Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations

Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking
July 28, 2020
June S. Beittel
Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) pose the greatest crime threat to the United States
Analyst in Latin American
and have “the greatest drug trafficking influence,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration’s (DEA’s) annual National Drug Threat Assessment. These organizations, often

referred to as transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), continue to diversify into crimes of
extortion, human smuggling, and oil theft, among others. Their supply chains traverse the

Western Hemisphere and the globe. Their extensive violence since 2006 has caused Mexico’s
homicide rate to spike. They produce and traffic illicit drugs into the United States, including heroin, methamphetamine,
marijuana, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and they traffic South American cocaine.
Mexican DTO activities significantly affect the security of both the United States and Mexico. As Mexico’s DTOs expanded
their control of the opioids market, U.S. overdoses rose sharply according to the Centers for Disease Control, setting a record
in 2019 with more than 70% of overdose deaths involving opioids, including fentanyl. Many analysts believe that Mexican
DTOs’ role in the trafficking and producing of opioids is continuing to expand.
Evolution of Mexico’s Criminal Environment
Mexico’s DTOs have been in constant flux, and yet they continue to wield extensive political and criminal power. In 2006,
four DTOs were dominant: the Tijuana/Arellano Félix Organization (AFO), the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juárez/Vicente Carillo
Fuentes Organization (CFO), and the Gulf Cartel. Government operations to eliminate the cartel leadership increased
instability among the groups while sparking greater violence. Over the next dozen years, Mexico’s large and comparatively
more stable DTOs fragmented, creating at first seven major groups, and then nine, which are briefly described in this report.
The DEA has identified those nine organizations as Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Tijuana/AFO, Juárez/CFO, Beltrán Leyva, Gulf, La
Familia Michoacana, the Knights Templar, and Cartel Jalisco Nuevo Generación (CJNG).
In mid-2019, the leader of the long-dominant Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was sentenced to life in a U.S.
prison, further fracturing the once-hegemonic DTO. In December 2019, Genaro García Luna, a former head of public
security in the Felipe Calderón Administration (2006-2012), was arrested in the United States on charges he had taken
enormous bribes from Sinaloa, further eroding public confidence in Mexican government efforts.
Since his inauguration in late 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has implemented what some analysts
contend is an ad hoc approach to security that has achieved little sustained progress. Despite reform promises, the president
has relied on a conventional policy of using the military and a military-led national guard to help suppress violence. The
president has targeted oil theft that siphons away billions in government revenue annually.
Recent Developments
In 2019, Mexico’s national public security system reported more than 34,500 homicides, setting another record in absolute
homicides and the highest national homicide rate since Mexico has published this data. In late 2019, several cartel fragments
committed flagrant acts of violence, killing U.S.-Mexican citizens in some instances. Some Members of Congress questioned
a U.S. policy of returning Central American migrants and others to await U.S. asylum proceedings in border cities, such as
Tijuana, because these cities have reported among the highest urban homicide rates in the world. The Trump Administration
also raised concerns over whether Mexican crime groups should be listed as terror organizations.
In June 2020, two high-level attacks on Mexican criminal justice authorities stunned Mexico, including an early morning
assassination attempt targeting the capital’s police chief, allegedly by the CJNG. He survived the attack, but three others were
killed in one of Mexico City’s most affluent neighborhoods. The other was the murder of a Mexican federal judge in Colima
who had ruled in significant organized crime cases, including extradition of the CJNG’s top leader’s son to the United States.
For more background, see CRS Insight IN11205, Designating Mexican Drug Cartels as Foreign Terrorists: Policy
, CRS Report R45790, The Opioid Epidemic: Supply Control and Criminal Justice Policy—Frequently Asked
, and CRS Report R42917, Mexico: Background and U.S. Relations.
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Introduction ..................................................................................................................................... 1
Congressional Concerns .................................................................................................................. 4
Escalation of DTO-Related Homicide, Corruption, and Impunity .................................................. 6
Corruption and Government Institutions ................................................................................... 9
Criminal Landscape in Mexico ...................................................................................................... 11
Illicit Drugs in Mexico and Components of Its Drug Supply Market ..................................... 13
Evolution of the Major Drug Trafficking Groups.......................................................................... 16
Nine Major DTOs.................................................................................................................... 16
Tijuana/Arellano Félix Organization ................................................................................ 17
Sinaloa DTO ..................................................................................................................... 19
Juárez/Carrillo Fuentes Organization ................................................................................ 20
Gulf DTO .......................................................................................................................... 21
Los Zetas ........................................................................................................................... 22
Beltrán Leyva Organization .............................................................................................. 24
La Familia Michoacana..................................................................................................... 25
Knights Templar ................................................................................................................ 26
Cártel Jalisco Nuevo Generación ...................................................................................... 27
Fragmentation, Competition, and Diversification ................................................................... 28
Outlook .......................................................................................................................................... 29

Figure 1. Map of Mexico ................................................................................................................. 2
Figure 2. Stratfor Cartel Map by Region of Influence .................................................................... 5
Figure 3. Major Ports of Entry at the U.S.-Mexico Border ............................................................. 9
Figure 4. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Seizures of Fentanyl and Methamphetamine ............. 15

Appendix. Drug Trafficking in Mexico and Government Efforts to Combat the DTOs ............... 31

Author Information ........................................................................................................................ 34

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Mexico shares a nearly 2,000-mile border with the United States, and the two countries have
historically close trade, cultural, and demographic ties. 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. Over the past decade, Congress has held numerous hearings
addressing violence in Mexico, U.S. counternarcotics assistance, and border security issues.
According to one Mexican think tank that publishes an annual assessment, the top five cities in
the world for violence in 2019 were in Mexico.1 Increasing violence, intimidation of Mexican
politicians in advance of elections, and assassinations of journalists and media personnel have
continued to raise alarm. From 2017 through 2019, a journalist was murdered nearly once a
month on average, leading to Mexico’s status as one of the world’s most dangerous countries to
practice journalism.2 In the run-up to the 2018 local and national elections, some 37 mayors,
former mayors, or mayoral candidates were killed, and murders of nonelected public officials
rose above 500.3
Over many years, Mexico’s brutal drug-trafficking-related violence has been dramatically
punctuated by beheadings, public hanging of corpses, and murders of dozens of journalists and
officials. Violence has spread from the border with the United States into Mexico’s interior.
Organized crime groups have splintered and diversified their crime activities, turning to extortion,
kidnapping, oil theft, human smuggling, sex trafficking, retail drug sales, and other illicit
enterprises. These crimes often are described as more “parasitic” for local communities and
populations inside Mexico, degrading a sense of citizen security. The violence has flared in the
Pacific states of Michoacán and Guerrero, in the central states of Guanajuato and Colima, and in
the border states of Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, and Baja California, where Mexico’s largest border
cities are located (for map of Mexico, see Figure 1).
Drug traffickers exercised significant territorial influence in parts of the country near drug
production hubs and along drug trafficking routes during the six-year administration of President
Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), much as they had under the previous president. Although
homicide rates declined early in Peña Nieto’s term, total homicides rose by 22% in 2016 and 23%
in 2017, reaching a record level. In 2018, homicides in Mexico rose above 33,000 for a national
rate of 27 per 100,000 people. According to the U.S. Department of State, Mexico exceeded
34,500 intentional homicides in 2019 for a national rate of 29 per 100,000.4 Thus, for each of the
most recent three years, records were set and then eclipsed.

1 El Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal (Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal
Justice), “Boletín Ranking 2019 de las 50 Ciudades más Violentas del Mundo,” June 1, 2020,
del-mundo. The survey found in 2019 the world’s top most violent cities (all in Mexico) were (1) Tijuana, (2) Ciudad
Juárez, (3) Uruapan, (4) Irapuato, and (5) Ciudad Obregon.
2 For background on Mexico, see CRS Report R42917, Mexico: Background and U.S. Relations, by Clare Ribando
Seelke. See also Juan Albarracín and Nicholas Barnes, “Criminal Violence in Latin America,” Latin American
Research Review
, vol. 55, no. 2 (June 23, 2020), pp. 397-406.
3 For more background, see Laura Y. Calderón et al., Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico, University of San
Diego, April 2019. See also CRS Report R45199, Violence Against Journalists in Mexico: In Brief, by Clare Ribando
4 Testimony of Richard Glenn, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement
Affairs, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security,
and Trade, for a hearing on “Assessing U.S. Security Assistance to Mexico,” February 13, 2020.
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Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations

Figure 1. Map of Mexico

Source: Congressional Research Service (CRS).
Violence is an intrinsic feature of the trade in illicit drugs. Traffickers use it to settle disputes, and
a credible threat of violence maintains employee discipline and provides a semblance of order
with suppliers, creditors, and buyers while serving to intimidate potential competitors.5 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 (DTOs) in
Mexico is of an entirely different scale. In Mexico, the violence is not only associated with
resolving disputes, maintaining discipline, and intimidating rivals but has also been directed
toward the government, political candidates, and the media. Some observers note some of
Mexico’s violence might be considered exceptional by the typical standards of organized crime.6
Periodically, when organized-crime-related homicides in Mexico break out in important urban
centers or result in the murder of U.S. citizens, Members of Congress have considered the
possibility of designating the criminal groups as foreign terrorists, as in late 2019.7 However, the
DTOs appear to lack a discernible political goal or ideology, which is one element of a widely

5 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).
6 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; Phil Williams, “The Terrorism Debate Over
Mexican Drug Trafficking Violence,” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 24, no. 2 (2012).
7 CRS Insight IN11205, Designating Mexican Drug Cartels as Foreign Terrorists: Policy Implications, coordinated by
Liana W. Rosen.
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recognized definition of terrorism. In June 2020, the State Department’s annual Country Reports
on Terrorism
affirmed that in 2019 there was not credible evidence international terrorist groups
had bases in Mexico, nor had Mexican criminals facilitated terrorist group members crossing the
U.S.-Mexico border.8
Yet Mexico’s high homicide rate is not exceptional in the region, where many countries are
plagued by high rates of violent crime, such as the “Northern Triangle” countries of Central
America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Overall, the Latin America region has a
significantly higher homicide level than other regions worldwide, though with wide variation
within the region. According to the United Nations’ Global Study on Homicide, published in July
2019, with 13% of the world’s population in 2017, Latin America had 37% of the world’s
intentional homicides.9 Mexico’s homicide rate was once about average for the region, but the
country’s intentional homicides and homicide rates have risen steadily in the past few years. (This
increase contrasts with homicide-rate declines in the Northern Triangle countries, where high
rates decreased somewhat between 2017 and 2018.)
Accurately portraying Mexico’s criminal landscape can be challenging. Government enforcement
actions and changing patronage patterns for bribery have unpredictable consequences for criminal
groups, generating near-constant flux. This has been especially the case as new gangs emerge and
old gangs splinter, shifting power balances. Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company, has
broken out rival crime networks in Mexico into three regional groupings: the Tamaulipas State,
Sinaloa State, and Tierra Caliente regional group.10 This regional framework also shows several
states and regions of Mexico where the activities of these three regional groups mix or are
contested. (See Figure 2 for a 2020 map by Stratfor.)
On December 1, 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist leftist leader of the National
Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party, took office for a six-year term after winning 53% of
the vote in the July elections. The new president pledged to make Mexico a more just and
peaceful society and vowed to govern with austerity. He said he would not pursue a war against
the DTOs and crime groups but would work to address the social conditions that allow criminal
groups to thrive.
In his first year in office, President López Obrador backed constitutional reforms to allow
military involvement in public security to continue for five more years, despite a 2018 Supreme
Court ruling that prolonged military involvement in security violated the constitution. He secured
congressional approval to stand up a new 80,000-strong National Guard (composed of former
military, federal police, and new recruits) to combat crime. The approach to the National Guard
and the continuation of an active domestic role for the military surprised many in the human
rights community, who succeeded in persuading Mexico’s Congress to modify López Obrador’s
original proposal to ensure that the National Guard would be under civilian command. The
National Guard’s first assignment for about 27,000 members of the new force was vigorous
migration enforcement to comply with Trump Administration demands. As the National Guard
continued to deploy in 2020, of the first 90,000 of the National Guard (which has now exceeded

