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What Are Cartels?
The term "drug cartel" is criticized yet ubiquitous. Agents impose it to construct cases. Yet organized crime networks unleashing death are very real.
In the arid hills of Sonora, 70 miles south of the Arizona border, stand the statues of nine Mormon women and children who were shot dead and burned by gunmen in 2019. “We dedicate this monument to all of the innocent victims of cartel violence,” it says on the plaque.
Put up by family members from a cross-border community, it’s one of the few memorials to the bloodshed that has ravaged Mexico and perhaps the only one that mentions cartels by name. A monument in Monterrey to 52 people who perished in a casino torched by the Zetas mob in 2011 says simply, “For those who pass these waters, stop the violence in our society and wash the tears of those who suffer from it.” But the vast majority of the thousands shot, mutilated or dissolved in acid during the so-called drug war in Mexico have no stones to remember them.
I like the way the Sonora plaque points directly at the perpetrators without flinching. But what really are these cartels?
The word is ubiquitous in reports on violence in Mexico and Colombia and cited in other parts of Latin America and beyond. Type “drug cartel” into Google and you get four million references. The New York Times used it in 12 stories in September alone. Gangsters write “cartel” on banners they hang on Mexican streets, making threats and claiming turf. A study published in Science asserts cartels are one of the biggest employers in Mexico. And a resolution calling for U.S. military action against fentanyl traffickers addresses “Mexican cartels.”
Yet the term sparks criticism. Various journalists and academics retort it’s inaccurate and misleading. Author Oswaldo Zavala goes further, arguing in his book, “Drug Cartels Do Not Exist” that traffickers have zero power and are simply subservient to corrupt government forces on both side of the border. (Zavala also cites a quote I got from kingpin Pablo Escobar’s lawyer arguing cartels don’t exist, which I’ll get into below).
I sympathize with some of these critiques, many by friends who do great work. Elements of the Mexican state are deeply corrupt and criminal (and I don’t think anyone seriously argues otherwise). U.S. law enforcement also has rotten agents, and the CIA has been proven to have worked with drug traffickers. U.S. prosecutors have historically imposed cartel names on gangsters to make cases. And the idea of U.S. jets bombing cartels would be disastrous and not even stop fentanyl trafficking.
Yet, there is overwhelming evidence that there are powerful networks of organized crime in Mexico that are unleashing horrific violence. They can mobilize hundreds of gunmen to firefights, dig mass graves and don’t just traffic drugs but run rackets from human smuggling to oil theft. While they are entwined with corrupt elements of the state, they have become a source of power in themselves. We can’t make sense of the bloodshed, or find a way out it, without taking these groups seriously.
For good or bad, cartel is now the most common name to describe these organized crime networks in Mexico. When people hear cartel in reference to criminals, they get a sense of what is being discussed. They think of powerful and violent gangsters - not price fixing. (As I go into below, words evolve and cartel has a varied history).
Other terms are also used such as gangs, mafias, organized crime groups, or acronyms such as OCG’s and TCO’s, which are useful. But those words have issues too. Gang can be a group of criminals, but also a group of friends, and evokes youths on the corner rather than militias. “Criminal organization” implies a mob with a clear structure whereas cartel can evoke a collection of gangsters coming together.
A key factor is that while the term cartel was imposed by U.S. agents and journalists in the past, gangsters now use it themselves. The photo at the top shows gunmen with a CJNG sign, standing for the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Gangsters (especially in the Gulf Cartel) even have uniforms and badges with the word.
Yet still, the term cartel has issues. There is a broad understanding of what it means when applied to crime, but people have different ideas of the details. The mobs vary in their structures from the sprawling Zetas to the federative Sinaloa Cartel to the pyramidal Knights Templar. The term can be misused, like in claims that street dealers on U.S. corners are cartel members when they are just local crooks who bought a cartel’s product down the food chain. An understanding of the nuance and discussion on how these organizations work is vital.
In this piece, I look first at the history of how the term cartel has been used for criminals, which goes back further than has largely been reported. I then look at the critiques and where I think they make solid points or where they aren’t convincing. Finally, I turn to a broad definition of what modern cartels are.
I talked through these ideas with historian Benjamin T. Smith who wrote “The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade.” The Dope’s strongest contribution is showing how Mexico’s crime structures were forged by the police running protection rackets on drug traffickers. The turning point, Benjamin explains, was when these gangsters took over the rackets for themselves paving the way for violent disorder. When the mobsters became the bosses, they did genuinely become cartel-like.
“They emerged from the state,” Benjamin says. “But they can now act autonomously, they can dump 50 bodies on a motorway and not get arrested…Yes, the state’s still involved but it’s not all controlling.”
A History of a Word
The word cartel hails from the Italian cartello, which is a derivative of carta or paper and spilled into English in the seventeenth century to mean a written agreement between nations. “The cartel of 1812” refers to an accord between the United States and Great Britain on prisoners. In the 1880s, cartel was used to describe something different again: an election agreement between German political parties, the “Cartel coalition.”
