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Who are the Mexican drug cartels and why are they so deadly?

The violence linked to Mexican drug cartels has flared again, grabbing global headlines. Before the recent brutal murder of nine members of a US family in northern Mexico, a protracted shoot-out in a botched effort to arrest kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán‘s son electrified the nation.

Before that, a New York City courtroom sentenced El Chapo to life in maximum security detention, following his earlier escape from a Mexican prison.

Mexico’s drug cartels have grown stronger in recent years, fuelled by demand for narcotics, corruption in Mexico and unchecked by a police force that is outgunned – often literally – by the crime syndicates.

There are several major cartels, some active in the area where the three women and six children, including eight-month-old twins, were murdered on November 4.

A scene from Narcos.

A scene from Narcos. Credit:Daniel Daza

Meanwhile, despite – or perhaps because of – their famed ruthlessness, gritty stories about South American drug cartels are popular entertainment, with streaming service Netflix’s offerings including a documentary series on drug kingpins such as Pablo Escobar (who started the notorious Medellin cartel in Colombia in the ’70s); a drama about one of Escobar’s assassins; a drama about a woman forced to work for a cartel that killed her boyfriend; and a drama about a mild-mannered North American accountant who crunches numbers for a cartel then tries to double-cross his bosses (Ozark).

The most popular of all, Narcos, dramatises the “true story” of the Guadalajara cartel’s ascent in Mexico in the 1980s.

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But what’s the story in real life?

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the head of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, following his capture in 2014.

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, following his capture in 2014.Credit:AP

Where did cartels come from?

A cartel is simply an agreement between two or more businesses to control prices and limit competition. They exist in all sorts of industry from oil to manufacturing. But put the word “drug” in front and a whole new world of illegal activity and high danger is conjured up.

Latin American cartels grew after the 1980s when the US government successfully broke up the Caribbean-based smuggling rings used by Colombian cocaine traffickers. At the time Mexicans couriers, who worked with Colombians, began wholesaling the drugs themselves. The Mexican government’s enforcement of drug laws couldn’t keep up with the economics of demand in the US, as well as the spread of corruption promoted by the drug trade.

Mexican troops arrive in Culiacan after the release of El Chapo's son to cartels.

Mexican troops arrive in Culiacan after the release of El Chapo’s son to cartels.Credit:AP

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What do they sell?

Their core business is the trafficking of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and synthetic drugs such as amphetamine – and they are a big producer of opioids such as fentanyl, the abuse of which is at epidemic levels in the United States. Their product makes its way by various means – including cars – across the border to the US. It also goes to Europe, and there are fears the cartels are making inroads to Asia. Starting about a decade ago, cartels also began absorbing smaller human smuggling rings and converting them into human trafficking enterprises, shunting people across the border into the United States.

How big are they?

According to one estimate, the cartels rake in between $US25 billion ($36 billion) and $US30 billion a year, employing 450,000 people in vast networks that take in street and prison gangs, police, customs officials, front companies, banks, and many others, according to a study by Stephen Morris in the Latin American Research Review. More than 3 million Mexicans are reliant on the cartels for a livelihood. The drug lords act as patrons of the communities, funding schools, hospitals and charities. In turn, members of the public sometimes revere them, romanticising them in song and images.

Children of the extended LeBaron family, who were injured in an ambush, are taken aboard a Mexican airforce helicopter to be flown to the Mexico-US border.

Children of the extended LeBaron family, who were injured in an ambush, are taken aboard a Mexican airforce helicopter to be flown to the Mexico-US border.Credit:Sonora Health Secretary, Mexico

How many cartels are there?

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There are three major cartels today: Sinaloa (in the country’s north-west) made famous by former leader El Chapo, and still one of Mexico’s most influential; the Gulf (based in Tamaulipas in the north-east and the Yucatan Peninsula); and Tierra Caliente (meaning Hot Land), active in the region between Mexico City and the Pacific Coast. The crime groups also have subgroups with different names. According to US think tank the Council on Foreign Relations, they include the Jalisco New Generation cartel, which has expanded rapidly since it split from Sinaloa in 2010.

How deadly are they?

While not all murders are drug-gang related, Mexico’s soaring homicide figures reflect the crisis. Some 230,000 people were murdered in the country between 2008 and 2017, according to the US Canter for Strategic and International Studies. That’s more than double the number the previous 10 years. In 2018, there were 33,341 murders compared to 29,168 the previous year.

The recent murder of the American family came a decade after members of the LeBaron community who confronted local drug cartels were kidnapped and murdered. It’s unclear whether the attackers intentionally targeted the Mormon family.

Suspected Sinaloa cartel member Felipe Cabrera Sarabia, also known as "El Inge", is paraded before journalists in Mexico City in 2011.

Suspected Sinaloa cartel member Felipe Cabrera Sarabia, also known as “El Inge”, is paraded before journalists in Mexico City in 2011. Credit:Reuters

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What’s the police doing?

Police in Mexico are chronically undertrained and underpaid, often giving local officials little incentive to face the often well-armed drug gangs. The Mexican government has to date taken a federal approach which has created a gap in resolve between state and federal agencies to combat the drug trafficking crisis.

But the government’s approach has taken its toll in human rights violations, including torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances by the cartels, according to an October report in the Council on Foreign Relations. It says more than 37,000 people have gone missing since 2006, including 40 student protesters who were abducted and killed in Guerrero in 2014. Mexican investigators found that the mayor had directed police to kidnap the students and hand them over to a local drug gang.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador declined an offer of help from US President Donald Trump on Twitter on Tuesday, after Trump suggested an army may be needed to fight the gangs.

The exchange reflects diverging security policies between the US and Mexico. AMLO, as the country’s President is known, has said he no longer wants violent confrontations with cartels and has given as an example the decision last month to release El Chapo’s son to prevent attacks on citizens. Trump, who has often painted Mexico as a den of crime that threatens the US, is pushing for Mexico to take the opposite tack.

Obrador has said his government would not be forced into a drug war and implied corruption was to blame for violence and drug trafficking. His government was focusing on putting in place social programs to improve people’s lots.

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“This is pacifying the country by convincing, persuading without violence, offering well-being, alternative options, better living conditions, working conditions, strengthening values,” he said.

On the campaign trail, he used the catchy phrase: “abrazos, no balazos” or “hugs, not bullets”.

– with wires

Smoke from burning cars in Caliacun as cartel members attempt to force the government to free a drug lord.

Smoke from burning cars in Caliacun as cartel members attempt to force the government to free a drug lord. Credit:AP

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