8 U.S. State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism 2019, see Mexico country report at
9 United Nations, U.N. Global Study on Homicide 2019, July 8, 2019; see also “‘Breathtaking Homicidal Violence’:
Latin America in Grip of Murder Crisis,” The Guardian, April 26, 2018.
10 “Stratfor now divides Mexican organized criminal groups into the distinct geographic areas from which they
emerged. This view is not just a convenient way of categorizing an increasingly long list of independent crime groups
in Mexico, but rather it reflects the internal realities of most crime groups in Mexico.” See “Mexico’s Drug War
Update: Tamaulipas-Based Groups Struggle,” Stratfor Worldview, April 16, 2015.
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100,000 members), 80% tested did not meet basic policing training standards.11 The President
contends that Mexico’s National Guard was not prepared to handle the violence of the DTOs, and
as it is trained to carry out that task he said that the military can fill in through 2024.12
Congressional Concerns
Over the past dozen years, Congress has held numerous oversight hearings addressing the
violence in Mexico, U.S. counternarcotics assistance, and border security issues. Congressional
concern increased in 2012 after U.S. consulate staff and security personnel working in Mexico
came under attack.13 (Two U.S. officials traveling in an embassy vehicle were wounded in an
attack allegedly abetted by corrupt Mexican police.14) Occasional use of car bombs, grenades, and
rocket-propelled grenade launchers—such as the one used to bring down an Mexican army
helicopter in 2015—continue to raise concerns. Incidents such as the late 2019 massacre of dual
U.S.-Mexican citizens near to the U.S.-Mexico border have prompted Members of Congress to
consider whether Mexican drug traffickers may be adopting insurgent or terrorist techniques.
Perceived harms to the United States from the
DTOs, or transnational criminal organizations
The Mérida Initiative
(TCOs), as the U.S. Department of Justice
The Mérida Initiative is a U.S.-Mexican antidrug and
now identifies them, are due primarily to the
rule of law partnership for which Congress has
organizations’ control of and efforts to move
provided $3.1 bil ion through FY2020. Many analysts
illicit drugs to the United States and to expand
have observed the need for more reporting on Mérida
aggressively into heroin, synthetic opioids,
Initiative outcomes to help Congress oversee the funds
and methamphetamine. Mexico experienced a
it has appropriated. The State Department has pointed
to some indicators of success, such as improvements in
sharp increase in opium poppy cultivation
intelligence sharing and police cooperation that has
between 2014 and 2018, and Mexico is a
helped capture and extradite high-profile criminals. But
growing producer of (and transit country for)
the ongoing concerns about escalating violence in
synthetic opioids. This corresponds to an
Mexico and drug overdose deaths in the United States
epidemic of opioid-related deaths in the
have led many to question the efficacy of the Mérida
United States and a continued high demand
See CRS In Focus IF10578, Mexico: Evolution of the
for heroin and synthetic opioids.15
Mérida Initiative, 2007-2020.

11 Arturo Angel, “80% en Guardia Nacional Carece de Certificación Como Policía, Predominan en esta Fuerza
Militares y Marinos,” Animal Politico, July 7, 2020.
12 Mark Stevenson, “Mexico Authorizes Military Policing for 4 More Years,” Associated Press, May 11, 2020.
13 In 2011, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent was killed and another wounded in a drug gang
shooting incident in San Luis Potosí, north of Mexico City. See “U.S. Immigration Agent Shot Dead in Mexico
Attack,” BBC News, February 16, 2011.
14 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.
15 Steven Dudley et al., “Mexico’s Role in the Deadly Rise of Fentanyl,” Wilson Center Mexico Institute and InSight
, February 2019. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 72,000 Americans who
died of drug overdoses in 2017, nearly 28,500 involved fentanyl or an analog of the synthetic drug—45% more than in
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Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations

Figure 2. Stratfor Cartel Map by Region of Influence
Published in January 2020

Source: Stratfor Global Intelligence, “Tracking Mexico’s Cartels in 2020,”
Notes: The map indicates region of influence and origin of Mexico’s TCOs, DTOs, or cartels.
Some Members of Congress are concerned about the persistent high levels of violence in Mexico,
including attacks on journalists, attacks and killings of political candidates and their families that
lead some Mexican candidates to withdraw from their races, judges fearing for their safety, and
other aggressive measures taken against citizens and officials to ensure impunity. Overt political
intimidation poses a significant threat to democracy in Mexico by the use of forced
disappearances, violent kidnapping, and robbery to intimidate politicians and citizens.16 The
major Mexican crime groups have continued to diversify their operations by engaging in such
crimes as human smuggling, extortion, and oil theft while increasing their lucrative drug business.
The U.S. Congress has expressed concern over the violence and has sought to provide oversight
on U.S.-Mexican security cooperation. Congress may continue to evaluate how the Mexican
government is combating the illicit drug trade, working to reduce related violence, and

16 Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, “Informe de Víctimas de Homocidio, Secuestro y
Extorsión 2017,” March 20, 2018; Kevin Sieff, “36 Local Candidates in Mexico Have Been Assassinated, Leading
Others to Quit,” Washington Post, May 21, 2018.
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monitoring the effects of drug trafficking and violence on the security of both the United States
and Mexico. Congress provided a new reporting requirement in the FY2020 National Defense
Authorization Act (P.L. 116-92, §7211) that requires unclassified and classified reporting to
Congress on foreign opioid traffickers, such as Mexico’s TCOs. There is consideration in the
FY2021 NDAA of an amendment to highlight countries that are significant sources of fentanyl.
Escalation of DTO-Related Homicide, Corruption,
and Impunity
The number of homicides and the homicide rate grew substantially beginning in 2007 in the
administration of President Felipe Calderón and stayed at elevated levels through ensuing
Mexican administrations. The sharp rise in absolute numbers of deaths was unprecedented, even
compared to other Latin American countries with similarly high rates of crime and homicides.17
Estimates of Mexico’s disappeared or missing—numbering more than 73,000 since 2007 as
reported by the Mexican government in mid-2020—have generated domestic and international
concern.18 Alarm has grown about new bouts of extreme violence and the continuing discovery of
mass graves around the country.19
Casualties are reported differently by the Mexican government and Mexican media outlets that
track the violence, so debate exists on how many have been killed.20 This report conveys Mexican
government data, but the data have not been reported consistently or completely.21 Although
different tallies diverged, during President Calderón’s tenure (2006-2012) there was a sharp
increase in total homicides, which leveled off at the end of 2012 when Calderón left office. In the
Enrique Peña Nieto administration, after a couple years’ decline, a steep increase was recorded
between 2016 to the end of 2018, which surpassed previous totals. Overall, since 2006, when
violence grew in response to a more direct government assault on the DTOs, many sources
maintain that Mexico experienced roughly 150,000 murders related to organized crime out of
more than 288,000 intentional homicides.22 These 150,000 likely organized-crime-related killings
do not include the 73,000 considered to be missing or disappeared over the last 14 years as
reported by the current government under President López Obrador, nor the continued rise
through its first 600 days in office.23

17 This finding appears in several annual reports from the University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico program,
including in Calderón et al., Organized Crime.
18 Mary Beth Sheridan, “Mexico’s Plague of Disappearances Continues to Worsen,” Washington Post, July 14, 2020;
“Mexican Gov’t Unveils Plan to Search for Missing People,” Agencia EFE (English Edition), February 4, 2019.
19 Andrea Navarro, “Drug Cartels Muscle into Town Packed with Americans,” Bloomberg, December 4, 2019;
“Mexico: 50 Bodies Among Remains at Farm Outside Guadalajara,” Associated Press, December 15, 2019.
20 The Mexican news organizations Reforma and Milenio both keep a tally of “narco-executions.” For instance, in
2014, Reforma reported 6,400 such killings, the lowest it has reported since 2008, whereas Milenio reported 7,993
organized-crime-related murders. Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk, Drug Violence in
Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2015
, University of San Diego, April 2016.
21 The government data published has changed over time. Under the Calderón government, tallies of “organized-crime-
related” homicides were published until September 2011. The Peña Nieto administration also issued such estimates but
stopped in mid-2013, only publishing data on all intentional homicides. The Justice in Mexico project has identified an
average (over many years) of homicides linked to organized crime by assessing several sources. Of total homicides
reported by the Mexican government, between 25% and 50% of those killings were likely linked to organized crime.
22 Calderón et al., Organized Crime.
23 Sheridan, “Mexico’s Plague of Disappearances Continues to Worsen.” The author notes, “In Mexico, the
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A spate of crime in late 2019 appears to have been committed by factions of once cohesive
criminal groups. In October, Mexican security forces seized a son of imprisoned Mexican drug
kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—until the Sinaloa Cartel responded with overwhelming
force that brought chaos to the Sinaloa state’s capital, Culiacán, and prompted authorities to
quickly release him. Reportedly, there is a split within the once all-powerful Sinaloa DTO,
involving one faction led by El Chapo’s
offspring and another led by a senior
Crime and Coronavirus Response in Mexico
top leader (see Sinaloa section, below).
In the first six months of 2020, Mexico’s homicide rate rose by
In early November, nine U.S.-Mexican
an estimated near 2% over the record set in the same period
dual citizens of an extended Mormon
of 2019. In 2020, armed battles between crime groups and
family (including children) were slain in
Mexican security forces continued. In 12 of Mexico’s 32 states,
the border state of Sonora. These
journalists reported social media depictions of cartel
operatives passing out pandemic survival supplies (some
incidents drew the attention of President
stamped with DTO logos) in direct competition with Mexican
Trump, who pushed the Mexican
authorities. Along the country’s west coast, in certain
government to invite greater assistance
municipalities (equivalent to U.S. counties) some of the larger
from the U.S. government to help
DTOs have supplied other public goods and services. In the
Mexico win the drug war.
Pacific state of Guerrero, where dozens of criminal groups
24 In 2019,
operate openly, police have been absent, and vigilante groups
Mexico City—with one of the highest
that reportedly have close links to the cartels imposed and
police-per-population ratios in the
enforced curfews.
country and traditionally considered off-
Under pandemic quarantine (declared March 30 in Mexico),
limits to overt cartel violence—
criminal groups have stil fought for territory and drug
registered its highest homicide level in
trafficking routes. In some Mexican cities, opportunistic crimes
25 years, exceeding 1,500 murders.
such as mugging, kidnapping, or extortion declined during the

