The Most Powerful Drug Cartels in the World

The Most Powerful Drug Cartels in the World

It’s not great to think about, but the drug trade is big business, and folks worldwide are making a major profit over the addiction and misfortune of others. While many are concerned about individual drug dealers and the harm they can do to the community, they’re really just a cog in the machine of the major cartels. There have been many significant gang organizations over the years, and many of them are quite notorious. Today we’re going to talk about the most powerful drug cartels.

Drug cartels have been around forever. Some cartels, including some on this list, have been around since 1915. Drug cartels do not discriminate. They can start in any part of the world, from Mexico to Russia to the United States. Some of the cartels on this list single-handedly made drugs as common as they are today. You may recognize some of the cartels on this list, such as the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas Cartel. Some powerful but lesser-known cartels, like the Beltran Leyva Cartel, no longer exist. But make no mistake, they caused enough chaos to fill a book. You’ll see a lot of bad behavior on this list, and the leaders of these gangs should not be mimicked.

To find the most powerful drug cartels, 24/7 Tempo reviewed many authoritative sources, including the United States Department of Justice, DEA.gov, and the Council on Foreign Relations, among others. We also sifted through news organization sources, from the BBC to NPR. We believe we’ve created a list of the strongest cartels of the past and present, and we hope you learn something from it. If you need to know more about the dangers of narcotics, check out our list of the jobs with the most drug overdose deaths.

Ndrangheta Cartel

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  • Location: Italy, Australia, and Canada
  • Years Active: 1960 to Present

One of the most powerful drug cartels on this list is also one of the oldest. Since 1960, the Ndrangheta organization has grown and includes many clans that participate in a plethora of bad deeds, including drug, sex, and arms trafficking. They also commit loan sharking, racketeering, money laundering, and more. The group is so powerful that they’re capable of influencing elections and the economy. The organization makes a lot of money through its efforts. They made over 50 billion rupees in 2013 alone, and that’s what we know about. The group only recruits members who are blood relatives.

Guadalajara Cartel

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  • Location: Mexico, Tijuana, and others
  • Years Active: 1980-1989

For many years, the Guadalajara Cartel was one of the strongest in the world. Its mission was to ship cocaine and marijuana from Mexico to the United States. This was also one of the first cartels to work with the Colombian cocaine mafias to expand their reach. During the 1980s, Guadalajara was considered one of the most powerful drug cartels, and they brought a lot of dangerous drugs across the U.S border. The main cartel eventually lost a lot of its power when the founding members were jailed, but there are still some factions that exist.  

Gulf Cartel

Source: Courtesy of FBI Multimedia

  • Location: Mexico
  • Years Active: 1930s to Present

Undoubtedly, one of the most powerful drug cartels in history, the Gulf Cartel is considered to be the oldest in Mexico as it’s still going strong after its start in the 1930s. Their network is so large that it’s believed that they have dealings worldwide in Asia, West Africa, the United States, and more. In addition to the spread of drugs, the cartel also specializes in extortion, kidnapping, and assassinations. During the 1980s, they escalated their operations and spread marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines around the globe. The gang has also been involved in human trafficking and runs a prostitution network.  

La Familia Michoacana Cartel

Aerial photos of the historic center of Tlalpujahua, Michoacan, Mexico, as well as its main church
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  • Location: Mexican state of Michoacán
  • Years Active: 1980s to Present

Next on our list of the most powerful drug cartels is La Familia, which is known for the production and distribution of methamphetamine in laboratories within Michoacan. The cartel was founded by Carlos Rosales Mendoza. They used to be allied with the Gulf Cartel but split in 2006. The cartel was later run by Nazario Moreno González. He carried a bible of his own sayings and thought it was his right to eliminate enemies. In addition to spreading drugs, the group’s also famous for its violent torture of rivals. The mix of drugs and religion sets this cartel apart.

Jalisco New Generation Cartel

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  • Location: Mexico
  • Years Active: 2009 to Present

This generational cartel is an organized crime syndicate that’s based out of Jalisco in Mexico. The group began after splitting off from the Milenio Cartel, and within six months, they expanded their reach from coast to coast. The group grew quickly, and in 2018, it was believed that they had over 100 methamphetamine labs across Mexico. In addition to the spread of drugs, the cartel also commits kidnappings, murder, and other violence. The cartel also makes use of technology, especially drones, and they’ve used rocket-propelled grenades to fight off enemies. Their membership is suspected to be upwards of 20,000.

Los Zetas Cartel

Source: Courtesy of FBI

  • Location: Mexico
  • Years Active: 1997 to Present

This dangerous cartel is extremely dangerous and violent. At one point, they were Mexico’s largest cartel. Though their influence has died down a bit, they are still very strong. In addition to spreading drugs throughout the world, they also engage in gun and sex rackets. Fear is one of the main reasons this cartel is so powerful. They’re known for shock and awe tactics that include torture and public beheadings. They’ve also been involved in many major attacks, including a 2010 massacre in San Fernando, Mexico, which left 72 people dead, and an attack in 2011 that killed 193. 

