Mexico’s Organized Crime Landscape: An Overview

Mexico is home to some of the largest, most sophisticated and violent criminal organizations in the hemisphere. These organizations have emerged from Mexico’s long history of smuggling and its proximity to the United States, the world’s largest economy, to become a regional threat.

According to InSight Crime, a think tank that studies organized crime in the Americas, Mexico has at least 10 major criminal groups that operate across the country, as well as numerous smaller and local factions that are often allied or at war with the larger ones. Some of these groups, such as the Sinaloa Cartel, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG) and the Zetas, have expanded their activities beyond Mexico’s borders, establishing networks and cells in Central America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

The main illicit activities of these groups include drug trafficking, human trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, oil theft, money laundering, arms trafficking and corruption. These activities generate billions of dollars in profits for the criminal groups, which they use to bribe, intimidate or eliminate authorities, rivals and civilians. The violence and impunity generated by organized crime have had a devastating impact on Mexico’s security, democracy and human rights.

According to the 2021 Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico Report by Justice in Mexico, a research and advocacy program based at the University of San Diego, Mexico registered 34,523 homicides in 2020, a slight decrease from the record-high of 35,588 in 2019. However, the homicide rate remained high at 27 per 100,000 inhabitants, well above the global average of 6.1. The report also found that 29 percent of the homicides in 2020 were related to organized crime, and that six states accounted for 51 percent of the total homicides: Guanajuato, Baja California, Estado de México, Jalisco, Chihuahua and Michoacán.

The report also analyzed the dynamics and trends of organized crime in Mexico, identifying the main actors, alliances, conflicts and hotspots. Some of the key findings include:

– The Sinaloa Cartel remains the most powerful and influential criminal group in Mexico, despite the extradition and conviction of its former leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in the United States in 2017 and 2019, respectively. The cartel, led by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Guzmán’s sons, known as “Los Chapitos”, controls most of the drug trafficking routes along the Pacific coast and the northern border, as well as lucrative markets in Europe and Asia. The cartel also maintains alliances with other groups, such as the Juárez Cartel, the Beltrán Leyva Organization and the Gulf Cartel, and has a presence in at least 22 of Mexico’s 32 states.

– The CJNG is the main rival and challenger of the Sinaloa Cartel, and has become one of the most violent and aggressive criminal groups in Mexico. The CJNG, led by Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, has expanded rapidly in recent years, taking over territories and markets from other groups, such as the Knights Templar, the Zetas and the Los Viagras. The CJNG operates mainly in the central and western regions of Mexico, and has a strong presence in the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Colima and Veracruz. The CJNG is also involved in international drug trafficking, and has established connections with criminal groups in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Central America, Europe and Asia.

– The Zetas, once considered the most brutal and feared criminal group in Mexico, have suffered a significant decline in power and influence, due to internal divisions, leadership losses and external pressures. The Zetas, formed by former military deserters who initially worked as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, split from their former allies in 2010, sparking a bloody war that lasted for years. The Zetas also faced the opposition of other groups, such as the Sinaloa Cartel, the CJNG and the government, which resulted in the capture or killing of several of their top leaders, such as Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano, Miguel Ángel “Z-40” Treviño Morales and Omar “Z-42” Treviño Morales. The Zetas have fragmented into several factions, such as the Northeast Cartel, the Old School Zetas and the Zetas Special Forces, which operate mainly in the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila and Zacatecas.

– Other criminal groups that operate in Mexico include the Gulf Cartel, which has been weakened by internal conflicts and external enemies, and controls part of the border state of Tamaulipas; the Juárez Cartel, which has recovered some of its former strength and influence in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, after a long and bloody war with the Sinaloa Cartel; the Beltrán Leyva Organization, which has also suffered from leadership losses and fragmentation, and operates mainly in the states of Guerrero, Morelos and Sinaloa; and the Familia Michoacana, which has split into several factions, such as the Knights Templar, the Los Viagras and the United Cartels, and is involved in a violent conflict with the CJNG in the state of Michoacán.

