Key Findings

Similarities between Prison Gangs in the United States and Latin America

1. Reasons for Expansion

Prison gangs from all four regions under examination were created as a form of self-protection, either from other inmate groups or from poor conditions and abuse by guards.  Once established, their reasons for expanding inside detention centers continued to focus on defensive measures; even offensive attacks against other inmates or guards are justified as defending the gang’s control over territory, people, or illegal commodities trades.  Recruiting other inmates strengthens the group physically, psychologically, and sometimes monetarily.

Once prison gangs establish operations outside prison walls, however, the profit motive becomes more important for expansion than self-protection.  Gangs may use their profits to increase prison activities, but greed often overshadows such intentions.  The gangs grow more violent as they evolve into arms and drug trafficking organizations because: (1) brutal reputations reinforce gang power on the “outside” (as opposed to reputations as protectors on the “inside”); (2) competition from other, often transnational, trafficking organizations increases; and (3) the expansion of power inside or outside detention facilities sparks rival factions and gang warfare that spreads from the prison system to the outside or vice versa.

States authorities must comprehend the differing reasons for gang expansion inside and outside prison if they are to effectively combat these growing prison organizations. Different anti-gang programs may be needed to address inmate and non-inmate gang members.

2. Gang Cooperation as a Response to State Activity

Prison gangs in the United States and Latin America have proven themselves to be remarkably adaptive to state actions against them.  In Rio de Janeiro, for example, prison-based gangs have battled each other for control of the city’s favelas for decades; yet, in response to Rio’s pre-Olympics/World Cup crackdown on drug dealers, several of the groups—such as Comando Vermelho and Amigos dos Amigos—have called truces in order to battle their common enemy together.

In the short-term, if the state attempts to eradicate one gang at a time, it may be more likely to achieve its goals than if it attacks all at once.  Gangs are less likely to interfere with state actions if they are seen as eliminating rivals.  In the long-term, however, a one-at-a-time approach may serve to strengthen the prison gangs that are addressed last by eliminating their competition, making complete eradication more difficult.  At the very least, gang cooperation in the face of state oppression provides law enforcement with a single enemy on which to concentrate its resources.

3. Prisons as Bases Strengthen Trafficking Organizations on the “Outside”

In the 2010 Small Arms Survey, Benjamin Lessing notes that the strongest law enforcement initiatives give prison gangs greater control over their non-inmate members.  While this seems counter-intuitive, gangs in the United States and Latin America prove the point.  Law enforcement officials in the United States, Mexico, Central America, and Brazil have the legislative authority and practical capability to arrest gang members for a variety of offences. Yet, the higher likelihood of a prison sentence means that gang members increasingly expect to face their leaders in jail, and thus to receive punishment for disobedience while they were on the streets.

This finding suggests the importance of interrupting communications between inmates and non-imprisoned gang members.  Often, a gang’s most powerful leaders are imprisoned but not sufficiently isolated, undermining the effect of efficient policing.

4. Recruitment via the Prison Establishment

Most law enforcement officials recognize the role of prisons as breeding grounds for gang membership.  Non-affiliated prisoners often join gangs after being arrested as a form of protection from other inmates.  In such cases, the reason prison gangs often form in the first place (self-defense) is the same incentive that new inmates have to lessen the threats that those gangs present.  The cyclical nature of recruitment implies the need for stricter separation of the inmate population or better prevention of inmate-on-inmate violence.

5. Decentralization

While all of the observed prison gangs have a centralized command structure within their own organization, the criminal networks in which they operate are more decentralized in nature.  These decentralized networks include smaller street gangs, drug traffickers, other prison gangs, and any other unlawful group that wishes to cooperate with the prison gangs for monetary benefit.  An advantage of these types of networks is that the disparate groups which comprise them draw less scrutiny from law enforcement, enabling the wider illicit activities of the prison gang in command to go unnoticed and unabated.  Should law enforcement officials decide to crack down on one part of the network, the greater whole will survive to continue to funnel money and weapons to the gang in charge.

6. Communication with External Supporters

The purpose of prison systems is to lock away criminals as punishment for their misdeeds against society, yet all of the observed prison gangs have the ability to communicate with members on the “outside.”  Communication is often enabled through family and friends who carry messages out of the corrections facilities after a scheduled visit.  When personal connections on the outside are unavailable, bribing or coercing prison guards to act as intermediaries often suffices.  Prisoners have a tendency to acquire female supporters through written letters and, in the case of the U.S.’s TRULINCS program, email correspondence to invoke sympathy for their plight.  These sympathizers are then willing to smuggle contraband into prisons, including mobile communication devices hidden in the soles of their shoes.  Usually, women act in support roles for prison gangs, with the exception of the Nazi Low Riders.  Wives and girlfriends of incarcerated NLR members actually run the gang’s drug business on the outside and sometimes commit violent crimes on their behalf.

7. Involvement in the Drug Trade

Prison gangs, much like street gangs, are heavily involved in drug trafficking as a primary source of income.  All of the observed prison gangs engage in some aspect of the drug trade including trafficking, wholesale supply, or retail sale.  In all cases, gangs had to dramatically increase membership to meet the demands of drug trafficking operations, the majority of which are transnational in nature.  The common drugs involved in all four regions are marijuana, heroin, and cocaine.  Involvement in the drug trade has proved to be very lucrative for all prison gangs, bringing in large sums of cash that are used to purchase firearms, strengthen membership, and fund more operations.

8. Brutality

Common among all prison gangs is the use of brutality as a premier tool with which to accomplish ends.  All of these prison gangs have distinguished reputations for violence and ruthlessness, both inside prison and outside in the streets, and all are feared among other inmates.  Prison gangs only accept the most violent inmates into their respective ranks because intimidation in prison is the primary goal of any gang and the only way to ensure survival.  In all cases, these prison gangs utilize the murder of other inmates and gang members to earn respect and build an image that instills fear in possible enemies.  Across all four regions, prison gangs display brutality that attracts a great amount of attention from law enforcement, who often develop a strong fear of prison gangs.

9. Dispersion of Members by Authorities

In all of the cases we have studied, authorities have attempted to break up prison gangs by dispersing key members to separate facilities.  This approach, however, has not had the intended effect of crippling prison gangs and has, on the contrary, proved counterproductive in all four regions.  As leaders are separated from their gangs, they are moved to other facilities providing new opportunities to spread their gang’s ideology to a new population and recruit even more members.  As a result, prison gangs have rapidly expanded into new territories, opening up new chapters and creating even more widespread instability for the state.  In most cases, dispersion of gang members, including deportation, has transformed gangs like MS-13 and other Latino prison gangs from national to transnational threats.

10. Lack of Rehabilitation Programs Inside Prisons

All of the prison gangs in the United States and Latin America lacked rehabilitation programs aimed at combating the root causes of gang membership and changing gang behavior.  This is partly caused by the insecure prison environment that creates the need for protection within prison walls and the corruption of prison officials who may benefit from the gangs’ illegal activities.  In U. S. prisons, rehabilitation programs include substance abuse and mental health programs, educational programs, and vocational training.  In South America, there are no prison rehabilitation programs and many inmates reported lack of work or other constructive activities in prison.  In Mexico and Central America, prisons lack rehabilitation programs but do provide some religious programs for gang members.

11. Release from Prison Back into Previous Environments

In all the countries we have studied, the location of prisoners after they are released is an area that all the prisons systems have neglected.  In fact, all of the countries’ prison systems lack an effective mechanism that could potentially remove gang member from their previous environment. The lack of such a capability is problematic because these environments may foster the previous gang life style and lead the gang member back to prison.

12. Unemployment Serving as a Mechanism Pushing Gang Members Back into Previous Gang Behavior

Unemployment among recently released inmates is widespread throughout all the countries we studied.  Gang members leave prison without any resources and return to criminal activity as a means of income.  Many gang members in these countries make connections in prison that allow them to acquire new criminal knowledge and venture into new criminal enterprises.  In the United States, there are outside organizations that will help the prisoners find employment.  These programs may provide some incentive for the gang members to cease their gang activity; however, program success has been limited since the income provided from employment is substantially less than the income gained from criminal activity.

13. Gang Codes Keep Inmates Involved in Gangs Outside the Prison System

All of the prison gangs in the United States and Latin America operate under codes which outline rules gang members must follow under threat of punishment.  In the prison system, the protection and benefits that flow from the gang relationship provide incentives for gang members to follow these rules.  Gang codes also effectively keep gang members loyal to prison gangs after they are released, since the high rate of recidivism creates the possibility that members will end up back in prison system.


1. National Approaches to Reform

Despite the similar patterns witnessed in the operations of U.S. and Latin American prison gangs, states have taken drastically different approaches in attempting to solve their inmate-related problems.  In the United States and Brazil, officials have discussed reducing prison sentences.  In Central America, a potential law enforcement reform includes the reduction of “hard hand” arrests, whereby people are arrested because of their gang tattoos, without having committed a crime.  Brazil has also considered adding more education programs for inmates.

On the one hand, the different tactics supply law enforcement communities with a wider pool of experiments from which to learn.  Different countries often require culture- and environment-sensitive reform programs to address the specific problems relevant to their prison systems.  On the other hand, the similarities found in the evolution of prison gangs suggest that international prison systems may share some of the same failures.  Rather than working independently, officials from different countries would learn more by sharing data on prison gangs’ exploitations of varying detention systems.

2. Transnational Affiliations

International affiliations vary by gang and by region.  While MS-13 has California/U.S. connections and has been known to work with Colombian traffickers, details of such activities are imprecise.  Similarly, Brazilian prison-based gangs receive drug shipments through Suriname and Paraguay, have worked in Peru and Bolivia, and trade arms for drugs with Colombia’s FARC.  Nonetheless, the relationships between organizations from different countries are rarely clearly delineated and often only anecdotal.

By contrast, U.S./Mexico border-region gangs are transnational in nature but do not necessarily combine operations with other transnational organizations.  U.S. prison gangs primarily work within their own country.

Therefore, when prison-based gangs become large enough to participate in transnational operations, they often do so sporadically and opportunistically.  Because multi-national law enforcement presents logistical and political challenges, police officials have strong incentives to address transnational gang relationships when developing anti-gang operations.  Despite their similarities, prison gangs still operate as autonomous entities, often with independent goals.

3. Treatment of Prisoners

Prisoner abuse is common around the world.  In Central and South America, in particular, prisoner neglect and mistreatment is common practice.  Stories of abuse from behind prison walls are often met with feelings of apathy from general publics and in the absence of public outcries which might otherwise constrain their actions, prison guards outside the United States continue to mistreat prisoners, perpetuating prisoner grievances against state authority.

4. Differences in Power and Control in Prison Systems

Perceptions of de facto power and control in U.S. and Latin American prison systems vary.  In the U.S.-Mexico region, corrections officials continue to have effective control over prisons where no single gang dominates the prison population.  Differences in race and ideology divide the major strategic threat groups in the United States, preventing gangs from working together except in mutually profitable circumstances.  In all other cases, prison gangs in this region are more likely to engage in violent competition than cooperation.  Moreover, the comparatively low levels of prisoner abuse in the United States removes a potentially uniting political cause around which these gangs might otherwise coalesce.

In stark contrast, south of the U.S.-Mexico border region, prisoners often run their own prisons. Substandard living conditions, overcrowding, lack of basic amenities, and unrestrained prisoner abuse within Brazilian prisons cause inmates to pledge allegiance to gangs, such as the CV and PCC, in the hope these organizations will improve prison conditions.  Consequently, prisoners are more willing to participate in gang-orchestrated prison riots in protest of government treatment.  Poor conditions in the slums increase gang support among local populations as well, enhancing gang influence and social and economic control outside prison.  These bases of support enable gangs to disrupt cities from within penal facilities, in some cases contesting the sovereignty of the state.

In Central America, prisons have become finishing schools for criminal gangs, facilitating the recruit of new members from the inmate populations and the continued direction of operations from the inside the penal system.  In some Central American countries, such as Guatemala, gangs dominate whole cell blocks and possess de facto control over entire prisons with prison guards effectively excluded from such areas.

5. Reasons for Formation

The rationale underlying gang formation differs significantly across prison gangs in the four regions we have studied.  The majority of prison gangs formed as a means of protection from other predatory gangs, poor prison conditions, or abuse by prison authorities.  Although the specific reasons for individual group formations vary, all of the gangs eventually transformed into for-profit criminal organizations.

6. Members with Military Experience

A regional division exists in the distribution of prison gangs that have members with military experience and those that do not.  All of the observed prison gangs located in the United States and Mexico possess members who have previously served in the armed forces of their respective countries prior to entry into gang life.  The prison gangs in Central America and Brazil lack members with similar military experience.  Membership with formal military training is a major strength for prison gangs, enhancing group capacity for armed violence and self-defense.

7. Ability to Operate Without Interference from State Authorities

One of the most important differences among the various regions is the ability of prison gangs within certain states to act outside the control of the state and without interference from authorities.  Prison gangs in the United States have the disadvantage of operating in an environment of strong state control, where criminal activities must avoid detection.  In Mexico, Brazil, and throughout Central America, significantly weaker states typically lack the capacity to successfully combat the operations of prison gangs, especially in major cities.  These gangs are thus able to operate outside the control of states, often conducting criminal activities in an overt and public manner.  Gang operations in these countries are facilitated by widespread public corruption.

