History and Facts About the Mexican Drug Cartels


The major threat to the United States from Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) is still illegal drugs. Utilizing well-established distribution and transportation networks, these Mexican multi-drug cartels traffic in heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and illegal fentanyl across the entire US. They have complete control over drug trafficking across the Southwest Border (SWB) and are making moves to increase their market share of illegal drug sales in the United States, particularly heroin sales.

Two Mexican cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, are allegedly responsible for the surge of fentanyl into the United States that is killing tens of thousands of Americans, according to the chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Anne Milgram. [1]

According to the DEA, fentanyl is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and was created for the pain management of cancer patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that the powerful substance contributed to almost 66% of the 107,622 drug overdose deaths that occurred between December 2020 and December 2021. And since 2018, law enforcement has seized more fentanyl-laced pills than ever before. [1]

What is a Drug Cartel?

Any criminal group with the goal of supplying drug trafficking operations is considered a drug cartel. They range from informal contracts between numerous drug traffickers to formalized business operations. When the biggest trafficking organizations agreed to coordinate the manufacturing and distribution, the phrase was coined. Any illegal drug trafficking group is referred to by this word. [2]

The basic structure of a drug cartel:

  • The lowest level in every drug cartel is the falcon, who is regarded as the “eyes and ears” of the streets. They are in charge of monitoring and reporting on the operations of the military, the police, and competing organizations.
  • The drug cartel’s armed hitmen are in charge of carrying out assassinations, kidnaps, thefts, and extortions as well as running protection businesses and defending its plaza (turf) from other criminal organizations and the military.
  • In the drug cartel hierarchy, lieutenants hold the second-highest position and are in charge of overseeing the hitmen and falcons on their own turf. Without the boss’s consent, they are permitted to commit covert killings.
  • The highest ranking position in every drug cartel is that of the drug lord, who is in charge of overseeing the whole drug trade, selecting territorial leaders, forging alliances, and organizing high-profile homicides.

The drug cartels are made up of other functioning entities. For instance, the financiers and money launderers, together with the suppliers and producers of drugs, are essential members of every drug cartel even if they are not included in the fundamental structure. Additionally, the arms dealers aren’t formally regarded as a part of the cartel’s logistics because they work in a totally separate milieu. [2]

History of Mexican Drug Cartels

Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, a former member of the Mexican Judicial Federal Police who founded the Guadalajara Cartel in 1980, is credited with being the originator of the majority of Mexican drug cartels. He controlled most of the country’s illegal drug trade as well as the trafficking routes across the Mexico-U.S. border along with Juan García Ábrego throughout the 1980s. [3]

He began by smuggling marijuana and opium into the United States, and in the 1980s, he was the first Mexican drug lord to collaborate with Colombia’s cocaine cartels. With the help of his connections, Felix Galardo became the person at the forefront of the Medellin Cartel, which was run by Pablo Escobar. This was made possible because Félix Gallardo had already built up a marijuana trafficking network that was prepared to assist the cocaine traffickers stationed in Colombia. [3]

There were no other cartels in Mexico at the time. Together with his friends and the politicians who sold him security, he directed operations. According to Peter Dale Scott, who is best recognized for his critiques of deep politics, the Guadalajara Cartel succeeded in great part because it had the protection of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), led by its chief Miguel Nazar Haro. [3]

Rafael Caro Quintero

When Rafael Caro Quintero, a co-founder of the organization, was apprehended and ultimately found guilty of murdering DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, the Guadalajara Cartel suffered a severe setback. After that, Félix Gallardo maintained a low profile and relocated to Guadalajara with his family in 1987. [3]

On April 8, 1989, Felix Gallardo was arrested in Mexico. [3] He was accused of racketeering, drug smuggling, and several violent crimes by law enforcement in both Mexico and the United States, as well as the kidnapping and death of DEA agent Enrique Camarena. [4]

