It is tempting to separate Mexico’s drug cartels into six hierarchical groups, each competing for trafficking turf. The reality, however, is that the Sinaloa Federation, the Gulf Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, Los Zetas and La Familia, not to mention several new offshoot organizations, are fluid, dynamic, for-profit syndicates that sometimes operate under the umbrella of what are effectively conglomerates but more often than not operate as independent, smaller-scale franchises.
This article examines the current state of the Sinaloa Federation, Los Zetas, and other Mexican cartels. It finds that due to law enforcement pressure in recent years, Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations have increasingly splintered, and may well end up consolidated under the influence of the last cartel standing. That cartel would likely be the Sinaloa Federation, which remains the most powerful cartel in Mexico today.
The Sinaloa Federation
The Sinaloa Federation is the most powerful Mexican drug trafficking organization with the largest presence nationwide and globally. Based in the state of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico, it has operatives in at least 17 Mexican states. In recent years, its members are known to have operated in cities throughout the United States. At the helm of the cartel is Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, and he is accompanied by several other key figures, among them Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Juan Jose Esparragoza “El Azul” Moreno. These three figures, in their 50s and 60s, have run the Sinaloa Federation through a hands-off, top-down management style since the 1990s. While the cartel itself may employ as many as 100,000 operatives, the leadership is believed to rarely communicate directly with them, preferring instead to issue wide-ranging orders and allow the plaza chiefs—those in charge of specific trafficking zones—to run their operations like franchises. For this reason, the Sinaloa cartel has long been known as the Federation.
In 2008 and 2009, however, the Sinaloa Federation suffered its first major ruptures when the Beltran Leyva brothers and Edgar Valdez Villareal (also known as La Barbie) split off from Sinaloa to form their own independent outfits, the Beltran Leyva Organization and the Cartel del Pacifico Sur. As a result, one of the Beltran Leyva brothers and Villareal were arrested in 2008 and 2010 respectively, while another brother was killed in 2009. It is unclear whether Sinaloa leader Guzman and his inner circle informed the authorities of the three’s locations as payback over the split, or whether they simply proved unable to run operations on their own. The Sinaloa Federation, however, would never be the same. While it would expand in size—domestically and internationally—it would suffer setbacks and lose clout near its home turf of Sinaloa and Durango, as well as in southwestern Mexico.
Since 2008, dozens of high-level Sinaloa cartel lieutenants have been brought down by authorities, including Guzman’s father-in-law and longtime associate, Ignacio Coronel Villareal (also known as Nacho Coronel), who was killed in a shootout in the central city of Guadalajara in July 2010, and Ismael Zambada’s son Vicente Zambada Niebla, who is currently on trial in Chicago. The Sinaloa cartel has continued to expand in Mexico and globally, but has faced increasing pressure from rival groups, Los Zetas in particular. While it is no longer as effective as it once was, the Sinaloa Federation remains the most expansive, organized cartel operating in Mexico today.
Los Zetas are Mexico’s most lethal drug trafficking organization. Originally a tight-knit group of approximately 30 former members of a Mexican Special Forces unit who operated as the paramilitary wing for the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas have grown exponentially since the early 2000s. True to their Special Forces origins, some of the recruits have received advanced weapons and communications training, which is what originally distinguished the group from other cartels in Mexico.
Nevertheless, today many Los Zetas members have had little training at all; since 2008, small groups of “thugs” sporting crew cuts and purporting to be members of Los Zetas have appeared in small towns in Mexico, quickly claiming the turf as their own. Los Zetas members have been involved in turf battles in Sinaloa cartel strongholds like the city of Culiacan and have been spotted as far south as Guatemala and Honduras. Yet aside from a few apparent attempts to consolidate the multitudes of groups calling themselves Zetas, Los Zetas have remained splintered.
The authorities have continually hampered Los Zetas’ ability to use technology to communicate. In August 2012, for example, the military seized 15 communications installations, including a 50-foot telecom tower, in the northern state of Tamaulipas. In the past year, the authorities have also had success in arresting or killing some of the top Los Zetas leaders. On October 7, 2012, Los Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, known as “El Lazca” or “Z-3” (indicating his high-rank within the original Zeta unit), was killed by the Mexican Navy. On July 15, 2013, Lazcano’s successor, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales (“Z-40”), was arrested in Tamaulipas without a shot being fired and reportedly with the help of U.S. intelligence. Law enforcement pressure during the majority of the Calderon administration was focused on Los Zetas and La Familia, in large part because these two groups were the most intent on executing indiscriminate acts of violence.
