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What are the Main Drug Cartels Operating in Mexico and the USA?

The history of drug cartels operating in Mexico and the USA is a complex and violent saga that spans several decades. These criminal organizations have evolved from small-scale smuggling operations into powerful, transnational syndicates that wield enormous influence and control over the drug trade. Their activities have profoundly affected both countries, contributing to widespread violence, corruption, and social disruption. Understanding the history of these cartels provides insight into their current operations and the challenges faced by law enforcement.

Early Beginnings: The 1970s and 1980s

The origins of drug cartels can be traced back to the 1970s, a period marked by increasing demand for marijuana and cocaine in the United States. Initially, drug trafficking was dominated by Colombian cartels, particularly the Medellín and Cali cartels, which controlled cocaine production and distribution. Mexican smugglers, who traditionally dealt with marijuana, began to play a more significant role as intermediaries, transporting Colombian cocaine through Mexico into the United States.

During this period, Mexican trafficking organizations were relatively small and disorganized, often family-run operations. The most notable figure from this era was Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, also known as “El Padrino” (The Godfather), who founded the Guadalajara Cartel. This cartel became one of the first major Mexican drug trafficking organizations, establishing key smuggling routes through Mexico into the United States.

The Rise of the Sinaloa Cartel: 1990s

The 1990s saw the fragmentation of the Guadalajara Cartel following the arrest of Félix Gallardo in 1989. This event led to the emergence of several new cartels, the most prominent of which was the Sinaloa Cartel. Founded by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Héctor Luis Palma Salazar, and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, the Sinaloa Cartel quickly rose to prominence due to its innovative smuggling techniques and ruthless enforcement tactics.

The Sinaloa Cartel distinguished itself by constructing elaborate tunnels beneath the US-Mexico border, which facilitated the undetected transport of massive quantities of drugs. The cartel’s leadership was known for its brutal methods, including assassinations, kidnappings, and bribery of government officials, which ensured control over smuggling routes and markets.

The Formation of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas: Late 1990s and 2000s

The Gulf Cartel, another significant player, emerged in the late 1990s. Based in Tamaulipas, Mexico, it was initially led by Juan García Ábrego and later by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. The Gulf Cartel expanded rapidly, primarily trafficking cocaine and heroin into the United States.

A pivotal development in the cartel landscape was the creation of Los Zetas, originally a group of former elite Mexican military commandos hired by the Gulf Cartel as enforcers. Over time, Los Zetas became a powerful cartel in their own right, known for their military tactics and extreme violence. They introduced a new level of brutality to the drug war, including public executions and torture, which intensified the conflict.

The Tijuana and Juárez Cartels: Regional Power Struggles

The Tijuana and Juárez Cartels also played significant roles in the history of drug trafficking. The Tijuana Cartel, led by the Arellano Félix family, controlled the lucrative trafficking corridor in Baja California. Known for their violent feuds with rival cartels, they maintained control through a combination of intimidation and corruption.

The Juárez Cartel, led by Amado Carrillo Fuentes, known as “El Señor de los Cielos” (The Lord of the Skies) for his use of large aircraft to transport drugs, was another dominant force. The cartel controlled the Ciudad Juárez-El Paso border area, one of the most important drug trafficking routes into the United States.

The Michoacán and Jalisco New Generation Cartels: 2010s and Beyond

In the 2010s, the landscape of Mexican drug trafficking continued to evolve with the rise of new cartels. The Knights Templar and La Familia Michoacana emerged in the state of Michoacán, initially portraying themselves as vigilante groups protecting locals from other cartels. However, they quickly devolved into violent criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking, extortion, and other illicit activities.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), founded by Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, known as “El Mencho,” has become one of the most powerful and aggressive cartels in recent years. The CJNG is known for its military-style operations, sophisticated weaponry, and brutal tactics. It has expanded rapidly, challenging the dominance of the Sinaloa Cartel and establishing a presence in multiple states across Mexico.

Impact on Mexico and the USA: Violence and Corruption

The activities of these cartels have had devastating impacts on both Mexico and the United States. In Mexico, the drug war has led to tens of thousands of deaths, widespread corruption, and severe social disruption. Cartels often exert control over local governments and economies, undermining the rule of law and democratic institutions.

In the United States, the influx of drugs has fueled addiction, overdose deaths, and gang violence. Efforts to combat drug trafficking have led to significant law enforcement and public health challenges. Despite extensive efforts to dismantle these organizations, cartels continue to adapt and thrive, driven by the enormous profits generated by the drug trade.


The history of the main drug cartels operating in Mexico and the USA is a testament to the complex and evolving nature of organized crime. From the early days of small-scale smuggling to the rise of powerful cartels like the Sinaloa, Gulf, and CJNG, these organizations have had a profound impact on both countries. Addressing the challenges posed by these cartels requires sustained and coordinated efforts at the local, national, and international levels.


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  2. Campbell, Howard. Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez. University of Texas Press, 2009.
  3. Grayson, George W. Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?. Transaction Publishers, 2010.
  4. Keefe, Patrick Radden. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. Doubleday, 2021.
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