MEXICAN DRUG CARTELS
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 region is rampant. It has involved the kidnapping of U.S. tourists, the killing of journalists, and scores of other crimes.
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. 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.
ORIGINS OF THE CARTELS
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:
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera (Mexicali and San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, which lies along the border at the intersection of Sonora, Baja California, Arizona, and California)
Rafael Aguilar Guajardo (Ciudad Juarez)
Hector Luis "El Guero" Palma Salazar (Nogales and Hermosillo)
Jesus "El Chuy" Labra Aviles, mentor to the Arellano Felix brothers
Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Garcia (Sinaloa)
Pedro Aviles Perez (Jalisco)
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.
OTHER MAJOR CARTELS
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.
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.
Grayson, G. (2010). Mexico: Narco-violence and a failed state? New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Campbell, H. (2009). Drug war zone. Austin: Univ. of TX Press.
Payan, T. (2006). The three U.S.-Mexico border wars. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Last updated: July 31, 2011
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T. (2011). "Mexican Drug Cartels," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/4200/4200lect01.htm accessed on July 03, 2011.