Kleptocracy (root: klepto+cracy = rule by thieves)

    Mexico is a major drug producing and transit country, the main supplier of marijuana and methamphetamine to the United States, and provider of a large share of the heroin consumed in the United States. An estimated 90% of cocaine entering the United States transits Mexico.  It is also a country with, by best estimates (depending upon source), at least 130 cells of organized crime, 30 Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs), and 7 major drug cartels.  Violence in the border and port regions is rampant.  It has involved the kidnapping of U.S. tourists, the kidnapping and killing of Mexican citizens, the killing of journalists, the killing of law enforcement officials, and scores of other crimes.  Since 2006, more than 60,000 people have been killed in cartel-related violence and more than 26,000 have gone missing.  The U.S. Department of Justice estimates the cartels make $39 million a year.  Mexico is the fourth most dangerous country in the word for journalists (behind Syria, Somalia, and Pakistan).

    Counternarcotics initiatives only seem to aggravate the problem.  For example, arrests of key cartel leaders, particularly in the Tijuana and Gulf cartels, have led to increasing drug violence as cartels fight for control of the trafficking routes.  Mexican prisons are such that it is easy to run a business from behind bars.  "Decapitating" kingpins results in martyrdom and glorification through the building of commemorative shrines and creation of song ballads.  A decapitated group often lashes out with dramatic violence afterwards.  The Gulf and Sinaloa cartels use personal "enforcer gangs" as well as their vast financial resources to intimidate and corrupt officials. They are also getting very good at winning the "hearts and minds" of the populace (see below). 

     At right is a picture of a recruitment banner hung out in the open in Nuevo Laredo. It advertises jobs with the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, promising good pay, insurance, and retirement benefits.  Such banners are hung all over border towns and even in schools where the impact is such that eight-year olds say "I want to be a Zeta when I grow up."  In Matamoras, one banner boasts "The state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, the United States and the world -- territory of the Gulf cartel."  The cartels are very good at this kind of information warfare. They have songs written about them, and basically win the people's affections by giving away such things as free bicycles to children. As former special forces, the Zetas are well-trained in kidnapping, ambushing, surveillance, and psychological warfare. They are methodical operators who have achieved legendary status. They run a network of camps for training recruits as well as corrupt ex-police officers. The ATF, DEA, ICE, FBI, and DHS all consider them the number-one threat in terms of attacking the U.S. border and beyond.

    Mexico has always struggled with crime and corruption, but its present troubles derive from the mid-90s downfall of the Colombian mega-cartels when the gap was filled by Mexican drug cartels. These cartels burrowed deeply into Mexican society, and those who refused to take a bribe earned a bullet to the brain for their scruples. The cartels built up a cadre of enforcers poached from the Mexican military’s Special Forces. These men, known as the Zetas, enabled the cartels to gain a tactical advantage against the poorly equipped Mexican local and state police.  The sheer size of the black economy–$40 billion as estimated by Stratfor’s George Friedman–strangles legitimate enterprise and concentrates power in the hands of a few narco-warlords. These criminal enterprises amass power and legitimacy as the Mexican state loses the trust of its citizens. Mexico’s border areas have become lawless wastelands controlled largely by the drug cartels, and the disorder is rapidly spreading into the interior.

    Concern about transnational terrorism and organized crime is also nothing new. The collapse of the Cold War spurred the growth of international gangs as well as a gray market of arms and arms-related materials. At the same time, revolutionary groups in South and Central America began diversifying from social revolutionaries into drug mercenaries.  The group that best exemplifies this transformation is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).  Other groups, such as the Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, learned to traffic in any kind of illegal trade, but principally in drugs.  Cocaine is the best-selling product for a transnational drug cartel because it returns the most profit.  They know this, and other factors aside, will adjust their distribution system to take advantage of economics such as street-level spot price (see chart below).