Félix Gallardo planned to split up the business he managed after being arrested since it would be more effective and unlikely to be shut down by law authorities. In 1989, Félix Gallardo gave his lawyer the go-ahead to call a meeting at a residence in the tourist destination of Acapulco where he defined the plazas or areas. The Arellano Felix brothers, his nephews, would take the Tijuana route. The Carrillo Fuentes family would receive the Ciudad Juárez route. The Sonora corridor would be directed by Miguel Caro Quintero. Ismael Zambada Garca joined them shortly after Joaqun Guzmán Loera and Héctor Luis Palma Salazar departed the Pacific coast activities, forming the Sinaloa Cartel. [4]

Murder of DEA agent “Kiki” Camarena

Enrique "KiKi" Camarena

On July 26, 1947, Enrique “KiKi” Camarena was born in Mexicali, Mexico. He graduated from Calexico High School in Calexico, California in 1966 and join the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968. After serving in the Marine Corps for two years, Kiki joined the Drug Enforcement Administration in June of 1974. Kiki was a Calexico fireman, Calexico police officer, and an Imperial County Deputy Sheriff after serving two years in the Marine Corps. Calexico, California, was the location of his first DEA Special Agent assignment. [5]

In 1980, the Guadalajara-based resident agency of the Administration hired Enrique “Kiki” Camarena of the DEA. By using informants to gather data, Camarena was able to locate marijuana cartel plantations in the state of Zacatecas. On the plantations, there was invasion and destruction. [4]

As part of “Operation Godfather,” Mexican forces supported by helicopters destroyed the even larger 1,000 hectare “Rancho Bufalo” marijuana farm in Chihuahua, Mexico, which had been guarded by DFS intelligence agents. Rancho Buffalo had thousands of farmers working its fields, and its annual output was later estimated to be worth US$8 billion. Local law enforcement, elected officials, and the military were all aware of all that was happening. [4]

The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which Félix Gallardo considered to be a significant threat to the Guadalajara cartel’s operations throughout Mexico, was beginning to be exposed by Camarena for its connections with drug traffickers, Mexican law enforcement, and high-ranking government officials. [4]

In response, Félix Gallardo gave the order to abduct Camarena. On February 7, 1985, as Camarena was leaving the consulate of Guadalajara, Jalisco police officers working for the cartel abducted him. Alfredo Zavala Avelar, the pilot of his helicopter, was taken hostage shortly after. [4]

Camerana and his pilot were taken to Rafael Caro Quintero’s home at 881 Lope de Vega in the Jardines del Bosque colonia, in the western part of the city of Guadalajara, where they were tortured and interrogated for 30 hours. [4]

Camarena was murdered and subjected to torture on February 9. He passed away after having a drill perforate his skull, according to the results of the autopsy. To keep him awake during his torture and interrogation, he was given injections of medicines such as adrenaline and others. On a property in Michoacan state, his body was discovered beside that of pilot Alfredo Zavala Avelar, both wrapped in plastic. [4]

The U.S. reacted quickly to Camarena’s torture and murder. Operation Leyenda, the largest DEA homicide investigation ever, was started by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In Mexico, where government officials were suspected of being involved—including Manuel Ibarra Herrera, the former director of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police, and Miguel Aldana Ibarra, the former director of Interpol in Mexico—a special squad was sent to coordinate the inquiry. [6]

The main suspects in the kidnapping were quickly identified by investigators as Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo and his two close associates, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero. Under pressure from the U.S. government, Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid swiftly arrested Carrillo and Quintero, but Félix Gallardo continued to enjoy political protection. [6]

On April 8, 1989, Felix Gallardo was arrested in Mexico. The arrest of Félix Gallardo exposed the widespread corruption in Mexican politics and law enforcement. Following the arrest of Félix Gallardo, other police commanders were also taken into custody, and up to 90 officers may have fled the scene as a consequence of public pressure. [4]

Who is Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo?

