generacion was a name commonly thrown around Guadalajara in association with Sinaloa Federation kingpin Coronel
Villareal as early as 2008, while the name Matazetas appeared as early as 2004 in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo
when Sinaloa Federation operatives challenged Los Zetas for their turf. It is nearly impossible to confirm whether the
new organizations are offshoots of the major cartels or not. Although many disgruntled operatives are often tempted to try
to form their own organizations, sometimes even with their leadership's blessing, it is rarely clear whether they operate
independently or under an umbrella.
If there is one certainty that has emerged from roughly six years of fighting the cartels
in Mexico, it is that the country's drug trafficking organizations are more fragmented than ever, and now lack the leadership
of organized, business-oriented kingpins.
There are several scenarios
for the future. If offshoots like La Generacion Nueva, Los Zetas and the Matazetas-which have shown a propensity for wanton
violence that is unparalleled in Mexican history-continue to gain a foothold, Mexico may become such difficult terrain through
which to move drugs that the traffickers shift back to the Caribbean, which they abandoned in the 1990s after increased U.S.
law enforcement pressure around the islands. Traffickers also may opt to use Central America as a hub, given its lack of strong
There is also the possibility that the Sinaloa Federation
and Gulf Cartel will seek to consolidate control over the various offshoots and incorporate them into their larger organizations.
If this happens, violence would likely diminish, but drug trafficking would flourish, and both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement
along the border would be put under increasing pressure.
 "El Cártel de Sinaloa," Milenio, undated.
 See National Drug Intelligence Center, U.S. Department of Justice, available at www.justice.gov/archive/ndic.
 For details, see the U.S. Treasury Department's leadership chart for the Sinaloa Federation.
 This is the author's own estimate, based on arrests and the
breakdown of official estimates of Mexicans involved in the drug trade. Also see "‘Hay 500 mil narcos:' Revela
Senado al Congreso Magnitud del crimen organizado," El Universal, August 9, 2008.
 "El Ocaso de Los Beltran. Un operativo llevado a cabo por la Marina permitio que se terminara con uno de
los grupos delictivos mas peligrosos," Excelsior, September 19, 2013.
"Detenido presunto lider del cartel del Pacifico Sur en el estado de Morelos," EFE, February 11, 2013.
 "Cronologia narcotraficantes caidos en los ultimos anos," El Universal, July
 "Sicarios de los Beltran Leyva y Zetas atacan a gente
del Chapo en Sonora," Milenio, July 2, 2010.
 For details on the
Sinaloa Federation's international operations and activities, see Samuel Logan, "The Sinaloa Federation's International
Presence," CTC Sentinel 6:4 (2013).
 For a profile of Los Zetas,
see Samuel Logan, "A Profile of Los Zetas: Mexico's Second Most Powerful Drug Cartel," CTC Sentinel 5:2 (2012).
 "El Capturado Z-40 organizo a Los Zetas en Guatemala," Associated Press, July
 A founding member of Los Zetas, Marcos Carmona Hernandez
(also known as "El Cabrito"), was arrested in the southern state of Oaxaca in March 2011, shortly after another
founding Zeta member was killed in nearby Veracruz. This suggests that the northern-based leadership was trying to gain control
of its membership in the south.
 "Desmantelan una red de comunicacion
de los Zetas," Excelsior, August 24, 2012.
 Randal C. Archibold, "Mexico Kills a Drug Kingpin, but the Body Gets Away,"
New York Times, October 9, 2012.
 Randal C. Archibold, "Drug
Kingpin is Captured in Mexico Near Border," New York Times, July 15, 2013; Tracy Wilkinson, "Leader of Zetas Drug
Cartel Captured: ‘40' May be Extradited to U.S.," Los Angeles Times, July 16, 2013.
 The lack of obvious law enforcement pressure on other organizations, the Sinaloa Federation in particular, prompted
accusations from journalists and government critics that the Calderon administration was protecting Sinaloa, or at the very
least turning a blind eye to its activities. A string of high-profile arrests from 2009 until the present day have largely
silenced these claims.
 For more on this argument, see Samuel Logan,
"The Future of Los Zetas after the Death of Heriberto Lazcano," CTC Sentinel 5:10 (2012).
 Nuevo Laredo is widely considered to be one of the most important trafficking routes from Mexico to the United
States, as highways from Texas lead to every part of the United States. It is also less policed than the borders at Tijuana
and Ciudad Juarez.
 For more on this, see Logan, "The Future
of Los Zetas after the Death of Heriberto Lazcano."
 James C.
McKinley, Jr., "Mexican Drug Kingpin Sentenced to 25 Years in Secret Hearing," New York Times, February 25, 2010.
 It is reasonable to assume that the Gulf Cartel controls the majority of drug trafficking
operations in Tamaulipas because Los Zetas engages in risky endeavors like human trafficking and less profitable ventures
like piracy in Tamaulipas. Los Zetas would probably not be involved in such activities if it dominated the drug trade in Tamaulipas.
All historical research has shown that drug trafficking is so lucrative that if a group controls it, then it has no need for
profit from other illicit activity.
 "Tijuana ‘Cartel Boss'
Arellano Felix Extradited to US," BBC, April 29, 2011.
Azul, segundo en la lista de criminales mas buscados por la FBI," La Jornada, February 13, 2005.
 Personal interviews, various sources, Guadalajara, Mexico, 2008; Silvia Otero, "‘El Chapo' envia
a rivales mensaje en video via internet," El Universal, October 15, 2006.
This piece, "The Current State of Mexico's
Many Drug Cartels," by Malcolm Beith, first appeared in the CTC Sentinel, Sep 24, 2013, a publication of the
Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, U.S. Military Academy. Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist, and author
of The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World's Most Wanted Drug Lord.