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Beittel (2017) states the drug trafficking organizations are more fragmented and more competitive than in the past. What does this mean and what are the consequences if it is true? Please respond to the question in 400 to 500 words. Use quotes and paraphrase appropriately, backing up your views and opinions with literature. Make sure you cite correctly according to APA Writing Style format (6



Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug
Trafficking Organizations
June S. Beittel
Analyst in Latin American Affairs
April 25, 2017
Congressional Research Service
Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations
The notorious drug trafficking kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is now imprisoned in the
United States awaiting trial, following the Mexican government’s decision to extradite him to the
United States on January 19, 2017, the day before President Trump took office. Guzmán is
charged with operating a continuing criminal enterprise and conducting drug-related crimes as the
purported leader of the Mexican criminal syndicate commonly known as the Sinaloa cartel. The
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) maintains that the Sinaloa cartel has the widest
reach into U.S. cities of any transnational criminal organization. In November 2016, in its
National Drug Threat Assessment, the DEA stated that Mexican drug trafficking groups are
working to expand their presence, particularly in the heroin markets inside the United States.
Over the years, Mexico’s criminal groups have trafficked heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine,
marijuana, and increasingly the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have been in constant flux. By some accounts, in
2006, there were four dominant DTOs: the Tijuana/Arellano Felix organization (AFO), the
Sinaloa cartel, the Juárez/Vicente Carillo Fuentes organization (CFO), and the Gulf cartel. Since
then, the more stable large organizations have fractured. In recent years, the DEA has identified
the following organizations as dominant: Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Tijuana/AFO, Juárez/CFO, Beltrán
Leyva, Gulf, and La Familia Michoacana. In some sense, these organizations might be viewed as
the “traditional” DTOs, although the 7 organizations appear to have fragmented to at least 9 (or as
many as 20) major organizations. New crime groups have emerged since the December 2012
inauguration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has faced an increasingly complex
crime situation. The major DTOs and new crime groups have furthered their expansion into such
illicit activity as extortion, kidnapping for ransom, and oil syphoning, posing a governance
challenge to President Peña Nieto as daunting as that faced by his predecessors.
Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) initiated an aggressive campaign against
Mexico’s drug traffickers that was a defining policy of his government and one that the DTOs
violently resisted. Operations to eliminate DTO leaders sparked organizational change, which led
to significant instability among the groups and continued violence. Such violence appears to be
rising again in Mexico. In January 2017, the country registered more homicides than in any
January since the government began to release national crime data in the late 1980s. In a single
weekend in April 2017, more than 35 died in what was assumed to be drug trafficking-related
Although the Mexican government no longer estimates organized crime-related homicides, some
independent analysts have claimed that murders linked to organized crime may have exceeded
100,000 since 2006, when President Calderón began his campaign against the DTOs. Mexico’s
government reported that the annual number of all homicides in Mexico declined after Calderón
left office in 2012 by about 16% in 2013 and 15% in 2014, only to rise in 2015 and 2016. In
2016, the Mexican government reported a 22% increase in all homicides to 22,932, almost
reaching the high point of nearly 23,000 murders in 2011, Mexico’s most violent year.
The 115th Congress remains concerned about security conditions inside Mexico and the illicit
drug trade. The Mexican DTOs are the major wholesalers of illegal drugs in the United States and
are increasingly gaining control of U.S. retail-level distribution. This report examines how the
organized crime landscape has been significantly altered by fragmentation and how the
organizational shape-shifting continues. For more background, see CRS Report R41349, U.S.Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond, and CRS In Focus IF10400,
Heroin Production in Mexico and U.S. Policy.
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Background ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 1
Congressional Concerns …………………………………………………………………………………………………… 3
Crime Situation in Mexico ……………………………………………………………………………………………….. 5
Background on Drug Trafficking in Mexico ……………………………………………………………………….. 6
Evolution of Mexico’s Major Drug Trafficking Organizations ………………………………………………. 9
Nine Major DTOs ……………………………………………………………………………………………………… 9
Tijuana/Arellano Felix Organization (AFO) …………………………………………………………… 12
Sinaloa DTO ……………………………………………………………………………………………………… 13
Juárez/Carrillo Fuentes Organization…………………………………………………………………….. 15
Gulf DTO ………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 16
Los Zetas …………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 17
Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) ………………………………………………………………………. 19
La Familia Michoacana (LFM) …………………………………………………………………………….. 20
Knights Templar …………………………………………………………………………………………………. 21
Cartel Jalisco-New Generation (CJNG) …………………………………………………………………. 22
DTO Fragmentation, Competition, and Diversification …………………………………………………. 24
Outlook ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… 28
Figure 1. Map of Mexico ………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 5
Figure 2. 2015 Map of DTO Areas of Dominant Influence Developed by the U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration ………………………………………………………………………………………….11
Figure 3. Mexico Cartel Map for 2016 ……………………………………………………………………………… 26
Table 1. Drug Trafficking Organizations Typology …………………………………………………………….. 27
Author Contact Information ……………………………………………………………………………………………. 29
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Mexico’s stability is of critical importance to the United States, and the nature and intensity of
violence in Mexico has been of particular concern to the U.S. Congress. Mexico shares a nearly
2,000-mile border with the United States, and the two countries have close trade, cultural, and
demographic ties. In addition to U.S. concern about this strategic partner and close neighbor,
policymakers have expressed concern that the violence in Mexico could “spill over” into U.S.
border states (or further inland) despite beefed-up security measures. Although that concern
seems to have declined somewhat, the appearance of large mass graves in March 2017 in the
Mexican state of Veracruz, including one holding the remains of 250 victims, has turned attention
back to the violent landscape facing some Mexican citizens, especially in parts of the country
used to produce and traffic drugs. In March 2017, three journalists were killed, with at least two
of the three clearly identified with covering the crime beat or government corruption.
Mexico’s brutal drug trafficking-related violence has been dramatically punctuated by
beheadings, public hanging of corpses, car bombs, and murders of dozens of journalists and
government officials. Beyond these brazen crimes, violence has spread from the border with the
United States to Mexico’s interior, flaring in the Pacific states of Michoacán and Guerrero in
recent years, in the border state of Tamaulipas, and in Chihuahua and Baja California, where
Mexico’s largest border-region cities of Tijuana and Juárez are located and where violence spiked
between 2009 and 2011 to war-zone levels. Organized crime groups have splintered and
diversified their crime activities, turning to extortion, kidnapping, auto theft, human smuggling,
retail drug sales, and other illicit enterprises. These crimes often are described as more “parasitic”
for local populations inside Mexico. Estimates of Mexico’s disappeared or missing also have
raised concerns as unmarked graves are uncovered.
Addressing the question of whether violence (as measured by the number of intentional
homicides) is again on the rise, the Justice in Mexico project at the University of San Diego
reports that total homicides in Mexico increased by 7% between 2014 and 2015.1 Mexico’s
National Public Security System reported that total homicides increased by 22% in 2016 over the
totals for 2015, rising to close to 23,000 intentional homicides. In 2016, 25 of Mexico’s 31 states
saw increases in homicides.2 In addition, several analysts have raised concerns about severe
human rights violations involving Mexican military and police forces, which have at times
colluded with Mexico’s criminal groups.
Due to casualty estimates being reported differently by the Mexican government than by the
media outlets that track the violence, some debate exists on exactly how many have perished.3
This report conveys government data, but the data have not consistently been reported promptly
or completely. For example, the government of President Felipe Calderón released tallies of
“organized-crime related” homicides through September 2011. For a time, President Enrique
Peña Nieto’s Administration also issued such estimates, but it stopped in mid-2013. Although
precise tallies diverged, the trend during President Calderón’s tenure was a sharp increase in the
Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodriguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk, Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis
Through 2015, Justice in Mexico Project, University of San Diego, April 2016.
“Informe de Víctimas de Homicidio, Secuestro y Extorsión 2016,” Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de
Seguridad Pública, January 20, 2017; “Homocidios Aumentan 22% en 2016 Respecto a 2015; Guerrero y Colima con
la mayor tasa,” Animal Politico, January 24, 2017.
The Mexican news organizations Reforma and Milenio also keep a running tally of “narco-executions.” For 2014,
Reforma reported only 6,400 such killings, the lowest it has reported since 2008, whereas Milenio reported 7,993
organized crime-related murders. Heinle, Ferreira, and Shirk, April 2016.
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number of homicides related to organized crime through 2011, when the number started a slight
decline before Calderón left office in late 2012. Of total intentional homicides since 2006, many
analysts maintain that 80,000-100,000 were organized crime-related killings.
Violence is an intrinsic feature of the trade in illicit drugs. Violence is used by traffickers to settle
disputes, and a credible threat of violence maintains employee discipline and a semblance of
order with suppliers, creditors, and buyers.4 This type of drug trafficking-related violence has
occurred routinely and intermittently in U.S. cities since the early 1980s. The violence now
associated with drug trafficking organizations in Mexico is of an entirely different scale. In
Mexico, the violence is not only associated with resolving disputes or maintaining discipline but
also has been directed toward the government, political candidates, and the news media. Some
observers note that the excesses of some of Mexico’s violence might even be considered
exceptional by the typical standards of organized crime.5
Yet, Mexico’s homicide rate is not exceptional in the region, where many countries are plagued
by high rates of violent crime, such as in the northern triangle countries of Central America—El
Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Mexico’s quick rise in killings associated with the drug war
is concerning to many observers, however, as is violence in six other countries in the region:
Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela. According to a recent
analysis, one in four murders in the world annually now occurs in these seven countries
(including Mexico).6 University of San Diego researchers observe that although Mexico’s
homicide rates are in the middle when compared to homicide rates in other Western Hemisphere
countries, the rapid rise in both Mexico’s rate of homicides and its absolute number of homicides
is unmatched.7
President Calderón made an aggressive campaign against crime groups, especially the large drug
trafficking organizations (DTOs), the central focus of his Administration’s policy. He sent several
thousand Mexican military troops and federal police to combat the organizations in drug
trafficking “hot spots” around the country. His government made some dramatic and wellpublicized arrests, but few of those captured kingpins were effectively prosecuted. Between 2007
and 2012, as part of much closer U.S.-Mexican security cooperation, the Mexican government
significantly increased extraditions to the United States, with majority of the suspects wanted by
the U.S. government on drug trafficking and related charges. The number of extraditions peaked
in 2012 and has declined somewhat since President Peña Nieto took office.8 Another result of this
“militarized” strategy was an increase in accusations of human rights violations against the
Mexican military, which was largely untrained in domestic policing.
