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.

Did you know?

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.

Example Sentences

a cartel of oil-producing nations that controls production and influences prices
Recent Examples on the Web And cartels and other large criminal syndicates have bought parcels., 31 May 2023 There is zero evidence of his connection to a gang or cartel, according to the Dallas Morning News‘ report on misinformation swirling in the aftermath of the mall massacre. Miles Klee, Rolling Stone, 9 May 2023 McGee's despair persisted as cartel members drove them around blindfolded in trucks filled with police scanners. CBS News, 14 Apr. 2023 The Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels have evolved into high-tech geeks, relying on savvy business skills, encrypted communication and social media to recruit dealers to peddle their drugs across the border and into North Texas. Alfredo Corchado, Dallas News, 10 Apr. 2023 Yet that flow of families and young migrants is often managed by networks of smugglers controlled by organized crime groups, including some of Mexico’s most violent cartels. Jack Healy, New York Times, 3 Apr. 2023 Mexican cartels have long profited from these odds while smuggling fentanyl and other narcotics. Jon Kamp, WSJ, 24 Mar. 2023 On Friday, the Texas Department of Public Safety advised that residents avoid travel to Mexico during spring break, citing the risk of cartel violence. Tatiana Arias, CNN, 13 Mar. 2023 Two died when caught in the crossfire of rival drug cartel groups. Michael Salerno, The Arizona Republic, 10 Mar. 2023 See More

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 5 Jun. 2023.

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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