8. Separation of Different Gang Members in Central American Prisons

Central American prisons are unique among the penal systems described here in their inability to separate rival gang members.  In nearly all instances, this incapacity results from a lack of state resources.  While some Central American prisons are fully controlled by one gang,  many facilities are inhabited by two or more rival groups.  Where removal to separate facilities has not been an option, some prison authorities have attempted to separate the rival gangs by floor or cell.  In general, this system has been highly ineffective.  Particularly when rival gang members have been incorrectly placed in the same cells or on the same floors, prison riots have repeatedly resulted.  In Guatemala, for example, MS-13 members staged simultaneous attacks against M-18 members at seven different prisons using grenades, guns, and knives.  In the chronically underfunded and overcrowded Honduran penal system, another gang riot left thirteen inmates dead and thirty-eight injured.

9. Forced Recruitment

In Central America, recruitment of new members is critical to maintaining and increasing power for both MS-13 and MS-18 members.  Although recruitment can be voluntary, many gangs rely heavily on forced recruitment.  This Central American practice contrast sharply with the voluntary recruitment process among groups in the United States, Brazil, and Mexico.

Larger Implications: Why the Similarities and Differences Matter

1. Potential for More Inter-Gang Alliances and Operation Spillover

As the gangs under scrutiny continue to expand beyond prison walls, become more violent, and partner with one another to combat law enforcement initiatives, the possibility of increased cooperation with other criminal organizations exists.  Expanded operations lead to an expanded group of associates.  If those relationships are transnational in nature, gangs can exploit differences in national laws and police surveillance for their own advantage.  Each group’s familiarity with the prison systems of their own nation places them in an advantageous position to compare experiences.  Even when cooperation is limited to other domestic groups, prison-based gangs will benefit from exposure to additional illegal activities and trades with which their new partners are more familiar.

2. Prison Systems and Regulations Require Reform to Counter Gang Expansion

As the similarities above demonstrate, prison gangs perpetuate themselves through flaws in prison systems, benefiting from protocols with double-edge effects.  The procedure of sorting gang members away from general populations reinforces central hierarchy and control as gang populations become more concentrated, and policies meant to rehabilitate and address the needs of prisoners—family visits, religious worship, education programs, etc.—often facilitate illicit activities, for example, through the use of visitors to smuggle contraband into prisons and direct criminal actions outside.  In essence, prisons have become hubs for criminal enterprise where gangs are able to direct their for-profit operations and recruit new members to increase their power within the system.

Reform is essential both to stifle the growth of existing security threat groups and to prevent the emergence of new, younger gangs that may take the same evolutionary path of the older groups, eventually eclipsing their predecessors to seize dominance in national and transnational criminal networks.  As the Nazi Low Riders in the United States have shown, new gangs are regularly as violent and disruptive to society as the ones that preceded them, and with the concurrent evolution of modern technology and communication, they have the opportunity to become more dangerous to the state.

3. Dual Approach in Combating Prison Gangs

Authorities involved in law enforcement have been relatively successful in seeking out and arresting prison gang members in all four regions.  Gang task forces and numerous racketeering laws have been established in many regions to crack down on gang members in particular.  Once these individuals are incarcerated, however, efforts to combat gang activity are largely ended.  The analysis presented here has highlighted the need for a dual approach that not only emphasizes eliminating gangs among society at large but also stresses the need to counter gang influence inside prisons where such groups currently flourish.  Authorities must closely monitor incarcerated gang members while they are in prison and continue to expand law enforcement gang intelligence.  Few additional options exist to counter the criminal motives of gang members after incarceration.  Prison officials should focus efforts on the institution of preventative programs aimed at deterring non-gang-affiliated inmates from joining prison gangs.

4. Deportation as a Catalyst for Gang Formation in Mexico and Central America

The United States began deporting immigrants convicted of criminal activity to their countries of origin after the passage of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996.  The IIRIRA increased removals by expanding categories of deportation, restricting the ability to appeal deportation, and increasing the range of criminal offenses triggering deportation.  The U.S. government asserts that the deportation campaign is designed to target immigrants who have committed serious violent crimes; however, most removals to date have been noncriminal immigrants from Mexico and Central America.[1]  In 2008, 358,886 noncitizens were removed from the United States.  Of these, almost 69% (246,851) originated from Mexico, 29% of whom were criminals, and nearly 22% (78,726) were from Central America, 78% of whom were criminals.[2]  This mass deportation of criminals to both Central America and Mexico combined with the failure to notify national authorities of criminal backgrounds not only leaves these governments unprepared, but also places gang members largely unfamiliar with these foreign countries in a position to further identify with their gang and expand its organization.  Current U.S. deportation policies should be revised in cooperation with governments from Mexico and Central America. Reforming existing oversights will benefit affected destination countries while decreasing the likelihood of the return of criminal immigrants to the United States.


[1] Hagan, Jaqueline, Brianna Castro, and Nestor Rodriguez. “The effects of U.S. Deportation Policies on Immigrant Families and Communities: Cross-border perspectives,” North Carolina Law Review 88 (2010): 1809.

[2] Ibid.

Image Source:

Overcrowded Cell: R. Renee Yaworsky. “Poor Conditions Lead to Third Prison Riot in One Week.” Peace and Collaborative Development Network. Accessed 15 November 2010.


South America: Brazil

Author: Sara Masciola

Comando Vermelho (CV, “Red Command”): Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


The Comando Vermelho (CV) formed in 1979 in Candido Mendes prison on Ilha Grande, an island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro.[1] It was spurred by a 1969 act under Brazil’s military dictatorship (the Lei de Seguranca Nacional, LSN),[2] which classified both political prisoners—mostly educated leftists who frequently used robbery to finance their activities—and “common bank robbers” as national security threats.[3] Both groups were housed in the same prison unit, Galeria B.[4] Over time, the organizational structure and anti-state ideology of the political prisoners was adopted by the common prisoners (called “o coletivo,” or the collective) in an effort to gain prisoner rights against the jail’s systematic torture and prohibition of amenities, such as soap and blankets.[5]

In the mid-1970s, the political prisoners were transferred to mainland penitentiaries, and the collective was integrated into the general prison population in Candido Mendes, where they developed an internal security system.[6] According to one of the founders, William da Silva, “[E]veryone could have their own small businesses. All that was prohibited was killing, stealing, raping, and, of course, informing.”[7] They also used hunger strikes and letters to the press to draw attention to prison conditions—both techniques learned from their leftist cellmates in the early 1970s.[8]

In 1979, the Falange LSN (as they were calling themselves at the time) killed several rival leaders and became the dominant gang in the prison.[9] Prison authorities attempted to crush the influence of the CV by transferring its members to other penitentiaries, but this resulted in the spread of the “collective” ideology. [The original name of the group was the Grupo Uniao Gremio Recreativa e Esportiva do Presidio Ilha Grande. Authorities referred to them as the Falange Vermelho, later the Comando Vermelho, to project a dangerous image, and the press circulated the name.][10]

As prisoners escaped or were released, the gang’s focus shifted to drug trafficking, with Rio de Janeiro’s favelas as points of sale. Many of the CV members originated in the favelas, and drug-dealing in marijuana was a common feature in such places;[11] therefore, when the higher-profit cocaine trade emerged in the 1980s, the favelas were natural stockpile and distribution points. Following a series of turf wars in the 1980s, the CV controlled the drug trade in 70% of Rio’s favelas.[12]

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the nature of the Comando Vermelho began to change. Larger caliber weapons were purchased by the CV from the former Soviet Union after its collapse, when ex-bureaucrats “were selling even anti-aircraft weapons at affordable prices.”[13] International disagreements also led to an increase in territorial disputes and conflicts between CV figures. By the mid-90s, three competing splinter factions were formed: Terceiro Comando, Comando Vermelho Jovem, and Amigos dos Amigos.[14]

In 2005, the CV controlled 53% of Rio’s most violent areas, but that number dropped to 38.8% in 2008. In 2009, 40% of favelas were controlled by the Comando Vermelho. Local researchers connect the CV’s losses to the rising power of militia gangs.[15] Also as of 2009, the total amount of refined cocaine in the market each month was estimated at 660 kg (compared to 330 kg for the Pure Third Command and 300 kg for Friends of Friends). The monthly figure for marijuana is 2,600 kg.[16] Yet, despite loss of territory and internal fracture, the Comando Vermelho retains its original strength in the prison system today.[17]

Video on Comando Vermelho Gang Members

Current Operating Situation

The Comando Vermelho does not have a solitary leader.[18] However, former favela boss Luiz Fernando da Costa (known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar) is cited by most observers as one of the top leaders of the organization. Arrested in 1996 in Brazil,[19] Beira-Mar escaped in 1997 after paying a multi-million dollar bribe to prison guards.[20] He was re-arrested in 2001 by Colombian authorities, as he was trading weapons for drugs with FARC (later extradited to Brazil).[21] In 2003, Beira-Mar orchestrated massive riots before the Carnival festival with a cell phone,[22] and he was transferred to a prison that would block cell phone reception; but a month later, the Brazilian president accused him of ordering the murder of a prominent judge.[23] Coordinated operations continue from the detention center.

The CV can be described as a loose organization comprised of several trafficking crews (quadrilhas), each of which controls its own favela(s).[24] When quadrilhas need guns, drugs, or soldiers to help fight a rival group, CV members in other favelas provide them.[25] Therefore, while comando-level organization is decentralized and frequently horizontal, trafficking hierarchies do exist in the favelas (i.e. traffickers, managers and under-managers, sellers at point-of-sale, armed security, vapores [street sellers inside and outside of the favela], look-outs, packagers, and avioes, or young drug deliverers).[26]

Gang membership does not depend on familial ties or political ideology, but members often share a similar sociological and economic background. Most street-level dealers are in their teens, though members become involved in drug trafficking when they are as young as ten or eleven.[27] The average age of favela chiefs, meanwhile, was estimated to be between 17 and 18, since most older leaders operate from prison (Source: The Chief of the Division of Oversight on Arms and Explosives of the Civil Police in Rio de Janeiro, 2005).[28] Recruitment within the favelas is targeted at young people “based on the promise of earning ‘easy money,’ power and fame.”[29]

Favela residents do not frequently oppose the CV’s presence for 3 reasons. First is the patronage system. Located outside of the city’s purview, favela dwellers are offered social services by the CV to consolidate their support. These services include van transportation, cable, youth development programs, public dance parties (bailes funk), and provision of soccer fields.[30] Other goods provided are school supplies, medicine, gas tanks for cooking, placement in a hospital, and payment for funeral arrangements. Requests for larger favors are transferred to Comando leaders in prison, who then grant it.[31] Second is the so-called “law of the hillside.” In a similar strategy of reciprocity, CV members do not allow petty or violent crime in the favelas in exchange for residents’ silence about their illegal activities.[32] This ‘code’ is also used to prevent the police from regularly entering CV territory.[33] Third is the use of fear and terror tactics. Despite the imposed order, CV members intimidate residents, coerce favela girls to sleep with them, fire guns randomly, and publically show off their weapons to reinforce their image of power.[34]

In the prison system, a centralized president and vice president control internal prison activities, resolve CV disputes that occur outside of prison, and make final judgments on CV-wide decisions.[35] Day-to-day leadership on “the outside” is provided by the CV head of each favela, but the more powerful bosses in prison are still able to orchestrate coordinated campaigns. An example is the 2002 shutdown of Rio de Janeiro, which is suspect to have been instigated by Beira-Mar in protest of his transfer to a higher security prison following a prison riot.[36]

In the 2010 Small Arms Survey, Benjamin Lessing concluded that improvements in Brazilian law enforcement have consolidated the hold that CV prison bosses have on favela gang members and affiliates. Their control over the prison system gives the bosses leverage over members on the outside by giving credibility to their promises of reward or punishment upon a member’s recapture.[37] Additionally, informal CV membership may occur in prison, with newly-arrived inmates. This is because jails are divided by faction, and those who are unaffiliated with a group are labeled according to the territory from which they came. The segregation is justified by authorities as a form of prisoner protection in the understaffed facilities.[38]

Communications between Comando Vermelho members inside and outside of prison are basic, but their use is varied, resulting in surveillance challenges for law enforcement. The Brazilian newspaper, O Globo, reported: “In some cases, one prisoner calls a subordinate via cell on the outside who uses a two-way radio to transmit the message to a third individual who then uses another cell phone to pass along the message to its recipient in another prison. Each node on the communications network may use any number of cell phones or two-way radios, making tracking the signals very difficult.”[39]

CV wives and girlfriends also smuggle contraband to gang members during prison visits,[40] who are typically able to operate their organizations from inside prison walls due to lax regulations. Prisoners are allowed to possess cell phones because prison authorities do not believe an operation for their removal would be successful.[41] Prison authorities have also accepted bribes from the CV, in exchange for guns and permission to access other sections of the prison to fight rival gangs. For instance, Beira-Mar bribed jailers for guns and keys in 2002, which allowed him to pass through six security gates to murder a rival gang leader.[42]

