Mexican cartels lose many members as a result of conflict with other cartels and incarcerations. Yet, despite their losses, cartels manage to increase violence for years. We address this puzzle by leveraging data on homicides, missing persons, and incarcerations in Mexico for the past decade along with information on cartel interactions. We model recruitment, state incapacitation, conflict, and saturation as sources of cartel size variation. Results show that by 2022, cartels counted 160,000 to 185,000 units, becoming one of the country’s top employers. Recruiting between 350 and 370 people per week is essential to avoid their collapse because of aggregate losses. Furthermore, we show that increasing incapacitation would increase both homicides and cartel members. Conversely, reducing recruitment could substantially curtail violence and lower cartel size.