car·​tel kär-ˈtel How to pronounce cartel (audio)
: a written agreement between belligerent nations
: a combination of independent commercial or industrial enterprises designed to limit competition or fix prices
illegal drug cartels
: a combination of political groups for common action

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The literal meaning of Italian cartello, a derivative of carta, “leaf of paper,” is “placard.” The word is also used for a letter of defiance or a challenge. In this sense the Italian word was borrowed into Middle French as cartel, and the French word was borrowed into English. In English, a cartel was originally a letter of defiance. Later the word came to be used for a written agreement between warring nations to regulate such matters as the treatment and exchange of prisoners. Another type of agreement, a combination of commercial enterprises, is now called a cartel.

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A cartel is an organization of a few independent producers for the purpose of improving the profitability of the firms involved. This usually involves some restriction of output, control of price, and allocation of market shares. Members of a cartel generally maintain their separate identities and financial independence while engaging in cooperative policies. Cartels can either be domestic or international. Because cartels restrict competition and result in higher prices for consumers, they are outlawed in some countries. The only industry operating in the U.S. with a blanket exemption from the antitrust laws is major-league baseball.

Examples of cartel in a Sentence

a cartel of oil-producing nations that controls production and influences prices
Recent Examples on the Web Now the cartel kingpin’s lawyer wants to be a ranchera star June 20, 2024 The area is a prime trafficking corridor for cocaine from South America as well as migrants from across the world who enter Mexico from Central America en route to the United States. Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times, 3 July 2024 Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador attributed the deaths to cartel violence and said some of the victims were migrants from Guatemala. Abel Alvarado, CNN, 2 July 2024 As a result, his cartel travel agency stopped responding. Steve Fisher and Alfredo Corchado, USA TODAY, 20 June 2024 Federal authorities announced that a five-year investigation uncovered a complex scheme between one of Mexico’s most notorious drug cartels and Chinese individuals in the U.S. who laundered millions of dollars from illicit drug sales. Stepheny Price, Fox News, 19 June 2024 See all Example Sentences for cartel 

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'cartel.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


French, letter of defiance, from Old Italian cartello, literally, placard, from carta leaf of paper — more at card entry 1

First Known Use

1692, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of cartel was in 1692

Dictionary Entries Near cartel

Cite this Entry

“Cartel.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 17 Jul. 2024.

Kids Definition


car·​tel kär-ˈtel How to pronounce cartel (audio)
: a combination of business firms to control world markets and fix prices

More from Merriam-Webster on cartel

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