Without these leaders, Los Zetas will likely remain a ragtag operation, intent on violence and willing to engage in almost any illicit activity for profit, but increasingly disorganized and, as a result, less in control of drug trafficking and less capable of undermining the authorities and the state. It is also likely that the Sinaloa Federation will repeat a move from its 2004 playbook and try to take control of the lucrative Nuevo Laredo trafficking corridor given the corner in which Los Zetas find themselves.
Mexico’s Other Cartels
There are more than a handful of other cartels operating in Mexico, but none on the level of the Sinaloa Federation or Los Zetas. There are already indications that the Sinaloa Federation may try to strike an alliance with the remnants of the Gulf Cartel, which, since the extradition of Osiel Cardenas Guillen in 2007 (he received a 25-year sentence in Houston in 2010), has been considerably weakened. Its members have been in constant conflict with Los Zetas, from Tamaulipas all the way to Guatemala. Once the most powerful drug trafficking organization on Mexico’s East Coast, the Gulf Cartel’s current level of influence is unclear. It is reasonable to assume it still controls the majority of drug trafficking operations in Tamaulipas, but it is impossible to be completely confident of the Gulf Cartel’s current condition given the fog that surrounds the criminal underworld in Tamaulipas.
Of the other groups, the Tijuana Cartel is perhaps the least menacing. Since the fall of the last of the group’s long-time leaders, the Arellano Felix brothers in 2008, the group has stayed largely off the radar. It is believed that a sister of the Arellano Felix brothers, Enedina, may be trying to run operations, but there are indications that the Sinaloa Federation has moved in on their territory. A similar situation exists in Ciudad Juarez, where just one of the original Carrillo Fuentes brothers, Vicente, remains in charge of what used to be the powerful Juarez Cartel but is now an increasingly fluid operation that resembles gang-on-gang warfare more than intra-cartel violence, with the high-level drug trafficking operations apparently conducted by members of the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels. In some ways, Sinaloa has always had a foot in Juarez: in the 1990s, Esparragoza Moreno was considered the “number three” for the Sinaloa Federation as well as the “number two” for the Juarez Cartel, even though the two organizations were officially rivals.
What remains in the rest of Mexico is a hodgepodge of offshoot groups that are increasingly staking their claim to disputed turf from Veracruz to Guadalajara to Acapulco. La Familia, a pseudo-religious group based in the central state of Michoacan which preached wholesome values all the while peddling methamphetamine on the side, has all but shattered under law enforcement pressure, but the so-called Knights Templar has risen in its place. The Knights Templar, like La Familia, operates behind a facade of pseudo-religiosity, calling into question just how separate it is from what was once La Familia. Given La Familia’s growth during the early years of the Felipe Calderon administration, it is unlikely the organization simply disappeared entirely.
Groups such as Nueva Generacion, based in Guadalajara, and the Matazetas (the “Zeta Killers,” who are purportedly an offshoot of the aforementioned Jalisco organization now based largely in Veracruz) have appeared on the scene in the last two or three years, attracting attention with beheadings, other violent killings and narcomantas (banners) laying claim to their turf. Yet a closer examination reveals that these may not actually be new organizations at all: the Nueva Generacion was a name commonly thrown around Guadalajara in association with Sinaloa Federation kingpin Coronel Villareal as early as 2008, while the name Matazetas appeared as early as 2004 in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo when Sinaloa Federation operatives challenged Los Zetas for their turf. It is nearly impossible to confirm whether the new organizations are offshoots of the major cartels or not. Although many disgruntled operatives are often tempted to try to form their own organizations, sometimes even with their leadership’s blessing, it is rarely clear whether they operate independently or under an umbrella.
If there is one certainty that has emerged from roughly six years of fighting the cartels in Mexico, it is that the country’s drug trafficking organizations are more fragmented than ever, and now lack the leadership of organized, business-oriented kingpins.
There are several scenarios for the future. If offshoots like La Generacion Nueva, Los Zetas and the Matazetas—which have shown a propensity for wanton violence that is unparalleled in Mexican history—continue to gain a foothold, Mexico may become such difficult terrain through which to move drugs that the traffickers shift back to the Caribbean, which they abandoned in the 1990s after increased U.S. law enforcement pressure around the islands. Traffickers also may opt to use Central America as a hub, given its lack of strong institutions.
