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.

United States of America

Author: hai H. Do

Aryan Brotherhood (aka the Brotherhood, the Brand, the Rock, AB)


The Aryan Brotherhood was founded in California’s San Quentin maximum-security prison. Most prisons were racially segregated until the 1960s. When they were desegregated, racial violence flared and inmates formed gangs along color lines.[1] Irish bikers formed the Brotherhood to fight against the Black Guerrilla Family and Mexican prisoners. It is rumored that the Brotherhood sprung from a 1950s gang known as the Bluebirds.[2]

In the 1970s, as the Brotherhood expanded, it engaged in a race war with black and Hispanic gangs, fueled by hatred and the need for territory and profit from drug trafficking and prostitution within prisons.[3] Dozens of members were killed.[4] At this point, the Brotherhood began taking on the characteristics of a criminal organization.[5]

In the 1980s, the Brotherhood became more organized when it established a chain of command, splitting into two separate but cooperative branches: a federal prison faction and a state prison faction. The federal faction created a three-man council to direct all Brotherhood activities within federal prison, with Barry “The Barron” Mills and T.D. “The Hulk” Bingham elected as high commissioners.[6] Soon after, the state faction followed suit with a council that would supervise gang activity in the state prison system. By this time, the Aryan Brotherhood had proliferated from California, with chapters appearing in state and federal prisons across the country.[7]

In the 1990s, prison authorities began taking action against the Aryan Brotherhood. Members of the gang were moved throughout the corrections system, and the leaders were sent to the “Supermax” prisons. However, this only served to spread the Brotherhood’s influence, with members founding new chapters in more states.[8] And the criminal activities of the gang were largely unaffected, for the leaders were able to continue communication within their members through various means, including secret codes and hidden messages using urine-soaked paper.[9] Not only that, but the Brotherhood’s crimes started to escalate beyond gang grudges and prison walls. On March24, 1995, Robert Scully was released on probation from Pelican Bay State Prison, a Supermax facility. Accompanied by a female follower of the gang, Scully shot and killed a police officer six days later with little provocation, marking the beginning of the Brotherhood’s new campaign to push their murder and drug operations into the streets.[10]

In late 2002, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Jessner indicted nearly all members suspected of being leaders in the Brotherhood under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. He charged them with carrying out stabbings, strangulations, poisonings, contract hits, conspiracy to commit murder, extortion, robbery and narcotics trafficking.[11] The intention was to produce death sentences for at least twenty-one of them, cutting off the leadership of the gang.[12] On March 14, 2006, the first in a series of gang-member trials began in Orange County, Calif., for Barry “The Barron” Mills, T.D. “The Hulk” Bingham, Edgar “The Snail” Hevle and Christopher Overton Gibson, the most powerful leaders of the Brotherhood in the federal prison system. The four were accused of ordering or participating in 15 murders or attempted murders in the last 25 years. All four were convicted, but they did not receive the death penalty.[13] Instead, they were sentenced to life in prison without parole. Even with these convictions, the criminal activities of the Brotherhood continued unabated as new, less prominent leaders took over leadership of the federal faction.

Current Operating Situation

There are approximately 15,000[14] to 30,000 members[15] within the Aryan Brotherhood, and there are chapters in almost every state and federal prison across the United States.[16] The reason for the wide disparity in numbers is due to the way the gang inducts new members. Full members, or “kindred,” recruit initiates called “progeny.” The progeny are selected from the most violent and capable inmates within the prison.[17] In order to be considered for baptism into the Brotherhood, the progeny must “make their bones” by killing someone who is targeted for death by the gang’s council.[18] Afterwards, the progeny must receive a unanimous vote from existing kindred in the “family” to be fully baptized into the Brotherhood.[19] Those who do not get a unanimous vote do not become kindred, but they remain closely associated with the gang as unofficial members.[20] Hence, the actual number of true members can only be estimated in the above range.