Moreover, authorities oversee permissive sentences for Comando Vermelho crimes. For example, the CV commander in the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela was temporarily released from prison so that he could visit his family at Christmas (he never returned), and Carlos Eduardo Toledo Lima was given a one-year “open regime” sentence after he dragged a 6-year-old boy to death during a carjacking (he only goes to jail at night).[43]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

Currently, the gang engages in drug trafficking (primarily cocaine and marijuana), weapons trafficking, kidnapping for ransom,[44] car theft,[45] and “opportunistic street crime,” such as tourist-targeting.[46] Members also extort protection fees from favela businesses and obtain additional income from their monopoly on services, like van transportation and pirated-cable TV.[47]

Though their main operations take place in Rio de Janeiro, the CV has also been connected to Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, and Suriname in multiple ways. First, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) intermittently hides CV crime lords from authorities,[48] and in 2001, the Colombian army arrested several CV members and confiscated documents describing how FARC rebels received arms from Beira-Mar in exchange for shipments of cocaine bound for Brazil.[49] Second, Peru, Colombia, and Paraguay have all been sites for Beira-Mar’s operations. He established the base in Paraguay for 13 years before his arrest.[50]

Third, federal police believe most trafficked drugs and weapons arrive in Brazil through the borders with Paraguay and Suriname. Weapons are broken down and hidden in vehicles at crossing points. With an increase in bridge inspections, traffickers cross rivers by boat and dump weapons in the water for later retrieval.[51] Weapons and munitions that arrive in Brazil via Suriname originate in Libya, Russia, and China.[52]

CV influence extends to other cities in Brazil, as well, due to its connection with Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC, “First Command of the Capital”)—a gang that also originated in prison and controls the drug trade in Sao Paulo. In the early 1990s, the CV supported the founding of the PCC,[53] which later adopted the CV motto, “Liberty, Justice, and Peace.”[54] In addition, the PCC’s manifesto “refers to a coalition with the Red Command that will ‘revolutionize the country from within prisons.’”[55] Beira-Mar supplied the PCC’s leader with cocaine and introduced the group to FARC in 2001 or 2002.[56] Recently, the PCC copied a known CV technique when it orchestrated synchronized prison riots and attacks on police and civilian targets, resulting in the shutdown of Sao Paulo.[57]

[City-wide shutdowns in Rio have been a Comando Vermelho technique since 2002. They use threats to intimidate businesses, schools, and transportation lines into closing in order to demonstrate CV power to authorities and to protest the transfer of leaders to higher security prisons.[58]]

The gang’s connections to city police sometimes ease trafficking operations. A history of police violence against civilians and impunity for their crimes means that few favela residents view the police as a possible alternative to the CV for their security.[59] A “tax,” or monthly payment, is paid to the police so they will ignore trafficking activities. Policemen may also practice mineira (detaining a person for trafficking and demanding payment for release) or may be connected to weapons trafficking themselves. The relationship, however, is often volatile. Some policemen have tried to sell detainees to rival organizations,[60] and militias run by retired and off-duty policemen have become CV rivals, in that they now control 41.5% of favelas, compared to the CV’s 40%.[61]

Police confiscate cocaine during a raid of the Complexo do Alemao favela.

Since Brazil won the bids for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, the activities of the Comando Vermelho have been under increased scrutiny by the state. The local and federal governments have begun a campaign against the favela gangs in Rio de Janeiro in preparation for the city’s international visitors. Since 2008, the state governor, Sergio Cabral, has orchestrated a long-term campaign to police the favelas: “Pacifying Police Units” order gangs to leave the favelas, follow the ultimatum with heavy patrolling, and then provide 24-hour policing.[62] Furthermore, after federal forces overtook the CV’s Complexo do Alemao favela, they sent garbage collectors into the slum, extending state services to the previously unreached areas.[63]

Starting as a prison gang in the late 1970s, Comando Vermelho evolved into Rio de Janeiro’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, with influence all over South America. Today, the CV has lost some of that power, as well as territorial control, and the Brazilian government is concentrating on its suppression. Nonetheless, its original power centralized in the prison system remains robust.

Amigos dos Amigos (ADA, “Friends of Friends”): Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


As a faction of Comando Vermelho, the history of Amigos dos Amigos (ADA) parallels that of the former group until the late 1990s. Its origins in prison, as well as its ideological foundation, stemmed from prisoner abuse and a code of solidarity learned from leftist-leaning political dissidents. Stories about the ADA’s formation vary, depending upon the source. According to Neate and Platt, it was created in 1996 after the murder of Orlando Jogador, the CV head of Complexo do Alemao. Jogador was killed by another of the gang’s most powerful traffickers—named Uê—after they had declared a truce. The imprisoned CV leaders were divided as to whether or not to execute Uê, and those against execution split from the gang and formed Amigos dos Amigos.[64]

By 2009, ADA members oversaw drug market transactions for 300 kg of refined cocaine and 900 kg of marijuana each month.[65]

A section of the Rocinha Favela

Tensions between the ADA and the CV escalated throughout the group’s first decade. Since the ADA wrested control of the Rocinha favela from the CV, the latter gang has made numerous attempts to win it back. In 2004, Eduino Araujo (“Dudu”), a former CV leader in Rocinha known for sadism, launched an invasion of the favela.[66] He was defeated, but in the process, the ADA leader (Luciano Barbarosa da Silva) was killed by intervening police.[67]

In October 2009, CV gunmen entered the ADA-controlled Morro dos Macacos favela in another attempt to overtake its territory and inherent drug trade.[68] Thirty-one people were killed, including three policemen whose helicopter was shot down in an attempt to suppress the fighting.[69]

While the ADA thrived as a main rival of the CV for over a decade, in November 2010, the group joined forces with Red Command to fight police and federal forces who were taking over the Complexo do Alemao favela—a CV stronghold.[70] Prior to the firefight, police had raided ADA headquarters in the Vila do Cruzeiro favela; ADA gangsters then moved their weapons and soldiers to Complexo do Alemao and continued the battle as the CV defended its own territory.[71] It was speculated that the gangs’ common interest in hindering police efforts was stronger than their animosity for each other.[72]

Current Operating Situation

The most powerful leaders of the ADA are often the leaders of Rio’s—some say Latin America’s—largest favela, Rocinha. From April 2004 until October 2005, that man was Erismar Rodrigues Moreira (aka “Bem-Te-Vi”).[73] By the time of his death during a police raid, he had become one of Rio de Janeiro’s most wanted men.[74] Prior to Moreira’s rule, Rocinha had been controlled by the violent Luciano Barbosa da Silva, who was killed by police during the 2004 favela battle.[75]

By 2010, Rocinha’s leader was Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes (“Nem”), whose network agreed to a truce with other Rio gangs so that they could concentrate on defeating police pacification efforts.[76] Nem evaded capture until mid-November 2011. A few days later, Rocinha was overtaken and occupied by the Rio police, and authorities subsequently provided policing, healthcare, and electricity to the favela; reportedly, the takeover occurred without shots fired, and all drug gangs were driven from the shantytown.[77]

Though ADA organizational structure in the favelas is similar to that of the Comando Vermelho, there are also significant differences in the operating styles of the two groups. First, Zaluar claims that ADA’s split from the CV was partially a response to the increased violence of younger CV traffickers after many of their older leaders were imprisoned.[78] Rather than gaining the respect of favela residents, the younger men were increasingly terrorizing them; therefore, the ADA reinstituted a strict principle of reciprocity in their favelas to allow for better relations with their neighbors, and thus, the possibility of future expansion for their trafficking operations.[79]

Second, the ADA has traditionally sought a “working relationship” with the police, rather than viewing state forces as stark enemies.[80] For example, in 2002, the leader of the ADA in northern Rocinha—only partially controlled by the ADA at the time—was Celso Luis Rodrigues, also known as Celsinho.[81] Those under Celsinho’s command did not intentionally kill police; instead, the ADA bribed them.[82] In return, Celsinho gained access to a police car and uniform whenever he wanted to leave the favela.[83]

Finally, ADA-controlled favelas have not always been as tightly bound as those under CV control. While the Amigos dos Amigos groups shared similar ideals and practices, the gang’s earlier years were marked by an agreement not to interfere in each other’s affairs.[84] As mentioned earlier, however, the recent police crackdown on Rio gangs has forced even rivals to help each other.

Not much is written about ADA activities in prison. Like the CV, the gang has a strong inmate presence and does a lot of recruiting while detained. Again, this is mostly due to authorities’ habit of assigning new, unaffiliated prisoners to sections of the jail controlled by one or another faction; prisoners often join a gang by default as a survival technique.[85]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

ADA operations are similar to those of other trafficking and prison gangs in Rio and Sao Paulo. A 2009 report from the Joint Special Operations University (a component of the United States Special Operations Command) summarized the situation as follows:

“The PCC, CV, TCP, and ADA have firepower based on automatic rifles, submachine guns, pistols, and hand grenades. They often employ children to deliver drugs and to get information about troop move­ments. The gangs use caches to hide weapons and ammunition and employ cell phones, small radios, and communications using fireworks and visual signs. When at a disadvantage, they mix with the local population, and in critical situations they may use the population as a shield. More and more they are employing urban guerrilla tactics, techniques, and procedures.”[86]

Cross-border drug and weapons trafficking between Paraguay and Brazil is common. In 2008, Brazilian authorities seized “4.5 tons of marijuana that had been hidden under 1.5 tons of rice in a wagon parked in a warehouse;” the ADA had driven the load to Rio from Paraguay, along with “12 gauge shotguns and 50 boxes of ammunition.”[87]

Amigos dos Amigos emerged from the ranks of the Comando Vermelho to become one of its main rivals in Rio de Janeiro. Yet, with the increased pressure applied to both gangs by local and federal police, the ADA and CV have recently begun to tolerate each other for the sake of survival. Furthermore, not much has been written about the ADA presence in the prison system. Though some of their most powerful leaders have been incarcerated, the CV still retains an overall greater hold on Brazilian inmates.

Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC, “First Command of the Capital”): Sao Paulo, Brazil


Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) formed in 1993 in Taubate Penitentiary in Sao Paulo, Brazil.[88] The formation was influenced by the 1992 Carandiru Massacre, when state military police killed more than one hundred prisoners.[89] According to witnesses of the 1992 violence, many of the dead were summarily executed after they surrendered.[90] After the event, the director of the Carandiru prison was transferred to Taubate Penitentiary, where torture, isolation, and beatings were commonplace.[91] A group of prisoners soon thereafter formed the PCC. Their stated objectives were to “fight the oppression inside the Sao Paulo state penitentiary system,” and “to avenge the death of 111 prisoners.”[92]

The original motivation behind the PCC’s founding was directly connected to prisoner rights and poor prison conditions, both of which were to be addressed through prisoner solidarity. The gang adopted the CV’s slogan, “Liberty, Justice, and Peace,”[93] and was strongly influenced by the aforementioned group’s prohibition against murder, theft, and rape.[94] The PCC developed a sixteen-point manifesto outlining group ideology; acceptance of the manifesto is still required for membership: [95]

Importantly, among the goals of the manifesto was (and still is) the desire for expansion outside of the prison system to achieve national notoriety.[96] As Taubate inmates were transferred to less restrictive prisons, they shared the manifesto with the general prison population, and PPC membership swelled.[97] Over time, PCC leaders negotiated the transfers of key gang members in order to keep their control of numerous prisons in Sao Paulo.[98]

In 1995, one of the PCC’s founders, Misael Aparecido da Silva, wrote “Party of Crime,” a manifesto which became required reading for gang membership.[99] Reminiscent of the Comando Vermelho’s refrains about the state causing violence through its oppression of the weak and poor, “Party of Crime” echoes themes of injustice, inequality, and violence: “Today’s children who humiliate themselves begging will tomorrow, through crime, transform their dreams into reality, with all hatred, all revolt, for the oppressed of today will be the oppressor of tomorrow. What is not won with words will be won with violence and a gun in hand. Our goal is to affect the powerful, the owners of the world, and the unequal justice; we are not criminals by choice and yes we are subversives and idealists.”[100]

The early 2000s witnessed a marked increase in PCC violence. In February 2001, inmates in twenty-nine Sao Paulo prisons launched rebellions. The PCC coordinated the event via cell phones and an innovative “switchboard” system that allowed for conference calls.[101] International attention focused on the group for the first time, and the riots inspired thousands of new recruits.[102] Between January and May of the following year, members were found responsible for fourteen attacks on public buildings, mostly with bombs. In November and December of 2003, forty-four attacks on police stations occurred, all coordinated by the PCC.[103]

Around the same time as the attacks against their external enemies, the PCC experienced dissention within its ranks. In 2001 and 2002, an internal dispute arose concerning the organization’s leadership. Fifteen leaders—including Idemir Carlos Ambósio, who led coordinated prison riots in 2001—were killed, and Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho emerged as the PCC’s primary boss.[104]

Prisoners riot during 2006 violence in Sao Paulo

In May 2006, the gang coordinated simultaneous prison riots in over 80 Sao Paulo detention centers and 10 facilities in Paraná and Mato Grosso do Sul.[105] When police were called to quell the prison riots, PCC affiliates outside of prison attacked Sao Paulo cities over several days.[106] Some authorities believe that, like the CV’s 2002 shutdown of Rio de Janeiro, this attack was a response to the state’s decision to transfer 765 PCC members to a higher security penitentiary.[107] Others blame prison regimes that have limited human contact for inmates.[108]