There is also the possibility that the Sinaloa Federation and Gulf Cartel will seek to consolidate control over the various offshoots and incorporate them into their larger organizations. If this happens, violence would likely diminish, but drug trafficking would flourish, and both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement along the border would be put under increasing pressure.
Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist and author of The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord. A former general editor at Newsweek International, he has also written for Foreign Policy, The New Statesman, The Sunday Times and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. He has just completed a Master’s Degree in War Studies from the University of Glasgow.
 “El Cártel de Sinaloa,” Milenio, undated.
 See National Drug Intelligence Center, U.S. Department of Justice, available at www.justice.gov/archive/ndic.
 For details, see the U.S. Treasury Department’s leadership chart for the Sinaloa Federation, available at www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/20120724_esparragoza_moreno_org.pdf.
 This is the author’s own estimate, based on arrests and the breakdown of official estimates of Mexicans involved in the drug trade. Also see “‘Hay 500 mil narcos:’ Revela Senado al Congreso Magnitud del crimen organizado,” El Universal, August 9, 2008.
 “El Ocaso de Los Beltran. Un operativo llevado a cabo por la Marina permitio que se terminara con uno de los grupos delictivos mas peligrosos,” Excelsior, September 19, 2013.
 “Detenido presunto lider del cartel del Pacifico Sur en el estado de Morelos,” EFE, February 11, 2013.
 “Cronologia narcotraficantes caidos en los ultimos anos,” El Universal, July 15, 2013.
 “Sicarios de los Beltran Leyva y Zetas atacan a gente del Chapo en Sonora,” Milenio, July 2, 2010.
 For details on the Sinaloa Federation’s international operations and activities, see Samuel Logan, “The Sinaloa Federation’s International Presence,” CTC Sentinel 6:4 (2013).
 For a profile of Los Zetas, see Samuel Logan, “A Profile of Los Zetas: Mexico’s Second Most Powerful Drug Cartel,” CTC Sentinel 5:2 (2012).
 “El Capturado Z-40 organizo a Los Zetas en Guatemala,” Associated Press, July 18, 2013.
 A founding member of Los Zetas, Marcos Carmona Hernandez (also known as “El Cabrito”), was arrested in the southern state of Oaxaca in March 2011, shortly after another founding Zeta member was killed in nearby Veracruz. This suggests that the northern-based leadership was trying to gain control of its membership in the south.
 “Desmantelan una red de comunicaion de los Zetas,” Excelsior, August 24, 2012.
 Randal C. Archibold, “Mexico Kills a Drug Kingpin, but the Body Gets Away,” New York Times, October 9, 2012.
 Randal C. Archibold, “Drug Kingpin is Captured in Mexico Near Border,” New York Times, July 15, 2013; Tracy Wilkinson, “Leader of Zetas Drug Cartel Captured: ‘40’ May be Extradited to U.S.,” Los Angeles Times, July 16, 2013.
 The lack of obvious law enforcement pressure on other organizations, the Sinaloa Federation in particular, prompted accusations from journalists and government critics that the Calderon administration was protecting Sinaloa, or at the very least turning a blind eye to its activities. A string of high-profile arrests from 2009 until the present day have largely silenced these claims.
 For more on this argument, see Samuel Logan, “The Future of Los Zetas after the Death of Heriberto Lazcano,” CTC Sentinel 5:10 (2012).
 Nuevo Laredo is widely considered to be one of the most important trafficking routes from Mexico to the United States, as highways from Texas lead to every part of the United States. It is also less policed than the borders at Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.
 For more on this, see Logan, “The Future of Los Zetas after the Death of Heriberto Lazcano.”
 James C. McKinley, Jr., “Mexican Drug Kingpin Sentenced to 25 Years in Secret Hearing,” New York Times, February 25, 2010.
 It is reasonable to assume that the Gulf Cartel controls the majority of drug trafficking operations in Tamaulipas because Los Zetas engages in risky endeavors like human trafficking and less profitable ventures like piracy in Tamaulipas. Los Zetas would probably not be involved in such activities if it dominated the drug trade in Tamaulipas. All historical research has shown that drug trafficking is so lucrative that if a group controls it, then it has no need for profit from other illicit activity.
 “Tijuana ‘Cartel Boss’ Arellano Felix Extradited to US,” BBC, April 29, 2011.
 “El Azul, segundo en la lista de criminals mas buscados por la FBI,” La Jornada, February 13, 2005.
 Personal interviews, various sources, Guadalajara, Mexico, 2008; Silvia Otero, “‘El Chapo’ envia a rivales mensaje en video via internet,” El Universal, October 15, 2006.