Everyone in Mexico has heard of the Guadalajara Cartel (Cartel de Guadalajara in Spanish), an organization that, from the beginning of the 1980’s and as part of an alleged alliance with high-ranking police officers and politicians, dominated, for almost a decade, the drug market in Mexico. Its omnipresence in our contemporary history is so pervasive that almost no-one has ever questioned the possibility of whether, in fact, it actually existed. Until now.
According to the hegemonic narrative – first established by police forces in the United States and then picked up by bestsellers, newspapers, academic articles of dubious quality, and, years later, broadcasted around the world by Netflix – the alleged Guadalajara Cartel was, under the supervision of Sinaloa-born drug trafficker Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the first organization in Mexico capable of controlling cocaine imports and exports, as well as the majority of marijuana production around the country. This is, in more than one sense of the word, the archetypal organization that carried out, knew and controlled everything.
Félix Gallardo’s group, according to this narrative, provided the blueprint of its business model and organizational structure to what we now know to be the Sinaloa Cartel, the progeny of the Guadalajara Cartel. The problem with this story, which has permeated throughout public opinion in Mexico and has been subsequently portrayed in series, movies and books, is that, essentially, it is false.
The most recent academic research into the alleged Guadalajara Cartel coincides with the idea that it was actually a much less powerful group than that shown in television series.[note]Benjamin T. Smith, The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade (London: Ebury Press, 2021); Jack Pannell, “‘Cartels’ in Mexico: The Origins of a Categorization” (Master’s Thesis, University of Oxford, 2020); Luis Astorga, Drogas sin fronteras (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 2003); Diego Enrique Osorno, El cártel de Sinaloa: Una historia del uso político del narco (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 2009).[/note]
In fact, it was a quasi-family-run organization that never successfully achieved the vertical integration of its drug production, transportation and marketing processes, nor did it implement well-defined rules for its members or create a hierarchical structure to reach consensual decisions.[note]For further discussion regarding the architecture of drug trafficking groups in Latin America, with a special focus on Colombians, see: Michael Kenney, “The Architecture of Drug Trafficking: Network Forms of Organization in the Colombian Cocaine Trade”, Global Crime 8, No. 3 (2007): 233–59. For a comparative discussion, read: Federico Varese, “The Structure and the Content of Criminal Connections: The Russian Mafia in Italy”, European Sociological Review 29, No. 5 (2013): 899–909.[/note] During the period in which the Guadalajara Cartel supposedly existed, very few people referred to this organization using that moniker. This despite the fact that, as we will see later, the concept of cartels was already being used by agencies tasked with tackling drug trafficking to describe similar organizations.
The purpose of this article is to examine how a drug-trafficking network that no-one ever referred to as a cartel during its alleged lifespan became one of the most ubiquitous benchmarks in the history of drug trafficking in Mexico. How was this concept created? When did people start talking about the existence of the Guadalajara Cartel? Who was involved in this process? What were their underlying goals?
To answer these questions, this analysis, which is based on archival work undertaken in Mexico and the United States, traces the process through which an amorphous criminal network with no clear leadership structure slowly became a useful work of fiction for the punitive discourse on which the current war against drugs is based.[note]It was Oswaldo Zavala who, based on literary analysis, has most worked on creating the concept of a “Cartel”. See: Oswaldo Zavala, Los cárteles no existen: Narcotráfico y cultura en México (Mexico City: Malpaso, 2018).[/note] This research project presents the history of a genealogy.
What was the Guadalajara Cartel?
As is true for the rest of its contemporary organizations, the so-called Guadalajara Cartel was a complex criminal network based on family circles and with no clear leadership structure.
Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo played a dominant role (and perhaps a difficult-to-emulate one) in building an as yet unparalleled cocaine distribution channel between Colombia, the Mexican Pacific coast and the eastern seaboard of the United States. It is also true that Félix Gallardo and his inner circle successfully managed large fields of marijuana and poppy crops in some states in the north of the country, as well as along the Pacific coastline in Mexico.
