Mexico's cartels: Behind the drug war

Mexico's most wanted drug lord may be behind bars, but the capture of Joaquin Guzman could spark new violence in the war waged by the country's notorious and violent cartels. Here's a look at the major criminal organizations active in the Mexican drug trade.

Captured drug lord Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman partly responsible for expansion of Sinaloa cartel

Mexico's most wanted drug lord may be behind bars, but the capture of Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman is unlikely to stem the flow of drugs and could spark new violence in the war waged by the country's notorious and violent cartels.

Before his capture in the resort town of Mazatlan, Guzman had somehow eluded the many authorities who had been targeting the man considered by some to be the most powerful drug trafficker in the world.

Estimates vary on the death toll Mexico's war on drugs has taken since then president Felipe Calderon kicked off a crackdown in December 2006, but some observers put it as high 80,000.

During his time on the run, Guzman was partly responsible for the expansion of his Sinaloa cartel into territories controlled by rival groups, according to Stratfor, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm.

While Sinaloa is the most powerful cartel, arrests of leaders in other organizations have shaken up the landscape.

"The balkanization of Mexican organized crime has shifted the focus of all criminal organizations from planning new incursions to addressing existing challenges within their territory," Stratfor's Mexican security analyst Tristan Reed wrote in October 2013.

Here's a look at the Sinaloa cartel, and other criminal organizations vying for control in the Mexican drug trade.

Sinaloa Federation

Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman, the head of Mexico's most powerful Sinaloa cartel, was captured in the beach resort town of Mazatlan. (Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)
Named 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, the Sinaloa Federation has been Mexico's largest and most powerful cartel. It has up to 100,000 operatives who are active in at least 17 states, according to InSight Crime, a non-profit investigative organization.

The cartel is an alliance of several powerful drug lords that operates in dozens of countries. Guzman, the cartel's head, was one of the most-wanted drug barons in the world.

He escaped from a high-security Mexican prison in 2001 and eluded capture for 13 years until he was caught on Feb. 22, 2014, in an early-morning raid by Mexican marines in the Pacific coast resort town of Mazatlan. 

His capture came two months after other arrests targeting the wing of the cartel led by Ismael (El Mayo) Zambada Garcia.

While the Sinaloa cartel is the most expansive and organized cartel now operating in Mexico, it has come under increasing pressure from rival groups, particularly Los Zetas, InSight says.

Los Zetas

The former armed wing of the Gulf cartel, the Zetas cartel is considered the most violent and ruthless criminal organization in Mexico. It controls much of Mexico's Gulf Coast, including the Yucatan Peninsula, and has access to trafficking routes from Central America.

Click here for a larger version. (Stratfor)
Made up of former special forces troops, the Zetas are highly organized, well-armed and known for their 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 in a mass grave in Tamaulipas state near the U.S. border.

Authorities have targeted the Zetas' ability to communicate and have arrested or killed top leaders, including Miguel (Z-40) Trevino Morales, who was captured in July 2013.

The Zetas are also thought to be involved in extortion, migrant smuggling, human trafficking and other crimes, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Gulf cartel

A once-powerful and storied organization, the Gulf cartel has lost influence since the 2004 arrest of its leader, Osiel Cardenas Guillen.

Based in the northeastern 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.

Infighting and the arrest of several of its leaders who sought refuge in the U.S. as a result of the internal power struggle have divided and weakened the group. Los Rojos, one of the factions duelling for control of the organization and formerly an armed wing responsible for providing security for its leaders, is believed to have the upper hand.

The cartel's leadership suffered a blow, Stratfor says, when its most powerful leader, Mario (El Pelon) Ramirez Trevino, was arrested on Aug. 17, 2013.

Juarez cartel

The Juarez cartel operates in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, a coveted trafficking point that earned the reputation of being the most violent place in Mexico.

The Juarez cartel's bloody rivalry with the Sinaloa Federation led to almost 6,500 deaths in the city of 1.4 million between December 2006 and December 2010, 19 per cent of all homicides in Mexico in that period.

More recently, the power of the Juarez cartel, also known as the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization after its leader, has diminished. According to the Daily Telegraph, its leadership is unclear after the arrest in September 2013 of leader Alberto Carrillo Fuentes.

The cartel was hurt by the arrival of a controversial new police chief, Julian Leyzaola, a retired lieutenant-colonel who took over the Ciudad Juarez police department in March 2011. Leyzaola was credited with reducing violence in Tijuana but was also singled out by organizations such as Amnesty International for his heavy-handed tactics.

La Familia Michoacan and Knights Templar

Zetas drug cartel leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales was captured in July 2013 by Mexican marines who intercepted a pickup truck with $2 million in cash in the countryside outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo, which has long served as the Zetas' base of operations. (Mexican navy/Associated Press)
The Familia cartel, based in the northeastern state of Michoacan, has been usurped by one of its splinter factions, the Knights Templar, or Caballeros Templarios.

Most of its leaders crossed over to the new group, leaving La Familia a shadow of its former self. The original cartel was 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 signalling 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, the Knights Templar and a weaker splinter group that retained the Familia name.

The group has also clashed with armed civilian vigilante groups, who have seized control of several towns from the cartel, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Tijuana cartel (Arellano Felix organization)

Once a powerful player in Mexico's drug trade, the Tijuana cartel, founded by the Arellano Felix clan, has been diminished since the arrests and assassinations of the five brothers who once led the organization and has lost control of the drug smuggling, extortion and kidnapping racket in the strategic northwestern border town of Tijuana.

It is now led by a nephew of the brothers, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, known as El Ingeniero, "the Engineer."

After the arrest of the last-remaining brother, Eduardo Arellano Felix, in 2008, the cartel 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. The group's influence continued to decline and took another blow when in November 2011 its chief enforcer, Juan Francisco Sillas Rocha, was arrested. 

The eldest brother of the Arellano Felix clan, Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix, was shot to death by a gunman wearing a clown costume in October 2013.

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, but with Arturo's death and arrests of other top cartel members, the group was severely weakened.

An internal power struggle ensued between Hector and  Edgar Valdez Villareal, a Texas-born lieutenant in the organization known as La Barbie for his good looks, and the group eventually disintegrated. 

Hector Beltran-Leyva formed his own splinter group, the Pacifico Sur cartel, which allied itself with the Zetas.

Villareal was arrested on drug trafficking and other charges in August 2010, Several of his successors have also been arrested. The remaining Beltran-Levya members dispersed among smaller criminal groups and the Sinaloa Federation.


Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for over a decade, including in the Washington, D.C., bureau. Prior to that, she was at the Montreal Gazette and worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and the Czech Republic.

With files from The Associated Press, Stratfor, InSight