The Aryan Brotherhood’s ideology has evolved from its original purpose of offering protection for new white inmates from black and Hispanic prisoners in the corrections system. In the beginning, the gang was steeped in racial hatred and neo-Nazism, adopting swastikas and double lightning bolts as their symbol. New members of the Brotherhood were encouraged to read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and “make their bones” by attacking, and often killing, a black inmate.[21] As the years passed, the Brotherhood began moving away from neo-Nazism and more towards its Irish roots along with Viking/Norse symbolism and history.[22] The selection of recommended reading material expanded to include Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, The Will to Power.[23]

Rather than just protect white inmates from minorities, Brotherhood leaders have adopted a new “mission statement” that envisions that gang as “the very best criminal organization.”[24] To that end, the gang is primarily concerned with controlling the sale of drugs, gambling, and “punks” (male prostitutes) within prison walls.[25] While white supremacy is still an important part of the gang’s philosophy, some members will associate blacks and other minorities to facilitate drug transactions.[26] The gang continued to commit racially-motivated violence, but such activities became second to more profitable endeavors.[27]

Click to view a documentary on the Aryan Brotherhood

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

Since the 1970s, the Brotherhood has been engaged in drug smuggling, extortion rackets, and male prostitution within the prison system.[28] In 1999, Barry Mills wrote letters to the entire gang, urging them to expand operations outside of prison in an act of “polishing the (sham)rock.”[29] To this end, the Brotherhood began enlisting paroled gang members and associates (or “Peckerwoods”)[30] to become drug dealers and stickup men[31] to set up drug rings in the streets,[32] along with committing hate crimes to maintain the Brotherhood’s reputation as a violent white supremacist group.[33] Kindred on the outside must obey the council, for they are expected to provide support to the “family” through any means.[34] Failure to do so results in death, keeping true to the oath of “Blood In, Blood Out.”[35] Profits garnered through these individuals fund the gang’s illicit activities, with money being sent into prison for the leaders’ use or sent outside to safe houses belonging to paroled members.[36]

The Brotherhood is also known to participate in gunrunning,[37] human smuggling,[38] and contract killings.[39] Some of these are committed for the gang’s own purposes, but some members of the Brotherhood deal with outside groups for profit, such as the Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) who need personnel and contacts over the U.S. border and the Gambino crime family.[40]

The Brotherhood has developed a working relationship with the Mexican Mafia, originally doing so in 1971 to prevent new prison gangs from forming.[41] As a result of this cooperation, the gang actively opposes the Mafia’s long-time enemy La Nuestra Familia.[42]

Maintaining its traditional hatred for black individuals and black inmates, the Brotherhood is enemies with the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang. Additionally, they are hostile to black street gangs such as the Crips, Bloods, and El Rukins. However, as mentioned previously, the Brotherhood will set aside its racial hatred to deal drugs with black prisoners to make a profit or to incite a prison riot.[43]

The allies of the gang include the Nazi Low Riders, Public Enemy Number 1 (PENI),[44] inmates hailing from motorcycle gangs, and the Dirty White Boys.[45] The Brotherhood cooperates with the Nazi Low Riders and the Dirty White Boys to augment their strength and to help facilitate drug trafficking in prison should Brotherhood members be incarcerated.[46]

In its relations with “copycat” gangs that use its brand, members of the Brotherhood usually tolerate them. However, federal and California state members do not consider them to be legitimate and may threaten violence if gang tattoos are not burned or cut off.[47]

Black Guerrilla Family (BFG)



The Black Guerrilla Family was founded in California’s San Quentin state prison in 1966 by George Lester Jackson, W.L. Nolen, James Carr, and other racist black inmates.[48] Originally called the Black Family and the Black Vanguard, Jackson’s gang was first the Revolutionary Armed Movement that aligned with the Black Panther Party. Jackson then merged with James “Bone” Johnson’s group called the Black United Movement and these groups formed the early BGF.[49]

