Cartels are found all over the world and while they undertake other illegal activities, they are responsible for the production and distribution of many illegal narcotics. Through this illegal market, many cartels and drug lords have become wealthier than many legitimate business people. However, they are also responsible for a disturbing amount of violence and death.
Since there is actually a frightening amount of cartels throughout the world, to narrow our focus, we will be taking a look at the cartels of South America and Mexico, who control the cocaine trade.
10. Narcocorridos – Ballads About Drug Lords
The outlaw life of a drug lord can appear glamorous and exciting to some people. For this reason, there are musicians who write and perform narrative songs about drug lords called narcocorridos. Some drug lords are flattered by the songs, while others, well… they aren’t exactly fans. However, cartel members don’t go on the internet and complain like most of us about bands we hate. Instead, they randomly kill musicians who perform narcocorridos songs.
One horrific case happened in December 2007. The K-Paz de la Sierra band was playing in the city of Morelia, Mexico, a cartel stronghold. After the show, the vocalists were kidnapped. After a few hours, all of them were released, except for Sergio Gomez. His body was found a day later, dumped on the side of the highway. He was severely beaten, his face had been burned with an unknown substance, his genitals were burned with a blowtorch, and he was strangled to death.
9. Los Zetas Radio Tower
One of the biggest hurdles to keeping a large cartel organized is communications. If they use traditional lines of communication, then calls, texts, and emails can be intercepted by the police, the federal police, and the military, which are all on the hunt for them. Also, their communications could be used as evidence at a trial. To combat that problem, between 2008 and 2012, one of the most dangerous Mexican cartels, Los Zetas, kidnapped 36 engineers and technicians and enslaved them, forcing them to build them their own cellphone network.
They have hidden radio antennas in remote areas and the system is run on solar panels. The cellphones are then used by lower-level members of the cartels and lookouts. The heads of the cartels never use them. Instead, they have others send messages for them.
The technology was so sophisticated that the military can’t bring the network down, but Los Zetas network does have the ability to hijack the military’s network.
8. Don’t Bad Mouth Them on Social Media
Being insulted on the internet should be something that a grown adult should be able to shrug off. After all, who cares what some angry person you’ve never met says about you, or to you. Well, some cartels aren’t the shrug-it-off types.
One person who probably came to this conclusion much too late was Marisol Macías Castañeda, who held an administrative job at a newspaper in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. She got into trouble with Los Zetas cartel when she posted messages on a social networking site called Nuevo Laredo en Vivo that was used as a hotline to gather information on the cartels. Castañeda didn’t use her real name; instead she used the handle La Nena de Laredo (Laredo Girl). Somehow, the Los Zetas found out it was her making the postings. In September 2011, she was kidnapped, and beheaded. Her body was dumped near the Texas border with a note that read:
Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and social networking sites, I’m The Laredo Girl, and I’m here because of my reports, and yours. For those who don’t want to believe, this happened to me because of my actions, for believing in the army and the navy. Thank you for your attention, respectfully, Laredo Girl…ZZZZ.
It was unmistakable that the “ZZZZ” represented Los Zetas.
Sadly, Castañeda wasn’t the only person killed by the cartel over social media posts. Shortly after the murder of Castañeda, two mutilated bodies, a man and a woman, were found hanging from a pedestrian bridge. Again, there was a note warning people not to say bad things about Los Zetas on social media.
So, we’ll just take a minute to say that we think members of Los Zetas are all really swell guys.
7. Pablo Escobar’s Incredible Wealth
The most famous drug lord and cartel of all time is Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cartel. Escobar, who was Colombian, got his start in 1975, and rose to prominence in the 1980s. At its height, the cartel was making $420 million a week; all of it tax free. Pablo Escobar owned 40 percent of the cartel, and when Forbes put him on the list of the richest people in the world in 1984, they estimated that he had a cash flow of $3 billion and his net worth was around $2 billion. Escobar continued to appear on the Forbes richest people list for the next seven years.
