MEXICO CITY — As Mexico suffers from an onslaught of massacres, decapitations and execution-style hits, six major drug cartels have carved up the country into fiefdoms. Like the armies of authentic warlords, the cartels attempt to completely dominate their territories, controlling trafficking routes, local drug sales and other criminal enterprises. Clashing over disputed turf, the cartels all have carried out murders on an epic scale.

Sinaloa Cartel

(Nails decorated with marijuana and images of narco patron saint Jesus Malverde. Drug murders are common in Sinaloa, the home turf of one of Mexico's main drug gangs and where traffickers worship a bandit as their own patron saint. Mica Rosenberg/Reuters)

City base: Culiacan (northwestern Mexico)

Kingpins: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Juan Jose Esparragoza (El Azul)

States in sphere of influence: Sinaloa, Sonora, Durango, Morelos, Chihuahua, Baja California, Mexico City, Quintana Roo, Yucatan

History: The Pacific state of Sinaloa gave birth to the Mexican narcotics trade when peasant farmers used its arid mountains to grow opium in the first part of the 20th century. The Sinaloa Cartel is said to have its roots in the early organizations that used houses in the state capital Culiacan to convert these opium poppies into heroin for the U.S. market. The cartel was quick to dominate the subsequent trades in marijuana and Colombian cocaine, and grew to be the size of Colombia’s notorious Medellin cartel by the mid-1990s. It is believed to be the Mexican cartel that has trafficked the greatest amount of narcotics throughout the first decade of the 21st century.

Of note:

  • Kingpin Guzman was arrested in 1993 in Guatemala and extradited to Mexico, where he served in the high-security Puente Grande prison in Jalisco. In 2001, he escaped from the prison in a laundry truck.
  • The crime family has its own musical group named after it called Grupo Cartel de Sinaloa.
  • Cartel leaders are alleged to visit expensive Sinaloan restaurants with entourages of gunmen and to pick up the tab for all the clientele.
  • Kingpin Guzman was listed on the 2009 Forbes billionaire list at number 701, with a supposed net worth of $1 billion.


The Gulf Cartel/The Zetas

(Alleged members of the Zetas are escorted after attending a hearing at a courthouse in Cancun April 10, 2006. Victor Ruiz/Reuters)

City base: Matamoros (northeastern Mexico)

Kingpins: Osiel Cardenas (in prison in the United States), Ezequel Cardenas, Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano

States in sphere of influence: Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Veracruz, Tabasco, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Yucatan

History: The Gulf Cartel has its roots in a gang of bootleggers who smuggled liquor into Texas in the 1930s and then expanded into other forms of contraband. In the 1970s, gang leader Juan Garcia Abrego, the nephew of one of the founders, established the cartel as one of the major traffickers of marijuana and cocaine. In the 1990s, a unit of elite Mexican soldiers defected to the Gulf Cartel and became its band of enforcers. Known as the Zetas, they used paramilitary tactics and extreme violence to control a large chunk of eastern Mexico.

Of note:

  • Kingpin Osiel Cardenas was arrested in 2003 but continued to run his operations from prison until he was extradited to the United States in 2007.
  • Cardenas allegedly threatened two DEA agents in 1999 with the line, “You gringos, this is my territory. You can't control it, so get the hell out of here.''
  • The Zetas are believed to be behind the biggest mass beheading in recent history, dumping 12 heads at two ranches in the southern Yucatan state in 2008.
  • The Zetas have operated full-fledged training camps near the U.S. border.

Tijuana Cartel

(Alfredo Araujo Avila, a key hitman for Mexico's Arellano Felix drug cartel, is shown to the media after he was arrested in Tijuana Jan. 26, 2007. Reuters)

City base: Tijuana (south of San Diego)

Leaders: Eduardo Arellano Felix, Enedina Arellano Felix

States in sphere of influence: Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sinaloa, Sonora

History: The Arellano Felix brothers originally worked within the Sinaloa Cartel, but broke off after the arrest of several major leaders in the late 1980s. By the end of the 1990s they had consolidated control of Tijuana and become the most high-profile cartel in Mexico. They were seriously weakened by the death and arrest of four major leaders at the beginning of the 21st century. But they are still the dominant force in the trafficking goldmine of Tijuana, which is home to the biggest border crossing into the U.S.