The gang’s founding fathers were innate writ writers[50] who adopted a Marxist/Maoist/Leninist revolutionary organization with stated goals of eradicating racism, struggling to maintain dignity black prisoners, and overthrowing a U.S. government[51] perceived as a racist white institution.[52] Some were former members of Black Liberation Army, Symbionese Liberation Army, and Weatherman Underground organization.[53] Jackson became a revolutionary in prison and wrote several books including “Soledad Brother – The Prison Letters of George Jackson” and “Blood in my Eye.” The following was typical of what Jackson preached:

“Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, that people are already dying who could be saved, that generations more will die or live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution. Pass on the torch. Join us, give up your life for the people.”[54]

On January 13, 1970, Nolen was killed by guards during a bloody prison riot where the BGF fought the Aryan Brotherhood in Soledad State Prison.[55] Later that year, on August 7, 1970, George Jackson’s younger brother, Jonathan, led BGF militia members into storming the Marin County Courthouse in San Rafael, California in an attempt to free Jackson who was on trial for capital murder.[56] They tried to take Judge Harold Haley hostage, causing law enforcement officials to open fire. The judge, a bailiff and 1 BGF member were killed in the shootout. George Jackson survived but was swiftly apprehended and sent to the maximum security San Quentin State Prison.[57] The BGF had expected assistance from the Black Panther Party that never materialized, leading to a rift between the two groups.[58]

Jackson was killed while attempting to escape from San Quentin’s Adjustment Center-High Security Unit in August 1971.[59] With the main founders dead, BGF members lost morale and began moving away from the previous Communist-Mao ideology of the gang. The new leader, Ruben Williams, did not possess any political vision; he was more interested in robbery, extortion, and drug trafficking.[60]

In August 17, 1980, leaders of the BGF ordered the murder of two black inmates at the Vacaville, California State Prison, violating their principal rule of prohibiting the shedding the blood of fellow black people.[61]

On August 22, 1989, Huey P. Newton, co-founder and leader of the Black Panther Party, was killed by a BGF drug dealer named Tyrone Robinson. Relations between the two groups had been at a low point ever since the Black Panther Party failed to assist the BGF in freeing George Jackson. In addition, Black Panther members who had joined the BGF in prison were disenchanted with Newton over his perceived abandonment of Black Panther inmates and allegations of fratricide within the party.[62] Newton gained the BGF’s animosity from extorting local BGF drug dealers to obtain free drugs in order to feed his cocaine addiction.[63] The leaders of the gang then ordered Newton’s death after he began demanding that the BGF stop selling heroin to black addicts.[64]

The BGF began to decline during the 1990s, but it recovered its membership through recruiting from black street gangs such as the Crips and the Bloods.[65]

Current Operating Situation

The Black Guerrilla Family is the most “politically” oriented of the major prison gangs in that it was formed as a Marxist/Maoist/Leninist revolutionary organization.[66] Its ideological doctrine considers all blacks political prisoners, and it has attempted to organize black advocacy by the imposition of their commands upon other inmates. Members hold cultural unity, group protection and the promotion of armed revolution above all else. Their reading material includes George Jackson’s Prison Letters and The Anarchist Cook Book, as well as various works from Mao Zedong, Eldridge, Ho Chi Minh, and Malcom X.[67]

The BGF communicates its message of revolution through various means, such as selling motivation t-shirts with the slogan “Revolution is the Only Solution.”[68] One tool of propaganda is The Black Book: Empowering Black Families and Communities. This 122-softbound publication was written by Eric Marcell Brown, the leader of the Maryland BGF, and is published through Dee Dat Publishing.[69] There is an online order form that offers discounts to inmates.[70] The book seeks to make people aware of the vision of “Comrade George Jackson” and calls for political and economic liberation for blacks. It is used as a recruiting tool in prisons, and the proceeds from book sales fund the BGF’s activities.[71] Within the book, Brown writes that the BGF organization is a movement (not a gang) that seeks to relieve the plight of blacks in the community.[72]

While it has spread across the U.S. in both the federal and state prison systems, the BGF is predominately focused on the East and West coasts. They are especially strong in the state of Maryland where the gang has spread to the streets of Baltimore to threaten the community and law enforcement.[73]