    Mexican drug cartels seek to create an environment that is either hostile to state control or, more commonly, one where the state is an empty shell that supports their activities. Empty shells produce ungoverned spaces, and in those territorial spaces, it is the cartels which rule.  It is also the case that territorial spaces, and political boundaries in general, matter a great deal to governments, and police in general don't like ungoverned spaces.  In parts of Mexico, drug profits are the leading cause of wealth.  And, if profits are the actual threat — and they are — something more than military action or police work will be necessary to attack them.  What's needed is a counterinsurgency approach to the declining faith in representative government.  What's to happen if the people come to trust the bad guys more than the good guys?  This is a real national security threat.  The U.S. cannot allow a nation on its southern border to become a staging ground for cartels, gangs, and terrorist movements.   


    Although there are many theories about the origins of the cartels, and Grayson (2010) examines most of them, an argument could be made that most of the narco-violence started on April, 8 1989, when Sinaloan drug kingpin, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (the "capo of all capos") was arrested and imprisoned.  From his posh cell/apartment above the warden's office, he distributed plazas (strategic areas for the production, storage, and shipping of drugs) to his lieutenants from behind bars.  Specifically, he divided up the plazas as follows:

    Other cartals sprang to prominence at about the same time, such as the Milenio Cartel (in Michoacan), the Colima Cartel (in the Colima state), and the Oaxaca Cartel (in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec).  The plaza distribution scheme masterminded by Felix Gallardo broke down when the Arellano Felix Organization broke with El Chapo in an effort to control all of Baja California and even began making incursions into Sinaloa and Durango. Numerous hits, arrests, and imprisonments followed.  In terms of control of the border, 3 cartels make up the dominant players (Tijuana, Sinaloa, and Gulf), as the following map illustrates:

    The Tijuana Cartel/Arellano Felix Organization (AFO) was founded by the nephews of Felix Gallardo, the Arellano Félix brothers.  The Arellano Felix family has challenged the Mexican state more than any other cartel, and has also infiltrated law enforcement the best.  Due to several arrests and murders in recent years though, they have become one of the weakest cartels.  The Tijuana Cartel has established a relationship of cooperation and collaboration with the Gulf Cartel, although they continue working as independent criminal organizations.  The Tijuana cartel also took over the Jalisco/Guadalajara Cartel, who were once known as the methamphetamine "Crystal Kings" of Mexico with their state-of-the-art super-labs. 

    The Sinaloa Cartel, currently headed by "El Chapo" Guzman, officially says that it resorts to narco-violence only when necessary, but its level of violence has escalated in recent years, particularly during the 2007-2010 period of President Felipe Calderon's crackdown.  Sinaloa state is Mexico's drug-smuggling heartland and is the birthplace of the leadership of four of the six major cartels.

    The Gulf Cartel has probably been involved in more shootouts with police than any other cartel, and they do a good job of portraying the police as enemies of the people while holding children's festivals frequently.  This cartel also has the most dangerous group of assassins -- the Los Zetas, although the Zetas are starting to chart their own course.  Matamoros is the unofficial capital of the Gulf Cartel.  They are involved in the worldwide export of drugs and guns.


    The Milenio Cartel, more commonly known as La Familia Michoacana, got started in 1999 by separation from the Juarez cartel, and has its early origins in avocado growing.  It so happened that their home state (Michoacan) was a major entry point for enormous quantities of Columbian cocaine.  By 2001, the Milenio Cartel was, according to DEA estimates, supplying one-third of the cocaine consumed in the United States, with a focus on California, Texas, Chicago, and New York.  The Milenio Cartel has superbly efficient super-laboratories. Starting in 2011, a splinter group emerged, calling themselves the Knights Templar

    The Sonora Cartel runs a drugs-for-guns operation across the border with high-tech ultra-light aircraft which avoids detection by radar.  They also run a high-quality seedless marijuana growing and drying operation.  However, there have been lots of turf battles in their area (primarily between the rival Sinaloa and Gulf cartels) because the Sonoran-Arizona corridor is the most desired piece of real estate along the border.  This area includes the towns of Hermosillo, Caborca, and Nogales, with Nogales by itself in 2008 accounting for about 60% of all drugs entering Arizona. 

    The Colima Cartel, centered in Guadalajara, was once the chief supplier of methamphetamines (the "Kings of Meth"), but they began as human traffickers.  It is unique (well, perhaps not that unique since many women are involved with the cartels in many ways) in that the sisters of the imprisoned leaders do their best to run the cartel.  Their distribution system involves motorcycle gangs. In the year 2005, authorities arrested 1,785 collaborators of this cartel.