When President Peña Nieto took office in December 2012, he had indicated he would take a new
direction in his security policy: more focused on reducing criminal violence that affects civilians
and businesses and less oriented toward removing the leadership of the large DTOs. His then4
Robert J. MacCoun and Peter Reuter, Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Times, Vices and Places (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2001); Kevin Jack Riley, Snow Job? The War Against International Cocaine Trafficking
(New Brunswick: Transactional Publishers, 1996).
See, for example, Vanda Felbab-Brown, Peña Nieto’s Piñata: The Promise and Pitfalls of Mexico’s New Security
Policy Against Organized Crime, Brookings Institution, February 2013.
Robert Muggah and Ilona Scabo de Carvalho, “Latin America’s Murder Epidemic: How to Stop the Killing,” Foreign
Affairs, March 22, 2017.
Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodriguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk, Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis
Through 2016, Justice in Mexico Project, University of San Diego, March 2017.
See CRS Insight IN10326, “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Extradition: What’s Next for U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation?,
by Clare Ribando Seelke, June S. Beittel, and Liana W. Rosen.
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attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam, said in 2012 that Mexico faced challenges from some 60
to 80 crime groups operating in the country whose proliferation he attributed to the Calderón
government’s kingpin strategy.9 However, despite Peña Nieto’s stated commitment to shift the
focus of the government’s strategy, analysts have noted a significant continuity between his and
Calderón’s security approaches.10 The Peña Nieto government has continued the military and
federal police deployments used by the Calderón government to combat the DTOs, but it has
recentralized control over security in Mexico’s interior ministry.
President Peña Nieto streamlined cooperation with the United States under the Merida Initiative,
which began during President Calderón’s term. The Mérida Initiative, a bilateral anticrime
assistance package launched in 2008, initially focused on providing Mexico with hardware, such
as planes, scanners, and other equipment, to combat the DTOs. The $2.6 billion effort (through
2016) shifted in recent years to focus on police and judicial reform, including training at the local
and state level, southern border enhancements, and prevention policies. Thus far, about $1.6
billion of the Mérida Initiative funding has been delivered. After some reorganization of
cooperation efforts, the Peña Nieto government continued the Mérida programs. 11
In 2014, the Peña Nieto Administration implemented another security strategy element promised
during his presidential campaign: standing up a national militarized police force, or gendarmarie.
The scope of the force implemented in August 2014 was significantly scaled back from its
original proposed size of 40,000 to 5,000 officers who were added to the federal police force. The
new force had the mission of protecting citizens from crime and shielding their economic and
industrial activities from harm, such as defending vital petroleum infrastructure. Some observers
maintain that the gendarmerie’s distinct purpose has not been clarified or followed. President
Peña Nieto’s focus on the prevention of crime, also launched with significant emphasis early in
his six-year term, has been scaled back and recently cut due to low oil prices, which stifled
economic growth and caused the government to impose significant budget austerity measures.
Congressional Concerns
According to the National Drug Threat Assessment published by the U.S. Department of Justice
in November 2016, the potential harm from Mexico’s criminal groups—or transnational criminal
organizations, as the report identifies them—is “using transportation routes and distribution cells”
under their control to move illicit drugs into the United States and their constant effort to “expand
their presence in the United States, particularly in heroin markets.”12 The report maintains that the
organizations with the greatest impact are the Sinaloa, Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG),
Juárez cartel, Gulf cartel, Los Zetas, and Beltran-Leyva organization.13
Patrick Corcoran, “Mexico Has 80 Drug Cartels: Attorney General,” In Sight Crime: Organized Crime in the
Americas, December 20, 2012.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, Changing the Game or Dropping the Ball? Mexico’s Security and Anti-Crime Strategy Under
President Peña Nieto, Latin American Initiative, Brookings, November 2014. Velbab-Brown maintains that the
government of Peña Nieto “has largely slipped into many of the same policies of President Felipe Calderón.”
For more background, see CRS In Focus IF10160, The Rule of Law in Mexico and the Mérida Initiative, by Clare
Ribando Seelke, and CRS Report R41349, U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond, by
Clare Ribando Seelke and Kristin Finklea.
U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment,
Summary, DEA-DCT-DIR-001-17, November 2016.
U.S. Department of State, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), vol. 1, March 2017. Hereinafter,
INCSR, 2017.
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For more than a decade, Members of Congress convened numerous hearings dealing with the
violence in Mexico, U.S. foreign assistance, and border security issues. Congressional concern
heightened after U.S. consulate staff and security personnel working in Mexico came under
attack, with some killed or wounded, allegedly with corrupt police support.14 Following a 2010
car bombing allegedly set by a drug trafficking organization in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua (killing
four), additional car bombs attributed to the DTOs have been exploded in border states and
elsewhere. Occasional use of car bombs, grenades, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers—such
as the one used to bring down a Mexican army helicopter in May 2015—continue to raise
concerns that some Mexican drug traffickers may be adopting insurgent or terrorist techniques.
Congress has expressed concern over the violence and sought to provide oversight on U.S.Mexican security cooperation. The 115th Congress is likely to continue to evaluate how the
Mexican government is combating the illicit drug trade, working to reduce related violence, and
tracking the effects of drug trafficking and violence challenges on the security of both the United
States and Mexico. Going forward, some uncertainty has arisen due to tensions between the
Trump Administration and the Mexican government regarding other aspects of the U.S.-Mexican
C. Archibold and Karla Zabludovsky, “Mexico Detains 12 Officers in Attack on Americans in Embassy Vehicle,”
New York Times, August 28, 2012; Michael Weissenstein and Olga R. Rodriguez, “Mexican Cops Detained in Shooting
of US Government Employees that Highlights Police Problems,” Associated Press, August 27, 2012.
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Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations
Figure 1. Map of Mexico
Source: Congressional Research Service (CRS).
Crime Situation in Mexico
The splintering of the large DTOs into competing factions and gangs of different sizes took place
over several years. The development of these different crime groups, ranging in scope from
transnational criminal organizations to small local mafias with certain trafficking or other crime
specialties, has made the crime situation even more diffuse and the groups’ criminal behavior
harder to eradicate, according to some observers. The large DTOs, which tended to be
hierarchical, often bound by familial ties, and led by hard-to-capture cartel kingpins, have been
replaced by flatter, more nimble organizations that tend to be loosely networked. Far more
common in the present crime group formation is the outsourcing of certain aspects of trafficking.
The various smaller organizations resist the imposition of norms to limit violence. The growth of
rivalries among a greater number of organized crime “players” has produced continued violence,
albeit in some cases these players are “less able to threaten the state and less endowed with
impunity.”15 However, even the larger organizations (Sinaloa, for example) that have adopted a
cellular structure still may attempt to protect their leadership, as in the 2015 escape orchestrated
Patrick Corcoran, “Mexico Government Report Points to Ongoing Criminal Fragmentation,” In Sight Crime:
Organized Crime in the Americas, April 14, 2015.
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for the world’s most-wanted drug kingpin, “El Chapo” Guzmán, through a mile-long tunnel from
a maximum-security prison.
The scope of the violence generated by Mexican crime groups has been difficult to measure due
to restricted reporting by the government and attempts by crime groups to mislead the public. The
criminal actors sometimes publicize their crimes in garish displays intended to intimidate their
rivals, the public, or security forces, or they post the criminal acts on the Internet. Conversely, the
DTOs may seek to mask their crimes by indicating that other actors or cartels, such as a
competitor, are responsible. Furthermore, some shoot-outs simply are not reported as a result of
media self-censorship or because the bodies disappear.16 One example is the reported death of a
leader of the Knights Templar, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, who was reported dead in 2010, but no
body was recovered. Rumors of his survival persisted and were confirmed in 2014, when he was
killed in a gun battle with Mexican security forces.17 (For more on the Knights Templar, see
“Knights Templar” section, below.)
Forced disappearances in Mexico have become a growing concern, and efforts to tabulate an
accurate count of the missing or disappeared have been limited, a problem that is exacerbated by
underreporting. The government continues to release widely varying estimates of the number of
disappeared people in Mexico and the percentage of those who are missing due to force and
possible homicide. In addition, bodies turn up in mass graves, as in the well-known case of the 43
disappeared students in Iguala, Guerrero, where the Mexican police, the victims’ families, and
international investigators searching for the students’ remains found scores of unmarked mass
graves containing bodies that previously had not been counted.18 In the Gulf Coast state of
Veracruz, in mid-March 2017, a vast mass grave was unearthed. It contained some 250 skulls and
other remains, some of which were found to be years old. Estimates of the number of disappeared
in Veracruz during the term of recently arrested former Governor Javier Duarte, who was in office
from 2010 to 2016, exceed 5,000.19
Background on Drug Trafficking in Mexico
Drug trafficking organizations have operated in Mexico for more than a century. The DTOs can
be described as global businesses with forward and backward linkages for managing supply and
distribution in many countries. As businesses, they are concerned with bringing their product to
market in the most efficient way to maximize their profits. The Mexican DTOs are the major
wholesalers of illegal drugs in the United States and are increasingly gaining control of U.S.
retail-level distribution through alliances with U.S. gangs. Their operations, however, are
markedly less violent in the United States than in Mexico, despite their reported presence in
multiple U.S. jurisdictions.20 The DTOs use the tools of bribery and violence, which are
Christopher Sherman, “Drug War Death Tolls a Guess Without Bodies,” Associated Press, March 26, 2013.
Ioan Grillo, Gangster Warlords (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016).
James Bargent, “2014: A Record Year for Disappearances in Mexico,” In Sight Crime: Organized Crime in the
Americas, November 20, 2014.
Patrick J.McDonnell and Cecilia Sanchez, “A Mother who Dug in a Mexican Mass Grave to Find the ‘Disappeared’
Finally Learns her Son’s Fate,” Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2017; “Mexico Violence: Skulls Found in a New
Veracruz Mass Grave,” BBC News, March 20, 2017.
The National Drug Threat Assessment, February 2010, states, “Direct violence similar to the violence occurring
among major DTOs in Mexico is rare in the United States.” For a discussion of why the violence has not spread into
the United States, see CRS Report R41075, Southwest Border Violence: Issues in Identifying and Measuring Spillover
Violence, by Kristin Finklea.