However, making the leap from this evidence to affirm that this famous drug trafficker from Sinaloa successfully dominated the processes of producing, transporting and distributing illegal drugs in Mexico is a stretch.[note]For an example of this narrative within the academic sphere: Peter A. Lupsha, “Drug Lords and Narco-Corruption: The Players Change but the Game Continues”, Crime, Law & Social Change 16 (1991): 41–58. For an example with the sphere of journalism: Anabel Hernández, Los Señores del Narco (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 2010).[/note]
The Guadalajara Cartel was, in actual fact, a family network that functioned in a variable fashion and changed its modus operandi based on the circumstances at the time. Therefore, to execute a specific operation – for example, exporting numerous kilograms of cocaine from northern Colombia to the south-eastern United States – they may have needed the help of family members, friends or partners in one or a number of tasks: negotiating with different groups of coca farmers; renting and handling the equipment necessary to transport the drugs on land, by sea or by air; monitoring safe houses and the route the drugs would take; negotiating with (or co-opting) port authorities, customs agents or highway police; organizing small-scale distributors in different cities within the United States, etc. For other types of operations – murdering a competitor or dealing marijuana in a small city – the close-knit group of Félix Gallardo’s bodyguards was more than up to the task. Everything depended on the complexity of the task at hand, in addition to the fragile and informal agreements (that were constantly being updated) in which myriad state and non-state actors were involved.[note]Smith, The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, Chapter 9.[/note]
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) —the police institution in the United States tasked with combatting drugs both within and outside the country’s borders – understood the plasticity and volatility of Félix Gallardo’s network. In internal documents, it refers to drug traffickers of that time – such as Caro Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, Jorge Favela Escoboso, Juan Esparragosa Moreno or Jaime Herrera Nevares – classifying them as barely being partners of Félix Gallardo, never mind subordinates.
They all had their own retinues of faithful supporters and forged implicit and explicit alliances. Some of them met – almost always without success – to divide up activities, territories and merchandise; others met in churches or at ranches to become the godfathers of the others’ children; some gave orders to kill rivals with a much greater degree of cruelty than was strictly necessary; only a very small number survived, outside the confines prison, to see the beginning of the new century.
In 1989, the DEA tried to map out the major drug trafficking organizations in Mexico through “significant operations along the south-eastern border of the United States”. The end result can be seen in the following image and is in stark contrast with the map imagined by Netflix when referring to the all-powerful Guadalajara Cartel. In this map a total of 62 different leaderships structures in different regions of the country are identified. In terms of Félix Gallardo, only significant operations in four states in Mexico are attributed to him – Sonora, Jalisco, Sinaloa and Baja California – while in the rest of the country there are drug production and distribution networks that sometimes work together, sometimes ignore one another, and sometimes fight amongst themselves.
In our research, we found that the internal reports drafted by the DEA between 1981 and 1986 at its offices in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Hermosillo not only did not use the cartel concept to refer to Félix Gallardo’s organization, nor did its descriptions refer to the existence of an organization capable of functioning vertically.
To give an example: in March 1984, at precisely the alleged peak of the network run by Félix Gallardo, the then head of the DEA in Guadalajara, James H. Kuykendall, wrote a report that referred to marijuana crops in the north of Zacatecas. According to Kuykendall, in the north of that state alone, there were between 18 and 20 “loosely related groups” operating.[note]James H. Kuykendall, “DEA Report of Investigation”, March 12, 1984.[/note] Some territories belonged to Ernesto Fonseca and to the group we now link to the Guadalajara Cartel; others did not. Some were protected by a commander in the DFS; others by local police; others by the army; and yet others by independent criminals. There were disputes, competition and feuds; more or less the same is true today.
Kuykendall’s report is the norm, not the exception. In practically none of the hundreds of documents relating to Operation Leyenda — stemming from the investigation into the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena and spanning the period comprising 1986 to 1992— one can find references to the existence of the Guadalajara Cartel. This is particularly relevant as the documents from Operation Leyenda include statements made by protected witnesses, court proceedings and intelligence reports, i.e., they not only show us the dominate discourse within the police sphere, but also that within the public sphere. In these documents, as in almost all documents from that time, cartels did not exist. The descriptions used included family networks, drug rings, drug syndicates, consortium of traffickers, dealers, mafias, and other similar terms.
The question remains as to how and when the idea of the existence of the Guadalajara Cartel began to circulate. Which actors were involved in this process of dissemination? And, above all, what were their reasons for doing so? The following section attempts to find answers to these questions.
