For more than a decade, Los Angeles street gangs have been killing about 550 to 600 people in L.A. County each year. What you probably don't know is that Mexican nationals, primarily illegal aliens, murder about an equal amount yearly. Many of these murders involve rivalries and vendettas that originated in states, cities, and ranchos in Mexico. They usually often involve Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO).

In the 1990s I commonly received calls at the Major Crimes Bureau from other jurisdictions across the U.S. requesting information on Los Angeles-based gangs. One day I received a call from a homicide detective in New Jersey who informed me that the Mexican Mafia had murdered someone in his jurisdiction. He was asking for help in identifying the victim and possibly any suspects.

I asked the detective how the victim was dressed. He stated that the victim was wearing a bright colored shirt, white jeans, expensive cowboy boots, and a white cowboy hat. I told the homicide detective that he probably had a murder involving the mafia from Mexico, but not the Mexican Mafia. The murder was likely a "Sinaloan Cowboy" hit.

"Sinaloan Cowboy" was just the generic term L.A. cops used to identify these narcotic traffickers, because so many of them came from the state of Sinaloa in Mexico. However, similar drug cartel cowboys came from the Mexican states of Michoacan, Durango, Colima, Nuevo Leon, Zacatecas, and the Distrito Federal.

Each cartel cowboy is fiercely proud of his home state and the city or rancho he's from. Each is employed by and owes his allegiance to a drug trafficking cartel and its controlling families.


The cartel cowboys sing about their criminal exploits in their music, the narco corridos. These songs glorify the outlaw gangster and his criminal drug trafficking organization, just like Gangsta Rap. The corridos are sung by musicians from the cowboys' neighborhoods who are also aligned to their cartel.

Like Gangsta Rap, the music artists are sometimes murdered for singing the wrong song at the wrong place (like Chalino Sanchez). The songs often include lyrics about killing police officers and government officials.


Like the Cuban Marielitos, the cartel cowboys often dabble in the occult. They commonly wear the trappings of Catholicism, while making sacrifices at an altar to their unofficial narco trafficker saint, Jesus Malverde, or a figure of Santisimo Muerte (Holy Death).They avoid doing business on Thursday in honor of Jesus Malverde's death and hire expensive mariachis to sing and play for hours in front of their shrines.

The Uniform

They once dressed in a very distinctive Mexican "Cowboy" style characterized by a very expensive white hat, colorful silk-like shirt, fashion jeans (never blue denim), very expensive cowboy boots, and a heavily stitched leather belt with a large cowboy belt buckle.

The buckle usually had the letters "S" for Sinaloa, "M" for Michoacan, or "D" for Durango—or a scorpion, which is the symbol associated with Durango. Sometimes the belt buckle would feature the drug cartel's symbolism of the rooster for marijuana, the parrot for cocaine, and the goat for heroin. The "chivo" or goat is also the symbol and mascot of the Mexican soccer team. Many criminal aliens, cartel cowboys, and other U.S haters display a decal on their vehicles depicting the Mexican soccer chivo pissing on the U.S.A. 

Cartel cowboys frequent seafood restaurants, bars, and night clubs that bring the narco cartel bands from Mexico. They drink Presidente brandy and expensive tequila by the bottle at their table. They prefer large caliber guns like the Colt 1911 .45 or .38 super, chrome or gold plated with fancy grips, and the "cuernos de chivo" (goat's horns), the AK-47.

They drive the symbols that meant success in their home ranchos: a big truck, with lots of lights and mud flaps, a mural painted on the tailgate, and figures of horses and cattle adorning the rest. A miniature saddle or lariat may hang from the rearview mirror.

The newer generation of Sinaloan cowboy seems to be avoiding this identifiable profile. The Southgate, Huntington Park, and East Los Angeles areas of Southern California were once the centers of cartel cowboy culture, along with the cities of Paramount and Downey. You can find Sinaloan cowboys in almost any city now. They have corrupted and taken over some smaller cities with their huge drug profits. Colorado congressman and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo wrote about this in his recent book, "Mortal Danger."


Beginning with the imprisonment of Mexican drug kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo in 1989, and the division of his criminal empire into the Sinaloa and Tijuana cartels, the cartel cowboys' history has been a bloody one. Former lieutenants and cousins of Felix Gallardo, the Arellano Felix brothers built their Tijuana DTO into a major billion dollar organization. They formed alliances with street and prison gangs in the U.S., including the Mexican Mafia.

Their chief rivals were the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes DTO, or Juarez Cartel, and Caro Quintero's DTO, which controlled the Nogales gate. The three DTOs controlled all three major entry points. When Quintero was imprisoned, the Nogales gate was up for grabs.

Joaquin "Chapo" (Shorty) Guzman came from Sinaloa with almost nothing. He escaped from prison in 2001 and formed an alliance with Ismael "El Mayor" (the Elder) Zambada, who inherited the Juarez Cartel when Vicente Carrillo Fuentes was arrested. Now the Gulf and Tijuana cartels have formed an alliance against Guzman. He has managed to maintain the trust of the Colombian narcotics sources, and is brutally efficient in murder. Police officers, prosecutors, journalists, and whole families have been slaughtered in the drug wars.

Whole Mexican Police and Army units, both state and federal, have gone over to the dark side. Many police officers supplemented their income in the long accepted Mexican practices of taking bribes, or mordeda (the bite), robbing drug dealers, and extorting wealthy families. When Mexico cleans them out of the Police Units they cross the border and continue to rob and extort their own people on this side.

Some Special Forces units of the Mexican Army also have deserted and sold their souls to the DTOs. The unit known as Zeta ("Z"), after its former radio call sign, is one of these units killing for the cartels along both sides of the border.

According to Mexican intelligence sources, in August of 2005 the Sinaloa Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, and Ismael Armayo Sambada DTO offered a $10,000 reward for the murder of every FBI and DEA Agent. They also offered $15,000 on the head of every Minuteman.

While it's more difficult to ID members of the "cowboy cartels" now that they don't all wear cowboy hats and big belt buckles, you can still be aware of their presence and the danger they pose to law enforcement.


Richard Valdemar
Richard Valdemar

Sergeant (Ret.)

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

View Bio