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A deadly six-pack

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Six major Mexican cartels control drug smuggling corridors within Mexico and on the U.S.-Mexican border. Two of them, the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels, are significant players in New Mexico.

Taken as a group, the Mexican cartels now control more than 90 percent of the heroin and methamphetamine traffic in the United States. They also supply most of the cocaine, marijuana, fentanyl and other drugs to the illicit U.S. drug market and to Europe and Africa.

The Sinaloa Cartel has attempted to set up operations in Australia and the Philippines.

The U.S. Department of Justice refers to the cartels as “transnational criminal organizations,” or TCOs, and they run like efficient corporate enterprises.

While Juárez and Sinaloa are the key players here, other Mexican trafficking organizations are allowed to smuggle drug shipments through their border corridors with the payment of a tax, or access fee. All of these organizations have flexible drug distribution networks at various locations in the United States that act as wholesale suppliers for local and regional street gangs that conduct retail-level distribution operations.

Only the big Mexican drug organizations operating in the U.S. report directly to cartel leaders in Mexico. Most of the independent contractors operating in the U.S. deal with them through intermediaries – usually a relative who can buy the drugs in Mexico, pay the cartel its taxes and get another contractor to move the drugs into the U.S.

Many of the cartel operators in the U.S. don’t carry weapons and try to avoid violence because it attracts law enforcement attention.

But the cartels have directed killings of known informers in the United States.

It’s a different story on their home turf, where the cartels are brutal – beheading rivals, hanging bodies from highway overpasses or piling up the heads of their rivals in town squares.

Cartels like Los Zetas and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel have large followings on social media, and supporters regularly castigate local media when stories of cartel crimes are reported.

Here are brief sketches of the major cartels:



It is one of the oldest and most established drug trafficking organizations in Mexico.

It actually consists of several cartels and numerous drug trafficking organizations that work together.
Though its birthplace and stronghold is the Mexican state of Sinaloa, the Sinaloa Cartel controls various regions in Mexico, particularly along the Pacific Coast.

Additionally, it maintains the most expansive international footprint of the Mexican cartels. The Sinaloa Cartel exports and distributes wholesale amounts of methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine and heroin in the United States by maintaining key distribution hubs in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago, among other cities.

Drugs distributed by the Sinaloa Cartel are primarily smuggled into the United States through crossing points along Mexico’s border with California, Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas.

With the arrest and extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Ismael Zambada-García, alias Mayo, and Dámaso López-Nuñez, alias El Licenciado, are believed to be the current key leaders.

Hector Beltran-Leyva

Hector Beltran-Leyva


Some U.S. law enforcement intelligence analysts have argued that this cartel should be downgraded to a drug trafficking organization. Formed after the Beltrán-Leyva brothers split from the Sinaloa Cartel in 2008, it fought a long and bitter war with the Sinaloa Cartel. All the Beltrán-Leyva brothers have been killed or arrested; one is doing time in a U.S. federal prison.

The remnants of the organization operate independently in the Mexican states of Guerrero, Morelos and Sinaloa and rely on alliances with the Juárez Cartel and Los Zetas for access to smuggling corridors along the central and eastern Mexican-U.S. border.

The organization can still move large quantities of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine and maintains distribution hubs in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Atlanta.



It is usually referred to by its Spanish-language initials, CJNG, and is the most recently formed of the six cartels, breaking off from the Sinaloa Cartel in July 2010. It is based in the Mexican state of Jalisco, particularly its capital city of Guadalajara. CJNG deals in wholesale amounts of primarily methamphetamine, but also cocaine, heroin and marijuana.

It smuggles drugs into the United States by accessing various trafficking corridors along its southwest border including Tijuana, Juárez and Nuevo Laredo.

The CJNG has gained a reputation of being willing to engage Mexican law enforcement and military in violent confrontations, ambushing security forces in rural Jalisco. That has led to retaliation by law enforcement and military that has killed civilians.

CJNG has also fought pitched battles with members of the Sinaloa Cartel.

U.S. law enforcement believes the CJNG has reached some sort of accommodation with the Juárez Cartel to transport drugs through the areas it controls.

Petronilo Moreno-Flores (left) and Jose Antonio Romo-Lopez

Petronilo Moreno-Flores (left) and Jose Antonio Romo-Lopez


The Gulf Cartel once delivered its political payoffs directly to government offices in Mexico City. It is a long-standing cartel, with a traditional base of power in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Gulf Cartel drug trafficking operations concentrate primarily on marijuana and cocaine, and to a lesser extent on heroin and methamphetamine.

Due to its territorial dominance over areas in northeastern Mexico, the Gulf Cartel smuggles the majority of its drug shipments between the Rio Grande Valley and South Padre Island in South Texas. The Gulf Cartel maintains key distribution hubs in Houston and Atlanta and has been linked to drug supplies in Arkansas and Michigan.

In recent years, ongoing battles with Los Zetas and the arrest of key leaders in Mexico have led to a decline in its influence.



The Juárez Cartel is one of the oldest, formed in the early 1990s. The Mexican state of Chihuahua, south of West Texas and New Mexico, represents the traditional stronghold of the Juárez Cartel. Proving its resilience, the Juárez Cartel endured a multiyear turf war with the Sinaloa Cartel, which, at its height in mid-2010, registered thousands of drug-related murders in Chihuahua.

Members of the Barrio Azteca gang, based in Juárez and El Paso, were convicted of killing employees of the American consulate in Juárez in the middle of the war with the Sinaloa Cartel.

Though not as expansive as its major rival, the Juárez Cartel continues to affect U.S. drug consumer markets, primarily in Denver, Chicago, Oklahoma and Kansas City. The Juárez Cartel once controlled almost all the cocaine traffic through Mexico but now is a multidrug operation.

Oscar Omar Trevino-Morales

Oscar Omar Trevino-Morales


Los Zetas was the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, originally formed from Mexican army units that received U.S. anti-drug training. Most of those original members are dead or in prison. The group splintered from the Gulf Cartel in early 2010.

Los Zetas held territorial sway over large parts of eastern, central and southern Mexico. However, due to pressure from rival cartels, Mexican law enforcement and internal conflicts, the influence of Los Zetas has lessened significantly in recent years.

In 2011, members of Los Zetas were charged with the killing of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Jaime Zapata. He and another agent were ambushed by a group of Zetas in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, while on official assignment.

Los Zetas smuggles the majority of its illicit drugs via border crossing points between Del Rio and Falcon Lake, Texas.

Significant drug supply hubs controlled by Los Zetas are in Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta.

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