In the beginning was the DEA
The first time that the concept of cartels was publicly used to refer to a drug trafficking group and not to an agreement between like-minded companies to avoid mutual competition — the original meaning of the word— was in 1977 in the United States Congress.[note]Although not frequently used, we found references to “criminal cartels” as far back as the 1960’s. For example: Harry J. Anslinger and Will Oursler, The Murderers: The Story of the Narcotic Gangs (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962), 17.[/note]
In that year, the then head of the DEA, Peter B. Bensinger, used, during two different appearances before a Senate Committee, the idea of a worldwide drug cartel to refer to a drug trafficking organization based in Mexico, specifically the organization run by Alberto Sicilia Falcón, a Cuban drug trafficker and the alleged exporter of “tons of marijuana” from Mexico to the United States.[note]DEA Administrator Peter B. Bensinger, “Hearing before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, United States Senate, Ninety-Fifth Congress, January 12, 1977 (Illicit Traffic in Weapons and Drugs across the United States-Mexican Border)” (1977).[/note] Sicilia Falcón had just been captured thanks to information provided by the DEA, and Bensinger was boasting in front of the US Senate – using more than exaggerated terms – about the alleged lengths that his agency had gone to in order to detain this drug trafficker.
The context in which Bensinger decided to use the word is not trivial, and it is important to explain it in order to better comprehend the political economy of the war on drugs: during those months, the DEA had been widely criticized for its inability to stop the flow of heroin entering the United States. Numerous voices were clamoring for the anti-drug agency to be immediately restructured, while others, were vying for it to be disbanded altogether. The most prominent voice was that of the recently elected President of the United States of America, Carter, with whom the DEA had no sympathies whatsoever.
Secondly, was US Customs, a long-standing nemesis of the DEA, which was seeking to recover the authority and human resources lost when the DEA was created in 1973.[note]Patricia Rachal, Federal Narcotics Enforcement: Reorganization and Reform (Boston: Auburn House Publishing Company, 1982).[/note] Finally, it is important to highlight that, although only temporarily, the issue of drugs had changed as a priority public issue. According to a Gallup poll at the time, only 1% of the population believed narcotics to be the most pressing challenge facing the United States.[note]David Musto and Pamela Korsmeyer, The Quest for Drug Control: Politics and Federal Policy in a Period of Increasing Substance Abuse (1963-1981) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 144.[/note]
Despite the fact that after the aforementioned hearings the term cartel began to be used more frequently to refer to drug trafficking, it is fair to say that the concept did not appear to have been widely accepted. With only a few exceptions, and over the coming months, the US media barely picked up on it.[note]John H. Averill, “Probers Told of Increase in Guns for Drugs: Some of Smuggled Arms May Be Going to Latin Terrorists”, Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1977; Laurie Becklund, “Mexican Connection: How Agent’s Felled Drug King’s Empire”, Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1978.[/note] Bensinger did not appear to use it again in public.
It is at the very beginning of the 1980’s when the concept of cartels began to be used within the public sphere. This was not in reference to the group run by Sicilia Falcón, but rather to describe Colombian organizations who would become a key part of coordinating the cocaine shipments that arrived along the coast of Florida on a daily basis.[note]Robert Pear, “155 Indicted as Two-Year Federal Drug Inquiry Ends”, The New York Times, March 13, 1981.[/note] The concept began to be used by bureaucrats within the DEA or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who, without much media scrutiny or criticism, were quoted or paraphrased in widely circulated newspapers and magazines.[note]Melinda Beck y Elaine Shannon, “A new attack on Drugs”, Newsweek, July 20, 1981; U.S. News & World Report, “Why the FBI Uses Undercover Agents”, U.S. News & World Report, August 16, 1982.[/note]
In 1982, William French Smith, the then attorney general of the United States, talked about the existence of cartels in a much more matter-of-fact tone, focusing on the threat they posed to US society.[note]William French Smith, “Remarks of the Attorney General: Ceremony to announce President Reagan’s Program to Combat Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime”, October 14, 1982.[/note]
This is how, little by little, and over a number of years, the concepts of drug syndicates and drug rings were slowly replaced in official publications, speeches, court processes and television programs.[note]For example: William H. Webster, “Federal Bureau of Investigation” (Attorney General Annual Report, 1984), 40; Lawn, “Drug Enforcement Administration” (Annual Attorney General Report, 1986), 48.[/note] From this process was born the idea of the Cali Cartel, the Medellin Cartel, and the figure of Pablo Escobar as the lord and master of Colombia.
