Although best-known for their brutal business practices in the illegal drug trade, cartels can have a surprising range of side hustles and skills. Fierce and bloody competition and police clampdowns are risks that can cause profits from drugs to drop sharply, leaving cartel members to make up the shortfall or face the consequences.
To protect against such dangers, many are now involved in a range of secondary activities, some of which are businesses unrelated to drugs while others help their core business. From selling fruit to running soccer clubs and radio networks, here are ten lesser-known things that drug cartels get up to.
Related: 10 Criminal Groups That Were Founded With Good Intentions
10 Providing Internet Services
Table of Contents
Everyone wants to get a good deal on modern necessities like an internet connection, but residents in Michoacán state, Mexico, were made an offer they literally could not refuse. That was because it came from Los Viagras, the local faction of a drug cartel. Using stolen equipment, they set up so-called “narco antennas” to provide Wi-Fi to the region. Relying on the fearsome and violent reputation of Mexican drug gangs, the cartel compelled residents to use their services by threatening to kill them if they refused.
While no one is known to have been killed for not signing up, it seems that the people did not doubt that the cartel would stay true to their word. According to the Michoacán state prosecutor’s office, around 5,000 people were paying the cartel between $25 and $30 per month—rates considerably above the market. The lucrative business was netting the cartel around $150,000 each month before their equipment was discovered and seized by the police.
9 Radio Network Operators
Los Viagras’ stint as an internet provider was not the first time a cartel entered the telecoms business. Around 2006, the Gulf Cartel managed to build an entire national radio network in secret. It spanned most of the 31 states of Mexico and even stretched into parts of Guatemala. Maintained by specialists, it used a computer system to control its radio signals so it could broadcast to specific radios. It was even harder for the authorities to hack into than the cellphone networks. It had a stronger signal deep in the countryside where the cartels would hide out.
The system was designed by a telecoms expert called Jose Luis Del Toro Estrada, who later confessed to his role and the existence of the network as part of a plea bargain with U.S. authorities. As well as allowing the cartel to communicate safely, members used it to tap into military frequencies and make threats. By 2011, the network belonged to the Zetas Cartel and had become a target for the authorities. The Mexican army began carrying out raids to seize the equipment.
8 Making Music
Given that they had their own radio network, it makes sense that the cartels should also produce music. But while their network was mainly used for communication, members of the Gulf Cartel have reportedly been doing the latter—or at least commissioning it. Alejandro Coronado and Mauro Vasquez, known by their stage names Cano and Blunt, found success in the “narco-ra” scene in Mexico and soon started being handed special requests with lists of events to make songs about.
While they have been careful not to reveal who makes these requests, the pair come from a neighborhood controlled by the Gulf Cartel, and they sing and rap about cartel conflicts, clashes with the authorities, and savage slayings. Some of their songs even use samples of machine guns and explosives. They have denied that they are glorifying cartel violence, but with lyrics that praise gang bosses and call them “guerilla fighters,” it is possible that their music contributes to the image of drug lords as local heroes. This is something which can help attract new recruits from poor areas.
7 Running Rehab Centers
Yes, really. At least two of Mexico’s six main drug cartels have been known to run drug rehabilitation centers. But predictably, they are not doing so to try and balance out the harm that they cause. Instead, the centers are a source for new recruits. Being vulnerable people and sometimes already in debt to cartel dealers, recovering addicts are easy prey for the cartels who can force or threaten them into signing up as smugglers or hitmen. Some cartels, such as La Familia, have even used the religious aspects of recovery programs to brainwash addicts into doing their bidding.
Sadly, some of those who attend such facilities are not even lucky enough to leave with their lives. The centers offer something of a fish-in-a-barrel opportunity for dealers to settle scores with customers who have betrayed them or not paid up, and there have been several mass shootings.
6 Building Churches
Another thing cartels do that seems highly out of alignment with their other activities is the building of churches. But once again, there is an ulterior motive in play. The churches paid for by the cartels are typically built in poor communities where public funds are scarce or non-existent. These small places present an opportunity for the cartels. By pouring money into projects that are important to the locals, the cartels can gain their favor and loyalty.
