Global Diaspora of Mexican Drug Trafficking

Global Diaspora of Mexican Drug Trafficking

The Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels not only have partners on the five continents: whole structures have moved permanently to different latitudes to supervise the production, processing and distribution of drugs, mainly cocaine. Greater operating difficulties in Mexico accelerated an internationalization that has led them to surpass the ‘Ndrangheta and the Balkan mafia

The Mexican cartels are undergoing a profound transformation. To begin with, its structures have become more flexible to adapt to the current combat policies of the Mexican State. At the same time, they have intensified their internationalization process that has placed them at the forefront among the most powerful criminal organizations in the world, such as the ‘Ndrangheta (Italy), the Balkan mafias (Serbia and Kosovo), the Yakuza (Japan) or the Triads (China).

According to the ‘Global Report on Cocaine, 2023. Local Dynamics, Global Challenges’, prepared by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), structures of the Mexican cartels Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) meet today in latitudes as diverse as those of Colombia, Brazil, the United States, Canada, Australia, Kosovo, the Netherlands or Afghanistan.

The report indicates that the Sinaloa Cartel has a presence in 50 countries around the world, while the CJNG reached all the nations of the American Continent.

The international expansion of these two criminal organizations occurs while they are undergoing adaptation processes within Mexican territory. If in the six-year terms of office of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón they operated at ease, today they face a different reality. It is more difficult for them to launder money in Mexico and buy federal authorities.

Nine Cartels in Mexico, Seven Businesses

According to the document, the Mexican criminal landscape is becoming increasingly complex and fragmented. Currently, nine main cartels operate in national territory, which include 53 groups with 65 cells throughout the country. The leaderships maintain a solid integration, but the lower links no longer have a solid organic integration. Now these last links can even carry out activities for more than one organization.

On smuggling routes, each cartel logistics cell is generally made up of a high-ranking coordinator with two lieutenants. The cell only facilitates the transport of drugs by itself or by hiring independent traffickers. In this way, numerous local criminal groups provide specific services at the municipal level to the large cartels.

The document explains that the cartels tend to form a decentralized network of bosses who carry out illegal activities by controlling certain territories. They also make alliances with each other and with local criminal groups. The clearest example is precisely the Sinaloa Cartel, which can be described as a “network alliance” of multiple specialized cells, each with a specific function in the supply chain.

Cell functions may include acquiring sailing vessels and formalizing their new ownership; pick up a shipment of drugs in South America, or in Central America, to transport it to Mexico; or pick up the drug in southern Mexico and transport it to the US border by land or air.

Indeed, as will be remembered, at the top of that network that constitutes the Sinaloa Cartel there are three leaders with their own structures that coordinate with each other: that of Ismael Zambada García, ‘El Mayo’; that of the children of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, “El Chapo’, known as ‘Los Chapitos’, and that of Aureliano Guzmán Loera, ‘El Guano’.

As Contralínea has reported, the lower levels of these structures constantly enter into disputes but the leadership maintains a solid alliance.

The UNDOC document warns that cocaine trafficking is only part of the criminal economy in which the Mexican cartels are involved. It adds that a single cartel can control up to seven criminal businesses, in addition to cocaine: marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine, weapons, human trafficking and others, including fentanyl, precious wood trafficking, illegal mineral exploitation. They can also take over some legal economies, such as the seafood production chain.

The document points out that the criminal landscape within the country is constantly changing with weak alliances between these organizations and their permanent struggle for territorial control.


Of the nine cartels operating in Mexico, only two have made significant inroads into foreign markets: the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG, says the ‘Global Report on Cocaine 2023. Local Dynamics, Global Challenges’. The Sinaloa Cartel operates in at least 50 countries on the five continents. And the CJNG operates practically throughout the American Continent, but also in Australia and Southeast Asia.It adds that these two rival cartels differ in the way in which they have long achieved territorial control in regions of Mexico. The CJNG based its power on force and intimidation techniques, which fuels violence. The Sinaloa Cartel imposed a relatively moderate violence, favoring threats, extortion and corruption.

The document indicates that these Mexican organizations are practically present in the very places where the coca leaf is harvested and where the procedures to obtain pure cocaine are carried out. That is, they are found throughout the global value chain of this criminal economy.

That is why they are based in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Brazil. From there they coordinate shipments and design land, sea, and air transfer routes to the United States, Europe, Asia Pacific, and Australia. Part of the introduction of cocaine to the Old Continent is done through Africa. In other words, the Mexican cartels have operators or partners on the five continents.

The document warns that even the war, which the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG are waging in Mexico, has been transferred to some of the countries where these organizations are based. The increase in drug-related violence in South and Central America has been driven primarily by competition between local representatives of these two cartels.

