Follow TV Tropes


The Cartel

Go To
The Gentlemen of Cali.
The Mafia... BUT HISPANIC!

In the underworld, there are several factions, usually based on location and ethnicity. The cartel is an umbrella term for many mafia-like groups based in Latin America. In real life, these cartels are behind trafficking cocaine, and occasionally arming and supporting various armed groups, both revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. Cocaine supplied to the US is refined to crack and sold by Gangbangers. Sometimes, they will even engage in Human Trafficking, especially when they are the ones smuggling people into the United States.

One of the most infamous cartels was the Medellin cartel, and its leader Pablo Escobar, who ran most of the cocaine trade in the Americas during the '80s and '90s until he was taken down by the Colombian Search Bloc with the assistance of the United States. Escobar's power and reach was so big during his heyday that he was (and still is) referred to as the "world's greatest outlaw." Additionally, the financial magazine Forbes described him as the "world's richest criminal." Even today, when most people think of Colombia, they think "Cocaine Land" (or should we say, ''País de la Cocaína?" Because "cocaína" is a really common word when discussing these people).

The cartel was a popular villain in fiction during The '80s and The '90s, when the drug trade made the headlines big time. It made a comeback in the 2010s with the Mexican drug war, which saw the rise of a new breed of brutal cartels that became infamous for their graphic executions and use of propaganda to recruit new foot soldiers and scare their enemies, so expect to see these guys as popular antagonists for the foreseeable future.

For their adversaries and affiliates, see The Mafia, The Mafiya, Kosher Nostra, Yakuza, The Triads and the Tongs, and Gangbangers. See also The Syndicate. Usually the Ruthless Foreign Gangsters in works set during the 80's, and occasionally engaged in a Mob War with another organized crime group.

Not to be confused with literal cartels in the sense of small groups of large companies conspiring to manipulate the market, though that's the source for their name, since each group tries to corner the drug market by violence.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Black Lagoon has a Colombian drug cartel as one of the four criminal organisations in Roanapur, who were the focus of one Story Arc. Just to give you an idea of how insanely dangerous Roanapur is, they are depicted as the least threatening faction (even the Italians are more ruthless).
    • Although it has to be noted that the most dangerous individual in this universe also works for a Cartel - but this Cartel is benign compared to everyone else, as long as you do not threaten its heir.
  • Teekyuu has a festival hosted by the "Mexican mafia". Said "mafia" ends up having a shootout with the local yakuza after a fireworks show.

    Comic Books 
  • The Punisher: While Frank was taking a vacation in the pages of The Punisher War Journal, he ran afoul of a Peruvian crime lord who became his prime target after an terror attack on a judge that left several innocent bystanders dead.
  • The Killer: The protagonist's employers in several albums are members of a Colombian narco-cartel, who thinks he still owes them a favor after botching a previous hit in Paris (he did kill the intended target, but only after gunning down several other people).

