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Briefing: How Mexico is waging war on drug cartels

Who are the most powerful cartels, what are the risks of using the military to confront them, and how much progress has Mexico made so far?

By Staff Writer / August 19, 2009

Police officers escort Jaime Cervantes Alvarez an alleged member of the ‘La Familia’ cartel.

Marco Ugarte/AP

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Mexico City

Who are the main players?

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The Gulf Cartel, whose territory, along with that of Los Zetas (see below), extends from the US border to the Yucatán Peninsula, was until recently Mexico's most powerful drug-trafficking organization. But government pressure, particularly over the past two years, has weakened it. The former leader, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was arrested in 2003 and extradited to the United States in 2007. The group is headquartered in the northern state of Tamaulipas, where it has long smuggled drugs into Texas, employing Los Zetas as its ruthless, private army. Along with the Sinaloa, Beltran Leyva, and Zetas groups, it is a main player in the cocaine trade.

Los Zetas grew out of the military special forces deserters that Gulf Cartel leader Mr. Guillen recruited in the 1990s as his private security detail. They eventually became the paramilitary arm of the group, then split off in late 2007 or early 2008. The relationship between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel is unclear today, since the two are believed to still work together in an organization referred to as "The Company." The group, led by Heriberto Lazcano, is organized as a formal drug-trafficking organization, but Los Zetas also subcontracts work to other cartels. New members are recruited from federal and local law enforcement agencies, as well as Mexican and Guatemalan special forces. Los Zetas are increasingly suspected of involvement in kidnapping, extortion, and immigrant smuggling.

The Sinaloa Cartel, along Mexico's Pacific coast, is reputedly led by fugitive Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted man. He is also on Forbes maga­­zine's 2009 Richest People list with a net worth of $1 billion. Drug trafficking over the past decade in Mexico was dominated by the Sinaloa and Gulf organizations, but the weakening of both has led to splintering, giving other groups space to grow.

While it's in better shape than the Gulf organization, the Sinaloa group until recently was allied with the Beltran Leyva and Juarez cartels (forming the Sinaloa Federation), but both have split off. It is believed to be the most active smuggler of cocaine today; its reach extends into Central and South America.

The Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization/Juarez Cartel has long reigned over Ciudad Juárez, Mexico's most violent city. Of all the executions in 2008, one-quarter of them occurred in this border town. The Juarez Cartel smuggles cocaine and marijuana into El Paso, Texas, and beyond. But their influence has waned since the late 1990s.

Today, the bloodshed in Juárez is blamed not only on a power struggle between the Juarez cartel and their former allies of the Sinaloa Federation, but also between the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, which are vying for control into the US market at the border.