The Gulf Cartel is an organized crime syndicate based in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Founded in the 1930's, it is amongst the oldest crime groups in the country. Originally focused on alcohol smuggling during Prohibition, it switched to other criminal activities after the 21st Amendment passed, and started selling cocaine from Colombia in 1984. This allowed it to grow, and would be the root of drug violence in Mexico as other drug trafficking organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel and Juárez Cartel fought it for control of smuggling routes. In the 1990s it recruited 30 Mexican airborne special forces personnel, who became Los Zetas. In 2010 the Zetas split, and later that decade, the Gulf Cartel itself split into factions known as the Metros and the Rojos.
The Gulf Cartel’s origins can be traced to 1984, when Juan Garcia Abrego assumed control of his uncle’s drug trafficking business, then a relatively small-time marijuana and heroin operation. Garcia Abrego brokered a deal with the Cali Cartel, the Colombian mega-structure that was looking for new entry routes into the US market after facing a clampdown on their Caribbean routes by US law enforcement. It was an agreement that, from the business side, proved irresistible both for the Cali Cartel’s leaders, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, and for the Mexicans: Garcia Abrego would handle cocaine shipments via the Mexican border, taking on all the risks, as well as much as 50 percent of the profits.
When Garcia Abrego was arrested and deported to the United States in January 1996, the Gulf Cartel was reportedly pulling in billions in revenues each year, cash that had to be smuggled back across the border in suitcases, jets and through underground tunnels. This drug trafficking organization built a wide-reaching delivery network across the United States, from Houston to Atlanta, New York to Los Angeles, but its influence was most acutely seen in its imitators. Other kingpins, like the head of the Juárez Cartel Amado Carillo Fuentes, alias “El Señor de los Cielos,” (Lord of the Skies), quickly followed in Garcia Abrego’s footsteps and began demanding more control over distribution from their Colombian partners instead of settling for a share in the transportation fees. As a result, by the end of the 1990s Mexican traffickers had built a series of cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin networks that rivaled Cali in size, sophistication and profit. And, by buying out government aides, ministers, the federal police force and even the Attorney General’s Office, the Gulf Cartel was soon rivaling Cali in terms of political corruption.
But it took Garcia Abrego’s heir, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, to develop the Gulf Cartel’s military wing in ways never envisioned either in Cali or in Medellin. Cardenas recruited at least 31 former soldiers of Mexico’s Special Forces to act as security enforcers, for at least three times their previous pay. They were expert sharpshooters, were trained in weapons inaccessible to most of their drug-trafficking rivals, capable of rapid deployment operations in almost any environment, and they matched perfectly Cardenas’ more brutal, confrontational leadership style. Cardenas was arrested in 2003, after the US Department of State placed a $2 million reward on his head. But his former protection unit, which soon began operating as an independent group known as Los Zetas, is perhaps this group’s bloodiest and most influential legacy in Mexico’s drug war.
Today, the Gulf Cartel has managed to stick around despite deep internal divisions and ongoing offensives from competing criminal groups to move in on territory under the group’s control in northern Mexico and along the US-Mexico border.