    Fan Fiction 

  • Scarface (1983) involves Cuban-born Miami drug lord Tony Montana participating in a cocaine trafficking operation run by the Bolivian mobster Alejandro Sosa. Eventually though Tony runs afoul of Sosa, which leads to Sosa sending out dozens of his henchmen to attack Tony's mansion in the film's ending.
  • The plot of No Country for Old Men is kicked off when a local Texas man named Llelwyn Moss finds a bag of money next to several dead or dying Mexican cartel members in an apparent drug deal gone wrong. It's later revealed that they worked for real-life drug kingpin Pablo Acosta's Juarez cartel; Acosta then hires the hitman Anton Chigurh to kill Moss and get the money back. Chigurh kills his handler and later three other cartel members to take the prize himself, and it becomes a three-way hunt for the money. Ultimately, cartel hitmen end up killing Moss offscreen (at the cost of two of their own dying in the process); while Chigurh escapes with most of the cash (though, given his injuries and the ongoing manhunt, he's probably not going to get far). While no one in this story gets a happy ending at all, the Juarez cartel gets particularly screwed over, having lost over a dozen members and millions of dollars during the events of the film.
  • Blow is about a white American dealer who deals with the cartels, including Pablo Escobar.
  • Robert Rodriguez's Mariachi trilogy pits the protagonist against the Cartels.
  • The cocaine business of Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) in Licence to Kill is described as an "invisible empire from Chile to Alaska". James Bond has no governmental reason to be involved since Sanchez has no apparent part in the ongoing Cold War (rather it's the Hong-Kong Narcotics who handle it, and Bond precisely runs afoul of their operation), it's just that Sanchez made it personal by having Bond's Best Friend Felix Leiter maimed by sharks and Leiter's newlywed wife raped and killed. A Roaring Rampage of Revenge against Sanchez's cartel ensues, and by the end the cartel is completely wiped out.
  • xXx: Xander and two other potential recruits for the CIA are flown to Colombia and dropped off in narco territory as a test to see which of them would be badass enough to survive. Just as they're about to become victims to a Torture Technician, the Colombian army swoops in to dismantle the farm.
  • Traffic (2000) features a Mexican cartel as the antagonist.
  • Clear and Present Danger, with Ernesto Escobedo, a Colombian cartel leader who had a close friend of the US President murdered for cheating him on his money laundering.
  • In Act of Valor, the terrorist Big Bad is being aided by a Ukrainian crime lord who controls a drug-running cartel stretching from Central America to Mexico. The SEAL team first has to rescue a CIA agent being tortured by the cartel in Central America before tracking their operations across the globe and raiding the Ukrainian leader's boat. The final battle is between the combined US Navy SEAL/Mexican SOF team and the cartel soldiers and terrorists, the former of whom are trying to smuggle the latter's suicide bombers into the United States.
  • In the 2000 remake Bedazzled, Elliot wishes to be "very very rich and very very powerful and married to Alison" (his crush). How does the Devil grant his wish? By making him a rich Colombian drug lord (a clear Expy of Escobar). Oh, and his wife is not only having an affair, she hates his guts. Well, he never said she had to love him.
  • Mexican drug cartels are among the antagonists in Machete.
  • Code of Silence: The Comachos are a Colombian drug syndicate involved in a Mob War with The Mafia.
  • Sicario is about an FBI Agent tagging along on a CIA operation to dismantle a Mexican cartel. She later discovers that the mysterious Alejandro is actually working for the new Medellin cartel, which is being backed by the US to stabilize the drug trade.
  • Triple Frontier: Five friends, all US military veterans, gather to rob a Colombian cartel from several hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cash in the Amazon rainforest.
  • The 2004 film Maria, Full of Grace features an unspecified Colombian cartel, which provides the title character with money and papers to travel to New York—provided that she takes a little something with her on the flight.
  • Salvation Boulevard: Guzman is portrayed as a religious version of this, claiming that they're in Mexico, with the guards in his house walking around with automatic weapons and speaking Spanish. In actuality, they're in a quiet suburban neighborhood and Guzman is in construction.
  • The Bisante Cartel in Fire Birds are a very militant drug cartel, complete with a pair of fighter jets and a mercenary pilot in an attack chopper.
  • These are the main antagonists of Crocodile Dundee II.
  • In Aces: Iron Eagle III, Kleiss runs a drug cartel in Peru.
  • Rambo: Last Blood has a powerful cartel led by a man named Don Miguel, whose stock in trade is not drugs but rather Human Trafficking, particularly selling off young women as sex slaves.
  • End of Watch: After uncovering a house in South Central with trafficked people inside, Taylor and Z lose the case to the feds. It turns out this was used by the Sinaloe Cartel, who order them murdered.
  • The main antagonists of Tigers Are Not Afraid are the Huascas, a brutal drug cartel seeking a phone with incriminating evidence.
  • Peppermint: Diego Garcia heads up the local branch of a powerful Latin American drug-trafficking syndicate in LA. They are the main antagonists as Riley, a woman whose family their thugs murdered, goes after them.
  • Deep Cover: Russell is tasked with infiltrating the fictional Gallegos Cartel, which is said to supply nearly 40% of the entire cocaine supply to the West Coast.
  • Snitch: John gets connected to a Mexican drug cartel that is responsible for cocain trafficking in the region, and does a deal with their local boss himself. They have far more reach than other gangs in the area, and power as well, making his undercover operation against them much riskier.