Félix Gallardo was raised on a ranch outside of Culiacán, Sinaloa, near Bellavista. He attended high school there and afterwards attended college to study business. He became a member of the police force at the age of 17 and began working for the government as a Mexican Federal Judicial Police agent. [8] He served as the family bodyguard for Leopoldo Sánchez Celis, the governor of the state of Sinaloa. [4]

Félix Gallardo met Pedro Aviles Perez while serving as the governor of Sinaloa’s bodyguard, Leopoldo Sánchez Celis. He was another one of the governor’s bodyguards, but he was also suspected of being a drug smuggler. [7]

Félix Gallardo was quickly brought on board by Aviles Perez to work for his heroin and marijuana business. In 1978, after Aviles Perez was killed in a shootout with the police, Félix Gallardo took over the business and unified the Guadalajara Cartel, which was responsible for all of Mexico’s drug trafficking. [7]

After that, Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo earned the title “El Padrino” or “The Godfather” of the entire criminal organization. [7]

Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo is still alive. Gallardo, who is 75 years old, is currently incarcerated in Jalisco’s state jail Puente Grande. [8]

Gallardo has spent the last 32 years in prison after receiving a 40-year sentence in 1989 for the 1985 slaying of U.S. Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a DEA agent, and Alfredo Zavala Avelar, a pilot from Mexico. [8]

Due of his failing health, Gallardo was moved to a medium-security facility in 2014, during his 25th year in jail. Gallardo was re-sentenced to 37 years in jail in 2017 along with $1.17 million in restitution for his alleged offenses. This list also includes bribes, drug trafficking, money laundering, and stockpiling weaponry, aside from the murder of Kiki and Avelar. Gallardo’s 28-year trial, which was the longest in Mexican history, ended with his conviction in 2017. [8]

The only person responsible for Kiki’s killing who is still behind bars is Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. Gallardo has always denied all the accusations made against him from his detention and up until a recent interview with NBC News. Gallardo will spent the remainder of his life in prison, or until his sentence expires in 2054, according to the new 37-year term he received in 2017. [8]

The Major Drug Cartels in Mexico

Since December 2006, the Mexican government has been at war with drug traffickers. Drug cartels have engaged in conflict for control of territory at the same time. [9]

Mexican President Enrique Pea Nieto, in office from 2012 to 2018, carried on Felipe Calderon’s campaign against drug cartels and accompanying bloodshed. The 2014 capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the head of one of Mexico’s most potent drug trafficking organizations, the Sinaloa cartel, was a major win for the Calderon administration. [9]

Drug sales in the US generate between $19 billion and $29 billion for Mexican drug cartels every year.

A Congressional Research Service (CRS) analysis from July 2020 states that from 2006 to 2018, between 125,000 and 150,00 homicides had some connection to organized crime. [9]

Here are the major drug cartels in Mexico:

Guadalajara Cartel

The Guadalajara Cartel is one of the earliest and largest Mexican drug cartels to smuggle drugs into the United States of America.

Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, and Rafael Caro Quintero established the cartel to import marijuana into the US in the early 1980s. The cartel soon began to work with Colombian drug cartels and began smuggling cocaine into the United States, under the protection of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) and several Mexican politicians. [10]

Sinaloa Cartel 

One of Mexico’s oldest and most influential drug trafficking organizations, Sinaloa was formerly headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Its worldwide reach is greater than that of any of its Mexican rivals, with strongholds in the northwest and along Mexico’s Pacific coast. In 2017, Mexican authorities extradited Guzman to the United States, where he is serving a life sentence for multiple drug-related charges. [11]

Cartel Jalisco New Generation (CJNG)

CJNG interrogating Zeta members

It is regarded by the U.S. Department of Justice as one of the top five most dangerous transnational criminal organizations in the world, and it is to blame for horrendous acts of violence, fatalities, and an increase in the volume of polydrug trafficking. Rubén Oseguera Cervantes, known as “El Mencho,” is believed to be the group’s leader. [12]

