IN DEPTH: The cartels behind Mexico's drug war

By Kazi Stastna, CBC News
Posted: Aug 28, 2011 9:06 PM ET
Last Updated: Aug 28, 2011 9:29 PM ET

Although a specific drug cartel has not as yet been implicated in the recent arson attack on a Monterrey casino that killed 52 people, many observers suspect the incident is a product of the bloody turf wars and extortion rackets involving Mexico's notorious drug cartels.

The ruthless battles among competing cartels and between the cartels and the government forces trying to take them down have claimed at least 40,000 lives since 2006, the year that Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, launched a crackdown against the cartels that many say has only increased the violence. In 2010 alone, the bloodiest year to date, more than 15,000 people were killed in drug-related violence.

Although there are many areas of Mexico where cartels are not active, in the states and cities they do control, their reach is vast. They not only employ local gangs as enforcers but exert control over police, the military and politicians. Mayors, governors, journalists and police officers have all fallen victim to the cartels' particularly brutal brand of intimidation and violence.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon addresses the media in Mexico City on Aug. 26, 2011. His critics say his vehement pursuit of drug cartels has fueled the violence.Ariel Gutierrez/Mexico Presidential Palace/Handout/Reuters

What's more, the cartels have branched out from drug trafficking in recent years and are involved in numerous other criminal enterprises, including kidnapping, counterfeiting, human-smuggling and business extortion of the kind authorities suspect may have been behind the attack at the Monterrey casino, which had been hit twice before the Aug. 26 incident.

With a presidential election on the horizon in 2012, the pressure is on Calderon to curb the violence and rethink the strategy he set in motion in 2006. Back then, the president set about dismantling the local police forces he felt had been corrupted by the cartels and brought in tens of thousands of his own federal troops and police to pursue the drug lords. Some say this only led to more violence, as the cartels were now fighting not only each other but federal forces as well, and more and more civilians were getting caught in the crossfire.

Calderon has also been criticized for his tactic of going after the high-profile heads of the cartels, which often provokes violent power struggles within the organizations that breeds more killing and violence.

Mexico a player in global drug trade

Drug production and trafficking in Mexico go back decades, but its role as a supplier has grown considerably in the 2000s, as has the control Mexican cartels wield over supply routes from Colombia and other Central and South American countries. The UN reported in its 2010 World Drug Report that by 2008, Mexico was the third-largest source of opium after Afghanistan and Burma. As the drug trade has grown, so has the number of cartels that want a piece of it. Many of the old family clans that controlled trafficking in the 1980s and 90s have lost the old guard and splintered into smaller criminal groups, and the gentlemen's rules they followed went out the window as fights over territory became increasingly violent.

Much of Mexico's drug trade is driven by U.S. demand. It is the main foreign supplier of methamphetamine and marijuana sold in the U.S. and the main transit route for the country's cocaine and heroin. The U.S., in turn, is the primary supplier of arms to the Mexican cartels. About 70 per cent of the firearms recovered at crime scenes in Mexico in 2009-10 were from the U.S., according to a June 2011 U.S. Senate report. The Mexican government's own statistics reveal that almost one-third of all drug-related homicides occur in the six states that border the U.S.

Given those facts, the pressure has increased on U.S. authorities to help Mexico fight its drug problem.

Earlier this year, the U.S. began flying unarmed drones over Mexican territory to obtain images of drug-production facilities and smuggling routes, and it has also deployed manned aircraft to eavesdrop on cartel communications. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have begun working more closely with their Mexican counterparts, even allowing them to launch clandestine operations against the cartels from U.S. territory.

Mexico's network of drug cartels is nebulous and complex, with organizations merging, splintering and shifting alliances in their quest to control drug-trafficking routes. Below is a rough overview of some of the major groups involved in the country's drug trade, although there are numerous other affiliate groups and smaller players.

Sinaloa cartel

Joaquin Guzman, the leader of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, in an undated photo provided by the Mexican federal prosecutor's office in January 2011. Handout/Procuraduria General de la Republica/ReutersNamed after the state on Mexico's Pacific coast that has a long history of drug trafficking and where most of the country's cartels originated, this is Mexico's largest and most powerful cartel. It is an alliance of several powerful drug lords that operates in dozens of countries. The cartel's head is the country's most-wanted drug baron, Joaquin "El Chapo (Shorty)" Guzman, who escaped from a high-security prison in 2001 and has eluded capture ever since. The cartel operates on a large scale, as was shown in July 2011 when police discovered a 120-hectare Sinaloa marijuana plantation in the state of Baja California. One of its top leaders, Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, was killed by the army in July 2010. The cartel is known for buying off government and military officials. Some suspect it has ties to the governing party and as a result gets favourable treatment from justice officials and law enforcement in return for providing incriminating information about its competitors.

