Gulf Cartel

Gulf Cartel
Gulf Cartel
Founded 1970s
In Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico
Founded by Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, Juan García Abrego
Years active 1970s−present
Territory Mexico:
Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Nuevo León
United States:
Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Illinois, Florida
Ethnicity Mexican, Guatemalans
Criminal activities Drug trafficking, people smuggling, money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, racketeering, murder, arms trafficking, terrorism, robbery, assault, rape, bribery, prostitution, counterfeiting, coercion, fencing, mayhem, burglary, police impersonation[1]
Allies Sinaloa Cartel, Knights Templar
Rivals Los Zetas, Juárez Cartel, Beltran-Leyva Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Los Negros

The Gulf Cartel (Spanish: Cártel del Golfo, Golfos, or CDG)[2][3] is one of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico,[4] and perhaps the oldest organized crime group in the country.[5] It is currently based in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, but it also has significant presence in 13 states around Mexico, with important areas of operation in the cities of Nuevo Laredo, Miguel Alemán, Reynosa and Matamoros in the northern state of Tamaulipas; it also has important operations in the states of Nuevo León and in Michoacán.[6] Cities like Tampico and Nuevo Laredo are still disputed plazas between the Gulf Cartel and The Zetas. The Gulf Cartel traffics cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin across the U.S.-Mexico border to major cities in the United States. The group is known for its violent methods and intimidation.

Aside from earning money from the sales of narcotics, the cartel also imposes "taxes" on anyone passing narcotics or aliens through Gulf Cartel territory. The cartel is also known to operate protection rackets, extorting money from local businesses and to kidnap for ransom money.



Foundation: 1970s - 1996

The history of the Gulf Cartel dates back to the 1970s, when Juan Nepomuceno Guerra began smuggling drugs across the border to the United States; however, strictly speaking, it wasn’t until the 1980s when the organization began to dedicate itself primarily to drug trafficking, under the command of Juan García Ábrego.[7] The origins of the cartel are accredited to the legendary contrabandist Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, who died on July 12, 2001 due to a cardiac arrest.[8] Juan Nepomuceno Guerra was considered a high-profile leader among several people in the community of Matamoros, Tamaulipas because he would help the neediest and would punish those who committed any abuse to the poor families.[9] Poor people sometimes even made huge lines in ‘Piedras Negras,’ a restaurant of Nepomuceno Guerra, to ask him for favors.[10]

Although it was never proven that he smuggled liquor, arms, tobacco, and even drugs, Juan is considered the ‘godfather’ of the Gulf Cartel.[11] Along with his two brothers Arturo and Roberto, Juan Nepomuceno Guerra started smuggling alcohol into the United States in 1929.[12] Soon after the conclusion of the Prohibition, “Don Juan,” as he was widely known, dedicated himself to another completely different illicit occupation—drug trafficking.[13] Nepomuceno Guerra also amplified his ascendancy through the incorporation of gambling houses, prostitution, human trafficking, and car theft.[14] His nephew, Juan García Ábrego, worked along his tutelage, and slowly began taking over the drug business in the 1970s.

By the 1980s, García Ábrego began incorporating cocaine into the drug trafficking operations, and started to have the upper hand on what was now considered the Gulf Cartel, the greatest criminal dynasty in the US-Mexico border. By negotiating with the Cali Cartel,[15] García Ábrego was able to secure 50% of the shipment out of Colombia as payment for delivery, instead of the $1,500 USD per kilo they were previously receiving.[16] This renegotiation, however, forced Garcia Ábrego to guarantee the product’s arrival from Colombia to its destination. Instead, he created warehouses along the Mexican’s northern border to preserve hundreds of tons of cocaine; this allowed him to create a new distribution network and increase his political influence. In addition to trafficking drugs, García Ábrego would ship cash to be laundered, in the millions.[17]

Juan García Ábrego's business had grown to such length that the FBI placed him on the Top Ten Most Wanted in 1995. He was the first drug trafficker to be on that list.[18] On January 14, 1996, García Ábrego was arrested outside a ranch in Monterrey, Nuevo León.[19] He was quickly extradited to the United States where he stood trial eight months after his arrest. García Ábrego was convicted for 22 counts of money laundering, drug possession and drug trafficking.[20] Jurors also ordered the seizure of $350 million of García Ábrego’s assets — $75 million more than what was previously planned.[21] Juan García Ábrego is currently serving 11 life terms in a maximum security prison in Colorado, U.S.[22]

