20th Century

Mexican Cartels

By Carlos Rodriguez

One of the first drug cartels in Mexico, the Guadalajara Cartel, was established by the notorious Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, also known as ‘the Godfather’. During the 1980s, he became the partner of the famous Pablo Escobar of Colombia. Escobar’s drug empire ambitions were to spread globally. Due to Mexico’s soil reputation to grow the plants for “cooking” cocaine, and because of the country’s geographical location, Escobar needed a contact in Mexico to help him transport drugs into the United States. He hired Gallardo to run the transport and operations of Escobar’s products. Gallardo then hired his associates, the Arellanos and El ‘Chapo’ Guzman. Briefly, the Arellanos controlled the territory of Tijuana, which was right below the state of California, hitting the first transfer spot into the west coast of the United States. El Chapo, controlled the territory of Sinaloa which was right by sea, convenient to transport Colombian cocaine into Mexico. However, in 1993, Pablo Escobar was killed by the DEA which El Chapo then saw the opportunity to be the head player in the cartel business. However, there was new players entering the drug trafficking business, one of them being the Jalisco Nueva Generation. This new cartel organization was a threat to El Chapo’s ambition to control ultimate power of the drug trafficking business. At first there was an attempt to form a federation to unite all cartels to respect territory boundaries, however, due to El Chapo’s greedy ambitions, the drug war started in Mexico. As of a result, Mexican citizens suffered during the ensuing bloodshed between the Sinaloa Cartel and its allies against anyone who them. During the drug war in Mexico, El Chapo was captured in 1993 at Guatemala but escaped in 2001.

el Chapo

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican Navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City on Feb. 22, 2014. (c) Associated Press.

Cartel bosses such as El Chapo often see themselves purely as businessmen, providing customers with a service but whose activities are curtailed by an oppressive government. Indeed, the cartels’ operations grew in scope during the 1980s and 1990s because, with the crackdown on Columbian cartels, they saw an opportunity for major business expansion, which of course led the Mexican cartels to fight for control over the production of drugs and their traffic from South America into the United States.

So how did crime bosses such as El Chapo run their cartels? Most drug cartels functioned as if they had a pyramidal structure with defined vertical authority, a structure which can be seen in groups such as the Sicilian Mafia. However, the structure that Guzman used to run his cartel was a “horizontal structure”. As the term suggests, a horizontal structure is similar to that of a subsidiary-based company with semiautonomous components. One of the main factors of their organization was their function of communication (for an overview of the theory behind organised crime see Boone Alway’s post). In terms of communication, drug trafficking networks operate like terrorist cells; every group and every member of the respective cartels know their function and carry it out with low levels of communication; this in turn results in increased security for the organization; and the passing of information and directives through personal contact rather than written communication.

One factor that was important for the cartels’ operations to be successful was the eyes on the inside of the government. Security forces in relatively authoritarian regimes such as Mexico often play a key role in the development of criminal markets. In simple terms, drug cartels bought out police officers or local government officials to be their eyes and ears of information to then plan accordingly.

Sinalao Cartel

The Structure of the Sinaloa Cartel

Although El Chapo is considered the main leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, he gives same authority power to his trusted associates: Juan Jose Esparragoza Morena or commonly known as “El Azul” and Ismael Zambada Garcia or commonly known as “El Mayo”. In logical terms, once El Chapo was captured in 2014 and 2016, it’s expected that one of the two took his place to continue its operations.

Ultimately, organized crime can only every flourish in places where governments are unable or unwilling to enforce the law, and their rise to dominance is also helped if there is a lot of poverty in a country. Escobar and El Chapo came from poor areas of their respective countries and they wanted to help their families reach higher economic status due to the limited availability of decent paying jobs; their only escape route was drug trafficking. In other words, drug cartels in Mexico shows the reflection of how Mexican governments failed to care for their citizens. As one Mexican gang member is quoted as saying:

“Your failed government caused us to grow more. You tried to control use but you lost control…”

Yet the main reasons why the drug cartels were successful and achieved dominance in many regions of Mexico is because of their political influence. Mexican government and public institutions operate from bribing police, bureaucrats, or purchasing a form of injunction from judges, to the pocketing of millions by high-ranking government officials. Corruption scandals involving Mexican policymakers, government officials, and other bureaucrats are common. A recent corruption case involved a former executive of Wal-Mart as he described how Wal-Mart de México had orchestrated a campaign of bribery to win market dominance. Specifically the Sinaloa Cartel, they advance their operations, in part, by

“… corrupting or intimidating law enforcement officials. The Sinaloans’ apparent triumph gave rise to ample speculation that this organization was better protected than its rivals by corrupt government authorities.”

Some agents of Mexico’s Federal Investigative Agency (AFI) are believed to be in league with the cartels. There were some attempts to end the cartels’ influence over the Mexican government. One example was the Juan Camilo Mourino, the Secretary of Interior. He was getting too close with the cartels and pressuring them to settle turf negotiations and other affairs to prevent violence in the Mexican streets. Since Mourino was trying to dictate these cartels, El Chapo, killed him by planting a bomb inside a plane he was on board.

govt institutions

Government institutions with agents involved in informal networks of protection for drug cartels in Mexico between 1985 and 2006

During the term of Presidente Calderon, he conducted operations to catch the main cartel leaders to reduce gang violence in Mexico. However, according to The International Narcotics Control Board, although México has made concerted efforts to reduce corruption in recent years, it remains a serious problem, not least because, as stated above, some agents of México’s Federal Investigative Agency (AFI) are believed to work as enforcers for the Sinaloa Cartel and the Attorney General reported in 2005 that nearly 1500 agents were under investigation for criminal activity.

