Breaking Down The Colombian and Mexican Drug Cartels

Your guide to how the Columbian and Mexican drug cartels operated.

By Benjamin H. Smith

The second episode of the hit new VH1 show Cartel Crew found cast members Michael Blanco and Loz bonding over Muay Thai kickboxing and their similar backgrounds. Both have seen the cartel lifestyle firsthand and know the carnage it can spawn. While Michael is the son of one of Colombia’s most infamous cocaine traffickers, “The Godmother” Griselda Blanco, who was assassinated in 2012, Loz hails from a part of Mexico wracked by warring factions—resulting in the murder of his brother, a cartel affiliate.

Colombia and Mexico remain the two hotbeds of Latin America’s drug trade, with a myriad of cartels competing for dominance in a global industry that generates hundreds of billions in revenue. However, both nations' drug and cartel cultures are as distinct as their accents, arts and cuisine. While Michael Blanco says, “No disrespect, I think the Mexicans are way much more savage now,” it goes much deeper than that, and is influenced by their origins, their home countries and the specialties.

Cartel Origins

Fueled by the ‘60s counter-culture, the 1970s saw a marked use in cocaine consumption in the United States. Supplying most of it were rising Colombian drug gangs, the Medellín and Cali Cartels, who established beachheads in New York City and Miami, from which to distribute drugs nationally. Profits soon made them multi-millionaires, and they reinvested their money in finding new ways to increase the flow of product.

As law enforcement pressure increased throughout the 1980s, the Colombian cartels increasingly turned to Mexican traffickers to help bring cocaine into the United States. According to the DEA, Mexico had long been a source of heroin and marijuana trafficking, and had an established infrastructure in place for large scale drug smuggling. The Mexican DTOs eventually began asking to be paid in product, which increased their profits and power. Following a major crackdown on the Colombian cartels by the United States and Colombian governments, Mexican drug cartels rose to take their place at the top of the international drug trade.

Producers Vs. Distributors

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Colombia’s cartels made their name and countless billions thanks to the country’s cocaine production. According to the Wall Street Journal, at their height they were bringing in $4 billion a year and controlled 80 percent of the cocaine supply in the United States. Relying mostly on airdrops, they were able to move their product with little interference—thanks to decades long social conflicts and government corruption. While some traffickers forged an uneasy alliance with leftist guerillas FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or in English, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), others worked with right-wing paramilitary groups, with both sides becoming embroiled in the cocaine trade. The Cali Cartel went so far as to contribute heavily to the to the presidential campaign of Ernesto Samper Pizano, and the resulting scandal in many ways led to their downfall.

From the outset, the Mexican cartels had a more diverse portfolio in their drug running endeavors. They had been cultivating marijuana and smuggling it into the United States since the 1930s, and heroin since the 1970s, using everything from food trucks to tunnels dug under the border. After being contracted by the Colombian cartels, they entered the cocaine business, and have taken over the market in recent years, even running coca plantations and processing plants in Colombia. In recent decades, they have moved into the production of methamphetamines and their distribution network now reaches Europe, Asia and all points in-between. Like the Colombian cartels, they are enabled by widespread political corruption on “nearly every level,” according to The New York Times.

Major Players

Much of what we know about the Colombian drug cartels begins and ends with the Medellín Cartel. Both Pablo Escobar and Griselda Blanco belonged to the group, whose heyday saw the widespread distribution of cocaine, billions in revenue and unprecedented levels of violence. Their main competition was the Cali Cartel, who eventually usurped them before being brought down themselves. Various groups have followed in their wake, but none have yet to reach the heights of power and profits their forbearers commanded.

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Mexico’s drug cartels trace their origins to Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, head of the Guadalajara Cartel, who helped organize the nation’s drug traffickers and is known as their “Godfather”. Since his arrest in 1989, different factions have battled for control, including the Sinaloa Cartel, until his imprisonment led by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, The Gulf Cartel, who trace their history back to Prohibition, and the ultra-violent Los Zetas, formed by former members of the Mexican Army’s special forces.

Violence, Violence And More Violence

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Colombian Emeralds

While Michael Blanco contends that Mexico’s cartels are now “more savage” than their Colombian predecessors, both sides are responsible for staggering acts of violence and murder, targeting both those involved in the international drug trade as well as innocent civilians. They include the bloody Miami Drug Wars of the early 1980s, Pablo Escobar’s 1989 bombing of a commercial passenger flight over the skies of Colombia, resulting in the deaths of all 107 people on board, and Los Zetas’ massacre of 72 migrant workers in Tamaulipas, Mexico in 2010. And while Colombia still struggles to maintain a fragile peace, Mexico continues to set new records for drug violence, with over almost 29,000 murders last year—a shocking 15% jump from the previous year.