It was in Germany in this period that the word gained its modern usage of businesses colluding, like “the cartel among German sugar producers.” But it wasn’t until the 1920s that we see the word frequently in U.S. newspapers. This was an era of boom and bust and cartel had a negative meaning of tycoons conniving against the public. It also got into anti-monopoly legislation as something illegal.
The best known feature of economic cartels is price fixing. But it’s not the only one. Antitrust laws also go after business cartels who divide territories or rig bids. When OPEC hiked the price of oil in the 1970s, the word cartel was used frequently referring to price fixing but by countries rather than companies.
The use of cartel to describe drug traffickers and gangsters has a long history. While it may have been applied before, the New York Times has it’s first story in 1951, headlined “5 in New York-Canada Cartel Held,” which reports on heroin trafficking to New York and Montreal. The traffickers, it says, are part of “an international narcotics cartel headed by deported vice overlord, Charles (Lucky) Luciano,” who was operating from Italy. Older terms such as “drug rings” had been used but the word cartel implies something bigger and more menacing.
Soon after, a 1954 book “Syndicate City” was published with the subtitle, “The Chicago Crime Cartel and What To Do About It.” Notably, this cartel in the windy city was not only selling heroin but into loan sharking, gambling and protection.
In the 1970s, drug warriors used the term cartel at the dawn of the war on drugs. It was cited in the World Opium Survey of 1972 and in a 1977 Congressional hearing by DEA head Peter Bensinger. “The investigation determined that Sicilia was in charge of a worldwide drug cartel,” Bensinger said, referring to Alberto Sicilia Falcón, a Cuban-born trafficker in Mexico.
These officials were wielding the word with political motives, to get support for their agencies. “It was clearly invented by the Americans in order to put a name to an enemy and to pretend to the American public they could basically beat this enemy,” Benjamin says. Yet the traffickers they were describing were real, if maybe less sophisticated and menacing than they said.
The term really gained steam in the 1980s in reference to Colombians. In 1981, a prosecutor in Miami called Colombian marijuana smugglers, “vertically integrated international cartels.” Journalists then used it promiscuously in both English and Spanish about the cocaine cowboys or Los Jinetes de la Cocaina. In 1983, ABC News released a report called “The Cocaine Cartel,” to fanfare. Writers love alliteration and “Colombian cocaine cartels” scores a triple.
In 1986, U.S. prosecutors filed an indictment against the heads of “The Medellín Cartel,” including Escobar, with RICO organized crime charges. When you are prosecuting a RICO case you need to prove a criminal conspiracy, so it helps to give it a name, whether it’s the Cosa Nostra, Hells Angels, or Cali Cartel. But the term cartel is not a total game changer. Prosecutors can also just call groups things like the “Arellano-Félix Organization.”
An important point is that the the Colombian gangsters probably didn’t use the term themselves. On a trip to Medellín, I interviewed Gustavo Salazar, lawyer for Escobar and dozens of other cocaine kings. “Cartels don’t exist,” he told me. “What you have is a collection of drug traffickers. Sometimes, they work together, and sometimes they don’t. American prosecutors just call them cartels to make it easier to make their cases. It’s all part of the game.”
Salazar made a fair point that Escobar may never have said he was the boss of something called the Medellín Cartel. But the Medellín gangsters still formed a trafficking network and worked together to move mountains of disco powder. It’s also notable the Italian mafia long denied the mafia existed.
As Colombian cartels grew in global infamy, news stories and indictments spoke of the Mexican equivalent - the Guadalajara Cartel. Its leaders, including Rafael Caro Quintero, were wanted in the killing of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985, a case that made a huge splash. However, an article by Carlos Pérez Ricart and Jack Pannell makes a convincing case that the name “Guadalajara Cartel” was only applied retrospectively, first appearing in news reports in late 1985 after Caro Quintero had been busted. Again, the gangsters didn’t use the name themselves but their network was real.
By the 1990s, the term cartel became well established in media, law enforcement and popular culture and has remained so since. In some ways, cartel just became the name for organized crime in Latin America, like mafia is for Italy and yakuza is for Japan. Yet it’s not exclusively so. A crew of Irish cocaine cowboys was dubbed the Kinahan Cartel (alliteration again). Gangsters from across Europe behind record coke seizures have been called a “super cartel.”
There’s been a sea change in how the Mexican cartels operate in this period. They became richer from the boom in cocaine, meth and then fentanyl going through Mexico, and built their own private armies. The Arellano Félix brothers were perhaps the first to charge a quota to other traffickers to move dope though their territory, or as Benjamin Smith says, they took over the protection racket from the police. Every cartel followed suit.
Héctor López, an operative for the Juárez Cartel, described in a 2020 court case in Texas, how it functioned. “We'll receive the load and the shipments. And we'll separate them by owner and then get 25 percent out of each one, and that was what belonged to the cartel.”