Recently, internal problems in the PCC have resulted in the appearance of independent, minority factions: Terceiro Comando da Capital (TCC—Third Capital Command); Comitê da Liberdade (CDL—Freedom Committee); Comando Revolucionário Brasileiro da Crimi­nalidade (CRBC—Criminality Brazilian Revolutionary Command); and Comando Vermelho Jovem da Criminalidade (CVJC—Criminality Young Red Command).[109]

Nevertheless, in the 2010 Small Arms Survey, Primeiro Comando da Capital was described as “so powerful that it resembles a full-blown insurgency in some respects.”[110] It now controls 90% of prisons in Sao Paulo state.[111]

Current Operating Situation

Gunmen shot at the Parada de Taipas police station in Sao Paulo (2006)

Since 2002, the PCC’s leader has been Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho, or Marcola (“Playboy”). He is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence for bank robbery and is known for his intellectualism and interest in political manifestos.[112] Though Marcola is jailed at a maximum security prison (Presidente Bernardes Penitentiary), his deputies are all imprisoned in the same high security establishment, Presidente Venceslau.[113]

PCC structure is strictly hierarchical. Members inside and outside of prison are either soldiers, towers (PCC leader in a specific prison), or pilots (in charge of communications).[114] All are expected to pay membership dues each month, which range from $25 for prisoners to $225 for non-prisoners.[115] From fees alone, the gang takes in an estimated $500,000 per month.[116]

Loyalty to the PCC—and to Marcola, in particular—is consolidated with a mixture of terror and goods provision. As of 2009, 500 prisoners were being killed each year, and those who did not want to pay their debts to the PCC or continue with gang operations were “obliged to commit suicide.”[117] Yet, prisoners also benefit from PCC innovations, such as a private transportation and lodging system to allow inmates’ families to visit them.[118]

Great disparity exists in the information that Brazilian law enforcement officials possess regarding the scope of the PCC. In 2006, official membership was estimated at 6,000; this accounts for the number of members who paid monthly dues as required to be a part of the organizational hierarchy.[119] Representatives from the Sao Paulo Department of Investigation of Organized Crime (DIOC) also testified that the PCC controls more than 140,000 prisoners in the state, but some inmates falsely claim membership as a survival technique while incarcerated.[120] Furthermore, the DIOC believes nearly 500,000 Brazilians support the PCC outside of prison as lawyers, drug dealers, informants, etc.[121]

Similar to the Comando Vermelho, PCC communications from inside prison are conducted by cell phone in a permissive prison environment.[122] Guards open to bribery allow inmates’ visitors to bring them phones, which in turn, makes the coordination of state-wide prison riots possible.[123] Yet, even non-corrupt prison officials cannot prevent contraband from entering prisoners’ cells, as guards cannot search lawyers, who often transfer cell phones, laptops, radios, etc. to their clients.[124]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

Many experts argue that the PCC’s “‘fundamental reason to exist is to improve the rights of prisoners.’ Drug trafficking and other criminal activities are done primarily to increase the organization’s leverage and funding.”[125] Funds from such activities are used for prisoner welfare, such as sending former prisoners to law school or assisting PCC families.[126]

Nevertheless, the criminal aspect of the PCC has grown with time, demonstrating what journalist Samuel Logan describes as “its own style of mission creep.”[127] For example, membership fees are often used to buy weapons and drugs and to bail PCC members out of jail.[128] The PCC has also paid for their members to enroll in qualification courses run by security companies—so they can handle more powerful weaponry—and to train in offensive and defensive driving courses.[129] The group is extensively involved in drug trafficking, arms trafficking, kidnapping, prison escapes, and robberies.[130] Furthermore, it uses exceptional brutality to terrorize the population of Sao Paulo and to project an image of power. [Empty] city buses are burned, and PCC enemies are decapitated, disemboweled, and set on fire.[131]

Researchers note that the PCC has monopolized wholesale drug distribution—obligating dealers to buy its supplies—and has established a dealer behavioral code.[132] This code discourages violence against other dealers, rivals, or the police without PCC approval, and it is an effort to prevent unnecessary police crackdowns in favelas.[133]

Like its informal ally, the Comando Vermelho, the PCC began to trade arms for drugs with Colombia’s FARC after the CV’s leader introduced the two groups in 2001 or 2002.[134] Additionally, FARC provides the PCC with advice and training on kidnapping techniques; almost three-fourths of Sao Paulo state’s kidnappings are attributed to the PCC.[135] Also credited with helping the PCC organize its kidnapping ring is Mauricio Normabuena, a Chilean captain in the militant Frente Patriotico Manuel Rodriguez who was arrested in Brazil and shared a cell with Marcola.[136]

The PCC also controls sales points and transportation routes for drug and weapons trafficking in Paraguay, Bolivia, Colombia, and Suriname.[137] Trafficking across borders is conducted through methods similar to those mentioned for Comando Vermelho.

The PCC’s relationship with politicians is varied. While there is little evidence that the group directly controls elections, some observers believed the May 2006 (election year) prison attacks were timed to influence political leaders.[138] Afterward, Marcola told a local radio station that he negotiated with Sao Paulo authorities to end the attacks in exchange for prisoners’ rights to visit their lawyers and spend time out of their cells. The authorities denied it, but experts believe the same types of negotiations did occur and then repeated during riots the following July and August.[139]

Furthermore, the PCC has a history of political involvement. In 2001, it designated its first Congressional candidate to run for office, Anselmo Neves Maia, who was also a lawyer for the PCC leadership.[140] The gang planned to develop a political party called the Party of the Incarcerated Community (also PCC), and its general secretary at the time was serving six years in prison for robbery.[141] In 2009, law enforcement officials reported their suspicions that the PCC was preparing to invest in and elect members of the Chamber of Deputies.[142]

Primeiro Comando da Capital began in response to appalling prison conditions and unwarranted force by authorities, but it evolved into a statewide prison organization that currently dominates the drug trade in Sao Paulo. Many observers ascribe grand political ambitions to the gang, which is heavily influenced by its leftist ideology, and anecdotal evidence suggests they may be correct.

Regional Analysis

All three of the gangs profiled above formed in reaction to poor prison conditions, from a lack of basic amenities to physical abuse by guards. If such conditions had changed over time, one might be able to blame the continued existence of the CV, ADA, and PCC solely on the quest for drug trade profits; however, according to a former head of the Ford Foundation in Brazil, many detention centers still do not provide prisoners with clothes, toiletries, or mattresses.[143] In 2010, a national report also showed that Brazilian prisons were over their capacity by 140,000 people.[144]

Sao Paulo prisoners

Poor living conditions and overcrowding are both viewed by the government and human rights groups as critical factors in the regular prison riots that plague the nation.[145] A new law was passed in mid-2011 that would shorten prisoners’ sentences by one day for every 12 hours that they spent in education programs, but the effect on overcrowding remains to be seen.[146] Therefore, the original impetus for each gang continues unabated—though not unnoticed by authorities or human rights organizations.

One result of these inhumane conditions is credibility for the gangs at the expense of the state. The CV and PCC can still claim to fight for “Liberty, Justice, and Peace” with a certain degree of accuracy. Furthermore, poor conditions in the country’s slums alienate a large portion of Brazil’s population, giving them little reason to trust the state for its protection—as opposed to the patronizing drug dealers—and providing them with a socioeconomic link to the gang members. While the CV and ADA interact with the poorer population in their favelas, the PCC has also turned to politics and a platform of reform to communicate with the people on “the outside” (that is, those whom they do not already deal with directly). Anger over injustice resonates with the poor both inside and outside of prison, whether or not they are criminals.

Criminal operations also continue inside jails because authorities are unable to curb the corruption of prison guards. For example, bribed guards provide all of the gangs with weapons, cell phones, and access to prohibited sections of jails, and even those officials who do not directly cooperate are unable to prevent inmates’ lawyers from sneaking in contraband. Moreover, the policy of dividing prisoners by faction and assigning unaffiliated men to a section based on place of origin aids each gang with recruitment.

Yet, the full power of the Brazilian state is not always available to interrupt the cycle of poverty, imprisonment, and corruption. The constitution gives power over the police and prison systems to state governments.[147] For example, after the May 2006 Sao Paulo riots, Brazil’s president repeatedly offered the state’s governor access to federal troops, but the offer was declined for political reasons.[148] Nonetheless, despite questions of sovereignty, the federal government is not helpless to intervene. Following similar riots in July 2006, it pledged $46 million for new prisons and surveillance equipment in Sao Paulo.[149] Human rights groups have also suggested that the national government withhold funding from states to coerce them toward prison reform.[150]

Another trend witnessed in the evolution of Brazilian prison gangs is the appearance of rival factions from within the ranks. As the groups expanded, disagreements naturally arose, and splinter groups formed. The original prison ethos, therefore, spread to new gangs but also changed with the emergence of differences regarding violence, drug trade management, and territorial control.

In addition to internal disagreements, economic interests also shifted the prison ethos from a concentration on rights to a focus on profit. Tellingly, the PCC is the only gang of the three that is recognized by observers as existing to improve prisoners’ living conditions. The older Comando Vermelho, on the other hand, is now known primarily as a drug trafficking organization that uses socially-minded communiqués to justify its violence. How long it will take before such “mission creep” completely overshadows the PCC image is a matter of opinion; in reality, the group already finances its political activities and charitable acts through drug trafficking. Furthermore, because poverty is a driving factor in crime and imprisonment, the allure of financial motive is only natural for a prison gang.

Characteristic differences between Comando Vermelho, Amigos dos Amigos, and Primeiro Comando da Capital have been noted in the individual analyses of each group. For example, levels of violence are high amongst all three gangs, though the ADA has shown restraint. Regardless, the evolutions of the gangs follow the same general pattern: abuse by authorities, consolidation of power in prison, extended reach on the “outside” through the drug trade, campaigns for popular support (violent or otherwise), and a struggle to overtake the state’s power. The latter activity may be sought in different ways—favela patronage systems (CV, ADA), citywide shutdowns (CV, PCC), political posturing (PCC)—but it threatens the existence of law and order in all three cases.


Image Sources:

Map of Brazil: “Maps of Brazil,”, Office of the Secretary of State,

CV Graffiti: “Compendiums: Rio, BOPE, Gangs, and Complexo do Alemao,”

CV Video: “Comando Vermelho Gang Members,”, 27 February 2007,

Police Raid Alemao: “In Pictures: Brazil Forces Enter Rio Slum,” BBC News, 28 November 2010,

Rocinha Images: “Rocinha,” Favela Adventures, 2009,

PCC 2006 Riots: “In Pictures: Brazil Violence,” BBC News, 15 May 2006,

PCC Manifesto: Alvaro de Souza Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare: Brazil’s Fight Against Criminal Urban Guerillas,” Joint Special Operations

University Report, September 2009, 0909_jsou-report-09-8.pdf: 11-12.

Sao Paulo Prisoners: “Inside Latin America’s Worst Prison,” BBC News, 15 December 1998,


[1] “Firearms and Drugs Fuel Conflict in Brazil’s Favelas,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 November 2005.

[2] Ben Penglase, “The Bastard Child of the Dictatorship: The Comando Vermelho and the Birth of “Narco-culture” in Rio de Janeiro,” Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 45, No. 1 (2008): 125.

[3] Elizabeth Leeds, “Cocaine and Parallel Polities in the Brazilian Urban Periphery: Constraints on Local-Level Democratization,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1996): 52-53.

[4] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 125.

[5] Leeds, “Cocaine and Parallel Polities,” 52-53.

[6] Leeds, “Cocaine and Parallel Polities,” 53-54.

[7] William da Silva, Quatrocentos Contra Um: Uma historia do Comando Vermelho, (Rio de Janeiro: Vozes, 1991): 78.

[8] Leeds, “Cocaine and Parallel Polities,” 53-54.

[9] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 126.

[10] Leeds, “Cocaine and Parallel Polities,” 54.

[11] Ibid., 55-56.

[12] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 128.

[13] Alvaro de Souza Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare: Brazil’s Fight Against Criminal Urban Guerillas,” Joint Special Operations University Report, September 2009, 0909_jsou-report-09-8.pdf: 6.

[14] Luke Dowdney, Children of the Drug Trade, (Rio de Janeiro: 7 Letras, 2003): 33.

[15] Luiz Augusto Gollo, “Vigilante Groups in Brazil Trump Drug Gangs and Become Rio’s New Authority,”, 11 November 2009,

[16] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 18.

[17] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 137.

[18] Dowdney, 44.

[19] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 17.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Rio Violence Spurs Drug Lord Transfer,” CNN, 27 February 2003, 02/27/crime.brazil.reut/index.html.

[23] “Lula Vows to Defeat Crime,” BBC News, 25 March 2003,

[24] Marcelo Lopes de Souza, “Social Movements in the Face of Criminal Power,” City, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2009): 31.

[25] Alba Zaluar, “Perverse Integration: Drug Trafficking and Youth in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro,” Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Spring 2000): 664.