The BGF gang is organized along a paramilitary line, adhering to the Marxist political ideologies of Mao Zedong.[74] Each prison has a central committee, with a “supreme leader,” which issues orders to members in the area.[75] The size of the gang consists of 100 to 300 true members[76] with about 50,000 associated members.[77] The reason for such high membership is that the BGF traditionally recruits black prisoners from street gangs.[78] While most gangs, like the Crips, do not believe in the BGF’s calls for revolution against the state, they join with the prison gang out of need for protection and profit.[79] These recruits keep their association with their original gangs, so they are not true members of the BGF.[80] Initiation requires nomination from an existing BGF member and a strict oath of lifelong allegiance, with death as the only exit option.[81]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

The BGF engages in drug trafficking and smuggling in and out of prison. Gang members on the outside, as well as family members of inmates, use a variety of means of getting drugs and other contraband—including cell phones—into the prison. These couriers hide items in body cavities or in hidden compartments in their shoes. They then switch shoes with inmates during visits.[82] Other smuggled goods may include liquor and food for BGF leaders. Eric Brown was known to eat lobster and drink Grey Goose vodka while behind bars.[83]

Being an extreme anti-government and anti-official group, the BGF use smuggled cell phones to direct attacks against fellow inmates and corrections officers. Members communicate on whether one of their own is arrested or is suspected of cooperating with law enforcement. They place “hits” on traitors and organize attacks to further the gang’s activities, including robberies of drug dealers and assaults on rival gangs.[84]

The BGF runs extortion rackets that rely on corrupt corrections employees to function. Not only do these recruited employees add to the volume of smuggled contraband into prisons, but they also facilitate the gang’s financing operations. Inside the Maryland prison system, BGF members use violence and threats of violence to coerce other prisoners to pay protection money to the gang. The BGF would then give the extorted inmate a credit card number of a prepaid credit card, sometimes called a “Green Dot” card, and would direct the inmate to have family and friends place money on the card when order to do so. A gang member on the street or a BGF-affiliated corrections officer usually holds the credit card, using it to buy goods and drugs for the gang. If the threatened inmate does not agree to be extorted, he is targeted for violence. “Green dot” cards are often used in prison as a form of currency, in lieu of paper money.[85] Corrections officers do business with the BGF for several reasons, sympathy and bribery being chief among them. Such officers are marked with tattoos of stars, butterflies, and beetles on a part of their body to identify themselves to gang members.[86]

The BGF has a very active working relationship with La Nuestra Familia, whom it allied with in 1970 to battle the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood.[87] These two prison gangs are still its enemies in the present day, warring over territory and racial issues. KUMI 415 Nation are known to be employed as enforces for the gang.[88] Allies that the BGF can call upon are usually black gangs or groups, such as the Black Liberation Army and Weather Underground.[89] Black street gangs (Crips, Bloods, etc.) are an important resource for the BGF, for they supply new recruits when they are sent to prison, and they provide a wider network of contacts outside of prison, making the conduct of illegal activity easier. Additionally, street gang members who have had military training can add their expertise in weapons and killing to skills available to the BGF.[90]

The BGF has been known to established ties with Mexican DTOs (specifically the Sinaloa DTO),[91] performing arms, drug, and human smuggling across the border. Gang members may even do contract killings or intimidate rivals for the drug cartels.[92] All of this is done to benefit the gang financially.

Nazi Low Riders (aka NLR, “The Ride”)


The Nazi Low Riders trace their origins to the Aryan Brotherhood (AB). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the California Department of Corrections was actively cracking down on the Brotherhood, incarcerating members in isolation in Security Housing Units (SHUs) in an attempt to break up the gang’s activities.[93] With the official designation of prison gang place upon them, AB members found it difficult to conduct their business, especially drug trafficking, their main source of income.[94] Needing middlemen to help facilitate their criminal operations, AB leader John Stinson recruited young skinheads incarcerated by the California Youth Authority at the Preston Youth Correctional Facility, in Ione, and at the Youth Training School, in Chino.[95] The gang had just begun to establish itself with the mission of providing protection for white inmates and ridding the streets of blacks,[96] and it took its name from “low riders,” a phrase associated with Hispanic gangs.[97] The main benefit for the Brotherhood was that the Nazi Low Riders had not yet been classified as a prison gang, and thus were not under the scrutiny of the corrections system. This made the new gang suitable to act as junior partners to the Aryan Brotherhood, taking orders from the more senior and frightening gang and serving as errand-boys and enforcers.[98]