Juarez Cartel

Every year, illegal drug shipments from Mexico worth billions of dollars enter the United States through one of the main transportation channels controlled by the Juárez Cartel. Since 2007, the Juárez Cartel and its former ally, the Sinaloa Cartel, have been engaged in a bloody conflict over control of Ciudad Juárez. The armed wing of the Juárez Cartel is called La Linea, and it is made up of corrupt Juárez and Chihuahua state police officers. Vicente Carrillo Fuentes headed the Juárez Cartel until his arrest in 2014. [3]

Gulf Cartel

One of Mexico’s oldest and most powerful criminal organizations, the Gulf Cartel has recently lost ground to rivals, including its former enforcer branch, the Zetas. When the cartel was at its peak, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, its boss, was regarded as the nation’s most potent underworld figure, and the Zetas were the most dreaded gang. [13]

Capturing the Gulf Cartel’s top leaders has been a noteworthy victory for the federal authorities of Mexico. Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, his brothers Antonio Cárdenas Guillén, Mario Cárdenas Guillén, and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez have all been captured and incarcerated during Felipe Calderón’s administration. [3]

Los Zetas

After Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was captured in 2007 and extradited, the Zetas, who numbered around 300 at the time and were led by Heriberto Lazcano, took the chance to go independent. The Zetas subsequently established their own autonomous networks for trafficking in drugs, weapons, and people. After striking a contract with the Beltrán-Leyva brothers, who were once the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, in 2008, Los Zetas started to compete with the Gulf Cartel, their previous employer and business partner. [3]

In addition to trafficking drugs, the Zetas were also involved in stealing oil from pipelines, dealing illegal CDs, and people trafficking. Their criminal network is alleged to extend beyond Mexico to Central America, the United States, and Europe. [3]

On July 15, 2013, the Mexican Navy arrested the top Zeta boss Miguel Treviño Morales. [3]

La Familia Michoacana 

La Familia Michoacana, is  an organized crime syndicate based in the Mexican state of Michoacán. The cartel was founded by Carlos Rosales Mendoza, a close associate of Osiel Cárdenas, the former leader of Gulf Cartel. [14]

The second leader was Nazario Moreno González, aka El Más Loco. José de Jess Méndez Vargas, Servando Gómez Martnez, and Enrique Plancarte Solis were Nazario Moreno’s allies and were fighting for control of the organization. [14]

Large-scale methamphetamine production by the cartel is reportedly carried out at secret laboratories in Michoacan. [14]

After the death of Nazario Moreno González, José de Jesús Méndez Vargas took control of the cartel. However, his authority was disputed by the cartel co-founders Enrique Plancarte Solís and Servando Gómez Martínez, who formed an offshoot of La Familia calling itself Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) [14]

Knights Templar

In Michoacán, the Knights Templar drug cartel was founded in March 2011. Enrique Plancarte Solis and Servando Gómez Martinez, who are in charge of the Cartel, split from José de Jesus Méndez Vargas, who had taken over control of La Familia Michoacana, to form the Knights Templar. [3]

High-ranking cartel leader Enrique Plancarte Solis was assassinated by the Mexican Navy on March 31, 2014. [3]

Beltran-Leyva Organization

The four Beltrán Leyva brothers—Marcos Arturo, Carlos, Alfredo, and Héctor—created the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, a drug trafficking organization and organized crime group in Mexico. [3]

When the Beltran-Leyva brothers left Sinaloa in 2008, the group was born. Since then, all four brothers have either been dead or incarcerated, but their supporters still exist across Mexico. The organization’s breakaway factions have become stronger and more independent, keeping connections to Jalisco, Juarez, and Los Zetas. [11]

Tijuana Cartel

The Arellano Félix Organization, popularly known as the Tijuana Cartel, was previously one of Mexico’s most formidable criminal organizations. Its headquarters are in Tijuana, one of Mexico’s most strategically significant border towns, and it still exports drugs today despite being weakened by an internal conflict in 2009. The Tijuana Cartel is a tiny fraction of what it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was regarded by the authorities as one of the most powerful and ruthless criminal organizations in Mexico. This is because of internal conflict, arrests, and the deaths of some of its top members. The cartel is currently allegedly led by Edwin Huerta Nuo alias “El Flako” following the arrest or murder of numerous members of the Arellano Félix family. [3]