Sometime in the future then, this can make it easier to recruit new members, and it makes the locals less likely to tell the police or army about any nearby cartel activities. The strategy was so widely used that a senior bishop in Mexico made headlines in 2008 when he described the cartels as “very generous.” He did not say whether the Church was taking cartel money to build new places of worship or whether the cartels were supporting the projects in some other way.
5 Owning Soccer Teams
The idea of spending money on things that do not directly help a cartel’s criminal activities but which please the locals is not new. Even Pablo Escobar did it. As well as building houses, schools, and health clinics in poor areas of his native Colombia, he bought a stake in the soccer team Atlético Nacional. This led to the era of “narco fútbol,” when Colombian drug barons would invest in local soccer teams to hide the source of their money and get the people on their side.
With Escobar’s cash, Atlético Nacional was able to buy the best local players and soon began winning international competitions. The vast improvement in the standard of Colombian soccer and the performance of Nacional, in particular, were a source of pride for a poor country concerned about its image.
However, the cartel bosses brought violence to the sport along with their cash. Escobar had a referee killed after he learned that the official had been bribed by a rival to make Nacional lose. And a national soccer hero, Andrés Escobar (no relation), was shot dead in 1994 after accidentally scoring an own goal at the World Cup.
4 Collecting Art
A new law in Mexico in 2012 uncovered another surprising area in which cartels were highly active: collecting art. In fact, some gallery owners reported that the Mexican art market froze after the government brought in new rules to limit the use of cash and make sellers provide them with information about their buyers. Some saw their sales fall up to 30% after the law—which also applies to other business types commonly used to hide criminal proceeds, such as casinos and pawn shops—had been in place for a couple of years.
One Mexican cartel boss, Héctor Beltrán Leyva, even used an art dealership business as a front for his drug trafficking operation. Pablo Escobar was one of the wealthiest men in the world during his lifetime, so it is little surprise some of his money was tied up in paintings. These reportedly included works by Picasso and Salvador Dali. In 2016, two Van Gogh paintings were found in a house belonging to an Italian drug baron named Raffaele Imperiale.
3 Product Placement
Paintings are not the only area of the arts in which cartels are active. Cinema is also an attractive field for them. This could be because while they cannot use conventional advertising methods like television or billboard commercials, they can and have tried to use product placement to subtly encourage moviegoers to take up drugs. In 2022, India’s Narcotic Control Bureau (NCB) reported that drug gangs in the country were paying filmmakers to include scenes of drug-taking in big Bollywood movies.
The tactic was revealed when the NCB interviewed people involved in filmmaking as part of a larger investigation into drug cartels in the film industry. One unnamed hit film was said not to have had any drug scenes at all in the original script. Still, a scene showing a main character using drugs was added after the producers were paid a hefty sum by a cartel. The cartel then requested a second scene and was initially turned down, but they got their way by making threats.
For some of Mexico’s cartels, drugs are becoming old news. Now, the battle rages for control of a newer competitive market, one which is not even illegal—avocados. Some had already been using avocado farms to launder money, but as the fruit’s popularity grew in other countries, the industry became highly lucrative. It is thought to be worth several billion dollars, which has led locals to nickname the popular fruit “green gold.” Of course, the cartels have not entered the market in any legitimate way.
Some have illegally cleared protected forest areas to grow avocados, some have forced farmers to pay them protection money, and others have targeted the people who pick and transport the fruit. Trucks are commonly held up, and some pickers report being forced to work for free by cartel members. The competition is also no less violent than in the drug trade. As the cartels battle for regional control and a share of the market, Mexico’s murder rate has soared to historically high levels.
1 Animal Sacrifice
While many cartel members resort to violence to solve problems, some have a very different approach, such as summoning the help of supernatural forces. One drug trafficking gang in Dallas, Texas, paid an alleged cult leader named Daniel Vallejo to place a hex on a DEA agent who was investigating them. The agent’s name was found on a blood-soaked altar in Vallejo’s house, where he and his followers were said to slaughter animals and douse themselves in blood. This, they hoped, would bring them luck with their criminal enterprise.
Surprisingly, experts dispute that the ceremonies were attempts at witchcraft, devil worship, or black magic. Occult-style rituals, which can include animal sacrifice, are parts of several Mexican folk religions. These religions are popular with people involved in the drug trade, and they often use them to pray for their goods to arrive safely. Given that if the load does not get there, it could very well be them being sacrificed next. So it is easy to understand why such practices are popular.