The NLR led a relatively uneventful existence for several years, operating under the radar of law enforcement until the early 1990s. By then, the California Department of Corrections had successfully disrupted and virtually suppressed AB’s activities. NLR’s role as middleman for its predecessors’ criminal operations put it in position to take the older organization’s place in the prison gang hierarchy, and it became the principal white gang in California’s penitentiary system.[99]

Current Operating Situation

Today, the NLR is officially classified as a prison gang, with corrections officials using that distinction to lock members away in isolation in the same manner as their AB predecessors.[100] While the gang still derives much of its power from inside prison facilities, it is also a significant street gang. After first coming to the attention of authorities in Costa Mesa, California, other units appeared throughout California. Recently, paroled NLR members have moved east to spread the gang’s influence, with “affiliates” growing quickly in several states throughout the U.S.[101] During the past several years, NLR’s well-run and often extremely violent criminal operations have established it as a major player in the West Coast criminal world and among white supremacist skinhead gangs.[102]

There are about 1000 members in the gang, organized in a three-tier hierarchy consisting of “seniors,” “juniors,” and “kids.”[103] Seniors lead each NLR prison unit, some of whom have been connected to the gang since its early days in the California Youth Authority. To attain senior status, NLR members must have been active for at least five years and must be elected by three other senior members. In the hierarchy, juniors, who are just below seniors, cannot induct new members (only a senior can confer membership), but they recruit potential members, who are required to have proven criminality and loyalty to the white race.[104] The senior who inducts a kid becomes his mentor and disciplinarian. Kids usually come from smaller white power gangs such as the PEN1.[105]

In contrast to its strict prison hierarchy, NLR’s street leadership structure is unclear. Members organize locally only with the approval of established leaders—those who try to set up independently risk retribution. Recruits from the outside are usually culled from smaller white gangs like Insane White Boys, La Mirada Punks, Independent Skins and Orange County Skins, all of whom acknowledge and submit to NLR’s authority on the street. Some law enforcement officials believe that NLR hopes to unite all white gangs under its umbrella and, much like ethnic organized crime rings, tax the proceeds from their criminal operations — with the collections sent to incarcerated NLR members.[106]

The NLR’s current ideology is more driven by profit than by white power beliefs, although members continue to commit violent acts against minorities to keep up their reputation.[107] The profit mentality is clearly expressed in the gang’s unusual characteristic of allowing small numbers of Latinos to join despite the NLR’s avowed racism, although there is a stipulation that the Latino inductees must be half-Caucasian, and they must show loyalty to the white race and hatred for blacks and “race traitors”— those in interracial relationships or who demonstrate an affinity for what members consider to be black culture.[108] Latino last names and girlfriends are permitted. The advantages that the Latino members confer upon the gang are increased manpower and participation in much of the dirty work of trafficking drugs such as highly addictive methamphetamines inside and outside of prison.[109] Other nonwhites are forbidden from joining.[110]

A rift is being created with the NLR due to the inclusion of Latinos. Prison officials have noticed two factions in the Nazi Low Riders: one that supports its older, partially Latino membership, and another that only wants pure white members, like their patrons in the Aryan Brotherhood.[111] Michael “Snake” Bridge leads the faction that wants to abandon ties with the AB, while Joseph “Blue” Lowry wants a more rigid ideology,[112] calling for ending members’ drug use and expelling “race traitors” from the gang.[113]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