Of note:

  • The Tijuana Cartel recruited many wealthy young men from the city’s private universities and turned them into traffickers and hitmen known as the “Narco Juniors.”
  • The 2000 movie "Traffic" portrays a fictional crime family based on the Tijuana Cartel.
  • Santiago Meza, alias “the Stew Maker,” was arrested in 2009 and charged with dissolving 300 bodies, making them unrecognizable, for the Tijuana Cartel.


Juarez Cartel

(Police work at a crime scene where seven bodies were found gunned down in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, northern Mexico, Nov. 25, 2008. The bodies were found alongside banners threatening rival gangs. Alejandro Bringas/Reuters)

City base: Ciudad Juarez (south of El Paso)

Leader: Vicente Carrillo Fuentes

States in sphere of influence: Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Sonora

History: The Juarez Cartel has its roots in a gang of smugglers who moved narcotics over the west Texas border in the 1970s. Originally, they worked alongside the Sinaloa Cartel, but leader Amado Carrillo Fuentes broke away in the 1990s and was believed to have become one the richest men in Mexico before his death in 1997. Under the leadership of his brother Vicente, Juarez has become the most violent city in Mexico, with 1,600 murders in 2008.

Of note:

  • Amado Carrillo Fuentes was known as the "Lord of the Skies" because of his fleet of 727 jet airliners.
  • Amado Carillo Fuentes died in a mysterious plastic surgery accident in a Mexico City hospital in 1997. The doctors were later murdered.
  • The Mexican government sent 7,000 soldiers to quell the violence of the Juarez Cartel in March 2009.

Beltran Leyva Organization

(Soldiers escort drug kingpin Hector Huerta Rios of the Beltran Leyva cartel on March 24, 2009. Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

City Base: Culiacan

Leader: Arturo Beltran Leyva, alias “The Beard"

States in sphere of influence: Sinaloa, Sonora, Nuevo Leon, Morelos

History: The Beltran Leyva brothers were long-standing members of the Sinaloa Cartel. But in 2008 they broke with the other bosses, unleashing a bloody civil war in the state capital Culiacan. Since then they have become a powerful independent organization with a vast network of corrupt officials on their payroll and foot soldiers fighting in paramilitary units known as FEDA, a Spanish acronym for the Special Forces of Arturo.

Of note:

  • Hector Huerta Rios — a top cartel lieutenant who ran Beltran Leyva's operations in northeastern Mexico — was arrested and presented to the press March 25, 2009, the day U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mexico.
  • Brother Alfredo Beltran Leyva, known as the “Giant Ant,” was arrested in January 2008, in the most high-profile arrest of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's administration.
  • Arturo Beltran Leyva was alleged to be behind the killing of acting federal Police Chief Edgar Millan in his own home in May 2008.
  • A Mexican Interpol agent was arrested in 2008 for passing information about DEA agents to Beltran Leyva.


La Familia Michoacana

(Mexican soldiers talk with a child during a raid on a poor neighborhood in the drug-violence plagued town of Apatzingan May 9, 2007. Daniel Aguilar/Reuters)

City base: Apatzingan (Central Mexico)

States in sphere of influence: Michoacan, Guerrero, Mexico State, Morelos, Nuevo Leon

Leaders: Unknown

History: The shadowy Familia Michoacana appeared in 2006, unleashing violence in central Mexico in alliance with Los Zetas. They have since broken away to form a separate cartel that has expanded rapidly into surrounding states. They are notorious for trafficking crystal meth, but have also moved into kidnapping and extortion rackets.

Of note:

  • Assassins for La Familia threw five human heads onto a disco dance floor in 2006.
  • The owner of third division soccer club “Los Mapaches” was arrested for being linked to La Familia.
  • La Familia are alleged to have been behind the high-profile kidnapping and killing of wealthy teenager Fernando Marti in Mexico City in 2008.


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