Sinaloa Cartel as international terror organization

By Antonio Graceffo

The Sinaloa drug cartel is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. It also uses violence and corruption to control police, courts, and politicians in Mexico. The cartel coordinates with criminal networks in China and Europe and with street gangs in the United States. Through its human trafficking operation, the cartel brings gang members, terrorists, drug dealers, and prostitutes into the United States. Sinaloa also cooperates with terrorist organizations from Columbia and Peru in order to smuggle cocaine into the United States. Given its transnational reach, the Sinaloa Cartel has been designated a transnational crime organization, while U.S. lawmakers argue that the cartels should be designated as a terrorist organization.

In 2022, a record of more than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, and the leading suppliers of drugs in the United States are Mexican drug cartels. In the past, they dealt primarily in cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, more recently, fentanyl has become a primary money-maker. The cartels use their drug money to bribe Mexican officials, including politicians and police. As a result, Mexico ranks 126th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’sCorruption Perceptions Index, indicating that it is extremely corrupt. The cartels also commit tens of thousands of violent homicides in Mexico each year.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment identified the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) as the greatest threats the United States. Other Mexican cartels operating within the U.S. are Beltran-Leyva Organization (BLO), Los Zetas and Cartel del Noreste (CDN), Guerreros Unidos (GU), Gulf Cartel, Juarez Cartel and La Linea, La Familia Michoacána (LFM), and Los Rojos.

This report will focus on the Sinaloa cartel which is the more power of the two and which has the largest international footprint of any Mexican Cartel.

History of the Sinaloa Cartel

The Sinaloa Cartel, established in the 1980s, is one of the oldest, ongoing and most powerful cartels in Mexico. Formerly led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Sinaloa operates in 15 of 32 Mexican states and as many as fifty countries. In 2017, Mexican authorities permitted the extradition of El Chapo to the United States, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment plus 30 years on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering, and firearms offenses. He is currently being held in at the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado, known as the “Supermax”.

Since El Chapo’s incarceration, the cartel has been run by Ismael Zambada García and El Chapo’s sons, “Los Chapitos.” Under new management, Sinaloa continues its reign as the most powerful cartel, controlling drug trafficking routs along the Pacific Coast in northwestern Mexico and near Mexico’s southern and northern borders. Maintaining distribution hubs within the United States allows the Sinaloa Cartel to earn more money than its rivals. These revenues are then used by the Cartel to hire more soldiers, purchase more arms, and bribe a more extensive network of officials. This economic and power expansion transforms the Cartel from a domestic, Mexican criminal gang into a transnational criminal organization threatening the sovereignty of Mexico, while posing a national security threat to the United States.

Organization and Logistics

Most of the heroin and methamphetamine that enters the U.S. is manufactured by the cartels. The cocaine, by contrast, is produced in Colombia then smuggled into the U.S. by Mexican cartels. Previously, the Colombian cartels controlled the cocaine trade, using the Mexican cartels as couriers, since 2007, however, the Mexican cartels have seized control of 90% of the cocaine industry. The Sinaloa Cartel is the largest seller of Fentanyl, which is manufactured in Mexico using precursor chemicals purchased from China. Between 2019 and 2020, the quantity of fentanyl seized by Mexican authorities has nearly quintupled. The Sinaloa Cartel works in cooperation with transnational gangs, including U.S.-based street gangs, and prison gangs. In order to sanitize their illicit profits, the Cartel cooperates with Asian money laundering organizations (MLOs).  The cartels smuggle the drugs over the border. Once inside, they are transported and distributed through cells which are managed or influenced by Mexican transnational crime organizations, in cooperation with local street gangs. The cells within the United States report directly or indirectly to leaders in Mexico.