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complementary. Violence is used to discipline employees, enforce transactions, limit the entry of
competitors, and coerce. Bribery and corruption help to neutralize government action against the
DTOs, ensure impunity, and facilitate smooth operations.
The proceeds of drug sales (either laundered or as cash smuggled back to Mexico) are used in
part to corrupt U.S. and Mexican border officials,21 Mexican law enforcement, security forces,
and public officials either to ignore DTO activities or to actively support and protect DTOs.
Mexican DTOs advance their operations through widespread corruption; when corruption fails to
achieve cooperation and acquiescence, violence is the ready alternative.
Police corruption has been so
extensive that law enforcement
officials corrupted or infiltrated
by the DTOs and other criminal
groups sometimes carry out their
violent assignments. Purges of
Mexico’s municipal, state, and
federal police have not contained
the problem.
The relationship of Mexico’s drug
traffickers to the government and
to one another is now a rapidly
evolving picture, and any current
snapshot (such as the one
provided in this report) must be
continually adjusted. In the early
20th century, Mexico was a source
of marijuana and heroin to the
United States, and by the 1940s,
Mexican drug smugglers were
notorious in the United States.
The growth and entrenchment of
Mexico’s drug trafficking
networks occurred during a period
of one-party rule in Mexico by the
Institutional Revolutionary Party
Corruption in Law Enforcement, the Military, and
Political High Office with Links to the DTOs
Arrests of police and other public officials accused of cooperating with the
drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) rarely have been followed by
convictions, although a few prominent cases involving official corruption
have achieved results.
Mexico’s military, especially the Mexican Army, has been accused of torture
and extrajudicial killings in its internal security activities, such as the
massacre in July 2014 of some 22 people in Tlatlaya, Mexico, resulting in the
arrest of several soldiers, all of whom were acquitted except one. With
regard to complaints about security forces’ use of torture, the alleged
perpetrators are virtually guaranteed impunity; only 0.5% of the 4,000
complaints of torture since 2006 reviewed by Mexico’s attorney general
have resulted in conviction.22
In January 2015, the government reported that more than 90 people were
detained and charged for their alleged involvement in the Iguala student
disappearances case in Guerrero in late 2014.23 In May 2015, Iguala’s deputy
police chief was arrested and identified as a mastermind of the decision to
turn the students over to the drug cartel that the government originally
alleged had incinerated the students’ bodies.24 In 2016, the Iguala police
chief, who had been in hiding since 2014, was arrested.
When “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped in 2015 from the federal maximumsecurity prison Altiplano, scores of Mexican prison personnel were arrested
as likely collaborators. Several analysts suggested that Guzmán may have
received assistance from the highest levels of government. Ultimately,
Antiplano’s warden was among those fired.25
Some analysts have identified Veracruz, a thin state along the Gulf of Mexico
as a case study of corruption and the growing influence of the drug cartels
and criminal organizations. Former Governor Javier Duarte (2010-2016)
became a fugitive in early 2016 after possibly defrauding the state of some
$2.5 billion for his own enrichment.26
For further discussion of corruption of U.S. and Mexican officials, see Loren Riesenfeld, “Mexico Cartels Recruiting
US Border Agents: Inspector General,” InSight Crime, April 16, 2015; CRS Report R41349, U.S.-Mexican Security
Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond, by Clare Ribando Seelke and Kristin Finklea.
Azam Ahmed, “Citizens’ Rights at Risk in a Militarizing Mexico,” New York Times, March 17, 2017.
Randal C. Archibold, “Mexico Official Declares Missing Students Dead,” New York Times, January 28, 2015.
Juan Diego Quesada, “Mexican Police Capture One of the Masterminds Behind Iguala Massacre,” El Pais, May 8,
“Mexico Says Officials Must Have Helped Drug Lord Guzman Escape,” Reuters, July 13, 2015; “México Dice que
El Chapo Necesitó ‘la Complicidad del Personal” de la Cárcel,” Univision, July 13, 2015, at
“Jose de Cordoba and Juan Montes, “Mexico’s States of Corruption—A Vanished Governor and Near-empty
Coffers,” Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2017. See also International Crisis Group, Veracruz: Fixing Mexico’s State of
Terror, Latin America Report No. 61, February 28, 2017.
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(PRI), which governed for 71 years. During that period, the government was centralized and
hierarchical, and, to a large degree, it tolerated and protected some drug production and
trafficking in certain regions of the country, even though the PRI government did not generally
tolerate crime.27
According to numerous accounts, for many years the Mexican government pursued an overall
policy of accommodation. Under this system, arrests and eradication of drug crops took place, but
due to the effects of widespread corruption the system was “characterized by a working
relationship between Mexican authorities and drug lords” through the 1990s.28
The system’s stability began to fray in the 1990s as Mexican political power decentralized and the
push toward democratic pluralism began, first at the local level and then nationally with the
election of the National Action Party (PAN) candidate, Vicente Fox, as president in 2000.29 The
process of democratization upended the equilibrium that had developed between state actors
(such as the Federal Security Directorate, which oversaw domestic security from 1947 to 1985)
and organized crime. No longer were certain officials able to ensure the impunity of drug
traffickers to the same degree and to regulate competition among Mexican DTOs for drug
trafficking routes, or plazas. To a large extent, DTO violence directed at the government appears
to be an attempt to reestablish impunity, while the inter-cartel violence seems to be an attempt to
reestablish dominance over specific drug trafficking plazas. The intra-DTO violence (or violence
inside the organizations) reflects a reaction to suspected betrayals and the competition to succeed
killed or arrested leaders.
Before this political development, an important transition of Mexico’s role in the international
drug trade took place during the 1980s and early 1990s. As Colombian DTOs were forcibly
broken up, Mexican traffickers gradually took over the highly profitable traffic in cocaine to the
United States. Intense enforcement efforts of the U.S. government led to the shutdown of the
traditional trafficking route used by the Colombians through the Caribbean. As Colombian DTOs
lost this route, they increasingly subcontracted the trafficking of cocaine produced in the Andean
region to the Mexican DTOs, which they paid in cocaine rather than cash. These already-strong
Mexican organizations gradually took over the cocaine trafficking business, evolving from being
mere couriers for the Colombians to being the wholesalers they are today. As Mexico’s DTOs
rose to dominate the U.S. drug markets in the 1990s, the business became even more lucrative.
This shift raised the stakes, which encouraged the use of violence in Mexico to protect and
promote market share. The violent struggle between DTOs over strategic routes and warehouses
where drugs are consolidated before entering the United States reflects these higher stakes.
Today, the major Mexican DTOs are polydrug, handling more than one type of drug, although
they may specialize in the production or trafficking of specific products. According to the U.S
State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) covering 2016,
Mexico is a major producer of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine destined for the United
States. It is also the main trafficking route for U.S.-bound cocaine from the major supply
countries of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.30 The west coast state of Sinaloa, which has a long
coastline and difficult-to-access areas favorable for drug cultivation, is the heartland of Mexico’s
Astorga and Shirk, Drug Trafficking Organizations and Counter-Drug Strategies, p. 5.
Francisco E. Gonzalez, “Mexico’s Drug Wars Get Brutal,” Current History, February 2009.
Shannon O’Neil, “The Real War in Mexico: How Democracy Can Defeat the Drug Cartels,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 88,
no. 4 (July/August 2009).
INCSR, 2017.
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Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations
drug trade. Marijuana and poppy cultivation has flourished in this state for decades. 31 It has been
the source of Mexico’s most notorious and successful drug traffickers.
In the INCSR published in March 2017, the U.S. State Department reports coca bush cultivation
and cocaine production in Colombia has risen sharply, with the U.S. government estimating for
2016 that Colombia produced 710 metric tons of pure cocaine. Cocaine of Colombian origin
supplies about 90% of the U.S. market, and most of it is trafficked through Mexico. In 2015,
according to the National Drug Threat Assessment, Mexico produced about 80% of the heroin
seized in the United States, and Mexico has become a producer of a potent synthetic opioid,
fentanyl, which can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin.32 The Mexican government eradicates
both opium poppy (from which heroin is derived) and cannabis, and it increased its eradication
efforts of both plant-based drugs in 2016. According to the INCSR, Mexico seized 26.5 metric
tons of methamphetamine and 10.2 metric tons of cocaine from April 2014 to September 2015. In
addition, Mexican authorities seized 272 clandestine drug laboratories.
Evolution of Mexico’s Major Drug
Trafficking Organizations
The DTOs have been in constant flux in recent years.33 By some accounts, when President
Calderón came to office in December 2006, there were four dominant DTOs: the
Tijuana/Arellano Felix organization (AFO), the Sinaloa cartel, the Juárez/Vicente Carillo Fuentes
organization (CFO), and the Gulf cartel.
Since then, the more stable large organizations that existed in the earlier years of the Calderón
Administration have fractured into many more groups. For several years, the U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA) identified the following organizations as dominant: Sinaloa,
Los Zetas, Tijuana/AFO, Juárez/CFO, Beltrán Leyva, Gulf, and La Familia Michoacana. In some
sense these might be viewed as the “traditional” DTOs. However, many analysts suggest that
those 7 groups now seem to have fragmented to between 9 and as many as 20 major
organizations. Today, fragmentation, or “balkanization,” of the major crime groups has been
accompanied by many groups’ diversification into other types of criminal activity. The following
section will focus on nine DTOs whose current status illuminates the great fluidity of all the
DTOs in Mexico as they face new challenges from competition and changing market dynamics.
Nine Major DTOs
Reconfiguration of the major DTOs—often called transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs,
due to their diversification into other criminal businesses—preceded the fragmentation that is so
rampant today. The Gulf cartel, based in northeastern Mexico, had a long history of dominance in
terms of power and profits, with the zenith of its power in the early 2000s. However, the Gulf
The region where Sinaloa comes together with the states of Chihuahua and Durango is a drug-growing area
sometimes called Mexico’s “Golden Triangle” after the productive area of Southeast Asia by the same name. In this
region, according to press reports, a third of the population is estimated to make their living from the illicit drug trade.
U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment,
DEA-DCT-DIR-001-17, November 2016.
See Patrick Corcoran, “How Mexico’s Underworld Became Violent,” In Sight Crime: Organized Crime in the
Americas, April 2, 2013. The article maintains that “the activities and organization of the criminal groups operating in
the clandestine industry have been in a state of constant flux. That flux, which continues today, lies at the heart of
Mexico’s violence.”
