Mexican drug cartels hit the headlines on a pretty regular basis, usually for some outrageously violent act or another. But if you only look at isolated incidents, you don't get the full picture. There were 20,766 murders in Mexico in 2016. Reported kidnappings jumped from 428 to 1,128 over the last decade. Most of those numbers are blamed on the work of the Mexican cartels. According to the 2015 Congressional Research Service report, more than 80,000 people were killed between 2006 and 2015 because of drug cartel violence.
The Mexican drug business originated along the Pacific Coast in the Sinaloa region for one simple reason -- the pot and the poppies grew there. Over time, the cartels grew, developing a kind of steal from the rich image in the public eye by using their riches to benefit local communities. As a PR strategy, it worked. When the Mexican government arrested El Chapo in 2014, the people of Sinaloa filled the streets to demonstrate for his release.
The Mexican military has been in the picture since 2007 when then-president Felipe Calderón decided to use troops against the cartels, but that seems only to have escalated the violence. Nowadays, a drug cartel map of Mexico would show all but a few small areas of the country under the influence of one cartel or another, which today number 8. In the end, there's one fact at the bottom of it all – the violence and chaos caused by cartel activities, including the mayhem inflicted on innocent bystanders, is largely fueled by US drug sales that are estimated between $19 and $29 billion every year. Here's a look at some of the lesser known, but still shocking, facts about the Mexican cartels.
15 Lethal Force
The Mexican cartels have world class weaponry and they're not afraid to use it on any target. In May of 2015, a drug lord in the state of Jalisco took down a military helicopter by firing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Authorities say that the presence of such military grade weapons has been known about for several years, but this incident represented the first time it had been used on a government helicopter, although not for long. In September 2016, the Knights Templar gang repeated the feat with an anti-tank missile. The helicopter flight was part of a military operation intended to kick off a government offensive against the Jalisco New Generation cartel or CJNG, a particularly violent newer group that thinks nothing of taking on federal troops. Like many newer cartels, it's a splinter group made up of members of other gangs that broke up after their leaders were killed. As part of their retaliation, the CJNG blew up gas stations, blockaded the roads in and out of town, and ambushed a military caravan, killing 15 people.
14 Prison Breaks
Joaquín Guzmán Loera aka El Chapo or Shorty, in English, managed to escape from a Mexican penitentiary not once but twice, on the way to prison in the US. The second time, he got out of Altiplano, Mexico’s most secure prison, by a tunnel constructed by other prisoners on the payroll -- one that measured over a mile long and was equipped with lights and ventilation. But, these are hardly the only high-profile cases of escape from a Mexican prison. In 2012, over 130 prisoners from a prison in Piedras Negras, near the Texas border, tunneled their way to freedom. In Apodaca in 2012, the Los Zetas cartel used prison guards on the payroll and a fight that killed 44 inmates as a diversion that allowed 30 prominent gang members to walk out the door. In 2009, 53 inmates from another prison escaped after they were handed over to a fake police escort by prison guards. Back in 2001, El Chapo is said to have broken out of the Puente Grande prison by hiding in a laundry cart as another prisoner pushed it outside.
13 Transnational Trade
Despite the splashy headlines about El Chapo and his incarceration in New York City, the drug cartel business in Mexico has continued to develop and become more diversified and sophisticated since its beginnings in the pot and heroin trade. Materials smuggled in from China are used to produce crystal meth at a growing number of labs across Mexico. The product is then shopped to customers all over the world. In response to dogged efforts by the Mexican army and other forces, the cartels have become smaller and more flexible and they have diversified in terms of their operations. Along with selling drugs to the US market, today's cartels also engage in kidnapping, extortion, counterfeiting, human trafficking, and other crimes. Newer groups operate in Europe and South America along with Mexico and Central America.
12 It's Tough To Be A Journalist
If you're a journalist in Mexico, it's probably best to stick to covering Lucha Libre wrestling or telenovelas and stay off the crime beat, or anything to do with politics, unions, and official corruption in general. As of March 19, 2017, 35 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 1992, and 30 of those murders remain unsolved. About 65 percent can be attributed directly to organized crime hits, but with the close connections between government, narcos, and the population at large, a definitive figure is hard to come up with. Whose money lies underneath those crooked land grabs? A great deal of government corruption is already associated with the cartels; drug money fuels so much that it's just part of business as usual. Hot spots include Oaxaca and Veracruz states, the latter being where 17 of those 34 murders took place.
