Members of the Texas-born Barrio Azteca gang are receiving training from Mexico's Zetas, according to the testimony of a former gang member, a sign the group is evolving and deepening its role in organized crime beyond the border region.
Former Barrio Azteca member Jesus Ernesto Chavez Castillo -- who is serving as a witness in the Texas trial of the gang's ex-leader in exchange for protection in prison -- said the Zetas are training members of the gang for assassinations, attacks, extortion and protection, reported Informador.
Barrio Azteca sent two teams to the city of Torreon, in Coahuila state, to be trained in more efficient methods, according to Chavez Castillo. As part of the training, they were required to extort local businesses and pay off local and federal police.
Chavez Castillo's testimony also detailed the group's past role in the cartel war for control of Ciudad Juarez, in which they served as hired assassins for the Juarez Cartel.
Alleged former Barrio Azteca leader Arturo Gallegos is currently standing trial for the 2010 murder of three US Consulate employees in Ciudad Juarez.
InSight Crime Analysis
Barrio Azteca emerged in the El Paso, Texas prison system in the 1980s, and later expanded throughout Texas and into Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, according to the FBI's 2011 gang threat assessment.
It's operations also expanded across the border and the gang become a major player in the Juarez criminal landscape. It is now thought to have around 5,000 members operating in that area alone, while this latest report indicates it is expanding operations deeper into Mexico.
During the war for control of Ciudad Juarez, Barrio Azteca emerged as a key source of manpower for the Juarez Cartel in its fight against the Sinaloa Cartel. While the Juarez Cartel lost the battle, it appears Barrio Azteca used the experience it gained during that time to become a stronger force in the region.
As InSight Crime has noted previously, Barrio Azteca has in recent years moved towards consolidating its control on drug trafficking routes through Juarez and also engages in criminal activities including human smuggling and weapons trafficking in the border region.
SEE ALSO: Juarez After the War
Barrio Azteca was listed as one of the biggest security threats in the latest Texas Gang Threat Assessment, due in part to its size and its cross-border alliances with major Mexican criminal organizations. If the gang is indeed forming ties with the Zetas -- another enemy of the Sinaloa Cartel -- and becoming better trained, this would be another worrying sign of the group's professionalization and evolution.