Are the brutal mara gangs in Central America allying themselves with the Mexican drug cartels, and what might this mean for organized crime in the region?
InSight Crime's investigation revealed that, so far, there is little evidence of any strategic alliance, but ties are developing, and some entrepreneurial gang leaders may be attempting to stretch their tentacles into transnational crime while others appear to be laundering money and creatively entering the political arena.
Often referred to as "maras," the most prominent of these gangs include the Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13, and the Barrio 18, or M-18. These gangs emerged in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Salvadorans, some of whose families were displaced by the wars in Central America, asserted themselves in their new homeland against well-organized and violent Mexican gangs. Many mara leaders were jailed, polishing their criminal abilities and then deported, dropping these hardened criminals in nations with weak police forces in countries just coming out of civil war. This led to a rise in gang activity in Central America that continues to plague the region. In some cases, the maras have evolved into transnational threats, extorting entire industries (public transportation systems, for example) and citizens of their own countries living abroad.
But while their activities are sometimes transnational in nature, the maras’ connections to large, transnational criminal organizations are minimal and do not mean they form any integral part of these organizations. This is mainly because even the more established gangs, like MS-13, which have permanent presence in the U.S., El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, lack any central command or even hegemony. They are divided into "cliques" and often one MS-13 clique has no idea what another is doing. So individual cliques are contracted by larger organized crime syndicates for specific tasks: contract killings, storage and sometimes transportation. More often then not, they represent disposable personnel ("desechables") who will never fit into the hierarchical and disciplined structures that the large criminal organizations have created.
Nevertheless, there are connections. These connections vary from country to country and within each country, and seem to depend more on the dynamics of the specific leader or gang "clique" than a specific decision or decree made by the gang’s leadership structure to be part of the larger criminal groups.
Gang size and dynamics in each of these countries is different, hence their connections to larger criminal organizations are also different. Aside from being one of many local distributors of illegal drugs, there is no evidence, for instance, that the Guatemala-based maras have any organic connection with the large criminal syndicates in that country. In Guatemala, the large criminal syndicates have their strongest presence in precisely the areas where there is little mara activity. This pattern generally repeats itself in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.
In Honduras, there appears to be a stronger connection between the maras and the large criminal syndicates, particularly as it relates to the use of the gangs as hired assassins. However, the evidence is almost purely anecdotal and largely unsubstantiated. For example, the Mexican group the Zetas are allegedly hiring members of the M-18 gang as hitmen in Honduras, intelligence officials said. Evidence, they say, emerged in February when authorities intercepted an M-18 package on a bus. In the package was a note authorizing the assassination of Security Minister Oscar Alvarez. "Let’s try and do this job as soon as possible," the encoded note allegedly said, "Since our 'friends' the Zetas gave us a $20,000 advance and said they would give us another $150,000 if we do this job well." However, many people InSight Crime spoke to questioned the authenticity of the story.
In Southern Mexico and throughout Central America, gangs have also worked closely with larger criminal organizations in human smuggling. While these ties still exist in Central America, it seems that the Zetas have largely displaced the gangs in Southern Mexico. El Salvador appears to be the country where the relationship between the major criminal syndicates and the gangs has advanced the most. Because of the growing evidence supporting this perception, the rest of this report focuses on El Salvador.
The contacts between the maras and large criminal syndicates are potentially game-changing in that country. El Salvador is also the spiritual heart of the mara world and where much of the leadership is based. These gang leaders have the space and ability to shift from small neighborhood operations to international narcotics traffickers, although that process is not finished.
There are indications, for example, that some mara leaders may be trying to control bulk distribution. In September, 2009, authorities arrested Moris Alexander Bercian Manchon, alias "El Barney," a leader of an MS-13 cell along the coast, carrying seven kilos of cocaine near La Libertad, directly south of the capital. Seven kilos is a small amount, but police intelligence said it was much higher than what maras usually manage. In addition, police intelligence sources said Bercian did not normally operate in the area where he was arrested. He is part of a Sonsonate cell known as "La Normandy," one that has been gaining power with its own increased control over the local drug market in both Sonsonate and La Libertad, two areas that may interest bigger players such as the Mexican drug gang, the Zetas, because of their direct access to the Pacific Ocean and proximity to Guatemala.
Police intelligence documents obtained by InSight illustrate this trend. In one document titled "Los Zetas en El Salvador," mara sources tell the police that Bercian "had moved up to the level of 'narco,' that he was not just a gangbanger and that he was directing the gang’s activities in Santa Tecla, the port in La Libertad, Ateos (sic), Sonsonate, Ahuachapan, Santa Ana, Quezaltepeque and Lourdes." The source says the mara cell controls the corridor from the Pacific to the border with Guatemala, including receiving product by boat. However, this intelligence report appears to be exaggerated. Police officials told InSight Crime that Bercian's ability to traffic those limited amounts of drugs stemmed from not from his connections to the gang and larger criminal syndicates, but rather the fact that his father owns a transportation business.
The same document says that another cell, the "Fulton Locos Salvatruchas" (FLS), had sent 40 members to a farm in the Peten, Guatemala, near the Mexican border, to receive training from the Zetas. FLS are known as one of the most violent of the MS-13 cells. The document quotes an MS-13 leader warning authorities that in January 2010, an offensive would begin. The leader did not specify what he meant but authorities are linking this threat, made last year, with a February 6 massacre in Tonacatepeque, just north of San Salvador in which masked men armed with M-16 semi-automatics and 9 mm pistols shot and killed six people in a restaurant. The massacre came a day after seven people were killed in a similar manner in Suchitoto, just northeast of Tonacatepeque. Another police intelligence report obtained by InSight said one of the victims in the Tonacatepeque massacre was linked to a drug trafficking organization along the border with Guatemala, along the same corridor police suspect the Zetas may be aiming to control.