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cartel’s enforcers—Los Zetas, who were organized from highly trained Mexican military
deserters—split to form a separate DTO and turned against their former employers, engaging in a
hyper-violent competition for territory.
The well-established Sinaloa DTO, with roots in western Mexico, has fought brutally for
increased control of routes through the border states of Chihuahua and Baja California, with the
goal of remaining the dominant DTO in the country. Sinaloa has a more decentralized structure of
loosely linked smaller organizations, which has been susceptible to conflict when units break
away. Nevertheless, the decentralized structure has enabled it to be quite adaptable in the highly
competitive and unstable environment that now prevails.34
Sinaloa survived the arrest of its billionaire founder Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2014. The
federal operation to capture and detain Guzmán, which gained support from U.S. intelligence,
was viewed as a major victory for the Peña Nieto government. Somewhat surprisingly, the
legendary kingpin’s arrest did not spawn a visible power struggle within the cartel’s hierarchy, as
many observers had anticipated. His escape in July 2015 followed by his rearrest in January 2016,
however, raised speculation that his role in the Sinaloa cartel might have become more as a
figurehead than functional leader.
The Mexican government’s decision to extradite Guzmán to the United States, executed on
January 19, 2017, appears to have sparked violent competition from a competing cartel, which
split from Sinaloa, the Cartel Jalisco-New Generation (CJNG). Over 2016 and the early months
of 2017, CJNG’s quick rise and a possible power struggle inside of Sinaloa between El Chapo’s
sons and a successor to their father, a longtime associate known as “El Licenciado,” or Dámaso
López Núñez, reportedly caused increasing violence.35
In the Pacific Southwest, La Familia Michoacana—a DTO once based in state of Michoacán and
influential in surrounding states—split apart in early 2011. It eventually declined in importance as
its successor, the Knights Templar, grew in prominence in the region known as the tierra caliente
of Michoácan, Guerrero, and in parts of neighboring states Colima and Jalisco (see Figure 2). At
the same time, CJNG rose to prominence between 2013 and 2015 and is now deemed by many
analysts to be a major Mexican cartel. CJNG has thrived with the decline of its enemy, the
Knights Templar, which was targeted by the Mexican government in 2014. CJNG has reportedly
expanded its influence to some 14 Mexican states in 2016.36
From open-source research, there is more available information about the seven “traditional”
DTOs (and their successors mentioned above). Current information about the array of new
regional and local crime groups, numbering more than 45 groups, is more difficult to assess. The
once-coherent organizations and their successors are still operating, both in conflict with one
another and at times working in collaboration. A brief sketch follows of each of these nine major
organizations, some of which are portrayed in the DEA map in Figure 2. (Note: the DEA has not
released a new map since April 2015; that map is shown below.)
Oscar Becerra, “Traffic Report–Battling Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel,” Jane’s Information Group, May 7, 2010. The
author describes the networked structure: “The Sinaloa Cartel is not a strictly vertical and hierarchical structure, but
instead is a complex organization containing a number of semi-autonomous groups.”
Anabel Hernández, “The Successor to El Chapo: Dámaso López Núñez.” InSight Crime, March 13, 2017.
Luis Alonso Perez, “Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel – New Generation: From Extinction to World Domination,” InSight
Crime and Animal Politico, December 26, 2016.
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Figure 2. 2015 Map of DTO Areas of Dominant Influence Developed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
Source: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), April 2015.
Notes: DEA uses the term “cartel” in place of drug trafficking organization (DTO). The Knights Templar, discussed in the text of the report, is labeled in Spanish as Los
Caballeros Templarios.
Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations
Tijuana/Arellano Felix Organization (AFO)
The AFO is a regional “tollgate” organization that historically has controlled the drug smuggling
route between Baja California (Mexico) to southern California.37 It is based in the border city of
Tijuana. One of the founders of modern Mexican DTOs, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, a former
police officer from Sinaloa, created a network that included the Arellano Felix family and
numerous other DTO leaders (such as Rafael Caro Quintero, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, and
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman). The seven “Arellano Felix” brothers and four sisters inherited the
AFO from their uncle, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, after his arrest in 1989 for the murder of
DEA Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena.38
The AFO was once one of the two dominant DTOs in Mexico, infamous for brutally controlling
the drug trade in Tijuana in the 1990s and early 2000s.39 The other was the Juárez DTO, also
known as the Carrillo Fuentes Organization. The Mexican government and U.S. authorities took
vigorous enforcement action against the AFO in the early years of the 2000s, with the arrests and
killings of the five brothers involved in the drug trade—the last of whom was captured in 2008.
In 2008, Tijuana became one of the most violent cities in Mexico. That year, the AFO split into
two competing factions when Eduardo Teodoro “El Teo” Garcia Simental, an AFO lieutenant,
broke from Fernando “El Ingeniero” Sanchez Arellano (the nephew of the Arellano Felix brothers
who had taken over the management of the DTO). Garcia Simental formed another faction of the
AFO, reportedly allied with the Sinaloa DTO.40 Further contributing to the escalation in violence,
other DTOs sought to gain control of the profitable Tijuana/Baja California-San Diego/California
plaza in the wake of the power vacuum left by the earlier arrests of the AFO’s key players.
Some observers believe that the 2010 arrest of Garcia Simental created a vacuum for the Sinaloa
DTO to gain control of the Tijuana/San Diego smuggling corridor.41 Despite its weakened state,
the AFO appears to have maintained control of the plaza through an agreement made between
Sanchez Arellano and the Sinaloa DTO’s leadership, in which Sinaloa and other trafficking
groups pay a fee to use the plaza.42 Some analysts credit the relative peace in Tijuana as a law
enforcement success, but it is unclear how large of a role policing strategy has played.
John Bailey, “Drug Trafficking Organizations and Democratic Governance,” in The Politics of Crime in Mexico:
Democratic Governance in a Security Trap (Boulder: FirstForum Press, 2014), p. 121. For an explanation of a tollgate
cartel or DTO, see Table 1.
Special Agent Camarena was an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent working in Mexico who
was kidnapped, tortured, and killed in 1985. The Guadalajara-based Felix Gallardo network broke up in the wake of the
investigation of its role in the murder.
Mark Stevenson, “Mexico Arrests Suspected Drug Trafficker Named in US Indictment,” Associated Press, October
24, 2013.
Steven Dudley, “Who Controls Tijuana?” InSight Crime, May 3, 2011. Sanchez Arellano, nephew of the founding
Arellano Felix brothers, took control in 2006 after the arrest of his uncle, Javier Arellano Felix.
E. Eduardo Castillo and Elliot Spagat, “Mexico Arrests Leader of Tijuana Drug Cartel,” Associated Press, June 24,
Stratfor, Mexico Security Memo: Torreon Leader Arrested, Violence in Tijuana, April 24, 2013, at
http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/mexico-security-memo-torreon-leader-arrested-violence-tijuana#axzz37Bb5rDDg. In
2013, Nathan Jones at the Baker Institute for Public Policy asserted that the Sinaloa-AFO agreement allows those allied
with the Sinaloa DTO, such as the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, or otherwise not affiliated with Los Zetas to also
use the plaza. See “Explaining the Slight Uptick in Violence in Tijuana” for more information at
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Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations
In 2013, the DEA identified Sanchez Arellano as one of the six most influential traffickers in the
region.43 Sanchez Arellano’s mother, Enedina Arellano Felix, who is trained as an accountant,
reportedly took charge following her son’s arrest in 2014. It remains unclear if the AFO retains
enough power through its own trafficking and other crimes to continue to operate as a tollgate
cartel. Violence in Tijuana rose to more than 100 murders a month in December 2016 and in
January and February 2017; the uptick in violence has been attributed to Sinaloa battling its new
challenger, CJNG.44 CJNG apparently has taken an interest in both local drug trafficking inside
Tijuana and cross-border trafficking into the United States. As in other parts of Mexico, the role
of the newly powerful CJNG organization may determine the nature of the area’s DTO terrain in
coming years.45
Sinaloa DTO
Sinaloa, described as Mexico’s oldest and most established DTO, is comprised of a network of
smaller organizations. By some estimates, it had grown to control 40%-60% of the country’s drug
trade by 2012.46 Some estimates place Sinaloa’s annual earnings at around $3 billion.47 Sinaloa
reportedly has a substantial presence in some 50 countries, including throughout the Americas,
Europe, West Africa, and Southeast Asia. The Sinaloa DTO controls crime in at least five
Mexican states—Baja California; Sonora; and the “Golden Triangle” of Sinaloa, Durango, and
Chihuahua—but it has been challenged in 2016 and early 2017 in some of those states. The DEA
has noted Sinaloa’s dominance on Mexico’s west coast and its primary use of crossing points into
the United States for drugs, including heroin, in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and West
The Sinaloa DTO retains the Sinaloa core that descended from the Felix Gallardo network. Early
in 2008, a federation dominated by the Sinaloa cartel (which included the Beltrán Leyva
organization and the Juárez DTO) broke apart. In 2011, Sinaloa expanded operations into Mexico
City and into Durango, Guerrero, and Michoacán states, while continuing its push into territories
in both Baja California and Chihuahua once controlled by the Tijuana and Juárez DTOs. The
Sinaloa DTO has a reputation for organizational prowess and eclectic strategies for eluding
authorities. The organization has utilized tunnels, catapults, submarines, go-fast boats and semisubmersibles. These innovative techniques have supplemented more traditional methods, such as
air transport and container ships, to traffic narcotics coming from South America or produced in
Mexico into the United States.48
The Sinaloa DTO suffered significant blows to its top leadership in the first half of 2014. The
February 2014 arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the cartel’s storied leader and the most43
Op. cit. Castillo and Spagat, 2014.
Christopher Woody, “Mexico is Settling into a Violent Status Quo,” Houston Chronicle, March 21, 2017.
Sandra Dibble, “New Group Fuels Tijuana’s Increased Drug Violence,” San Diego Union Tribune, February 13,
2016; Christopher Woody, “Tijuana’s Record Body Count Is a Sign That Cartel Warfare is Returning to Mexico,”
Business Insider, December 15, 2016.