    The Juarez Cartel (led by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes and top lieutenant Juan Pablo Ledezma) has a long history, but the short of it is that they encroached on Columbian enclaves on the U.S. East Coast and were pretty good at maintaining alliances with other cartels, that is, until about 2004 when they started a deadly battle with the Sinaloa cartel for control of Ciudad Juarez. They mostly rely on a hit squad of contract killers and former police officers ("La Linea"), led by  Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez ("El Diego"), himself a former state police officer who was building an empire of his own up to his arrest in 2011.

    The Oaxaca Cartel began by sowing marijuana seeds in the 1970s and soon became involved in cocaine smuggling.  It operates mainly in the southern states, and along the Mexico/Guatemala border.  It is the smallest of all the cartels, and basically is at the service of the Tijuana cartel.      


    The cartels are a competing group of criminal enterprises.  Some, like the Gulf Cartel, have existed for a long time, but others, like Los Gueros, are relative newcomers.  It is difficult to precisely account for the exact number of cartels at any one time because of constantly shifting alliances and splinter group formations.  They are not so much motivated by money or drugs, but in power and influence.  In short, they want to create an "empire" for their group, which can rule over every aspect of society.  However, they resort to killing primarily when their profit-making is affected.  They are constantly developing new revenue streams besides drugs.  Cigarette smuggling, for example, has long been profitable.  As of 2014, many of them are into pirated music, movies, and software as well as human trafficking, involving the transport of both illegal immigrants and sex workers.  Firearms are also a big-ticket item for them, although they are mainly buyers, not sellers.  Their involvement in these activities complicates, to say the least, the attempts to enact effective U.S. policies on immigration and gun control.  Also, given their interest in expanding revenue streams, it may only be a matter of time until they get into terrorism, if they aren't already.

    What the cartels really prize is logistics.  Much like Wal-Mart and Amazon, their strongest desire consists of establishing distribution hubs and networks that provide effective, low-cost shipping.  Their business is not so much in what they sell, but in how they sell it.  They are very creative and innovative in getting product across the border.  The Sinaloa Cartel, for example, has an expertly-constructed set of air-conditioned tunnels.  Other cartels use heavy-duty, mobile catapults. The most-treasured location is Nuevo Laredo, a border town that connects to Interstate 35, which protrudes all the way up the United States, and will get them to Chicago, which is their ideal distribution hub.

    Sometimes (very frequently), the cartels engage in "scare" tactics to keep people in line.  For example, they may assassinate a military of law enforcement official to make a statement, roll severed heads across the floor of a danceclub, or post threatening replies to anyone writing about them on the Internet or social media.  These kinds of activities are seen by them as part of a public relations campaign.

    Money laundering and bribery are common activities.  So much money requires the cooperation of banking officials, and many multinational financial institutions are more than happy to assist with the cartels' large-dollar deposits.  In 2010, both Wachovia and Wells Fargo admitted in federal court that they had processed over $378 billion of cartel money without going thru regular anti-money laundering procedures.  In 2012, British bank HSBC settled in U.S. court with a fine of $2 billion for processing an undisclosed amount of cartel money.  U.S. Justice department authorities have also implicated Bank of America and Western Union in court cases. 

CRS Report for Congress: Mexico's Drug Cartels (pdf)
Security in Latin America blog
Wikipedia: Drug Cartel
Wikipedia: Mexican Drug War (portal)

Andreas, P. (2009). Border games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico divide. NY: Cornell Univ. Press.
Bowden, C. (2004). Down by the river. NY: Simon and Schuster.
Bunker, R. (Ed.) (2010). Narcos over the border. NY: Routledge.
Bunker, R. (Ed.) (2012). Criminal insurgencies in Mexico and the Americas. NY: Routledge
Campbell, H. (2009). Drug war zone. Austin: Univ. of TX Press.
Grayson, G. (2010). Mexico: Narco-violence and a failed state? New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Kail, T. (2014). Narco-Cults. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Payan, T. (2006). The three U.S.-Mexico border wars. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Last updated: Jan. 06, 2014
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T. (2014). "Mexican Drug Cartels,"  MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from