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Clash of the cartels: a guide

Mexico's ruthless drug lords protect themselves, their territories, and their criminal and drug trades, with horrifying brutality.

A federal policeman stands guard during an operation at a night club in downtown Ciudad Juarez March 7, 2009. Mexico's bloodiest drug war city is Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

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.

Sinaloa Cartel


(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.

Of note:

  • Kingpin Guzman was arrested in 1993 in Guatemala and extradited to Mexico, where he served in the high-security Puente Grande prison in Jalisco. In 2001, he escaped from the prison in a laundry truck.
  • The crime family has its own musical group named after it called Grupo Cartel de Sinaloa.
  • Cartel leaders are alleged to visit expensive Sinaloan restaurants with entourages of gunmen and to pick up the tab for all the clientele.
  • Kingpin Guzman was listed on the 2009 Forbes billionaire list at number 701, with a supposed net worth of $1 billion.

 

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.

Of note:

  • Kingpin Osiel Cardenas was arrested in 2003 but continued to run his operations from prison until he was extradited to the United States in 2007.
  • Cardenas allegedly threatened two DEA agents in 1999 with the line, “You gringos, this is my territory. You can't control it, so get the hell out of here.''
  • The Zetas are believed to be behind the biggest mass beheading in recent history, dumping 12 heads at two ranches in the southern Yucatan state in 2008.
  • The Zetas have operated full-fledged training camps near the U.S. border.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/mexico/090326/clash-the-cartels-guide