The recomposition of the drug trade in Mexico, Cartel fiefdoms 2021


* Two large criminal organizations dominate the crime scene in Mexico: Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Nueva Generación

* There are eight other high-impact criminal groups and about a hundred smaller groups, no less dangerous

* The groups from Sinaloa and Jalisco are experiencing a generational transition due to the aging of “El Mayo” Zambada, with his sons and brother in custody, and the alleged illness of “El Mencho” Oseguera; in both cases the succession is already disputed

* Fentanyl, the drug that has given the Sinaloan narcos an advantage

Two large cartels, seven or eight high-impact criminal organizations, and about a hundred minor organized crime groups, no less dangerous, make up the geography of drug trafficking in Mexico. However, the federal authorities have based their strategy on pacifying the world of crime without attacking it head-on and doing so tangentially, without notice of relevant results.

While world society remains on edge over the COVID-19 pandemic and governments are concerned with prioritizing the serious public health problem, criminal groups continue to operate and manage to get their drugs to consumers, as there is no information that It reflects that the confinement has generated a decrease in the consumption of illicit substances.

Before and during the health contingency there have been changes in the types of drugs, the patterns of the consumption of illicit substances are modified and the criminal organizations have changed their forms and are reconfigured. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the Mexican State to limit the distribution of drugs, or to stop the commission of crimes inherent to organized crime or to wrest the power held by criminal conglomerates is not seen.

Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar – Ovidio Guzmán López – Iván Archivaldo Guzmán

In its last National Drug Threat Assessment, in July 2020, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reiterated that Mexican organizations represent the greatest criminal threat to the United States, which are diversifying, They not only traffic in prohibited substances, but also participate in crimes such as extortion, human trafficking, and fuel theft, increasing homicide rates.

For his part, Jorge Fernández Menéndez, an analyst on security and drug trafficking issues, argues that drug cartels like any company, be it criminal or not, must adapt to the consumption patterns that they have to assume with the new markets. And that is what is happening in Mexico, where there is a generational transformation in the two most powerful criminal organizations and they have found new ways to produce, distribute and sell new drugs, in the face of a bad diagnosis and a failed strategy by the authorities.

The government not only was left with intelligence information produced by the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) in the past six years, which in 2018 recognized the existence of nine drug trafficking cartels in 19 states, through 37 criminal cells or groups, but at present it minimizes the data, pointing out that there is no criminal organization capable of challenging the State.

Before, in 2014, the PGR revealed that there were the same nine cartels, but referred to a total of 43 criminal cells operating in 23 states of the Mexican Republic. According to the comparative, as the end of the administration of former President Enrique Peña Nieto approached, the activity of organized crime groups was reduced, but only on paper, since the atomization of various criminal organizations due to the arrest of their leaders or internal disputes that generate violence in the succession and choose to create new clans.


In September 2020, the head of the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), Santiago Nieto Castillo, assured that 19 high-impact criminal organizations operate in Mexico, two of these with greater relevance than the others, with profits of more than one billion pesos. between 2016 and 2018. The official highlighted that the federal strategy to attack the phenomenon is directed in five aspects:

  1. Identification of hitmen and cartel leaders
  2. Your financial structures.
  3. Political corruption
  4. Police and judicial corruption that protects them
  5. The social base that supports them.

 Rafael Caro Quintero

The DEA has identified that there are nine main organized crime groups that operate in the Mexican Republic. Namely, it mentions in its evaluation of the middle of last year the cartels of Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Arellano Félix, Juárez, Beltrán Leyva, del Golfo, La Familia Michoacana, Los Caballeros Templarios and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG).

Similarly, the US anti-drug agency estimates that the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has based its strategy on militarization, focusing more on oil theft than on dealing with drug trafficking.

The renowned analyst Jorge Fernández Menéndez agrees only in part with the diagnosis:

“On the issue of drug trafficking, I still think that there are only two major cartels, as cartels. Halfway through the government of (Felipe) Calderón, there were up to seven very important cartels. When we say cartels, we are talking about a criminal organization that in terms of drug trafficking goes from the first sphere to the last. In other words, from the production of drugs to money laundering, trafficking, and the purchase of weapons, placing them in the market and others.

“Now there are like two great suns: the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG. Around these suns there are different planets, let’s call it that, which are different organizations, sometimes called cartels, which continue to exist, but somehow revolve around the orbit of those two suns. Among them are the United Warriors, the Beltrán Leyva, and other organizations, which are approximately seven in that area. And then, around the planets, there are many satellites, many bands that in one way or another end up working on some chapter of production, or of the activities of these large cartels. They end up working with them, ”Fernández pointed out.