There was also a press report that the MS-13 has had meetings with the Zetas in El Salvador. The story, based on a leaked police intelligence report, said gang leaders from four cells met with Gulf Cartel members at a bar in November 2008, where they discussed killing a local drug trafficker who owed the Zetas money. It’s not known if this meeting led to the massacres in Toncatepeque or Suchitoto. Police intelligence said that there may have been other meetings, including one in Guatemala with the Zetas involving an MS-13 intermediary working with the gang in Ahuachapan and Sonsonate. This intermediary was presumably trying to make direct contact with traffickers for the purpose of trafficking, police intelligence says, not contract killings for hire.
Police intelligence sources also say that the MS-13 are increasingly maneuvering to gain territory in San Miguel and La Union, two eastern border provinces that are still thought to be under the control of the loose federation of local Salvadoran drug traffickers known as Los Perrones. One theory of the MS-13s expansion in that area is that it is related to their attempts to gain control of the bulk distribution market along that border as well.
Salvadorans from the MS-13 may also be reaching abroad. In August, Costa Rican authorities arrested MS-13 gang leader, Ivan Paz Jiménez, with six kilos of cocaine. They charged him with drug possession and attempted kidnapping. Police intelligence sources say that Salvadoran gang leaders have been located in Juarez and arrested in Nicaragua in drug cases but did not reveal their identities as they form part of ongoing investigations in the United States.
Still, many police and foreign agents cautioned that the gangs are still very far from having the sophistication, discipline and wherewithal to make good partners in the drug business. In January 2009, MS-13 members in Sonsonate bought several kilos of cocaine in bulk, and then kidnapped the middleman, according to one foreign investigator. After the middleman’s cohorts paid the ransom, the gang killed the captive. To be sure, the MS-13’s kidnapping practice illustrates just how little infrastructure and discipline they have. Police and foreign agents say that the gang kills between 80 and 90 percent of their victims because they take little precaution in concealing their identities and have nowhere to keep the victims once they have them in their possession. In addition, gangs also tend to attract the most law enforcement attention, making an alliance with them risky.
Investigators, police intelligence and academics also emphasized the often great variance from gang to gang in operations and sophistication, and the multiple subsets that exist in each of the two major mara groups. Some cells are more organized and disciplined. Some are more violent and disorganized. Some are more wealthy and entrepreneurial. The differences are causing divisions within the gangs. Many are starting to question the status quo, leading to violent and bloody battles both inside and outside of the prisons. A few gang leaders in the street appear to be freelancing, searching for business opportunities, rather than following direct orders from the jails. The media report on the MS-13 and Zetas meeting said the gang leaders spoke openly about differences with the leadership. These differences may also be fueling part of the increase in homicides in the region.
Regardless of the questions surrounding the gangs’ involvement in the upper echelons of organized crime or their ability to take over bulk distribution of illegal narcotics, there is much evidence pointing to their increasing their financial strength and firepower. Police intelligence says that mara leaders have purchased apartments, car washes, used car dealerships, discos, bars and restaurants in an attempt to launder proceeds and conceal their drug, kidnap, car theft and extortion businesses. They have also made vehicles and properties available for use by all of their members, illustrating their tendency toward subsuming personal gain for the creation of a larger, more sophisticated criminal network.
On the weapons side, police have seen an uptick in the use of M-16 assault rifles and military issue grenades in recent attacks. In the first two weeks of January police confiscated four M-67 grenades and four grenade launchers, among other armaments. Maras are also suspected to have tossed grenades at several businesses in the last few months, a warning to shopkeepers who do not pay their quotas on time. Some police theorize that the gangs may be getting this armament from more sophisticated groups, such as the Zetas, as suggested in the aforementioned intelligence report. But the black market arms market in El Salvador is so big, it is hard to pinpoint the origin of the weapons.
The maras have also become more politically savvy. While in most communities, their power is still based on fear and retribution, one journalist noted an increasing tendency to reach out to the community. In one neighborhood in San Salvador, he said the mara leader was also a member of the community organization. In recent years, maras have also opened themselves up to academic and non-governmental studies, increasing their ties to these organizations in the process. The NGO community, in particular one known as the Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación de Derecho (FESPAD), has begun an ongoing dialogue with the mara leaders, becoming organizers and advocates of their rights inside and outside of jail. Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes tapped several FESPAD leaders to work with his government on security issues, thereby formalizing this push towards what has been called a "dialogue."
This political push by the maras, however, appears to have failed. Recently, the Funes administration sent army and police units to take over several of the worst prisons. The government and opposition forces also united to write up a new anti-gang law that greatly resembles the old law that led to the incarceration of thousands of gang members. The political effort follows a June 2010 attack on a public bus in which the perpetrators burned the bus and killed sixteen passengers. Authorities theorize that the bus company had not paid one of the mara groups its quota. Polls following the attack on the bus also show the Salvadoran population is in favor of hard line policies, but, as it has been to date, these policies may further accelerate the maras’ evolution.
This article was prepared following four weeks of field research in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in January and February 2010, during which time the author spoke to numerous local security officials, diplomatic observers, intelligence agents and analysts. The author also obtained intelligence reports and used news clippings to augment his reporting. These articles included: "Desbaratan plan para ultimar a Oscar Álvarez," La Tribuna, February 18, 2010; "Detectan reunión entre cartel del Golfo y pandilla en El Salvador," La Prensa Gráfica, December 7, 2008; "Piden dureza contra maras," El Diario de Hoy, June 30, 2010. See also, "Gangs in Central America," Congressional Research Service (CRS), December 4, 2009 (pdf).