Gulf cartel

A once-powerful and storied cartel that has lost influence since the 2004 arrest of its leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. Based in the eastern state of Tamaulipas on the Gulf of Mexico coast, it has been waging turf wars against its former armed wing, the Zetas, in that state as well as in two other northern border states, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila. The Zetas split from the cartel in 2010 and are now one of Mexico's most powerful criminal groups. Its fight with the Zetas has forced the Gulf cartel into a strategic alliance with its sworn enemy, Sinaloa, with whom it fought brutally over control of Tamaulipas in 2004-05, as well as with former rivals La Familia.

Los Zetas

The former armed wing of the Gulf cartel, it is considered the most violent and ruthless criminal organization in Mexico. Made up of former special forces troops, it is highly organized, well armed and equipped, and known for its brutal tactics, which include beheadings, torture and indiscriminate slaughter. An example of the latter is the August 2010 killing of 72 migrants blamed on the Zetas. The bodies of the migrants were found dumped in a mass grave in Tamaulipas state near the U.S. border. Some suspect Los Zetas were also behind the Monterrey casino attack. The group is known to have influence over security forces, which has enabled it to carry out brazen prison breaks and attacks on police stations and other high-profile government targets. It controls much of the Gulf coast and has access to trafficking routes from Central America. Is allied with Beltran-Leyva Organization.

Juarez cartel

Operates in the northern border town of Ciudad Juarez, a coveted trafficking point and the most violent city in the country. Its bloody rivalry with the Sinaloa cartel has led to almost 6,500 deaths in Ciudad Juarez between December 2006 and December 2010, which accounted for 19 per cent of all homicides in that period. The cartel is allied with the Zetas and Beltran-Leyva and is sometimes called the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization after its leader. Like other cartels, it uses smaller local gangs to control territory and secure drug shipments. Its main enforcer arm on the Mexican side of the border is known as La Linea and has carried out operations with the Zetas in Chihuahua state in attempt to rout Sinaloa from the area.

Beltran-Leyva Organization

Established by the Beltran-Leyva brothers who used to head up security for the Sinaloa cartel, the group split from Sinaloa in 2008 after the arrest of Alfredo Beltran Leyva and allied itself with the Zetas, setting off a violent turf war in Sinaloa state. Leader Arturo Beltran-Leyva was killed in a navy operation in 2009 and was succeeded by the middle brother, Hector Beltran-Leyva, who still heads the group. The death of Arturo and arrests of other top cartel members have severely weakened the group. Middle sibling Hector Beltran-Leyva currently heads the group.

Tijuana cartel (Arellano Felix Organization)

Tijuana cartel leader Eduardo Arellano Felix after his arrest in October 2008. Secretaria de Seguridad Publica Federal/Handout/ReutersOnce a powerful player in Mexico's drug trade, the cartel, founded by the Arellano Felix clan, has been diminished since the arrests and assassinations of the five brothers who once led the organization. It is now led by a nephew of the brothers, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, known as El Ingeniero. After the arrest of the last brother, Eduardo Arellano Felix, in 2008, the group split into two factions, allying, respectively, with Sinaloa, the clan's long-standing enemies, and the Zetas. A bloody round of infighting ensued and ended only after the head of one faction, Eduardo Teodoro Garcia Simental, was arrested in January 2010. Currently, the reunited cartel is fighting to retain control of its extortion and kidnapping racket in the face of Sinaloa's incursions into the strategic northwestern border town of Tijuana.

La Familia Michoacan

Active in Calderon's home state of Michoacan, this cartel is known for its bizarre brand of cult-like religious ideology. It began as an anti-drug vigilante group before moving into the drug trade itself, famously signaling its entry into the business in 2006 by throwing five severed heads onto a nightclub floor. Its fight with the Zetas over territory is what set off the government crackdown against the cartels in 2006. It was the main supplier of methamphetamine before its charismatic leader, Nazario Moreno González, known as El Mas Loco ("The Craziest One"), was killed by police in December 2010 and Sinaloa stepped in. Following his death, the group split into two factions, one called the Knights Templar, and a weaker splinter group that retained the Familia name. The head of the latter, Jose Mendez Vargas, was arrested in June 2011, which reinforced the Knights Templar as Its fight with the Zetas over territory is what set off the government crackdown against the cartels in 2006. the dominant faction. ... rtels.html