The Role of Mexican Drug Cartels in Government Corruption

Mexican drug gangs may use law enforcement agents as pawns in their schemes to advance their agenda. The police and representatives of the municipal, state, and federal governments in Mexico frequently collaborate with the cartels in a well-organized system of corruption. A Pax Mafioso is a special instance of corruption that secures votes and support for a politician in exchange for not interfering with a particular cartel. [3]

AFI Agents

Despite the Mexican government’s recent concerted efforts to combat corruption, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) reports that it is still a significant issue. The Attorney General revealed in December 2005 that approximately 1,500 of the AFI’s 7,000 personnel were under investigation for alleged criminal conduct and 457 were facing charges. Some agents of the Federal Investigations Agency (AFI) are thought to serve as enforcers for various cartels. [3]

The federal government has recently conducted police force purges and prosecutions in Nuevo Laredo, Michoacán, Baja California, and Mexico City. Ballistic examinations of police guns are part of the anti-cartel operations that President Calderón launched in December 2006 in areas where there are suspicions that the police are collaborating with the cartels. 284 federal police chiefs from all 31 states and the Federal District were fired by President Calderón in June 2007. [3]

Several agents and high-ranking officials were detained and charged of providing protection or information to drug cartels as part of the “Cleanup Operation” carried out in 2008. Notable arrests included those of Victor Gerardo Garay Cadena (the head of the Federal Police), Noé Ramirez Mandujano (ex-chief of the Organized Crime Division), José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos (ex-chief of the Organized Crime Division), and Ricardo Gutierrez Vargas, the former director of Mexico’s Interpol office. [3]

Former director of Mexico’s Interpol Rodolfo de la Guardia Garcia was detained in January 2009. Julio César Godoy Toscano, who was just elected to the lower house of Congress on July 6, 2009, is charged of shielding and serving as a high-ranking member of the La Familia Michoacana drug gang. He is currently missing. [3]

Allegations that the Sinaloa Cartel had corrupted the Mexican federal government and the Mexican military through bribery and other methods were gathered for a May 2010 National Public Radio (NPR) report from dozens of sources, including U.S. and Mexican police officials, Mexican media, academics, politicians, and others. Of the 250,000 soldiers in the Mexican Army over a six-year period, 150,000 left and joined the drug trade, according to the report of the U.S. Army Intelligence division at Leavenworth. [3]

In addition, the 2010 NPR report said that the Sinaloa Cartel was working with the government to eliminate rival cartels and safeguard itself and its head, “Chapo,” at the same time. Mexican officials denied that there was any corruption in the way the country dealt with the drug gangs. Because members of the cartels have infiltrated and tainted the law enforcement organizations that are supposed to prosecute them, such as the Office of the Attorney General, it has previously been reported that cartels are difficult to prosecute. [3]

The Violence of Drug Cartels in Mexico

The military and law enforcement in Mexico have struggled to reduce crime-related violence. 33,341 drug-related killings occurred in Mexico in 2018, a record high and a 15% rise from the previous year. [20]

Journalist and the media

According to organizations like the National Human Rights Commission, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mexico was the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist in the early years of the twenty-first century. Numerous journalists, including Miguel Angel López Velasco, Luis Carlos Santiago, and Valentin Valdés Espinosa, were killed there between 2000 and 2012 for reporting on narcotics-related stories. [3]

Bombs have been detonated in the Televisa and regional newspaper offices. In the United States, news reporters who have covered the drug violence have received death threats from the cartels. Others have been infiltrated and tainted by drug cartels, while some media outlets have simply stopped covering drug-related crimes. Notiver journalist Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco, was assassinated in his own home in 2011 together with his wife and son. [3]

