Founded in 1989 by Héctor Palma, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán and Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada, the Sinaloa Cartel today stands as one of the most established transnational drug trafficking organizations. While it has carved out a presence in 15 of the 32 Mexican states, the cartel also expanded its operations into the United States, Europe, Asia and South America.
With El Chapo in prison, the cartel has been plagued by internal fighting between Zambada and three of El Chapo’s four sons, known as ‘Los Chapitos’.
The Drug Enforcement Administration views the Sinaloa Cartel as one of the top two criminal organizations along with its rival, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
The DEA said the Sinaloa Cartel ‘exports and distributes wholesale amounts of fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana in the United States by maintaining distribution hubs in various cities.’
How they get drugs into the US: ‘Illicit drugs distributed by the Sinaloa Cartel are primarily smuggled into the United States through crossing points located along the [south west border]. The cartel employs gatekeepers assigned to Ports Of Entry and controls Arizona and California area smuggling corridors into the United States.’
Jalisco New Generation Cartel
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel was once allied to the Sinaloa Cartel as El Chapo depended on its firepower to combat Los Zetas.
Commandeered by Nemesio ‘El Mencho’ Oseguera, the group set itself apart from other cartels in the country butchering its enemies and today is considered by the Mexican government as the most dangerous group in the country.
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel is spread out across 23 of the Mexico’s 32 states and currently finds itself at war with at least ten cartels.
The group has been known to have increased the power that its members have by purchasing military weapons and parts from the United States.
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel, according to the DEA, specializes ‘in manufacturing and distributing large amounts of fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine.’
How they get drugs into the US: ‘The CJNG smuggles illicit drugs into the United States by accessing various trafficking corridors in northern Mexico along the SWB including Tijuana, Juarez, and Nuevo Laredo. The CJNG also has influence over the busiest port in Mexico, the Port of Manzanillo, and utilizes that influence for the distribution of large quantities of drugs.’
For a while, the Beltrán-Leyva Organization [BLO] was born out of the Sinaloa Cartel and became one of the most powerful cartels in Mexico led by the Beltrán Leyva brothers: Marcos Arturo, Carlos, Alfredo, Mario Alberto and Héctor.
The Beltrán-Leyva Organization was involved in a deadly war with the Sinaloa Cartel after the brothers accused their cousin, El Chapo, of being responsible for the January 2008 arrest of Alfredo. The brothers retaliated by reportedly plotting the murder of El Chapo’s 22-year-old son, Édgar Guzmán, in May 2008.
Alfredo’s arrest sparked one of the worst periods in Mexico’s war on drugs as the BLO’s new ally, the Juaréz Cartel, went to war with the Sinaloa Cartel in Ciudad Juaréz, a border town across from Texas.
The BLO also expanded its might by going toe-to-toe with the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Cartel in the northeastern border city of Reynosa.
While the cartel remains viable today, the organization’s members over time split into 11 factions.
How they get drugs into the US: ‘BLO relies on its loose alliances with larger cartels for access to drug smuggling corridors along the [south west border].’
Los Zetas and the Cartel del Noreste [Northeast Cartel]
Los Zetas were created by Mexican military deserters who formed an alliance with the Gulf Cartel in 1999 and based its operations in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, across from Laredo, Texas. The group quickly carved out a named for itself through its savage killings. By 2010, Los Zetas split from the Gulf Cartel.
Los Zetas at one point dominated more cities across Mexico than the Sinaloa Cartel, with whom it clashed amidst a threat from the Gulf Cartel to eliminate it completely.
Like some of the other Mexican cartels, Los Zetas saw some of its members split and form their own groups.
Los Zetas role play in the drug trade is enforced by one of its factions, the Cartel del Noreste [Northeast Cartel]. Together, the criminal groups have set up its small, but lucrative, drug trade business into the Texas border cities of Laredo and Eagle Pass while controlling routes and turfs in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas.
How they get drugs into the US: ‘Members smuggle the majority of their illicit drugs through the [south west border] in the areas of Laredo, Texas; Eagle Pass, Texas; and the Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and parts of Tamaulipas.’
Operating in central Mexico, the Guerrero Unidos broke away from the Beltrán-Leyva Organization and formed an alliance with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel to traffic drugs into the United States and bring back its profits into Mexico.
The cartel is accused of being behind the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students, who were kidnapped by local police in Iguala, a city in the southern state of Guerrero.
How they get drugs into the US: ‘The cartel has a working partnership with the CJNG and uses the same transportation networks to move drug shipments into the United States and to return drug proceeds back to Mexico.’
The Gulf Cartel is considered to be one of the oldest active criminal organizations in Mexico and is believed to have close ties to other gangs in Europe, West Africa, Asia, Central America, South America, and the United States.
The organization started off by smuggling alcohol into the United States during the Prohibition Era. It was not until the 1980 that it got itself immersed into the drug trade.
The DEA believes the Gulf Cartel has been working closely with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel as it ships heroin and cocaine to the Texas border cities of McAllen and Brownsville.
How they get drugs into the US: ‘The Gulf Cartel focuses its drug trafficking activities on heroin and cocaine by transporting loads into the United States near the McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, areas.’
Juaréz Cartel and La Linea
The Juaréz Cartel cemented itself as one of the mayor players in the drug trade business back in the 1970s. It founder, Amado Carrillo, was known as ‘El Señor de los Cielos’ or ‘The Lord of the Skies’ due to the massive fleet of planes he owned to transport drugs, especially cocaine from Colombia and other countries in Latin America.
The cartel was once allied to El Chapo before that relationship fell apart after the notorious drug lord declined to pay the Juaréz Cartel for the right to use its drug smuggling routes.
The Juaréz Cartel has depended on its armed wing, La Línea, to transport heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas.
How they get drugs into the US: ‘These cartels’ greatest territorial influence is in the state of Chihuahua near the [south west border]. This area has profitable smuggling opportunities between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas.’
La Familia Michoacana
La Familia Michoacana was once linked to the Gulf Cartel before it went on its own in 2006.
Between 2009 and 2010, the cartel proposed to the Mexican government that it had plans of laying down its arms as long as its home state of Michoacán was granted protection. However, President Felipe Calderón shot down their offer, which led to the cartel becoming increasingly involved in the funding of political candidates.
La Familia Michoacana today maintains a relationship with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and other criminal groups as part of its drug smuggling operation.
How they get drugs into the US: ‘LFM has some ties to the CJNG and also works with other smaller groups to further the cartel’s drug trafficking activities.’
Just like Guerreros Unidos, Los Rojos was formed as an armed wing and broke away from the Beltrán-Leyva Organization.
According to a 2020 Congressional report, Los Rojos ‘operates in Guerrero and relies heavily on kidnapping and extortion for revenue as well as trafficking cocaine, although analysts dispute the scope of its involvement in the drug trade.’
How they get drugs into the US: ‘Los Rojos is involved in heroin trafficking’