Drug Cartels and Their Business in Mexico

By Alexandra Smith

The conflict between the Mexican state, narcotraffickers, and other non-state actors has led to a crisis which has seen hundreds of thousands of murders and tens of thousands of disappearances since 2006.[1] A variety of cartels operate in Mexico, ranging from well-known organizations operating across state and national borders to small, local groups who inevitably work with larger cartels. These cartels profit off of the drug trade, but they supplement their income through extortion and relationships with corrupt government officials, as well other, often legal, business ventures.

The most prominent cartel operating in Mexico remains the Sinaloa Cartel, based in the mountainous west coast state of the same name. The Sinaloa cartel thrived through a strong relationship with the PRI, the political party which dominated all levels of Mexico’s government since the Mexican revolution until the 90s when they began losing local elections. However, with Mexico’s democratization in 2000, the Sinaloa cartel has lost many of its government connections, allowing other cartels to compete, driving up levels of violence.

One of the Sinaloa cartel’s biggest rivals is currently the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG), based in Central Mexico. The CJNG and other small groups “rely on a wider range of criminal activities to offset some of the losses from international drug trafficking” such as kidnapping and extortion.[2] This demonstrates how competition between cartels encourages smaller groups to act out violently, both for profit and to intimidate rival organizations. Another example of the range of activities of Mexican cartels is the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, a local cartel which operates in Guanajuato, which engages in oil theft and extortion of small business owners.[3] The cartel is an example how local groups still act in violent ways which impact civilians, even outside of the regions most well-known for drug trafficking.

Insight Crime describes a number of well-known cartels, “The Gulf Cartel, the Beltrán Leyva Organization, the Zetas, Familia Michoacana, the Juárez Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel and the Knights Templar” as being in decline.[4] All of these cartels rose from regional to national prominence before eventually declining, some originally as subcontractors to other groups. Familia Michoacana is an example of a drug trafficking group which initially described itself as a community defense organization, but then developed into a narcotrafficking group. These groups owe their decline to a variety reasons, all of them violent: splits in leadership leading to violent confrontations, the rise of vigilantism in the case of La Familia, or the expansion of rival cartels.  

While they have been diversifying their activities in recent years, drug trafficking organizations in Mexico still gain the majority of their incomes from selling drugs to American consumers. The American demand for drugs has been historically unlimited and the price for drugs like cocaine is much higher in the United States than in Colombia or Mexico.[5]

One new source of income for the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG is fentanyl. Fentanyl is often laced into other drugs trafficked by the cartels, such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines as has played a major role in the opioid epidemic.[6] A report by Insight Crime demonstrates that “the fentanyl trade requires vast networks of smaller subcontractors who specialize in importing, producing, and transporting synthetic drugs.” These characteristics are demonstrative of how the drug trade in Mexico functions: multiple groups work together to profit off of trends in American drug consumption.

The business of Mexican drug cartels is constantly shifting due to changes in American drug markets and different state responses to cartel activity. They also have complex relations with each other, sometimes subcontracting work to each other, at other times erupting into violent conflicts to secure markets. These conflicts impact all members of the community, as profit-driven violence entangles bystanders or cartels turn to extortion and kidnapping to supplement their incomes. Many cartels are regional, while some operate at a national or international level, but their interconnectedness cannot be ignored.  

Further Reading:

  1. For the latest news regarding Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations, see: https://www.insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/mexico/  
  2. For a map of where certain trafficking groups operate, see: https://www.stratfor.com/sites/default/files/styles/wv_small/public/mexico-cartel-map-all-011419_0.png?itok=t0WJ1ytI
  3. A DEA report on which Mexican cartels sell drugs in American cities: https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2018-07/dir06515.pdf
  4. For a collection of visualizations of drug trafficking routes through Mexico and the United States: https://www.storybench.org/visualizing-mexicos-drug-cartels-roundup-maps/

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/06/mexico-drug-war-missing-estimate

[2] https://www.insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/mexico/   

[3] https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/mexico-oil-thieves-guanajuato-extortion/

[4] https://www.insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/mexico/

[5] https://psmag.com/social-justice/drug-cartels-are-too-big-to-fail-or-jail

[6] https://www.insightcrime.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Fentanyl-Report-InSight-Crime-19-02-11.pdf

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