Recent reports that dangerous Guatemalan street gangs from the MS-13 are teaming with even more dangerous Mexican criminal organization the Zetas are still as unfounded as when this was first reported several years ago.
An April 7 report from the Associated Press, based on an anonymous source and statements by an Interior Ministry official, says the Zetas are trying to integrate members of the feared Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) into their criminal network, in order to sow chaos on the streets of Guatemala.
It adds that the Zetas supposedly sent 18 mara members to a camp in Veracruz, who subsequently worked for the group as part of a kidnapping ring. The AP reports that one judge claims he is seeing evidence of this alliance in the form of payments to maras in cases that appear in his court.
The problem, of course, is that it does not reflect reality. While the two groups have certainly had contact, from Mexico through El Salvador, there is no evidence to suggest there is any integration of maras into the Zetas' criminal structure. This includes Honduras and El Salvador, two other places where this sinister alliance has been reported.
Days after the AP story appeared, Guatemala's Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said there were no integral links between the groups. Curiously, he added that he has no record of an Eduardo Velasco, the official quoted in the AP story, working for the Interior Ministry.
Two high level foreign investigators contacted by InSight Crime also said they had no evidence of any integral links between MS-13 and the Zetas but that they are investigating the claims, which include a jailhouse recording that allegedly shows maras speaking with the Zetas about creating such an alliance.
The Zetas do work with gangs. The most notable example is Monterrey, Mexico, where they have recruited hundreds of gang members to act as lookouts, errand boys, and -- as their ranks have run thin due to a bloody, prolonged battle for the city with rivals -- spare soldiers.
These gang members, however, are not considered Zetas, not even by the locals who refer to them as "Zetillas," or "Little Zetas." They are more cannon fodder than actual members of what has become the most feared criminal organization in the region.
The reports about trainings in Guatemala are also not new. A Salvadoran police intelligence report from 2009 obtained by InSight Crime says that one MS-13 faction, or "clicas" (cliques) as they are known, the Fulton Locos Salvatruchas, sent 40 members to receive training in the Guatemalan province of Peten from presumed members of the Zetas. However, this raw intelligence was not confirmed nor have more reports emerged since.
There are reasons why the Zetas, and other large criminal organizations, might want to work with maras and, in some cases, do.
- Foot soldiers: As the AP article rightly points out, the maras are numerous.
- Territory: Mara numbers allow them to occupy territory, something the Zetas are also interested in, and much of it valuable urban territory where lucrative extortion and micro-trafficking activities take place.
- Propensity for violence: Maras are known to carry out brutal acts without remorse.
- Hierarchical structure: Maras have some ability to direct large numbers in unison.
- Intelligence: Large numbers means many eyes and ears.
However, there are many reasons why the Zetas would never integrate gangs into their enterprise.
- Discipline: Maras are notoriously undisciplined and unprofessional.
- Loyalty: Maras' loyalty is to their gang, not the Zetas.
- Lack of training: Maras do not know how to handle assault weapons.
- Lack of anonymity: Maras are visible, obvious, and frequently the easiest target for security officials.
The Zetas are a sophisticated organization that certainly does cost-benefit analysis. The costs here are too high, which is why they have opted for more of a contract labor approach.
"It's not as if at some point in the future that the Zetas and MS-13 ... might [not] enter into some shady marriage of convenience," writes Michael Allison on his Central American politics blog. "It's just that there is no credible evidence of any such relationship yet in existence, and it doesn't make sense to hyperventilate over some future relationship."
There may be a better chance that gangs form their own transnational criminal networks than join with an outsider. There are instances in which mara factions have sought a greater presence in the distribution market, but this does not seem to happen as part of an integration process. One of the most notable is La Normandy, a MS-13 clique that operates in the Sonsonate province of El Salvador. There are indications that this group has sought and gained control of some incoming drug loads that land off the coast, then passed these to larger trafficking groups such as the Zetas.
And there is always the possibility that individual gang members make the leap into transnational crime. In 2009, Salvadoran authorities arrested Moris Alexander Bercian Manchon, alias "El Barney," a member of the Normandy clique, with 7 kilos of cocaine. Authorities told InSight Crime that this was part of Bercian Manchon's push into the big time, but they attributed this push to the fact that his father was the owner of a trucking company, not to his connection with the Normandy clique or with a larger organization such as the Zetas. (In a troubling epilogue to the story, Bercian Manchon's case was thrown out of court when the judge said there were inconsistencies in how security forces dealt with the evidence.)
Latin America's underworld is a fluid place with gangs moving up and down the ladder, seeking new alliances, advantages over their rivals, and the ability to penetrate or use security forces to their advantage. But reports about a Zetas-MS-13 alliance are simply unfounded and unsubstantiated. In fact, if the Zetas are lowering their standards to align themselves with the mara gangs as they currently exist, this may be a good sign for the authorities that the Zetas are losing the edge that has made them so formidable.