The report also highlighted the challenges and opportunities that Mexico faces in its fight against organized crime, such as the implementation of the National Guard, a new security force created by the current administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador; the cooperation and coordination with the United States, Mexico’s main partner and ally in security matters; the strengthening of the rule of law and the justice system, which suffer from high levels of corruption and impunity; and the promotion of social and economic development, which are essential to address the root causes and consequences of organized crime and violence.

Security Forces

Security Forces Mexico’s public security operations are carried out by municipal, transit, and state police, as well as the National Guard. The latter was established during the administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and replaced the federal police. Although it is under the Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection, it has a military command.

The municipal police are mainly responsible for crime prevention, while the state police and the National Guard also conduct criminal investigations.

By the end of 2022, Mexico had about 222,700 officers attached to state police institutions and about 104,200 members of the National Guard. According to the Public Security Victimization and Perception Survey, 78% of the population thinks the work of the National Guard is effective, and 55% of the population thinks the work of the state police is effective.

The two security entities with the highest approval ratings are the navy and the army, with more than 80% of the population thinking their work is effective. At the start of 2023, the army had about 274,000 active members and the navy had another 83,000 members. Both entities are actively involved in operations against organized crime, including patrols, roadblocks, arrests, seizures of illicit products, eradication of illicit crops, and destruction of clandestine laboratories.

However, despite attempts at reforms, the military continues to commit abuses during its crime-fighting duties, almost all of which go unpunished. In addition to long-standing human rights concerns, critics have also pointed out that the increased involvement of the military in domestic security has not led to long-term reductions in criminality or violence.

What’s more, some Mexican security forces, such as the National Guard, have been functioning mainly as a glorified immigration police under increased pressure from the US government to stop the journey of migrants heading to the United States. This has resulted in complaints of mistreatment and human rights violations against the force.

Mexico has a long history of complex security ties with the United States. Although the two countries have cooperated in the past on many issues related to organized crime, friction in the bilateral relationship has often been evident, and US anti-drug, customs and intelligence agents have a limited capacity to operate in the neighboring country. Mexican crime groups have also demonstrated an ability to infiltrate and corrupt US law enforcement agencies.

An example of this is the case of Genaro García Luna, public security minister during the Calderón administration, who is currently imprisoned in the United States for allegedly receiving bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel and the Beltrán Leyva Cartel. In early 2022, the DEA removed its director in Mexico for alleged ties to drug traffickers’ lawyers.

The Mexican government approved a security budget of around $25 billion for 2024, an amount that represents a 180% increase from 2019. According to a 2023 report by the Peace Index, the economic impact of violence in Mexico far exceeds this investment.

Judicial System

Judicial System The Supreme Court leads Mexico’s federal court system, which also has an Electoral Tribunal and circuit and district courts. The General Attorney’s Office is the agency responsible for prosecuting justice at the federal level. Each state has its own Attorney General that deals with common crime.

The criminal justice system has historically been plagued by corruption, high levels of impunity, and a large backlog of cases. According to the organization Impunidad Cero, only 1% of crimes are solved in Mexico.

To increase transparency and extend the rights of the accused, congress passed an amendment in 2008 requiring the courts to switch from a written inquisitorial system to oral adversarial trial proceedings by mid-2016.

One distinctive feature of the Mexican legal tradition is the “amparo,” which is similar to an injunction in the United States. Many drug lords have filed amparos to postpone their extradition proceedings, often for long periods of time.


Prisons Mexico has 300 penitentiary facilities, which include Federal Centers for Social Readaptation (CEFERESO), Regional Centers for Social Readaptation (CERESO), penitentiary complexes, prisons and detention centers.

According to statistics from the International Center for Prison Studies, Mexico’s prison system housed more than 234,500 people by mid-2023, operating at 107% of its maximum capacity. This overcrowding has been caused, in part, by a practice known as “arraigo,” (translated as “custody”) in which criminal suspects can be detained for up to 40 days without charge, with a possible 40-day extension if they are suspected of organized crime. It is estimated that around 40% of Mexico’s prison population is in pre-trial detention.

Mexico’s prisons are generally overcrowded and understaffed, resulting in poor living conditions, occasional outbreaks of violence, and rampant corruption. Although prison guards are often the most vulnerable in part because of their low pay, El Chapo’s July 2015 escape showed how even high-level prison officials could be corrupt.

Source: Insight Crime