Per Oxford Dictionaries, a Cartel is

An association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition.

The example given is the Colombian drug cartels.

While this definition does seem to fit a number of modern organisations, like telecom providers or health insurance providers in the US, it doesn't seem to fit with what I know of the practices of the drug cartels. These are illegal organisations which compete with one another, and the price of drugs is kept high by the fact that they're illegal, not by collusion between the cartels.

So what I'd like to know is how the name Cartel came to be associated with illegal drug suppliers, to the extent that many people define Cartel as exclusively a drug-running organization?

  • Basically, it is a cartel, just like the Gulf oil cartel of yore. A group suppliers get together to control the market.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 1, 2016 at 22:01
  • The bigger question is why the word "cartel" which originally referred to a written document is being used for either of these types of groups. Probably from the concept of a written agreement or charter issued by such an organization (even if not truly written) which enables its agents to act as part of the organization. Commented Nov 1, 2016 at 23:34
  • @developerwjk - When a big underworld drug cartel decides to take over some particular market it doesn't need a written document. They have other ways of obtaining your "agreement".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 2:12
  • @HotLicks I was thinking along the lines of the cartel boss issues a "charter" of sorts to his underlings and other loosely affiliated groups. Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 0:11
  • @developerwjk - There is the point that often the "cartel" is an organization of several gangs, each individually not large enough to monopolize, but together they are able to control the business.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 1, 2017 at 1:19

2 Answers 2


As far as I know, the term started being used because drug trafficking organizations used to operate just like the dictionary definition of the word “cartel”. They don’t really operate that way anymore, and to understand why I need to explain a bit of the history behind it. Keep in mind I’m not a researcher, just someone interested in the history of the Mexican-American drug war and this is my take on things.

Back in the seventies and eighties, drug baron Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo was the head of the Guadalajara Cartel. Under the auspices of the Mexican government, Félix Gallardo kept the peace by dividing México into territories (or plazas) that each of the then existing organizations could use as they saw fit. They operated pretty much as a true dictionary cartel. That’s why there was relatively little drug violence in México in those times. Full-out turf wars like the ones we see now between rival organizations were practically unheard of, and while there could be some violence, disagreements were usually negotiated between the concerned parties.

Unfortunately for them they made the stupid decision to kill undercover DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985. This brought the full weight of the American government on the Guadalajara Cartel and the agreements between the cartel and Mexican law enforcement could no longer be sustained. Félix Gallardo was captured, and the Guadalajara Cartel disbanded around 1989. The different organizations that had until then cooperated under Félix Gallardo (Sinaloa, Tijuana, Beltrán-Leyva, Gulf, Juárez, etc) started to operate autonomously.

So, they no longer operate as a true cartel in the dictionary sense of the word. The reason people (and the organizations themselves) keep on using the term is simply because it stuck. As you note, it doesn’t really make sense to call modern drug trafficking organizations “cartels”, which is why American law enforcement agencies tend to use terms like Drug Trafficking Organization (DTO), Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO), among others.

  • That's a fantastic answer, and makes perfect sense, thank you! If you can add a couple of references or sources, I'll accept it.
    – Werrf
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 19:50

It is called cartel because it has the characteristics of a cartel which are applied to an illicit business:

A drug cartel is :

  • an illicit cartel formed to control the production and distribution of narcotic drugs; "drug cartels sometimes finance terrorist organizations".

Note that:

  • a cartel, corporate trust, combine, trust - a consortium of independent organizations formed to limit competition by controlling the production and distribution of a product or service; "they set up the trust in the hope of gaining a monopoly"

The Free Dictionary

The expression is from the early '70s according to Ngram.

  • But these groups don't work together; they fight one another, not just economically but quite literally killing one another's members to get a bigger share of the pie. This seems the opposite of the definition.
    – Werrf
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 14:25
  • @Werrf - legal cartels don't officially work together, it is an illegal practice to manipulate prices. The similarity is in the "independent organizations formed to limit competition by controlling the production and distribution of a product". For drugs the issue is not the "market price" but the control over production and distribution. This doesn't prevent them to fight each other, something that is common also among legal cartels.
    – user66974
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 14:36
  • @J O S H But that's not a similarity - they are not limiting competition by controlling the production and distribution of a product, they're limiting competition by killing one another. Isn't cooperation an essential element of a cartel?
    – Werrf
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 14:49
  • @Werrf- the "cooperation" is the illegal part of a cartel. Cartels are a way to manipulate competition in markets and there are strict regulations about them.
    – user66974
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 14:53
  • @Werrf - Some cartels are formed to influence the price of legally traded goods and services, while others exist in illegal industries, such as drugs. In the United States, virtually all cartels, regardless of their line of business, are illegal by virtue of American anti-trust laws. investopedia.com/terms/c/cartel.asp
    – user66974
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 14:57

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