The numbers are as staggering as seeing butchered bodies hanging from a highway overpass. According to BBC News, more than 77,000 people are estimated to have died between 2006 and 2012 in drug-related violence in Mexico. In a Stanford Review article entitled, “A Brewing Storm: Mexican Drug Cartels and the Growing Violence on Our Border,” statistics indicate a 300% increase in drug-related murders from 2007 to 2008. Mexican drug cartels are brutal, utilizing any means to achieve their ends, from beheadings and torture to human trafficking and mass murder. Rival cartels fight for control of territory and drug shipment routes; allegiances shift, bribes are made, former rivals band together to fight emerging groups only to splinter and wage war with one another again.
Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared a Reagan-style war on drugs and drug cartels, deploying the army to go after cartel kingpins. Mexico’s current President, Enrique Pena Nieto, is taking a different stance, tackling the violence on a local level; Nieto also announced that local and state authorities will no longer work directly with the FBI and DEA when it comes to sharing intelligence. Corruption has long been a problem within Mexican law enforcement and military, further complicating the country’s campaign to quell cartel violence. One thing is for certain: as long as there is a demand for drugs, cartels will be fighting over who is in charge of the supply. Here are 7 of Mexico’s most lethal drug cartels.
7 The Tijuana Cartel
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Tijuana Cartel, which was run by the Arellano Felix brothers, was one of the biggest and most formidable groups in Mexico. At the height of its power, the cartel infiltrated the Mexican law enforcement and judicial systems and controlled the transportation and distribution of multi-ton quantities of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. The cartel had a reputation for extreme violence, and in 1998 Ramon Arellano ordered a hit that killed 18 people in Baja, California. Since 2006, however, the Sinaloa Cartel has taken over much of the territory once controlled by the Tijuana group. While the Tijuana Cartel is still in operation, due to several deaths, arrests, internal conflicts, and the growing power of the Sinaloa, it has been reduced to a small group of scattered cells.
6 The “New” Juarez Cartel
Located across the U.S.-Mexican border from El Paso, Texas, Juarez has long been a major player in cocaine trafficking to the United States. Also known as the Vicente Carillo Fuentes Organization, the Juarez Cartel is said to have made a $200 million profit a week until the death of Amado Carillo Fuentes in 1997, which was the beginning of the group’s decline. In September 2011, Mexican Federal Police reported that the crime syndicate now goes by the name the “New Juarez Cartel.” It has an armed wing known as La Linea, a street gang known to decapitate rivals, mutilate their bodies and dump them in public places to instill panic and fear. The New Juarez Cartel’s main rival is the Sinaloa Cartel, which is now believed to control most of the drug activity in the city of Juarez. In 2012, 2,086 people were killed in gangland shootings and unsolved murders in Ciudad Juarez, according to CNN.
5 The Knights Templar
Drug cartels are in constant competition to prove who should be the most feared. The Knights Templar Cartel’s first victim was hanged over an overpass with a note claiming he was a kidnaper, instantly establishing the group’s reputation as a brutal and barbaric syndicate. The cartel took its name from the Templar Order of the Middle Ages, which protected Jerusalem, and according to journalist Ioan Grillo’s book, "El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency," the Knights Templar Cartel claims to be the protectors of Michoacan community.
The group formed in 2010 after the alleged death of Nazario Moreno, leader of the Cartel La Familia Michoacana. The Knights Templar announced itself by displaying more than 40 “narcomanteles,” or drug-cartel banners, across the state that said: “Our commitment is to safeguard order, avoid robberies, kidnapping, extortion, and to shield the state from rival organization.” According to Ioan Grillo, this heroic outlaw, Robin Hood approach to crime and community has led to members of the Knights Templar Cartel being treated like celebrities. The cartel controls operations in Michoacan, Morelos, and the state of Mexico. Their most recent feud is against the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which is trying to gain control of Michoacan.
4 Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or Mata Zetas
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel was founded in 2009. According to International Business Times, three men were found killed in an abandoned truck with a message that said, “We are the new group Mata Zetas and we are against kidnapping and extortion, and we will fight them in all states for a cleaner Mexico.” In 2010, Jalisco New Generation upped the rhetoric and declared war on all other Mexican cartels, stating its intention to take over Guadalajara; the group currently fights Los Zetas for control of the city, as well as for Jalisco and Veracruz.
In 2011, the Jalsico New Generation Cartel took responsibility for what was dubbed the “Veracruz Massacre.” Thirty-five corpses were discovered on a dirt track near a shopping mall. The cartel also took responsibility for 67 killings the following day. In response to the violence and executions the Mexican government launched a military-led campaign called Operation Veracruz Seguro (Operation Safe Veracruz).
3 The Gulf Cartel
Founded in 1930 by smuggler Juan Nepomunceno Guerra, the Gulf Cartel is recognized as the oldest criminal organization in Mexico. According to the DEA, “the Gulf Cartel is responsible for the transportation of multi-ton quantities of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana from Columbia, Guatemala, Panama, and Mexico to the United States.” The organization is also involved in money laundering, bribery, extortion, and arms trafficking.
After the split with Los Zetas (it is unclear which of the two cartels started the conflict that led to the breakup), the Gulf Cartel’s power has been somewhat weakened. It has suffered the loss of important leaders and infighting has resulted in several deaths and arrests in Mexico and the United States. Nevertheless, the InterAmerican Security Watch states that the Gulf Cartel still maintains control of its primary smuggling corridors into the U.S.
2 Los Zetas
According to the U.S. government, “Los Zetas is the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico.” In 1999, commandos from the Mexican army’s elite forces deserted their ranks, established Los Zetas, and started collaborating with the Gulf Cartel. The name Los Zetas comes from the tactical radio call sign for commanders in the Mexican army.
By 2010, Los Zetas had broken away from the Gulf Cartel, and according to Ralph Reyes, DEA chief for Mexico and Central America, “assumed the role of being the No. 1 organization for the majority of the homicides, the narcotic-related homicides, the beheadings, the kidnappings, and the extortions that take place in Mexico.” From the San Fernando massacre that killed 193 people to the 2008 Morelia grenade attack that killed eight and left more than 100 injured, Los Zetas have carried out several high-profile attacks on civilians and other gang members. Today, Los Zetas has 11 Mexican states under its control, and they continue to train new recruits through several campaigns.
1 The Sinaloa Cartel
Also known as the Guzman-Loera organization, Pacific Cartel, and Blood Alliance, the Sinaloa Cartel is the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world, according to U.S. Intelligence. The U.S. Attorney General claims the Sinaloa Cartel is responsible for importing more than 200 tons of cocaine into the U.S. between 1990 and 2008. While the Sinaloa Cartel was responsible for leaving 14 severed heads in iceboxes outside the mayor’s office in the city of Nuevo Laredo in 2012, El Chapo, the cartel’s leader, is said to prefer the “bribe over the bullet.”
Until 2008, the Sinaloa Cartel was mainly associated with territories in the “Golden Triangle,” which include the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua. However, that year the syndicate moved in on Juarez and began a bloody turf war with the local cartel led by Vincente Carillo Fuentes. The violence resulted in over 5,000 deaths, and despite former Mexican President Felipe Calderon sending in troops to stop the violence, Juarez became known as the most dangerous city in the world. The Sinaloa Cartel controls 17 Mexican states.