Unlike Santiago Nieto, for the author of the book “La Nueva Guerra. Del Chapo al Fentanilo ”, after the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG, the high-impact organizations are the Gulf Cartel, Juarez Cartel, Los Viagra, Guerreros Unidos and the Beltrán Leyva. The head of the FIU includes among the cartels groups such as Independiente de Acapulco (CIDA), Los Rojos, Cartel del Noreste and the self-styled cartels that operate in Mexico City.

 Ismael Zambada García, “El Mayo Zambada”

In this regard, Fernández Menéndez assures that “there are groups that are called cartels and in real terms, they are not. The Tepito Cartel, for example, in Mexico City, is not a cartel. It is a very dangerous criminal group that engages in many illicit activities, but it depends on other groups, the Anti-Union depends on the CJNG. 

“El Marro” was arrested last August

The self-styled Cartel del Marro or Santa Rosa de Lima, is not a large cartel, it is a criminal organization dedicated to the theft of fuel and other activities such as extortion, robbery, and kidnapping, but it is not a cartel as such. What remains of the Arellano Félix are groups that have dissolved and work mainly for the Sinaloa or Jalisco Cartel. The same has happened with Los Zetas

In his particular analysis, after these groups there coexist in the country about one hundred criminal organizations “that work daily in one, some way or another, related to these groups, but they are different, much smaller organizations. That does not make them anymore, or less dangerous, but that is how the crime scene is distributed, let’s say ”.

However, he reiterates that there are only two cartels and they currently go through generational transitions due to the weakening of their leaders, not the organizations.

From the Sinaloa Cartel, Jorge Fernández, details that he was never annihilated, not even remotely with the capture and extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Only an era ended, and for him, it remains the most powerful cartel in Mexico. “More than a cartel, I say it, it is a holding that has a more flexible structure. There are four or five large groups that are in dispute with each other as well, but that coordinate to carry out their activities. That gives them a better chance to work. It is not as centralized as the other criminal organizations, such as the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel, for example. I believe that it is a reality, it is a criminal organization that is and will be very present ”.

The current situation of the leader of Sinaloa, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is already more than 70 years old, with his children and brother in custody, has given him a role as a kind of “godfather” among the different groups of that cartel, asserts the analyst, which has motivated a generational transition for the future succession. He mentions “Los Chapitos”, the son of Juan José Esparragoza “El Azul” (recently deceased due to COVID-19), and paradoxically Rafael Caro Quintero, who is also part of that group.

Nemesio Oseguera Martínez, “El Mencho”

“I think they are in a process of transition, and in that process, in a similar way, the Jalisco Cartel is also found, for other reasons, but basically because its leader, ‘El Mencho’, is ill. Not of such extreme gravity, as it was published in some occasion, that it was on the verge of dying, but two operators are already fighting the succession. One is supposedly a son that he has outside of marriage, who is called ‘El 03’, and another character who is a very powerful one, who is called ‘El Sapo’ ”.


In the 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment, the DEA establishes that the supply chains of Mexico’s criminal groups run through the Western Hemisphere and the world. They produce and traffic illicit drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. They ship South American cocaine to the United States and, as the Mexican cartels expanded their control of the opioid market, overdoses in the United States increased dramatically, setting a record in 2019, with more than 70% of deaths from opioid overdoses, including fentanyl.

The US anti-drug agency considers that the Arellano Félix Cartel continues with its operation, mainly in Tijuana, sustaining a resurgence of violence on this border, by forging an alliance with the CJNG. Regarding this, the report highlights that “despite the losses of leadership, it has expanded its geographical scope and maintained its own cohesion while exploiting the split in the Sinaloa organization. It is considered an extremely powerful cartel, with a presence in 27 of the 32 Mexican states in 2020. Its reputation for extreme and intimidating violence continues ”.

Regarding the Sinaloa Cartel, the DEA refers that it is the oldest criminal clan established in Mexico and is made up of a network of smaller organizations. The analysis indicates that this group is in decline, citing its disintegration into factions and the violence of inter and intra-organizational tensions, for which the CJNG has taken advantage of its shortcomings to expand. The friction between the two main parties of the Sinaloa Cartel “intensified in May and June 2020, with violent internal struggles between a faction led by the sons of El Chapo Guzmán (Los Chapitos) and those aligned with a faction under ‘El Mayo ‘Zambada ”.