[26] Zaluar, “Perverse Integration,” 660-661 and Dowdney, 47-49.

[27] Enrique Desmond Arias, Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006): 32.

[28] “Firearms and Drugs,” 2005.

[29] Zaluar, “Perverse Integration,” 662.

[30] Robert Neuwirth, “Rio Drug Gangs Forge a Fragile Security,” North American Congress on Latin America, Vol. 36, No. 2 (September/October 2002): 34.

[31] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 131.

[32] R. Ben Penglase, “The Shutdown of Rio de Janeiro: The Poetics of Drug Trafficker Violence,” Anthropology Today, Vol. 21, No. 5 (October 2005): 4.

[33] Neuwirth, “Rio Drug Gangs,” 34.

[34] Penglase, “The Shutdown of Rio de Janeiro,” 5. Arias and Dowdney also note favela residents’ tolerance of traffickers due to protection, aid, and violent threats.

[35] Dowdney, 45.

[36] Penglase, “The Shutdown of Rio de Janeiro,” 3.

[37] Benjamin Lessing, “The Danger of Dungeons: Prison Gangs and Incarcerated Militant Groups,” Small Arms Survey 2010: Gangs, Groups, and Guns, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 169.

[38] “Firearms and Drugs,” 2005.

[39] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 19.

[40] “Firearms and Drugs,” 2005.

[41] Bryan McCann, “Criminal Networks in Urban Brazil,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, (Summer/Fall 2007): 16.

[42] “Crime in Brazil: Maximum Insecurity,” The Economist, 19 September 2002, 1338235/print.

[43] McCann, “Criminal Networks,” 19.

[44] Ibid., 17.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 15.

[48] Ibid., 16.

[49] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 23-24.

[50] Ibid., 17.

[51] “Firearms and Drugs,” 2005.

[52] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 26.

[53] Ibid., 6.

[54] Lessing, 170.

[55] Stephanie Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” Council on Foreign Relations, 26 September 2006, http://

[56] Ibid.

[57] Lessing, 157.

[58] Penglase, “The Shutdown of Rio de Janeiro,” 3.

[59] Penglase, “The Bastard Child,” 131.

[60] Ibid., 136.

[61] Gollo, “Vigilante Groups in Brazil,”

[62] “Organized Crime in Brazil: Conquering Complexo do Alemao,” The Economist, 2 December 2010, http://www.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Patrick Neate and Damian Platt, Culture is Our Weapon: Making Music and Changing Lives in Rio de Janeiro, (New York: Penguin, 2006).

[65] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 18.

[66] Gareth Chetwynd, “Deadly Setback for a Model Favela,” The Guardian, 16 April 2004,

[67] Ibid.

[68] Peter J. Meyer, “Brazil-U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service, 29 July 2011, crs/row/RL33456.pdf: 27.

[69] Ibid.

[70] “Organized Crime in Brazil,” http://www.

[71] “Time’s Up: Brazil’s Gangs,” The Economist, 28 November 2010, americasview/2010/11/brazils_gangs.

[72] Robin Yapp, “Rio Favela Violence: The Two Rival Factions Behind the Violence,” The Telegraph, 25 November 2010,

[73] “Rio Drug Lord Killed in Slum Shootout,” from Reuters, 30 October 2005, 623206/4042040.xhtml.

[74] “Rio’s Most Wanted Man is Killed in Police Raid,” Los Angeles Times, from Times Wire Reports, 30 October 2005,

[75] “Rio Drug Lord Killed in Slum Shootout,” 623206/4042040.xhtml.

[76] Harvey Morris, “Favela Urbanisation: Aim is to Bring Slums into the Mainstream,” Financial Times, 6 May 2010,

[77] “Brazil Police Target Drug Gangs in Rio’s Biggest Slum,” BBC News, 13 November 2011,

[78] Zaluar, “Perverse Integration,” 666.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Neate and Platt, Culture is Our Weapon, 2006.

[81] Neuwirth, “Rio Drug Gangs,” 36.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Neate and Platt, Culture is Our Weapon, 2006.

[85] Conor Foley, “Fuelling the War in Brazil,” The Guardian, 12 December 2009, commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/dec/12/brazil-prisons-crime-rio-murder.

[86] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 31.

[87] “Brazilian Police Seize 4.5 Tons of Marijuana in Rice Cargo,” BBC Monitoring Latin America, 1 May 2008,

[88] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[89] Ibid.

[90] Drauzio Varella, Estação Carandiru, (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1999): 288.

[91] Josmar Jozino, Cobras e lagartos: a vida íntima e perversa nas prisões brasileiras, (Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2004): 28.

[92] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 10.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Lessing, 170.

[95] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 10-12.

[96] Ibid., 11.

[97] Jozino, Cobras e lagartos: a vida íntima e perversa nas prisões brasileiras, 2004.

[98] Márcio Christino, Por Dentro do Crime: corrupção, tráfico, PCC, (São Paulo: Escrituras, 2003).

[99] James Holston, “Dangerous Spaces of Citizenship: Gang Talk, Rights Talk, and Rule of Law in Brazil,” Excerpted from Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil (Princeton University Press, 2008): 24. []

[100] Ibid., 25.

[101] Lessing, 171.

[102] Ibid.

[103] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 15.

[104] Ibid., 13.

[105] Lessing, 171.

[106] Ibid.

[107] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 2.

[108] Lessing, 171-172.

[109] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 15-16.

[110] Lessing, 159.

[111] Ibid., 172.

[112] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[113] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 14.

[114] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[115] Ibid.

[116] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 10.

[117] Ibid, 14.

[118] Lessing, 171.

[119] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[120] Ibid.

[121] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 13.

[122] Ibid., 2.

[123] Ibid.

[124] Ibid., 13.

[125] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[126] Ibid.

[127] Ibid.

[128] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 10.

[129] Ibid., 13.

[130] “Brazil’s Might Prison Gangs,” BBC News, 15 May 2006,

[131] Holston, “Dangerous Spaces,” 4.

[132] Lessing, 172.

[133] Ibid.

[134] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[135] Ibid.

[136] McCann, “Criminal Networks,” 16.

[137] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 2.

[138] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[139] Ibid.

[140] Larry Rohter, “Brazil is Getting a New Political Party: Its Base is in State Prison,” The New York Times, 9 September 2001,

[141] Ibid.

[142] Pinheiro, “Irregular Warfare,” 15.

[143] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[144] Greg Michener, “In Brazil, Get Out of Jail Sooner by Hitting the Books,” The Christian Science Monitor, 13 June 2011,

[145] Becky Branford, “Brazil’s ‘Medieval’ Prisons,” BBC News, 2 June 2004,

[146] Michener, “In Brazil, Get Out of Jail Sooner,”

[147] Branford, “Brazil’s ‘Medieval’ Prisons,”

[148] Hanson, “Brazil’s Powerful Prison Gang,” http://

[149] Ibid.

[150] Branford, “Brazil’s ‘Medieval’ Prisons,”

Central America

Author: Vanessa Love

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)

Some believe Mara simply means “gang” or the name of a street in San Salvador.[i] Others, however, identify the name with the Marabunta ants of Central America, who are all nomadic social predators.[ii] Salvatrucha means street wise toughness and m the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, may refer to 13th street where the gang (MS-13) was formed, or reference connections with the Mexican mafia.[iii] There are currently many theories of what (MS-13) means but no one can pin point the exact definition.

The origin of MS- 13 is less ambiguous, and can be understood as a combination of two factors.[iv] These factors are: the violence from the civil war in El Salvador, and the effect of the United States culture on immigrants coming from El Salvador.[v] El Salvador’s history of violence, persistent poverty, and crime, also contributed to the formation of MS-13.[vi] In the 1980’s, El Salvador was engaged in a civil war, during which more than one million people fled. Half of these people formed sizable communities in Los Angles and Washington D.C.[vii] Some of these immigrants were former members of gangs while others were former members of paramilitary groups.[viii]

The former members of paramilitary groups (Farabundo Mari National Liberation Front) were trained to use explosives, firearms, and other combat tactics.[ix] They utilized these tactics in the U.S. when they needed protection from American community gangs (Asian, African-American, and Mexican). This need for protection provided the incentives for the El Salvadorian immigrants to form their own gang (MS-13). Ernesto Miranda, one of the founders of MS-13 stated, “In the beginning there were 30 of us. We were around 11 years old.”[x] From this beginning, (MS-13) expanded and became known for extreme levels of violence, compared to the level of violence utilized in other American gangs.[xi] The 1992 Peace Accords, ended the civil conflict in El Salvador, and demobilized more than 30,000 Salvadoran armed forces soldiers, 6,400 national police, and 8,500 other combatants[xii]. This demobilization left thousands of soldiers – ideal candidates for gang recruitment – unemployed.[xiii] This lack of employment led to an increase in the membership of gangs in Central America.The 1996 U.S. Immigration reform also increased the membership of MS-13 through deportation. Mass deportation of criminal gang members from the United States contributed to the gang’s trans-nationalism.[xiv] U.S. deportation policies resulted in an unending chain of gang members being removed from the United States to Central America, and then returning to the United States illegally.[xv] This unending chain only increased MS-13 activity, since it provided U.S. gang members the ability to expand in Central American Countries that lacked the legal resources to stop them. These countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) also had a large youth population, extreme poverty, and high unemployment, which provided fertile ground for MS-13 to expand and recruit new members.[xvi]

Current Operating Situation

The actual size and membership is unknown, but experts estimate that there are 8,000 to 10,000 members in the U.S. and anywhere from 50,000 to 300,000 members worldwide.[xvii] There are members in 31 states and the District of Columbia and three Central American countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.[xviii] There are also reports of the gang being in Mexico, Spain, and Israel.[xix] Local neighborhood cliques comprise the backbone of the gang’s organizational structure. These individual cliques operate with different degrees of sophistication, but most exhibit at best, a rudimentary command and control structure.[xx] Much like a terrorist cell, each clique has a boss or leader with absolute authority over the clique.[xxi] Each clique operates autonomously from the other cliques in the gang; however, leaders often communicate with one another to further intrastate criminal enterprises, hunt down enemies, and rally support for ongoing turf wars with rival members.[xxii] MS-13’s multi clique meetings are one example of the how the gangs communicate. At these meetings, gang members coordinate their activities, exchange information regarding law enforcement actions and efforts, and issue punishment and/or sanctions for infractions of the gang’s code.[xxiii]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

MS-13 engages in a multitude of illicit activities. In fact, “once they take root the Maras activities expand rapidly, starting with neighborhood taxes and supposedly extending to international drug trafficking”.[xxiv] MS-13 conducts more illicit activities in Guatemala because the state is weak and the police force is understaffed. “In Guatemala, they smuggle drugs, participate in human trafficking, and control prison systems…”[xxv] MS-13 engages in illicit activity in the United States, but it is not as rampant as it is in Guatemala. Presumably, because the state is strong, corruption is lower, and there are adequate police forces. The crimes MS-13 commits in the U.S. are burglary, car theft, drug sales, home invasion, robbery, weapons smuggling, carjacking, extortion, illegal firearms sale, aggravated assault, rape, and murder.[xxvi]

Barrio 18 (M-18, 18th Street Gang)

Originally known as 18th Street gang, M-18 formed in the 1960s by Mexican-American youth in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.[xxvii] The founders of the gang started M-18 because they were excluded from native-born Mexican American gangs.[xxviii] Originally, the gangs “cliques”were the composed of Mexican immigrants in Southern California, but soon M-18 began to recruit members from a variety of backgrounds.[xxix]

Current Operating Situation

M-18 is a much larger gang then the MS-13 in terms of overall membership, with approximately 30,000 members’ nationwide, compared to 8,000-10,000 MS-13 members nationwide.[xxx] Some research suggests that M-18, like MS-13, was transplanted to Central America with the deportation of aliens to Central America and Mexico in the mid-1990s,while other critics suggest that gang activity in Central America is nothing new.[xxxi] Similar to MS-13, M-18 has “clickas” in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.[xxxii] Initiation in M-18 is similar to MS-13 – the members can be jumped in or sexed in, in the case of female members. The jump-in typically applies to adolescent males, but females may opt to be jumped-in as well.[xxxiii] During the jump-in process, MS-13 members are beaten for thirteen seconds while MS-18 members are beaten for eighteen seconds.[xxxiv] The sexed-in method or the “train” requires a female to engage in sex with numerous members of the gang. Once initiated, members of both of the gangs are subject to a probationary period generally lasting two months.[xxxv]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

Following a series of violent incidents between the M-18 and MS-13, prison officials separated the gangs.[xxxvi] This allowed the gangs to reorganize their members on the inside.[xxxvii] On the outside, M-18 branched into kidnapping, petty drug trafficking, and contract killings.[xxxviii] There are also reports of M-18 laundering money through small businesses such as car washes, and trying to influence policy at the highest levels.[xxxix] M-18 external relationships include ties to the Mexican mafia, the Surenos, Los Zetas, and the Sinaloa cartel.