  • The Black Ice: Humberto Zorillo is head of a Mexican drug-smuggling operation sending black ice into the United States. Bosch eventually discovers that both the Jimmy Kapps drug mule murder and the murder of the Mexican in the alleyway tie in to Zorillo's operation and Cal Moore's death.
  • The Cartel focuses on the war against the cartels in Mexico. The main ones are: the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas, La Familia Michoacana and the Juarez Cartel.
  • Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy features the Medellin Cartel as the primary antagonists of the novel, in a conflict that escalates into something of an unofficial war between them and the United States.
  • Richard Morgan's Black Man prominently features a cartel comprised of Quechua-speaking indigenous Andeans.
  • The Fragility of Bodies: The main antagonists of the story are a cartel group in Buenos Aires that is behind the Game of Chicken competition that is getting children killed on train tracks. They also deal in all the crimes one comes to expect from cartels, such as drug trafficking, intimidation, blackmail, assassination, and kidnapping.
  • The Power Of The Dog and its sequel The Cartel, both written by Don Winslow, chart the growth of the Mexican drug trade from its infancy in the Sixties to the unbelievable carnage of the early-2000s. True crime fans will immediately notice that while all names and groups are fictional, almost all of them are either based on or inspired by actual criminals, cops, cartels, terrorist organizations, and events. Chief among the characters are DEA Agent Arturo "Art" Keller and his lifelong nemesis Adan Barrera. Winslow spent six years researching the Mexican underworld, on both sides of the border, to make the first novel as realistic as possible.
  • Pavlov's Dogs has one of these as one of the few bastions of civilization left After the End.
  • Victoria has a particularly horrible version, where the most extreme gangsters take over as warlords in post-apocalyptic Mexico and set up a cannibalistic Religion of Evil dedicated to the Aztec gods.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Season 3 of 24 prominently featured one run by Ramon and Hector Salazar, the main antagonists of the season's first half. As well as the usual drug smuggling, they're trying to diversify by planning to obtain a deadly virus.
  • Arachnicide: The secondary antagonists are a worldwide drug ring using genetic engineering to maximize crops.
  • Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul features a fictionalized version of the Juarez cartel from Mexico, who act as the main antagonists for the first three seasons of the former show (and also play a significant role in the latter show).
    • The New Mexico branch is initially headed by Tuco Salamanca; his cousins Leonel and Marco are highly lethal enforcers for the main operation. All three were raised by their uncle, Hector, the longtime right-hand man (until a stroke rendered him mute and paralyzed) of the head of the cartel, Don Eladio.
    • Unlike most other fictional drug cartels, their primary business is crystal meth (at least in the series context; it's mentioned they deal in cocaine and heroin offscreen as well, with cocaine still their primary export in the prequel until it's displaced by meth).
    • Their relationship with Gus Fring (and therefore Walter White) is... complicated. In Breaking Bad, they aren't as prominent in the plot as other antagonists, especially later on, but it's repeatedly noted that they have by far the most resources of any criminal group featured in the show. While they're still around in Season 4 of the show, Gus ends up supplanting them as a threat by fatally poisoning most of their leadership, which combined with a successful DEA crackdown, cripples their operations in New Mexico.
    • Better Call Saul gives them much more focus, with the other half of the show's plotline and tritagonist Ignacio "Nacho" Varga allowing the audience to view more of the organization's inner workings.
  • One of the subplots of The Bridge (US) involves a cartel operating out of Juarez and using a tunnel on the property of a recently-widowed woman to move their products into the United States. The second season reveals that the cartel is managed by the CIA to a certain extent, in order to control it
  • The Cartel—of various ethnic flavors—shows up fairly frequently on Burn Notice, in various roles: sometimes as the enemy, sometimes as the Man Behind the Man, and sometimes as an unwitting ally.
  • On Caprica, the Ha'la'tha is a bizarre merging of this with the more Italian-oriented Mafia as well as, of all things, Ancient Greek culture.
  • Deadly Class: El Alma Del Diablo runs part of his cartel. In Kings Diamond there are also the Soto Vatos, a gang of cartel kids. Maria is a member.
  • Deputy: Latino gangsters connected with Mexican drug cartels serve as recurring villains, given the LA setting.
