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IE Insights: Mexico’s Most Powerful Drug Cartels

June 2023
Mexico’s drug cartels have long been a driving force behind the country’s ongoing struggle with organized crime and violence. The top players in this illicit industry have leveraged power dynamics, economic inequality, and weak institutions to maintain their prominence. As of 2023, several prominent cartels continue to dominate Mexico’s drug trafficking landscape.


The Sinaloa Cartel, often referred to as the most powerful drug trafficking organization globally, remains at the forefront. Founded in the late 1980s, the Sinaloa Cartel is notorious for its extensive smuggling operations, reaching as far as Europe and Asia. The group specializes in multiple narcotics, including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The cartel’s power was primarily attributed to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, but after his capture and extradition to the U.S. in 2017, control shifted to Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.


Despite internal feuds and external pressures, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) has surged in power. Emerging in 2010, CJNG quickly gained infamy for its brutal violence and aggressive expansion tactics. Led by Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, CJNG is involved in producing synthetic drugs, particularly methamphetamine and fentanyl. The group’s rapid expansion into 22 of Mexico’s 32 states signals a terrifying upward trajectory for the organization.


The Gulf Cartel, one of the oldest Mexican cartels, is known for its historical influence on drug trafficking in the U.S., specifically in Texas. However, the group’s dominance has waned due to continuous infighting and clashes with rival cartels like the Zetas, a splinter group that formed in the early 2000s.


The Zetas, initially formed by ex-military commandos hired as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, became an independent entity in 2010. Known for their military-style operations and brutal tactics, they diversified their criminal activities into human trafficking, oil theft, and extortion. The group’s power has significantly diminished due to the capture and killing of key leaders, but it remains a potent force in Mexico’s underworld.


The Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Félix Organization, is based in one of the most valuable trafficking corridors, the border city of Tijuana. Despite their power being notably reduced following the arrests of the Arellano Félix brothers in the 2000s, they maintain a degree of influence over this vital drug trafficking route.

All these cartels engage in a constant power struggle, causing significant collateral damage, including civilian deaths and rampant corruption. Their activities extend beyond drug trafficking, incorporating other criminal enterprises such as human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and piracy, furthering the instability in the region.
These organizations have adapted and evolved, further entrenching their operations despite government crackdowns. They capitalize on systemic issues like poverty and corruption, using fear and violence to maintain control. Their influence extends into daily life and politics, making it an issue of national security and public safety.
Addressing the power and influence of Mexico’s drug cartels is complex, requiring comprehensive efforts at local, national, and international levels. Efforts should include strategies for strengthening institutions, creating economic opportunities, and fostering cooperation between countries to combat drug trafficking and associated crimes. It is an arduous journey, but a crucial one for the stability of Mexico and the region as a whole.