COVID-19 lockdown, but powerful cartels, such as the Cártel
As Mexico faced the novel coronavirus
Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), have attacked competitors,
(COVID-19) pandemic in the spring of
keeping homicide levels elevated.1 The pandemic has become
an opportunity for the DTOs to exert greater power within
2020, organized crime groups stepped
their areas of influence, according to some analysts.
up their activities, although in other
Sources: The Guardian, “Mexican Criminal Groups See
countries in the region there were
Covid-19 Crisis as Opportunity to Gain More Power,”
temporary declines in crime. Fighting
April 20, 2020; José de Córdoba, “Mexico’s Cartels
among crime groups and cartels appears
Distribute Aid to Win Support,” Wall Street Journal, May
to have risen in Mexico, keeping
15, 2020; Ioan Gril o, “How Mexico’s Drug Cartels Are
homicides levels elevated.
Profiting from the Pandemic,” New York Times, July 7,
Fragmentation of DTOs has resulted in
increased competition over drug
infrastructure (see textbox).25
On June 16, 2020, a federal judge was killed who had supervised a case involving the son of the
CJNG leader, Rubén “El Menchito” Oseguera, also allegedly a top cartel figure. The judge, who

disappearances are blamed on a wider variety of culprits: organized crime gangs, police, the military or some
combination of the three.” For more on Mexico’s National Search Commission set up by the López Obrador
government, see Eoin Wilson, “Mexico: Coronavirus Pandemic Hasn't Stopped the Disappearances,” Al Jazeera, June
16, 2020; U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2019 Country Reports on Human
Rights Practices
, March 11, 2020.
24 For background, see CRS Insight IN11205, Designating Mexican Drug Cartels as Foreign Terrorists: Policy
, coordinated by Liana W. Rosen; Ioan Grillo, “How the Sinaloa Cartel Bested the Mexican Army,” Time,
October 18, 2019; and Manuel Bojorquez, “Massacre of Mormon Family Reveals Evolution of Cartel Violence in
Mexico,” CBS News, November 9, 2019.
25 Jane Esberg, “More Than Cartels: Counting Mexico’s Crime Rings,” International Crisis Group, May 8, 2020,
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had ruled in a case involving El Menchito’s 2020 extradition to the United States, had also
delivered judgments in top Sinaloa Cartel cases. He and his wife were murdered outside their
home in the capital city of Colima. Colima, a small state neighboring Jalisco, has in recent years
seen Mexico’s highest per capita rate of intentional homicides.26 Less than two weeks later, on the
morning of June 26, 2020, armed men ambushed Mexico City’s police chief and secretary of
public security, Omar García Harfuch, seriously wounding him and killing two bodyguards and a
bystander. García Harfuch, from his hospital bed, accused the CJNG of launching the attack in a
tweeted message.27
Many analysts contend these attacks mark CJNG’s expansion across the country and willingness
to go after Mexican government officials in a brazen fashion.28 (For more background, see CJNG
section below.) The use of strategic violence and displays of firepower by the DTOs to message
to top public officials is a growing concern. Judges are reportedly citing the Mexico City incident
to decline organized crime cases out of concern for their personal safety.29
Since early 2019, Mexico’s northern border states of Baja California, Chihuahua, and Tamaulipas
are where a significant number of migrants have resided in temporary shelters or provisional
encampments under the Migrant Protection Protocols.30 All these border states have homicide
rates exceeding national averages. In 2019, as in the year before, Mexico’s two cities with the
highest incidence of violent crime were Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, with 1,281 murders; and
Tijuana, Baja California, with 2,000 homicides31 (see Figure 3). Migrants and border city
residents were frequent victims of predatory crime in addition to homicide, such as kidnapping,
robbery, and extortion. The battle for turf between the once predominant Sinaloa Cartel and its
aggressive competitor—the CJNG—spawned chaotic violence from the border city of Tijuana all
the way to Mexico’s east coast.
Many U.S. policymakers have expressed deep concerns about the extent of territory not under
central government control, where criminal groups and their fragments attempt to achieve
dominance and ensure impunity from government authorities.32 CJNG, for instance, was involved
in violent clashes with rivals to control border crossings and smuggling routes into the United
In March 2020, Mexico experienced its most violent month, with 3,000 murder victims reported.
The central state of Guanajuato was Mexico’s most violent state in the first half of 2020, with
brutal attacks on two drug rehabilitation centers in the same city that resulted in 10 and 28
homicides, respectively. A battle over the illicit petroleum market between two major rivals,
CJNG and the oil tappers of the Cártel Santa Rosa de Lima (CSRL), boosted crime related
fatalities in Guanajuato.33 Both the leader of CSRL, José Antonio Yépez, known as “El Morro,”

26 Zachary Goodwin, “Why One of Mexico’s Smallest States Is Also Its Most Violent, InSight Crime, June 24, 2020.
The article notes that the remains of a Colima congresswoman, Anel Bueno, were found in an unmarked grave two
weeks before the judge’s murder.
27 Kevin Sieff, “Mexico’s Bold Jalisco Cartel Places Elite in Its Sights,” Washington Post, July 14, 2020.
28 Ioan Grillo, “How Mexico’s Drug Cartels Are Profiting from the Pandemic;” James Bosworth, “Mexico Security
Update—June 2020,” June 29, 2020; “Mexico Security Update—July 2020,” July 6, 2020.
29 For remarks by Mexico’s attorney general, see Gustavo Castillo García, “Va el ‘Narco’ por el Control Político y
Territorial: Gertz,” La Jornada, July 7, 2020.
30 The Trump Administration’s Migration Protection Protocols allow for persons seeking asylum in the United States to
be returned to Mexico to await their U.S. hearings.
31 Data provided by the University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico project to CRS, May 1, 2020.
32 For more on criminal fragmentation, see Esberg, “More Than Cartels.”
33 Jorgic and Sanchez, “As Mexico Focuses on Coronavirus, Drug Gang Violence Rises;” Falko Ernst, “Mexican
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and CJNG leaders threaten government officials to deter enforcement actions against them.34
Inter-cartel battles over the lucrative synthetic opioid fentanyl market in several states in central
Mexico have also expanded over the past couple of years.
Figure 3. Major Ports of Entry at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Source: Prepared by CRS Graphics
Corruption and Government Institutions
The criminal involvement of state governors with the DTOs and other criminals is one window
into the extent of corruption in the layers of government and across parties in Mexico.35 Twenty
former state governors, many from the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI),
were under investigation or in jail in 2018.36 Former governors of the states of Coahuila,
Tamaulipas, and Quintana Roo have been charged with money laundering and conspiracy. Other
noteworthy examples of allegedly corrupt former governors include those prosecuted in Mexico
and the United States:
 Tomás Yarrington of Tamaulipas (1999-2005) of the PRI was arrested in Italy in
2017 and extradited to the United States in 2018 for U.S. charges of drug
trafficking, money laundering, and racketeering. Since 2012, he had been under
investigation for his links to the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas in Mexico.37

Criminal Groups See Covid-19 Crisis as Opportunity to Gain More Power,” The Guardian, April 20, 2020.
34 El Morro, for instance, threatened the state government of Guanajuato and federal officials in June 2020 when his
cousin, wife, and mother were picked up in a sweep to limit the CSRL’s oil theft.
35 For more on the issue of corruption and impunity in Mexico, see Roberto Simon and Geert Aalbers, “The Capacity to
Combat Corruption (CCC) Index,” Americas Society and the Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and Control Risks,
June 2019,; CRS Report R45733,
Combating Corruption in Latin America: Congressional Considerations, coordinated by June S. Beittel.
36 In the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, “nearly 20 former governors
had been sentenced, faced corruption charges, or were under formal investigation,” appears in the Mexico country
report. See U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2018 Country Reports on Human
Rights Practices
, April 2019.
37 U.S. Department of Justice, “Former Mexican Governor Extradited to the Southern District of Texas,” press release,
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 César Duarte of Chihuahua (2010-2016) of the PRI was an international fugitive
wanted on a Red Notice by Interpol until his July 2020 arrest in Florida (during a
visit of President López Obrador to Washington, DC) for extradition back to
 Javier Duarte of Veracruz (2010-2016) of the PRI was arrested in Guatemala and
extradited to Mexico in August 2017. During his term, the number of persons
forcibly disappeared in Veracruz is estimated to have exceeded 5,000.39
Following his trial in Mexico, Duarte received a nine-year sentence in September
Over the six years of PRI President Peña Nieto’s term (2012-2018), Mexico fell 32 places in
Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.41 In the 2019 survey Mexican
respondents’ perceptions of corruption improved slightly due to the popularity of President Lopéz
Obrador in his first year in office. However, citizen perceptions of the security situation in
Mexico appear to have worsened in much of the country in the first months of 2020.
Another non-governmental study on combating corruption in the region examined the capacity of
15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to uncover, prevent, and punish corruption.
Mexico’s ranking was near the middle in the 2020 survey but had moved little from the year
before due to meager progress on long-term institutional reforms and low independence and
efficiency in the legal system.42

April 20, 2018,
38 Jacob Sánchez, “Gobierno de Chihuahua Anuncia Cacería de Propiedades de César Duarte en EU,” El Sol de
, November 27, 2019; Reuters, “Fugitive Mexican Governor Arrested in Miami,” July 8, 2020.
39 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.
40 “Mexico Fugitive Ex-Governor Roberto Borge Extradited,” BBC News, January 4, 2018,
world-latin-america-42564581; Rafael Martínez, “Vinculan a Proceso a Exgobernador de Quintana Roo, Roberto
Borge,” El Sol de México, November 13, 2019,
41 See Corruption Perceptions Index 2018, Transparency International, January 29, 2018, and
42 Roberto Simon and Geert Aalbers, The Capacity to Combat Corruption (CCC) Index: Assessing Latin America’s
Ability to Detect, Punish and Prevent Corruption Amid COVID-19 2020
, Anti-Corruption Working Group, AS/COA,
Americas Quarterly, and Control Risks, June 8, 2020.
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Links Among Crime Groups, Police, and Other High-Ranking Officials
In Mexico, arrests of police and other public officials accused of cooperating with the DTOs have rarely been
fol owed by convictions, although a few prominent cases of corruption have achieved results. Police corruption
has been so ubiquitous that law enforcement officials sometimes carry out the violent assignments from DTOs
and other criminal groups. Purges of Mexico’s municipal, state, and federal police have not rid the police of this
enduring problem.
When El Chapo Guzmán escaped a second time from a federal maximum-security prison in 2015, scores of
Mexican prison personnel were arrested. Eventually, the prison warden was fired. Guzmán, who led Mexico’s
notorious Sinaloa Cartel for decades, was extradited to the United States in early 2017. In February 2019, he was
convicted in federal court in New York for multiple counts of operating a continuing criminal enterprise. Some of
the New York trial’s most incendiary testimony alleged that senior Mexican government officials took bribes from
Guzmán. One prosecution witness alleged that then-President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) received a $100
mil ion bribe from Guzmán, an allegation Peña Nieto strongly disputed. Some observers maintain that allegation
was far-fetched.
In December 2019, Genaro García Luna was arrested in Texas on a U.S. indictment accused of taking multimil ion-
dol ar bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel while holding top law enforcement positions. García Luna headed Mexico’s
Federal Investigation Agency from 2001 to 2005 (under former President Vicente Fox of the National Action
Party, or PAN) and then, under President Felipe Calderón, also of PAN, he became secretary of public security.
García Luna left Mexico in 2012 and sought to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. President López Obrador cited
García Luna’s U.S. arrest as evidence that the preceding Calderón government’s fierce enforcement strategy had
not successful y repelled the DTOs and that his administration’s alternative approach was more effective in
reducing corruption.
Sources: Alan Feuer, “The Public Trial of El Chapo, Held Partially in Secret,” New York Times, November 21,
2018; Steven Dudley, “The End of the Big Cartels: Why There Won’t Be Another Chapo,” InSight Crime,
March 18, 2019; U.S. Department of Justice, “Former Mexican Secretary of Public Security Arrested for
Drug-Trafficking Conspiracy and Making False Statements,” press release, December 10, 2019.
In early 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated former Nayarit Governor Roberto
Sandoval Castañeda (2011-2017, PRI Party) and his immediate family for corruption in
misappropriating state assets and accepting bribes from the CJNG and the Beltran Leyva
Organization. This designation was made under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights
Accountability Act, rendering the designees ineligible for U.S. visas.43
Criminal Landscape in Mexico
The splintering of the large DTOs into competing factions and gangs of different sizes began in
2007 and continues today. The emergence of these different crime groups, ranging from TCOs to
small local mafias (with certain trafficking or other crime specialties), has made the crime
situation diffuse and the crime groups’ behavior harder to suppress or eradicate.
The older, large DTOs tended to be hierarchical, often bound by familial ties and led by hard-to-
capture cartel kingpins. They 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 have resisted
norms that might limit violence. Moreover, rivalries among a greater number of organized crime
“players” have led to more violence, although in some cases the smaller organizations are “less

