BROWNSVILLE, Texas -- When a regional manager for the Mexican Gulf cartel moved his operation to a more lucrative territory on the border, he took along not only his armored trucks and personal army, but also his department heads and a team of accountants.
In the grotesque violence that has enveloped Mexico it's easy to lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, these criminal organizations are complex businesses that rely on careful accounting as much as assault rifles. The structures underlying the most successful criminal organizations are stable in a way that means capturing or killing the man at the top may only be a temporary setback and pinching one revenue stream will only drive a search for others.
Rafael Cardenas Vela, a Gulf cartel member who ran three important "plazas," or territories, testified this week about the organization's structure and operations in such detail that it could compose a short course – Narco 101, perhaps.
When prosecutors asked Cardenas to walk jurors through a decade of moves in the cartel's command and control structure, he turned to a giant organizational chart that would be recognizable to anyone in the corporate world except for spaces at the bottom for those "arrested" and "deceased."
Cardenas explained that in his plaza he had managers in charge of each revenue stream, including marijuana, cocaine and "cuota," or extortion payments demanded of legal and illegal businesses. Each department had an accountant. An additional accountant tracked the "piso," or tax that was charged on any drug loads moving through his territory. Another accountant supervised them all.
"I can't do everything myself," Cardenas said. "That's why we have someone in charge of every department."
That structure means simply removing the head is often not enough.
"You have to keep attacking the command and control elements again and again," said Will Glaspy, who oversees the Drug Enforcement Administration's operations in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, across the border from Gulf cartel territory.
Since Osiel Cardenas Guillen, Rafael Cardenas' uncle, was extradited to the U.S. in 2007, the cases have been building on themselves.
The man who took over for Osiel Cardenas was captured this month. Osiel Cardenas' brother was killed by Mexican marines in 2010. Most recently, a third brother was arrested in Mexico this month. Juan Roberto Rincon-Rincon, the plaza boss convicted Friday in Brownsville, is one of three Gulf cartel plaza bosses arrested in the U.S. last year. And Mexican authorities captured another alleged boss this week.
"It's the government of Mexico that has had such tremendous success targeting the Gulf cartel over the last five or six years," Glaspy said. "They're the ones who have continued to attack and focus on the command and control of the Gulf cartel."
"(The Gulf cartel's) corporate structure doesn't exactly look like a Fortune 500 company, but it's probably not far off," he said.
The structure reflects diversified interests. The cartel is still known primarily as a drug-trafficking organization, but it receives important revenue from smuggling immigrants and its extortion rackets.
The U.S. Border Patrol sector that covers much of the Gulf cartel's territory seized just over 1 million pounds of marijuana in 2011 and apprehended nearly 60,000 undocumented immigrants. The cartel receives a cut for every kilogram of drugs and every undocumented immigrant that passes through its territory.
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, chairwoman of the government department at the University of Texas-Brownsville, credits Osiel Cardenas with leading the cartel's structural evolution. She said his nephew's testimony revealed the similarities between today's drug-trafficking organization and a legitimate corporation with transnational networks and diversified interests.
Osiel Cardenas' biggest move was creating the Zetas, former special forces troops, as a new department to handle the cartel's security and enforcement, she said.
"When (Osiel Cardenas) introduced the Zetas he changed the whole panorama of drug trafficking and organized crime in the hemisphere," she said. Their expansion into other criminal enterprises beyond drug trafficking served as a lesson for their longtime patrons and other criminal organizations. The Zetas split from the cartel in 2010 and became an independent criminal organization.
Without the critical smuggling corridors controlled by the Gulf cartel or its supply lines, the Zetas initially couldn't count on drug-trafficking revenue so they diversified to piracy and extortion, Glaspy said.
"It's all about the money, and if they're not making the money from drugs they will seek out other criminal activity to reinforce or find other revenue streams," he said.
The younger Cardenas testified that it cost him about $1 million a month when he ran the Rio Bravo plaza to cover payroll, rent, vehicles and bribes. He had to recruit, train and equip his own gunmen. When they were killed, he continued paying their salaries to their families.