At his apex, if adjusted for inflation, Escobar was worth $31.5 billion, making him the richest criminal of all time. If Escobar was alive today making the same amount of money, he would be the 18th richest person in the world. That’s just below the three most prominent family members of the Walton family, who are the descendants of the founders of Walmart and they currently are the majority share owners.
It’s also true that in 1984 Escobar offered to pay off Colombia’s $13.5 billion foreign debt, if they stopped pursuing him. Of course, the Colombia government chose not to take the deal, ultimately leading to a very bloody War on Drugs.
6. The Sinaloa Cartel
Cocaine comes from coca plants which are prominently grown in Bolivia, Colombia or Peru. From those three countries, 95 percent of all cocaine is produced. While the Medellin cartel was Colombia based and there are Colombian cartels, in the years since Escobar’s death in 1993, the most powerful cartels are found in Mexico. Today, the most dominant cartel in the world is the Sinaloa Cartel. The cartel is based in Culiacán, Sinaloa and it was formed in the 1980s. The cartel leaders are Joaquin Guzman, a.k.a. El Chapo (The Short One), and Ismael Zambada Garcia “El Mayo Zambada.” However, Guzman has been in and out of prison for the past few decades, so it’s believe that Garcia has been solely in charge.
Guzman rose to his position of power because he was a violent and murderous man, who surrounded himself with violent enforcers. Things were going great for Guzman until May 24, 1993. On that day, Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, a beloved figure in Mexico’s Catholic church, was gunned down along with six other people. The people who were responsible were never caught, but they were members of a rival drug cartel who thought the Cardinal was Guzman.
The killing put Mexico into an uproar and Guzman was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison for trafficking charges. He stayed there until 2001, when he escaped with 12 years left on his sentence. While on the lam, Guzman developed a Robin Hood mystique and there were rumors he was helping out the poor. However, none of that has ever been confirmed.
In 2014, Guzman was arrested again. He wouldn’t stay in prison long though. The following year, he again escaped a maximum security prison, this time through a mile long tunnel. He was on the lam for six months and then tracked down because he was texting a Mexican soap opera actress, and Sean Penn. He was arrested and is currently fighting extradition to the United States.
Currently, the Sinaloa cartel is believed to be in control of 40 to 60 percent of the Mexico’s drug trade and they are the biggest shipper of illegal drugs into the United States. Besides cocaine, they also deal in meth, heroin, and MDMA. They earn about $3 billion every year.
5. The Vigilantes
For some people, drug lords are considered folk heroes. For example, Pablo Escobar and Joaquin Guzman definitely have fans among the general public. They came from poverty, and although they were outlaws, they rose up in a system and a society where that isn’t easy, but they beat the odds and became wealthy. They in turn gave back to their communities. If that was all it was, then yes, it does have a sense of Robin Hood to it. However, that’s not the whole story. Robin Hood didn’t exactly commit the same level of violence and carnage that the cartels are responsible for. He would have probably hung up his bow if he killed one innocent person. With some cartels, innocent men, women and children are constantly collateral damage. Also, Robin Hood was stealing from the rich and gave what he stole to the poor. He wasn’t selling dangerous and addictive drugs that ruined countless lives while keeping billions for himself and handing out a few dollars here and there.
Obviously, there are other people who realized this, and they have not only chosen to morally oppose the cartel, they’ve formed vigilante groups. One such group, called Autodefensas was started by Jose Manuel Mireles (pictured above), a doctor who was sick of the cartel violence in his hometown of Tepalcatepec, Mexico. Mireles started speaking out against the Knight Templar Cartel, who had a stranglehold on his town, in 2012. Before long, he had not only taken back his town, but he set up councils in 28 other municipalities. After that success, he went on to six other states in Mexico to try and clean them up.
By the end of 2013, Autodefensas was 10,000 people strong and that made the government worried because they didn’t think a group of vigilantes was better than the cartels. This problem was given legitimacy when turf wars started between the vigilantes.
In January 2016, Mireles was arrested for breaking weapon laws. He apologized, and the charges were dropped, but Mireles has yet to be released from prison. Mireles and Autodefensas is the subject of the excellent documentary, Cartel Land.