Patrick Radden Keefe, “Cocaine Incorporated,” New York Times, June 15, 2012; “Mexico: Security,” Jane’s Sentinel
Security Assessment: Central America and the Caribbean, March 25, 2015. The Jane’s security assessment stated in
2015 that “Sinaloa cartel is still the most powerful criminal organization in Mexico and the only one that can operate
trafficking activities nationwide.”
Natalie Jennings, “’El Chapo,’ by the Numbers,” Washington Post, February 26, 2014.
Patrick Radden Keefe, “Cocaine Incorporated,” New York Times, June 15, 2012, pp. 4-5. The head of the Sinaloa
DTO, “El Chapo” Guzman, has been credited for Sinaloa’s reputation for innovation. See also Catherine E. Shoichet,
“Tunnel Vision: A Look Inside El Chapo’s Underground Hideaways,” CNN, July 14, 2015.
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wanted criminal in Mexico, by Mexican Marines in the tourist city of Mazatlán was seen as an
important symbolic victory for the Peña Nieto Administration. Guzmán’s arrest diminished
criticism that the Peña Nieto government had been too soft on DTO leaders, and it demonstrated
ongoing support from U.S. intelligence in the capture of top traffickers. Some authorities
expressed fear of increased violence by rival organizations, such as the Knights Templar and Los
Zetas, should the DTOs attempt to take advantage of Sinaloa’s perceived weakness following
Guzmán’s capture.49 Others disagreed and thought activities would proceed as “business as usual”
both in Sinaloa’s areas of influence and inside the DTO, asserting that a very clear line of
succession already had been put in place.50
The DTO appeared to weather Guzmán’s arrest without the spike in internal violence that is often
associated with arrests of other DTO kingpins.51 Although Sinaloa appeared to have retained its
internal cohesion, Mexican media sources reported that the level of organized-crime related
homicides in Sinaloa state did slightly increase after Guzmán’s arrest. With the rumored death in
June 2014 of Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza Moreno, one of Guzman’s most trusted deputies,
the head of the Sinaloa DTO was assumed to be Guzmán’s partner, Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias
“El Mayo.”52 Although less is known about an apparent successor, Dámaso López Núñez, aka “El
Licenciado,” with the extradition to the United States of Guzman in January 2017 some analysts
consider the era of El Chapo to be over. The shape of the cartel in the new era or within Mexico’s
criminal landscape is evolving.
Guzmán, Esparragoza, and Zambada Garcia were the cartel’s key leaders; however, Sinaloa now
may operate with a more horizontal leadership structure than previously thought.53 Sinaloa
operatives control certain territories, making up a decentralized network of bosses who conduct
business and violence through alliances with each other and local gangs. Local gangs throughout
the region specialize in specific operations and are then contracted by the Sinaloa DTO network.54
A new debate focuses on the cartel’s continued capacity to operate as a hegemon in the region.
Some analysts maintain that the Sinaloa organization’s dominance internationally and its
infiltration of the upper reaches of the Mexican government was evident in Guzmán’s successful
escape through a mile-long tunnel from Mexico’s top-security prison in 2015. Some observers
remain convinced that Sinaloa’s capacity to act inside Mexico with operational impunity through
bribery and corruption remains significant.55 In March 2017, another remarkable prison break
took place, this time by Esparragoza’s son, Juan José Esparragoza Monzón, alias “El Negro,” who
Op. cit., Beauregard, 2014.
“Mexico Risk: Alert – The Security Outlook Post ‘Chapo’ Guzmán’s Capture,” Risk Briefing to the U.N. Economist
Intelligence Unit, February 27, 2014; Joshua Partlow and Nick Miroff, “After Drug Lord’s Arrest, Mexico Braces for
Fallout; Some Analysts Fear Heightened Violence, Others Say Drug Business Will Continue Unchanged,” Washington
Post, February 25, 2014.
Kyra Gurney, “Sinaloa Cartel Leader ‘El Azul’ Dead? ‘El Mayo’ Now in Control?” InSight Crime, June 9, 2014.
Esparragoza is married to Guzmán’s sister-in-law, was the godfather of Amado Carrillo Fuentes’ son and one of Ismael
Zambada’s sons, and his son is married to the daughter of one of the Beltrán Levyas.
Kyra Gurney, “Sinaloa Cartel Leader ‘El Azul’ Dead? ‘El Mayo’ Now in Control?” June 9, 2014. Esparragoza
Moreno supposedly died of a heart attack while recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident.
Observers dispute the extent to which Guzmán made key strategic decisions for Sinaloa. Some maintain he was a
figurehead whose arrest had little impact on Sinaloa’s functioning as he ceded operational tasks to Zambada Garcia and
Esparragoza long before his arrest.
Revelan Estructura y Enemigos de ‘El Chapo’,” Excélsior, March 26, 2014; John Bailey, “Drug Trafficking
Organizations and Democratic Governance,” in The Politics of Crime in Mexico: Democratic Governance in a Security
Trap (Boulder: FirstForum Press, 2014), p. 119.
Alejandro Hope, “El Chapo’s Great Escape,” El Daily Post, July 12, 2015.
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was thought to have worked for 20 years for the Sinaoloa cartel under the direction of his father,
“El Azul.” El Negro escaped from the Sinaloan state penitentiary despite appearing on the official
list of 122 most-wanted criminals in Mexico.56
Sinaloa traditionally has kept a low profile to limit its exposure to relentless enforcement efforts.
It remains one of the few criminal groups in Mexico that has not diversified to the degree of other
crime groups into extractive crimes, such as kidnapping and extortion.57 Some observers have
speculated that tolerating Sinaloa’s dominance to reduce criminal competition may be desirable,
considering the alternative of chaotic, escalating violence.58 Additionally, with rising tensions
between the United States and Mexico over issues of trade and immigration, the effect on
bilateral cooperation on counternarcotics and security through foreign assistance and training
remains uncertain.59
Juárez/Carrillo Fuentes Organization
Based in the border city of Ciudad Juárez in the central northern state of Chihuahua, the oncepowerful Juárez DTO controlled the smuggling corridor between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, TX,
in the 1980s and 1990s.60 By some accounts, the Juárez DTO controlled at least half of all
Mexican narcotics trafficking under the leadership of its founder, Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, Amado’s brother, took over the leadership of the cartel when Amado
died during plastic surgery in 1997 and reportedly led the Juárez organization until his arrest in
October 2014.
In 2008, the Juárez DTO broke from the Sinaloa federation, with which it had been allied since
2002.61 The ensuing rivalry between the Juárez DTO and the Sinaloa DTO helped to turn Ciudad
Juárez into one of the most violent cities in the world. From 2008 to 2011, the Sinaloa DTO and
the Juárez DTO fought a vicious “turf war,” and Ciudad Juárez experienced a wave of violence
with spikes in homicides, extortion, kidnapping, and theft—at one point reportedly experiencing
10 murders a day.62 From 2008 to 2012, the violence in Juárez cost about 10,000 lives.
Reportedly, more than 15% of the population displaced by drug-related violence inside Mexico
between 2006 to 2010 came from the border city, while having only slightly more than 1% of
Mexico’s population.63
Leonardo Goi, “Latest Jailbreak Points to Weakness of Mexico’s Prison System,” InSight Crime, March 17, 2017.
CRS interview with Alejandro Hope, July 2014.
See Ginger Thompson, “At Breakfast to Talk El Chapo, Drug War Veterans Serve Up Cynicism,” Pro Publica, July
20, 2015, at http://www.propublica.org/article/at-breakfast-to-talk-el-chapo-drug-war-veterans-serve-up-cynicism.
CRS Insight IN10326, “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Extradition: What’s Next for U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation?, by
Clare Ribando Seelke, June S. Beittel, and Liana W. Rosen.
John Bailey, “Drug Trafficking Organizations and Democratic Governance,” in The Politics of Crime in Mexico:
Democratic Governance in a Security Trap (Boulder, CO: FirstForum Press, 2014), p. 121.
Some analysts trace the origins of the split to a personal feud between “El Chapo” Guzmán of the Sinalos DTO and
former ally Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. In 2004, Guzmán allegedly ordered the killing of Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes,
another of Vicente’s brothers. Guzmán’s son, Edgar, was killed in May 2008, allegedly on orders from Carrillo
Fuentes. See Alfredo Corchado, “Juárez Drug Violence Not Likely to Go Away Soon, Authorities Say,” Dallas
Morning News, May 17, 2010.
Steven Dudley, “Police Use Brute Force to Break Crime’s Hold on Juárez,” InSight Crime, February 13, 2013. Some
Mexican newspapers such as El Diario reported more than 300 homicides a month in 2010 when the violence peaked.
For a more in-depth narrative of the conflict in Juárez and its aftermath, see Steven Dudley, “Juárez: After the War,”
Insight Crime, February 13, 2013. For a discussion of out-migration from the city due to drug-related violence, see
Viridiana Rios Contreras, “The Role of Drug-Related Violence and Extortion in Promoting Mexican Migration:
Unexpected Consequences of a Drug War,” Latin America Research Review, vol. 49, no. 3 (2014).
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In mid-2011, the New Juárez Cartel (Nuevo Cártel de Juárez) announced its presence in the city
by posting a series of banners threatening the police chief.64 Despite the emergence of the “new”
DTO, homicide rates in Ciudad Juárez dropped considerably in 2012 and 2013 compared to
earlier years. This sudden decrease in violence was attributed both to the actions of the police and
to President Calderón’s socioeconomic program Todos Somos Juárez, or We Are All Juarez.65
Other analysts credit the Sinaloa DTO with success in its battle over the Juarez DTO after 2012.
They consider the Sinaloa’s dominance, perhaps abetted by local authorities, to be the reason for
the relatively peaceful and unchallenged control of the border city despite the Juárez DTO’s
continued presence in the state of Chihuahua.66 Many residents who fled during the years of
intense drug-related violence remain reluctant to return to Juárez and cite the stubbornly elevated
homicide rate as one reason.67 Traditionally a major trafficker of both marijuana and South
American cocaine, the Juárez cartel has become active in opium cultivation and heroin
production, according to the DEA. Violence rose in 2016 to levels not seen since 2012,
suggesting control of the trafficking route across the border to Texas is again in flux.
