Narcotrafficking Organizations in Mexico

By Alexandra Smith

The following list is incomplete because it is impossible to fully document the cartels operating in Mexico. The power and structures of cartels are constantly shifting. These cartels are merely the most prominent cartels at the time of writing.

The Sinaloa Cartel is Mexico’s most prominent, powerful, and long-lasting cartel. The Sinaloa cartel is based out of the western Mexican state of the same name, a home to trafficking operations since the early twentieth century due to its long Pacific coastline and mountainous terrain. The cartel dominated the early Mexican drug economy and formed a close relation with the PRI, Mexico’s ruling party during the one-party state period from the Mexican Revolution to 2000. Today, the cartel has reduced political influence due to the rise of multiple parties in the Mexican political system and the emergence of competing cartels. However, it remains incredibly powerful and operates across western Mexico and in cities on the US-Mexico border.[1] The cartel operates in 17 states and up to 50 countries.

The Tijuana Cartel or Arellano Felix Organization (AFO) is a trafficking organization operating on the US-Mexico border and functions as a “tollgate” organization. They profit off of charging taxes to other drug trafficking organizations moving drugs through plazas controlled by the AFO, especially in the border town of Tijuana. The AFO has been involved in an increasingly violent situation in Tijuana, with the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG competing for influence at the border crossing since 2015. Different factions within the AFO have emerged and its continued relevance is in flux.[2][3]

The Juarez Cartel is another cartel operating on the US-Mexico border and is involved in violent conflicts with the Sinaloa cartel. The Juarez Cartel originally worked with the Sinaloa Cartel and provided transportation and security for drugs produced elsewhere, including Colombian cocaine. While the Juarez cartel is based in Ciudad Juarez, it operates in twenty-one states. A rivalry with the Sinaloa cartel erupted in the early 2000s, leading Ciudad Juarez to become one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico since 2008.[4] The cartel primarily operates in Tijuana.

La Familia Michoacána and the Knights Templar are two competing cartels operating in the central state of Michoacán. La Familia emerged as an organization which advertised itself as a community defense organization, defending the state from national drug trafficking organizations. However, their actual origin was as a drug trafficking group aligned with the Zetas and they continued to be involved with the methamphetamine trade, among other synthetic drugs. The Knights Templar split from La Familia, also declaring a “commitment to social justice” and evangelical Christianity.[5] The Knights Templar largely won out in the conflict leading to the marginalization of La Familia, but both have been challenged by the vigilante autodefensas.

Los Zetas are one of the most well-known cartels, especially due to their reputation for public displays of violence. Los Zetas were formed by defectors from Mexican special operations and originally worked for the Gulf Cartel on the eastern coast of Mexico. They broke from the Gulf cartel and utilized an approach based on violently seizing territory across Mexico and Guatemala. However, the group has splintered since its rise to fame and no longer exists as a cohesive organization. Its splinters operate in different forms across its previous territories.[6] Today, the Zetas operate in Tamaulipas and the Gulf Coast states.

The Gulf Cartel is another long-lasting organization in Mexico, operating in the northeast of Mexico. The Gulf cartel was once quite powerful during the 1990s and early 2000s, and still exists despite a decline caused in part by the split by the Zetas and arrest of the cartel’s leader.[7] The cartel’s control over border cities like Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, and Reynosa allow it to continue to profit off of trafficking into the United States. The Gulf Cartel operates in Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and 11 other states across eastern Mexico.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) is a rising cartel in Central Mexico, which only emerged in 2010, after a fight over drug trafficking in Jalisco.[8] The CJNG has used extreme violence in their fight with the Zetas, claiming responsibility for a 2011 massacre of 35 in Veracruz, and in 2015, they killed 15 Mexican police officers in Jalisco.[9] The CJNG is believed to have assets of over $20 billion and they operate in 20 states across Mexico, making it one of the most powerful cartels.[10] Insight Crime reports that “according to authorities, the CJNG operates in at least in 22 states: Aguascalientes, Baja California Sur, Baja California, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Puebla, Querétaro, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosí, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Morelos, Nayarit, Guerrero, and Veracruz, plus Mexico City and the State of Mexico.”

Further Reading:

  1. For profiles of these groups and other smaller cartels, go to the groups section of the Mexico page on Insight Crime:
  2. For a map of where certain trafficking groups operate, see:
  3. A DEA report on which Mexican cartels sell drugs in American cities:
  4. For a collection of visualizations of drug trafficking routes through Mexico and the United States:





[5]  24.






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