The Sinaloa Cartel’s U.S. network is strong along the West Coast, in the Midwest, and in the Northeast. Some of those working for the Cartel within the United States may already have been living in the country for years. Often, they are found to have familial ties tracing back to Cartel in Mexico. After years of successful service in the United States, they may be offered a chance to return to Mexico and work for the Cartel there. For the purposes of operational security, cells frequently do not know the missions of other cells, neither would they be informed of the Cartel’s larger, strategic plans. The U.S. cells primarily do distribution, only, while manufacturing is done in Mexico. Distribution is also done by domestic street gangs, while transportation may be handled by third-party, independent contractors who sometimes work for multiple cartels.

The actual smuggling is done in polydrug loads, via commercial and private vehicles, with false compartments, or mingled with legitimate cargo on tractor trailers. The Cartels also use passenger trains and buses as well as maritime vessels. Backpackers and couriers carry drugs across the South West Border. Aerial vehicles such as gliders and drones are used to conduct airdrops on the U.S. side of the border.  Drugs are also brought into the U.S through underground tunnels which begin in safe houses in Mexico and emerge somewhere within the borders of the United States. Major highways are then used to transport the drugs throughout the U.S.

The Cartel’s U.S. earnings are laundered in several ways. Small vehicles, aircraft, and couriers are used to transport cash across the border. The money may also be wired to shell companies, as well as legitimate business accounts, as well as funnel. Cryptocurrency is another way the cartels have of moving money out of the United States. Finally, Chinese criminal gangs aid in money laundering operations.

Effect on the host state

During the seven decades that Mexico was ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) (1929-2000), the cartels rose to power. The centralized political structure allowed the cartels to use their vast income to build an extensive network of corrupt officials who granted distribution rights, market access, and protection. During the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006–2012), the country wages a war on drugs which dramatically increased the violence. During his term in office, tens of thousands of military personnel were deployed to supplement or even replace local police forces which were believed to be heavily corrupt. Twenty-five of the top thirty-seven drug kingpins in Mexico were killed or captured with the aid of U.S. authorities.

Critics of Calderón’s aggressive policy claim that by eliminating the heads of large organizations, he enabled the rise of multiple, smaller organization. Another concern is that the military is generally not a good way to do policing. In the case of Mexico, perhaps even more so, as the military lacks the training and compassion necessary to carry out law enforcement activities. During Calderon’s terms of office, the country experienced 120,000 homicides, which was roughly double as many as during his predecessor’s term.

The Sinaloa Cartel bribes judges, politicians, as well as officers of the police and military. In addition to financial incentives, Sinaloa utilized violence or threats of violence to control official, forcing them into being accomplices in the assassinations of journalists and public servants. Ahead of Mexico’s midterm elections, in 2021, dozens of politicians were killed.

The presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012–2018) saw a shift in policy, taking a softer approach to combating the cartels. In the short run, there was a decrease in the number of murders. But eventually, murders levels had increased. Another issue in the crime statistics is that disappearances, which increased dramatically were no longer counted as murders. Since 2006, there have been 79,000 disappearances, which should rightly be counted as murders, meaning that the actual number of murders should be higher than the reported figure.

Since Mexico launched a war on the cartels in 2006, the United States has provided the government with billions of dollars in security aid. And yet, during the same time period, the cartels have been responsible for than 360,000.

The Cartels are extremely violent within Mexico, but generally try to avoid killing people within the United States. However, Cartel murders in the U.S. have been increasing. Andrés Manuel López Obrador the current president, elected in 2018, adopted the “hugs not bullets” approach, which has been a complete failure.

In response to the violence, enabled through corruption, citizens have, at times, taken the law into their own hands, forming vigilante groups known as autodefensas. While these groups are meant to combat the cartels, in practice, they have been accused of many of the same human rights abuses and even of drug related offences and of maintaining close ties to the cartels.