Over the last two decades, cartels have expanded this quota on drugs to all illegal activity, including human smuggling, oil theft, prostitution, wild cat mining, and product piracy. In some plazas, or territories, the cartels also take it to legitimate businesses, shaking down anybody they can.
From the 2000s, gangsters began using cartel names themselves, spraying them on walls, on banners, on uniforms. New self-proclaimed cartels pop up almost weekly, from the “Independent Cartel of Acapulco” to “Cartels United.”
They still work with corrupt security forces. But they also fight them. And their sicarios increasingly look like soldiers themselves, evoking the phantom of paramilitary organized crime.
Critiques of “Cartels”
Among the critiques of the word cartel are these pieces in Harpers, Insight Crime, and Small Wars Journal. (These are all great publications, and I especially recommend checking out Insight Crime and Small Wars Journal who do stellar work). There are various other commentaries in stories, interviews and on social media. The arguments vary, but I see three key critiques.
The first is that the term is inaccurate because Mexican gangsters don’t fix prices like economic cartels. Some also contend they aren’t drug cartels because they are involved in a range of crimes.
As outlined, however, economic cartels do not just fix prices but carry out other monopolistic practices. Gangsters act more like territorial cartels. But this is a bit beside the point. Words evolve in meaning, including terms such as audition, commodity, minority and most famously gay, and cartel itself had other meanings over time. Today, cartel is used more to talk about gangsters and traffickers than about monopolists.
The fact that Mexican cartels are not just involved in drugs is certainly true. It’s also not a revelation but has been written about for over decade. (I have a chapter on it in my 2011 book “El Narco”). If they are described as “cartels” it’s not saying they are exclusively trafficking drugs. And cartel has been used to describe mafias behind an array of rackets back to the 1950s.
The second critique is that cartel evokes a powerful group when really gangsters are subservient to corrupt officials.
The question of the relationship between narcos and the state is central so this raises a worthwhile point. Again it’s not new to say this. For decades, books, reports and even TV series showed corrupt Mexican officials working with cartels. Yet the relationship is complicated.
On an extreme end, you could argue that gangsters are all simply state employees. But if that were so, why would you have cases like the Culiacanazo where hundreds of Sinaloa Cartel gunmen confronted the Mexican army? Or how come cartels are able to force city mayors to hand over chunks of their budgets?
The reality is that cartels can be entwined with elements of the state, specifically the security state, while also in conflict with them. They are still networks we need to describe and understand.
The third critique is that framing them as cartels exaggerates the threat of gangsters and is used to justify military actions and repression of protest.
Mexico and the United States have certainly used the war on drugs to attack political enemies. Plan Colombia was sold to the American people as an operation to stop cocaine, but it was really used to smash the leftist guerrillas of the FARC. There are cases when Mexican officials blame cartels for a murder when there is a political motive. There has been a mass mobilization of soldiers in Mexico since 2006 to fight cartels and they have committed grave abuses.
However, this doesn’t alter the fact there are super violent networks of organized crime and they themselves trample on human rights. Mexico has suffered over 400,000 murders since 2006. The majority are unsolved but efforts to find the cause, such as a cross agency unit from 2007 to 2010, determined about two thirds were committed by organized crime.
Massacres by both cartels and soldiers need to be covered by journalists. But ultimately, if we are using the term cartels or mafias or TCO’s it doesn’t radically change this coverage.
Define Cartels Then
Language is made less by design than by evolution. Cartel is not the ideal word to describe paramilitary organized crime in Mexico but is the one we live with. There are real events to relate and the term cartel is effective, which is why writers keep using it despite the criticisms.
“It’s a useful shorthand to use in journalistic stuff,” Benjamin says. “In academic stuff, I can see there is a reason perhaps to be a bit careful about using it and describing its historical evolution.”
Benjamin thinks there are two broad models of cartels in Mexico. The first follows the thinking of U.S. agents who look at organizations that are international, hierarchical (with at least three levels) and complex. U.S. law enforcement is mostly concerned with drug trafficking so is focused on the biggest cartels, especially Sinaloa and Jalisco, which operate in multiple countries and move copious amounts of fentanyl, meth, cocaine and heroin.
The second model is more how the cartels see themselves. They are groups that control a significant chunk of territory and tax all the illegal activity in it as well as doing shakedowns. There are over a dozen mobs like this in Mexico from La Familia to the Northeast Cartel back to the Sinaloans and Jaliscans.
I would add some observed features of what the modern Mexican cartels look like. They have thousands of members. They traffic drugs but are involved in a portfolio of crimes. They command paramilitary wings. They control turf. They work with corrupt law enforcement but also fight it. And they commit horrific violence.
The last reason is why this all matters. Many politicians in Mexico have long avoided spelling out the problem and retreated into word salads. That is why the message to remember the murdered Mormon women and children struck me as being different and direct. And you sometimes need to express a problem as directly as you can to have a hope of solving it.
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