Inside Mexico’s ultra-violent Gulf Cartel, linked to kidnapping of Americans
When four Americans were kidnapped in the Mexican hot zone of Matamoros, on the border of Brownsville, Texas, last Friday — with two of them ending up dead — it was, apparently, ultra-violence business as usual for the area where the Gulf Cartel and its rival Zetas often engage in bloody battle.
The Gulf Cartel, which has controlled the area since the 1930s, is suspected of being involved in the deadly incident.
“They live off of extortion, kidnapping and protection money,” Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, author of “Los Zetas Inc: Criminal Corporations, Energy and Civil War in Mexico,” told The Post of the group. “They used to be primarily a drug organization. Now they control a number of other activities.”
Those activities include brutal crimes, as the Gulf Cartel will seemingly go to any length to turn an illicit profit.
“They are still involved in drug trafficking,” Robert Almonte, retired deputy chief of the El Paso Police department and former United States Marshall, told The Post. “But they are more involved in kidnapping and extortion, and they use deadly force when people don’t pay.”
Then there is the group’s “protection” hustle.
“Effectively, every business in the northern border cities has to pay in order to run their businesses,” Benjamin Smith, professor of Latin American history at University of Warwick and author of “The Dope: The Real History of the Drug Trade,” told The Post. “If they do not pay, their businesses are attacked. If they still don’t pay, they are murdered. This used to be the job of the police. Now it is the job of organizations such as Gulf Cartel.”
Added Almonte: “They control the region through intimidation. People get killed if they don’t do what they are told — and the killers don’t lose sleep over it.”
As to why Gulf Cartel changed their money-making ways from drugs to kidnapping and extortion, Almonte — who now trains law enforcement officers on the Mexican cartels — explained that it is a matter of efficiency.
“It is guaranteed money every day,” he said. “When you transport drugs, you don’t get your money until the drugs cross over into the United States.”
And violence is second nature for the cartel’s members, who learned their techniques from professionals: rogue members of the Mexican military.
During the late 1990s, when Gulf drug don Osiel Cárdenas Guillén — a former mechanic who rose up the food chain by taking out a powerful Gulf rival — was running the illegal activity in Matamoros, Mexico’s special forces were sent in to take down the cartel.
But the plan backfired.
“Cárdenas Guillén admired the highly trained military personnel; so he recruited them [in 1997],” said Almonte. “They deserted the military, were named the Zetas, and the Gulf Cartel became militarized.”
As the new enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas helped the group to beef up its extortion and protection footprint.
But, following a disagreement with Cárdenas Guillén, the Zetas broke away and formed their own cartel in 2010. The two groups, according to Almonte, became sworn enemies.
Nonetheless, even without its enforcers, the Gulf Cartel became even more gruesomely effective at perpetrating violence.
Around 2019, according to Almonte, the Gulf allied with Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which also does business in Matamoros.
“CJNG is the most violent cartel,” said Almonte. “There is no doubt that Gulf Cartel has learned about torture from CJNG. That would include cutting out a person’s heart when they are alive and eating the heart.”
Heading up the current iteration of the Gulf Cartel is Jose Alfredo Cárdenas-Martinez, nicknamed El Contador, who was once reportedly the group’s accountant.
“He is in jail in Mexico, pending extradition to the United States,” said Almonte. “But there is no doubt in my mind that he is running the group from jail. With him in jail, there is no one true leader on the outside right now.”
Cárdenas-Martinez is the nephew of ’90s cartel big Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, who was once one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives before being captured in a shootout with the Mexican military in 2003 and extradited to the US. Now serving time at a maximum-security prison in Indiana for money laundering, drug trafficking and threatening US Federal Agents, he is due for release in August 2024.
Other high-ranking figures in the Gulf Cartel typically don’t live long enough to get extradited.
Two years ago, Ariel “El Tigre” Trevino Pena died in a hail of bullets after a high-speed car chase and shootout with state police and military.
For now, though, according to Almonte, “The lifestyle for Cárdenas-Martinez was lavish. He had a nice house, women, expensive jewelry. The cartel leaders expect that they will not lead long lives. So they enjoy it while they can. Then they get buried in mausoleums that cost $1 million.”
Despite the fact the Gulf Cartel ranks as the oldest cartel in Mexico, running such an enterprise is complicated.
It launched in the 1930s and exploited prohibition, earning big bucks by smuggling contraband liquor into the United States. Over the decades, marijuana and cocaine followed.
Then person-to-person crimes became the cartel’s financial engine.
In November 2021, hand-printed signs appeared in a Tulum marketplace the day after two tourists were shot dead and three others wounded at an eatery in the bohemian Mexican resort town, apparently in cartel crossfire.
“Attention merchants of Tulum … this was a warning,” said the sign, which went on to threaten “managers and owners” of bars and restaurants on the “Mini Quinta” tourist zone.
The message threatened death to merchants who refuse to fork over bribes to the drug-trafficking gangs and was signed by Los Pelones — “the bald ones” — a gang that is an enforcer for the Gulf Cartel.
Though the cartel is now broken up into several different splinter gangs, operating under monikers such as Escorpiones and Ciclones, Smith said those “probably have to kick back to [Cárdenas-Martinez] or else they get in trouble.”
As to why the kidnapping of Americans even happened, sources interviewed for this story agree that it was likely a case of mistaken identity. As Correa-Cabrera put it, “They would not normally go after Americans. What happened is not rational. It’s weird that the usually silent Gulf Cartel would bring attention to itself.”
Smith agreed, and has a deeper theory as well: “Gulf Cartel has some police officers on their payroll. They protect the cartel. When those poor Americans were shot and killed, it happened in broad daylight,” he said. “The assassins were not concerned about the police showing up. They knew it wouldn’t happen. My belief is that the police knew they would be in that area. They were told to stay away. They protect the cartel by staying away.”
The crime has received lots of attention in the US and led to the arrest of Jose Guadalupe N., a 24-year-old Mexican national who was guarding the shack where the Americans were held captive.
Still, Almonte doesn’t expect that will change things.
“I don’t see the Gulf Cartel going away and I don’t see things changing in the region,” he said. “Right now the Gulf Cartel calls the shots in Matamoros. Not until the corruption is diminished will it change.”
But, Almonte added, it likely changed, fast, for the folks behind the job.
“The people who screwed up the kidnapping? My guess is that they are dead. For the job they were doing, it’s the biggest mistake they could have made.”