The Breakdown of Cartel Culture

By: Claudia Barrett, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

The Mexican drug war has been punctuated by police success in arresting high-profile narcotics traffickers. Last February, the arrest of elusive figure Joaquin El Chapo (Shorty), head of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, made international headlines and heightened the morale of both Mexican and U.S. authorities. Nevertheless, for many Mexican citizens, there is significant doubt that El Chapo’s arrest will have a substantial detrimental impact on the operations of the Sinaloa cartel, or on the brimming inventory of other drug traffickers that continue to wreak havoc in Mexico.[1] The organizations have proven to be a force as relentless as the mythological hydra; chop off the head, and two more grow back in its place.

This situation was best demonstrated with the July 2013 arrest of the particularly violent drug lord Miguel Ángel Treviño, leader of Los Zetas, another Mexican cartel. Hailed as a major success by the Mexican military, Los Zetas quickly recovered its balance, choosing Omar Treviño Morales as its new successor. Unfortunately for the Zetas, the younger Morales brother lacks the leadership skills and legitimacy of the deceased kingpin and has floundered in the midst of police take downs of Los Zetas members and serious competition elsewhere in the criminal world. [2] *Like most criminal organizations, Los Zetas has a complex network of individuals propping up the illicit cartels in case one of its leaders falters.

Although Los Zetas has retained a stronghold in 11 of Mexico’s 31 states even through numerous captures, the organization is losing its grasp of events along the United States-Mexico border, particularly in the area surrounding Nuevo Laredo in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. It would appear that the bulk of the threats to Los Zetas come from within the drug trafficking network and criminal world, not from the government or its security forces. High profile arrests tend to enable the rise of third party groups, which consequently have the effect splintering, or dividing the cartels into smaller bodies. This splintering, which was once a beneficial manner of evading capture has now caused Los Zetas to fall prey to these smaller, but brutally violent, imitation gangs[3]. For example, one splinter group, Los Legionarios, has successfully managed to threaten Los Zetas by driving the remnants of the cartel out of its territory and interfering with their shipment routes[4]. Therefore, the loss of the group’s leader is not the biggest hindrance for such cartels; rather, the largest risk can be attributed to other trafficking groups becoming adept at mimicking tactics, and subsequently using them to challenge established trafficking organizations.

To make matters worse, the very means through which the U.S. and Mexican governments combat the cartels is not necessarily conducive to long-term prevention of drug trafficking. In Colombia, splintering can be observed with Los Rastrojos, a criminal syndicate and drug trafficking group that has been losing influence for some time, especially after 46 of its about 1,500 members were arrested in late May [5]. As a defensive strategy against anticipated government raids, they have decentralized. Additionally, they have found rivals in insurgent groups, such as the drug trafficking organization Los Urabeños, who have gained more cohesiveness as a group and thus are able to effectively sell and transport products while waging a violent street war against the scattered Rastrojos[6].

Looking at Colombia as a case study, a country where drug trafficking is in decline, it is evident that rival gangs have been able to weaken cartels. When their leaders were arrested, the Colombian cartels were only slightly disempowered, as the drug lords were able to continue to run the business from prison (the case of the famous Pablo Escobar from the Medellin Cartel comes to mind). The remaining members realized that the large cartel was more vulnerable to government attack and therefore chose to fragment into smaller divisions, which put them at the mercy of leftist insurgency groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC[7]. This breakdown of Colombian cartels enabled similar Mexican groups to take the lead in the drug trafficking world. The same pattern of splintering cartels is presently happening in Mexico. While government pressure from Mexico City and Washington seems to serve as a catalyst for the collapse of cartels, decentralization is the most debilitating factor as it allows third party actors to attack the remains of the drug organization.

In Colombia, many suspect that the mass arrests’ close proximity to the country’s presidential elections that intensified on May 25 was an effort to increase President Juan Manuel Santos’ popularity[8]. Major busts frequently occur in collaboration with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which provides funding, police training, and even conducts raids. This suggests that local forces save their drug busting energies for appeasing the American government while often turn a blind eye to traffickers on a daily basis. The threat of arrest and product confiscation exists and causes multiple fractures among drug trafficking organizations. Police raids may have the initial effect of punching holes in cartels but ultimately these groups are at greater risk from other criminal gangs.

Indeed, U.S., Colombian, and Mexican policies of backing “ally” cartels have failed to create an entirely inhospitable environment for drug traffickers. Proportionally lower rates of incarceration among the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel members can be linked to the preferential treatment they normally receive from the authorities. For several years, Mexican authorities have encouraged the Sinaloa Cartel to antagonize the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, who are perceived to be more threatening.[9] Therefore, the authorities’ actions have escalated an already brutal street war over territory and power[10]. According to El Universal and Time Magazine, the United States is reported to have met with the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel over 50 times between 2000 and 2012, permitting them to carry on its business unhindered by the DEA in exchange for information about rival organizations[11]. The Sinaloa Cartel has grown substantially more powerful and, as a result has managed to control police through threats and bribes.[12] Instead of working to weaken the cartels comprehensively, the Mexican government is disabling one cartel while unintentionally building up another. This is a short-sighted strategy that will do little to de-incentivize drug trafficking in the long term.

Drug trade continues to be highly profitable in Latin America, yet the cartel culture that has been so pervasive for the last 30 years is gradually weakening. After the patterns of violence that seem to inevitably follow the breakdown of the cartel system diminish, it is likely that this trend of cartel decentralization will pave the way for an increasingly stable situation that can be more adequately handled by police and other security forces.

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.


[1] . Estevez, Dolia . “How Much is Mexican Corruption a Risk to Keeping Drug Lord El Chapo Guzman Behind Bars.” . (accessed May 30, 2014).

[2] Del Bosque , Melissa . “Brother of Zetas Catel Boss Given Maximum Sentence .” Texas Observer , September 5, 2013.

[3] Stewart, Scott, and Tristan Reed . “Mexico’s Zetas are Not Finished Yet.” Forbes Magazine, October 24, 2013.

[4]”Sangre Zeta and Other New Groups Complicate Drug War.” . Borderland Beat, 3 Mar. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2014. .

[5]”Rastrojos.” . Insight Crime , n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2014. .

[6]Stewart, Scott, and Tristan Reed . “Mexico’s Zetas are Not Finished Yet.” Forbes Magazine, October 24, 2013

[7]Public Broadcast Station . “Columbian Cartels.” . (accessed May 30, 2014).

[8] BBC News, “Colombia: Rastrojos Members Held in Barranquilla Raid,” May 31, 2014.

[9]Burnett, John . “Mexico’s Drug War: A Rigged Fight?.”

[10] Insight Crime . “Sinaloa Cartel Profile .” . (accessed June 4, 2014).

[11] Liljas , Per . “U.S Government Helped Rise of Mexican Drug Cartel: Report.” Time Magazine , January 14, 2014.

[12] Burnett, John . “Mexico’s Drug War: A Rigged Fight?.” . (accessed May 30, 2014).

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