Their tactics rival those of Al Qaeda: summary executions, kidnappings, torture, and beheadings.
Mexican cartels have executed more than 10,000 people since January -- five times the rate three years ago, before Mexican President Felipe Calderon deployed his military against the syndicates.
“The cartels don’t have to work like Colombia did for a middle man in Florida or in Texas or anywhere. They have people they know,” explained Tony Leal, the chief of the Texas Rangers, who spoke to Fox News at the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Intelligence Fusion Center.
Family and friends help the cartels move their product with ease across the porous U.S. border. They even recruit in U.S. prisons.
It’s a $40 billion business divided among seven cartels: The Arellano Felix Organization, or Tijuana Cartel, is based south of San Diego. The Juarez Cartel is situated south of El Paso. Their war with the rival Sinaloa cartel has left 2,300 people dead in Juarez this year. La Familia is a pseudo-religious cult that operates as a cartel near Mexico City. There are also the Zetas, rogue Mexican Special Forces who once served as the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel in Eastern Mexico. Earlier this year, they broke away, creating their own cartel.
There’s also the Beltran Levya, whose American-born kingpin leader is known as “La Barbie,” nicknamed because his blond hair made him look like a Ken doll. He grew up in El Paso, played football in high school, was recruited in a U.S. prison and was arrested in Mexico in August.
The cartel leaders are an eclectic bunch.
The head of the Zetas is known simply as the Executioner and uses tigers to scare his victims.
Vicente Carrillo Fuentes became head of the Juarez cartel in 1997 after his brother died undergoing plastic surgery.
And 5-foot-tall “Shorty” Guzman, who heads the Sinaloa cartel, made last year’s Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people.
But a kingpin’s lifespan is getting shorter since Calderon ordered the military to fight the narco-insurgency that threatens to spill across America’s Southwest border.
A newly released interrogation video shows a captured drug trafficker saying this week that the head of La Familia is tired and may be seeking a truce with the government and other cartels.
Gulf Cartel head Tony Tormenta, known as Tango Tango to U.S. law enforcement, was assassinated not far from Brownsville, Texas, in Tamaulipas two weeks ago by the Mexican military.
The Zetas may benefit from his death in the short term. Zeta was the radio call sign that the Mexican police in the 1980s used to locate high ranking battalion commanders. Now it is the name of a paramilitary cartel that poses a significant threat to south Texas. About 200 of these former Mexican Special Forces gone rogue were trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., in the early 1990s.
The cartel's origins were confirmed in a video sent to the Dallas Morning News in 2005, in which two men identified themselves as former Special Forces who moonlighted by recruiting from the Mexican Special Forces for the cartels.
“They were trained in operations, special operations by our best of the best and then they went back to Mexico,” Rep. Ted Poe of Texas said. “And what happened was they didn’t stay with the military, they defected because the drug cartels pay more money.”