Chances are, when you picture cartel drug lords, you're picturing the cast of Scarface hanging out with the cast of Miami Vice -- guys in flashy pastel suits who fly into a murderous rage if anything happens to one of their shipments and tend to feed anyone who crosses them to exotic animals. The truth is, cartel members look just like every other upper middle class person from the Southwest -- they wear designer jeans and collared shirts and keep very few tigers.
Two or three, tops.
The cartels are very sophisticated, especially in Mexico. They're closer to being their own countries than gangs. And unlike the drug barons you see in movies, actual cartels know that loss is a part of the game, and that drugs are the one thing they will literally never run out of. For example, marijuana is cheap to produce, so if you walked into a bar in Mexico and lied about your smuggling skills, a cartel might just front you a thousand pounds of weed to see if you live up to your own hype (and that is a shitload of weed). From the cartels' perspective, it's worth it to shotgun cheap drugs like pot out onto the streets because it costs them almost nothing and they don't take on any risk.
The cartels also have a radio network that crosses Mexico and the United States in a truly awe-inspiring feat of guerrilla engineering. It's incredibly high-tech -- they use constantly evolving encryption and a repeater network with little stations stuck on top of mountains across the U.S. Rumor has it that the cartels paid a former spec ops communications expert to set it up. Maybe that sounds crazy, but they do have a multimillion-dollar radio network that stretches across three nations and seems almost impervious to disruption.
And it has better coverage than AT&T.
So, yeah, the next time you see a movie about a renegade cop going off on his own to take down the cartels single-handedly, Punisher style, keep that in mind. These organizations are formidable enough that entire countries have failed to take them down. Your lone action hero isn't going to make much of a dent, no matter how much he refuses to play by the rules. As long as people like doing drugs, these guys aren't going anywhere.
Robert Evans's first book A Brief History of Vice is available for pre-order now. It's filled with guides to recreating ancient drug-fueled debauchery!
Related Reading: For a look on the opposite side of this article, check out Cracked's investigation into the real facts of life as a street-level drug dealer. If you're more interested in what your doctor wants to shout at you, but legally can't, read this article right here. Curious about life inside a Christian fundamentalist cult? We talked to a woman who grew up in one. If you've got a story to share with Cracked, hit us up here.