The NLR engages in criminal activity such as robbery, murder, and extortion, but it primarily finances itself through the manufacture and trade of methamphetamines (also called “meth” or “speed”), and they.[114] Speed is relatively easy to produce and is both in high demand and very profitable. Members jury-rig “meth labs” wherever they can, from million-dollar homes to motel rooms. The gang has created several labs in San Bernardino; in Orange County, the Antelope Valley and Riverside, NLR has become a major distributor of the drug. It is also likely that NLR works with motorcycle gangs in methamphetamine production and distribution.[115] A side effect of their involvement in drug trafficking is that NLR members are often addicted to speed they sell, making them known as “tweekers.”[116] While this increases their proclivity toward violence in prison and the streets, it also may keep them from organizing more effectively.[117]

Women have an important place in the NLR. They oversee the gang’s business operations while their men are incarcerated.[118] Often family members or girlfriends of NLR members, they have sometimes become directly involved in the violent activities of the gang, including being accomplices in murder.[119] More commonly, however, the female members act as liaisons to speed users unaffiliated with the NLR, supplying addicts with drugs and sexual favors. Eventually, NLR members coerce these users, through force and intimidation, to commit crimes for the gang. Sometimes, NLR members rob the addicts themselves, knowing that the victims will not report the incidents to the police due to their own criminal activity.[120]

Outside of prison, NLR members tend to congregate in pool halls, bars, fast-food joints, video arcades and high schools, where they try to recruit new members.[121] In some communities, NLR members live together in the same apartment buildings. These NLR clusters often serve as family-like units for alienated and uprooted young men. Although the NLR does not fight other gangs over turf, it does tend to dominate the areas where members live. When NLR members move into a residential complex, they often establish themselves by harassing or threatening other residents.[122]

As mentioned in the above paragraphs, the NLR recruits from small white power gangs in prison and on the street. The gang has a particularly close relationship with Public Enemy Number One (PEN1) because of prison crackdowns.[123] By 1999, the NLR was responsible for a large part of the violence in California prisons, causing prison officials to classify the group as a “disruptive gang,” authorizing more restrictive treatment and isolation of suspected gang members.[124] Furthermore, in 2003, after four years of investigation, indictments were finally handed down against several NLR leaders for alleged violations of RICO.[125] While the leadership could still communicate using “kites”—prison slang for letters—in nearly indecipherable runic alphabets, they found that their ability to conduct narcotics sales, extortion and other criminal activities in prison were severely impeded.[126]

Following the example of the AB, the gang turned to a smaller gang, PEN1, to help maintain its criminal operations.[127] Founded by inmate Donald “Popeye” Mazz with about 350-400 members,[128] PEN1 shares NLR and AB’s racism, and specializes in drug dealing and identity theft. It has since taken over gang jobs for both the NLR and the AB. It is not uncommon for all three gangs to cooperate in prison riots and the drug trade.[129]

The NLR is suspected of colluding with Mexican DTOs in drug and human smuggling due to its association with the AB.[130]

Dead Man Incorporated (aka DMI)


Perry Roark formed The Dead Man Inc. in the Maryland Department of Corrections about the late 1990’s. Roark, a white man who was close friends with black inmates, had wanted to join the Black Guerilla Family, but he was rejected as he did not fit the racial requirement.[131] Because he was respected among several BGF members, he was allowed to form Dead Man Inc., along with co-founders James Sweeney and Brian Jordan, with the BGF’s blessing.[132] Intended as a white off-shoot of the BGF, the gang adopted the BGF’s basic philosophy which is anti-government and anti-authority.[133] The DMI offered white inmates another path other than white supremacy movements, and its membership grew to include prisoners from those organizations.[134] Members began to conduct gang business for the BGF, committing acts of violence and murders for payment.[135]

Current Operating Situation

DMI has a reputation for violence and a willingness to carry out attacks for drugs and money.[136] In recent years, corrections officials tried to break up the gang’s operations by sending co-founders Sweeney and Jordan to other prison facilities. Roark currently resides in the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, while Sweeney and Jordan are in Texas and Louisiana, respectively.[137] However, this only served to expand the gang’s influence to those states and several others.[138] The Supreme Commanders, the original founders, lead the DMI in a paramilitary structure with commanders placed in each prison.[139]