He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and marijuana and is cooperating with U.S. authorities in other cartel cases with the hope of receiving a shorter sentence.
Bribes went to every level of law enforcement, the press, members of the military and corrupted U.S. officials, he said.
"In order to have your plaza well, all organized, you have to pay all the police agencies," Cardenas said. Paying off the local police in Rio Bravo alone cost $20,000 per week, he said.
And when the Gulf cartel began going head to head with the Zetas in early 2010, he said, costs rose to the point where they were just breaking even.
Cardenas worked for nearly a decade as a plaza boss. Each of his plazas was within an hour's drive of the Texas border.
"All of the plazas that have river on the border are better," he said. More drugs and immigrants crossing, as well as border businesses such as pharmacies popular with American tourists. "More money."
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The Zetas are thought to have become the <a href="http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2012/01/201212645739134301.html" target="_hplink">largest cartel</a> in Mexico recently, <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-16712239" target="_hplink">operating</a> in over half the country's states. <b>Leader:</b> The notoriously brutal gangster <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/23/miguel-angel-trevino-zetas_n_1826236.html" target="_hplink">Miguel Angel Trevino Morales</a> (alias "Z-40") is believed to be the new leader of the Zetas drug cartel following a showdown with Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano. Trevino is infamous for human "cookouts" in which he stuffs people in oil drums and lights them on fire. "If you get called to a meeting with him, you're not going to come out of that meeting," a U.S. official <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/23/miguel-angel-trevino-zetas_n_1826236.html" target="_hplink">said of Trevino</a>. <strong>Territory:</strong> The Zetas control a swath of territory on Mexico's east coast extending along the Gulf of Mexico. <strong>Rivals:</strong> The Zetas are bitter rivals with the Sinaloa Cartel. In turn, the group is allied with the Beltran Leyva Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel. <strong>Notable incidents:</strong> In August 2011, gunmen <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/25/casino-royale-attack-leav_n_937413.html" target="_hplink">stormed the Casino Royale</a> in Monterrey and lit it on fire, killing dozens. In February 2012, 30 prisoners linked to the Zetas <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-17135362" target="_hplink">broke free</a> from Apodaca jail during a riot. 44 inmates from the rival Gulf Cartel were killed. In May 2012, the Zetas cartel allegedly was involved in <a href="http://edition.cnn.com/2012/05/13/world/americas/mexico-remains/index.html" target="_hplink">dumping 49 decapitated bodies</a> on a busy highway near Monterrey. <em>Photo: Army soldiers flank Daniel Ramirez, alias "El Loco," during his presentation to the media in Mexico City, Monday, May 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)</em>
Mexico's second major cartel reportedly <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/magazine/how-a-mexican-drug-cartel-makes-its-billions.html?pagewanted=all" target="_hplink">operates</a> in over a dozen countries, including trafficking cocaine and other drugs to the United States. <strong>Leader:</strong> Mexico's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/07/joaquin-el-chapo-guzman-mexicos-most-wanted_n_1751671.html" target="_hplink">most-wanted drug lord</a>, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, remains at large after he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/07/joaquin-el-chapo-guzman-mexicos-most-wanted_n_1751671.html" target="_hplink">escaped from prison</a> by hiding in a laundry truck in 2001. In 2012, Guzman <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/erincarlyle/2012/03/13/billionaire-druglords-el-chapo-guzman-pablo-escobar-the-ochoa-brothers/" target="_hplink">appeared</a> on <em>Forbes</em>' list of billionaires for the fourth year in a row. <strong>Territory:</strong> The Sinaloa Cartel operates in northwestern Mexico (<a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/sinaloa-cartel/item/192-sinaloa-cartel" target="_hplink">map</a>). <strong>Rivals:</strong> Arch-nemesis of Los Zetas, the Sinaloa cartel is <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/sinaloa-cartel/item/192-sinaloa-cartel" target="_hplink">allied</a> with the Gulf