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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.

Tijuana Cartel

(Alfredo Araujo Avila, a key hitman for Mexico's Arellano Felix drug cartel, is shown to the media after he was arrested in Tijuana Jan. 26, 2007. Reuters)

City base: Tijuana (south of San Diego)

Leaders: Eduardo Arellano Felix, Enedina Arellano Felix

States in sphere of influence: Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sinaloa, Sonora

History: The Arellano Felix brothers originally worked within the Sinaloa Cartel, but broke off after the arrest of several major leaders in the late 1980s. By the end of the 1990s they had consolidated control of Tijuana and become the most high-profile cartel in Mexico. They were seriously weakened by the death and arrest of four major leaders at the beginning of the 21st century. But they are still the dominant force in the trafficking goldmine of Tijuana, which is home to the biggest border crossing into the U.S.

Of note:

  • The Tijuana Cartel recruited many wealthy young men from the city’s private universities and turned them into traffickers and hitmen known as the “Narco Juniors.”
  • The 2000 movie "Traffic" portrays a fictional crime family based on the Tijuana Cartel.
  • Santiago Meza, alias “the Stew Maker,” was arrested in 2009 and charged with dissolving 300 bodies, making them unrecognizable, for the Tijuana Cartel.


Juarez Cartel

(Police work at a crime scene where seven bodies were found gunned down in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, northern Mexico, Nov. 25, 2008. The bodies were found alongside banners threatening rival gangs. Alejandro Bringas/Reuters)

City base: Ciudad Juarez (south of El Paso)

Leader: Vicente Carrillo Fuentes

States in sphere of influence: Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Sonora

History: The Juarez Cartel has its roots in a gang of smugglers who moved narcotics over the west Texas border in the 1970s. Originally, they worked alongside the Sinaloa Cartel, but leader Amado Carrillo Fuentes broke away in the 1990s and was believed to have become one the richest men in Mexico before his death in 1997. Under the leadership of his brother Vicente, Juarez has become the most violent city in Mexico, with 1,600 murders in 2008.

Of note:

  • Amado Carrillo Fuentes was known as the "Lord of the Skies" because of his fleet of 727 jet airliners.
  • Amado Carillo Fuentes died in a mysterious plastic surgery accident in a Mexico City hospital in 1997. The doctors were later murdered.
  • The Mexican government sent 7,000 soldiers to quell the violence of the Juarez Cartel in March 2009.