Murders of Politicians

María Santos Gorrostieta Salazar

The drug trafficking organizations have slain police officers, slaughtered rivals, and increasingly targeted politicians, especially local leaders, since the Mexican drug war began in 2006. The local administrations are weakened as part of the criminal groups’ strategy for assassinating local leaders. For instance, in November 2012, Maria Santos Gorrostieta Salazar, the former mayor of Tiquicheo, Michoacán, was kidnapped and brutally murdered despite having survived three prior assassination attempts and the murder of her husband. Extreme violence puts elected officials at the mercy of the cartels, enabling them to gain more control over governmental institutions and increase their power. [3]

A recent case was the assassination of Gisela Mota in January 2016, which occurred just hours after she was sworn in as Temixco’s first female mayor. [16]

Massacres and exploitation of migrants

Cartels have targeted migrants passing through Mexico on their journey from Central America to the United States and Canada by kidnapping, demanding ransom, killing, robbing, and extorting them. In what has been compared to slavery, cartels have also compelled migrants to join their group and work for them. The bodies of migrants have also been found in mass graves in Mexico. A mass grave with 177 remains was found in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, in 2011, the same location as the bodies of 72 migrants were found in 2010, where the majority of victims died from blunt force trauma to the head. [3]

Cartel members have attacked and threatened immigration agents working for the Mexican government’s immigration offices. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, drug cartels kidnapped 11,000 migrants in just six months in 2010. [3]

Human Trafficking

There are established connections between the drug cartels and trafficking in people for forced labor, forced prostitution, and rape. The spouse of a drug lord revealed a system in which young girls were compelled to work in drug factories after becoming prostitutes. After previously solely providing women to established networks, Los Zetas reportedly started to expand into the prostitution sector in the early 2010s (including the trafficking of children). [3]

According to the U.S. State Department, forced prostitution is not as widespread in Mexico as forced labor. For covering these events, Mexican journalists like Lydia Cacho have received threats and been exiled. [3]

Where are the top ten drug lords in Mexico now?

1. Servando Gomez
Alias: La Tuta, El Profe (The Teacher)
Head of the Knights Templar cartel

The Knights Templar gang’s deputy under the late Nazario Moreno was Servando Gomez. He is thought to be less ruthless than his late boss, who now heads the cartel known for trafficking meth. He has given TV stations interviews, posted numerous of his own videos on YouTube, and craves media attention. He is seen in some of those videos working with public servants to start scandals that engulf his home state of Michoacán. Following months of intelligence gathering, police in Michoacan’s state capital Morelia seized a number of properties and detained individuals they believed to have connections to Gomez. [18]

He was taken into custody by Mexican law enforcement on February 27, 2015, in Morelia, Michoacán. [19]

2. Miguel Angel Treviño
Alias: Z40
Head of Zetas cartel

The Zetas, led by Miguel Angel Trevio, were accountable for many of the worst murders and atrocities committed during Mexico’s drug war. He also used stables with prize-winning racehorses to launder money into the United States. He was apparently visiting his new kid when authorities detained him without firing a shot in the middle of the night. [18]

On July 15, 2013, the Mexican Marines captured Trevio Morales in Anhuac, Nuevo León, close to the Tamaulipas state border. [20]

3. Joaquin Guzman
Alias: El Chapo (Shorty)
Head of the Sinaloa cartel

Guzmán was originally apprehended in Guatemala in 1993, deported to Mexico, where he was found guilty of murder and drug trafficking, and given a 20-year prison term. In 2001, he broke out of a federal maximum-security jail by paying off prison guards. He was detained in Mexico in 2014 after receiving a $8.8 million reward from Mexico and the United States for information that led to his capture due to his status as a fugitive. Prior to formal sentencing in 2015, he escaped through a tunnel constructed into his jail cell by associates. After a shootout in January 2016, he was apprehended by Mexican authorities, who extradited him to the United States a year later. He was convicted in 2019 of several offenses connected to his command of the Sinaloa Cartel, given a life sentence, and detained in ADX Florence, Colorado, in the US. [21]