Gulf DTO
Based in the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, with operations in other Mexican states on
the Gulf side of Mexico, the Gulf DTO is a transnational smuggling operation with agents in
Central and South America.68 The Gulf DTO was the main competitor challenging Sinaloa for
trafficking routes in the early 2000s, but it now battles its former enforcement wing, Los Zetas,
over territory in northeastern Mexico. The Gulf DTO reportedly has split into several competing
The Gulf DTO arose in the bootlegging era of the1920s. In the 1980s, its leader, Juan García
Abrego, developed ties to Colombia’s Cali cartel as well as to the Mexican federal police. García
Abrego was captured in 1996 near Monterrey, Mexico.69 His violent successor, Osiel Cárdenas
Guillén, successfully corrupted elite Mexican military forces to become his hired assassins. Those
corrupted military personnel became known as Los Zetas when they fused with the Gulf cartel. In
the early 2000s, Gulf was considered one of the most powerful Mexican DTOs. Cárdenas was
arrested by Mexican authorities in March 2003, but he continued to run his drug enterprise from
prison until his extradition to the United States in 2007.70
“Mexico Security Memo: A New Juárez Cartel,” Stratfor, February 1, 2012. The New Juárez Cartel was seen by
many analysts as a re-branding effort by the original Juárez DTO and its allies and not an actual new organization. The
New Juárez Cartel soon dropped the “New” adjective.
Calderón launched the social program Todos Somos Juárez and sent the Mexican military into Ciudad Juárez in an
effort to drive out DTO proxies and operatives. “Calderón Defiende la Estrategia en Ciudad Juárez en Publicación de
Harvard,” CNNMexico, February 17, 2013. See also CRS Report R41349, U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The
Mérida Initiative and Beyond, by Clare Ribando Seelke and Kristin Finklea.
See Steven Dudley, “How Juárez’s Police, Politicians Picked Winners of Drug War,” InSight Crime, February 13,
As of the end of 2013, only about 10% of those who had fled during the most violent years of 2007-2011 had
returned to Ciudad Juárez. See Damien Cave, “Ciudad Juárez, a Border City Known for Killing, Gets Back to Living,”
New York Times, December 13, 2013.
John Bailey, “Drug Trafficking Organizations and Democratic Governance,” in The Politics of Organized Crime in
Mexico: Democratic Governance in a Security Trap (Boulder: FirstForum Press, 2014), p. 120.
Steven Dudley and Sandra Rodríguez, Civil Society, the Government and the Development of Citizen Security,
Wilson Center Mexico Institute, Working Paper, August 2013, p. 11.
George W. Grayson, Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers,
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Tensions between the Gulf DTO and Los Zetas culminated in their split in 2010. Antonio “Tony
Tormenta” Cárdenas Guillén, Osiel’s brother, was killed that year, and leadership of the Gulf went
to another high-level Gulf lieutenant, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, also known as “El Coss,”
until his arrest in 2012. Exactly what instigated the Zetas and Gulf split has not been determined,
but the growing strength of the paramilitary group and its leader was a factor, and some analysts
say the Zetas blamed the Gulf DTO for the murder of a Zeta close to their leader, which sparked
the rift.71 Others posit the split happened earlier, but the Zetas organization that had brought both
military discipline and sophisticated firepower to cartel combat was clearly acting independently
by 2010. Regardless, the ensuing bitter conflict between the Gulf DTO and Los Zetas has been
identified as the “most violent in the history of organized crime in Mexico.”72
Mexican federal forces identified and targeted a dozen Gulf and Zeta bosses they believed
responsible for the wave of violence in Tamaulipas in the spring and summer of 2014.73 Analysts
have reported that the structures of both the Gulf DTO and Los Zetas have been decimated by
federal action and combat between each other, and both groups now operate largely as
fragmented cells that do not communicate with each other and often take on new names.74
From 2014 through 2016, some media sources outside of the state of Tamaulipas and anonymous
social media accounts from within Tamaulipas reported daily kidnappings, daytime shootings,
and burned-down bars and restaurants in towns and cities such as the port city of Tampico. Like
the Zetas, fragmented cells of the Gulf DTO have expanded into other criminal operations, such
as fuel theft and widespread extortion. One theory is that the Gulf DTO is poised to make a return
to coherence following the decimation of Los Zetas and that Gulf will reconstitute and attempt to
wrestle control of the strategically significant city of Monterrey in the neighboring state of Nuevo
León.75 Other theories are that the Gulf DTO is now so fragmented and internally divided into
factions itself that it is best understood—as are the Zetas—as part of a “regional crime umbrella”
in Tamaulipas (see Figure 3).
Los Zetas
This group originally consisted of former elite airborne special force members of the Mexican
Army who defected to the Gulf DTO and became its hired assassins.76 Although Zeta members
are part of a prominent transnational DTO, their main asset is not drug smuggling but organized
violence. They have amassed significant power to carry out an extractive business model—thus
Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez, “El Dominio del Miedo,” Nexos, July 1, 2014. Suspecting the Gulf DTO of the death of
Sergio Mendoza, the founder of Los Zetas, Heriberto “El Lazco” Lazcano reportedly offered a 24-hour amnesty period
for Gulf operatives to claim responsibility, which they never did. This event, some scholars maintain, was the origin of
the split between the groups.
Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez is a Mexican security analyst and a former security adviser to President Enrique Peña
Nieto. CRS interview in June 2014.
Jorge Monroy, “Caen tres lideres de Los Zetas y Cartel de Golfo,” June 18, 2014. In June 2014, Mexican Marines
captured three of those identified.
Interview with Eduardo Guerrero, June 2014. “Balkanization,” or decentralization of the structure of the
organization, does not necessarily indicate that a criminal group is weak but simply that it lacks a strong central
leadership. Also, news outlets inside Tamaulipas remain some of the most threatened by DTO cells, so they are
intimidated to report on criminal violence and its consequences.
Juan Carlos Perez Salazar, “¿Qué Pasó con Los Zetas, el Cartel Más Temido?,” BBC Mundo—Animal Político, May
20, 2014.
Most reports indicate that the Zetas were created by a group of 30 lieutenants and sub-lieutenants who deserted from
the Mexican military’s Special Mobile Force Group (Grupos Aeromóviles de Fuerzas Especiales, GAFES) to join the
Gulf cartel in the late 1990s.
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generating revenue from crimes, such as fuel theft, extortion, human smuggling and kidnapping,
that are widely seen to inflict more suffering on the Mexican public than transnational drug
Los Zetas manage a significant presence in several Mexican states on the Gulf (eastern) side of
the country, have extended their reach to Ciudad Juárez (Chihuahua) and some Pacific states, and
operate in Central and South America. More aggressive than other groups, Los Zetas appear to
use intimidation as a strategy to maintain control of territory, making use of social media and
public displays of bodies and body parts to send messages to frighten Mexican security forces, the
local citizenry, and rival organizations. Sometimes smaller gangs and organizations use the
“Zeta” name to tap into the benefits of the Zeta reputation or “brand.”
Unlike many other DTOs, Los Zetas have not attempted to win the support of local populations in
the territory in which they operate, and they have allegedly killed many civilians. They are linked
to a number of massacres, such as the 2011 firebombing of a casino in Monterrey that killed 53
people and the 2011 torture and mass execution of 193 migrants who were traveling through
northern Mexico by bus.78 Los Zetas are known to kill those who cannot pay extortion fees or
who refuse to work for them, often targeting migrants.79
In 2012, Mexican marines killed longtime Zeta leader Heriberto Lazcano (alias “El Lazca”), one
of the founders of Los Zetas, in a shoot-out in the northern state of Coahuila.80 The capture of his
successor, Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, alias “Z-40,” notorious for his brutality, in July 2013
by Mexican federal authorities was a second blow to the group. Some analysts date the beginning
of the “loss of coherence” of Los Zetas to Lazcano’s killing and consider the ensuing arrest of
Treviño Morales to be the event which accelerated the group’s decline. In March 2015, Treviño
Morales’s brother Omar, who was thought to have taken over leadership of Los Zetas, also was
arrested in a joint operation by the Mexican federal police and military. According to Mexico’s
attorney general, federal government efforts against the cartels, which resulted in the killing or
capture of 93 (of 122) of Mexico’s most high value criminal targets through April 2015, hit the
Zetas the hardest, with more than 30 of their leaders removed.81
Los Zetas are known for their diversification and expansion into other criminal activities, such as
fuel theft, extortion, kidnapping, human smuggling, and arms trafficking. According to media
coverage, Pemex, Mexico’s state oil company, announced that it lost more than $1.15 billion in
2014 due to oil tapping. In early 2017, the Atlantic Council released a report estimating that about
$1 billion of oil revenue is lost annually in Mexico, with Los Zetas controlling about 40% of the
market in stolen oil. Los Zetas resisted government attempts to curtail their sophisticated
networks for the oil and gas that they stole.82 Most incidents of illegal siphoning occur in the
Mexican Gulf states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz.
John Bailey, “Drug Trafficking Organizations and Democratic Governance,” in The Politics of Crime in Mexico:
Democratic Governance in a Security Trap (Boulder, CO: FirstForum Press, 2014), p. 120; interview with Alejandro
Hope, July 2014.
George Grayson, The Evolution of Los Zetas in Mexico and Central America: Sadism as an Instrument of Cartel
Warfare, U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle, PA, April 2014, p. 9.
According to Grayson, Los Zetas are also believed to kill members of law enforcement officials’ families in revenge
for action taken against the organization, reportedly even targeting families of fallen military men.
Will Grant, “Heriberto Lazcano: The Fall of a Mexican Drug Lord,” BBC News, October 13, 2012.
“Los Zetas Are the Criminal Organization Hardest Hit by the Mexican Government,” Southernpulse.info, May 13,
Michael Lohmuller, “Will Pemex’s Plan to Fight Mexico Oil Thieves Work?,” InSight Crime, February 18, 2015; Dr.
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Some analysts maintain that the Mexican government critically weakened Los Zetas but
unintentionally caused the “balkanization” of the group into independent cells due to these
internal splits. They argue that the organization used a franchise principle to reformulate itself to
adjust to crisis. Although many dispute the scope of the territory held by Los Zetas and the
formerly cohesive group’s immediate prospects, most concur that the organization is no longer as
powerful as it was during the height of its dominance in 2011 and 2012.
Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO)
Before 2008, BLO was part of the Sinaloa federation and controlled access to the U.S. border in
Mexico’s Sonora state. The Beltrán Leyva brothers developed close ties with Sinaloa head
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán and his family, along with other Sinaloa-based top leadership. The
January 2008 arrest of BLO’s leader, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, through intelligence reportedly
provided by Guzmán, triggered BLO’s split from the Sinaloa DTO.83 The two organizations have
remained bitter rivals since.
