The ruthless MS-13 gang is strengthening its ties to the powerful Zetas drug cartel in Mexico by supplying the cartel with advanced weapons and lending its own members for military-style training and cooperating on human trafficking, according to a newly released report.
The El Salvadoran gang, which has deep roots in Los Angeles, is also stepping up its efforts to avoid detection by U.S. authorities by encouraging its members to communicate in languages spoken only by a few indigenous peoples of the Central American country.
MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha and La Mara, is becoming more involved in weapons trafficking amid a March 2012 truce between the gang and its rivals in El Salvador, Calle 18. The gang is increasingly becoming a middleman between regional militaries and drug traffickers, including the Zetas, when it comes to the weapons trade.
“The acquisition of weapons, both for the gangs’ own use, and to barter and sell to Mexican [transnational criminal organizations], appears to now be one of the primary activities of the MS-13 in El Salvador and perhaps beyond,” wrote Douglas Farah and Pamela Phillips Lum in “Central American Gangs and Transnational Criminal Organizations: The Changing Relationship in a Time of Turmoil.”
MS-13 is also bolstering its own arsenal by acquiring more powerful weapons, according to the Farah and Lum, who interviewed gang members for their report.
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“The MS-13 in El Salvador is significantly enhancing its weapon capacities, transitioning away from dependence on handguns via the acquisition of automatic rifles such as AK-47s, along with grenades, rocket propelled grenade launchers and Light Anti-Tank Weapons,” the report found.
While MS-13 is partnering with other cartels, it is most strongly linked to the Zetas.
Individual MS-13 cliques “can and do take a variety of positions vis-à-vis dealings with the transport networks working on behalf of Mexican drug trafficking organizations such as Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel, protection of cocaine loads moving through Central America, extortion, human smuggling and other criminal activities,” according to the report.
The Zetas are also hiring MS-13 members to undergo “specialized military training” at camps in Guatemala and El Salvador and then have them work for the cartel for $400 a month.
The gang considers itself to be partners with the Zetas and not as employees of the cartel.
“We can’t let ourselves be run off by anyone in our territory,” an MS-13 member told the report’s authors about a 2010 dispute between the gang and the Zetas over drug trafficking routes. “We can work with anyone, but we won’t work for [emphasis in original] anyone.”
Mara Salvatrucha is also trying to hamper the U.S. government's attempt to disrupt the gang by making it more difficult for US authorities to decipher their cell phone conversations.
“The gang is sending members to study Nahuatl and other almost extinct regional indigenous languages, most with fewer than one hundred native speakers. The purpose is not to achieve fluency in these languages, but to learn enough of the vocabulary to develop an indecipherable code for use in internal communications,” the report found. “Given that only a handful of people in a few indigenous communities and universities speak these languages, the chances of being able to decipher such a code are slim.”
Among other tidbits in the report:
- · MS-13 is taking advantage of gun buybacks organized by the El Salvadoran government to trade in outdated and worthless weapons. The gang is using the cash to purchase higher-quality guns.
- · The gang’s leaders are now concentrated in San Salvador instead of its traditional base in Los Angeles.
- · The truce between MS-13 and Calle 18 may be over-exaggerated. While gang-related murders in El Salvador have been declining, MS-13 is reportedly burying its dead in secret cemeteries.
- · The gang is softening its recruiting requirements. When MS-13 was established in the 1980s, only El Salvadorans were allowed in the group. The criteria was later expanded to Central Americans, but now non-Hispanics can join in an attempt by La Mara to extend its reach into South America and even Europe.
- · MS-13 is trying to get involved in El Salvadoran politics by promising votes to politicians in exchange for allowing the gang to govern its own territory.