  • The characters in Entourage at one point work on a biopic of Pablo Escobar titled "Medellin".
  • Gang Related: Los Angelicos is a Mexican-American crime family in Los Angeles involved with drug trafficking. Even more powerful are their partners, the Metas Cartel from Mexico. The lead character Ryan is Los Angelicos mole in the LAPD. He starts to enjoy being the good guy, which causes problems when the police start investigate them. The Metas pretty clearly were based on the real Zetas Cartel, since both recruit from Mexican special forces and they're known as especially vicious.
  • The Gifted (2017): Marcos used his powers as a cartel enforcer for a time, before leaving to join the Mutant Underground.
  • JAG: In the second season episode "The Game of Go", a US Marine is captured by a drug baron in Colombia while on joint operation with the Colombian authorities.
  • The Cartel is involved in one of the major subplots of Killer Women.
  • The Cartel (usually either Colombian or Mexican) has made many appearances in various shows in the Law & Order franchise, usually portrayed as being untouchable due to their ruthless and violent nature.
  • The Cartel was regularly in the background in Miami Vice.
  • Narcos: The Cartel, in fact. The first two seasons are about the DEA's hunt for Pablo Escobar in the '80s, as well as his rise to power and eventual fall. And while Pablo and his Medellín Cartel take center stage, the rival Cali Cartel also shows up towards the end of the first season. After Escobar's ultimate demise, the Cali godfathers take center stage in season three. The show also provides a contrast between the two, with the Medellin cartel being run by rural gangsters and using terrorist tactics against the government and its drug rivals, while the Cali cartel rubs shoulders with the Colombian elites and prefers to keep its activities under wraps to prevent scrutiny from law enforcement agencies. From season 4 onward the show moves to Mexico to depict the rise and splintering of the Guadalajara Cartel and the DEA's futile efforts to take them down.
  • Part of Me: Carlos Ricalde's bar is just a front for his criminal cartel, which involves gambling, drug trafficking, and (the most relevant to the story) running a prostitution ring via human trafficking.
  • Queen of the South is about a young Mexican woman participating in cocaine trafficking and rising through the ranks of the Vargas Cartel (a pastiche of the real-life Sinaloa Cartel). Eventually, she leaves the group to start her own drug cartel.
  • One of the recurring villains in RoboCop: The Series is South American crime boss Reggie Braga.
  • The second season of SEAL Team features a 5-episode long story arc to hunt down a drug lord named Andreas Doza in Mexico, who runs one of the most powerful cartels in the country.
  • Sons of Anarchy: In season 4, Clay makes a deal with the Mexican Gallindo Cartel, ostensibly to sell them military-grade weaponry from their Northern Irish contacts, but a secret part of the agreement means that SAMCRO will transport their cocaine into northern California while the Mayans will distribute it. This causes an intra-club conflict since the Sons has traditionally been hard on drugs, but Jax chooses to support Clay for his own reasons. They also get involved in a major gang war when the rival Sonora Cartel shows up in the area. Additionally, the end of the season reveals that the Gallindo Cartel is supported by the CIA to stabilize the drug trade.
  • Veronica Mars: A Mexican cartel plays a role in the plot of season 4, when a nephew-by-marriage of the boss is killed in an explosion in Neptune, California. At the behest of his nagging ex-wife, he sends two sicarios into Neptune to track down and kill the bomber. It's also shown that Weevil's gang and the PCH'ers have ties to this cartel.
  • A couple of episodes of The West Wing revolve around an international crisis triggered when a group of undercover D.E.A agents are exposed and held hostage by a cartel in Colombia who demand the release of their imprisoned leader (a thinly-veiled version of Pablo Escobar) as a ransom. President Bartlet instead orders a daring covert military operation to rescue them. Unfortunately the rescuers are led into a trap, several are killed, and the hostages moved to a location so remote and well-defended that the only military option would be to essentially launch a Vietnam-like war to defeat the cartels, leaving Bartlet no option but to negotiate the cartel leader's release via back channels.
  • Zero Zero Zero: One of the three storylines follows the Leyra brothers' cartel, obviously based on the Gulf Cartel, as they sell a $64 million shipment of cocaine to an Italian 'Ndrangheta clan. In the process of the deal, the Leyras are forced to recruit a group of corrupt Mexican Army commandos after the commandos' cover is blown. The commandos, eventually called Los Vampiros, are obviously based on Los Zetas.