The Creation of the Guadalajara Cartel
The first public reference of the Guadalajara Cartel appears in an article published in Newsweek magazine in 1985.[note]Angus Demming and Elaine Shannon, “Has Mexico Matched Up on Drugs”, Newsweek, December 1985.[/note] One of the authors of that article, journalist Elaine Shannon, had used the cartel concept in 1981 in a report based on police sources regarding drug trafficking in Miami.[note]Beck and Shannon, “A new attack on Drugs”.[/note]
Shannon is also the author of the book entitled Desperados (1988), an account of the DEA’s official version of the murder of Camarena in Mexico that played a relevant role in disseminating not only the concept of the Guadalajara Cartel but also in characterizing what would happen to its members and structure in the future.[note]Elaine Shannon, Desperados: Latin Drug Lords, U.S. Lawmen, and the war America Can’t Win (New York: Viking, 1988).[/note]
The arrest of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo in Guadalajara on the evening of April 9, 1989, is a good moment to review the language being used at that time. The Spanish press, for example, stated that “the super drug lord” was an “intermediary for the Medellin Cartel”.[note]Agencies, “Detained in Mexico, a ‘super drug lord’ (“Detenido en México, un ‘supercapo’ del narcotráfico”), El País, April 10, 1989.[/note] In Mexico, neither Excélsior, nor Siglo de Torreón, El Universal or El Informador made any mention of the existence of the cartel despite covering the arrest of Félix Gallardo on the front pages of their newspapers.
Only La Jornada, in two articles, quoting Shannon’s book, mentioned the Guadalajara Cartel. In one of these articles, for example, it states that “according to an American journalist, Elaine Shannon, in her book Desperado (sic.), the number one drug trafficking ring in Mexico was as powerful as the Medellín Cartel”. Later in the article, it says: “according to Shannon, the GuadalajaraCartel was composed of Rafael Caro Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, Juan Ramón Mata Ballesteros, Juan José Quintero Payán and José Contreras Subías, all of whom have been detained, as well as by Emilio Quintero Payán and Manuel Salcido Uzeta, who are still at large”.[note]Clara Guadalupe García and Luis Alberto Rodríguez, “Felix Gallardo was a member of the Medellin Cartel: Coello Trejo” (“Félix Gallardo Integraba el cartel de Medellin: Coello Trejo”),La Jornada, April 11, 1989.[/note]
Complicating the issue even further, the same article published statements made by Deputy Attorney General Javier Coello Trejo, for whom “the drug trafficker is a member of the Medellin Cartel (in italics in the original document)”.[note]Clara Guadalupe García and Luis Alberto Rodríguez, “Felix Gallardo was a member of the Medellin Cartel: Coello Trejo” (“Félix Gallardo Integraba el cartel de Medellin: Coello Trejo”),La Jornada, April 11, 1989.[/note] Let us imagine an overwhelmed reader who, after reading the article, barely understood anything about the identity of Félix Gallardo.
What does the arrest of Félix Gallardo tell us about the use of the idea of the Guadalajara Cartel? Firstly, it shows us that, in Mexico, the use of this concept was, at the end of the 1980’s, almost nonexistent. Secondly, of the few times that it was used, it was to quote Shannon’s book. Finally, it demonstrates that it was Shannon’s characterization of this criminal organization that ended up prevailing.
The Dissemination of a Concept
After the publication of Shannon’s book, in 1990, NBC produced a six-hour series that portrayed the “true” story of the Camarena case. It was called Drug Wars: The Camarena Story, and its executive producer was the one and only producer of Miami Vice, the US television series famous for its addiction to luxury cars and punitive discourse. A precursor to Traffic (2000) and dozens of other similar movies and series, Drug Wars: The Camarena Story outlines a narrative in which Félix Gallardo’s group is omnipresent and all powerful in a country that, based on the images used in the series, seems to be quite close to a hell on Earth. On both the small and big screens, the notion of the Guadalajara Cartel was here to stay.