There are approximately 10,000 DMI members nationwide,[140] with 500 members in Maryland alone.[141] But this large membership has brought a crisis in the gang. In the beginning, there was a careful screening process for new recruits,[142] but as the years passed, the gang grew rapidly as it absorbed smaller gangs until it became the third largest gang in the Maryland prison system.[143] As result, there was an influx of new members who did not support DMI’s core values and would not defend each other in fights. They even attacked each other in prison, causing trust problems to develop in the gang. To address the issue, Roark declared that all rule-breakers and illegitimate members must leave DMI by 4/13/09, the numbers representing the gang’s initials in the alphabet.[144] The effects of any purge on the membership are currently unknown.[145]

There is another conflict brewing within the gang concerning the direction DMI should take in the future. Roark wants to maintain ties the BGF, the group’s original patron. While in Texas, co-founder Sweeney associated with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and formed his own splinter faction, the Power Over All gang. Sweeney desires that all of DMI swear allegiance to the white extremism doctrine of his gang.[146]

Hence, law enforcement officials believe that DMI has or will reach a turning point in its history in the near future.[147]

Overview of Activities and External Relationships

DMI is active in and out of prison. Being an off-shoot of the BGF, the organization commits many of the same criminal activities. DMI members engage contract killings,[148] violent crimes, armed robbery, drug trafficking, and extortion.[149] They even utilize the same tactics in communication, issuing orders to members in and out of prison with contraband cellphones.[150]

While they take jobs from the BGF, DMI members are known to offer their services to other gangs, targeting rival groups and corrections officers for money.[151]

Regional Analysis

Leadership is an important aspect in the evolution of the security threat groups (STGs) observed in the U.S. In the beginning, the STGs formed as a means of self-defense for whites and African Americans who sought protection against rising racial tensions in the prison system. At first, racial gangs engaged in typical criminal behavior, inciting attacks against rivals and struggling for control of the drug trade within the walls. But, over time, the senior leadership of the STGs made crucial decisions regarding the future of their gangs. AB leader Barry Mills directed the Brotherhood to expand its drug operations outside prison walls for the first time in 1999, extending the gang’s criminal network into the streets of communities, and Ruben Williams of the BGF took his gang in a new direction that emphasized drug trafficking and profit after the previous revolutionary leaders were killed. Through the power of reward and coercion,[152] gang leaders enforce discipline among the ranks inside and outside of prison thanks to the centralized hierarchies of the major gangs.

It would make sense to indict leaders on racketeering charges under the RICO Act and isolate them within maximum security prisons, but this has not worked within the U.S. so far. Gang commanders always find ways to communicate with their members, whether it be through secret messages or corrupt corrections officers. Furthermore, targeting leaders only disrupts a gang’s illicit operations in the short-run. The major gangs are extremely resilient in the face of pressure from state authorities. New leaders will appear to take the place of the incarcerated, and recruitment continues unabated within the walls. This is due to the fact that, in focusing on cracking down on gangs inside and outside of prison, the state authorities do not address the root causes of prison gangs in the U.S. As it did the past, racial tension and conflict drive the formation of security threat groups in the present day.[153] New inmates will naturally seek out those of their own race for protection and money, or else gangs of a different ethnicity will attack or extort them.[154] As long as the issues of racism continues to divide people, prison gangs will not be going away in the foreseeable future unless certain reforms are enacted in the U.S. corrections system.

Security threat groups in the U.S. have shown the ability to replicate themselves or more of their kind to an extent. The Aryan Brotherhood begat the Nazi Low Riders because they needed middlemen in their drug trafficking business after the prison authorities locked down their own members. Over time, the NLR’s power and influence in the system grew, and they suffered the same fate as the Brotherhood when corrections officials began cracking down on their activities. In response, the NLR in turn begat a smaller gang named Public Enemy Number One to handle their criminal business inside the walls. It can only be assumed that when PEN1 reaches a certain point, it too will establish a new gang to carry on its work.