Regional Analysis

The Salvadoran National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC) estimates there are at least 25,000 gang members in El Salvador.[xl] In Honduras, officials estimate that there are than 20,000 gang members.[xli] In Guatemala, the estimated number of gang members varies between 8,500 and 175,000.[xlii] Comparing these numbers with the number of armed forces personnel in these countries reveals the fact that Central American police forces are ill-equipped to combat the growing gangs. In El Salvador, there are 17,000 armed forces, while Honduras has 8,000 armed forces and Guatemala has 31,000 armed forces.[xliii] To combat gang activity in the face of inadequate armed forces, Central American countries have enacted gang sweeps (Honduras) and heavy-handed measures known as “Mano Dura” laws (El Salvador, Guatemala).These laws and policies have not produced the desired effect of limiting gang behavior.

In fact, gang behavior is a major contributor to the violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Since these countries are at the epicenter of the gang crisis, with some of the highest murder rates in the world.[xliv] The chart above displays the high homicide rates in Central America from 1999-2009.

MS-13 and M-18 and the Prison System

According to Nagle, “the prison systems in Central America are woefully and dangerously inadequate. Rather than facilities that isolate criminals from society, Central America’s prisons have become finishing schools for organized crime and safe houses for gangs to continue their criminal conspiracies.”[xlv] In Honduras, the prison system is underfunded and dangerously overcrowded. This is also the case in Guatemala.[xlvi] These inadequate prison conditions have led to numerous riots between rival gang members.[xlvii] In fact, between 2002 and 2005, a series of deadly prison riots, assaults, and fires broke out, leaving hundreds dead.[xlviii] These events made it clear that prisoners had access to firearms, explosives, and mobile phones, and that prison guards were complicit in providing such items.[xlix]

“Roughly sixty percent of the gang members in El Salvadoran prisons have either been deported from the United States, or fled the United States to evade prosecution,”according to Kovacic.[l] Most MS-13 members are housed at one particular prison, the Ciudad Barrios, to avoid riots that result from mixing prisoners from different gangs. This isolation, however, also facilitates increased organization. Therefore, the prison system in El Salvador helped MS-13 develop into a highly organized transnational criminal organization.[li] In Guatemalan prisons, guards rarely enter the cell blocks that house active gang members, and the incarcerated take advantage of the boundaries to traffic steady flow of drugs, cell phones, and sex workers.[lii]

Weak Central American States (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador)

Gang activity is rampant in Central America because the individual states (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) are weak. Weak states are unable ensure the security of their citizens, which causes citizens to lose trust in the state.[liii] Some research suggests, Central American law enforcement officials lack the capacity and the resources to, target gang leaders effectively, conduct investigations, and share data.[liv]In El Salvador the PNC is responsible for maintaining security. The PNC is ineffective as a security force, because of inadequate training, insufficient government funding, lack of a uniform code of justice, and extensive corruption.[lv] This corruption extends to the prison system. In Guatemala, for example, “large areas of the state, including its prison systems- are out of the government’s control.”[lvi] Additionally, the justice and security sectors in Guatemala are weak, corrupt, overwhelmed, and neglected.”

In addition to the state being weak, many other factors in Central America add to the gang problem. Claire Seelke stated, “Several organizations working directly with gang members have asserted that the combination of poverty, social exclusion, lack of educational, and lack of job opportunities, are perpetuating the gang problem.”[lvii] Thus, any approach to solving the gang problem in Central America will need to address all these factors.

Video Clips


M-18 (18th Street Gang)


[i] William Harness, “Mara Salvatrucha”, Conroe Police Department, 1994-2006. Http://

[ii] Luz Nagle, “Criminal Gangs in Latin America: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability?,” Texas Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy, 2008, 10.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Juan Fogelbach, “Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and Ley Anti Mara: El Salvador’s Struggle to Reclaim Social Order,” San Diego International Law Journal, 2005, 226.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Melissa Sisking, “Guilt by Association: Transnational Gangs and the Merits of a New Mano Dura.” George Washington International Law Review, 2008, 226.

[viii] Ibid., 298.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Michele Voss, “Young and Marked for Death: Expanding the definition of “Particular Social Group” in Asylum Law to Include Youth Victims of Gang Persecution,” Rutgers University School of Law, 2005, 238.

[xi] Sisking, “Guilt by Association: Transnational Gangs and the Merits of a New Mano Dura,” 293.

[xii] Kelley Lineberger, “The United States-El Salvador Extradition Treaty: A Dated Obstacle in the Transnational War Against Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13),” The Vanderbilt University Law School Journal of Transnational Law, January 2011, 193.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Jonah Temple, “The Merry Go Round of Youth Gangs: The Failure of the U.S. Immigration Removal Policy and the False Outsourcing of Crime,” Boston College Third World Law Journal, Winter 2011, 195.

[xv] Ibid., 198.

[xvi] Casey Kovacic, “Creating a Monster: MS-13 and how the United States immigration policy produced the world’s most dangerous gang,” Gonzaga Journal of International Law, 2008-2009, Footnote 92-94.

[xvii] “Mara Salvatrucha: What is it, why is it here, and what is to be done,” 2.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Del Barco, “Latino Street Gang Mara Salvatrucha”, National Public Radio, April 19, 2005.

[xx] Jeffery Corsetti, “Marked for Death: The Maras Of Central America and Those Who Flee Their Wrath,” Immigration Law Journal, 2006, 411.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid

[xxiii] Sisking, “Guilt by Association: Transnational Gangs and the Merits of a New Mano Dura,” 295.

[xxiv] FBI: MS-13, National Gang Assessment, FBI,

[xxv] Kevin O’Neill, “The Reckless Will: Prison Chaplaincy and the Problem of Mara Salvatrucha,” Public Culture, 2010, 67.

[xxvi] Fogelbach, “Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and Ley Anti Mara: El Salvador’s Struggle to Reclaim Social Order,” 231.

[xxvii] Claire Franco, “The MS-13 and 18th Street gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats,” Congressional Research Service, 2008, 5.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] “Barrio 18.,” Insight Crime,

[xxx] Franco, “The MS-13 and 18th Street gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats,” 2.

[xxxi] Ibid., 3.

[xxxii] Juan Fogelbach, “Gangs, Violence, and Victims in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras”, San Diego International Law Journal, 2011, 422.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid., 434.

[xxxvi] “Barrio 18.,”

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Nagle, “Criminal Gangs in Latin America: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability?,” 12.

[xli] Ibid., 13.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Ibid., 235.

[xliv] Claire Seelke, “Gangs in Central America”, Congressional Research Service, 2011, 1.

[xlv] Nagle, “Criminal Gangs in Latin America: The Next Great Threat to Regional Security and Stability?,” 20.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Kovacic, “Creating a Monster: MS-13 and how the United States immigration policy produced the world’s most dangerous gang,” Footnote 106.

[xlviii] “The Danger of Dungeons: Prison Gangs and Incarcerated Militant Groups,” Small Arms Survey, 2010, 164.

[xlix] Ibid.

[l] Kovacic, “Creating a Monster: MS-13 and how the United States immigration policy produced the world’s most dangerous gang,” Footnote 106.

[li] Ibid.

[lii] O’Neill, “The Reckless Will: Prison Chaplaincy and the Problem of Mara Salvatrucha,” 74.

[liii] Seelke, “Gangs in Central America”, 6.

[liv] Ibid.

[lv] “El Salvador Human Rights Profile,” U.S. Department of State, 2010,6.

[lvi] “The Drug War Hits Central America,” The Economist, 2011.

[lvii] Seelke, “Gangs in Central America”, 2.

Mexico/United States

Author: Matthew Pacilla

Texas Mexican Mafia (Mexikanemi)


The Texas Mexican Mafia (TMM) or Mexikanemi was formed by San Antonio native Heriberto “Herb” Huerta in 1984 at the Huntsville prison facility in Huntsville, Texas.[1]  The original purpose of the Mexikanemi was to bring Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans together in an attempt to defend against other predatory prison gangs like the Texas Syndicate.  The Texas Syndicate had preyed on weaker, non-gang-aligned Hispanic inmates within the Texas prison system, and Huerta saw an opportunity to bring together a force to combat this threat.[2]

After its creation, the Mexikanemi quickly grew into a formidable force within the Texas prison system, expanding exponentially in the gang’s first few years of existence.  As members were released, the group’s focus switched from defending itself within prison walls to becoming highly involved in criminal activities outside in San Antonio, the gang’s primary headquarters. These criminal activities included drug trafficking, extortion, murder, and robbery.  The Mexikanemi’s criminal enterprise soon spread to numerous other cities across Texas, including Houston, Odessa, Dallas, El Paso, Midland, and elsewhere.[3]

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Mexikanemi had become a powerful criminal force in Texas allied with numerous Mexican drug trafficking organizations.[4]  The group’s first major transnational alliances were established with the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, providing access to large quantities of discounted narcotics.[5]  Soon after, the Mexikanemi expanded involvement into all aspects of the drug trade, including trafficking, wholesale supply, and retail sale.[6]  By the time the Mexican Drug War escalated in the mid-2000s, the Texas Mexican Mafia had begun working for a range of drug trafficking organizations such as Sinaloa, Juarez, Gulf, and Zetas, trafficking narcotics into the United States as well as performing enforcement duties.[7]

Current Operating Situation

The Mexikanemi possesses a paramilitary organizational structure that includes a president, vice president, generals, captains, lieutenants, sergeants, and soldiers.[8]  Heriberto Huerta, the founder of the Mexikanemi, remains president of the gang and continues to run the organization from his prison cell in the supermax federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado.[9]  Benito Alonzo is the gang’s vice-president, and Robert Carreno is believed to be the leader of the group’s outside criminal activities.[10]  Huerta and Alonzo are estimated to have close to 5,000 Mexikanemi members under their control throughout Texas and parts of northern Mexico.[11]

The gang operates under a strict hierarchy with orders disseminated through an established chain of command.  Each prison or outside region in which the gang operates falls under the control of an appointed general, vested with near-autocratic powers within the specified jurisdiction.  However, the generals must receive authorization from the president or vice president before initiating any major action.[12]  Because the Mexikanemi has members both inside and outside prison, constant communication is required between the two elements.  This is usually carried out by female members of the gang who visit incarcerated members and deliver messages to outside crews.[13]  Prison crews cannot give orders to outside crews and vice versa. When a member is discharged from prison, he must report to the general of an outside crew and continue generating income for the gang.[14]

The Mexikanemi is governed by an official constitution that establishes rules, procedures, responsibilities, and rights among members.  The constitution was written by Huerta himself in the early years of the group and is still utilized today.  According to Mexikanemi rules, membership is restricted to Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans.  All members, including the president and vice president, bear equal obligations to the gang and every member is held accountable for his own actions.  Each member is responsible for recruiting new members into the gang, and each member who successfully recruits a new member is responsible for that person’s actions.[15]

The initiation process for the Texas Mexican Mafia is complex and well defined.  A prospective member of Mexican heritage must be recommended by an established member of the gang to the lieutenant in charge. The prospective member is then placed on a 120-day probationary period during which the recruit will be educated on gang policy and evaluated for full entry.  Probationary members must also complete gang assignments and jobs in order to prove worth and earn respect.  At the end of the probationary period, the lieutenant in charge holds a vote among established members from whom a majority vote is required to gain full membership.[16]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

The Texas Mexican Mafia is highly active in the state of Texas.  The group’s primary source of income is derived from trafficking narcotics into the United States.[17]  Additional income is generated through the taxation of local, street-level drug dealers throughout numerous Texas cities and within prisons under the organization’s control.  Dealers who refuse to pay this 10% tax or “dime,” one of the gang’s primary sources of income, are subject to home invasions, also known as a “door kicks.”[18]  Mexikanemi members are known for their brutality, killing anyone who attempts to obstruct or limit the group’s profits.

The National Drug Intelligence Center has identified the Mexikanemi as the most powerful and influential gang operating in south Texas.  The group works with Mexican drug trafficking organizations, smuggling heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and marijuana across the U.S. border, primarily through the city of Laredo.  From Laredo, the drugs are taken to San Antonio, the headquarters of the TMM, and then distributed to local dealers and a network of sellers throughout south Texas.[19]

The Mexikanemi has a host of enemies throughout the prisons of Texas and northern Mexico, including the Texas Syndicate, Raza Unida, and Barrio Azteca.  Violence between the TMM and these groups is common, but differences are usually put aside in the outside world where the groups often cooperate for profit.  The Zetas Organization remains the largest external patron of the Texas Mexican Mafia and frequently works with the group.[20]

Barrio Azteca


The Barrio Azteca (BA) gang was formed inside the Texas prison system in 1986 by a group of Hispanic El Paso-based street gang members.[21]  The gang’s founders were seeking to protect themselves against other well-established, predatory prison gangs like the Texas Syndicate and the Mexican Mafia as well as to unite the Hispanic inmate population from the El Paso area.[22]  As members were released, the gang became involved in transnational crime, including a wide range of criminal activities such as drug trafficking, contract killing, extortion, human smuggling, robbery, and intimidation.[23]

Barrio Azteca members are currently housed in state and federal prisons throughout Texas and northern Mexico. The group is most heavily concentrated, however, in West Texas: the gang’s primary headquarters is located in El Paso and just across the border in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico.[24]  Barrio Azteca members are often drawn from local street gangs who join the group inside prison.[25]  Both Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans belong to Barrio Azteca, allowing for synchronized trans-border operations.