However, another element was missing. In 1991, the idea of the Guadalajara Cartel emerged in academic discourse. It did so with much pomp and circumstance in one of the most quoted academic articles back then and one that is – still – used as a frequent reference for this issue. This article is entitled Drug lords and narco-corruption: The players change but the game continues and waswritten by a political scientist at the University of New Mexico, Peter Lupsha.
It is a text full of common ground, and whose opening line sets the tone for the rest of the article: “It is impossible to identify a beginning date for corruption in Mexico, for it is as eternal as the Aztec sun”.[note]Lupsha, “Drug Lords and Narco-Corruption: The Players Change but the Game Continues”, 41.[/note] Despite the trivialization of “narco-corruption” in Mexico (or precisely because of it), Lupsha’s text became an obligatory reference for those interested in the topic. The final part of the article deals with the links between the Mexican police and Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo’s group. Far from offering a painstakingly meticulous investigation based on primary sources, the characterization of this relationship is the same as that proposed by Shannon, whose book, Desperados, is quoted six times. Thanks to Lupsha’s contributions, the notion of the Guadalajara Cartel gained the credibility it needed to be freely discussed within academic forums and journals.
In Mexico, the process was more or less clear and direct: it was a group of Mexican journalists who, based on Shannon’s book and articles published in US newspapers or magazines, began to use the notion of the Guadalajara Cartel. It was only in 1992 when it began to be used more frequently as a result of Mexican media outlets following the trials held in California of those accused of murdering Camarena. In 1993, as part of the media coverage of the assassination of the Mexican cardinal and bishop of Guadalajara, Juan Posadas Ocampo, at least five different newspapers began to use the terms Guadalajara Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and Juárez Cartel (Cartel de Guadalajara, Cartel de Sinaloa and Cartel de Juárez).
Within the official discourse of the Mexican State, i.e., statements made by government officials, no reference is made regarding the existence of the Guadalajara Cartel. This comes as no surprise: its use would have given rise to the supposition that, although only indirectly, there was an acceptance of the US discourse. It was not until 1994 when the annual reports published by the PGR (General Attorney’s Office) began to mention cartels.
Counterintuitively, our research found that the first mention of the idea of a drug cartel operating in Mexico was not made about the Guadalajara Cartel, but rather about the alleged Juárez Cartel. This reference dates back to 1992 in a court ruling made by a district judge in Hermosillo.[note]Rafael Medina Cruz, “Discovery of ‘major bribes made to authorities'” (“Se Descubren ‘Fuertes Sobornos a Autoridades’”),Excélsior, September 22, 1992.[/note]
This discovery is not a minor one: unlike what happened with the notion of the Guadalajara Cartel, which was clearly coined in the United States, the notion of the Juárez Cartel appears to originate in Mexico.[note]Pannell, “‘Cartels’ in Mexico: The Origins of a Categorization”, 2020.[/note] The examination and analysis of this event and how the term ended up within the Mexican justice system is, however, the topic for another article.
This goal of this research is not to trivialize the drug market in Mexico: in fact, the opposite is true. Nor does it refute that, at specific times in the country’s contemporary history, drug trafficking has been underpinned by structures with high degrees of hierarchization and centralization.
Having said that, this article presents the thesis that the use of the concept of cartels, at least when referring to the organization allegedly spearheaded by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo in the 1980’s, is, at the very least, inaccurate. Furthermore, it presents at least two other findings. On the one hand, that the Guadalajara Cartel is a concept that originated in the United States, was disseminated by a journalist with close ties to the DEA and took a long time to gain traction in Mexico.
For its dissemination, it was of fundamental importance that an American academic picked up on it and for a journalist to publish a book that was widely read in Mexico. On the other hand, that the notion of the Guadalajara Cartel was used to a very limited or non-existent extent during the alleged existence of the organization. This, despite that fact that the concept already existed – from at least 1977— relating to drug trafficking in Mexico and, later, to describe Colombian organizations.
Our research focuses on opening up a new avenue of investigation regarding the role of language in the development of anti-drug trafficking policies in Mexico and the United States. The concept of cartels is just one of many that have worsened the securitization of the war on drugs in Latin America. There are many more aspects whose origins, use, dissemination and abuse can and must be traced back in order to understand who wins and who loses the war on drugs.