Arrest of Ábrego

Following Abrego's 1996 arrest by Mexican authorities and subsequent deportation to the United States, his brother Humberto García Ábrego tried to take the lead of the Gulf Cartel, but ultimately failed in his attempt.[23] He did not have the leadership skills nor the support of the Colombian drug-provisioners. In addition, he was under observation and was widely known, since his surname meant more of the same.[24] He was to be replaced by Oscar Malherbe De León and Raúl Valladares del Ángel, until their arrest a short time later,[25] causing several cartel lieutenants to fight for the leadership. Malherbe tried to bribe officials $2 million for his release, but it was denied.[26] Hugo Baldomero Medina Garza, known as "El Señor de los Tráilers," is considered one of the most important members in the rearticulation of the Gulf Cartel.[27] He was one of the top officials of the cartel for more than 40 years, trafficking about 20 tons of cocaine to the United States each month.[28] His luck ended in November 2000 when he was captured in Tampico, Tamaulipas and imprisoned in 'La Palma.'[29] After Medina Garza's arrest, his cousin Adal­ber­to Gar­za Dra­gus­ti­no­vis was investigated for allegedly forming part of the Gulf Cartel and for laundering money, but the case is still open.[30] The next in line was Sergio "El Checo" Gómez, however, his leadership was short lived when he was assassinated in April 1996 in Valle Hermoso, Tamaulipas.[31] After this, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén took control of the cartel in July 1999 after assasinating Salvador Gómez Herrera alias El Chava, co-leader of the Gulf Cartel and close friend of him, earning his name as the Mata Amigos (Friend Killer).[32]

Cárdenas era and Los Zetas

After Osiel Cárdenas took full control of the Gulf Cartel in 1999, he found himself in a no-holds-barred fight to keep his notorious organization and leadership untouched, and sought out members of the Mexican Army Special Forces to become the military armed-wing of the Gulf Cartel.[33] His goal was to protect himself from rival drug cartels and from the Mexican military, in order to perform vital functions as the leader of the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico.[34] His top recruit, Arturo Guzmán Decena, brought more than 30 army deserters to form Cárdenas’ new paramilitary wing, Los Zetas.[35] Among the original defectors were Jaime González Durán,[36] Jesús Enrique Rejón Aguilar,[37] Miguel Treviño Morales,[38] and Heriberto Lazcano,[39] now the supreme leader of Los Zetas. The creation of Los Zetas brought a new era of drug trafficking in Mexico, and little did Cárdenas know that he was creating the most dangerous drug cartel in Mexico.[40]

As years passed, the role of Los Zetas became much more important for the Gulf Cartel; they began to organize kidnappings,[41] impose “taxes” and operate protection rackets,[42] control the extortion business,[43] and protecting the drug routes as sicarios,[44] often executing their rivals with grotesque savagery. In response to the rising power of the Gulf Cartel, the rival Sinaloa Cartel[45] established a heavily armed, well-trained enforcer group known as Los Negros.[46] The group operated similar to Los Zetas, but with less complexity and success. The death of Arturo Guzman Decena (2002),[47] and the capture of Rogelio González Pizaña (2004),[48] the second-in-line, marked the opportunity for Heriberto Lazcano to take charge of Los Zetas.

Cárdenas' encounter with U.S. agents

In a November afternoon of 1999, Cárdenas learned that a Gulf Cartel informant was being transported through Matamoros, Tamaulipas, by the FBI and DEA.[49] According to the story mentioned in the interviews 11 years after this life-or-death incident, the DEA agent Joe DuBois and FBI agent Daniel Fuentes were riding in a white Ford Bronco with diplomatic plates along the streets of Matamoros, Tamaulipas.[50] For years, both were working for the disarticulation of the cartels in Mexico, and both knew how the drug cartels worked south of the border. In the back seat of the car, a Mexican informant from a local newspaper on crime coverage guided the two agents and gave them a tour on the city's drug routes and on the homes of the drug lords of the city. They even cruised on Cárdenas' house, a pink-colored mansion with tall walls, security camaras, armed guards and roof-snipers. Within moments, according to DuBois, a Lincoln Continental was on their tail, then a stolen pickup truck with Texan plates.[51] The federal agents were cutt off and surrounded by at least five vehicles, including one by a former state police officer. Just yards away from Matamoros' police department, the agents were surrounded by a convoy of gunmen from the Gulf Cartel.[52] Some wore police and military uniforms.[53] Nearby, other men, also in police uniform, directed traffic.

