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Mexican Drug Cartels: A Transnational Threat

Mexican drug cartels constitute a new breed of organized crime in North America and in the drug trade. Brought about by connections with the Columbian drug trade, Mexican drug cartels have grown into a network of efficient and compartmentalized gatekeepers that control the drug trade from Mexico to the United States. There are several rival cartels in Mexico, with the largest being the Gulf, Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. Unlike cartels in the past, these organizations function on a semi-hierarchical structure that ensures that business can continue even if individuals within the cartel are captured or killed.

The drug trade is organized into cartels that each buy, smuggle and sell drugs across the Mexican border. However, many of the cartels have also begun to form alliances with one another, creating “two rival alliances [that] now compete for turf” (Cook, 2006). Prison negotiations between the Tijuana and Gulf cartels led to the forming of one alliance, while the Sinaloa, Juarez and Valencia cartels, among others, have formed an alliance known as “The Federation.” Of the major cartels in Mexico, the Juarez cartel is the smallest. The Gulf cartel, formerly the largest cartel in Mexico has borne the brunt of the majority of Filipe Calderon’s drug war, with many of its top players killed or captured (Burton, 2007). This sets the stage for the Sinaloa cartel to begin taking over the territory once controlled by the Gulf Cartel.

Michael Kenny argues that drug cartels are not the mythological beasts that the media makes them out to be. Rather than a highly cooperative group of individuals that conspire to set prices and restrict production, they are merely individuals competing in the market. For Mexican drug cartels, this analysis rings true for the alliances, but not for the cartels themselves. While the alliances are comprised of individual cartels that “work together, [they] remain independent organizations” (Freeman, 2006). It also possibly fits with the cartels’ increased relationships with prison and street gangs in the United States. Relationships were formed “in order to facilitate drug trafficking within the United States as well as wholesale and retail distribution of the drugs” (Cook, 2006). Within the cartels themselves, however, it is a different story.

The major Mexican cartels of the 1980s and 1990s had centralized structures. This type of organization is on its way out, especially with the renewed resolve of the Mexican and U.S. governments to end the drug trade. The current organization of the Mexican drug cartels fits loosely into the “wheel network” framework that Kenny (2007) examines in his paper. The cartels function under a single leader, who “makes strategic decisions in consultation with other high-level leaders” (Gilmour, 2007). These high-level leaders are also what have become known as ‘gatekeepers’ who are responsible for running different trafficking routes. Hence there would be another wheel network for each of the gatekeepers. For instance, in the Gulf cartel Ezequiel Cardenas was responsible for the Matamoros-Brownsville plaza, which would include “overseeing the transfer of drugs and migrants across the board…collecting taxes on other illegal activities operating in his group’s area of control…also ensuring that money transfers proceed smoothly” (Gilmour, 2007).

The Mexican cartels are also highly compartmentalized so that even if one part of the organization is hit by law enforcement, the rest of the cartel will be unaffected. This is in large part why the Gulf cartel can continue to function, even after the string of arrests and killings that have hit it recently. Stratfor Global Intelligence analysis of cartels indicates that they are “distributed horizontally, and are based on family relationships and personal alliances. Because of this, multiple figures can fill leadership vacuums when high-ranking members are arrested or killed” (Burton, 2007).

Michael Kenny writes about the Columbian drug trade and makes the argument that the media and Hollywood sensationalized the drug lord lifestyle, creating a mythological creature called a cartel. Instead of a large organization that controlled the drug trade, Kenny says “many of these groups formed flat, loosely coupled inter-organizational networks that coordinated their activities when opportunities arose” (Kenny, 2007). The major difference between Mexico and Columbia however, is law enforcement. When law enforcement tightened down on the trade of cocaine from Columbia to Florida, the Columbian drug dealer began to make their way through Mexico, setting up alliances and relationships just as they had in their own country. The Mexican cartels, however, did not follow the Columbian organizational blueprint.

Because corruption was so rampant in Mexico, many of the precautions that the Columbians had to take in order to continue dealing and avoid law enforcement were not applicable for the Mexican cartels. Instead, they were able to form much bigger groups that operated under a single head and fought with other cartels for routes. Two aspects of the Mexican drug trade evidence this. First, cartels have reportedly been able to pay off law enforcement for anything from getting released from prison to capturing rival cartel members and killing them. Even when captured and put in prisons, cartel members are able to get all manner of amenities, including weapons, while also having extended visits from cartel members, which allow them to give orders and run aspects of the cartel even from within prison.

Second, cartels hire and retain enforcement groups of their own that act as hired hitmen. For the Gulf cartel, the Zetas “operates as a private army under the orders of Cardenas’ Gulf cartel, the first time a drug lord has had his own paramilitary” (Becerra, 2004). The Zetas were created by a group of Mexican special forces who were involved in stopping the drug trade until the Gulf cartel was able to persuade them to work for the Cartel instead. As a result, “the Zetas have become an increasingly sophisticated, three-tiered organization with leaders and middlemen who coordinate contracts with petty criminals to carry out street work” (Congressional Research Service, 2006). This allows the cartel to have greater control over its territory while minimizing the fear of law enforcement interference. In 2006 police arrested Mateo Diaz Lopez who was believed to be the leader of the Zetas. The arrest prompted an assault on the police station where he was being held killing 4 people, including 2 police officers (Chapa, 2007).

The Mexican drug cartels constitute a major transnational threat, as evidenced by the initial move from Columbian drug cartels. In recognition of this threat, the United States is working together with the Mexican government in order to combat the growing violence across the Mexican border. Renewed efforts by Filipe Calderon and the Mexican police have shown some improvements in the situation, but the nature of the organization of Mexican drug cartels, especially the Gulf and the Sinaloa cartels, makes it difficult to combat. In order for the drug enforcement agencies to have a real chance at ending the drug trade from Mexico, they must begin with policies aimed at attacking the organizations themselves instead of merely the drug trade. Only by fighting the drug trade as an organized crime syndicate will the U.S. and Mexico be able to stem the tide of illegal drugs flowing across the border.

Reference List

Becerra, O. (2004). New Traffickers Struggle for Control of Mexican Drug Trade. Web.

Burton, F. (2007). Mexico: The Price of Peace in the Cartel Wars. Web.

Chapa, M. (2007). Plaza Pública/ Peligroso Tabasco. Reforma. Web.

Cook, C.W. (2007). Mexico’s Drug Cartels. Web.

Congressional Research Service. (2006). CRS interview with Federal Preventative Police. Web.

Freeman, L. (2006) State of Siege: Drug-Related Violence and Corruption in Mexico. Washington DC: Washington Office on Latin America.

Gilmour, A. (2007). Gulf War: Pressure Mounts on Mexico’s Gulf Cartel. Web.

Kenny, M. (2007). The Architecture of Drug Trafficking: Network Forms of Organisation in the Columbian Cocaine Trade. Global Crime, 8(3), 1-27.


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