Mexico is the main foreign supplier of marijuana and methamphetamines to the United States. It is also a main transit point for cocaine, heroin and other drugs coming to the U.S. from other countries.
Mexican cartels have displaced Colombian groups as the dominant cocaine traffickers in the world. Several drug cartels have operations in Mexico, and much of the violence stems from struggles over territory. The cartels' control over specific regions of the country shifts as alliances change and government arrests disrupt the balance of power.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon's administration has attempted to rid Mexico of the top narco-traffickers, but cartel members have killed thousands in an effort to gain control of the lucrative drug trafficking routes.
The Gulf cartel, based in Tamaulipas, was considered the most powerful drug trafficking organization when President Calderon took office in December 2006. Much of its power came from Los Zetas, their enforcement arm. When the two groups split, Los Zetas became dominant, and the Gulf suffered from arrests as a result of targeted law enforcement efforts. Increasing tensions have led to warfare between the two and the formation of a new faction called the New Federation, made up of the Gulf cartel and two enemies of Los Zetas, La Familia and Sinaloa. Violence has increased along the Texas-Mexico border and in Monterrey, Mexico, in the struggle for control of territory.
The Beltran-Leyva organization's network stretches over a large portion of Mexico, from the Pacific Coast into the northeastern regions. The group was a part of the Sinaloa cartel until 2008. After becoming independent, it grew in power, assisted by a sophisticated intelligence network and an active relationship with the powerful Los Zetas to broaden the control of territory. But on Dec.16, 2009, their leader, Arturo "Jefe de Jefes" Beltran-Leyva, was killed in a gunfight with Mexican troops. His brother Carlos was arrested soon after Arturo's death. A rift over control of the group has formed between the remaining brother, Hector, and another powerful leader within the organization, Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal. The fight has spread into the states of Guerrero, Mexico, Puebla and Hidalgo.
Los Zetas is one of the most powerful and violent cartels in Mexico. Started by a group of former military commandos and led by Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano Lazcano, Los Zetas gained a reputation as ruthless enforcers and forged relationships with other cartels. It formed an alliance with the Beltran-Leyva organization, in part to fight their common enemy, the Sinaloa cartel, and also to extend their presence into Central America. They now find themselves in a violent struggle with the New Federation, a recent faction consisting of the Gulf, La Familia and Sinaloa cartels.
The Sinaloa cartel, like the Tijuana cartel, was formed in 1989 when the head of the Guadalajara cartel was captured. The group's leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, is on the Forbes list of richest people. Despite losing the membership to the Beltran-Leyva and Juarez cartels, it remains the most dominant group in Mexico and Latin America. The Sinaloa cartel is the leading cocaine trafficker from South America to the worldwide market, with an economic presence in 47 countries. The Sinaloa and Juarez cartels are battling a vicious war in an effort to take control over Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua state — an area vital to running massive drug operations in the United States.
The Tijuana cartel, run by the Arellano Felix family, was formed when the head of the Guadalajara cartel was captured in 1989. Once considered one of the strongest and deadliest cartels, the Tijuana cartel has been weakened by the arrests and deaths of its key leaders. The last of the five Arellano Felix brothers, Eduardo, was arrested in 2008, and ensuing squabbles resulting from the leadership vacuum led the group to split into two — one run by Fernando "El Ingeniero" Sanchez Arellano, and the other by Eduardo Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental, who was arrested in January 2010.
The Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization, or Juarez cartel, is headquartered in Ciudad Juarez. The area is considered one of the most coveted trafficking routes in the Americas. The cartel's enforcement arm is a gang called La Linea. The group was founded by Vicente's brother, Amado, who died in 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery. The cartel's influence has dropped because of the arrest in 2009 of its financier, Vicente Carrillo Leyva, and its ongoing battle with the Sinaloa cartel over control of the Juarez region. The continuing conflict makes Juarez the most violent city in Mexico.
La Familia is based in the state of Michoacan but also has operations in the states of Guerrero, Guanajuato, Mexico, Jalisco and Queretaro. La Familia, formed in the 1980s, received a good deal of publicity in 2009 when the former Mexican attorney general called it "the most violent criminal organization in Mexico." Yet its influence, compared with the other cartels, is still fairly small. Leadership of the organization is shared by Jose "El Chango" Mendez Vargas and Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, known as "El Mas Loco" or "The Craziest One." The group was formerly allied with the Gulf cartel.