43 U.S. Department of State, “Public Designation of the Former Governor of the Mexican State of Nayarit, Roberto
Sandoval Castañeda, Due to Involvement in Significant Corruption,” press release, February 28, 2020. For more
background, seeCRS In Focus IF10576, The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, by Dianne E.
Rennack; and CRS Report R46362, Foreign Officials Publicly Designated by the U.S. Department of State on
Corruption or Human Rights Grounds: A Chronology
, by Liana W. Rosen and Michael A. Weber.
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link to page 29 Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations

able to threaten the state and less endowed with impunity.”44 However, the larger organizations
(Sinaloa, for example) that have adopted a cellular structure are able to still protect their
leadership, such as the 2015 escape orchestrated for Sinaloa leader El Chapo Guzmán through a
mile-long tunnel from a maximum-security Mexican 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.
Criminal actors sometimes publicize their crimes in garish displays intended to intimidate their
rivals, the public, or security forces, or they publicize the criminal acts of violence on the internet.
Conversely, the DTOs may seek to mask their crimes by indicating that other actors, such as a
competitor cartel, are responsible. Some shootouts are not reported as a result of media self-
censorship or because the bodies disappear.45 One opposite example is the reported death in 2010
of a leader of the Knights Templar, Nazario Moreno González, but no body was recovered at the
time. Rumors of his survival persisted and were confirmed in 2014, when he was killed in a gun
battle with Mexican security forces.46 (See section on Knights Templar below.)
Forced disappearances in Mexico have also become a growing concern, and efforts to accurately
count the missing or forcibly disappeared have been limited, a problem exacerbated by
underreporting. Government estimates of the number of disappeared people in Mexico have
varied widely over time, especially of those who are missing due to force and possible homicide,
although an effort to accurately assess this problem is a focus of the current Mexican
government’s security strategy.47 The López Obrador government has established a National
Search Commission and announced in June 2020 that more than 73,000 Mexicans are missing or
In the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, a vast mass grave was unearthed in 2017 that contained some
250 skulls and other remains, some of which were found to be years old.49 Journalist watchdog
group Animal Político, which focuses on combating corruption with transparency, concluded in a
2018 investigative piece that many states lack equipment to adequately investigate violent crime.
For example, the authors found that 20 of Mexico’s 32 states lack biological databases needed to
identify unclaimed bodies. Additionally, 21 states lack access to the national munitions database
used to trace bullets and weapons.50
The State Department’s June 2020 U.S. travel advisory for Mexico, which cautioned generally
against travel to Mexico due to COVID-19 pandemic concerns, warned that five Mexican states
are not recommended for travel due to crime—Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and

44 Patrick Corcoran, “Mexico Government Report Points to Ongoing Criminal Fragmentation,” InSight Crime, April
14, 2015.
45 Christopher Sherman, “Drug War Death Tolls a Guess Without Bodies,” Associated Press, March 26, 2013.
46 Ioan Grillo, Gangster Warlords (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016). See also Parker Asmann, “Walled Inside
Homes, Corpses of Mexico’s Disappeared Evade Authorities,” InSight Crime, July 31, 2019.
47 For more on the López Obrador administration’s security approach, see CRS Report R42917, Mexico: Background
and U.S. Relations
, by Clare Ribando Seelke.
48 For more background on the commission, see State Department, 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices:
49 McDonnell and Sanchez, “A Mother Who Dug in a Mexican Mass Grave;” “Mexico Violence: Skulls Found in a
New Veracruz Mass Grave,” BBC News, March 20, 2017.
50 Arturo Angel, “Dos Años del Nuevo Sistema Penal: Mejoran los Juicios, pero no el Trabajo de Policías, Fiscalías,”
Animal Político, June 18, 2018,
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Tamaulipas—and recommended reconsideration of travel for another 11 due to crime. The total of
16 states featured in the June advisory comprise half of Mexico’s states.51
According to the Swiss-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, about 380,000 people
were forcibly displaced in Mexico between 2009 and 2018 as a result of violence and organized
crime. Some Mexican government authorities have said the number may exceed a million, but in
such a count the definition of the causes for displacement is broad and includes anyone who
moved due to violence. Dislocated Mexicans often cite clashes between armed groups or with
Mexican security forces, inter-gang violence, and fear of future violence as reasons for leaving
their homes and communities.52
Illicit Drugs in Mexico and Components of Its Drug Supply Market
Today, the major Mexican DTOs are poly-drug, 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 2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), Mexico is a
significant source and transit country for heroin, marijuana, and synthetic drugs (such as
methamphetamine and fentanyl) destined for the United States. Mexico remains the main
trafficking route for U.S.-bound cocaine from the major supply countries of Colombia and (to a
lesser extent) Peru and Bolivia.53 The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) notes that
traffickers and retail sellers of fentanyl and heroin combine them in various ways, such as
pressing the combined powder drugs into highly addictive and extremely powerful counterfeit
The west coast state of Sinaloa, with its long coastline and difficult-to-access areas, is favorable
for drug cultivation and remains the heartland of Mexico’s drug trade. Marijuana and opium
poppy cultivation has flourished in the state for decades.54 It has also been the home of Mexico’s
most notorious and successful drug traffickers.
Cocaine. Cocaine of Colombian origin supplies most of the U.S. market, and most of that supply
is trafficked through Mexico. Mexican drug traffickers are the primary wholesalers of U.S.
cocaine. According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), coca
cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia increased to a record 951 metric tons of pure
cocaine in 2019, an 8% rise over 2018.55 Cutting cocaine with synthetic opioids (often
unbeknownst to users) has become more commonplace and increases the dangers of overdose.
Heroin and Synthetically Produced Opioids. In its 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment
(NDTA), the DEA warns that Mexico’s crime organizations, aided by corruption and impunity,
present an acute threat to U.S. communities given their dominance in heroin and fentanyl exports.
Mexico’s heroin traffickers, who traditionally provided black or brown heroin to the western part
of the United States, in 2012 and 2013 began to change their opium processing methods to

51 U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Mexico Travel Advisory, June 17, 2020,
52 Juan Arvizo, “Crimen Displazó a 380 Mil Personas,” El Universal, July 24, 2019. See also Parker Asmann, “Is the
Impact of Violence in Mexico Similar to War Zones?,” InSight Crime, October 23, 2017.
53 U.S. State Department, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, March 2020.
54 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, a third of the population is estimated to make their living from the illicit drug trade.
55 White House, ONDCP, “United States and Colombian Officials Set Bilaeral Agenda to Reduce Cocaine Supply,”
press release, March 5, 2020.
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produce white heroin, a purer and more potent product. The DEA maintains that no other crime
groups, foreign or domestic, have a comparable reach to distribute within the United States.56
According to the ONDCP, 41,800 hectares of opium poppy were cultivated in Mexico in 2018—
down 5% compared to 2017 but up 280% since 2013. Mexico’s potential production of pure
heroin rose to 106 metric tons (MT) in 2018 from 26 MT in 2013.57 The DEA reports that 90% of
U.S. seized heroin comes from Mexico, which is increasingly laced with fentanyl.
The extent of Mexico’s role in production of fentanyl, which is 30-50 times more potent than
heroin, is less well understood than Mexico’s role in fentanyl trafficking, which is increasingly
well documented.58 What is known is that seizures of fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and
methamphetamine—the leading synthetic lab-produced drugs entering the U.S. illicit drug
market—have been rising along the Southwest border. (For U.S. Customs and Border Protection
seizure data, see Figure 4.)
Illicit imports of fentanyl from Mexico involve Chinese-produced fentanyl or fentanyl precursors
coming most often from China. Many analysts contend that plant-sourced drugs, such as heroin
and morphine, may be gradually replaced in the criminal market by synthetic drugs. In the first
half of 2019, according to the State Department, Mexico seized 157.3 kilograms of fentanyl, a
94% increase over the same time period in 2018.59 Some observers suggest that if synthetic drugs
continue to expand their market share, the drug cartel structure that has relied upon control of
opium production, heroin manufacture, and distribution using the plaza system in Mexico for
trafficking drugs for sale inside the United States could be disrupted. Synthetic drug trafficking
with distribution arranged over the internet via the Dark Web would replace it. Abandoning
heroin for the cheaper-to-produce fentanyl might cause Mexican opium farmers to be thrown out
of work.60

56 ONDCP, “New Annual Data Released by White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Shows Poppy
Cultivation and Potential Heroin Production Remain at Record-High Levels in Mexico,” press release, June 14, 2019.
57 For background on Mexico’s heroin and fentanyl exports, see CRS In Focus IF10400, Trends in Mexican Opioid
Trafficking and Implications for U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation
, by Liana W. Rosen and Clare Ribando Seelke.
58 DEA, 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment, DEA-DCT-DIR-040-1, October 2017. See also Steven Dudley, “The
End of the Big Cartels: Why There Won’t Be Another El Chapo,” InSight Crime, March 18, 2019.
59 U.S. State Department, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, March 2020.
60 For sources of the concepts here, see Dudley, “The End of the Big Cartels;” testimony of Bryce Pardo, RAND
Corporation, to House Homeland Security on Intelligence and Counterterrorism Subcommittee and Border Security,
Facilitation, and Operations Hearing, “Homeland Security Implications of the Opioid Crisis,” July 25, 2019; Vanda
Felbab-Brown, “Fending Off Fentanyl and Hunting Down Heroin: Controlling Opioid Supply from Mexico,”
Brookings Institution, July 2020.
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Figure 4. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Seizures of Fentanyl and
Data from FY2014-FY2019
Number of Seizures in Pounds (lbs)
FY14 FY15 FY16 FY17 FY18 FY19
FY14 FY15 FY16 FY17 FY18 FY19

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Field Operations’ Nationwide Drug Seizures and U.S.
Border Patrol’s Nationwide Seizures,
Notes: Prepared by CRS Graphics.
However, the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, projected by the International
Monetary Fund to reduce economic growth in Mexico by more than 10% in 2020 (estimated as of
June 2020), may temporarily push former opium growers back into cultivation. The medium- and
longer-term impact of the pandemic and coming recession on drug markets and consumer
demand remains unknown.61
Methamphetamine. Mexican-produced methamphetamine has overtaken U.S. sources of the
drug and expanded into nontraditional methamphetamine markets inside the United States,
allowing Mexican traffickers to control the wholesale market inside the United States, according
to the DEA. The expansion of methamphetamine seizures inside Mexico, as reported by the
annual INCSR, is significant. As of August 2018, as reported in the 2019 INCSR, Mexican
authorities had seized 130 MT of methamphetamine, due in part to a large seizure of some 50 MT
in Sinaloa.62 U.S. methamphetamine seizures significantly increased between 2014 and 2019, as
shown in Figure 4. The purity and potency of methamphetamine has driven up overdose deaths
in the United States.
Cannabis. In the first six months of 2019, Mexico seized 91 MT of marijuana and eradicated
more than 2,250 hectares of marijuana, according to the State Department’s 2020 INCSR.

