15 Jan 2014
A guide to Mexico’s most significant criminal organisations fighting each other and the authorities
There are seven major cartels, although allegiances shift and organisations often break into smaller pieces following the killing or capture of leaders. Since 2013, armed civilian vigilante groups have sprung up in several parts of the country to confront them.
Knights Templar Leadership: Former school teacher Servando Gomez Martinez. Gomez was a high-ranking member of the Familia Michoacana cartel, but left the organisation following the death of leader Nazario Moreno Gonzalez in December 2010. He is known for uploading communiqués to Youtube and has given interviews to the press, most recently to US-based Mundo Fox in December 2013.
Area of Operations: The group is mostly active in the state of Michoacán – particularly the city of Apatzingan – but also has a presence in other central Mexican states.
Profile: Named after a medieval Christian military order, members of the Knights Templar have repeatedly said they are fighting for “social justice” and to protect Michoacán, and in early 2012 the Mexican army seized 120 Crusader-style helmets said to be used in Templar ceremonies. In March 2012, the group announced a ceasefire for Pope Benedict’s visit to Mexico.
The Knights Templar is known to be heavily involved in the production and trafficking of methamphetamine, and also traffic cocaine and marijuana. They also “tax” local farms and businesses.
Since 2012, the Knights Templar have repeatedly clashed with armed civilian vigilante groups, who have managed to wrest control of several towns from the cartel. The group is also battling a smaller cartel, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, as well as the remnants of the Familia Michoacana.
Sinaloa Cartel Leadership: Joaquín “Shorty” Guzmán, who has widely been considered Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficker since his escape from prison in 2001. US authorities currently have a $5 million bounty on his head.
In 2012, Forbes estimated his net worth as $1 billion, and ranked him as the world’s 63rd most powerful man. In early 2012, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Chicago Crime Commission named him Chicago’s Public Enemy #1 because of his organisation’s role in supplying large quantities of drugs to the city.
Area of Operations: The group is believed to operate in at least 17 Mexican states and is thought to operate distribution cells across the United States. Additionally, the group operates across Central and South America. US authorities also believe the cartel has distribution cells across the UK and a presence in several other European countries.
Profile: The Sinaloa Cartel is considered the most powerful drug trafficking organisation in the Americas, and the cartel’s bloody war for Ciudad Juarez is thought to be largely responsible for the estimated 10,000 murders that occurred between 2008 and 2012, earning the city the title of “murder capital of the world”.
The group is currently battling Los Zetas and several other organisations for control of territory in Mexico and major trafficking routes to the US.
Los Zetas Leadership: Since the July 2013 capture of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, “Z-40”, the organisation is thought to be under the country of his younger brother, Omar, known as “Z-42”.
Area of Operations: In Mexico the group primarily operates on Mexico’s Gulf Coast and Northeast, as well as in Central America, particularly Guatemala. The DEA also believes that the organisation traffics cocaine to Europe through West Africa.
Profile: The notoriously brutal Zetas were formed by deserters from an elite unit of the Mexican army in the late 90s, and served as the military wing of the Gulf Cartel until a violent split from that organisation in 2009. The group is thought to be responsible for numerous infamous acts of violence, including the mass killing of 72 migrants headed to the US in 2010, and the murder of an American immigration agent in 2011. Currently, their main rivals are the Sinaloa Cartel and their former bosses in the Gulf Cartel.
In addition to trafficking drugs, Los Zetas are thought to be heavily involved in extortion, migrant smuggling, human trafficking and a range of other criminal activities.
Gulf Cartel Leadership: The organisation currently has no clear leader following the arrestt of Mario Ramirez Trevino, “X-20”, in August 2013.
Area of Operations: The Gulf Cartel primarily operates in the northern state of Tamaulipas, having lost significant territory to Los Zetas over the last several years.
Profile: The Gulf Cartel traces its historical roots to criminal syndicates that have operated since the 1930’s, and began trafficking drugs in the late 1970s.
The group has been in steady decline since its bloody break-up with Los Zetas in 2009, leading to intense fighting between the two groups across northern and eastern Mexico. In November 2010, the organization’s then-leader, Antonio “Tony the Storm” Ezequiel Cardenas was killed during an intense battle with Mexican marines. Since then, the group has been plagued by infighting between rival factions.
Beltran-Leyva Organisation Leadership: The group has been led by Hector Beltran Leyva since the death of his brother Arturo at the hands of Mexican marines in December 2009.
Area of Operations: The group operates along Mexico’s Pacific coast as well as in the northern state of Sinaloa.
Profile: The Beltran-Leyva Organisation was once a part of the Sinaloa Cartel, but split from the organisation in 2008 after accusing “El Chapo” Guzman of informing on a key figure in the cartel. Following the split from the Sinaloa Cartel, the Beltran-Leyva Organisation was split in two as Hector Beltran Leyva battled Edgar “the Barbie” Valdez until his capture in August 2010. The organisation then allied with their former rivals, Los Zetas, and declared war on the Sinaloa Cartel, which it has been fighting since.
Juarez Cartel Leadership: The leadership of the organisation is unclear following the September 2013 arrest of leader Alberto Carrillo Fuentes, who was known by his alias, “Ugly Betty”.
Area of Operations: The cartel is largely contained to the city of Ciudad Juarez and several other parts of the northern state of Chihuahua.
Profile: The cartel was founded by Amado Carrillo Fuentes, known as the “Lord of the Skies” for his large fleet of aircraft used to smuggle drugs. He died under mysterious circumstances following a botched plastic surgery in 1997.
Once one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organisations, the Juarez Cartel was decimated by a bloody turf war over Ciudad Juarez with the Sinaloa Cartel and is thought to have been largely defeated.
Tijuana Cartel Leadership: The group is currently under the leadership of Luis Fernando Sanchez Arellano, who is thought to run the organisation alongside his mother, Enedina Arellano Felix, who took over after a series of her brothers.
Area of Operations: The group’s operations are based in the border city of Tijuana and the surrounding state of Baja California.
Profile: Based in Mexico’s largest border city, the organisation was extremely powerful in the 1990s and 2000s, but has since been weakened by arrests, incursions by the Sinaloa Cartel and a vicious internal feud between 2008 and 2010. Since 2009, the organisation is believed to have made a truce with the Sinaloa Cartel and has since operated quietly.
In October 2013, Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix, a former high-ranking member of the organisation, was gunned down by assassins disguised as clowns at a children’s party.