How Drug Cartels Are Like Amazon And Google

After this enlightening TEDTalk, you’ll never look at drug cartels the same way again.

How Drug Cartels Are Like Amazon And Google
[Image: Cocaine via Shutterstock]

Billions of dollars in sales. Quick shipments. Ultra-efficient distribution chains. Carefully orchestrated PR. Drone delivery.


It sounds a bit like Amazon! But in reality, this is any one of the three major Mexican drug cartels–what Yale professor Rodrigo Canales paints more as innovative multinational businesses pushing high-margin products than gangs of “faceless goons” peddling drugs. And in the TEDTalk above, he urges us all to make the mental leap that, these aren’t just multinational corporations in size, but also in practice.

Canales points out that illegal drugs are a $60 billion market (wholesale) in the U.S., which is just about the yearly revenue of Microsoft. And everything the cartels do is part of “integrated strategy” to pursue this market–including a strong organizational structure, tempting incentives, and good brand management. Maybe this seems like your typical TEDTalk, oversimplifying massive world problems into a bite-sized business language that seems as simple to fix as a miscalculated spreadsheet. But I was taken by the presentation–by how well it explained methodology and motivation, with all the understandable progression into the immoral you might see in Breaking Bad.

Perhaps his most stunning example is of the cartel Los Zetas, which is known as the most gruesome of them all–having brutally dismembered and decapitated women on several occasions this year (filming and uploading it for all to see).

Los Zetas started out as the Gulf Cartel. The cartel eventually found its distribution channel infested by authorities, and so they recruited a team of elite paratroopers for the Mexican army to clear and protect their pipeline to drug sales. It’s why you should never own a tiger, Canales jokes, as eventually, those paratroopers usurped the whole organization.

After the very hostile takeover, the Gulf Cartel rebranded as Los Zetas, and members used their military training–namely that of incredible, scalable organization through a multi-tiered chain of command–to franchise a complete business of crime, including drugs, kidnapping, prostitution, and human trafficking. When the Los Zetas enter a new town, they make major violent demonstrations (branding), but they also openly recruit the Mexican Army, promising incentives like better salaries and food (sounds a lot like Google, doesn’t it?), and then train the most powerful gang in the area to become the regional franchise manager.

At the end of the day, Los Zetas is known as the most ruthless cartel, but its casualty count is roughly the same as the two other major players in the space. And that’s a casualty count Canales stresses will constantly be on the rise so long as the cartels need to protect the distribution paths to their target, drug-hungry market: us. So if we’d really like to beat the drug cartels–highly adaptive, absurdly funded, incredibly organized multinational corporations that ruthlessly protect their supply chains–we need to stop buying so much of that supply.


[Hat tip: Reddit]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.