61 Many analysts have made observations about the near-term impacts of the pandemic, but there is a diversity of
perspectives on the long term. See Parker Asmann, Chris Dalby and Seth Robbins, “Six Ways Coronavirus Is
Impacting Organized Crime in the Americas,” InSight Crime, May 4, 2020; Ernst, “Mexican Criminal Groups See
Covid-19 Crisis as Opportunity to Gain More Power;” Robert Muggah, “The Pandemic Has Triggered Dramatic Shifts
in the Global Criminal Underworld,” Foreign Policy, May 8, 2020.
62 Arthur DeBruyne, “An Invisible Fentanyl Crisis Emerging on Mexico’s Northern Border,” Pacific Standard,
February 6, 2019. See also “50 Tonnes of Meth Seized in Sinaloa; Estimated Value US $5 Billion,” Mexico New Daily,
August 18, 2018; Mike La Susa, “Massive Mexico Methamphetamine Seizure Reflects Market Shifts,” InSight Crime,
August 21, 2018.
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Authorities are projecting a continued decline in U.S. demand for Mexican marijuana because
drugs “other than marijuana” will likely predominate. This is also the case due to legalized
cannabis or medical cannabis in several U.S. states and Canada, reducing its value as part of
Mexican trafficking organizations’ portfolio. Mexico is also considering cannabis legalization and
Evolution of the Major Drug Trafficking Groups
The DTOs have been in constant flux in recent years.63 By some accounts, when President
Calderón came to office in 2006, there were four dominant DTOs: the Tijuana/Arellano Félix
organization (AFO), the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juárez/Vicente Carillo Fuentes Organization (CFO),
and the Gulf Cartel. Since then, the large, formerly stable organizations that existed in the earlier
years of the Calderón administration have fractured into many more groups.
For several years, the DEA identified the following seven 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 seven groups have fragmented. In the past decade, as fragmentation has produced many
more criminal actors, it has been accompanied by many groups’ diversification into other types of
criminal activity, as noted earlier. The following section focuses on the nine currently most
prominent DTOs (about which the most information is readily available) and whose current status
illuminates the fluidity of all the crime groups in Mexico as they face new challenges from
competition and changing market dynamics. Some analysts maintain there may be as many as 20
major organizations and more than 200 criminal groups overall.64
Nine Major DTOs
Reconfiguration of the major DTOs—often referred to as TCOs due to their diversification—
preceded the intensive fragmentation that exists today. The Gulf Cartel, based in northeastern
Mexico, had a long history of dominant power and profits, with the height of its power in the
early 2000s. However, the Gulf 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.65
Sinaloa survived the arrest of its billionaire founder 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. Initially the kingpin’s arrest did not

63 See Patrick Corcoran, “How Mexico’s Underworld Became Violent,” InSight Crime, April 2, 2013. According to
this article, constant organizational flux, which continues today, characterizes violence in Mexico.
64 Muggah, “The Pandemic Has Triggered Dramatic Shifts in the Global Criminal Underworld;” Esberg, “More Than
65 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 semiautonomous groups.”
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spawn a visible power struggle within the DTO. His dramatic escape in July 2015 followed by his
re-arrest in January 2016, however, raised speculation that his role in the Sinaloa Cartel might
have become more as a figurehead rather than a functional leader.
The Mexican government’s decision to extradite Guzmán to the United States, carried out on
January 19, 2017, appears to have led to violent competition from a competing cartel, the CJNG,
which had split from Sinaloa in 2010. Over 2016 and the early months of 2017, the 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,” reportedly caused increasing
In the Pacific Southwest, La Familia Michoacana—a DTO once based in the state of Michoacán
and influential in surrounding states—split apart in 2015. It eventually declined in importance as
its successor, the Knights Templar, grew in prominence in the region known as the Tierra
of Michoácan, Guerrero, and in parts of neighboring states Colima and Jalisco. At the
same time, the CJNG rose to prominence between 2013 and 2015 and is currently deemed by
many analysts as Mexico’s largest and most dangerous DTO. The CJNG has thrived with the
decline of the Knights Templar, which was targeted by the Mexican government.67 The CJNG has
assassinated numerous public officials in an effort to intimidate the Mexican government.
Open-source research about the traditional DTOs and their successors mentioned above is more
available than information about smaller factions. With as many as 200-400 criminal groups, it is
hard to assess longevity or even do a census of which ones are major actors. Current information
about the array of new regional and local crime 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, cooperatively.
Tijuana/Arellano Félix Organization
The AFO is a regional “tollgate” organization that has historically controlled the drug smuggling
route between Baja California (Mexico) to southern California.68 It is based in the border city of
Tijuana. One of the founders of modern Mexican DTOs, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, a former
police officer from Sinaloa, created a network that included the Arellano Félix family and
numerous other DTO leaders (such as Rafael Caro Quintero, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, and El
Chapo Guzman). The seven “Arellano Félix” brothers and four sisters inherited the AFO from
their uncle, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, after his arrest in 1989 for the murder of DEA Special
Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena.69

66 Anabel Hernández, “The Successor to El Chapo: Dámaso López Núñez,” InSight Crime, March 13, 2017.
67 Juan Montes and José de Córdoba, “Cartel Becomes Top Mexico Threat,” Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2020; Luis
Alonso Pérez, “Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel—New Generation: From Extinction to World Domination,” InSight Crime and
Animal Politico, December 26, 2016.
68 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. Mexican political analyst
Eduardo Guerrero-Gutiérrez of the Mexican firm Lantia Consulting defines a “toll-collector” cartel or DTO as one that
derives much of the organization’s income from charging fees to other DTOs using its transportation points across the
U.S.-Mexican border.
69 Special Agent Camarena was an undercover DEA agent working in Mexico who was kidnapped, tortured, and killed
in 1985. The Guadalajara-based Félix Gallardo network broke up in the wake of the investigation of its role in the
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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.70 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” García Simental, an AFO lieutenant,
broke from Fernando “El Ingeniero” Sánchez Arellano (the nephew of the Arellano Félix brothers
who had taken over the management of the DTO). García Simental formed another faction of the
AFO, reportedly allied with the Sinaloa DTO.71 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 leadership.
Some observers believe that the 2010 arrest of García Simental created a vacuum for the Sinaloa
DTO to gain control of the Tijuana/San Diego smuggling corridor.72 Despite its weakened state,
the AFO appears to have maintained control of the plaza through an agreement made between
Sánchez Arellano and the Sinaloa DTO’s leadership, with Sinaloa and other trafficking groups
paying a fee to use the plaza.73
In 2013, the DEA identified Sánchez Arellano as one of the six most influential traffickers in the
region.74 Following his arrest in 2014, however, Sánchez Arellano’s mother, Enedina Arellano
Félix, who was trained as an accountant, reportedly took over. 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 late 2016, with the
uptick in violence attributed to Sinaloa battling its new challenger, the CJNG.75 The CJNG has
apparently 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 configuration in coming years.76
Some analysts maintain that the resurgence of violence in Tijuana and the spiking homicide rate
in the nearby state of Southern Baja California are linked to the CJNG forging an alliance with
remnants of the AFO. As noted previously, Tijuana was the city with the highest number of
homicides in the country in both 2018 and 2019.

70 Mark Stevenson, “Mexico Arrests Suspected Drug Trafficker Named in US Indictment,” Associated Press, October
24, 2013.
71 Steven Dudley, “Who Controls Tijuana?,” InSight Crime, May 3, 2011. Sánchez Arellano took control in 2006 after
the arrest of his uncle, Javier Arellano Félix.
72 E. Eduardo Castillo and Elliot Spagat, “Mexico Arrests Leader of Tijuana Drug Cartel,” Associated Press, June 24,
73 “Mexico Security Memo: Torreon Leader Arrested, Violence in Tijuana,” Stratfor Worldview, April 24, 2013, 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 CJNG, or otherwise not affiliated with Los Zetas to also use the plaza. For more
information, see Nathan P. Jones, “Explaining the Slight Uptick in Violence in Tijuana,” Baker Institute, September 17,
74 Castillo and Spagat, “Mexico Arrests Leader.”
75 Christopher Woody, “Mexico Is Settling into a Violent Status Quo,” Houston Chronicle, March 21, 2017.
76 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.
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Sinaloa DTO
Sinaloa, described as Mexico’s oldest and most established DTO, is comprised of a network of
smaller organizations. In April 2009, President Barack Obama designated the notorious Sinaloa
Cartel as a drug kingpin entity pursuant to the Kingpin Act.77 Frequently regarded as the most
powerful drug trafficking syndicate in the Western Hemisphere, the Sinaloa Cartel was an
expansive network at its apex: Sinaloa leaders successfully corrupted public officials from the
local to the national level inside Mexico and abroad to operate in some 50 countries. Traditionally
one of Mexico’s most prominent organizations, each of its major leaders was designated a
kingpin in the early 2000s. At the top of the hierarchy was El Chapo Guzmán, listed in 2001;
Ismael Zambada García (“El Mayo”), listed in 2002; and Juan José “El Azul” Esparragoza
Moreno, listed in 2003.
By some estimates, Sinaloa had grown to control 40%-60% of Mexico’s drug trade by 2012 and
had annual earnings calculated to be as high as $3 billion.78 The Sinaloa Cartel has long been
identified by the DEA as the primary trafficker of drugs to the United States.79 In 2008, a
federation dominated by the Sinaloa Cartel (which included the Beltrán Leyva Organization and
the Juárez DTO) broke apart, leading to a battle among the former partners that sparked the most
violent period in recent Mexican history.
Since its 2009 kingpin designation of Sinaloa, the United States has attempted to dismantle
Sinaloa’s operations by targeting individuals and financial entities allied with the cartel. For
example, in August 2017, the U.S. Department of Treasury, sanctioned the Flores DTO and its
leader, Raúl Flores Hernández, as kingpins.80
The Sinaloa Cartel’s longtime most visible leader, El Chapo Guzmán, escaped twice from
Mexican prisons in 2001 and again in 2015. The second escape in July 2015—after re-arrest the
year prior, was a major embarrassment to the Peña Nieto administration, and that incident may
have convinced the Mexican government to extradite the alleged kingpin rather than try him in
Mexico after his recapture.
In January 2017, the Mexican government extradited Guzmán to the United States. He was
indicted in New York District’s federal court in Brooklyn and tried for four months from
November 2018 to February 2019. His lawyers maintained he was not the head of the Sinaloa
enterprise.81 Nevertheless, he was convicted by a federal jury in February 2019 and sentenced by
a U.S. district judge in July 2019 to a life term in prison, with the addition of 30 years, and
ordered to pay $12.6 billion in forfeiture for being the principal leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and
for 26 drug-related charges, including a murder conspiracy.82