4. Nazario Moreno Gonzalez
Alias: El Chayo, El Mas Loco
Head of the Knights Templar

Moreno González was reportedly slain in his home state of Mexico in December 2010 during a two-day shootout with the federal police. But no corpse was found following the shootout. Therefore, there were persistent rumors that Moreno González, the head of the Knights Templar Cartel, the split-off group of La Familia Michoacana, was still alive and still at large. His survival was verified on 9 March 2014, which was four years later. He was tracked down once more by Mexican officials, who tried to arrest him this time in the Michoacán town of Tumbiscato. Moreno González was killed in the ensuing gun battle. A subsequent forensic investigation proved his identity. [22]

5. Luis Fernando Sanchez Arellano
Alias: El Ingeniero (The Engineer)
Head of the Tijuana cartel

Sanchez Arellano’s arrest received less global notice than some of the others, it was nevertheless a significant downfall. The Tijuana cartel, headed by Sanchez Arellano, controlled the lucrative narcotics route into San Diego, California. [18]

Sánchez Arellano was detained on June 23, 2014, while watching the Mexico vs. Croatia FIFA World Cup game at a Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurant in the Mesa de Otay neighborhood of Tijuana, Baja California, by members of the Mexican Army and federal agents of the Procuradura General de la Republica (PGR).

6. Hector Beltran Leyva
Alias: “El H”
Head of the Beltran Leyva cartel

Hector Beltran Leyva was the leader of a cartel accused of brutal crimes, including the slaughter of a marine’s family during a wake. He might have also been involved in an assault on US agents. Betran Leyva was detained by soldiers as he ate seafood in the sleepy village of San Miguel de Allende, a favorite of Hollywood celebrities and American expats. [18]

Beltrán Leyva first had chest problems on November 18, 2018. Medical personnel attempted to provide him with first aid care in his prison cell after learning about it from a prison guard. He was taken to the Adolfo López Mateos Medical Center in Toluca, State of Mexico, as his symptoms grew worse. He passed away in the emergency room from a heart attack, according to the medical staff. [24]

7. Vicente Carrillo Fuentes
Alias: The Viceroy
Head of the Juarez cartel

Despite widespread indignation after the attack on students in Iguala, soldiers and federal police managed to capture the leader of the Juarez cartel. Vicente Carrillo Fuentes succeeded his brother, who was dubbed “Lord of the Skies” because he operated a fleet of Boeing 727 planes for the transportation of cocaine. He was rumored to have collaborated with the Barrio Azteca, a US prison gang, and led a merciless team of killers known as La Linea. Between 2008 and 2012, more than 9,000 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez. [18]

On October 9, 2014, Carrillo Fuentes was arrested in Torreón, Coahuila, during a combined operation between the Mexican Army and Federal Police. [25]

8. Ismael Zambada Garcia
Alias: El Rey (The King), El Mayo, The MZ
Joint Head of the Sinaloa cartel

The oldest prominent drug lord, Ismael Zambada, is said to be an old-school trafficker who values money over violence. In 2011, he appeared on the cover of Mexico’s leading news magazine Proceso after inviting its most well-known journalist to a meeting in a secret location. He is a longtime ally of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and while Chapo was internationally renowned, many Sinaloan gangsters actually profess their first loyalty to the capo known as “The King”. Zambada said in a brief interview that he was in risk of being arrested several times. [18]

9. Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno
Alias: El Azul (Blue)
Joint Head of the Sinaloa cartel

Although Juan Jose Esparragoza has avoided gaining too much public attention, he is still regarded as a top-tier drug dealer and Zambada’s contemporary. His nickname “El Azul” (Blue) is claimed to be a reflection of his dark skin tone. [18]