The organization suffered a series of setbacks at the hands of the Mexican security forces,
beginning with the December 2009 killing of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, followed closely by the arrest
of Carlos Beltrán Levya. In 2010, the organization broke up when the remaining brother, Héctor
Beltrán Leyva, took the remnants of BLO and rebranded it as the South Pacific (Pacifico Sur)
cartel. Another top lieutenant, Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal, took a faction loyal to him
and formed the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, which he led until his arrest in 2010.84 The South
Pacific cartel appeared to retake the name Beltrán Leyva Organization and achieved renewed
prominence under Hector Beltrán Leyva’s leadership, until his arrest in October 2014.
Splinter organizations have arisen since 2010, such as the Guerreros Unidos and Los Rojos,
among at least five others with roots in BLO. Los Rojos operates in Guerrero and relies heavily
on kidnapping and extortion for revenue as well as trafficking cocaine, although analysts dispute
the scope of its involvement in the drug trade.85 The Guerreros Unidos traffics cocaine as far
north as Chicago in the United States and reportedly operates primarily in the central and Pacific
states of Guerrero, México, and Morelos. The Guerreros Unidos, according to Mexican
authorities, was responsible for taking the 43 Mexican teacher trainees, who were handed to them
by local authorities in Iguala, Guerrero; the group subsequently murdered the students and burned
their bodies.86 The lack of a hegemonic DTO in Guerrero has led to significant infighting between
DTO factions and brutal intra-cartel competition, resulting in the state of Guerrero having the
Ian M. Ralby, Downstream Oil Theft: Global Modalities, Trends, and Remedies, Atlantic Council, January 2017.
See InSight Crime profile, “Beltrán Leyva Organization.” The profile suggests that Guzmán gave authorities
information on Alfredo Beltrán Leyva to secure Guzmán’s son’s release from prison.
Edgar Valdez is an American-born smuggler from Laredo, TX, and allegedly started his career in the United States
dealing marijuana. His nickname is “La Barbie” due to his fair hair and eyes. Nicholas Casey and Jose de Cordoba,
“Alleged Drug Kingpin Is Arrested in Mexico,” Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2010.
Marguerite Cawley, “Murder Spike in Guerrero, Mexico Points to Criminal Power Struggle,” InSight Crime, May
30, 2014. “Mexico Nabs Drug Gang Leader in State of Guerrero,” Associated Press, May 17, 2014. The AP reports that
the Mexican security commissioner claims Los Rojos as primarily responsible for cocaine shipments from Guerrero to
the United States. Insight Crime analysts, however, argue that the group lacks the international ties to rely consistently
on drug trafficking as a primary revenue source.
According to the profile of Guerreros Unidos on the InSight Crime website, an alleged leader of the group is the
brother-in-law of the former mayor of Iguala.
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highest number of homicides and kidnappings in the country in 2013 and the second most after
the state of México in 2014.87
Like other DTOs, BLO was believed to have infiltrated the upper levels of the Mexican
government for at least part of its history, but whatever reach it once had likely has declined
significantly after Mexican authorities arrested many of its leaders, including Hector Beltrán
Leyva in late 2014. According to the 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment, BLO relies on its
alliances with the Juárez cartel and elements of Los Zetas to move drugs across the border. It
remains influential in the states of Morelos, Guerrero, and Sinaloa.88
La Familia Michoacana (LFM)
Based originally in the Pacific state of Michoacán, LFM traces its roots back to the 1980s.
Formerly aligned with Los Zetas before the group’s split from the Gulf DTO, LFM announced its
intent to operate independently from Los Zetas in 2006, declaring that LFM’s mission was to
protect Michoacán from drug traffickers, including its new enemies, Los Zetas.89 From 2006 to
2010, LFM acquired notoriety for its use of extreme, symbolic violence, military tactics gleaned
from the Zetas, and a pseudo-ideological or religious justification for its existence.90 LFM
members reportedly made donations of food, medical care, schools, and other social services to
benefit the poor in rural communities to project a populist “Robin Hood” image.
In 2010, however, LFM played a less prominent role, and in November 2010, LFM reportedly
called for a truce with the Mexican government and announced it would disband.91 A month later,
spiritual leader and co-founder Nazario “El Más Loco” Moreno González reportedly was killed,
although authorities claimed his body was stolen.92 The body was never recovered, and Moreno
González reappeared in another shootout with Mexican federal police in March 2014, after which
his death was officially confirmed.93 Moreno González had been nurturing the development of a
new criminal organization that emerged in early 2011, calling itself the Knights Templar and
claiming to be a successor or offshoot of LFM.94
Though “officially” disbanded, LFM remained in operation, even after the June 2011 arrest of
leader José de Jesús Méndez Vargas (alias “El Chango”), who allegedly took over after Moreno
Marguerite Cawley, “Murder Spike in Guerrero, Mexico Points to Criminal Power Struggle,” InSight Crime, May
30, 2014; op. cit., Heinle, Molzahn, and Shirk, April 2015.
U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment,
DEA-DCT-DIR-001-17, November 2016.
Alejandro Suverza, “El Evangelio según La Familia,” Nexos, January 1, 2009. For more on its early history, see
InSight Crime’s profile on La Familia Michoacana.
In 2006, LFM gained notoriety when it rolled five severed heads allegedly of rival criminals across a discotheque
dance floor in Uruapan. La Familia Michoacana was known for leaving signs (“narcomantas”) on corpses and at crime
scenes that referred to LFM actions as “divine justice.” William Finnegan, “Silver or Lead,” New Yorker, May 31,
Stratfor, “Mexican Drug Wars: Bloodiest Year to Date,” December 20, 2010.
Dudley Althaus, “Ghost of ‘The Craziest One’ Is Alive in Mexico,” InSight Crime, June 11, 2013.
Mark Stevenson and E. Eduardo Castillo, “Mexico Cartel Leader Thrived by Playing Dead,” Associated Press,
March 10, 2014.
The Knights Templar was purported to be founded and led by Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, a former school teacher
and a lieutenant to Moreno Gonzáles. However, after Moreno Gonzalez’s faked demise and taking advantage of his
death in the eyes of Mexican authorities, Moreno González and Gomez founded the Knights Templar together after a
dispute with LFM leader Méndez Vargas, who stayed on with the LFM. See “Seeking a Place in History – Nazario
Moreno’s Narco Messiah,” InSight Crime, March 13, 2014.
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González’s disappearance.95 Though largely fragmented, remaining cells of LFM are still active
in trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion in Guerrero and Mexico states, especially the workingclass suburbs around Mexico City.96 Observers reported that LFM had been largely driven out of
Michoacán by the Knights Templar.97 As a DTO, LFM has specialized in methamphetamine
production and smuggling, along with other synthetic drugs. It also has been known to traffic
marijuana and cocaine and to tax and regulate the production of heroin.
Knights Templar
The Knights Templar began as a splinter group from La Familia Michoacana, announcing its
presence in Michoacán in early 2011. Similar to LFM, the Knights Templar began as a vigilante
group, claiming to protect the residents of Michoacán from other criminal groups, such as the
Zetas, but in reality operated as a DTO. The Knights Templar is known for the trafficking and
manufacture of methamphetamine, but the organization also moves cocaine and marijuana north.
Like LFM, it preaches its own version of evangelical Christianity and claims to have a
commitment to “social justice,” while being the source of much of the insecurity in Michoacán
and surrounding states.
In 2013, frustration with the perceived ineffectiveness of Mexican law enforcement in combating
predatory criminal groups led to the birth in Michoacán of “autodefensa” or self-defense
organizations, particularly in the tierra caliente region in the southwestern part of the state.
Composed of citizens from a wide range of backgrounds—farmers, ranchers, businessmen,
former DTO operatives, and others—the self-defense militias primarily targeted members of the
Knights Templar.98 Local business owners, who had grown weary of widespread extortion and
hyper-violent crime that was ignored by corrupt local and state police, provided seed funding to
resource the militias in Michoacán, but authorities cautioned that some of the self-defense groups
had extended their search for resources and weapons to competing crime syndicates, such as the
Cártel Jalisco New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación [CJNG]). Despite some
analysts’ contention that ties to rival criminal groups are highly likely, other observers are careful
not to condemn the entire self-defense movement. These analysts acknowledge some gains in the
effort to combat the Knights Templar that had not been made by government security forces,
although conflict between self-defense groups also has led to violent battles.
The Knights Templar reportedly has emulated LFM’s penchant for diversification into other
crime, such as extortion. The Knights Templar battled the LFM, and by 2012 its control of
Michoacán was nearly as widespread as LFM’s once had been, especially by demanding local
businesses pay it tribute through hefty levies. According to avocado growers in the rural state who
provide more than half the global supply, the LFM and the Knights Templar have seriously cut
into their profits. The Knights Templar also moved aggressively into illegal mining, such as
mining iron ore from illegally operated mines. Through mid-2014, the Knights Templar
reportedly had been using Mexico’s largest port, Lázaro Cárdenas, located in the southern tip of
Adriana Gomez Licon, “Mexico Nabs Leader of Cult-Like La Familia Cartel,” Associated Press, June 21, 2011.
CRS Interview with Dudley Althaus, June 2014.
The self-defense forces pursue criminal groups to other towns and cities and are self-appointed, sometimes gaining
recruits who are former migrants returned from or deported from the United States; and many are heavily armed. After
a period of cooperation, the Mexican federal police made news when it arrested 83 members of the self-defense forces
in June 2014 for possession of unregistered weapons. “Arrestan a 83 Miembros y a Líder de Autodefensas en México,”
Associated Press, June 27, 2014.