Cárdenas and his men intercepted and surrounded the vehicle on a public street and demanded for the informant to be released to him.[54] According to the two agents, the Gulf Cartel sicarios outnumbered and outgunned them. Their only way out was to talk their way out.[55] Cárdenas arrived seconds later in a white Jeep Cherokee, approaching the two agents with the swagger of the man in charge. In his waistband, he wore a Colt pistol with a gold grip; in his hands, a gold-plated AK-47.[56] Cárdenas pounded the Ford Bronco and calmly asked for the informant. Fuentes flashed his FBI badge, giving Cárdenas a smile. In an ongoing discourse, Cárdenas told the agents that he would shoot them if they did not surrender. The two agents refused to do so, saying they were dead either way. He gave them another choice: to hand over the informant. Again, they refused.[57]

DuBois, who grew up in Mexico and was a police officer in the neighboring Brownsville, Texas, recalled how Cárdenas "did not give a damn who [they were]," while DuBois replied to him: "You don't care now, but tomorrow and the next day and the rest of your life, you'll regret anything stupid that you might do right now. You are fixing to make 300,000 enemies."[58] Then, Fuentes reminded Cárdenas how the U.S. launched a massive manhunt and investigation after the kidnap, torture, and assassination of the DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985 in Mexico.[59] All of the killers and accomplices were captured in that U.S. operation.[60]

After a tense standoff, DuBois and Fuentes, along with their informant, were released.[61] The two agents and the informant headed off to Brownsville, Texas. As for Cárdenas, the damage had been done by taking on the U.S. government, which placed pressure on the Mexican government to apprehend Cárdenas. The two agents, Joe DuBois and Daniel Fuentes, were recognized by the U.S. attorney general for their 'exceptional heroism,' and both are still on the job.[62] The Mexican reporter is living somewhere in the United States.[63]

Cárdenas' arrest

The former leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, was captured in the city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on March 14, 2003 in a shootout between the Mexican military and Gulf Cartel gunmen.[64] He was one of the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, which was offering $2 million for his capture.[65] According to government archives, this six-month military operation was planned and carried out in secret; the only people informed were the President Vicente Fox, the Secretary of Defense in Mexico, Ricardo Clemente Vega García, and Mexico's Attorney General, Rafael Macedo de la Concha.[66] After his capture, Osiel Cárdenas was sent to the federal, high-security prison La Palma.[67] However, it was believed that Cárdenas still controlled the Gulf Cartel from prison,[68] and was later extradicted to the United States, where he was sentenced to 25 years in a prison in Houston, Texas for money laundering, drug trafficking, homicide and death threats to U.S. federal agents.[69]

After the arrest and extradition, top lieutenants from both the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas began to dispute important drug corridors to the United States—Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, Tampico in Tamaulipas; Acapulco, Guerrero; Cancún, Quintana Roo; Monterrey, Nuevo León; Veracruz and San Luis Potosí.[70] Through his violence and intimidation, Heriberto Lazcano took control of both Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel after Cardenas’ extradition.[71] Lieutenants that were once loyal to Cárdenas began following the commands of Lazcano, who tried to reorganize the cartel by appointing several lieutenants to control specific territories. Morales Treviño was appointed to look over Nuevo León;[72] Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez in Matamoros;[73] Héctor Manuel Sauceda Gamboa ‘El Karis' took control of Nuevo Laredo;[74] Gregorio Sauceda Gamboa, known as ‘El Goyo,’ along with his brother Arturo, took control of the Reynosa ‘plaza’;[75] Arturo Basurto Peña, alias ‘El Grande,’ and Iván Velásquez Caballero ‘El Talibán’ took control of Quintana Roo and Guerrero;[76] Alberto Sánchez Hinojosa, alias 'Comandante Castillo,' took over Tabasco.[77] However, continual disagreement was leading the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas into an inevitable rupture.

Rupture from Los Zetas

There is huge discrepancy on whom of the two—the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas—started the conflict that led to their rupture. It is clear, however, that after the capture and extradition of Osiel Cardenas, Los Zetas had become so powerful that they outnumbered and outclassed the Gulf Cartel in revenue, membership, and influence.[78] Some sources reveal that as a result of the supremacy of Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel felt threatened by the growing force of their own enforcer group that they decided to stop their influence, but eventually failed in their attempted, instigating a war.[79] In addition, from the perspective presented by the Gulf Cartel, the narco-banners placed by them in the cities of Matamoros, Tamaulipas and Reynosa, Tamaulipas explaining that the reason for their rupture was because Los Zetas had also expanded their supremacy not only by drug trafficking, but through extreme violence, extortions, kidnappings, homicides, and theft, and that Gulf Cartel disagreed with that.[80]