cartel and the Familia Michoacana. <strong>Notable Incidents:</strong> A 755-foot <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/12/nation/la-na-nn-drug-tunnel-details-20120712" target="_hplink">smuggling tunnel</a> running under a U.S. border fence was suspected to be operated by the Sinaloa cartel. The Sinaloa cartel may have been responsible for massacres in the border city of <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/05/bodies-bridge-23-mexico-drug" target="_hplink">Nuevo Laredo in May 2012</a>. The bodies of 23 people <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/05/bodies-bridge-23-mexico-drug" target="_hplink">were found</a> decapitated or hanging from a bridge, followed hours later by the discovery of 14 human heads in coolers near city hall. <em>Photo: In this June 10, 1993, file photo, Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo" Guzman, is shown to the press after his arrest at the high security prison of Almoloya de Juarez on the outskirts of Mexico City. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)</em>
One of the oldest cartels, the Gulf Cartel recently has lost influence, but is <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/gulf-cartel" target="_hplink">backed up</a> by the Sinaloa cartel. <strong>Leader:</strong> Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, alias "El Coss." The U.S. has a <a href="http://www.state.gov/j/inl/narc/rewards/115354.htm" target="_hplink">$5 million bounty</a> on his head. Costilla Sanchez once allegedly held FBI and DEA agents at gunpoint with AK-47s and <a href="http://www.state.gov/j/inl/narc/rewards/115354.htm" target="_hplink">threatened</a> to kill them. <strong>Territory:</strong> The cartel operates out of the state of Tamaulipas, with other bases in Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, and Reynosa, <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/gulf-cartel/item/90-gulf-cartel" target="_hplink">according to InsightCrime</a>. <strong>Rivals:</strong> The Gulf Cartel is allied with Sinaloa and enemies of Los Zetas. <strong>Notable Incident:</strong> In June, footage purporting to show masked members of the Gulf Cartel beheading Zetas members <a href="http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-06-29/news/32475737_1_gulf-cartel-drug-cartel-leader-zetas-cartel" target="_hplink">surfaced online</a>. <em>Photo: From left: Andrea Escamilla Juarez ("La Negra," 21), Rene Cortez Zapata ("El Nicanor," 45), Nestor Hugo Del Angel Ferretis ("El Tango," 29), Jose De Jesus Mosqueda Mora ("El Chucho," 41), Jorge Fernando Larios Nossiff ("El Camaron", 57), and Ricardo Abraham Velazquez Del Castillo ("El Ricardillo, 24), all alleged members of a cell belonging to the Gulf Cartel criminal organization, are shown to the press by federal police in Mexico City, Friday, Dec. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/German Garcia)</em>
The Juarez Cartel reportedly <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/juarez-cartel" target="_hplink">smuggles</a> tons of narcotics into the U.S., using local gangs to <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/juarez-cartel" target="_hplink">act as enforcers</a>. <strong>Leader:</strong> Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, aka "<a href="http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2019221_2019202_2019187,00.html" target="_hplink">The Viceroy</a>," has a $5 million bounty on his head from the U.S. government. <strong>Territory:</strong> Based in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. <strong>Notable incidents:</strong> In July 2011, Antonio Acosta Hernandez ("El Diego") told police he had <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2011-07-31/world/mexico.drug.arrest_1_lesley-enriquez-consulate-employee-drug-gang?_s=PM:WORLD" target="_hplink">ordered the killings</a> of 1,500 people. In 2010, a report suggested that an associate group of the Juarez Cartel was <a href="http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2010/08/juarez-cartel-trains-beautiful-women-as.html" target="_hplink">training beautiful</a>, young women as assassins. <strong>Rivals:</strong> Sinaloa cartel. <em>Photo: Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, 33, is presented to the media by federal police officers in Mexico City, Sunday July 31, 2011. According to federal officials, Acosta, nicknamed "El Diego," is a key drug cartel figure, who acknowledged ordering 1,500 killings. Authorities identified Acosta as head of La Linea, a gang of hit men and corrupt police officers who act as enforcers for the Juarez Cartel. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)</em>