11 Guiso And Making A Statement
Sometimes you watch so many Hollywood depictions of drug cartels and gun battles that you can forget some of this crazy stuff actually happens in real life. The vicious drug lord with a sadistic penchant for showy forms of murder isn't just a stock character, in other words. Miguel Angel Treviño Morales was the leader of Los Zetas until his arrest in July 2013. He helped develop the Los Zetas brand until they were so feared, rival gang members would wear their uniform to gain respect. Miguel, aka El 40 or Z-40, had a preference for killing his victims by guiso, which essentially means cookout or stew in Spanish. He'd burn them alive, in other words. The Los Zetas were also known for leaving body parts of their victims all over town. Los Zetas began as ex-military elite personnel, working as enforcers for the older Gulf Cartel until a mysterious falling out that sparked a round of violence in northeast Mexico in 2008.
10 Political Corruption
Such a spectacularly widespread criminal enterprise can't exist without friends in high places. The river of cash flowing into cartel coffers means they can afford a lot of politicians. Javier Duarte, the former governor of Veracruz state, took a government helicopter and went on the lam in October 2016 rather than face charges related to organized crime and money laundering. He's now wanted in 190 countries on an Interpol "red notice" international warrant. Along with turning a blind eye to growing drug cartel activities, including using Veracruz as a dumping ground for the bodies from drug violence, the former governor was allegedly a real treat on his own account. According to state employees and officials, money that was supposed to go to social programs went into his pockets instead, and he even ran a con that sold child cancer patients water instead of medicine. New governor Miguel Ángel Yunes is dealing with an increase of violence as the cartels battle over the power vacuum. And get this – Duarte is just one of a handful of former Mexican state governors currently on the run from American police.
9 From Drugs To Wheels
In a monopoly, once you run everything, the only way to make more money is to diversify. Tamaulipas state runs along the Texas border at the Gulf of Mexico, a busy threshold for trade both legal and illegal. It's also where some of the Mexican drug cartels' most creative business minds operate. Unique among the cartels – so far at least – the drug cartels in Tamaulipas have taken over some of the customs offices at border cities, and with them, the import and export of vehicles. Cars, ATVs, boats, tractors, and even tractor trailers are among the vehicles targeted. The scam began with charging extra "fees" on imports but quickly graduated to seizing the imported vehicles themselves. Complicit border officials will suggest that the parties "negotiate" a resolution – meaning more money of course. If the import agency doesn't want to play ball, the merchandise is destroyed. One company has actually ceased operating along the Tamaulipas-Texas border because of constant extortion.
8 Piedras Negras -- Prison For Profit
When news stories talk about prisons for profit, they generally mean a situation when prisons are owned by private companies and run as a for-profit business. The Los Zetas drug cartel actually used a prison to run drug trafficking operations in northern Mexico and turned it into what has been called a private death camp for torturing and killing rivals. According to Coahuila state prosecutors, the Zeta gang killed about 150 people using the prison facility. The bodies were either burned or dissolved in tanks of acid, then dumped in a nearby river. High ranking Zetas actually wore their own uniforms in the prison, including bullet-proof vests, and drove their own vehicles within the prison complex. The reign of terror is said to have lasted between 2009 and 2012.
7 People Disappear
In Mexico, more than 27,000 people have simply vanished from one day to the next since 2007. Government and military forces and agencies are often blamed, but the kidnappings and disappearances often take advantage of the Mexican cartels' various specialties in executing their operations. In an infamous incident in 2014, 43 student teachers were abducted and remain missing and presumed dead. The group had commandeered buses, hoping to head to Mexico City for the commemoration of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre. Police intercepted the buses and supposedly handed the students over to the cartel for execution. Army involvement has also been rumored. A cartel boss in charge of the Guerreros Unidos Cartel in the city of Iguala was charged for an unspecified role in the kidnapping and murders in 2016, along with 73 police officers.
6 Moving Cash In Bulk
In August 2016, border agents in San Diego seized $3 million in cash in what they called the largest money bust in the agency's history. The money was found in vacuum sealed bundles and simply packaged in boxes, and while it's the largest find, authorities believe it's a mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amounts of cash that pass over the border in reality. Once cartel drugs are transported and sold in the US, the cash profits have to eventually make their way back to Mexico. Trucks are often used to make the trip when it comes to bulk cash smuggling, due to the high volume of traffic between the two countries. While there's no specific breakdown for the Mexican cartels in particular, officials recorded over 4,000 bulk cash seizures totaling more than $350 million.