Nevertheless, other sources also reveal that Tony Tormenta, brother of Osiel Cardenas and one of the successors of the Gulf Cartel, had an addiction to gambling, sex, and drugs, which led Los Zetas to consider his leadership as a threat to the organization.[81] Other reports mention, however, that the rupture occurred due to a disagreement on who would take on the leadership of the cartel after the extradition of Cardenas. The candidates of the Gulf Cartel were Antonio Ezekiel Cárdenas Guillén and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, while Los Zetas wanted the leadership of their current head, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano.[82] Other sources, however, mention that the Gulf Cartel began looking to form a truce with their Sinaloa Cartel rivals, and Los Zetas did not want to recognize the treaty settlement, which led them to act independently and eventually break apart.[83] On the other hand, other sources reveal that Los Zetas separated from the Gulf Cartel to form an alliance with Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, which led to conflict between them.[84] Other sources mention that what initiated the conflict between them was when Samuel Flores Borrego, alias El Metro 3, lieutenant of the Gulf Cartel, killed Sergio Peña Mendoza, alias El Concorde 3, lieutenant of Los Zetas, due to a disagreement for the drug corridor of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, whom both protected.[85] Soon after his death, Los Zetas demanded for the Gulf Cartel to hand over the killer, but they didn't, and observers believe that triggered the war.[86]

Whatever the actual reasons were, the truth is that after continuous disagreement, Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas began to separate in 2008, and their official rupture was announced in 2010.[87] Since then, a bloody turf war between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel is still an ongoing armed conflict in Mexico, and has left thousands of deaths along the way.[88]


For years, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Gulf Cartel, with its armed wing Los Zetas, was the most dangerous and powerful drug cartel in Mexico, second only by the Sinaloa Cartel.[89] However, the rupture with Los Zetas complicated the Gulf Cartel’s supremacy in the country.[90] They lost significant territory both inside and outside of Tamaulipas, and the only definite territory that the Gulf Cartel possesses and that is not under dispute are the ‘plazas’ of Matamoros[91] and Reynosa.[92] However, they are slowly gaining ground in Tamaulipas,[93] as the government focuses more on eradicating Los Zetas,[94] resulting in Gulf Cartel taking advantage of the juncture to push the ‘Zeta’ forces to other states. The major cities of Nuevo Laredo,[95] Tampico,[96] and Monterrey[97] are currently under dispute. Smaller cities like Rio Bravo,[98] Miguel Alemán,[99] and Valle Hermoso[100] hold strongholds of both Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. Cities like Ciudad Victoria,[101] Nuevo Laredo,[102][103] Monterrey,[104] Soto La Marina,[105] and San Fernando,[106] are considered ‘Zetas’ territory, in its majority. In addition, the states of San Luis Potosi,[107] Veracruz,[108] and Zacatecas,[109] although they have Gulf Cartel presence, are also considered ‘Zeta’ territory.

Antonio Ezekiel Cárdenas Guilén became the co-leader of the Gulf Cartel, along with Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez, after the extradition of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. However, Ezekiel died in a six-hour shooting with the Mexican government forces on November 5, 2010 in the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas. According to local newspapers, well over 50 gunmen died in the military operation,[110][111] along with 2 marines,[112] and 1 news reporter.[113] Although not confirmed, some local sources reveal that more than 100 people died that day in Matamoros.[114] After this incident, there was a huge division of opinions over the fate of the Gulf Cartel. Some experts believed that the death of Ezekiel would be dreadful for the Gulf Cartel, and that Los Zetas would overthrow them and eventually take control of Tamaulipas.[115] Others explained how his death allowed Costilla Sánchez to take full directive of the cartel, and that that would tighten relations with Colombia and straighten the Gulf Cartel’s path, something quite difficult with Ezekiel as co-leader.[116]

Stratfor specialists have mentioned that the strong military presence in Tamaulipas, along with the death of Samuel Flores Borrego, alias El Metro 3, and the apprehension of Rafael Cárdenas Vela, alias El Junior, has created tension and conflict within the Gulf Cartel, which is on the verge of a rupture.[117] The two groups within the cartel—the Metros, commanded by Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, and the Rojos, who maintain loyalty to the Cárdenas family—are believed to be fighting for the full mandate of the criminal organization.[118] After the death of Antonio Cárdenas Guillén in 2010, these two groups have been looking for leaders to fill in that void.[119]

If a rupture occurs, experts mention that there may be an increasing mobilization from Los Zetas to take control of the drug corridors of Matamoros and Reynosa, the two most important strongholds for the Gulf Cartel. In addition, it may also allow for the Sinaloa Cartel to move into northeastern Tamaulipas.[120]


