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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?


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

Marco Ugarte/AP

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Who are the main players?

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.


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