The Gulf cartel is based in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, and smuggles cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine into the US. The cartel is known for its violence and intimidation. Aside from earning money from narcotics sales, the Gulf cartel also collects “taxes” from dealers and local businesses in exchange for protection. They are also reportedly expanding their business into kidnapping for ransom.
The Gulf cartel’s origins date back to bootlegging in the 1970s, and shifted to cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s. After the arrest of the cartel’s leader in 1996, a power vacuum was left and several top members fought for leadership. After assassinating his main rival, Osiel Cardenas Guillen became the undisputed leader of the Gulf cartel. Cardenas Guillen was arrested during a gun battle in 2003, but continued to run the cartel from a Mexican prison until he was extradited to the US in 2007. Three cartel lieutenants then took charge of operations: Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano (head of Los Zetas), Hector Manuel “El Karis” Sauceda Gamboa, and Jorge Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla Sanchez. This decentralized structure set the Gulf cartel apart from other Mexican DTOs. Each lieutenant, or gatekeeper, is responsible for running a different trafficking route, security, and collections of taxes for their plazas. Sauceda Gamboa was reportedly killed in a firefight with Mexican federal authorities in Feburary 2009. He had taken over control of the Reynosa plaza in November 2008 after the arrest of the plaza’s previous gatekeeper, Jaime “El Hummer” Gonzalez Duran.
After Cardenas Guillen’s arrest, the Sinaloa Federation began to move into Gulf territory. This prompted Cardenas Guillen to employ a group of former Mexican army commandos known as Los Zetas to prevent this encroachment. Los Zetas grew in size and power since the arrest, and they split with the Gulf cartel to form an alliance with the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO). They then split with the BLO to go out on their own as a cartel, re-aligned with the Gulf Cartel, then split off for good in 2010.
Currently, the Gulf cartel is a shadow of its former self. In November 2010, Mexican authorities killed Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, aka "Tony Tormenta," who ran the TCO in conjunction with Costilla Sanchez. "El Coss" then began running the Gulf cartel on his own, and started a raging battle with Los Zetas for control of the northern Tamaulipas corridor between Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros. Because of the threat being posed to Gulf operations by Los Zetas, the Gulf cartel temporarily entered into an alliance with the Sinaloa Federation and La Familia Michoacana, known as The New Federation.
Infighting between two factions of the Gulf cartel - Los Metros and Los Rojos - began in 2010 over leadership issues, which led to a deterioration of the organization and made it more vulnerable to incursions by Los Zetas. Members loyal to the Cárdenas Guillen family stayed with Los Rojos, and those loyal to Costilla Sánchez stayed with Los Metros. However, both factions started to lose major leaders. "Tony Tormenta" was killed in November 2010, Rafael Cárdenas Vela was arrested in October 2011, Mario "El Fatso" Cárdenas Guillen was arrested on Sept. 5, 2012, and "El Coss" was arrested a week later on Sept. 12, 2012. This currently leaves Gulf cartel leadership up in the air, and vulnerable to either a takeover by Los Zetas or a possible alliance of convenience with the Federation.
(Chart below by Strategic Forecasting)