Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations


Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) pose the greatest crime threat to the United States and have “the greatest drug trafficking influence,” according to the annual U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA’s) National Drug Threat Assessment. These organizations work across the Western Hemisphere and globally. They are involved in extensive money laundering, bribery, gun trafficking, and corruption, while causing Mexico’s homicide rates to spike. They produce and traffic illicit drugs into the United States, including heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, and powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and they traffic South American cocaine.

As Mexico’s transnational crime groups expanded their control of the opioids market, U.S. overdoses rose sharply to a record level in 2017, with more than half of the 72,000 overdose deaths (47,000) involving opioids. Although preliminary 2018 data indicate a slight decline in overdose deaths, many analysts believe trafficking continues to evolve toward opioids making possible a future rise of overdose deaths from opioids. This prospect deeply concerns Congress. In July 2019, the notorious crime boss Joaquin Guzmán Loera (“El Chapo”) received a life sentence in a maximum-security U.S. prison for his role leading the Sinaloa Cartel. Guzmán had been extradited by Mexico to the United States in January 2017, following two escapes from Mexican prisons.

The major Mexican DTOs, while increasing their business in opioid supply, have continued to diversify into such crimes as human smuggling and oil theft. According to the Mexican government’s latest estimates, illegally siphoned oil from Mexico’s state-owned oil company costs the government about $3 billion annually. Mexico’s DTOs have been in constant flux. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón (20062012) launched an aggressive campaign against the country’s drug traffickers that was a defining policy of his government; the DTOs violently resisted this campaign. By some accounts, there were four dominant DTOs in 2006: the Tijuana/Arellano Felix organization (AFO), the Sinaloa cartel, the Juárez/Vicente Carillo Fuentes organization (CFO), and the Gulf cartel. Government operations to eliminate DTO leadership sparked organizational changes, which increased instability among the groups and violence.

Over the past 12 years, Mexico’s large and comparatively more stable DTOs fragmented, creating at first seven major groups, and then nine, which are briefly described in this report. The DEA has identified those nine organizations as Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Tijuana/AFO, Juárez/CFO, Beltrán Leyva, Gulf, La Familia Michoacana, the Knights Templar, and Cartel Jalisco-New Generation (CJNG). Mexico’s intentional homicide rate reached new records in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, Mexico’s national public security system reported more than 17,000 homicides between January and June, setting a new record. For some Members of Congress, this situation has increased concern about a policy of returning Central American migrants to cities across the border in Mexico to await their U.S. asylum hearings in areas with some of Mexico’s highest homicide rates.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, elected in a landslide in July 2018, heads a new party, MORENA. He campaigned on fighting corruption and finding new ways to combat crime, including the drug trade. He aimed to avoid the previous two administrations’ failure to lower violence and insecurity. According to some analysts, challenges for López Obrador since his inauguration include a persistently ad hoc approach to security; absence of strategic and tactical intelligence concerning an increasingly fragmented, multipolar, and opaque criminal market; and endemic corruption of Mexico’s judicial and law enforcement systems.     Purchase this volume