A Global Network of Narcos

Story by Alex Jones |

It seems like the cartels are everywhere lately. They’re in our news with stories featuring the second recapture of kingpin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of one of the most powerful criminal groups in the world. They’re on our TV, making appearances on shows like Breaking Bad and the recent Netflix hit Narcos. They’re even here in Boston. In late January, 56 suspected members of the notorious street gang MS-13 were indicted in a major operation by federal and local law enforcement. All of these events together show that the cartels are not limited to Mexico, but instead have tremendous global reach, even in Boston.

Today’s cartel is less like a gang and more like an army. Assault rifles, RPGs, and landmines are just a few examples of some of the weapons found in raids. The larger factions, especially Los Zetas and Sinaloa, are equipped with body armor and use guerilla tactics to survive.

The cartels as organizations have evolved from large drug trafficking gangs to global enterprises. As non-state actors, they are fluid and constantly evolving, in many ways similar to terrorist groups like ISIS. They constantly form and break alliances. The borders of the drug wars can change in a year. Or in an hour. The fluidity of their structure makes them difficult to track or fight. Over the years they have expanded from trafficking cocaine. Today, a cartel seems synonymous with human trafficking and targeted killing because of the level and span of crimes they commit.

It can be hard to keep track of who’s who in the current cartel wars. Here’s a breakdown:

The Sinaloa Cartel, based in Mexico’s Sinaloa province, is currently the most powerful criminal enterprise in the world. This is the group “El Chapo” has captained for years, both in and out of prison. Like most other cartels, much of their power stems from a network of allied and subordinate groups. The Sinaloa Cartel’s influence spans from South America, where it acquires drugs, to the United States and Europe, their primary markets. The Sinaloa Cartel is so strong that some even claim that they have been backed by the CIA. While the U.S. government denies these claims and no substantial evidence has been shown, the fact that this conspiracy exists is a testament to the power of the Sinaloa Cartel. Some believe that they are so strong that their power could only be the result of CIA backing. According to the map below from May 2015, the Sinaloa Cartel has a dominant grasp over the U.S. drug market (everything in orange is Sinaloa-dominated).

The Gulf Cartel (red on the map) is one of the oldest of these organizations. At its height in the 1980s and 90s, it was a key ally of Colombian cartels and served as their link to drug markets here in the U.S. It has declined in recent years due to government efforts and wars with other factions. Their current rival, Los Zetas, began as their enforcement wing before they left the Gulf Cartel to start their own criminal network. Over the last few years they have been allied with former enemies in the Sinaloa Cartel to fight against Los Zetas and their allies.

Los Zetas are the most violent and have proven themselves to be a rising power. Originally founded by Mexican ex-special forces, the group originally served as the hitmen and enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. They quickly gained a reputation for violence. In 2011, they were even allegedly recruited in an Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador. Los Zetas have targeted tourists and politicians alike, and have been implicated in a number of massacres. Despite a recent crackdown by the Mexican government and a high number of arrests, Los Zetas are still waging war, even behind bars. In early February they were involved in a prison riot between Zetas and Gulf Cartel members. According to some officials, Los Zetas have even taken control of prisons in the past.

In Mexico, these groups are a dire threat to the state. The larger groups have been known to extort businesses and collect taxes, just as ISIS does. They assassinate or bribe local government and law enforcement officials, and their reach is global. Cartels and their subordinate groups (including many street gangs like MS-13) can be found in the Americas and throughout Europe.

As for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, now-recaptured head of the Sinaloa Cartel, he is currently being sought for extradition by the U.S. government. He is described by Forbes as the “world’s most powerful drug trafficker.” He has even eclipsed Escobar. His network reportedly extends into 50 countries. Recently, both he and his wife have complained of his harsh treatment in prison. As of writing, he has stated that he may accept extradition to the U.S. to face trial. He is currently wanted by several cities for his cartel’s involvement here in the U.S. Although it seems unlikely that he will escape a third time, his future still remains somewhat uncertain.

So what does this have to do with television? A recent drug bust in Arizona proves that Breaking Bad was right about the heavy hand of cartels in the meth trade. Pablo Escobar, the subject of Narcos, was a narcotraficante so powerful that he won a seat in the Colombian Senate. He helped inspired the culture in today’s cartels, including the global network of alliances and a flashy cartel subculture that has everything from music videos (that actually exist outside of Breaking Bad), to its own patron saint. Escobar is an ideal that many cartel leaders aspire to. His legacy, and the legacy of his multinational criminal empire, still have tremendous influence in the underworld today.

A recent operation in Boston involved over 400 law enforcement officials from Boston and several neighboring cities in an attempt to crack down on the street gang MS-13. MS-13 is currently the only street gang in the U.S. to be designated a “transnational crime organization.” Originally formed in the U.S., the group has gained tremendous power in Central America, especially El Salvador where the founders originated. This isn’t to say that we should live in constant fear. But it is worth noting that in our age of rapid globalization, the cartels have formed a global network of narcos.