Mexican drug cartels: how did they became so powerful?

Mexico is a major news source of gruesome news: from encajuelados, autodefensas, or narco governors, to human piñatas, bowling heads, human stew soups, and way more. It seems the weather here goes from it’s raining corpses to mildly beheaded, but the reality goes far beyond these gruesome headlines.

Mexican drug cartels

But first things first: when talking about Mexican cartels and drug trafficking, you must abide by the first rule of the Drug Club: you do not talk about them… well, not too much. So I’m going to stick to the publicly available information, just to be clear.

Also, the term ‘cartel is improperly used: neither Mexicans nor Colombians are colluded to fix prices, market or supply. If that happened, there would be no fightings, and everything would be set and nice. In the beginning, they actually did it, dividing territory, sharing market, fixing prices, and supplying the US with anything they wanted to stick up their noses, but not anymore. Since that agreement is broken, they are no longer under the economic definition of ‘cartel’, but the term is still in use to refer to any criminal narcotics-related organization.

Poppy field
Poppy field in a Sinaloa’s mountain range

Despite that Mexico has long been used as a staging and shipment point for narcotics, immigrants and contraband destined for U.S. market from South America, it was not as an important production point until a couple of decades ago. Drugs in Mexican soil are present, of course, especially in Sinaloa where the locally produced marijuana and opium poppies are a question of tradition, as we’ll see, but the country keeps being a route and not a productive area. But how it all started and went innuendo these last decades?

The Chinese School of Drugs, XIXth c.

At the beginning of the 19th century in China, famine, and political turmoil led many Chinese to emigrate all over the World: in the newborn US, they founded laundries and died by hundreds building railroads. In Europe, they built up Chinatowns in each capital, and in Mexico, they arrived in Sinaloa and Sonora as cheap labour for the construction of railroads.

Despite most of the opium at the time came from the Orient, these Chinese settlers on Mexico’s west coast, particularly in Sinaloa, began cultivating adormidera (opium gum) during the 1870s, taking advantage of the fertile soils of Sinaloa’s sierra, and later started an export trade to the market which had both the demand and the money to pay for its vices: the US.

Chillin in the porch

In 1909, the odd Opium Exclusion Act barred importing opium for smoking; however, it was legal to import it… only if it was destined to be exported to other countries. Soon enough, smugglers started bringing opium from Macau to the US (legally), to be sent to Mexico (also legally), and from there smuggled it back into the US (now illegally). Keep in mind that until 1914 laudanum and morphine were legally sold and distributed in the United States, heroin was prescribed as a cough medicine and cocaine was mixed with wine and cola drinks… but all took a decisive turn to illegality with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, when all these substances were banned on both sides of the border.

It was during these decades when Mexico began to develop the reputation of being a drug heaven on US behalf, despite successive laws and treaties between both countries tried to curb down the illegal trade, even with some US military interventions in Mexican soil.

But it was all useless, specially after the US got involved in the Second World War, which marked the beginning of the large-scale production of opium paste in Mexico on US military behalf, legally again, as morphine (and heroin and codeine) is obtained from opium, and by that time Japan gained control of Asia’s opium production areas and supply routes. And the U.S. military needed morphine for its soldiers… So they turned again to Mexico for its proximity, safety and well, to save some face too…

Again, the mountains of Sinaloa were up to business, and this time for real: equipped with the latest technology, infrastructure and (un)official instructors from the US, production and yield per ton skyrocketed, all thanks to US taxpayers. But at the dusk of World War II, the operation was shut down and everybody denied any implication. Officially, the war was off, but not US’ appetite for drugs, which had just started. And they left the know-how on the other side of the border…

The Old School, XXth c.

The modern armed struggle against drugs in Mexico materialized in 1947, when the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (precursor of the DEA) put pressure on the Mexican side to launch military operations in the Mexican Northwest (specifically, Sonora, Sinaloa and Durango) targeting opium and marijuana crops. Again.

Despite all these efforts, the local production of opium got several boosts from overseas: the first came with the dismantlement of the French Connection in 1970, and later another one with the Fall of Saigon in 1978, which left the US without a steady supply of this narcotic from Turkey and Indochina. With these two major blows, it was a question of time until the opium from Mexico, the so-called ‘Mexican mud‘ (for its brownish colour) replaced the scarce ‘China white‘ (a pure form of heroin) from Indochina until the 80s, when heroin steadily started to be replaced by cocaine, because its reputation of being a fashionable new drug for entertainers and business people.