In 2003, Barrio Azteca entered into a strategic alliance with the Juarez drug trafficking organization, which hired the BA to smuggle narcotics into the United States.[26] The Chihuahua-based cartel also began to sell the Barrios drugs at a discounted price.[27]  The relationship proved useful, and the BA ultimately evolved into the Juarez cartel’s armed wing, carrying out a variety of enforcement duties and contract killings.  The Juarez organization maintains the Barrio Azteca as its primary set of enforcers today.[28]

In recent years, the Barrio Azteca gang has become well-known to law enforcement authorities alarmed at the rising levels of violence associated with the group.  In 2010, BA members murdered U.S. Consulate employee Leslie Ann Enriguez Catton and her husband, Arthur Redelf, and the husband of another Consulate employee, Jorge Ceniceros, in Juarez, Mexico.[29]  The murders were ordered by the Juarez cartel which believed that Enriguez was distributing U.S. passports to members of the rival Sinaloa cartel.[30]  Both the FBI and the DEA now list Barrio Azteca among the most pressing regional threats.[31]

Current Operating Situation

Barrio Azteca has an estimated membership of between 2,000 – 4,000 members.[32]  The organization is structured in a paramilitary-type hierarchy, with capos who lead the gang, lieutenants, sergeants, and soldiers known as “Indios.”  The capo mayor presides over the command structure and is voted in by other captains in the gang.[33]  Eduardo Ravelo is believed to be the top leader of the Barrio Azteca in Juarez, Mexico and is currently listed on the FBI’s top ten fugitives list.[34]  Ravelo came to power as a result of his close connections to Mexican drug trafficking organizations like the Juarez cartel.[35]

The Barrio Azteca gang is composed of two major factions: one based in El Paso and its surrounding areas; and another in Ciudad Juarez and its surrounding areas.[36]  The gang also has members in Chihuahua City, Midland, and Odessa.  The factions are united by a “sacred code” or rules of conduct that each member follows.  These rules demand loyalty and dedication to the gang above all else.[37]  Only the most violent of prisoners are accepted into Barrio Azteca and new members must be recommended by “padrinos” or established members.[38]  Prospect members must then gain the respect of the gang and be granted membership by the capo.  Tattoos depicting ancient Aztec symbols are used to signify gang membership and feathers are used to signify rank.[39]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

El Paso border crossing

The Barrio Azteca gang is involved in various organized criminal activities including drug trafficking, contract killing, extortion, kidnapping, robbery, and intimidation.  Of these, drug trafficking is the group’s most profitable enterprise.  The gang is heavily dependent on its alliance with the Juarez cartel as a source for drugs such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamines at a discounted price.[40]  BA members smuggle these drugs into El Paso, Texas via Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and then distribute the narcotics to retail dealers throughout Texas.[41]  The ability to successfully operate on both sides of the border is a major strength of the Barrio Azteca.

To maximize profits, the Barrio Azteca charges a tax on the drugs it provides to U.S. dealers. This street tax, called a “cuota,” is strictly enforced on turf controlled by the gang.  In turn, profits from the tax are used to further the gang’s activities and to purchase firearms and more drugs.[42]  Dealers that do not pay the cuota are often severely beaten or even killed by members of Barrio Azteca, who possess a long-standing reputation for brutality.

The Barrio Azteca has played a crucial role in the Mexican Drug War, siding with the Juarez cartel to dominate the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso drug-trafficking corridor.  Members of Barrio Azteca are often called upon to carry out hits against members of the Sinaloa cartel on behalf of the Juarez cartel in exchange for drugs, money, or weapons.  This conflict still wages on today, and in recent years, the Juarez cartel and their Barrio Azteca partners have slowly lost ground in Ciudad Juarez to the Sinaloa cartel.[43]

Mexican Mafia


The Mexican Mafia, also known as “La Eme,” was founded by Luis Flores, Mundo Mendoza, Joe Morgan, and Eddie Gonzales in 1957 at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, California.[44]  Originally, the Mexican Mafia was formed as a way to protect members from older and more hardened Hispanic, black, and white gangs.  The original members came from various street gangs in Southern California who united together for common interests and put aside their differences.[45]  As the new gang expanded its numbers, a rivalry developed between the Mexican Mafia and inmate gang members from Northern California who became known as the Nuestra Familia.[46]  These tensions still exist today and both gangs have formed strategic alliances with other gangs to strengthen their respective positions in the prison system.  Specifically, the Mexican Mafia is now allied with the Aryan Brotherhood, and the Nuestra Familia with the Black Guerrilla Family.[47]

As the Mexican Mafia grew in the Deuel Vocational Institution, prison authorities took notice and inadvertently aided their expansion.[48]  The group’s founders were dispersed to other Californian prison facilities in an attempt to break up the gang. The move, however, proved counterproductive as Mexican Mafia leaders organized new chapters, expanding the group’s influence to previously unaffected prisons.[49]  Gang members were chosen because of their Mexican heritage and proclivity for violence.  As the Mexican Mafia’s strength and influence grew, the group came to control much of the drug trafficking, gambling, prostitution, and smuggling inside the California prison system and, as members were released, increasingly in the streets of Los Angeles, San Diego and other California cities as well.[50]

In the early 1990’s, the Mexican Mafia imposed a tax on other street gangs in Southern California.[51]  This 10% tax is still the backbone of the Mexican Mafia’s empire and is mainly enforced on the Surenos, a network of California street gangs who serve as associates of the Mexican Mafia.  In addition to the tax, the Mexican Mafia established relationships with numerous Mexican drug trafficking organizations, the most important of which has been the Tijuana cartel.  The Mexican Mafia buys discounted drugs from the Tijuana cartel which the gang smuggles into San Diego via Tijuana, Mexico.[52]  The two criminal organizations still maintain close relations today.  In 2002, a high-ranking Mexican Mafia leader, Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, defected from La Eme and went on to provide authorities with high value information on gang activities and structure.[53]  The Mexican Mafia is now an organized criminal gang involved in a variety of criminal activity including murder, drug trafficking, extortion, robbery, intimidation, kidnapping, and human smuggling.

Rene “Boxer” Enriquez

Interview with Rene Enriquez

Current Operating Situation

The Mexican Mafia membership is comparatively small, believed to number a few hundred true members, but these are the most hardened Hispanic inmates in Southern California and maintain control over tens of thousands of street gang members throughout Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and many other states.[54]  To maintain control over such a vast empire, the Mexican Mafia utilizes extreme brutality and intimidation inside the prison system.  Other gangs accept subordinate positions in their relations with the Mexican Mafia out of fear that when their members go to prison, they will face the well-established prison gang on foreign turf.  The Surenos, a network of gangs in Southern California, function as the primary muscle of the Mexican Mafia.  These groups carry out contract killings on behalf of the Mexican Mafia and serve as drug traffickers and retail drug dealers.[55]  The Surenos pay a 10% tax to La Eme on all drug sales.  In exchange for their services, the Mexican Mafia then protects the Surenos inside prison.[56]

La Eme is loosely structured but operates according to a strict code that members must follow, though no formal constitution exists.[57]  The group is primarily made up of Mexican-American convicts and ex-convicts from the barrios of East Los Angeles.[58]  Members must be of Mexican heritage and must have killed someone prior to entry into the gang.  Status in the gang is based on the amount of time an individual has been a member and the amount of hits a member has carried out for the gang.[59]

The Mexican Mafia is organized in a hierarchical manner, but has no single paramount leader.  This structure consists of three separate parts: members, associates, and soldiers.  True members, known as “carnals,” number only about 200 and lead the gang by making all important decisions.  Associates are prospective members who carry out criminal activities for the gang.  Associates are often given command of a particular prison or outside neighborhood and can only become official members if voted in by existing gang members.  Soldiers, comprised of the thousands of Surenos responsible for enforcing Mexican Mafia authority both inside and outside prison,  make-up the backbone of the organization and perform a variety vital gang activities, for example, like collecting extortion payments for La Eme.[60]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

The Mexican Mafia engage in a host of criminal activities such as drug trafficking, murder, extortion, intimidation, kidnapping, human smuggling, and robbery.  Drug trafficking is La Eme’s most lucrative illicit activity and is facilitated through strong connections to numerous Mexican drug trafficking organizations and unquestioned control over smuggling routes in Southern California.  The Mexican Mafia and the Arellano-Felix Organization, also known as the Tijuana cartel, cooperate in drug trafficking operations between Mexico and San Diego.[61]  Together, they move large quantities of marijuana, heroin, methamphetamines, and cocaine into Southern California for distribution to a large network of sellers.[62]  To provide the Arellano-Felix Organization access to Southern California, the Mexican Mafia charges a tax, which usually comes in the form of discounted drugs.[63]

The Mexican Mafia’s close connection to Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) constitutes another important relationship for the group.  Like other local gangs, MS-13 is required to pay taxes to the Mexican Mafia in Southern California.  In return, La Eme provides protection for MS-13 members in prison and assists MS-13 in fighting gangs that encroach upon their territory outside.[64]  When MS-13 engages in their own drug trafficking operations through Southern California, they pay another tax to the Mexican Mafia.  Many analysts believe the “13” in Mara Salvatrucha’s name (MS-13) is a symbolic reference to the group’s close relationship with the Mexican Mafia.[65]

Extortion payments extracted from gangs and drug dealers operating in Eme-controlled prisons and neighborhoods in Southern California are the largest source of the Mexican Mafia’s revenue.  The Surenos, for example, one of the Mexican Mafia’s most important subordinate groups, are required to make payments to the gang in return for protection in prison.[66]  Gang members that refuse to pay tax to La Eme are “green-lighted” for being beatings or murder and then robbed of their assets.[67]

Regional Analysis

Transnational Latino prison gangs constitute some of the most powerful criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere.  The influence of these groups now extends far outside prison systems into the streets and neighborhoods of many border cities.  Most of these gangs evolved from very humble beginnings to highly complex and deadly organized criminal groups with local and regional monopolies over criminal activities like drug trafficking along the U.S. border.  An examination of the Mexikanemi, Barrio Azteca, and Mexican Mafia reveals a great deal of similarities in background, command structure, and criminal activities.

Each displayed similarities in the original motivation for gang formation.  All three groups as well as other main transnational Latino prison gangs were motivated by the need for self-defense in the racially divided U.S. prison system.  Racial solidarity was seen as a way to bring Hispanic inmates together to protect against other predatory racially-organized prison gangs.  As each gang expanded, the need for a code of loyalty emerged to ensure gang cohesion.  Each gang possesses its own constitution, whether written or unwritten, detailing who is eligible for membership and what prospective members must to do to gain entry.  Violence is the most essential tool of each of these groups, and the ruthlessness of prospective members is a central criterion for consideration.  All of these gangs utilize lifetime membership in which the only way out is death.

Each of the major Latino prison gangs possesses a hierarchical command structure.  Gang leaders exercise authority through distinct chains of command.  This top down approach was modeled after the Italian Mafia, which many prison gangs look up to as the ideal criminal organization.  Leadership in all cases is centered inside the prisons where the majority of gang leaders are serving life sentences.  In spite of their incarceration, gang leaders continue recruiting new inmates and maintain contact with members on the outside.  Leadership structures, however, differ across gangs with some dominated by a single leader and others controlled by ruling-elites who make important gang decisions.

Each of the Latino prison gangs underwent a process of evolution from protective entity to criminal enterprise.  As each grew in numbers and members were released, leaders saw opportunities to capitalize off of group strengths and engage in for-profit criminal activity.  The Mexican Mafia was the first Hispanic prison gang to effectively institute a tax system based on the use of violence to extort drug dealers on the outside and prisoners on the inside.  The Mexican Mafia provides protection to street gang members, drug dealers, and average inmates in prison in exchange for a 10% tax on the illicit income of these actors.  Subsequent prison gangs have copied this approach as a successful model for turning violent propensities into profit.  All gangs engage in a variety of criminal activities including drug trafficking, murder, extortion, intimidation, and robbery, diversified criminal portfolios that effectively hedge against risks and threats to any one area through multifaceted operations.

Each of the groups is deeply entrenched in drug trafficking which constitutes the gangs’ primary source of income.  The Mexikanemi, Barrio Azteca, and the Mexican Mafia all have direct connections with Mexican drug trafficking organizations which provide narcotics at discounted prices.  All of the gangs are involved in the trafficking of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines through U.S. border cities like Laredo, San Diego, and El Paso.  On the U.S. side of the border, the gangs supply these drugs to local retail sellers, who they also tax.  This drug tax is vitally important to drug trafficking operations and universally enforced with violence or the threat of violence.

Image Sources

Mexican American flag. Borderzine:

La Eme logo. Florida Department of Corrections:

Texas drug trafficking map. National Drug Intelligence Center:

El Paso border crossing. World Net Daily:

La Eme founders.

Rene Enriquez photo. BBC News:

Enriquez interview. Youtube:


[1] “MEXICAN MAFIA – La Eme.” Prison Offenders.

[2] Diaz, Tom. “No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement.” The University of Michigan Press. Print.

[3] No Boundaries

[4] No Boundaries

[5] No Boundaries

[6] No Boundaries

[7] Broemmel, Mike. “The History of the Mexican Mafia.” eHow.

