A Department of Homeland Security Emeritus Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

Tracking Cartels Infographic Series: Major Cartel Operational Zones in Mexico


Tracking Cartels Infographic Series: Major Cartel Operational Zones in Mexico

START has released a series of infographics from its Tracking Cartels Project. You can find more information and other infographics from the series here.

Key Discussion Points in this Brief:

  • Major cartel fragmentation has led to increasingly adaptable, agile, and competitively violent criminal organizations.
  • The geographical expansion of cartels has led to greater territorial contestation over drug plazas, trafficking routes, and illicit markets.
  • Seeking greater profit, cartels are diversifying and increasing in criminal density through criminal activities like extortion, kidnapping, and money laundering.

Animation of Narcotics Trafficking Flows and Operational Zones in Mexico

Results and Discussion

The increase and spread of cartel violence and activity in Mexico is indicative of three dynamic changes.

First, older major cartels have fragmented which has led to increasingly adaptable, more agile, and competitively violent criminal organizations. As new criminal organizations and cartels, like the infamous Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco New Generation Cartel [CJNG]), grow and consolidate power, they are increasingly competing for established drug plazas (growing spaces and trafficking routes) and creating new drug plazas.

Second, and relatedly, cartel fragmentation has created the circumstances for the geographical expansion of cartels, which has led to greater territorial contestation over drug plazas. Territorial control of drug plazas is essential for the two primary goals of cartels: perpetuation and profit. As a greater number of cartels and criminal organizations compete for territory, violent inter- and intra-cartel conflict and conflict with the Mexican state continue to intensify.

Third, cartels are diversifying and increasing in criminal density which connects everyday Mexican people to cartel violence and activity at even greater levels than before. Mexican cartels expanding and seeking greater profit turn to other criminal activities like extortion, kidnapping, money laundering, and fuel theft, to fill their billion dollar coffers.

While violent homicides continue to rise to record numbers and the brutality of cartel activities -- including homicide, kidnapping, theft, and extortion -- increases, the quantity of narcotics smuggled into the U.S. remains stable. In fact, it is now estimated that 90 percent of the illicit drugs entering the United States pass through Mexico (and the Central American Isthmus) with little signs of slowing.

As such, tracking cartels' violent and non-violent activities provides a better understanding of the spaces of violence and instability they create. This produces increased situational awareness across Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries. Specifically, combining various open-sources of data yields higher fidelity data collection and location intelligence that strengthens planning and operations.

Download the Brief

You can download a PDF of the graphic and brief here.

About the Project

Currently, the Geospatial Research Unit (GRU) at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) is leading a joint research project with partnering DHS Centers of Excellence, the Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis Center (CINA) and the Center for Acceleration Operational Efficiency (CAOE), to develop a multi-pronged approach to triangulate open source information about transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), including major Cartels and gangs (e.g. MS-13), operating in Mexico and the Northern Triangle. The purpose is to use open-source information to build a holistic and accurate understanding of TCOs’ activities in Mexico and the Northern Triangle for analyses and operational decision-making. The effort is a Joint Centers of Excellence project supported by the DHS Office of University Programs.

Research Team

Marcus A. Boyd (Overall PI, START), Samuel Henkin (Co-PI, START), Jingrui He (PI, CAOE), Ross Maciejewski (Co-PI, CAOE), Arie Croitoru (PI, CINA), Andrew Crooks (Co-PI, CINA)

Author: Samuel Henkin (henkinsd@umd.edu)

Map by: Amanda Lopez