However, not all replication is successful. The Black Guerilla Family spawned an offshoot in the form of Dead Man Inc., which is a white gang that was modeled after a black gang. Unlike the NLR, DMI expanded too quickly and experienced discipline problems within its ranks, with distrust and infighting threatening to destabilize the gang. In addition, DMI is split into factions based on what direction the different leaders want to take the group. While the NLR has the same problem of factions, there is little evidence showing that its members come to blows over the issue, unlike the members of DMI who are known to attack each other due to interpersonal disputes.

The major prison gangs in the U.S. are increasingly conducting business with Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (MDTOs) to generate profit to fund their own operations. White supremacist gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood have the tendency to overlook racial differences when they see the color of green. MDTOs will typically hire prison gang members to do alien smuggling, human and drug trafficking, gun running, kidnappings, and contract killings across the US border.[155] These gang members are valuable due to their U.S. citizenship and their ability to cross the border without much scrutiny.[156] In return for their services, the prison gangs can buy large quantities of drugs at low prices directly from the MDTOs, granting them greater control over the wholesale drug market due to the removal of mid-level buyers.[157] In addition, the developing relationship between prison gangs and Mexican DTOs can lead to the emergence of new gangs in the U.S. The Mexican government extradites DTO members to face charges north of the border. These members are placed in federal prisons where they receive protection from security threat groups with whom they have had previous dealings.[158] While incarcerated, the MDTO personnel are in position to form their own gangs to extend their illicit crime network into the U.S.

Prison gangs could pose a serious threat to the security of the U.S. in the future. According to a survey conducted by the National Gang Intelligence Center, only 15.8% of law enforcement officials viewed prison gangs as a significant threat. Comparatively, 45.3% viewed neighborhood street gangs as a significant threat. This implies that, on their own, prison gangs are not a threat, but if one takes into account that these gangs often control street gangs through intimidation and violence inside prison,[159] then the threat level of prison gangs increases due to their capability to command the operations of the gangs on the streets. These criminal networks of security threat groups and street gangs are mainly decentralized, which differentiates them from the more centralized MDTOs that are vulnerable to law enforcement agencies (IF they are well-funded and deployed effectively).[160] The advantage of decentralization is that if one gang is taken down, the greater network survives.

Yet, it is unlikely that prison gangs will threaten U.S. security. While security threat groups will continue to pose challenges to law enforcement and public safety, they do not have the means to overthrow state and federal government. The nature of decentralized networks, being composed of many disparate groups, makes it difficult for prison gangs to challenge state power in a coherent way, especially when they have no higher political ambitions to unite them other than profiting off of the drug business. Besides, the different gangs in the network have their own motivations, and they may rebel against the security threat group in charge for their self-interest. Thus, unless they evolve into new forms in the future[161] or cooperate to achieve a social good, U.S. prison gangs are currently not a threat to U.S. security for the foreseeable future.


Image Sources

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Tyler Bingham and Barry Mills pic: Gang ID Task Force (GITF). “Aryan Brotherhood” Accessed 30 November 2011.

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AB Video: “Lockdown – The Aryan Brotherhood (1/5).” 29 January 2010.

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BGF Insignia: ” Murder Ink.” Police: The Law Enforcement Magazine. February 2006. Accessed 30 November 2011.

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Nazi Low Riders Insignia: “Nazi Low Riders.” Anti-Defamation League (ADL). 2005. Accessed 15 November 2011.

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NLR Member: “Nazi Low Riders.” Violent Extremism Knowledge Database (VKB). 2011. Accessed 15 November 2011.

Dead Man Incorporated sign: Gang ID Task Force (GITF). “Dead Man Inc.” Accessed 30 November 2011.

DMI Tattoos: “Dead Man Inc.” Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Accessed 1 December 2011.

DMI Presence in Maryland: Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Accessed 1 December 2011.

MDTO Table: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment—Emerging Trends. 2011. Accessed 13 November 2011.


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