HomeNewsAnalysisDid MS-13 Train Mexican Cartels in Violent Tactics?
ANALYSIS

Did MS-13 Train Mexican Cartels in Violent Tactics?

BELTRAN LEYVA ORG / 8 AUG 2012 BY GEOFFREY RAMSEY EN

Mexican authorities have asserted that some of the most infamous drug cartels in the country picked up their violent tactics from a Salvadoran street gang, a dubious claim that may prove to be politically motivated.

On Juy 22, Excelsior reported that, according to officials from the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (PGR), two of the country’s most “dangerous and sadistic” drug cartels -- the Zetas and the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) -- had received training from Central America’s notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). The paper claims that in the PGR’s response to a public information request, officials maintained that the gang instructed elements of the two cartels in ultraviolent acts like beheadings and mutilations in a bid to help them “terrorize” their rivals. This had resulted in over 5,000 cases involving decapitation and/or dismemberment between 2007 and September 2011.

The report comes amid heightened concern over the street gang’s seemingly rising profile. In March the MS-13 joined its rival gang, Barrio 18, in announcing a bilateral cease fire·in El Salvador, a development which has some analysts worried that both groups are seeking to develop into more mature, organized criminal outfits.

Still, the suggestion that the Zetas and BLO received direct training from the MS-13 is highly questionable. To the extent that Mexican cartels have worked with them at all, existing evidence suggests that the relationship has worked the other way around, with the Mexicans instructing the street gang in larger-scale operations.

In April, for example, officials in Guatemala told the AP that the Zetas had incorporated Guatemalan MS-13 members into their ranks, sending as many as 18 to a training camp in Veracruz, Mexico. After their training the men were allegedly sent back to establish a Zetas-affiliated kidnapping ring in the Central American country.

Yet it should be noted that the very notion of significant contact between the Zetas and “maras” is in itself controversial. As InSight Crime reported at the time, the Zetas/MS-13 story was marked by several factual inconsistencies, and did not seem to match up with the general profile of the Zetas’ operations.

Even if there were evidence of such a relationship, and the MS-13 provided cartel members with direct instruction on methods of violent intimidation (here one imagines the gang delivering grisly workshops on beheading and mutilation techniques), this was probably not organized with the approval of the cartels’ leadership. Both the BLO and Zetas are, after all, motivated by profit. Because media coverage of Mexico’s drug war tends to focus on violent incidents like beheadings and tortures in isolation, it is easy to overlook the fact that these acts are committed with the end goal of acquiring a greater share of the drug market.

In effect, this means that cartel leaders have a strong motivation to limit such bloodshed. They understand that when used selectively, theatrical violence can be an effective intimidation tool against their rivals, but in excess it sparks public outrage and invites a law enforcement crackdown, which is undeniably “bad for business.” Considering this motivation, it seems unlikely that BLO and Zetas heads would seek to model the work of the MS-13, which is not known for its discretion.

The reasoning behind this bizarre and most likely false assertion is unclear. Excelsior does not explicitly name any PGR officials as a source, much less current Attorney General Marisela Morales. Still, the remark’s timing -- just three weeks after a presidential election -- suggests that it may have been politically motivated.

President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto has said he will take a different approach to combating organized crime than current President Felipe Calderon, vowing to prioritize a reduction in local drug-related violence over the capture of high-level cartel leaders when he takes office in December. As such, the PGR’s claim may have been designed in anticipation of this shift.

The recasting of much of the country’s recent drug violence as “un-Mexican” definitely favors Peña Nieto, as it moves the current debate away from the power on domestic drug cartels and towards a broader discussion of excess violence. In another apparent overture to the president-elect’s proposed change in focus, Attorney General Morales herself stressed on July 23 that local small-time drug dealing, as opposed to transnational trafficking, is a major contributor to violence in the country.

However, while pushing the blame for Mexican cartel violence to Central America's maras may be politically advantageous, evidence is lacking.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

ELITES AND CRIME / 8 SEP 2017

More than $430 million of misused federal funds, 128 fictitious or irregular companies and 50 government officials. They all form part…

KNIGHTS TEMPLAR / 21 MAY 2013

A Mexican vigilante group reportedly forced eight teenagers to sweep a town plaza in punishment for working for criminal organization…

COLOMBIA / 10 DEC 2020

Congress has released a sweeping report on drug policy in the Americas, laying out a long list of recommendations for…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Venezuela Drug Trafficking Investigation and InDepth Gender Coverage

29 APR 2022

On May 4, InSight Crime will be publishing The Cocaine Revolution in Venezuela, a groundbreaking investigation into how the Venezuelan government regulates the cocaine trade in the country. An accompanying event,…

THE ORGANIZATION

InDepth Coverage of Juan Orlando Hernández

22 APR 2022

Ever since Juan Orlando Hernández was elected president of Honduras in 2014, InSight Crime has provided coverage of every twist and turn during his rollercoaster time in office, amid growing…

THE ORGANIZATION

Venezuela's Cocaine Revolution

15 APR 2022

On May 4th, InSight Crime will publish a groundbreaking investigation on drug trafficking in Venezuela. A product of three years of field research across the country, the study uncovers cocaine production in…

LA ORGANIZACIÓN

Widespread Coverage of InSight Crime MS13 Investigation

8 APR 2022

In a joint investigation with La Prensa Gráfica, InSight Crime recently revealed that four of the MS13’s foremost leaders had been quietly released from…

THE ORGANIZATION

Informing US State Department and European Union

1 APR 2022

InSight Crime Co-director McDermott briefed the US State Department and other international players on the presence of Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela and the implication this has for both nations.  McDermott…