  • Rapper Nas once adopted the stage name "Nas Escobar" as a reference to the aforementioned Pablo.
  • In Mexico in the 2000s, narcocorridos arose as a type of ballad glamorizing the lives of drug smugglers. Many of the genre's musicians naturally have ties to the cartels and have written ballads for specific drug lords, and needless to say, many of them have been targeted and killed in feuds between rival cartels.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Shadowrun, the Latin-American ORO Corporation was at first a money laundering front for several cartels. However, after getting a few mining contracts that turned out to be way more valuable than anyone thought, the company outgrew its origins, reimagining itself as the MegaCorp Aztechnology.

    Video Games 
  • Batman: Arkham Origins:
    • One of the enemy factions is a criminal gang from Santa Prisca, led by the supervillain crime boss Bane. Most of Bane's henchmen are fellow escapees from the infamous Santa Priscan prison Peña Duro, and they all display a fanatical, cult-like loyalty to their boss, far beyond what's normally expected of other gangsters. Bane's gang does technically engage in drug smuggling, though instead of any normal narcotic substance, they deal in a special steroid called Venom, which makes its users superhumanly strong.
    • There's also Copperhead, a female assassin who was a member of a street gang from an unspecified Central American country; though she has no affiliation or connection whatsoever to Bane, beyond both of them being hired by Gotham City kingpin Black Mask (who's actually the Joker in disguise) to fight and kill Batman.
  • One of the traditional factions in the Grand Theft Auto series since Grand Theft Auto III.
  • Call of Juarez: The Cartel. Guess what it's about.
  • Hitman features these as enemies at different points.
  • In Scarface: The World Is Yours, Tony breaks the cartel's hold on Miami and takes Sosa down.
  • Freelancer: The Outcasts are this trope IN SPACE.
  • Raul Menendez, the Big Bad of Call of Duty: Black Ops II, started off as a drug runner who controlled a very powerful cartel in Nicaragua in the 1980's. He used the money he gained from that operation to finance other operations around the world, up until the CIA tried to kill him, and in the process killed his blind, crippled sister. That led him to use the money invested in his cartel to set up the Cordis Die network, which became a full-on N.G.O. Superpower capable of threatening the entire First World.
  • Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel has you fighting one such Mexican cartel.
  • Saints Row featured a Colombian cartel supporting the Carnales gang. They eventually switch allegiance to the Saints.
  • Surprisingly they don't make many if any appearances in the Tropico games, although they are mentioned several times (such as when your main "general" complains the Tropico army is smaller than most Colombian drug barons).
  • South American drug cartels are a source of contracts in PAYDAY 2; Hector, specifically, offers several involving the rival Mendoza group. Watchdogs involves protecting and moving a batch of Hector's cocaine out of the city, stopping the FBI and DEA from intervening. Firestarter sees you stealing or destroying weapons meant to arm the Mendoza's soldiers, then destroying their money so the Mendoza operations grind to a halt. Rats finishes the Mendoza presence in D.C., with the eradication of a bus-load of Mendoza lieutenants as they attempt to flee the city under FBI protection.
  • In Ghost Recon Wildlands the player controls a team of United States special forces soldiers sent into Bolivia to combat the Santa Blanca Drug Cartel; an organization so powerful and violent that it has destabilized the entire region.
  • In Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, Nate's long-lost brother Sam claims that he was broken out of a Panamanian prison by the drug lord Hector Alcazar and his private army, who then forced Sam to help find a lost pirate treasure so that Alcazar could take a huge cut from it. But it's later revealed that Sam never actually met Alcazar (who has been dead for a long time), and Sam made up this whole story to hide the fact that he was really just bribed out of jail by Rafe Adler, the true villain of the game.
  • A Colombian gang appears in Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number as the rivals to The Mafiya, having taken over some of their area as the latter is looking to reclaim it.
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II features the fictional Las Almas cartel as one of two principal antagonist forces alongside Al-Qatala from the previous game, which they helped to smuggle weapons and terrorists across the world.