With an overwhelming demand and high prices, small operations and drug runners in Mexico started to orbit around themselves and condensed in bigger groups, expanding operations, routes and manpower, leading to the first organized structures around the smuggling and shipment of narcotics from Mexico on Colombians’ account.

But the birth of all modern drug cartels is given to the former Mexican Judicial Federal Police agent Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo ‘el Padrino‘ (the Godfather), who founded the Guadalajara Cartel in 1980 with Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, controlling the most and main trafficking corridors across Mexico-US border throughout the 1980s.

There were no cartels (in plural) at that time. There was only one: the Guadalajara Cartel and Félix Gallardo was its leader. He oversaw all operations on both sides of the border, from the cocaine reception from South America to its stacking and smuggling to the US along with locally produced heroin and marijuana. He started off by smuggling marijuana and opium made in Sinaloa into the US, and was the first Mexican drug chief to link up with Colombian cocaine cartels in the 80s: through his connections, he became the point man for the Medellin Cartel, run then by Pablo Escobar, when the maritime routes started to be too closely guarded, and the land route through Mexico became the most reliable option for them. For years, his network remained immune, too big to fall.

But after the arrest of many of his colleagues, Félix Gallardo instructed to have his lieutenants in an Acapulco resort, where they agreed upon which smuggling route each capo would inherit, not only to prevent a war in a fast-growing market but to make the business more efficient and less likely to be brought down in one blow. He would stay as overseer of national operations as he had the key contacts on both sides.

So that, splitting his organization is how the ‘Big Four‘ Cartels were born, according to the area they were left in control, protection and supervision:

  • Tijuana Cartel. Tijuana city route: leaded by the Arellano brothers, controlling the border with the US.
  • Sinaloa Cartel: Chapo Guzman and Ismael Zambada Pacific coast.
  • Del Golfo: The control of the Matamoros, Tamaulipas corridor would be left to Juan García Abrego.
  • Juarez Cartel. Juarez city route: held by Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the “Señor de los Cielos” (Lord of the skies) name given because the use of 747 planes for smuggling operations.

Apace with these changes in the business landscape, Mexican Cartels started to demand their payment in cocaine instead of cash for handling of the packs through the border. This change brought in vast amounts of cash, and the cartels started to get more power at the Government expenses, and in the 80s, they cut definitively the Colombians out of the distribution, cornering their intervention in the process to just the production, which entailed a significant drop in the street price, attracting more consumers, boosting profits on the Mexican side. Simultaneously, Colombian cartels started to get dismantled during the 90s and had to cede more business to the Mexicans, who faced almost no challenge in their country.

The young’uns and the hydra effect, XXIth c.

The current Mexican war on drugs remained untapped thanks to the reign of almost 80 years of the PRI and its predisposition to corruption and laissez-faire about these kinds of organizations. There was a price for everything, and the scheme of shit runs down, money goes up proved its excellence through this time, but when PRI lost to PAN in 2000, it shook the foundations of the system to its core; but most important, it meant the start of the Drug War in Mexico. The army was sent to take back many States from powerful and ingrained Cartels. Chaos arose. 60.000 civilians (and counting) got caught in the crossfire.

The kingpin strategy, adopted by the Federal Government, focusing most of the effort on taking out the top bosses, proved to be fatal for Mexico, as it meant the total decentralization of the drug trafficking organizations: new cartels sprouted from the remnants of the fallen ones. When a major drug lord was caught, their lieutenants would split the territory and eventually fight among themselves to take what was left. As an example, with the alleged dismantlement of the Beltran-Leyva Cartel, seven more inherited the territory.

Blood and bullet holes are seen on a car door after an unidentified man was murdered in Tijuana, northern Mexico, AP Photo/Guillermo Arias

So now, to sum it all up, we could say that the law enforcement agencies are using a bat to hit the wasp’s nest as if it was a piñata. With the arrival of a new PRI government, it seems the situation got cooled down again, but who knows why and for how long. And it all started with a headache…

Bayer Heroin bottle

TL;DR: gringos like to get high since a long time ago, Colombians happy to produce, Mexicans happy to deliver, but get the blame.

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3 thoughts on “Mexican drug cartels: how did they became so powerful?

  1. What is happening now in villages in Michoacán is embarrassing. With the Knights Templar cartel, the Doctoi Mirelles and army forces. bullshit


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