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Drug Cartels and Organized Crime

What is considered a drug cartel may vary wildly and can include everything from street gangs to traditional organized crime groups to loosely affiliated individual dealers. However, a drug cartel is generally defined as any organization that promotes, controls, or is significantly involved in drug trafficking. In recent decades, fear of these groups has had a large impact on the law and law enforcement.

Read on to learn more about how drug cartels and organized crime syndicates operate and the laws under which they’re prosecuted.

Drug Cartels and Organized Crime: Background and History

The danger of cartels is the fact of their organization. With organization comes power and influence that can destabilize entire communities. In 1920s Chicago, for example, cartels not only engaged in the illegal drug trade (the sale of prohibited alcohol, at the time) but were also involved in embezzlement schemes, intimidation, extortion, and murder, and had so much influence that government officials and police conveniently ignored the perpetrators. In present-day Mexico, drug cartels in border cities engage in wholesale slaughter, terrorize citizens, and bribe officials, not unlike the cartels of 1920s Chicago.

U.S. law has evolved to target drug cartels (and organized crime, generally) through the development of new, more stringent laws, as well as creative application of existing criminal law.

Common Charges Faced By Drug Cartels and Organized Crime Rings

Drug cartel members often find themselves embroiled in criminal activities seemingly unrelated to drug trafficking. As a cartel network grows in membership, finances, and influence, the potential for crime grows with it. For example, a drug cartel may eventually earn enough to purchase a dance club to use for money laundering, and that cartel may then use the same dance club as a front for prostitution and gambling.

Though not an exhaustive list, the following charges are frequently levied together against members of drug cartels and other organized crime:

But prosecutors don’t rely solely on the variety of criminal charges when prosecuting members of drug cartels. That strategy wouldn’t necessarily work to increase the penalties, since it's common for members to specialize. Some members of a loose criminal network might only be involved in the gambling and prostitution segment of the business, whereas others might only be involved in the drug trafficking segment.

This creates a problem for prosecutors, since these networks may survive if only a few members are captured and tried. If a member were only responsible for prostitution and gambling, then they might simply accept the sentence and choose not to enter a plea deal with law enforcement. Prosecutors therefore must have a strategy for increasing the criminal penalties to the point where members of drug cartels will choose to enter plea deals.

Prosecutorial Strategies

There are three major strategies that prosecutors use against drug cartel members to force a plea deal acceptance: conspiracy charges, state/federal double charges, and RICO charges.


In general, conspiracy is a unique criminal charge wherein a person helps another person to commit a crime. For example, if a person helps a friend to plan and commit a murder, then that person will be found guilty of conspiracy to murder, even if the murder is not actually completed. What matters is the intention of the person for a crime to be committed.

Conspiracy charges are very effective against drug cartels and organized crime because even small amounts of cooperation, discussion, or planning may be used to attach a large number of crimes to a cartel member, and it is especially important against cartels because of how specialized they are. Only a few “grunts” may actually traffic drugs, murder rivals, and pimp, but there are other “managers” who knowingly direct and plan these crimes. These “managers” can therefore be prosecuted for conspiracy.

State/Federal Double Charges

A number of crimes are covered by both state and federal law, and a defendant may be charged separately (state and federal violations) for their crimes if they fit the necessary criteria. This “double jeopardy avoidance” strategy can result in an enormous prison sentence for a single violation, and prosecutors often take advantage of this strategy to scare the defendant into entering a plea deal.

Importantly, if the facts of the federal crime (for example, drug trafficking) are the same as the state crime (drug trafficking), then a defense lawyer may be able to argue that the cartel member should not be tried for the "same" crime twice. This exception relies on the specific facts of the case, however.

Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is a federal law that's designed to increase the penalties of belonging to a cartel or other organized crime group, targeting “managers” and leaders of these groups specifically. Though conspiracy covers many instances of group-crime (planning and cooperation), RICO law is broad enough to cover members of cartels who merely give orders.

Under RICO law, a person who commits at least two acts of racketeering (one of 35 criminal acts) as part of a criminal enterprise may be subject to additional penalties for each racketeering charge. RICO has been adopted into state law by the majority of states, some with broader applicability and significantly different rules for prosecution, than the federal law.

Drug Crimes Can Have Big Consequences: Get Legal Help Today

We've all seen popular crime dramas depicting the ubiquitous and glamorous "drug cartel." Yet, what you see on television isn't necessarily true to life. Being arrested for a major drug offense is anything but glamorous. If you or someone close to you has been charged with a drug-related crime, especially if it involves drug cartels and organized crime, it's in your best interests to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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