Alexandre Meneghini / AP Photo

Drug cartels: Decoding Mexico's biggest criminal syndicates

A look at the main players and how they influence the country’s turbulent politics

The recent disappearance and assumed killing of 43 Mexican students from a teachers college in Guerrero state has again brought into the spotlight the pernicious influence of powerful drug gangs. The grisly incident was reportedly ordered by municipal officials and local police but executed by armed men linked to the Beltrán-Leyva organized crime syndicate.

The Sept. 26 attack has provoked unrest and widespread calls for federal authorities to extricate all levels of government from the corrupt grip of the kingpins. But with Mexico’s legacy of high-profile criminal enterprises, that is easier said than done.

A half-dozen major groups have traditionally controlled most of Mexico, but crackdowns started by former President Felipe Calderón have helped break these syndicates into dozens of splinter groups. That, in turn, has greatly challenged President Enrique Peña Nieto’s efforts to reign in organized crime.

Despite escalated and somewhat successful efforts by the administration of Peña Nieto to arrest top narco bosses, violence between the organizations — and their remnants — has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in a conflict over turf and trade routes.

Map of areas controlled by each organization, with geographic data updated through the start of 2014.

The Zetas

Raul "El Lucky" Hernandez Lechuga, center, is presented to the press along with other alleged members of "Los Zetas", in Mexico City.
Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty Images

The notoriously ruthless criminal gang was set back when federal troops killed leader Heriberto Lazcano in 2012. Lazcano pioneered the group’s aggressive paramilitary style. At its height, the group achieved control of narco-trafficking in around half of Mexico’s states.

In July 2013, the group saw the arrest of another leader, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales. The Mexican government heralded his capture as a key drug war victory, as he was responsible for some of the country’s worst atrocities.

The Zetas began as the enforcement arm of the Gulf syndicate but later turned on their leaders. The area they dominate runs from the northeastern border with the U.S. and the city of Monterrey along the Gulf of Mexico coast into the country’s southeast.


Joaquin Guzman is escorted by soldiers at the Navy's airstrip in Mexico City on Feb. 22, 2014.
Henry Romero/Reuters

Originating in western Sinaloa state, this group’s dominion extends from Ciudad Juárez, on the U.S. border with Texas, to Tijuana in the west and into the Baja California peninsula to the south, although analysts say the group has recently lost considerable power in Juárez. The cartel remains strong, doing billions in drug deals even though its globally infamous leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was arrested on Feb. 22.

Guzman was captured by Mexican marines who were tipped off by U.S. intelligence. He faces charges in both Mexico and is accused of drug crimes in at least seven U.S. federal judicial districts.

Sinaloa is widely considered the top supplier of illegal drugs to the U.S. and was considered Mexico’s most powerful cartel before being overtaken by The Zetas, who are said to prefer brutal violence over bribes.

Knights Templar

Loya Plancarte was one of the four top leaders of the Knights Templar drug cartel, which vigilante groups have been fighting for the last year.

Originally part of La Familia Michoacana, the group operates in the western state of Michoacán. Knights Templar accuses vigilante groups of being allied with their enemies in the New Generation cartel.

In March, Mexican soldiers killed crystal meth dealer Nazario Moreno, who had written his own bible and was viewed as a saint by the syndicate.

In January 2014, Mexican troops arrested one of the group’s main leaders, Dionisio “El Tio” Loya Plancarte. The group has been in effective control of the city of Apatzingán, with a population of 100,000, for several years.


Federal authorities arrested the group’s leader, Jorge Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla Sánchez, in September 2012. The U.S. had offered up to $5 million for information leading to his capture, as he was charged with threatening U.S. law enforcement and drug trafficking.

The Gulf gang’s area of control is a small stretch of land along the Gulf of Mexico, close to the U.S. border. Over the past few years, the group has battled the Zetas, its former security branch, for control over profitable smuggling corridors into Texas.

New Generation

The crime syndicate is based in the western state of Jalisco and is active in the metro area of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city.

Led by Nemesio Oseguera, whose son was captured in January, the group is reportedly allied with the Sinaloa group. New Generation is fighting territorial battles against both the Knights Templar and The Zetas.

Beltrán Leyva

Photos of the head of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel, Hector Beltran Leyva, are seen displayed on a television screen during a news conference at the Attorney General's Office building in Mexico City, Oct. 1, 2014.
Attorney General's Office/handout/Reuters

The formerly dominant organization has broken up in recent years at the hands of an extended crackdown by the Mexican authorities. In December 2009, government forces killed Arturo Beltrán-Leyva, who had been known as “El Jefe de los Jefes,” or “The Boss of Bosses.”

Remnants of the group remain, though in a weakened position, in the area of northwestern Mexico along the Gulf of California coast where Sinaloa is also active.

One offshoot of Beltrán-Leyva, Guerreros Unidos, is linked to the Sept. 26 disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. The city of Iguala’s former mayor, José Luis Abarca, apparently was paid off by the group in return for cooperation. And two brothers of Maria de los Ángeles Pineda, Abarca’s wife, were killed five years ago while active with Beltrán-Leyva.

With The Associated Press and Stratfor

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