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Michoacán, to smuggle illegally mined iron ore, among other illicit goods.99 Analysts and
Mexican officials, however, suggest that a 2014 federal occupation of Lázaro Cárdenas resulted
in an “impasse,” rendering DTOs unable to receive and send shipments.100
In early 2014, the Mexican government began its controversial policy of incorporating members
of the self-defense groups into legal law enforcement, giving them the option to disarm or register
themselves and their weapons as part of the “Rural Police Force,” despite concerns about
competing cartels corrupting these forces or the potential for the groups to morph into predatory
paramilitary forces, as occurred in Colombia.”101 The federal police and the Rural Police Force
had a brief successful period of cooperation, which ended with the arrests of the two self-defense
force leaders (as well as dozens of members) in late spring 2014.102 The arrests sparked tension
between the self-defense movement and federal police, contributing to continuing high rates of
violence in the area.103
The Mexican government and self-defense forces delivered heavy blows to the Knights Templar,
especially with the confirmed killing in March 2014 of Nazario Moreno González, who led the
Knights, and the killing of Enrique Plancarte, another top leader, several weeks later.104
Previously, the self-defense forces and the Knights Templar reportedly had split Michoacán
roughly into two, although other criminal organizations continued to operate successfully in the
area. In late February 2015, the Knights Templar DTO leader Servando “La Tuta” Gomez was
captured. The former schoolteacher had taken risks by being interviewed in the media. With La
Tuta’s arrest, the fortunes of the Knights Templar plummeted. But new spinoff groups filled the
void, including the rise of such groups as Los Viagras, and they contested the state with the Cartel
Jalisco (see “Cartel Jalisco-New Generation (CJNG),” below). In March 2017, the alleged leader
of Los Viagras, José Carlos Sierra Santana, was killed. The Mexican government quickly
reinforced troops and federal police forces in the state to prevent a bloodbath as cartels struggled
to assert new patterns of dominance.
Cartel Jalisco-New Generation (CJNG)
Originally known as the Zeta Killers, the CJNG made its first appearance in 2011 with a roadside
display of the bodies of 35 alleged members of Los Zetas.105 The group is a regional DTO based
in Jalisco state with operations in central Mexico, including the states of Colima, Michoacán,
Mexico State, Guerrero, and Guanajuato.106 Reportedly, it has been led by many former associates
“Mexico Seizes Tonnes of Minerals in Port Plagued by Drug Gangs,” Reuters, March 3, 2014. The Knights Templar
shared control with the powerful Sinaloa DTO. Both groups reportedly received shipments cocaine from South
America and precursor chemicals used to produce methamphetamines largely from Asia.
Interview with Eduardo Guerrero, July 2014.
Nick Miroff and Joshua Partlow, “In Mexico, Militias Taste Power,” Washington Post, May 12, 2014.
The Mexican federal police arrested 83 members of the self-defense forces (including a well-known leader) in June
2014 for possession of unregistered weapons, an event largely seen as destroying chances for further cooperation
between Mexican law enforcement and the self-defense forces. “Arrestan a 83 Miembros y a Líder de Autodefensas en
México,” Associated Press, June 27, 2014.
For more information on the origins of tensions between the self-defense movement and Mexican authorities, see
Steven Dudley and Dudley Althaus, “Mexico’s Security Dilemma: The Battle for Michoacán,” Woodrow Wilson
Center, Mexico Institute, April 30, 2014.The authors maintain that the situation in Michoacán was “a battle on four
fronts:” factions of the self-defense forces are fighting each other, self-defense forces battling the Knights Templar,
self-defense forces fighting Mexican federal forces, and DTOs fighting federal forces.
Olga R. Rodriguez, “Mexican Marines Kill Templar Cartel’s Leader,” Associated Press, April 1, 2014.
Miriam Wells, “Jalisco Cartel Announces “Cleansing” of Mexican State,” InSight Crime, September 20, 2013.
“Se Pelean el Estado de México 4 carteles,” El Siglo de Torreón, March 2, 2014; interview with Dudley Althaus,
Congressional Research Service
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of slain Sinaloa DTO leader Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel, who operated his faction in Jalisco until
he was killed by Mexico’s security forces in July 2010.107 CJNG has early roots in the Milenio
cartel, which was active in the tierra caliente region of southern Mexico before it disintegrated in
2009.108 The group is a by-product of the Milenio cartel’s collapse and was allied with the Sinaloa
federation until 2014.109
CJNG reportedly served as an enforcement group for the Sinaloa DTO until the summer of 2013.
Analysts and Mexican authorities have suggested the split between Sinaloa and CJNG is one of
the many indications of a general fragmentation of crime groups. Ruben Oseguera Cervantes,
alias “El Mencho,” is the group’s current leader. Oseguera Cervantes, along with Ismael Zambada
Garcia, alias “El Mayo,” and Rafael Caro-Quintero, is currently a top wanted fugitive by the
DEA.110 The Mexican military delivered a blow to the CJNG with the July 2013 capture of its
leader’s deputy, Victor Hugo “El Tornado” Delgado Renteria. In January 2014, the Mexican
government arrested the leader’s son, Rubén Oseguera González (also known as “El Menchito”),
believed to be CJNG’s second-in-command. However, El Menchito, who has dual U.S.-Mexican
citizenship, was released in December 2014 due to lack of evidence in a federal case. Captured
again in late June 2015, El Menchito was again released by a judge. On July 3, 2015, he was
rearrested by Mexican authorities; he is being held in the Miahutlan, Oaxaca, maximum-security
prison.111 According to recent reports, the U.S. government may file an official request for
Oseguera González’s extradition to the District of Columbia, where he faces charges of arms
trafficking and conspiracy to import and distribute methamphetamine and cocaine.112
In 2015, the Mexican government declared CJNG one of the most dangerous cartels in the
country and one of two with the most extensive reach.113 In October 2016, the U.S. Department of
the Treasury echoed the Mexican government when it described the group as one of the world’s
“most prolific and violent drug trafficking organizations.”114 According to some analysts, CJNG
has operations throughout the Americas, Asia, and Europe. The group allegedly is responsible for
distributing cocaine and methamphetamine along “10,000 kilometers of the Pacific coast in a
route that extends from the Southern Cone to the border of the United States and Canada.”115
To best understand CJNG’s international reach, it is important to first consider its expansion
within Mexico. Analysts contend that CJNG has presence in 14 states throughout the country, a
combined area that makes up nearly half of Mexico.116 Recent reports indicate the group has
CRS interview with Alejandro Hope, July 2014. See also Peña Nieto’s Challenge: Criminal Cartels and Rule of
Law in Mexico, especially Appendix D: Main Cartels in Mexico; Stratfor, “Mexico Security Memo: The Death of a
Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion Ally,” February 27, 2013; Stratfor, “Mexican Cartels: Cartel de Jalisco Nueva
Generacion,” April 4, 2013; “Jalisco Cartel – New Generation,” InSight Crime, May 5, 2015.
Stratfor, “Tracking Mexico’s Cartels in 2017,” February 3, 2017.
DEA, “Most Wanted Fugitives,” at https://www.dea.gov/fugitives.shtml. accessed February 14, 2017.
Juan Carlos Huerta Vázquez, “El Menchito”, un desafío para la PGR,” Proceso, January 15, 2016.
Carlos Álvarez, “Corte Federal de EU pide aprehender a “El Menchito”, del CJNG, actualmente preso en Oaxaca.
Michael Lohmuller, “Only Two Cartels Left in Mexico: Official,” InSight Crime, June 10, 2015.
U.S. Department of Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Individuals Supporting Powerful Mexico-Based Drug Cartels,”
press release, October 27, 2016.
Luis Alonso Perez, “Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel – New Generation: From Extinction to World Domination,” InSight
Crime and Animal Politico, December 26, 2016.
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pushed into Aguas Calientes, San Luis Potosi, and Zacatecas states. The group has battled Los
Zetas and Gulf cartel factions in Tabasco, Veracruz, and Guanajuato, and it has battled the Sinaloa
federation in the Baja peninsulas and Chihuahua state.117 CJNG’s ambitious expansion campaign
has led to high levels of violence, particularly in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, where it has clashed
with the Sinaloa federation for control of the lucrative heroin trade and corresponding smuggling
routes.118 The group also has been linked to several mass graves in southwestern Mexico and was
responsible for shooting down an army helicopter in 2015, the first successful takedown of a
military asset of its kind in Mexico.119
CJNG’s command over key ports on both the Pacific and Gulf Coasts have allowed it to
consolidate control of important components of the global narcotics supply chain. In particular,
CJNGs asserts control over the ports of Veracruz, Mazanillo, and Lazaro Cardenas, which has
given the group access to precursor chemicals that flow into Mexico from China and other parts
of Latin America.120 As a result, the CJNG has been able to pursue an aggressive expansion.
Indeed, the recent spike in U.S. demand for Mexican methamphetamine and heroin has permitted
CJNG to wage bloody offensives against competing cartels.121
DTO Fragmentation, Competition, and Diversification
As stated earlier, the DTOs today are more fragmented and more competitive than in the past.
However, analysts disagree about the extent of this fragmentation, its importance, and whether
the group of smaller organizations will be easier to dismantle. Fragmentation that began in 2010
and accelerated in 2011 redefined the “battlefield” and brought new actors, such as Los Zetas and
the Knights Templar, to the fore. An array of smaller organizations are now active, and some of
the once-small groups, such as CJNG, have exploded into the space left after other DTOs were
dismantled. Recently, some analysts have identified CJNG as a cartel with national reach like the
Sinaloa DTO, although it originally was an allied faction or the armed wing of Sinaloa
organization. A newer cartel, known as Los Cuinis, also was identified as a major organization in
2015. In April 2015, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control
(OFAC) named both CJNG and Los Cuinis as Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers under
the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.122 According to an OFAC statement, the
traditional DTOs in Mexico are being replaced by new organizations that are becoming “among
the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in Mexico.”123
Contrary to the experience in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s with the sequential dismantling of
the enormous Medellin and Cali cartels, fragmentation in Mexico has been associated with
Stratfor, “Tracking Mexico’s Cartels in 2017,” February 3, 2017.
Deborah Bonello, “After Decade-Long Drug War, Mexico Needs New Ideas,” InSight Crime 2016 GameChangers:
Tracking the Evolution of Organized Crime in the Americas, January 4, 2017.
Angel Rabasa et al., Counterwork: Countering the Expansion of Transnational Criminal Networks, RAND
Corporation, 2017.
Stratfor, “Tracking Mexico’s Cartels in 2017,” February 3, 2017.
Deborah Bonello, “After Decade-Long Drug War, Mexico Needs New Ideas,” InSight Crime 2016 GameChangers:
Tracking the Evolution of Organized Crime in the Americas, January 4, 2017.
For more on the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, see Executive Order 13224, “Blocking Property and
Prohibiting Transactions With Persons Who Commit, Threaten To Commit, or Su…
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