‘Cartel' vs 'Mafia': What's the Difference?

By Amy Gilmore, updated on June 21, 2023

Do you want to know the difference between 'cartel' vs. 'mafia?' If so, you are in luck!

Here is the short answer:

  • 'Cartel' is a noun that means an organization of businesses or regions that bans together to eliminate competition and generate income. 
  • 'Mafia' is a noun defined as a criminal enterprise of individuals who pledge loyalty to each other and their goals. 

The above explanation gives a brief overview of the difference between these terms. However, there is more to learn. Keep reading this guide with definitions, usage tips, and other vital information to understand better what these terms mean and how to use them.

What is the Difference Between 'Cartel vs. 'Mafia?'

'Cartel' and 'mafia' are both names for criminal gangs. So, many confuse the two terms.

  • A 'Cartel' is a group of businesses, nations, or regions that band together to eliminate their competition and generate money.
  • A 'mafia' is a group of individuals that engages in criminal behavior.

The difference between the two is subtle, and these terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

When to Use 'Cartel' vs. 'Mafia'

With terms like 'cartel' and 'mafia' that have similar meanings, it can be challenging to know when to use each term.

So, here is a guide to help you know when to use these terms.

  • Use 'cartel' when describing a group of businesses, groups, or nations that forms an enterprise to eliminate their competition and gain a market advantage.

For example, you could say:

Three local cleaners partnered to put a competitor out of business. The cartel lowered its prices until its competition was no longer able to pay its overhead. 

  • Use 'cartel' to describe a criminal organization that controls commerce in a specific region.

For example, you could say:

El Chapo Guzman used to run the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico. Now, he is in a supermax prison in Colorado. 

  • Use 'mafia' to describe a group of criminals who pledge allegiance to each other.

For example, you might say:

The mafia ruthlessly attacked area businesses until they agreed to pay a protection fee. 

  • Use 'mafia' to describe a group of people who are similar to a mafia.

For example, if you have a bunch of friends who are all interested in the same hobby, you could say:

Look! It's the magic mafia! When are you going to put on another show? Everyone wants to see what tricks you have been working on. 

Definition of 'Cartel': What Does 'Cartel' Mean?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of 'cartel' is:

  • A group of businesses or enterprises that join forces for financial gain or to gain a better market position.

Synonyms for 'Cartel'

  • Combine
  • Union
  • Association
  • Conglomerate
  • Chain
  • Guild
  • Organization
  • Association
  • Trust
  • Pool
  • Partnership

'Cartel' Sayings and Phrases

  • Pastel Cartel
  • Sinaloa Cartel
  • Gulf Cartel
  • Juares Cartel
  • Los Zetas Cartel
  • Medellin Cartel
  • Guadalajara Cartel
  • Tijuana Cartel
  • Cartel member
  • Cartel crime
  • Criminal cartel organization
  • Cartel war
  • Rival cartel
  • Cartel leaders
  • Cartel territory
  • Cartel hit
  • Cartel ties

Definition of 'Mafia': What Does 'Mafia' Mean?

The same resource states that the definition of 'mafia' is:

  • A secretive criminal group in or from Italy or, more specifically, Sicily

It can also mean:

  • A criminal group with similar organization to the Italian mafia from another part of the world
  • A criminal group that focuses on one main revenue source
  • A group of people similar to a mafia

Synonyms for 'Mafia'

  • Mob
  • Gang
  • Clan
  • Ring
  • Band
  • Crowd
  • Clique
  • Crew
  • Pack
  • Bunch
  • Group
  • Network
  • Clan

'Mafia' Sayings and Phrases

  • Italian mafia
  • Russian mafia
  • Mafia murder
  • Mafia member
  • Mafia boss
  • Mafia hit
  • Mafia takedown
  • Mafia hitman
  • Mafia leader

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce 'Cartel' vs. 'Mafia'

When you are learning the definitions of terms, it is important to look at their pronunciation. Knowing how to correctly pronounce a word will give you more confidence to use it.

I often practice speaking English with a friend from Ecuador to help her gain more confidence. She often knows what a word means but hesitates to use it if she isn't exactly sure how to pronounce it. I do the same thing when I am speaking Spanish because it is a second language for me.

I even hesitate at times to say certain English words if I am not exactly sure how to pronounce them. So, here is a pronunciation guide:

  • Use this phonetic spelling to pronounce 'cartel':


  • Use this phonetic spelling to correctly pronounce 'mafia':


Sample Sentences Using 'Cartel' and 'Mafia'

Before you go, read these sample sentences using 'cartel' and 'mafia' to ensure you understand how to use them.


  • Many of the most famous criminal organizations in the world are Mexican cartels.
  • There are cartels in other parts of the world.
  • A cartel does not necessarily have to be a criminal organization.
  • Any group of enterprises or businesses could band together to create a cartel that protects their interests in a specific region or market.
  • Modern cartels engage in many different industries.
  • Many Cartels brand themselves with specific flags or colors so they are recognizable.


  • The teens wanted to see the mafia movie, but it was Rated R. So they could not buy tickets.
  • Bugsy Siegel, a famous mafia boss, began doing business in Las Vegas in the 1940s.
  • The mafia ran Las Vegas for more than 40 years, until the mid-1980s.
  • The Riviera was the last mafia-related casino in Las Vegas. It was imploded in 2015.
  • Sicily is known for being the home of many famous mafia bosses.
  • The famous mafia boss, Al Capone, was off his rocker when he died.

Final Advice on the Difference Between 'Cartel' vs. 'Mafia'

We covered a ton of information. So, here is a quick review of 'cartel' vs. 'mafia': 

  • 'Cartel' is a name for a group of businesses or enterprises that joins together to dominate a market or region. 
  • 'Mafia' is a group of individuals who pledge allegiance to each other and commit crimes to earn money or power. 

Today, you often hear news stories about criminal enterprises in Mexico called 'cartels,' and 'mafia' is generally associated with the Italian mob. If you ever forget the difference between these terms, you can always come back for a quick review of this lesson.

You can also read the other confusing word guides here to learn about other commonly misused or mistaken English terms. Each contains definitions, examples, and usage tips, so they are an excellent way to improve your written and verbal communication.

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Written By:
Amy Gilmore
Amy Gilmore is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. She has been a professional writer and editor for the past eight years. She developed a love of language arts and literature in school and decided to become a professional freelance writer after a demanding career in real estate. Amy is constantly learning to become a better writer and loves sharing tips with other writers who want to do the same.

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