Redefining Mexican Drug Cartels

Image of gun, bullet casings, and international cash


Images conjured up when contemplating Mexican drug cartels might seem like they belong in an action movie or in a more barbaric time long since passed. Armed conflict between federal police trying to retake their country from criminals armed to the teeth might seem very far-fetched to people in the United States, but that sort of battle is being waged just across the border in Mexico. Mass killings, shootouts, and beheadings and criminals shooting down military helicopters are not fiction in Mexico’s story of the drug cartels.1 Mexican drug cartels, often collectively called drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), are an increasingly dangerous threat to Mexico and the United States as the drug trade increasingly funds terrorist organizations across the globe and DTOs continue to diversify their criminal repertoires.

The global drug trade has evolved just like every other aspect of global trade and is affected in much the same way as other global commodity chains. In the mid-1950s, as cocaine began to surge in global popularity, there was an increasing global marketplace for the creation of an illicit drug trade among criminal elements from various countries.2 Criminals looking to make money off the increasing interest and demand for drugs like cocaine sought out new ways to manufacture, transport, and distribute large amounts of the drugs. Mexico became a prime location for the establishment of centers of operations and trafficking routes because of the country’s geographic location and its seemingly official “acceptance” of bribery.3 And so began the road to the current time when competitive drug cartels fight over coveted drug trafficking routes into the United States.

There are seven main DTOs operating in Mexico: the Sinaloa, Tijuana/Arellano-Felix, Juárez, Beltrán-Leyva, Los Zetas, Gulf, and La Familia Michoacana, although the groups are constantly in flux.4 Each of those DTOs operates in specific areas within Mexico and contributes to the profitable drug trade with drug consumers in the United States. In the 1970s, the United States decided the time had come to try and stop the negative consequences of drug abuse and the other crimes so often perpetuated by addicts by taking a tough stance on drug use and the cartels, thus launching the infamous War on Drugs.5 However, this effort failed to destroy the Mexican drug cartels who continue to operate successfully today.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which leads the U.S. response to the drug trade, claims that more than 46,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2013 and says the Mexican drug cartels are the primary suppliers of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine to the United States.6 In addition, more than 1,000 U.S. cities are occupied by members of the various Mexican drug cartels, which net an annual profit of approximately 39 billion dollars from drug sales in the United States.7

In addition to the negative consequences that are so well-known and documented in the United States, the drug cartels also wreak havoc in Mexico through gratuitous amounts of violence and public corruption. The drug wars in Mexico have claimed more than 80,000 lives since 2006, and the corruption is pervasive enough that some experts have noted that the Mexican authorities and the cartel members are the same people.8 There is no doubt that the drug cartels cause a great deal of death and are a direct threat to the health of the world by supporting drug abuse and addiction. However, drug cartels are not one-dimensional—they are continually looking for (and finding) new ways to increase their profits.

Diversifying Criminal Conduct

The drug cartels are partially responsible for the overdose deaths and decreased well-being of drug addicts in the United States. They are also responsible for the terrible situation that exists in Mexico that is undermining the very principles of democracy through bribery and corruption. As if those factors were not enough, the Mexican drug cartels are increasingly involved in an ever-widening array of criminal activity outside their traditional roles as drug traffickers. The threats posed by DTOs go far beyond drugs and drug-related violence into crimes like public corruption, fraud, and the manipulation of whole political and financial systems.9 The problem exceeds what, in the United States, has been touted as a mere personal choice to use illegal drugs. Drug cartels have realized the lucrative nature of criminal activities in general and have become heavily involved in crimes that have little or nothing to do with drugs.

In 2009, more people were murdered from drug-related violence in Mexico than the total number who were murdered in Iraq during the same year.10 Cartel violence and cartels’ involvement into other criminal enterprises are problems that are dangerously overlooked. Cartels are now fully involved in human smuggling for both illegal entry of immigrants into the United States and for sex slavery.11 Traditionally, crimes like human trafficking and sexual slavery are crimes vehemently fought against and considered especially heinous in the United States, yet the drug cartels maintain their place in the discussion as mere violent drug traffickers.

Furthermore, the cartels are expanding their areas of control outside of Mexico very effectively, which allows them to grow their criminal enterprises even further. Countries in Central America like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala experience an astonishingly high rate of violent crime, and the instability in that region has become an easy target for manipulation by the cartels. Those countries of Central America provide an excellent trafficking route for drugs controlled by the cartels and headed north from South America. In response, the cartels have taken control of countries like Honduras and El Salvador and have begun manufacturing and corruption activities in those nations to further their transnational criminal enterprises.12

Murder, extortion, corruption, fraud, human trafficking, sex slavery, and drug trafficking are all crimes committed by groups that have been traditionally called drug cartels or DTOs. The name does not fit the role that these groups play within the criminal underworld as they operate across various national borders and participate in far more criminal activity than just drug trafficking. One more very important aspect of the drug trade demonstrates even more strongly why these groups cannot be viewed as merely drug traffickers any longer—drug cartels are becoming so dangerously connected with global terrorism that a new term has been developed to describe the situation: narco-terrorism.

Funding for Terrorism

Terrorists have taken center stage in the debate about global security and the biggest dangers facing the world in recent years. Those terrorist groups are often extremist groups seeking to advance their religious and political agendas through acts of violence and terrorism. The United States knows what terrorism looks like all too well because of several prominent attacks from these terrorist groups since September 11, 2001, as do other countries around the world, such as France, Belgium, and Turkey, to name a few. The discussions regarding terrorists usually do not include drug cartels, but after close examination, this exclusion is an oversight that needs to be remedied.

