Members of the MS13 in Guatemala are now investing their earnings from extortion in legal enterprises, according to a new report, although it remains unclear to what extent the street gang has become involved in international drug trafficking.
According to an investigative report by Prensa Libre, the MS13's evolution as a criminal enterprise in Guatemala has been "gradual but constant" since the gang first consolidated its presence in the country in the early 2000s. Although the gang has long relied on extortion as a source of illicit revenue, members are now reportedly investing this money in legitimate businesses, such as local shops and fleets of motorcycle taxis.
"They want to stop being gangsters in order to become businessmen and entrepreneurs," said Juan Pablo Rios, an adviser to Guatemala's Ministry of the Interior.
According to the report, the gang uses motorcycle taxis to blend in with legitimate businesses, as well as to collect extortion money, move drugs and weapons, and monitor police patrols.
An intercepted telephone call between two gang leaders discussing an international drug shipment has also worried authorities the MS13 may be participating in the transnational drug trade. However, security officials have yet to verify the extent of the gang's involvement in large-scale drug trafficking, according to Prensa Libre.
InSight Crime Analysis
The MS13's strategic investments into legal businesses reflects the gang's growing sophistication in Guatemala. Since at least 2013, there have been indications the MS13 and their principal rival, the Barrio 18, have been moving towards a more vertical and well-defined leadership structure. However, the MS13 leadership in Guatemala reportedly runs a more disciplined operation than their Barrio 18 counterparts, ordering their subordinates to not commit indiscriminate killings or get tattoos on highly visible parts of the body.
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However, it is worth noting that the MS13's leap into transnational drug trafficking has yet to be proven, as Prensa Libre reported. And previous reports of the MS13 in Guatemala integrating with the feared Mexican drug gang the Zetas were found to be unsubstantiated.
Nonetheless, the Prensa Libre report is a reminder that the MS13 poses a serious security threat in Guatemala, which often gets overlooked due to the gang's more visible presence in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras. El Salvador is considered the spiritual headquarters of both the MS13 and Barrio 18, and the gangs recently garnered international headlines there by imposing a bus strike that paralyzed capital city San Salvador for days.