The Tijuana Cartel, aka the Arellano Felix Organization, <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/tijuana-cartel/item/193-tijuana-cartel" target="_hplink">operates</a> in the strategically important town of Tijuana, bordering San Diego, California. The cartel was depicted in the film '<a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0181865/" target="_hplink">Traffic</a>' (2000). The cartel has been <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/criminal-groups/mexico/tijuana-cartel" target="_hplink">weakened</a> by infighting. <strong>Leader:</strong> Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias "El Ingeniero." (The "Engineer.") <strong>Territory:</strong> Baja California <strong>Notable Incident:</strong> The cartel allegedly dissolved bodies using chemicals or burned them in the desert to <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57408368/tijuana-cartel-leader-arellano-felix-gets-25-yrs/" target="_hplink">cover their tracks</a>. <em>Photo: Seized drugs and packages of marijuana and crystal meth are displayed during a presentation to the press in Tijuana, Mexico, Wednesday, March 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)</em>
The Knights Templar are a bizarre, cult-like group. <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/26/mexican-corpses-acapulco" target="_hplink">The Guardian writes</a>: "Propaganda from the Knights Templar blends a mix of Michoacan regionalism, Christianity and revolutionary slogans." The Knights Templar are a major trafficker of methamphetamine. <strong>Leader:</strong> Servando Gómez Martínez, alias "La Tuta," <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/insight-latest-news/item/3085-knights-templar-leader-appears-in-video" target="_hplink">denied</a> in a filmed address that the Knights Templar are a cartel. Gómez Martínez is also called "El Profe" ("The Professor"), and <a href="http://www.insightcrime.org/component/k2/item/319-familia-michoacana-leader-reportedly-employed-as-teacher" target="_hplink">InSight reports</a> that Gómez Martínez was still a publicly-employed teacher as of 2010. <strong>Notable Incident:</strong> The group recently was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/28/sabritas-firebombing-attack_n_1551355.html" target="_hplink">blamed</a> for coordinated firebombings of a PepsiCo subsiadary. It was a Mexican drug cartel's first attack on a transnational company. <strong>Rivals:</strong> Los Zetas. <em>Photo: Juan Gabriel Orozco Favela, alias "El Gasca," an alleged member of the Knights Templar drug cartel, is escorted by Mexican Army soldiers as he is presented to the media in Mexico City, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)</em>
Beltran Leyva (Disbanded)
The Beltran Leyva largely disbanded following a power struggle after the death of its leader, Arturo Beltrán Leyva. <strong>Leader:</strong> Héctor Beltrán Leyva, alias "El Ingeniero," or "El H," is wanted for up to <a href="http://www.state.gov/j/inl/narc/rewards/133311.htm" target="_hplink">$5 million</a> in the U.S. He is the brother of former cartel leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva. <strong>Territory:</strong> Northern Sinaloa. <strong>Rivals:</strong> Allied with Los Zetas after <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/08/28/f-mexico-drug-cartels.html" target="_hplink">splitting from Sinaloa</a> in 2008. <strong>Notable incident:</strong> Former cartel chief Arturo Beltrán Leyva died in a <a href="http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/laplaza/2009/12/mexico-drug-lord-arturo-beltran-leyva-mexican-navy-marines-raid-felipe-calderon-drug-war.html" target="_hplink">shootout</a> involving 200 Mexican marines in late 2009. <em>Photo: In this photo released by Mexico's Navy, Navy marines arrest alleged drug kingpin Sergio Villarreal Barragan, alias "El Grande," center, in Puebla, Mexico, Sunday Sept. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Mexican Navy)</em>
La Familia Michoacana (Extinct)
La Familia Michoacana, a pseudo-religious gang, has been largely <a href="http://www.excelsior.com.mx/index.php?m=nota&id_nota=779205&rss=1" target="_hplink">disbanded</a>. <strong>Leader: </strong> Nazario Moreno González, alias "El Más Loco" ("The Craziest One"), died in December 2010. <em>Photo: Martin Rosales Magana, aka "El Terry" and alleged leader of the Mexican La Familia drug cartel, is escorted by police officers during his presentation to the media in Mexico City, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. Authorities allege Rosales is one of the last major leaders of the La Familia cartel. (AP Photo/Leonardo Casas)</em>