Drug cartel

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A drug cartel is any criminal organization with the intention of supplying drug trafficking operations. They range from loosely managed agreements among various drug traffickers to formalized commercial enterprises. The term was applied[when?] when the largest trafficking organizations reached an agreement to coordinate the production and distribution of cocaine. Since that agreement was broken up,[vague][when?] drug cartels are no longer[when?] actually cartels, but the term stuck and it is now[when?] popularly used to refer to any criminal narcotics related organization, such as those in Afghanistan, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Laos, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Russia, South Korea, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The basic structure of a drug cartel is as follows:

  • Falcons (Spanish: Halcones): Considered the "eyes and ears" of the streets, the "falcons" are the lowest rank in any drug cartel. They are responsible for supervising and reporting the activities of the police, the military, and rival groups.[1]
  • Hitmen (Spanish: Sicarios): The armed group within the drug cartel, responsible for carrying out assassinations, kidnappings, thefts, extortions, operating protection rackets, and defending their plaza (turf) from rival groups and the military.[2][3]
  • Lieutenants (Spanish: Lugartenientes): The second highest position in the drug cartel organization, responsible for supervising the hitmen and falcons within their own territory. They are allowed to carry out low-profile executions without permission from their bosses.[4]
  • Drug lords (Spanish: Capos): The highest position in any drug cartel, responsible for supervising the entire drug industry, appointing territorial leaders, making alliances, and planning high-profile executions.[5]

It is worth noting that there are other operating groups within the drug cartels. For example, the drug producers and suppliers,[6] although not considered in the basic structure, are critical operators of any drug cartel, along with the financiers and money launderers.[7][8][9] In addition, the arms suppliers operate in a completely different circle,[10] and are technically not considered part of the cartel’s logistics.



North America

United States

Map of violent crime per 100,000 people in the USA by state in 2004

The United States of America is the world's largest consumer of cocaine[11] and other illegal drugs.[12][13][14][15] This is a list of American criminal organizations involved in illegal drug traffic, drug trade and other related crimes in the United States:


The Mérida Initiative, a U.S. Counter-Narcotics Assistance to Mexico

Mexican cartels (also known in Mexico as: La Mafia (the mafia or the mob), La Maña (the skill / the bad manners),[25] Narcotraficantes (Narco-Traffickers), or simply as Narcos) is a generic term that usually refers to several, usually rival, criminal organizations that are combated by the Mexican government in the in the Mexican War on Drugs (List sorted by branches and heritage):[26]

South America



Until 2011 Colombia remained the world's largest cocaine producer,[67] however with a strong anti-narcotic strategy in 2012 the country achieved a great decrease in cocaine production and fell to the third position, behind Peru and Bolivia.[68]

The current main actors in the drug trade are:

Historical actors in the drug trade were:


Historically Venezuela has been a path to the United States for illegal drugs originating in Colombia, through Central America and Mexico and Caribbean countries such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.

According to the United Nations, there was an increase of cocaine trafficking through Venezuela since 2002.[70] In 2005 Venezuela severed ties with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), accusing its representatives of spying.[71] Following the departure of the DEA from Venezuela and the expansion of DEA's partnership with Colombia in 2005, Venezuela became more attractive to drug traffickers.[72] Between 2008 and 2012, Venezuela's cocaine seizure ranking among other countries declined, going from being ranked fourth in the world for cocaine seizures in 2008[73] to sixth in the world in 2012.[74] The cartel groups involved include:

  • The Cuntrera-Caruana Mafia clan moved to Venezuela,[75] which became an important hideout as the clan bought hotels and founded various businesses in Caracas and Valencia, as well as an extended ranch in Barinas, near the Colombian border. "Venezuela has its own Cosa Nostra family as if it is Sicilian territory," according to the Italian police. "The structure and hierarchy of the Mafia has been entirely reproduced in Venezuela." The Cuntrera-Caruana clan had direct links with the ruling Commission of the Sicilian Mafia, and are acknowledged by the American Cosa Nostra.[75]

Pasquale, Paolo and Gaspare Cuntrera were expelled from Venezuela in 1992, "almost secretly smuggled out of the country, as if it concerned one of their own drug transports. It was imperative they could not contact people on the outside who could have used their political connections to stop the expulsion." Their expulsion was ordered by a commission of the Venezuelan Senate headed by Senator Cristobal Fernandez Dalo and his money laundering investigator, Thor Halvorssen Hellum. They were arrested in September 1992 at Fiumicino airport (Rome),[76][77] and in 1996 were sentence to 13–20 years.[75]

  • Norte del Valle Cartel : In 2008 the leader of the Colombian Norte del Valle Cartel, Wilber Varela, was found murdered in a hotel in Mérida in Venezuela.[78] In 2010 Venezuela arrested and deported to the United States Jaime Alberto "Beto" Marin, then head of the Norte del Valle Cartel.[79]

In May 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported from United States officials that drug trafficking in Venezuela increased significantly with Colombian drug traffickers moving from Colombia to Venezuela due to pressure from law enforcement.[81] On United States Department of Justice official described the higher ranks of the Venezuelan government and military as "a criminal organization", with high ranking Venezuelan officials, such as National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, being accused of drug trafficking.[81] Those involved with investigations stated that Venezuelan government defectors and former traffickers had given information to investigators and that details of those involved in government drug trafficking were increasing.[81]

Central American and Caribbean

El Salvador






Golden Triangle









  • Basilischi Mafia[85]
  • Remo Lecce Libera,[88]
  • Rosa dei Venti[89]


United Kingdom

Other organized crime groups based in Europe

Middle East


Other parts of the world


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Further reading

External links