77 At the same time, the President identified two other Mexican DTOs as Kingpins: La Familia Michoacana and Los
Zetas. The Kingpin designation is one of two major programs by the U.S. Department of the Treasury imposing
sanctions on drug traffickers. Congress enacted the program sanctioning individuals and entities globally in 1999.
78 From 2012 on, cartel leader El Chapo Guzmán was ranked in Forbes Magazine’s listing of self-made billionaires.
79 “Profile: Sinaloa Cartel,” InSight Crime, January 8, 2016.
80 U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Longtime Mexican Drug Kingpin Raul Flores Hernandez and
His Vast Network: OFAC Kingpin Act Action Targets 22 Mexican Nations and 43 Entities in Mexico,” press release,
August 9, 2017.
81 Alan Feuer, “El Chapo May Not Have Been Leader of Drug Cartel, Lawyers Say,” New York Times, June 26, 2018.
82 DEA, “Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, Sinaloa Cartel Leader, Sentenced to Life in Prison Plus 30 Years,” press
release, July 17, 2019.
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After Guzmán’s trusted deputy El Azul Esparragoza Moreno was reported to have died in 2014,
the head of the Sinaloa DTO was assumed to be Guzmán’s partner, Ismael Zambada García, alias
“El Mayo,” who is thought to continue in that leadership role.83 Sinaloa may operate with a more
horizontal leadership structure than previously thought.84 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.85 The shape of the cartel
in the current criminal landscape is evolving, however, as Sinaloa’s rivals eye a formidable drug
empire built on the proceeds from trafficking South American cocaine and locally sourced
methamphetamine, marijuana, and heroin to the U.S. market.
The Sinaloa Cartel has appeared under a certain amount of pressure thus far in 2020. Some
analysts warn that Sinaloa remains powerful given its dominance internationally and its
infiltration of the upper reaches of the Mexican government. Other analysts maintain that Sinaloa
is in decline, citing its breakup into factions and violence from inter- and intra-organizational
tensions. The CJNG has evidently battled against its former partner, Sinaloa, in a number of
regions and has been deemed by several authorities to be Mexico’s new most expansive cartel.
Friction between the two factions of the Sinaloa organization intensified in May and June 2020,
with violent infighting between a faction led by El Chapo’s children (known collectively as “Los
Chapitos”) and those aligned with a faction under El Mayo.86
Juárez/Carrillo Fuentes Organization
Based in the border city of Ciudad Juárez in the central northern state of Chihuahua, the once-
powerful Juárez DTO controlled the smuggling corridor between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, TX,
in the 1980s and 1990s.87 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
2002.88 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 “turf war,” and Ciudad Juárez experienced a wave of violence with

83 Kyra Gurney, “Sinaloa Cartel Leader ‘El Azul’ Dead? ‘El Mayo’ Now in Control?,” InSight Crime, June 9, 2014.
Juan José Esparragoza Moreno supposedly died of a heart attack while recovering from injuries sustained in a car
84 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 “El Mayo” and
Esparragoza long before his arrest.
85 “Revelan Estructura y Enemigos de ‘El Chapo’,” Excélsior, March 26, 2014; Bailey, “Drug Trafficking
Organizations and Democratic Governance,” p. 119.
86 Parker Asmann, “Three Massacres Expose Weakness of Mexico’s ‘Catch-all’ Security Policy,” InSight Crime, July
9, 2019.
87 Bailey, “Drug Trafficking Organizations and Democratic Governance,” p. 121.
88 Some analysts trace the origins of the split to a personal feud between El Chapo Guzmán of the Sinaloa 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.
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spikes in homicides, extortion, kidnapping, and theft—at one point reportedly experiencing 10
murders a day.89 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
and 2010 came from the border city, even though it had only slightly more than 1% of Mexico’s
Traditionally a major trafficker of both marijuana and cocaine, the Juárez Cartel became active in
opium cultivation and heroin production, according to the DEA. Between 2012 and 2013,
violence dropped considerably, which some analysts attributed to both the actions of the police
and President Calderón’s socioeconomic program Todos Somos Juárez, or We Are All Juárez.91
Some analysts posit Sinaloa’s success in its battle over the Juárez DTO after 2012 abetted by
local authorities as the reason for the relatively peaceful and unchallenged control of the border
city despite the Juárez DTO’s continued presence in the state.92 The El Paso and Juárez transit
route experienced regular violence with the rise in killings on the Mexican side of the border
since 2016, however, largely thought to be a battle for control between Sinaloa and CJNG and
through their proxies.93
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 was a transnational smuggling operation with agents in
Central and South America.94 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 has reportedly split into several competing
gangs. Some analysts no longer consider it a whole entity and maintain that it is so fragmented
that factions of its original factions are fighting.95
The Gulf DTO arose in the bootlegging era of the 1920s. In the 1980s, its leader, Juan García
Ábrego, developed ties to Colombia’s Cali Cartel as well as to the Mexican federal police. García
Ábrego was captured in 1996 near Monterrey, Mexico.96 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

89 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.
90 For an 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).
91 Calderón launched 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,” CNN
, 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.
92 See Steven Dudley, “How Juárez’s Police, Politicians Picked Winners of Drug War,” InSight Crime, February 13,
93 Daniel Borunda, “Mexican Army Again to Patrol Juárez; Military to Increase Presence After Surge in Violence
Across Chihuahua,” El Paso Times, May 14, 2018.
94 Bailey, “Drug Trafficking Organizations and Democratic Governance,” p. 120.
95 Scott Stewart, “Tracking Mexico’s Cartels in 2018,” Stratfor Worldview, February 1, 2018.
96 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.
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arrested by Mexican authorities in 2003, but he continued to run his drug enterprise from prison
until his extradition to the United States in 2007.97
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 Sánchez, 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. Some
analysts say Los Zetas blamed the Gulf DTO for the murder of a Zeta close to their leader, which
sparked the rift.98 Others posit that 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.
Mexican federal forces identified and targeted a dozen Gulf and Zeta bosses they believed
responsible for the wave of violence in Tamaulipas in 2014.99 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.100
From 2014 through 2016, Tamaulipas state reported daily kidnappings, daytime shootings, and
burned down bars and restaurants in towns and cities in many parts of the state, such as the port
city of Tampico. Like Los Zetas, fragmented cells of the Gulf DTO have expanded into other
criminal operations, such as fuel theft, kidnapping, and widespread extortion. In the 2019 NDTA,
the DEA maintains that the Gulf Cartel, which has been around for several decades, traditionally
focused on the cocaine and marijuana trade but has expanded into heroin and methamphetamine,
and it smuggles a majority of its drug shipments into South Texas.101
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.102 Although Zeta members
are part of a prominent transnational DTO, their main asset is not drug smuggling but organized
violence. They evolved from the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel to an outfit in their own right that
amassed significant power to carry out an extractive business model, thus generating revenue
from crimes such as fuel theft, extortion, human smuggling, piracy, and kidnapping, which are

97 George W. Grayson, Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers,
98 Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, “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.
99 Jorge Monroy, “Caen Tres Lideres de Los Zetas y Cartel de Golfo,” El Economista, June 18, 2014. In June 2014,
Mexican marines captured three of those identified.
100 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
reluctant to report on criminal violence and its consequences.
101 DEA, 2019 NDTA.
102 Most reports indicate that Los Zetas were created by a group of 30 lieutenants and sublieutenants 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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widely seen to inflict more suffering on the Mexican public than does transnational drug
Los Zetas had a significant presence in several Mexican states on the Gulf (eastern) side of the
country and extended their reach to Ciudad Juárez (Chihuahua) and some Pacific states. They
also operate in Central and South America. More aggressive than other groups, Los Zetas used
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 been less inclined to attempt to win support of local
populations of the territory in which they operate. 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.104 Los Zetas
are known to kill those who cannot pay extortion fees or who refuse to work for them, often
targeting migrants.105
In 2012, Mexican marines killed longtime Zeta leader Heriberto Lazcano (alias “El Lazca”), one
of the founders of Los Zetas, in a shootout in the northern state of Coahuila.106 The capture of his
successor, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales (alias “Z-40”), notorious for his brutality, in 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. According to Mexico’s former attorney
general, federal government efforts against the cartels through April 2015 hit Los Zetas the
hardest, with more than 30 of their leaders removed.107
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, losses by Pemex, Mexico’s state oil company, from siphoned off oil in recent years
have exceeded $3 billion. In 2017, the Atlantic Council released a report estimating that Los
Zetas controls about 40% of the market in stolen oil. Los Zetas have resisted government attempts
to curtail their sophisticated networks.108
Although many observers dispute the scope of the territory now held by major Los Zetas factions
and how that fragmentation influenced the formerly cohesive group’s prospects, most concur that
the organization is no longer as powerful as it was during the peak of its dominance in 2011 and
2012. Two rival factions are Cartel del Noreste (CDN), a re-branded version of the traditional
core of Los Zetas, and the Old School Zetas, known by their Spanish acronym EV. One scholar
has characterized how Los Zetas succeeded in spinning off powerful franchises or cells after

103 Bailey, “Drug Trafficking Organizations and Democratic Governance,” p. 120; interview with Alejandro Hope,
Wilson Center, July 2014.
104 George Grayson, The Evolution of Los Zetas in Mexico and Central America: Sadism as an Instrument of Cartel
(Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2014), p. 9.
105 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.
106 Will Grant, “Heriberto Lazcano: The Fall of a Mexican Drug Lord,” BBC News, October 13, 2012.
107 “Los Zetas Are the Criminal Organization Hardest Hit by the Mexican Government,”, May 13,
108 Michael Lohmuller, “Will Pemex’s Plan to Fight Mexico Oil Thieves Work?,” InSight Crime, February 18, 2015;
Ian M. Ralby, Downstream Oil Theft: Global Modalities, Trends, and Remedies, Atlantic Council, January 2017.
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leadership decapitation.109 According to the 2019 NDTA, Los Zetas continue to traffic a range of
drugs, including heroin and cocaine, through distribution hubs in Laredo, Dallas, and New
Beltrán Leyva Organization
Before 2008, the Beltrán Leyva Organization (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 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.110 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 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 2010.111 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 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.112 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 authorities in the
Peña Nieto government, murdered 43 Mexican teacher trainees, who were handed to them by
local authorities in Guerrero, and then burned their bodies.113
Like other DTOs, the 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 has likely declined
significantly after Mexican authorities arrested many of its leaders. According to the 2019 NDTA,

109 See, for example, Guadaulpe Correa-Cabrera, Los Zetas Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy, and Civil War in
(Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2017).
110 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.
111 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 José de Córdoba,
“Alleged Drug Kingpin Is Arrested in Mexico,” Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2010. La Barbie, a former Beltrán
Leyva Organization (BLO) operative and Sinaloa Cartel ally, was arrested in Mexico in 2010 and later extradited to the
United States in 2015. After originally pleading not guilty, he eventually reached a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors and
in June 2018 was sentenced to nearly 50 years in prison. Parker Asmann, “Was Mexico Cartel Enforcer ‘La Barbie’ a
U.S. Informant?,” InSight Crime, June 15, 2020,
112 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.
113 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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the BLO splinter factions rely on loose alliances with the CJNG, the Juárez Cartel, and elements
of Los Zetas to move drugs across the border.114
La Familia Michoacana
Based originally in the Pacific state of Michoacán, La Familia Michoacana (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.115
From 2006 to 2010, LFM acquired notoriety for its use of extreme, symbolic violence, military
tactics gleaned from Los Zetas, and a pseudo-ideological or religious justification for its
existence.116 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.117 A month
later, spiritual leader and co-founder Nazario “El Más Loco” Moreno González was reportedly
killed, although authorities claimed that his body was stolen.118 The body was never recovered,
and Moreno González reappeared in another shootout with Mexican federal police in 2014, after
which his death was officially confirmed.119 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.120
Though “officially” disbanded, LFM remained in operation, even after the 2011 arrest of leader
José de Jesús Méndez Vargas (alias “El Chango”), who allegedly took over after Moreno
González’s disappearance.121 Though largely fragmented, remaining cells of LFM are still active
in trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion in Guerrero and Mexico states, especially in the
working-class suburbs around Mexico City through 2014.122 Observers report that LFM had been
largely driven out of Michoacán by the Knights Templar, although a group calling itself the New
Family Michoacan, La Nueva Familia Michoacana, has been reported to be active in parts of
Guerrero and Michoacán. As a DTO, LFM has specialized in methamphetamine production and
smuggling, along with some trafficking of other synthetic drugs. It has also been known to traffic
marijuana and cocaine and to tax and regulate the production of heroin.