Esparragoza Moreno, 65, reportedly passed away from a heart attack on June 7, 2014, apparently as a result of an automobile accident he had experienced fifteen days earlier. Unconfirmed sources state that Esparragoza Moreno, who suffered a spinal column injury in the collision, was confined to a bed. He had a heart attack and passed away while attempting to get out of bed. [26]

10. Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes
Alias: El Mencho
Head of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel

Nemesio Oseguera is seen as a rising star in the drug-trafficking industry and is in charge of the strategically important state of Jalisco in the middle of the nation. He led death squads that hunted out the Zetas in 2011. It is thought that the Jalisco cartel collaborates closely with the Sinaloans due to their historical ties. Oseguera is originally from Michoacan state, meanwhile, and the Jalisco cartel is also growing there now that the Knights Templar gang has been defeated. [18]

Unconfirmed rumors that El Mencho passed away at a Guadalajara private hospital started to circulate in February 2022. [27]

Top 10 All-time List of Richest Drug Lords

Top 10 All-time List of Richest Drug Lords

1. Pablo Escobar: $33.91 Billion

The king of cocaine. Escobar is the wealthiest criminal in history, with an estimated net worth of US$30 billion at the time of his death, which is equivalent to $64 billion as of 2021. [28]

2. Amado Carrillo Fuentes: $28.26 Billion

After killing his boss Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, Amado Carrillo Fuentes took over as the Juarez cartel’s head. Sadly, he passed away in 1997 after undergoing plastic surgery in an effort to alter his appearance so that he could enjoy his money. [28]

3. Semion Mogilevich: $10 Billion

It is reported that the 74-year-old Mogilevich and his three children are living in freedom in Moscow. In Russian mafia syndicates, he is the boss of the bosses. He made the most of his money through arms trafficking, contract killings, and extortion. [28]

4. Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar: $7.57 Billion

Indian drug lord Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar has been sought after since that year. He is currently listed as one of the top 5 global fugitives. He purportedly runs D-Company, an organized crime group in India that he started in Mumbai in the 1970s. [28]

5. The Ochoa Brothers: $6.78 Billion

Among the founding members of the Medellin Cartel are Jorge Luis Ochoa Vásquez, Juan David Ochoa Vásquez, and Fabio Ochoa Vásquez. For his wealth, Jorge Luis Ochoa paid a little price. He gave himself up in 1991. [28]

6. Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha: $5.65 Billion

One of the Medellin Cartel’s commanders, Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, appeared on Forbes’ 1988 list of the world’s wealthiest people. He and his son, who was 17 at the time, were both slain in a confrontation with another cartel in 1989. [28]

7. Khun Sa: $5.65 Billion

Khun Sa was created by a Shan mother and a Chinese father. The “Opium King” is the most prosperous drug lord, having retired in 1996 and lived well for 11 years until passing away. Today’s rich businesses in Myanmar are his progeny. [28]

8. The Orejuela Brothers: $3.39 Billion

Gilberto Rodrguez Orejuela, who presided over the Colombian Cali Cartel, is currently incarcerated in the United States receiving a 30-year term. Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, his brother, is likewise incarcerated in a federal prison in Pennsylvania. [28]

9. Carlos Lehder: $3.05 Billion

Carlos was one of Pablo Escobar’s criminal associates and a co-founder of the Medellin Cartel. He established a base for drug smuggling on a private island in the Bahamas, which has become well-known. [28]

10. El Chapo: $3 Billion

The notorious former Sinaloa cartel boss, Guzmán, is currently serving a life term in a US prison. He was one of the major drug smugglers into the US and, in 2009, he was listed as the 701st richest person alive by Forbes. [28]


The demand for drugs in the United States fuels the wealth and power of the Mexican drug cartels.  Despite the long running “war on drugs”, it’s still profitable for Mexican drug cartels to traffic drugs through Mexico and into the United States.  In order to operate their illegal operations they use methods of intimidation and significant government corruption to evade significant legal repercussions.   This also leads to continued arm struggled between the cartels for territory and power.


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