In 2003, the arrest of several high-profile cartel leaders, including the heads of the Tijuana Cartel and Gulf Cartel, Benjamín Arellano Félix and Osiel Cárdenas, turned the war on drugs into a trilateral war. While in prison, Cárdenas and Arellano Félix formed an alliance to defend themselves from the Sinaloa and Juarez Cartel,[121] who had also formed an alliance with each other, and were planning to take over the smuggling routes and territories of the Gulf and Tijuana Cartel.[122] After a dispute, however, Osiel Cardenas ordered Benjamin Arellano Felix beaten, and the Gulf-Tijuana alliance ceased to exist at that point. It was reported that after the fallout, Cárdenas ordered Los Zetas to Baja California to wipe out the Tijuana Cartel.[123]

The Sinaloa-Juarez alliance ceased to exist as well due to an unpaid debt in 2007, and now the Sinaloa and Juarez Cartel are at war against each other.[124] Since February 2010, the major cartels have aligned in two factions, one integrated by the Juárez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Los Zetas and the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel‎‎;[125] the other faction integrated by the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel, La Familia Cartel (now extinct) and the Knights Templar Cartel.[126][127]


The rupture from Los Zetas left Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez and Antonio Ezekiel Cárdenas Guillén in full control of the Gulf Cartel. However, Ezekiel died in a shooting with the Mexican Marines in Matamoros, Tamaulipas in 2010,[128] and Costilla Sanchez became the sole head of the cartel. Mario Cárdenas Guillén, brother of both Osiel and Ezekiel, became one of the top lieutenants in the organization after his release from prison in 2007.[129] In addition, within the Gulf Cartel there is believed to be two groups—the Rojos and the Metros.[130]

Below is basic structure of any drug cartel:

  • Falcons (Halcones): Considered the “eyes and ears” of the streets, the 'falcons' are the lowest rank position in any drug cartel. They are responsible for supervising and reporting on the activities of the Mexican military and of their rival groups.[131]
  • Hitmen (Sicarios): They are the armed group within the drug cartel; they are responsible for carrying out assassinations, kidnappings, thefts, extortions, operating protection rackets, and defending their 'plaza' from the rival groups and the military.[132][133]
  • Lieutenants (Lugartenientes): The second highest position in the drug cartel organization; they are responsible for supervising the sicarios and halcones within their own territory. They are allowed to carry low-profile executions without permission from their bosses.[134]
  • Drug lords (Capos): This is the highest position in any drug cartel; they are responsible supervising the entire drug industry, appointing territorial leaders, making alliances, and planning high-profile executions.[135]

It's worth noting that there are other operating groups within the drug cartels. For example, the drug producers and suppliers,[136] although not considered in the basic structure, are critical operators of any drug cartel, along with the financers and money launderers.[137][138][139] In addition, the arms suppliers operate in a completely different circle,[140] and are technically not considered part of the cartel’s logistics.


According to the book "Drug Wars: Narco Warfare in the 21st Century" by Gary Fleming, there are many ways in which drugs enter the United States. Due to the Gulf Cartel's large amount of territory, the cartels utilize every way possible to get drugs into the United States. One avenue that they have implemented is to construct tunnels to get their product across the border. By constructing a tunnel, the cartel is able to get their product across the border with minimal to no detection. The advantages of having a tunnel are tremendous, not only can they charge for smuggling illegal aliens but they can also use this for human trafficking as carriers for cartels. Each human can carry up to half a million dollars worth of drugs.

Another venture the cartels utilize are the many bus routes across the United States. With each instance of human trafficking, they can have people carry the product with them on a bus and deliver it to its destination. Main hubs for these bus routes include but are not limited to Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, and Dallas. The buses are a vital asset to the cartels because they often go without detection from devices or X-ray machines. The major highways accessed are I35 and I25 which are central highways for the drug trade. The cartel also implements the use of the train system to ship large quantities of illegal drugs.

A narco submarine seized in Ecuador on July 2010

Apart from using these common ways, once the product is across the border, common cars and trucks are utilized for faster distribution in different cities. In an effort to use the seas, the cartel also implemented the use of narco submarines.[141][142][143]


On July 21, 2009, the United States DEA announced coordinated actions against the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas drug trafficking organizations. Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillen, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano and 15 of their top lieutenants, have been charged in U.S. federal courts with drug trafficking-related crimes,[144][145] while the U.S. State Department announced rewards totaling $50 million USD for information leading to their capture.[144]

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External links


  • Drug Wars: Narco Warfare in the twenty first century. Flemming, Gary. Booksurge, 2008.

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