    Web Original 
  • In The Gamer's Alliance, Araña de la Noche is an influential drug cartel which operates in the city of Paraiso in Aison.

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Mexico has many, but perhaps the most infamous cartel is Los Zetas.
    • Their founders were Mexican special forces who went rogue and started doing work for the Gulf Cartel. Nowadays, they are an autonomous cartel as well as enemies of the Gulf Cartel, and many of their founding members are either arrested or dead, meaning they aren't as deadly as they used to be, but they are still known for their brutality. Just how feared are these guys? Well, one day, they threatened to kill the inhabitants of the small city Ciudad Mier. All 4,000 inhabitants left the town, leaving it completely abandoned.
    • Usually Mexican Cartels are business-like and exude a Pragmatic Villainy aura: they usually look for profit and if you don't mess with them, they don't mess with you.note  Los Zetas took this to the opposite extreme: running protection rackets against anyone regardless of economic level or profit, attacking and killing civilians for little to no reason, killing the entire family of an enemy instead of only the enemy, kidnapping and horribly killing victims even when the ransom is paid, among other atrocities to a nationwide extent. And we have yet to get to the nasty parts; folks who have pissed off Mexican Cartels particularly badly usually have demises of the sort you can only see on LiveLeak and never leave your mind again even if just described. To summarize this, while most Mexican Cartels can be considered Italian-styled, the Zetas can be considered The Mafiya - that is, Russian-styled.
  • The infamous Cali and Medellin cartels during the 1980s and 1990s, which controlled every link in the drug supply chain except street pushing. They flew in coca base from Peru and Bolivia, refined it into cocaine in the Colombian jungle, and flew it on to secret airstrips in the Southern United States. At one point, the Medellin Cartel, under the infamous Pablo Escobar, supplied 80% of the United States' cocaine, and Escobar had a net worth of $30 billion. Their rivals, the Cali Cartel, would put them out of business after Escobar's death, and go on to control 90% of the world's market, as well as introduce cocaine to Europe. American DEA agents tasked with bringing them down called them: 'The Cali KGB'. While this empire split apart heavily after his death, the remaining coke empires (going from simply huge cartels to actual terrorist groups) were still some of the biggest drug-running organizations one could find until Mexican cartels arrived on the scene.
  • Far more common in Venezuela than Mexico. To the point where some have argued the recent hyper inflation may have actually been a net benefit (for everyday people, that is), since worthless currency means kidnapping and drug sales are a barter market at best, but most likely some form of "not viable"; some criminals caught in neighboring/nearby countries have confessed they migrated because there was nothing to steal back home. Being next door to Colombia had a lot to do with it. The Chávez and Maduro regimes being self serving and accepting bribes to compensate for falling oil prices had a lot more to do with it.