[8] No Boundaries

[9] “National Drug Threat Assessment 2011.” Department of Justice, August 2011.

[10] Montgomery, Michael. “Gangster Reveals Mexican Mafia Secrets.” NPR, 6 Sep 2008.

“National Gang Threat Assessment 2009.” Department of Justice.

[11] National Gang Threat Assessment 2009

[12] “National Gang Threat Assessment 2005.” Department of Justice.

[13] National Gang Threat Assessment 2009

[14] “Mexican Mafia.” Federal Bureau of Investigation.

[15] FBI

[16] Diaz, Tom. “The Mexican Mafia – National and Transnational Power, Part One.” Fairly Civil, 30 Aug 2009.

[17] FBI: San Diego Division

[18] National Drug Threat Assessment 2011

[19] Diaz, Tom. “The Mexican Mafia – National and Transnational Power, Part Two.” Fairly Civil, 30 Aug 2009.—-national-and-transnational-power-part-two/

[20] Diaz, Tom. “Death and Treachery in Los Angeles: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) Indictment is a Portent for the Future.” Fairly Civil, 14 Jul 2009.

[21] “Background: Barrio Azteca gang.” El Paso Times 10 Mar 2011.

[22] Carrillo, Marylou. “Gang Injunctions.” The City of El Paso.

[23] “National Gang Threat Assessment 2009.” Department of Justice.

[24] “Member of Barrio Azteca Gang Pleads Guilty in El Paso, Texas, to Racketeering Conspiracy.” Department of Justice: Office of Public Affairs 7 Nov 2011.

[25] Diaz, Tom. “Barrio Azteca – Border Bad Boys Linked To Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations Part Two.” Fairly Civil 16 Apr 2009.

[26] “Barrio Azteca.” Borderland Beat 15 Nov 2009.

[27] “Drug War: Crackdown have limited impact on Barrio Azteca.” Borderland Beat 13 Mar 2011.

[28] “Barrio Azteca.” Prison Offenders.

[29] Department of Justice: Member of Barrio Azteca Gang Pleads Guilty in El Paso, Texas, to Racketeering Conspiracy.

[30] Licon, Adriana Gomez. “Two “Barrio Azteca” Gangmembers Arrested for Murder of U.S. Consulate Employee.” El Paso Times 3 Jul 2010.

[31] “Barrio Azteca.” Prison Offenders.

[32] “National Gang Threat Assessment 2009.” Department of Justice.

[33] Borderland Beat: Crackdowns have limited impact on Barrio Azteca.

[34] “Eduardo Ravelo.” Federal Bureau of Investigation Oct 2009.

[35] Sherman, Christopher. “Mexican traffickers get help from US prison gangs.” 2 May 2010.

[36] “Texas Gang Threat Assessment 2010” Montgomery County Monitor 1 Sep 2010.

[37] Borderland Beat: Crackdowns have limited impact on Barrio Azteca.

[38] Borderland Beat: Crackdowns have limited impact on Barrio Azteca.

[39] Borderland Beat: Crackdowns have limited impact on Barrio Azteca.

[40] “National Drug Threat Assessment 2011.” Department of Justice.

[41] Texas Gang Threat Assessment 2010

[42] Department of Justice: Member of Barrio Azteca Gang Pleads Guilty in El Paso, Texas, to Racketeering Conspiracy.

[43] “Mexico: Top Juarez drug cartel figure captured.” USA Today 31 Jul 2011.

[44] “Mexikanemi – Texas Mexican Mafia.” Prison Offenders.

[45] Diaz, Tom. “Mexikanemi – The Mexican Mafia, Texas Version, Part 3.” Fairly Civil 27 Mar 2009.—-the-mexican-mafia-texas-version-part-three/

[46] “United States v. Valles” FindLaw 12 April 2007.

[47] “South Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis.” National Drug Intelligence Center April 2008.

[48] “South Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis.” National Drug Intelligence Center April 2008.

[49] Prison Offenders

[50] San Antonio Current

[51] United States vs Valles

[52] “Mexican Mafia – Prison Gang Profile.” Inside Prison.

[53] United States vs Valles

[54] “Six tied to Mexican Mafia arrested on heroin charges.” San Antonio Express-News 13 Oct 2011.

[55] “Texas Gang Threat Assessment 2010” Montgomery County Monitor 1 Sep 2010.

[56] Mexikanemi Constitution, My San Antonio.

[57] Contreras, Guillermo. “ More Mexican Mafia members arrested.” San Antonio Express-News 14 Oct 2011.

[58] Mexikanemi Constitution

[59] Mexikanemi Constitution

[60] Mexikanemi Constitution

[61] Diaz, Tom. “Mexikanemi – The Mexican Mafia, Texas Version, Part 3.” Fairly Civil 27 Mar 2009.—-the-mexican-mafia-texas-version-part-three/

[62] San Antonio Current

[63] “South Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis.” National Drug Intelligence Center April 2008.

[64] Diaz, Tom. “Mexikanemi – The Mexican Mafia, Texas Version, Part One.” Fairly Civil 23 Mar 2009.

[65] “Mara Salvatrucha.” Department of Justice: Drugs and Crime, Nov 2002.

[66] National Gang Threat Assessment 2009

[67] Stoltze, Frank. “Nearly 100 Arrested in Staggering Blow to Mexican Mafia, Authorities Say.” KPCC, 13 Jul 2011.


Why Prison Gangs?

Prison gangs are violent non-state actors (VNSAs) engaged in a host of criminal activities directly threatening to the security and stability of countries throughout the Western Hemisphere.  Their activities run the gamut from exceptional brutality to drug smuggling and human trafficking.  The existence of powerful gangs within government prison systems, the ultimate expressions of state authority and the primacy of the rule of law, is paradoxical.  Yet not only do prison gangs exist, they thrive in confinement.  Contemporary prisons often form the epicenter of criminal activities and serve as institutions of higher learning for criminals, where ordinary and minor offenders join organized criminal groups and transform into hardened gang members and career criminals.

The growing significance of prison gangs has yet to be fully recognized among security experts.  The analysis presented here aims to reduce the ongoing disparity between the increasingly importance of prison gangs in national and transnational criminal activity and the comparative lack of expert knowledge.

The problems of street gangs and prison gangs are increasingly inextricable.  Gangs outside prison , motivated by some combination of money and fear, often carry out the dictates of powerful prison gangs and incarcerated gang leaders.  Street gangs often occupy subordinate positions in their relations with prison gangs: inevitable incarceration puts street gang members at the mercy of violent and well-entrenched prison gangs, placing a premium on good relations with the latter.  The growing reach of prison gangs parallels the broader transformation of such groups into powerful, for-profit organized criminal entities, many of whom pose increasingly transnational threats. They are the enemy within, a threat that no one suspects until it is too late and must be recognized as such.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines prison gangs as:

“criminal organizations that originated within the penal system and operate within correctional facilities…although released members may be operating on the street. Prison gangs are also self-perpetuating criminal entities that can continue their criminal operations outside the confines of the penal system.”

In the United States, prison gangs are classified as Security Threat Groups (STGs).  According to the National Gang Crime Research Center (NGCRC), an STG is any group of three or more persons with recurring threatening or disruptive behavior which includes, but is not limited to, gang crime and gang violence.  The moniker of “security threat group” is intended to take away the recognition and publicity that the term “gang” connotes when referring to people who seek to undermine the system.

For the purposes of this project, the NGCRC’s definition of prison gangs will be used:

any gang (where a gang is a group of three or more persons who recurrently commit crime, and where the crime is openly known to the group) that operates in prison.

This definition is consistent with the reality that not all prison gangs originated behind prison walls.  The 2010 Small Arms Survey distinguishes between “natives” or “pure” prison gangs formed within and those “imported” into prison systems, the members of which function as “prison branches” of an organization that already established on the outside, such as MS-13 and M-18.  In practice, however, the distinction between a “native” gang and an “imported” one is often inconsequential.  The gangs observed in this analysis all utilize prisons as bases for their criminal activities and all share the same goal of undermining the laws of society.


Image of Man in Prison:

Image of Western Hemisphere:


GSPIA’s Ridgway Center presents: A New Surveillance Method for International and Domestic Drug Trafficking by Siddharth Chandra

The Matthew Ridgway Center for International Security Studies host guest lecturer Siddharth Chandra on one of his recent projects. The aim of this project is to develop and test a surveillance method for drug trafficking using open-source data.

Suspected Hezbollah Financier Arrested in Paraguay

“Whether we call it operational or not, Hezbollah is deeply rooted in the tri-border region.”
-Ryan C. Crocker, career Ambassador within the United States Foreign Service

Discussion over the activities of Hezbollah in the TBA prompted a great deal of discourse between members of a panel taking part in a recent hearing sponsored by the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee. Testimony provided by Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, argued that “no credible information” has been collected “to indicate that Hezbollah has an operational presence in Latin America.”1 It was Benjamin’s use of “operational” that prompted Mr. Crocker’s statement that is featured above. Since 9/11, the methods that terrorist organizations employ to raise funds for future activities have been closely monitored. To enhance this process efforts have been made by Argentina, Paraguay, and the United States to improve the regional intelligence center established in Foz do Iguacu, which is an extension of the 3+1 Group. Former coordinator for counterterrorism, Henry Crumpton, has suggested that cooperation is “uneven” between each of these nations, but that signs of progress are taking shape.2

Lebanese national Moussa Ali Hamdan is escorted to trial in Paraguay

Signs that multilateral efforts are paying off are evident in the arrest of Moussa Ali Hamdan a well-known financier of Hezbollah. Agents of the Paraguayan affiliate of Interpol apprehended Hamdan in downtown Ciudad del Este following a request from the United States government. The United States’ desire to have Hamdan extradited from Paraguay stems from a 2008 indictment of twenty-six suspected Hezbollah operatives. In that case charges were framed around Hamdan’s support of Hezbollah, which included a provision of 1,500 cell phones and a bevy of computer electronics.3

The presence of Hezbollah in the TBA is increasingly troublesome for United States officials on many fronts:

  • As the relationship between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez develops, so do fears of their allegiance to an “Axis of Unity” against the United States.
  • The use of proxies by Iran (Hezbollah) and Venezuela (the FARC) creates more tension in the region, while speculation over whether or not these groups are collaborating still fills the air.4
  • Chávez has expressed his full endorsement of Iran’s decision to pursue nuclear technology, and now seeks to construct a nuclear complex of his own.

As long as the TBA continues to provide the largest source of financial support for Hezbollah outside of the Middle East (est. $20 million annually) it will represent a potential challenge to the national security interests of the United States.5 Now, with the emergence of the Chávez-Ahmadinejad regime it is important that the Latin American community monitor the relationship between Hezbollah and the FARC.

Updated by Joshua T. Hoffman

  1. U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. “Assessing the Strength of Hezbollah.” Subcommittee Hearing, June 8, 2010. 39:19-39:45.
  2. Crumpton, Henry A. Reviewing the State Department’s Annual Report on Terrorism. Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation. May 11, 2006. 72.
  3. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania . United States of America v. Moussa Ali Hamdan. November 24, 2009. 14.
  4. “Clinton takes questions on Hezbollah-FARC ‘nexus.'” Palestine Note, June 12, 2010.
  5. Treverton, Gregory F. and Carl Matthies. Film Piracy, Organized Crime, and Terrorism. RAND Safety and Justice Program and the Global Risk and Security Center, 2009. xi.

Head of CICIG Steps Down

Author: Ryan Lincoln

After calling a press conference on June 7, 2010, Commissioner Carlos Castresana announced he was resigning his post. Castresana had served as commissioner since CICIG’s inception two and a half years ago. Although CICIG has been lauded internationally for its important successes in supporting Guatemala’s broken legal system and initiating many high-profile investigations and indictments, Castresana cited the lack of cooperation and reforms by the Guatemalan Congress as his primary motivation for leaving his post before returning to his native Spain.

“Nothing that was promised is being done,” he said during his press conference, “On a personal level, I feel I cannot do anything more for Guatemala.”

Continue reading

The Equation for Disaster: Terror in the TBA?

Author: Joshua T. Hoffman

Map with the Tri-Border Area Highlighted
Map with the Tri-Border Area Highlighted

The Tri-Border Area (TBA), enclosed by Puerto Iguazu, Argentina; Ciudad del Este, Paraguay; and Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, is recognized throughout the world as the “largest illicit economy in the Western Hemisphere.”1 Encompassing a relentless cycle of corruption, chaos, and commerce, the TBA has developed a myriad of conditions allowing for the emergence of a safe haven for terrorist fund-raising and collaboration. Weak governance and widespread poverty combine with a geographical backdrop that frames an environment highly conducive to illicit activities. This analysis examines the environment of the TBA and concludes that in spite of enhanced intelligence, stronger regional cooperation, and small-scale law enforcement success, the TBA still holds the potential to threaten United States security.

Continue reading

Former President Portillo Arrested and Indicted

Author: Ryan Lincoln

The last week of January marked a significant achievement for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Guatemala and the rule of law. On 26 January 2010, the Guatemalan national police and military arrested former president of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, on charges of embezzlement and money laundering.[1]

Continue reading