Why South America’s Drug Cartels Are All Over Our Screens Right Now

Mexico’s criminal underworld is crawling with inspiration for drug-busting dramas like new film ‘Sicario’, out this week, starring Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin. Then there’s Colombia’s drug trade, which has inspired Netflix’s new drama ‘Narcos’. But who are the real-life gangsters, narcs and cartels behind the fiction?

1. THE MAIN PLAYERS

THE TIJUANA CARTEL
Territory: Western Mexico

The four Arellano-Félix brothers once ran a highly feared operation, but now they’re all either dead or in prison, with sister Enedina left to run the show.
Friends: Juarez, Los Zetas

Foes: Sinaloa, Gulf

GULF CARTEL
Territory: North-east
The oldest cartel of them all started drug trafficking in the ’70s, but lost a war with Los Zetas in 2009, and are now weaker players.
Friends: Sinaloa
Foes: Los Zetas, Juarez, Tijuana

JUAREZ CARTEL
Territory: North-east
Leader Amado ‘Lord of the Skies’ Carillo got his name from the fleet of planes he used to smuggle drugs, but his death in 1997 saw his cartel lose power.
Friends: Los Zetas
Foes: Sinaloa

JALISCO NEW GENERATION CARTEL
Territory: West
This mob fought the Mexican army back in May, downing a helicopter and blockading Guadalajara with burning vehicles
Friends: none
Foes: Los Zetas, Sinaloa

LOS ZETAS
Territory: East
In 2009 the US government called them “the most dangerous cartel in Mexico”. They have now diversified into kidnapping and human trafficking.
Friends: Juarez
Foes: Gulf, Sinaloa

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SINALOA CARTEL
Territory: West
This group is allegedly in cahoots with the JNG Cartel and is the biggest in Mexico, led by the notorious ‘El Chapo’.
Friends: Gulf
Foes: Loz Zetas, Juarez, Tijuana

2. THE HISTORY

Mexico’s drug trade really hit the big time in 1980 when Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo founded the Guadalajara Cartel, moving cocaine north from Colombia. Things ramped up in December 2006 when Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared all-out war on the cartels, with the USA providing financial support to help fight their ‘war on drugs’ along the border. But while there have been several high-profile arrests since, the price has been uncontrollable violence across the country.

3. THE NUMBERS

164,345
According to PBS, between 2007 and 2014 a staggering 164,345 people were murdered in Mexico, and although it’s impossible to say how many of those deaths were directly related to trafficking, it would be fair to assume it is a large proportion.

81,636
People killed in Iraq over the same time period.

21,415
People killed in Afghanistan over the same time period.

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4. THE GOOD GUYS

Lieutenant Colonel Julian Leyzaola Perez
Job: Former head of the Juarez Police
Four assassination attempts have been made on this figurehead of anti-corruption. Under his reign in Tijuana he reduced crime and jailed corrupt cops. There were, however, complaints made about his alleged torture of fellow officers.

Jack Riley
Job: Deputy Administrator of the DEA
Riley has been in a long-term battle with El Chapo, and put his retirement plans on hold in 2014 when Chapo escaped from prison, so he could re-arrest him.

The Drug Enforcement Administration
Job: America’s biggest weapon in the war on drug smuggling
The DEA are a force for good, but not everyone agrees. According to a 2014 article in Mexico’s El Universal, they work with the Sinaloa Cartel, giving them free rein in exchange for information on its rivals.

5. THE BAD GUYS

El Chapo
Age:
Between 58-60
Reward on his head: $5m
The head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin Guzmán is Mexico’s most notorious cartel boss. Known as ‘El Chapo’ (‘The Shorty’), in 2014 he escaped from prison on a tiny motorbike that he rode down a mile-long tunnel from beneath
his cell shower.

El Mencho
Age:
54
Reward on his head: n/a
Mystery surrounds the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, and Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes is its leader. He’s reportedly organised the murders of various Mexican politicians, including the Jalisco tourism secretary, Jesus Gallegos Alvarez.

La Jefa
Age:
54
Reward on her head: n/a
Enedina Arellano-Félix is believed to be the first woman to lead a cartel. The trained accountant is adept at creating money-laundering business fronts.

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El Mayo
Age:
67
Reward on his head: $5m
Ismael Zambada García is El Chapo’s second-in-command, and briefly took the Sinaloa Cartel’s reins while his boss was
in prison in 2014.

El Iraki
Age:
20
Reward on his head: n/a
‘Sicario’ means ‘hitman’ in Spanish. One high-profile sicario employed by the Sinaloa Cartel is Felipe Quintero Saavedra (aka ‘El Iraqui’), who is only 20, yet has been linked with at least that number of assassinations.

6. MAD BUT TRUE

1. There is only one gun shop in Mexico – the Directorate of Arms and Munitions Sales – and it’s run by the Mexican army. Seventy per cent of guns recovered from criminals in Mexico come from the US.

2. In December 2007, Mexican singer Sergio Gómez was kidnapped and had his genitals burned with a blowtorch, before being strangled with plastic cord. Some think he was killed for singing narcocorridos – drug ballads. He had been warned not to play a show in Morelia, the city where his body was found.

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3. Jesús Salas Aguayo, ex-leader of the Juárez Cartel, is known as ‘The Liquidator’ because he used to blow up his enemies with dynamite.

4. Colombian smugglers working with Mexican cartels often build submarines to deliver goods. ‘Narco-subs’ cost about $2m to build but are abandoned after one delivery because they carry enough cocaine to make $100m profit.

5. The Sinaloa Cartel’s El Chapo was the first drug lord to be included on Forbes’ billionaire list.

7. WHAT’S NEXT?

Nine years since President Calderón’s declaration of war, the US State Department still estimates that 90 per cent of all the cocaine consumed in the USA comes through Mexico. Meanwhile, after two years of declining murder rates, 2015 has seen a new rise. No matter how many resources are thrown at it – and how many lives are lost – the bottom line is that an industry estimated to be worth $13bn a year will always prove enticing.