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Mexico's ruthless drug lords protect themselves, their territories, and their criminal and drug trades, with horrifying brutality.
MEXICO CITY — As Mexico suffers from an onslaught of massacres, decapitations and execution-style hits, six major drug cartels have carved up the country into fiefdoms. Like the armies of authentic warlords, the cartels attempt to completely dominate their territories, controlling trafficking routes, local drug sales and other criminal enterprises. Clashing over disputed turf, the cartels all have carried out murders on an epic scale.
(Nails decorated with marijuana and images of narco patron saint Jesus Malverde. Drug murders are common in Sinaloa, the home turf of one of Mexico's main drug gangs and where traffickers worship a bandit as their own patron saint. Mica Rosenberg/Reuters)
City base: Culiacan (northwestern Mexico)
Kingpins: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Juan Jose Esparragoza (El Azul)
States in sphere of influence: Sinaloa, Sonora, Durango, Morelos, Chihuahua, Baja California, Mexico City, Quintana Roo, Yucatan
History: The Pacific state of Sinaloa gave birth to the Mexican narcotics trade when peasant farmers used its arid mountains to grow opium in the first part of the 20th century. The Sinaloa Cartel is said to have its roots in the early organizations that used houses in the state capital Culiacan to convert these opium poppies into heroin for the U.S. market. The cartel was quick to dominate the subsequent trades in marijuana and Colombian cocaine, and grew to be the size of Colombia’s notorious Medellin cartel by the mid-1990s. It is believed to be the Mexican cartel that has trafficked the greatest amount of narcotics throughout the first decade of the 21st century.
The Gulf Cartel/The Zetas
(Alleged members of the Zetas are escorted after attending a hearing at a courthouse in Cancun April 10, 2006. Victor Ruiz/Reuters)
City base: Matamoros (northeastern Mexico)
Kingpins: Osiel Cardenas (in prison in the United States), Ezequel Cardenas, Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano
States in sphere of influence: Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Veracruz, Tabasco, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Yucatan
History: The Gulf Cartel has its roots in a gang of bootleggers who smuggled liquor into Texas in the 1930s and then expanded into other forms of contraband. In the 1970s, gang leader Juan Garcia Abrego, the nephew of one of the founders, established the cartel as one of the major traffickers of marijuana and cocaine. In the 1990s, a unit of elite Mexican soldiers defected to the Gulf Cartel and became its band of enforcers. Known as the Zetas, they used paramilitary tactics and extreme violence to control a large chunk of eastern Mexico.