Abergil Family Cartel

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  • Location: Israel and the United States
  • Years Active: 1990s to Present

The Abergil Organization has been around for a long time, and they engage in drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering, and more. This is a scary group that has a reputation for violence and will not hesitate to murder someone in their way. They primarily work out of Israel, but they also operate in the United States. The group was founded by brothers Avi and Yaakov Abergil, who have since been arrested. However, the group is still active, and they are considered to be one of the top 40 drug importers to America. 

Medellin Cartel

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  • Location: Colombia
  • Years Active: 1976–1993

Though they’re mostly nonexistent today, the Medellin Cartel was one of the most powerful drug cartels. At their height, their membership was at 100,000 and over 750,000 employees. The leader was the infamous Pablo Escobar. During the height of their power, they were smuggling three times as much cocaine as their largest competitor. Escobar worked with other cartels to gain power. For seven years, he was on the Forbes’ Billionaires list. He had so much money that his home had a zoo, and he ate off of solid gold dinner sets. Escobar was captured and killed in 1993.

Solntsevskaya Bratva Cartel

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  • Location: Russia
  • Years Active: 1980s to Present

This cartel and gang was started by former waiter and fraudster Sergei Mikhailov, who then recruited unemployed and violent men as foot soldiers. Though they are a powerful drug cartel, they also deal in many other crimes, from illegal gambling and money laundering to fraud and murder. Their efforts have made them rich as their worth was over $8 billion as of 2014. They work with gangs all over the world, including being a major player in the heroin trade with criminals in Afghanistan. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Solntsevskaya Bratva is the world’s wealthiest drug cartel.  

Beltran Leyva Cartel

Source: Courtesy of FBI

  • Location: Mexico and the United States
  • Years Active: 1996-2017

This is another powerful drug cartel that’s mostly gone, but they made their name known during their many years in power. The group produced mass amounts of marijuana and heroin and transported those drugs and cocaine around the world. Like many other cartels, they also engaged in kidnapping, extortion, gun-running, and murder. This drug cartel was so powerful that they infiltrated the ranks of several Mexican government agencies. The group started to see its end after its last known leader, Héctor Beltrán Leyva, was captured in 2014 after a multimillion-dollar bounty was placed on his head.

Yamaguchi-Gumi Cartel 

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  • Location: Japan
  • Years Active: 1915 to Present

The Sixth Yamaguchi-gumi is considered to be Japan’s largest yakuza (violent group) organization and one of the largest criminal organizations in the world. Even as of 2022, there are over 3,800 active members. The gang is involved in major drug trafficking, in addition to gambling, gun trafficking, extortion, and construction and real estate kickback schemes. The difference between this organization and the rest of the most powerful drug cartels is that they sometimes do good for the community. After an earthquake in 1995, the cartel started a relief fund for the victims. They even write their own newsletter. 

Cali Cartel

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  • Location: Colombia
  • Years Active: 1977–1996

For many years, the Cali Cartel was one of the top cartels. It was founded by men who broke away from Pablo Escobar to start their own group. From 1993-1995, this group had control over 80% of the cocaine in the world and was said to be responsible for the rise of cocaine in Europe. The group was bringing in billions of dollars per year at the height of their reign. At one point, the group also had ties to criminals in Russia, and they trafficked much of their cocaine through South America and their heroin through Asia. 

Juarez Cartel

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  • Location: Mexico
  • Years Active: 1970 to Present

Also known as the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization, this powerful cartel is based out of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, which is on the border right across from El Paso, Texas. The cartel spreads its drugs around Mexico and the United States, including in Texas, Arizona, and Oklahoma. They are a dominant player that’s responsible for much of the cocaine that enters America. The Juarez Cartel is also very violent. They are known to decapitate their rivals and drop them off in public places. While the cartel has started to decline in recent years, they’re still very dangerous. 

Sinaloa Cartel

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  • Location: Mexico
  • Years Active: 1987 to Present

The Sinaloa Cartel, which also goes by the name of the Blood Alliance, is one of the most powerful drug cartels, and they have a long history of violence. Their drug portfolio includes heroin, methamphetamines, and cocaine. Although many of the leaders of the organization have been arrested over time, the cartel continues to be a threat. The US Intelligence community considers Sinaloa to be the largest cartel in the world. It still ranks as the most dangerous in Mexico. In addition to the drug business, they also engage in money laundering and are now in the fentanyl trade.

Tijuana Cartel


  • Location: Tijuana, Mexico
  • Years Active: 1987 to Present

This dangerous cartel operates out of Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. During the height of their organization, they were considered to be one of the most violent groups in the entire country. Over the last several years, they have lost a lot of their power, but they’re still not a group to underestimate. In addition to drug trafficking, the group has been responsible for many violent assaults, including a 1998 attack that resulted in the death of 18 people. The cartel is still active, and that’s why Tijuana made our list of the most dangerous cities in the world.

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