Beginning with the Bush administration, the U.S, has provided the Mexican government with billions of dollars to fight the war on drugs. The Trump administration shifted the U.S. focus toward increasing border security and combating money laundering. In 2020, General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, a former Mexican defense minister, was apprehended by U.S. authorities in Los Angeles on charges related to drug trafficking and money laundering. In 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden imposed sanctions on eight members of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Cartels as Terrorist Organizations

In March of this year, after four Americans were kidnapped and two killed by the Gulf Cartel in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, U.S. lawmakers reintroduced a bill to classify the cartels as international terrorist organizations. Among the cartels specifically named in the proposed legislation were Reynosa/Los Metros faction of the Gulf Cartel, The Cartel Del Noreste faction of Los Zetas, and The Jalisco New Generation Cartel. The transnational reach of cartels, particularly Sinaloa is greater than that of many international terrorist organizations. The Sinaloa Cartel. Sinaloa Cartel operates from Buenos Aires to New York and across the globe, all of the way to Europe. Cartels have set up drug manufacturing labs in Scandinavia and have established cooperation with triads, to penetrate the Asian drug market. The Sinaloa Cartel has even penetrated drug markets in Middle East, working through Turkish drug groups and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Designating a group as a terrorist organization would have certain legal benefits in the U.S. It would make it easier to prosecute cartel members or those who provide material support to the cartels. The material support statute has been broadly interpreted within the U.S. legal system, empowering the government bring sanctions against individuals or to freeze assets or seize vehicles and other property used in the aid of terrorism.  The designation also allows the government to bar entry to persons so designated and to deport those already inside of the country.

There is no specific, universally accepted definition of terrorism. Various jurisdictions, countries, law enforcements and military organizations all have their own definitions. The most widely accepted definition, however, is the academic consensus definition of terrorism which defines terrorism as the use of violence or threat of violence in order to bring about changes, usually political or religious. Under such definition, groups motivated entirely by profit would not be considered terrorist. However, terrorist organizations need funding and often use crime as a way of supporting their nefarious activities. The IRA and Spain’s ETA both kidnapped and extorted business people, while the German Red Brigades and the Italian Red Army Faction engaged in bank robberies. All of these organizations were allegedly motivated by political aims, rather than profit. In the case of the cartels, profit is the clear motivation for the exitance of the groups. But the cartels use violence and threats of violence to influence public policy, legislation, and the judiciary. Consequently, it could be argued that the cartels act as terrorist organizations.

Rather than helping, opponents argue that designating cartels as terrorist organizations could make the situation worse. The U.S. may use missiles or other military strikes inside of Mexico, causing civilian deaths and increasing the overall level of violence. Currently, the cartels are largely carful not to kill Americans. If the U.S. stepped up aggression against the cartels, this prohibition on hurting Americans could be revoked, endangering the lives of the 1 million Americans working and living in Mexico. Cross-border attacks into the U.S. could also increase in frequency.

An increase in aggression between the U.S. and the cartels could also jeopardize American manufacturing in Mexico. Bilateral trade between the two nations is valued at nearly $800 billion and accounts for millions of jobs on both sides of the border. If these jobs went away, there would be an increase in the number of migrants trying to enter the United States.


The Sinaloa Cartel is one of the richest, most powerful, and most international of the Mexican drug cartels. It uses its vast profits to purchase weapons, hire soldiers, and make payoffs to public officials in Mexico. The cartels also use extreme acts of violence to suppress the civilian population. As a result, Mexico has very high rates of corruption and of homicide. The Sinaloa Cartel can be called a transnational criminal organization (TCO) because it is based in Mexico, purchases chemicals from China, and sells drugs in the U.S. through a network of gangs and supporting and affiliated persons and organizations. The cartel also cooperates with terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, in order to sell drugs in the Middle East. The corruption and violence in Mexico is destabilizing the country, while drug overdose deaths are killing Americans.

Some U.S. lawmakers want to designate the cartels as international terrorist organizations. Opponents of this legislation claim that this designation would amplify the U.S. response to the cartels, including military strikes inside of Mexico, which could result in an unintended increase in overall violence and the loss of American lives. On the other hand, designating the cartels as international terrorist organizations would make it easier for the U.S. government to seize cartel assets, arrest and sanction persons and organizations within their distribution network, and to deport and bar anyone associated with the cartels.

Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia.

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Foreign Policy News

Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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