The U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security has directly named Hezbollah, an Islamist militant group, as a threat to the United States near the southwestern border with Mexico.13 Terrorist organizations that monitor current events are likely to recognize that drugs and people cross the border of the United States from Mexico with relative ease. By taking a lesson from the Mexican drug cartels, terrorist groups can easily learn to infiltrate the United States through similar routes to those used by drug traffickers and human smugglers.

In addition to learning from the activities of drug cartels, many terrorist organizations have grown into hybrid organizations that utilize drug trafficking as a means to fund their terrorist activities.14 Terrorist organizations have largely switched to the drug trade as a funding mechanism after the War on Terror following 9/11 successfully eliminated much of their traditional funding.15 Places like Afghanistan are a prime example of where drug trade for funding could play out nearly uninterrupted. Afghanistan is known to grow an enormous amount of the world’s opium poppy, which can be made into opium and eventually codeine, morphine, or heroin. Several countries around the world are seeing a huge increase in heroin addiction, which means opium poppy farming is potentially incredibly lucrative. The Taliban is not ignorant of that fact—in 2009, they brought in a profit of 61 billion dollars from opiate trafficking.16

Terrorism is inextricably linked to the drug trade. Drug sales and smuggling routes are often utilized to fund terrorist groups with billions of dollars annually. The DEA says that 19 of the 43 foreign terrorist organizations in the world have direct ties to the drug trade, and groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are well documented as using drug sales for funding.17 Narco-terrorism is a relatively new word, but one that accurately describes the relationship between terrorism and the drug trade.

Redefining Drug Cartels

Perhaps the term drug cartel was appropriate many years ago when the global drug trade was just developing and newly organized groups of drug traffickers formed to sell those drugs. The world is a very different place now, and members of drug cartels do far more harm in this world then selling mind-altering substances. Some very serious crimes are perpetrated by the cartels that have nothing to do with manufacturing or distributing drugs. The cartels now take part in human smuggling, kidnapping, murder, corruption, and sex slavery. The definition and terminology for groups known as drug cartels need to change to more accurately describe their actions and elicit an appropriate response from the world.

A “transnational criminal organization” has several main attributes: an organized hierarchy, the use of force and threats, the use of corruption, secrecy, and a public demand for the organizational services.18 Drug cartels meet all of those requirements and are definitely transnational organized crime groups.

Besides being a funding mechanism for terrorism, organized crime organizations have many commonalities with terrorist groups—both types of groups use extreme violence, commit other crimes like kidnapping, assassinate rivals, defy the state and laws, and are a direct threat to the security of nations.19 Based on these characteristics, it becomes clear that drug cartels are much more than simply groups of drug traffickers; cartels are transnational criminal organizations that are directly tied to terrorism.


Drug cartels are traditionally viewed as groups that may take part in violence but are generally concerned with making a profit from selling illegal drugs. That view is very misleading and dangerous, as it fails to acknowledge the vast array of criminal activities conducted by cartels and their direct link to funding terrorism. The cartels are a significant threat to governments and democracy because of their ability to corrupt and their desire to undermine entire political systems. Hybrid groups of drug traffickers and terrorists are common enough that the term narco-terrorist has evolved as a term to define these groups. Based on the true role that drug cartels play in the world, they should not only be renamed narco-terrorist groups or transnational organized crime groups, but they should also be treated as a very real threat to people and governments around the world.



1Madison Park, “Mexico’s Most Notorious Drug Cartels,” CNN, August 8, 2016.

2Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008).


4June S. Beittel, Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Violence, Report for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, April 2013): 9.

5Yassaman Saadatmand, Michael Toma, and Jeremy Choquette, “The War on Drugs and Crime Rates,” Journal of Business & Economics 10, no. 5 (May 2012): 285.

6Drug Enforcement Administration, “DEA Releases 2015 Drug Threat Assessment: Heroin and Painkiller Abuse Continue to Concern,” news release, November 4, 2015. 

7U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, A Line in the Sand: Countering Crime, Violence and Terror at the Southwest Border (Washington DC: U.S. House of Representatives, 2012), 2.

8Park, “Mexico’s Most Notorious Drug Cartels”; John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Drug Cartels, Street Gangs, and Warlords,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 13, no. 2 (2002): 40.

9Sullivan and Bunker, “Drug Cartels, Street Gangs, and Warlords.”

10David Lewis, “High Times on the Silk Road: The Central Asian Paradox,” World Policy Institute (2010): 39.

11Evelyn K. Morris, “Think Again: Mexican Drug Cartels,” Foreign Policy 203 (2013): 30.

12Liza ten Velde, “The Northern Triangle’s Drugs-Violence Nexus: The Role of the Drugs Trade in Criminal Violence and Policy Responses in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras,” Drugs & Conflict 19 (2012): 1.

13U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, A Line in the Sand.

14Michael Jacobson and Matthew Levitt, “Tracking Narco-terrorist Networks: The Money Trail,” Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 34, no. 1 (2010): 117.

15Peng Wang, “The Crime-Terror Nexus: Transformation, Alliance, Convergence,” Asian Social Science 6, no. 6 (2010): 11.

16United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “The Global Afghan Opium Trade: A Threat Assessment,” United Nations (2011), 3.

17Jacobson and Levitt, “Tracking Narco-terrorist Networks,” 118.

18Jay Albanese, “North American Organised Crime,” Global Crime 6, no. 1 (2004): 8.

19Wang, “The Crime-Terror Nexus.”