114 DEA, 2019 NDTA.
115 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 (LFM).
116 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,
117 “Mexican Drug Wars: Bloodiest Year to Date,” Stratfor Worldview, December 20, 2010.
118 Dudley Althaus, “Ghost of ‘The Craziest One’ Is Alive in Mexico,” InSight Crime, June 11, 2013.
119 Mark Stevenson and E. Eduardo Castillo, “Mexico Cartel Leader Thrived by Playing Dead,” Associated Press,
March 10, 2014.
120 The Knights Templar was purported to be founded and led by Servando “La Tuta” Gómez, a former school teacher
and a lieutenant to Moreno Gonzáles. However, after Moreno González’s faked demise, taking advantage of his death
in the eyes of Mexican authorities, Moreno González and Gómez founded the Knights Templar together in the wake of
a dispute with LFM leader José de Jesús Méndez Vargas, who stayed on with the LFM. See Falko A. Ernst, “Seeking a
Place in History—Nazario Moreno’s Narco Messiah,” InSight Crime, March 13, 2014.
121 Adriana Gómez Licón, “Mexico Nabs Leader of Cult-Like La Familia Cartel,” Associated Press, June 21, 2011.
122 CRS interview with Dudley Althaus, June 2014.
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Knights Templar
The Knights Templar began as a splinter group from LFM, announcing its presence in Michoacán
in 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 Los Zetas, but in reality it 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.
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. 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, 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 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. They note some gains in the effort to
combat the Knights Templar when government security forces had been unsuccessful, although
conflict between self-defense groups has also led to violence.
The Knights Templar has reportedly emulated LFM’s penchant for diversification. The Knights
Templar battled the LFM, and by 2012 its control of Michoacán was nearly as widespread as
LFM’s had once been, especially by demanding that local businesses pay it tribute through hefty
levies. The Knights Templar also moved aggressively into illegal mining, such as mining iron ore
from illegally operated mines. Through mid-2014, the Knights Templar had reportedly been using
Mexico’s largest port, Lázaro Cárdenas, located in the southern tip of Michoacán, to smuggle
illicit goods.123 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
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, weeks later.125 Previously, the
self-defense forces and the Knights Templar had reportedly split Michoacán roughly into two,
although other criminal organizations continued to operate successfully in the area. In February
2015, the Knights Templar DTO leader Servando “La Tuta” Gómez 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.

123 Reuters, “Mexico Seizes Tonnes of Minerals in Port Plagued by Drug Gangs,” March 3, 2014. The Knights Templar
shared control with the powerful Sinaloa DTO. Both groups reportedly received shipments of cocaine from South
America and precursor chemicals used to produce methamphetamines largely from Asia.
124 Interview with Eduardo Guerrero, July 2014.
125 Olga R. Rodriguez, “Mexican Marines Kill Templar Cartel’s Leader,” Associated Press, April 1, 2014.
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Cártel Jalisco Nuevo Generación
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. The group is based in Jalisco state with
operations in central Mexico, including the states of Colima, Michoacán, México State, Guerrero,
and Guanajuato.126 It has grown into a dominant force in the states of the Tierra Caliente,
including parts of Guerrero, Michoacán, and the state of Mexico. The CJNG has early roots in the
Milenio Cartel, which was active before 2010 in the Tierra Caliente region of southern Mexico.127
The CJNG reportedly served as an enforcement group for the Sinaloa DTO until the summer of
2013.128 Analysts and Mexican authorities have suggested that the split between Sinaloa and
CJNG is one of the many indications of a general fragmentation of crime groups. 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. He was replaced by the current leader, Nemesio Oseguera
Cervantes, known as El Mencho. In January 2014, the Mexican government arrested the leader’s
son, Rubén “El Menchito” Oseguera, believed to be the CJNG’s second-in-command. However,
El Menchito, who was released by Mexican judges twice, was re-arrested by Mexican authorities
and later extradited to the United States in February 2020.129
In 2015, the Mexican government declared the CJNG one of the most dangerous cartels in the
country. In 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.”130 According to some analysts, the CJNG has operations throughout the Americas,
Asia, and Europe. The group is allegedly 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.”131
To best understand the CJNG’s international reach, it is important to first consider its expansion
within Mexico. In 2016, many analysts maintained that CJNG controlled a territory equivalent to
almost half of Mexico. 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.132 The CJNG’s ambitious expansion campaign has led to high levels of violence,
particularly in Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.133 The group has also been linked to several mass
graves in southwestern Mexico and was responsible for shooting down a Mexican army
helicopter in 2015, the first successful takedown of a military asset of its kind in Mexico.134

126 “Se Pelean el Estado de México 4 Carteles,” El Siglo de Torreón, March 2, 2014; CRS interview with Dudley
Althaus, 2014.
127 “Tracking Mexico’s Cartels in 2017,” Stratfor Worldview, February 3, 2017.
128 Reportedly, CJNG’s leadership was originally composed of former associates of slain Sinaloa DTO leader Ignacio
“Nacho” Coronel, who operated his Sinaloa faction in Jalisco until he was killed by security forces in July 2010.
129 Juan Carlos Huerta Vázquez, “‘El Menchito’, un Desafío para la PGR,” Proceso, January 15, 2016.
130 U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Individuals Supporting Powerful Mexico-Based Drug
Cartels,” press release, October 27, 2016.
131 Luis Alonso Pérez, “Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel—New Generation: From Extinction to World Domination,” InSight
and Animal Político, December 26, 2016.
132 “Tracking Mexico’s Cartels in 2017,” Stratfor Worldview, February 3, 2017.
133 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.
134 Angel Rabasa et al., Counterwork: Countering the Expansion of Transnational Criminal Networks, RAND
Corporation, 2017.
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The CJNG’s efforts to dominate key ports on both the Pacific and Gulf Coasts have allowed it to
consolidate important components of the global narcotics supply chain. In particular, the CJNG
asserts control over the ports of Veracruz, Mazanillo, and Lázaro Cárdenas, which has given the
group access to precursor chemicals that flow into Mexico from China and other parts of Latin
America.135 As a result, the CJNG has been able to pursue an aggressive growth strategy
underwritten by U.S. demand for Mexican methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl.136
Despite leadership losses, the CJNG has extended its geographic reach and maintained its own
cohesion while exploiting the splintering of the Sinaloa organization. It is considered an
extremely powerful cartel, with a presence in 27 of 32 Mexican states in 2020. Its reputation for
extreme and intimidating violence continues. The daylight ambush of Mexico City’s chief of
police Omar García Harfuch in late June 2020 was preceded by publicized threats that targeted
him and the Jalisco state governor, Enrique Alfaro. Press reports say the tally of CJNG’s attacks
on Jalisco public officials exceeds 100, including lawmakers, federal, state and local police,
soldiers, and Jalisco’s minister of tourism. Notably, the DEA considers CJNG a top U.S. threat
and Mexico’s most well-armed DTO and has offered a $10 million reward for information
leading to the arrest of El Mencho, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains of Jalisco,
Michoacán, and Colima. He is a former police officer who once served time for heroin trafficking
in California. CJNG was the target of a major DEA operation in March 2020 that resulted in some
600 arrests.137
Fragmentation, Competition, and Diversification
As stated earlier, 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. In 2018, an array of smaller organizations were active, and some
of the once-small groups, such as the CJNG, entered the space left after other DTOs were
dismantled. Recently, some analysts have identified the CJNG as a cartel with national reach like
the Sinaloa DTO, although it was originally an allied faction or the armed wing of Sinaloa
A newer cartel, known as Los Cuinis, was also identified as a major organization in 2015. In April
2015, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s OFAC named both the CJNG and Los Cuinis as
Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.
According to an OFAC statement, the Los Cuinis DTO has become “one of the most powerful
and violent drug cartels in Mexico.”138 Other analysts view the fragments as the cause of
heightened violence but note that groups appear less able to challenge the national government
and engage in some types of transnational crimes, including drug trafficking.
Contrary to the experience in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, with the sequential dismantling
of the enormous Medellín and Cali cartels, fragmentation in Mexico has been associated with

135 “Tracking Mexico’s Cartels in 2017,” Stratfor Worldview, February 3, 2017.
136 Bonello, “After Decade-Long Drug War.”
137 Montes and Córdoba, “Cartel Becomes Top Mexico Threat.” Sieff, “Mexico’s Bold Jalisco Cartel Places Elite in Its
Sights.” See also U.S. Department of Justice, “DEA-Led Operation Nets More Than 600 Arrests Targeting Cártel
Jalisco Nueva Generación,” press release, March 11, 2020.
138 See U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Business Network of the Los Cuinis Drug Trafficking
Organization,” press release, August 19, 2015.
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resurging violence.139 A kingpin strategy implemented by the Mexican government has
incapacitated numerous top- and mid-level leaders in all the major DTOs either through arrest or
deaths in arrest efforts. However, this strategy contributed to violent succession struggles, shifting
alliances among the DTOs, a proliferation of new gangs and small DTOs, and the replacement of
existing leaders and criminal groups by even more violent ones.
The ephemeral prominence of some new gangs and DTOs, regional changes in the power balance
among different groups, and their shifting allegiances often catalyzed by government enforcement
actions make elusive an accurate portrait of the current criminal landscape. As noted earlier, in the
last months of 2019, almost all the investigations of flagrant incidents of violence involving the
DTOs in Sinaloa state, the Tierra Caliente region, and the Mexican border states were committed
by fragments of formerly cohesive criminal groups. Diversification of the DTOs and their
evolution into poly-crime outfits may be evidence of organizational vitality and growth. Others
contend that diversification signals that U.S. and Mexican drug enforcement measures are cutting
into profits from drug trafficking or constitutes a response to shifting U.S. drug consumption
patterns, such as legalization of marijuana in some states and Canada and a large increase in
demand for plant-based and synthetic opioids.140
The goal of successive Mexican governments has been to diminish the extent and character of the
DTOs’ activity from a national security threat to a law-and-order problem and, once this is
achieved, to return responsibility for addressing this challenge from military forces back to the
police. Former President Peña Nieto did not succeed in a stated objective to reduce the scope of
the military’s role in domestic policing, and military enforcement activities led to serious
allegations of torture and human rights abuses. Current President López Obrador decided to
continue a militarized policing strategy. He reauthorized a continuation of Mexican armed forces
in domestic law enforcement through the remainder of his tenure. The National Guard he began
deploying in July 2019 has had, thus far, fewer abuse allegations.141 The government of President
López Obrador continues to face DTO-related corruption charges against public officials,
politicians, and members of the nation’s police forces. As of mid-2020, President López
Obrador’s campaign pledges to carry out broader anti-corruption efforts have not been fully