As an example, it cites a case of Colombian-Mexican collaboration. Members of the Sinaloa Cartel are establishing themselves in Costa Rica and, the document warns, using their administrative skills to help Colombian groups establish their operations in the country. In addition, Mexican hitmen could be behind a recent wave of violence in Costa Rica, in which several local traffickers have been killed, possibly to be replaced by members of the Colombian-Mexican alliance.

Mexican cartels are also sending operatives to transit countries to oversee the logistics of cocaine shipments. For example, the document cites that in a trafficking operation in Paraguay in 2021, a representative of the Sinaloa Cartel supervised a shipment of cocaine that a small independent logistics group sent from Peru to storage locations in Paraguay. The cocaine was to be shipped concealed in heavy machinery, via a newly established export company, bound for the Netherlands.

The report outlines that the group was made up of Paraguayan and Mexican citizens. The Paraguayans provided logistics services, such as ensuring customs processing and legal paperwork for the cargo, as well as providing transportation for the Mexicans. These, in turn, oversaw operational details, such as the concealment process.

Likewise, the drastic increase in homicide rates in Ecuador is related to the violence generated by drug trafficking. Members of the Mexican cartels also intervene directly there, since local groups affiliate with the Sinaloa Cartel or the CJNG and reproduce the war they are experiencing in Mexico.

In that country, the Mexican cartels control some drug trafficking corridors, but local groups are beginning to occupy more activities.

The document states that after 2019, the Sinaloa Cartel changed its modus operandi in Ecuador. Instead of establishing fixed operations with a permanent structure in that country, it sends out small logistics cells that temporarily “contracts” local gangs and then leaves the country.

According to the ‘Global Report on Cocaine, 2023. Local Dynamics, Global Challenges’, for the cocaine market in North America, Mexican cartels control smuggling corridors on the US-Mexico border. It assures that they also dominate the cocaine transport routes within that country, through alliances with criminal groups and street gangs, on whom they also depend for distribution at the retail level.

Regarding Canada, the document notes that for a long time cocaine trafficking was dominated by the Italian mafia (‘Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra), motorcycle gangs such as the Hell’s Angels and urban gangs. However, since 2013 the Wolfpack group took control of this criminal activity.

The Wolfpack, a young generation of Canadian criminals, facilitated the entry of Mexican groups into the Canadian market. Today, some structures of the Sinaloa Cartels and CJNG have been established in Canada and play a more direct role in the importation of cocaine.

Another case is that of Australia. There, the Sinaloa Cartel, mainly, marked a decade of presence in the country to introduce crystal methamphetamine and cocaine. It even collaborates with Asian (particularly Chinese) criminal groups that operate drug trafficking routes in Pacific countries. Also, sometimes, it enters into a dispute with them.

The document points out that large-scale drug trafficking is carried out by small or medium-sized criminal groups on behalf of large cartels or mafias. These are networks that are not necessarily part of the organic structure of large groups.

For example, in Costa Rica, only the highest members of the criminal hierarchy in that country can belong to a stable criminal structure. Meanwhile, the lower levels are more elusive, while establishing client relationships of convenience with various players.

Formation of Networks and Alliances

Most organized crime groups do not control the entire cocaine supply chain from South America to destination markets. For this reason, the study by the United Nations Organization explains that the groups of traffickers form associations of mutual benefit for the different stages of the process. These collaborations tend to be very dynamic and unstable.

Therefore, yesterday’s criminal allies can become today’s enemies and vice versa. As a result, competition for trafficking corridors or distribution points often breeds violence. In other cases, however, groups may collaborate with each other at any level of the supply chain.

In Guatemala, for example, there has been greater coordination among cocaine traffickers in recent years. It is not uncommon to see a potential Mexican buyer contact a Guatemalan group to request a specific quantity of cocaine. If the Guatemalan group does not have the necessary quantity or capacity at the moment, it contacts other national groups to fulfill the request. This suggests a certain degree of coordination and respect for each other’s territory. This development could be part of an adaptation strategy by organized crime groups who prefer to attract less attention from the police.

It explains that to achieve levels of trust, players form alliances based on shared characteristics, such as ethnicity, kinship, religion, shared environment, geographic or social proximity. Trust becomes especially relevant in the context of an increasingly fragmented criminal landscape and the diversity of nationalities involved in cocaine trafficking.

In that sense, it points out that the Mexican cartels are known for solving the problem of trust by placing family members in charge of important operations in the country and abroad. Analysis of cocaine seizures in Italy shows that traffickers tend to associate with people of a similar ethnic origin or language group.

Original article at
Translated by Schools for Chiapas.

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