Military operation in Guanajuato.

The Juárez Cartel has seen a weakening in its activity due to the loss of the position since 2016 in the face of the battle for control allegedly exercised by the Sinaloa and CJNG cartels. As for the Gulf Cartel, the DEA maintains that it survives in the cocaine and marijuana trade, but has expanded into heroin and methamphetamine, smuggling most of its drug shipments to South Texas.

For their part, Los Zetas have been fragmented by the splits that led to the formation of the Northeast Cartel and Los Zetas Vieja Escuela, although they continue to traffic a variety of drugs, including heroin and cocaine, through distribution centers in Laredo, Dallas, and New Orleans.

A possible collapse of the Beltrán Leyva family is indicated due to the arrest of many of their leaders, which is why it is estimated that the dissident factions of this organization depend on flexible alliances with the CJNG, the Juarez Cartel, and elements of Los Zetas to transfer drugs. across the border.

As regards the Michoacán groups, such as Los Caballeros Templarios, it can be seen that, after the arrest of their leader, Servando Gómez Martínez “La Tuta”, the clan’s fortunes collapsed. And from La Familia Michoacana, the report reveals that, although it was believed to be a dissolved organization, it is still active in both Michoacán and Guerrero, specializing in the production and smuggling of methamphetamine, along with the trafficking of other synthetic drugs. It also traffics marijuana and cocaine, in addition to regulating the production of heroin.


For Jorge Fernández Menéndez, there is a take-off factor in the predominance and expansion of the cartels, especially for those from Sinaloa, since in his opinion, they were ahead of other criminal groups “and it allows them to operate, perhaps with a wrong reading of some groups, that they are less violent or that they are fewer drug traffickers than others, let’s say it, and it is not like that, the reality is not that. All these groups use or stop using violence according to their needs, circumstances, momentary to the control capacity they have in one territory or another ”.

In every way, fentanyl is big business for the cartels. It is much cheaper, easier to have, to produce, and to traffic. It is a drug that is fashionable. So, it can be sold at relatively cheap prices compared to others, but with a huge profit.

Fernández assures that the profit for the production and final destination of this drug is ten times higher than heroin, “but not only ten times higher gram for gram, but to produce heroin you need to have land, grow poppies, have farmers, then there are than to cut it and take out the opium gum; that rubber must be taken to a laboratory where it is necessary to have a series of chemical products to transform it into heroin and then take it to the market ”.

In the case of fentanyl, traffickers import the product in its pure state, which is a universally used pharmaceutical. It is received at a seaport or airport in Mexico, and with a few kilos, thousands of doses are produced. All that is required is a pill maker and a few other readily available products.

“Not only is the profit much higher for the drug traffickers, but the entire cost of production, transportation, and it is also very simple. Some of what is being seen and will be seen in the coming months in Culiacán is the enormous number of laboratories that are in simple kitchens of houses and apartments, and from there we work. It is not like with methamphetamines, we have been in these types of laboratories that smell for miles, so they have to be in places in the mountains and in depopulated areas. Not here, they have it in the kitchen of a house and from there they work ”, explained Jorge.

Fentanyl comes through the Pacific Ocean. There are other routes, but the most relevant shipments are registered in the ports of Lázaro Cárdenas and Manzanillo, a situation that explains the violence in those regions, between Michoacán, Jalisco, and Colima. Sometimes it also arrives in Sinaloa, through the port of Mazatlán, and “it is very easy to handle and transport. What we were saying, you don’t need a ton of fentanyl. With 10 kilos of fentanyl, which can be hidden anywhere in a vehicle, in a container, since it does not smell and is not perceived with the naked eye, they make thousands and thousands of doses. The amount to be used for a consumption dose is very low, it is simply milligrams, so it is very easy to transport it, it follows those land routes ”.

And he questioned: “Why doesn’t it come in both through Tamaulipas and Chihuahua? There is another type of consumption there, such as cocaine and other drugs that go there. The reason is simple, it is further away, and the traffic in the laboratories is on the Pacific coast and on that area ”.

Finally, the author of several works related to drug trafficking alluded to the issue of Tamaulipas, “Tamaulipas was always a little different than Jalisco, Sinaloa or Baja California, and in this area, it seems to me that it continues to be so.”


Mexico Daily Post