5 Stylish Money Laundering
When you make billions of dollars in illicit and undeclared cash, the problem becomes how you actually get to use it without raising red flags at a sudden influx of money. The Sinaloa cartel decided to use the garment and textile industry in the Los Angeles area along with the fact that there were free trade agreements with Colombia and other Latin American countries waiving tariffs on imported goods. The complex scheme involved so-called triangulation of merchandise, which essentially means passing goods made in non-free trade countries off as if they were. Specifically, the smugglers bought clothes and shoes made in Asia and then resold them in Mexico and Colombia as a US-made product. What the Colombian government noticed was a huge spike in tariff-exempt imports. When they were resold in Mexico and Colombia tariff-free, the profits were clean cash. During an investigation in Los Angeles in 2014, cash and property worth $140 million were seized.
4 Cuban Baseball Stars And Human Smuggling Rings
Because of the United States' restrictions on dealings with Cuba, Cuban baseball players have to establish a third country of residency -- i.e. neither Cuba nor the US -- in order to be signed an MLB contract. The cartels saw an opportunity, and in late 2016, a bizarre story began to unfold in the courts as federal prosecutors filed their case against two men said to be involved in a human smuggling case. Twenty Cuban baseball stars, including Chicago White Sox first baseman José Abreu and Miami Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, say they were kidnapped and extorted into paying millions to their smugglers who threatened them and their families with violence if they didn't comply. Los Angeles Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig is said to owe 20 percent of his ultra lucrative contract to a Miami gangster with ties to the cartel. The infamous Los Zetas cartel is said to be behind the lucrative human smuggling ring -- one that operated while MLB officials turned a blind eye.
In March 2017, the feared Los Zetas cartel took a page out of the ISIS terrorist book and released a beheading video. There are few better ways to instill terror in the minds of your enemies than with beheadings – dozens, hundreds of beheadings. So many that it becomes a problem to get rid of the remains. In March 2017, Mexican authorities found unmarked graves containing more than 250 skulls in the state of Veracruz. Situated along the Gulf of Mexico, Veracruz has been the scene of a turf war between the Los Zetas cartel, which traces its roots back to elite Mexican Army deserters of the 1990s, and the newer, and particularly vicious, Jalisco New Generation cartel. Jalisco New Generation is trying to take over the area, and there's also a new splinter group is forming, made up of former Zetas and other gang members jockeying for their piece of the pie in the Veracruz underworld. The growing body count took over entire areas of the state with the help of corrupt officials on the payroll. Veracruz State Prosecutor Jorge Winckler told local media, "Veracruz is an enormous grave."
2 The Autodefensas
What do you do when there is virtually no government presence, no police you can trust, and violent drug cartels take over your town? In Michoacán state, where the Knights Templar cartel has created a virtually lawless society, some citizens have decided to fight back. There are Autodefensas vigilante groups throughout Latin America, but in Michoacán, they fight both the police and the cartels alike. Still, as Cartel Land, a 2015 documentary, reveals, there are unanswered questions about the Autodefensas too. Where do they get their money? Under pressure from the government to legitimize the movement, one of the leaders went rogue and was later captured with a number of other dissidents. The Autodefensas, even as the rebranded and government sanctioned Rural Defense Corps, are also sometimes involved with meth labs, leading to the question -- is it just another kind of drug cartel in the end?
1 Tunnels Vs. Trump's Wall
President Trump has repeatedly made the promise of building a wall along the Mexican border both before and after his election as a way to stem both undocumented immigration and cross-border crime. But, a wall above ground isn't going to affect the cartel traffic that's already burrowing underground. In December 2016, Mexican authorities discovered a tunnel linking San Diego, with an entrance near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, to the Garita de Otay neighborhood in Tijuana. The tunnel was lit and equipped with railway tracks. The cartels have become engineering experts, using areas with favorable soil composition and structures like drainage networks may help to obscure their activities. About 185 tunnels between the US and Mexico were discovered between 1990 and March of 2016. The Sinaloa cartel is thought to have been the driving force behind the tunnel innovation as they first began to expand into Arizona 25 years ago.
Sources: CNN; Newsweek; The Guardian; The Atlantic; The Telegraph; The New Yorker.