4. The 2011 San Fernando Massacre
Sadly, mass kidnappings are a common tool of the cartels. Buses carrying migrant workers on a highway between Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, were often targeted. They would highjack the buses to use the people as drug mules and if they refused or couldn’t be used, they were killed.
In 2011, things took a turn for the sadistic. In the spring, several buses full of people were highjacked by members of Los Zeta while traveling on Mexican Federal Highway 101 in San Fernando. The buses were pulled over with the help of the local police. Once Los Zetas had the passengers in their captivity, the women were raped, while the men were forced to fight to the death, gladiator-style. They were handed weapons like knives and hatchets and the prize for the winner, besides living, was that they got a job as a hit man for Los Zetas.
In total, 193 bodies were found in several mass graves along the highway. All of them were victims of Los Zetas and bus drivers no longer use that route.
3. The Iran-Contra Affair
Quickly: what’s the USA’s stance on drugs and cartels? They’re against them, right? After all, over a trillion dollars have been spent fighting the War on Drugs. Well, it turns out that it’s actually a lot more complicated than that.
The murkiness dates back to 1979. Nicaragua was under the rule of the Cuban backed socialist Sandinistas government. The Contras, a right wing rebel force, wanted to overthrow the government. From the early days, they were financially backed by the United States. However, in 1984, the Democratic-led congress restricted the CIA’s operations in Nicaragua.
According to evidence compiled by Senator John Kerry, to continue their war, which was in line with the Reagan foreign policy to fight communism, the Contras needed money and guns. To get them, they smuggled drugs into the United States for the Colombian cartels, who would give the contras money and guns. Supposedly, several American government agencies, like the CIA, knew the Contras were doing this, and at the very worst, they turned a blind eye to it. This just happened to coincide with the start of the crack epidemic in the United States. This also allowed the cartels to get a foothold in the United States, which is still a major problem today.
2. The DEA and The Sinaloa Cartel’s Arrangement
However, the Iran-Contra affair doesn’t appear to be the only incident that an American government agency has let drugs into the country. According to an investigation by El Universal which uses both court documents and interviews, in the 1990s, the heads of the biggest cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, repeatedly met with agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and they brokered a deal that the DEA would not interfere with the cartel’s drug smuggling activities, or actively pursue the drug lords, in exchange for information about the cartel’s rivals. This deal lasted from at least 2000 to 2012, and during that time DEA agents and the heads of the Sinaloa cartel met at least 50 times. However, what is not known is if the deal continued on after 2012.
One other thing we want to note is that, unlike cities like New York and Los Angeles which has seen an decrease in murders over the last 20 years, Chicago murder rates are rising. At the end of October 2016, 603 people were the victim of a homicide. That is more than two murders a day. Well, about 80 percent of the illegal drugs in Chicago come from the Sinaloa cartel. While Chicago’s violence is a complex issue, illegal drugs are definitely a contributing factor.
1. The Death Toll
You’ve probably gathered throughout the list that cartels are linked to an incredible amount of violence, and you may be wondering how many people have been killed by Cartels or in the War on Drugs. Sadly, the true number of deaths linked to cartels is too staggering to be determined. For example, there are turf wars in the city where the coco plants are grown, then the cartels in Mexico have turf wars, and the they ship the drugs to the United States, where it is sold by gangs, who also have turf wars. During all these battles, innocent victims are killed. Then there are times when cartels simply target civilians to use as mules or to intimidate them. So it’s really impossible to tell how many death toll cause by the cartels.
What is known is that since the shift of power to Mexican cartels, there has been an incredible increase in homicides in the country. Between 2007 and 2014, 164,345 civilians were murdered in Mexico. While not all of them were cartel related, police and government authorities are sure Cartels are responsible for a significant portion of the murders.
Just for some perspective on how many civilian killings that is, in that same time span, 21,415 civilians were killed in Afghanistan and 81,636 were killed in Iraq. Those are war torn countries and Mexico is the United States’ neighbor.