As of 2018, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, El Chapo, has been arrested and extradited to the United States. However even with his absence, operations must continue as his successor Damaso Lopez Nunez ‘El Licenciado’ tries to take control (which confirms Mark Galeotti’s theory of organised crime being “a continuing enterprise”). The other ‘players’ in the game as of right now are Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion with the influence of La Nueva Familia Michoacana, Los Viagras, and the Beltran Leya Organization. In the southern part of Mexico, the players are the Gulf Cartel with influences of Los Escorpiones and their rivals Los Zetas to get control of the Yucatan Peninsula turf.

Cartel Influence

(c) BBC News

Because there are now smaller cartel groups who don’t have enough organizational structure to traffic an excessive number of drugs, they seek to other affairs such as relying on more localized crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion, cargo theft, carjacking and fuel theft, to raise operational funds. These non-trafficking crimes can pose a significant risk to companies and their employees if heavily armed criminal gangs turn their guns upon civilians to extort, rob or kidnap them. Furthermore, since the state of California has legalized marijuana, drug cartels started to push harder drugs like methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. Even though the level of violence dropped after the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012, it has shot up dramatically in the last two years, with 2017 on course to be the worst year on record. Activists and journalists are routinely murdered, while corruption and impunity remain rampant. Mexico registered more than 200,000 murders from January 2007 to December 2016, according to government records. More than 30,000 people are classified as having disappeared in that same time-frame.

Cartel Justice

Cartel “Justicia”

The idealization of organized crime in Mexican popular culture, furthermore, does little to help the government solve its crime problems, because it increases the cartels’ “soft power” and makes them seem as heroes to local communities. Mexican citizens and Hispanic communities in the USA have adopted “Narco culture”; fans of Narco culture will refer to weed as “mota”, and listen to Narco music; they buy material things that symbolize narcotic figures like guns or flashy jewelry; film companies such as Netflix take gangsters’ stories and make television series about them. Some Mexican citizens look up to crime bosses so much that they take it too far to claim their apart of such organization but according to Lara, that can be very dangerous.


The emergence of a popular culture surrounding Mexican organised crime: Netflix’s “Narcos”.

While El Chapo has now been arrested, according to Mexican officials, there is still the need the capture of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada from the Sinaloa Cartel and Ruben Oseguera or also known as “El Mencho”. The US State Department offers rewards of up to $20m for information on Caro Quintero, and up to $5m each for Zambada or Oseguera. Because of the Mexican Drug Cartels, it not only causes a disruption in the Mexican government but it has also cause suffering to the Mexican people and concern to the American people. The government has made multiple attempts to stop the drug violence but probably more extreme measures should be considering to eliminate these drug cartels and bring peace into the country of Mexico.

To cite this article:


Rodriguez, Carlos, ‘Mexican Cartels’, Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood (2018), http://www.gesteofrobinhood.com/mexican-cartels-carlos-rodriguez [Date Accessed]


Rodriguez, Carlos, 2003. ‘Mexican Cartels’, Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood. [online] Available at: <www.gesteofrobinhood.com/mexican-cartels-carlos-rodriguez> [Date Accessed].


Mexican Culture Life, 2012. Available at: <https://piximus.net/others/mexican-narcoculture&gt; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Bargent, J., 2014. ‘US Treasury Keeps Pressure On Sinaloa Cartel After ‘El Chapo’ Arrest’. InSight Crime. Available at: <https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/us-treasury-keeps-pressure-on-sinaloa-cartel-after-el-chapo-arrest/&gt; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Berenson, T., 2016. ‘Timeline Of El Chapo’s Major Escapes And Captures’. [online] Time. Available at: <http://time.com/4173454/el-chapo-capture-escape-timeline/&gt; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Davis, K., 2016. A Short History Of Mexican Drug Cartels. [online] sandiegouniontribune.com. Available at: <http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/border-baja-california/sd-me-prop64-sidebar-20161017-story.html&gt; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Lara, L., 2016. ‘Narco-Cultura’: Mexico’S Drug Slang Enters Dictionary’. Malay Mail. Available at: <https://www.malaymail.com/s/1178625/narco-cultura-mexicos-drug-slang-enters-dictionary&gt; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Lee, B. and Renwick, D., 2017. ‘Mexico’s Drug War’. Council on Foreign Relations. Available at: <https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/mexicos-drug-war&gt; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Murataya, R., Chacon, S. and Gonzalez, Z., 2013. ‘The relationship between Mexican drug trafficking organizations and corruption in the Mexican criminal justice and political systems: a review essay’. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 37(4), pp. 341-358.

Stewart, S., 2018. ‘Tracking Mexico’s Cartels in 2018.’ [online] Stratfor. Available at: <https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/tracking-mexicos-cartels-2018&gt; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Shirk, D. and Wallman, J., 2015. ‘Understanding Mexico’s Drug Violence’. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 59(8), pp.1348-1376.

Trejo, G. and Ley, S., 2017. ‘Why Did Drug Cartels Go to War in Mexico? Subnational Party Alternation, the Breakdown of Criminal Protection, and the Onset of Large-Scale Violence’. Comparative Political Studies 51(7), pp. 930-937

Tucker, D., 2018. ‘Mexico’s Most-Wanted: A Guide to The Drug Cartels’. BBC News. Available at: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-40480405&gt; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

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