How Important Is a Good Kingpin to a Drug Cartel?

Much more important than a corporate CEO.

Suspected members of the Mexican drug cartel 'Los Zetas' from Guatemala and Mexico.
Suspected members of the Mexican drug cartel Zetas wait in court for a judgement in Guatemala City on June 27, 2012

Photograph by Luis Soto/AFP/Getty Images.

Mexican forces confirmed the killing of Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, leader of the Zetas drug cartel, on Tuesday. The operation was part of Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s “kingpin strategy” to undermine drug cartels by wiping out the top bosses. How important is a good kingpin to the operation of a cartel?

Critically important. Many people liken drug kingpins to corporate CEOs, and there’s something to the analogy. Cartel bosses manage the organization’s talent, promoting plaza bosses who hit their revenue targets while demoting those who fail. They also need to spot business opportunities, like diverting oil from Mexico’s state-owned pipeline with equipment stolen from Texas. The CEO comparison, however, misses an important point. A drug kingpin doesn’t keep his organization together with an innovative business vision or an eye for synergies—he has to scare the bejeezus out of people. Drug trafficking organizations aren’t like corporations, which seek stability and predictability. Warring internal factions, neighboring crime groups, and the government keep cartels in a constant state of crisis, and terror is the successful kingpin’s stock in trade. A good kingpin is far more important to a cartel than a qualified CEO is to a legitimate business.

Effective intimidation is no small skill, either. Keeping local police and heavily-armed subordinates in check requires a ruthlessness that few people possess. The recently killed Lazcano, a former Mexican special operations soldier, is a case in point, as detailed in George Grayson’s book The Executioner’s Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs, and the Shadow State They Created. Lazcano used to have his enemies (or their children) submerged in cauldrons of boiling oil. When Lazcano suspected a couple of his sellers were stealing from him, he forced one to watch while a henchman beat the other crook to death with a 2-by-4. When that was done, the executioner cut out the remaining thief’s heart with a butcher’s knife. (Lazcano discarded the organ, although other kingpins were known to feed the hearts of their murdered adversaries to guests.) Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the former leader of the Zetas cartel, was known as “El Mata Amigos” (“the friend killer”) for his willingness to knock off even those close to him.

Lazcano was a particularly brutal capo, and other cartels, such as the Sinaloa group, are viewed by some as slightly more businesslike. But Sinaloa’s kingpin, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, knows how to intimidate as well. In his staggeringly poor hometown, there is a myth that the indigent locals only have enough money for one article of clothing: a hat, so they can doff it when they encounter El Chapo.

A strong kingpin is so important that, historically, most cartels have splintered when they lost their leaders. Consider the Cali cartel, one of the more powerful Colombian cocaine trafficking organizations of the 1980s and 1990s. When the Rodriguez brothers who led the group were arrested, the cartel limped along for a time, probably with the imprisoned kingpins directing operations from behind bars. Eventually, however, the cartel collapsed into smaller organizations because it lacked a universally feared and respected boss. Similarly, when Felix “El Padriño” Gallardo was arrested in 1989, his Guadalajara cartel broke apart into many of the regional cartels that now struggle to control Mexico, including El Chapo’s Sinaloa organization.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks John J. Bailey of Georgetown University, George Grayson of the College of William and Mary, and Phil Williams of the University of Pittsburgh.