139 In Colombia’s case, successfully targeting the huge and wealthy Medellín and Cali cartels and dismantling them
meant that a number of smaller DTOs (cartelitos) replaced them. The smaller organizations have not behaved as
violently as the larger cartels, and thus the Colombian government was seen to have reduced violence in the drug trade.
However, there were critical factors in Colombia that were not present in Mexico, such as the presence of guerrilla
insurgents and paramilitaries that became deeply involved in the illegal drug business. Some have argued that the
Colombian cartels of the 1980s and 1990s were structured and managed very differently than their contemporary
Mexican counterparts.
140 Morris Panner, “Latin American Organized Crime’s New Business Model,” ReVista, vol. 11, no. 2 (Winter 2012).
The author comments that “the business is moving away from monolithic cartels toward a series of mercury-like mini-
cartels. Whether diversification is a growth strategy or a survival strategy in the face of shifting narcotics consumption
patterns, it is clear that organized crime is pursuing a larger, more extensive agenda.”
141 Maureen Meyer, “Strengthening Security and Rule of Law in Mexico,” testimony before the House Committee of
Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, and Trade, January 15, 2020.
142 Calderón et al., Organized Crime; Gina Hinojosa and Maureen Meyer, The Future of Mexico’s National Anti-
Corruption System: The Anti-Corruption Fight under President López-Obrador
, Washington Office on Latin America,
August 2019. For more background, see Appendix.
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As discussed in this report, the splintering of the large criminal organizations has led to increased
violence. What is apparent is that the demise of the traditional kingpins, envisioned as ruling their
cartel armies in a hierarchical fashion from a central position, has led to equally violent, smaller,
highly fractured groups.143 The central states of Jalisco, Colima, and Guanajuato, where criminal
markets were in flux, saw Mexico’s most intense violence during 2019 and into early 2020. Two
causes of the current violence may be the decline of Sinaloa Cartel’s dominance and the
heightened competition to profit from the increasing production and distribution of heroin and
synthetic opioids and methamphetamine. Some observers remain convinced of the capacity of
both the Sinaloa organization and its primary competitor, the expansive CJNG, using their well-
established bribery and corruption networks backed by violence, to retain significant power.
Many U.S. government officials and policymakers have deep concerns about the Mexican
government’s capacity to reduce violence in Mexico or curb the power of the DTOs. Many
analysts have viewed a continued reliance on the kingpin strategy, which they argue has not
lowered violence in a sustainable way, as problematic. Some analysts back a new strategy of
targeting the middle operational layer of each major criminal group to handicap the groups’
regeneration capacity.144 Other structural factors that plague Mexico’s struggle for security and
stability include very high criminal impunity and continued high demand for drugs from the
United States and Europe.

143 Patrick Corcoran, “Why Are More People Being Killed in Mexico in 2019?,” InSight Crime, August 8, 2019.
144 See, for example, Vanda Felbab-Brown, AMLO’s Security Policy: Creative Ideas, Tough Reality, Brookings
Institution, March 2019.
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Appendix. Drug Trafficking in Mexico and
Government Efforts to Combat the DTOs
DTOs 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 of all
manner of narcotics in many countries. As businesses, their goal is to bring their product to
market in the most efficient way to maximize their profits.
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 significant presence in many U.S. jurisdictions.
The DTOs use bribery and violence as complementary tactics. Violence is used to discipline
employees, enforce agreements, 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,145 Mexican law enforcement, security
forces, and public officials tend to either ignore DTO activities or to actively support and protect
the DTOs. Mexican DTOs advance their operations through widespread corruption. When
corruption fails to achieve cooperation and acquiescence, violence is the ready alternative.
The relationship of Mexico’s drug traffickers to the government and to one another is rapidly
evolving, and any snapshot (such as the one provided in this report) must be continually adjusted
to current realities. In the early 20th century, Mexico was a source of marijuana and heroin
trafficked to the United States, and by the 1940s, Mexican drug smugglers were notorious in the
United States. The growth and entrenchment in Mexico of drug trafficking networks occurred
during a period of one-party rule in Mexico by the 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.146
Mexico is a long-time recipient of U.S. counterdrug assistance, but cooperation was limited
between the mid-1980s and mid-2000s due to U.S. distrust of Mexican officials and Mexican
sensitivity about U.S. involvement in the country’s internal affairs. Numerous accounts maintain
that for many years the Mexican government pursued an overall policy of accommodation of
DTOs. Under this system, arrests and eradication of drug crops took place, but due to the effect of
widespread corruption, the system was “characterized by a working relationship between
Mexican authorities and drug lords” through the 1990s.147
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 PAN candidate Vicente Fox as president in 2000.148 The process of democratization

145 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.
146 Luis Astorga and David A. Shirk, Drug Trafficking Organizations and Counter-Drug Strategies, University of
California-San Diego, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, Working Paper 10-01, 2010, p. 5.
147 Francisco E. González, “Mexico’s Drug Wars Get Brutal,” Current History, February 2009.
148 Shannon O’Neil, “The Real War in Mexico: How Democracy Can Defeat the Drug Cartels,” Foreign Affairs, vol.
88, no. 4 (July/August 2009).
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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 establish 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.
Other transformations of the 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 U.S. government enforcement efforts 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 of cocaine 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 financial stakes, which encouraged the use of violence
in Mexico to protect and promote market share. The violent struggles among DTOs is now over
strategic routes and warehouses where drugs are consolidated before entering the United States,
reflecting these higher stakes.
Former President Calderón (2006-2012) made an aggressive campaign against criminal groups,
especially the large 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 arrests, but few
of the captured kingpins were convicted. 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 a majority of the suspects wanted by the U.S. government on drug trafficking
and related charges. The number of extraditions grew through 2012 and remained steady during
President Peña Nieto’s term. A consequence of the “militarized” strategy used in successive
Mexican administrations was an increase in accusations of human rights violations against the
Mexican military, which was largely untrained in domestic policing.
According to a press investigation of published Mexican government statistics, Mexican armed
forces injured or killed some 3,900 individuals in their domestic operations between 2007 and
2014, labeled by the military civilian aggressors.149 According to the report, the government data
did not explain the high death rate (about 500 were injuries and the rest killings) or specify which
of the military’s victims were armed and which were bystanders. (Significantly, the military’s
role in injuries and killings ceased to be made public after 2014, according to the account.150)
Few incidents of suspected police and security force torture are reported in Mexico (less than
10%), according to several estimates, in large part because of a belief that nothing will be done.
Impunity for military and police is likely to follow an established pattern of high levels of
impunity for most crimes. Judicial and policing weaknesses have allowed about a 95% impunity

149 Steve Fisher and Patrick J. McDonnell, “Mexico Sent in the Army to Fight the Drug War. Many Question the Toll
on Society and the Army Itself,” Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2018.
150 Fisher and McDonnell, “Mexico Sent in the Army to Fight the Drug War.”
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level for the resolution of crimes on average. For decades, roughly 90% of crimes in Mexico have
gone unreported, while of those crimes that are reported only 4%-6% of the total reach conclusion
President Peña Nieto (2012-2018) pledged a new direction in his security policy to focus more on
reducing criminal violence that affects civilians and businesses and less on removing the leaders
of the large DTOs. Ultimately, that promise was not met. His attorney general, Jesús Murillo
Karam, said in 2012 that Mexico faced challenges from some 60-80 crime groups, a proliferation
he attributed to his predecessor Calderón’s kingpin strategy.152 However, despite Peña Nieto’s
pledge to alter his approach, analysts found considerable continuity between the strategies of
Calderón and Peña Nieto.153 The Peña Nieto government recentralized control over security and
continued the strategy of taking down top drug kingpins, adopting Calderón’s list of top trafficker
targets, updated as needed. Significantly, the resulting fragmentation has continued to splinter
Mexico’s criminal groups with attendant violence and instability.154
Following some reorganization, President Peña Nieto continued cooperation with the United
States under the Mérida Initiative begun during President Calderón’s term. The Mérida Initiative,
a bilateral anticrime assistance program launched in 2008, initially focused on providing Mexico
with hardware, such as planes, scanners, and other equipment, to combat the DTOs. The Peña
Nieto government continued the Mérida programs. However, the focus on crime prevention,
which received significant attention early in his term, ended prematurely due to budget
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in 2018, pledged to make Mexico a
more just and peaceful society and vowed to govern with austerity. López Obrador made broad
promises to fight corruption and reduce violence, build infrastructure in southern Mexico, revive
the state oil company, and promote social programs.156 Given the oil price collapse in early 2020,
fiscal constraints, rising violence, and significant health effects and projected severe recession
linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, many observers question whether his goals are attainable.157
López Obrador launched a new presidential commission to coordinate the investigation of a high-
profile, unsolved case from 2014 in which a drug cartel allegedly murdered 43 youth in Guerrero
state. In June 2020, arrest warrants were issued for more than 40 municipal officials in Guerrero
after years of flawed investigations.158 President López Obrador has remained popular, although
his denial that homicide levels have continued to increase and his criticism of the press for not
providing more positive coverage have raised concerns. Some analysts question his commitment

151 María Novoa, “The Wheels of Justice in Mexico Are Failing. What Can Be Done?,” Americas Quarterly, July 9,
152 Patrick Corcoran, “Mexico Has 80 Drug Cartels: Attorney General,” In Sight Crime, December 20, 2012.
153 Vanda Felbab-Brown, Changing the Game or Dropping the Ball? Mexico’s Security and Anti-Crime Strategy Under
President Peña Nieto
, Brookings Institution, November 2014. Velbab-Brown maintains that the government of Peña
Nieto “has largely slipped into many of the same policies of President Felipe Calderón.”
154 Scott Stewart, “Tracking Mexico’s Cartels in 2019,” Stratfor Worldview, January 29, 2019.
155 With the sharp oil price declines in 2014 onward, the administration was forced to impose budget austerity
measures, including on aspects of security. See CRS In Focus IF10578, Mexico: Evolution of the Mérida Initiative,
, by Clare Ribando Seelke.
156 CRS In Focus IF10578, Mexico: Evolution of the Mérida Initiative, 2007-2020, by Clare Ribando Seelke.
157 Laura Weiss, “Can AMLO End Mexico’s Drug War?,” World Politics Review, May 16, 2019; Arturo Angel,
“Mandan Fondo Anticrimen a COVID-19, pese al Aumento de Violencia y Depuración Policial Incompleta,” Animal
, April 14, 2020.
158 “New Arrest Warrants Issued in Case of Mexico’s Missing 43,” Associated Press, June 30, 2020.
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to combat corruption and to curb Mexico’s persistent organized-crime-related violence. During
his presidential campaign, López Obrador said he would consider unconventional approaches,
such as legalization of some drugs. However, several observers maintain that the administration
has not issued an effective or comprehensive security policy to combat the DTOs (beyond
measures to deter vulnerable youth from crime).159

Author Information

June S. Beittel

Analyst in Latin American Affairs

Research Librarian Carla Davis-Castro provided invaluable research for this report.

This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan
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159 For more on the President Lopéz Obrador’s evolving approach to security, see CRS Report R42917, Mexico:
Background and U.S. Relations
, by Clare Ribando Seelke.
Congressional Research Service