In conjunction with the series of Mexican border articles I’ve written following my time spent in that region, I’ve compiled a brief guide to understanding who is operating along the border and how they are connected. Although the following primary cartels act independently and in direct opposition to one another, their conglomerate-like nature is shared. They’re locked in a battle for supremacy, corrupting the world via their illicit trade in narcotics and slavery in the Western Hemisphere.

Picture1Sinaloa Cartel, Cártel de Sinaloa, or CDS

  • The most predominate, powerful, and capable drug-trafficking organization in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Originated from a small group of farming families that lived in rural parts of Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s. They first moved into trafficking marijuana, and through the decades have taken to human trafficking and moving heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines. In addition to trafficking, they have a penchant for bartering and purchasing loyalty, shedding blood freely to expand and defend their empire.
  • Formerly under the leadership of El Chapo, now led by Chapo’s co-captain, Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias “El Mayo,” and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul.”
  • Operates from New York City, U.S.A., to Buenos Area, Argentina. They’re based in 17 Mexican states, and internationally traffic to approximately 50 countries.
  • This cartel and its subsidiaries are the current majority human trafficking and narcotics landowners of the United States.

Subsidiary cartels of Sinaloa:



Gulf Cartel   Los Ántrax  Jalisco New Generation Cartel
Artist Assassins La Barredora Knights Templar Cartel
Los Mexicles Los Pelones  Gente Nueva 

Organizations in support of Sinaloa:



Mexican MafiaMS-13  FARC Los Rastrojos Cartel of the Suns
Sicilian Mafia Chinese Triad Venezuela [Alleged] Usuga Clan


The flow of trafficking. Image courtesy of Borderlands Beat.


Los Zetas

  • Los Zetas was founded in 1997 with 31 deserters from Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales – GAFES, the Mexican Army’s Airborne Special Forces Group. They initially acted as guns-for-hire for the Sinaloa Cartel, under the Gulf Cartel.
  • An upstart, Los Zetas does not deal in or purchase territory, but chooses to take control by force and terror through the use of superior tactics and techniques. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) describes them as perhaps “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and violent of these paramilitary enforcement groups.” Los Zetas has only hit a wall against the vast influence and resources of the Sinaloa Cartel.
  • As with the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas also focus on human, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine trafficking.
  • They operate in Central America, primarily Guatemala; Europe, and West Africa, with decreasing actions in the U.S. due to conflict with the Sinaloa Cartel.

Subsidiary cartels of Los Zetas:

barrio_azteca images

Juárez Cartel La Línea Barrio Azteca
Tijuana Cartel Oaxaca Cartel  

Organizations in support of Los Zetas:

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