GSPIA’s Ridgway Center presents a Roundtable on Security Challenges in Central America, Part 2

GSPIA’s Matthew B. Ridgway Center presents a scholar discussion on current and past security challenges in Central America. Five esteemed experts present their field experience and research on topics ranging from transnational criminal organizations to local gangs in the region. Following the individual presentations, the experts come together for a panel discussion that draws on their wide-ranging knowledge. Join us for this thought provoking and engaging set of discussions.

Guest Speakers: Douglas Farah, President, IBI Consultants and Senior Associate, Americas Program — CSIS; Steven Dudley, Co-Director of InSight Crime; Thomas Bruneau, Vice President of Global Academic Professionals; Juan Ricardo Gómez Hecht, Professor and Advisor of Public Security at the College of High Strategic Studies of El Salvador Armed Forces; Juan Carlos Garón, Global Fellow at Woodrow Wilson Center and a researcher for the United Nations Development Program.

This event is sponsored by the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh and by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh.

GSPIA’s Ridgway Center presents a Roundtable on Security Challenges in Central America, Part 1

GSPIA’s Matthew B. Ridgway Center presents a scholar discussion on current and past security challenges in Central America. Five esteemed experts present their field experience and research on topics ranging from transnational criminal organizations to local gangs in the region. Following the individual presentations, the experts come together for a panel discussion that draws on their wide-ranging knowledge. Join us for this thought provoking and engaging set of discussions.

Guest Speakers: Douglas Farah, President, IBI Consultants and Senior Associate, Americas Program — CSIS; Steven Dudley, Co-Director of InSight Crime; Thomas Bruneau, Vice President of Global Academic Professionals; Juan Ricardo Gómez Hecht, Professor and Advisor of Public Security at the College of High Strategic Studies of El Salvador Armed Forces; Juan Carlos Garón, Global Fellow at Woodrow Wilson Center and a researcher for the United Nations Development Program.

This event is sponsored by the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh and by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), University Center for International Studies, University of Pittsburgh.

Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America

Edited by Thomas Bruneau, Lucía Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner; (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011); 319 pages; $24.95.

Reviewed by Hai H. Do

In Maras, researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds explore the problem of gangs in Central America.  The book aims to balance the overwhelmingly sensationalist reporting on gangs in English-language media with an objective assessment of the mara issue.  In Thomas Bruneau’s introduction, maras are distinguished from local street gangs or pandillas, in their hierarchal organizations and extensive use of violence, both physical and sexual.  The group’s transnational activities across North and Central America offer a further point of distinction.  The maras are increasingly involved in the illicit drug trade as well as cross-border human and arms trafficking.

The book is divided into two sections.  The first consists of case studies on the four major Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, plus Los Angeles, California, where the main contemporary gangs in Central America originated.  In Nicaragua, unlike the other three countries, the pandillas have yet to evolve into maras, a development attributed to several factors, including the nature of the state’s security forces and the way they have dealt with at-risk youth and criminal activity.

The second section contains comparisons of different gang dynamics and responses to the mano dura policies of Central American governments.  Of particular note is Florina Christiana Matei’s essay on the deportation policies of the United States and their seemingly negligible impact on the gang problem in Central America. Christiana Matei’s position challenges critics who contend U.S. deportations have perpetuated a revolving cycle of gang members moving back and forth between the United States and Central America, inexorably strengthening the maras.  Overall, the essays within this volume set a standard for research and analysis that will serve as a basis for further study of the maras, as well as for innovative and enlightened policy making.


Violent Non-State Actors Database


Belize Human Smuggling Ring

Rogue Law Enforcement DTO


Fernandinho Beira Mar Gang-Red Command

First Command of the Capital

Guaruja Trafficking Ring

IJL Trafficking Network

Jose Maria Figueiro Gomes Gang

Pedro Goncalves da Silva Gang



Bourne Organization


Curacao DTO

G-Unit Gang

Jamaatal Muslimeen

San Fernando Sex Trafficking Ring

Dominican Republic

Dominicans Don’t Play

DRPR Airport Group 1

DRPR Airport Group 2


El Salvador



Los Perrones

Salvadoran Trafficking Network led by Nelson Castrillon Ospina

Salvadoran Trafficking Network led by Rómulo Antonio Portillo Colato

The Texis Cartel

External Influences

Albanian DT Group

America Group (Serbia-Montenegro)

Al-Qa‘ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); aka the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)

Berane-Coastal Gang

Bulgarian-Nigerian DTO

La Camorra (Operations and Ties to Latin America)

Sicilian Cosa Nostra (Operations in Latin America)

Cuban-American Mafia

ETA Network in Venezuela

Hell’s Angels




Mogilevich Group

Mun Korean DT Group

‘Ndrangheta (Operations in Latin America)


Red Dragon Mafia

Darko Saric Group

Solntsevskaya Bratva (Solntsevo Brotherhood)

Sreten Jocic Group

Tambovskaya (AKA: Tambov Gang, AKA: Tambovskaya-Malyshevskaya)

Tatar Group-Unnamed Balkan DTO

Unnamed Korean Mafia Group

Unnamed Latvian/CIS Organization

Unnamed Russian Caucasus Organization

Unnamed Russian DTO in Cancun

Unnamed Russian Human Trafficking Organization

West End Gang


Byron Berganza

El Tacquero

Former Kaibiles

Latin Kings

Los Lorenzana

Los Caradura

Los Leones

Luciano Cartel

Los Mendozas

Paredes Group

Petén-Coban Cartel

San Marcos DTO

The Sarceno Family

Three Franciscos (AKA the Francisco Smuggling Organization)


Agricola Gang

Buxton-Agricola Gang

Phantom Squad

Rodrigues Cocaine Trafficking Group

Shaheed “Roger” Khan Trafficking Network

Trafficking through Cheddi Jagan International Airport


Los Cachiros

Catacamas Drug Cartel

Juticalpa Drug Cartel

Los Olanchanos

Los Tercerenos


Bling Bling Gang

Klansman Gang

One Order Gang

Shower Posse

Stone Crusher Gang


Arellano Felix Organization AFO aka Tijuana Cartel

Artistic Assassins

Barrio Azteca

Gulf Cartel

Independent Acapulco Cartel

Juarez DTO (Vicente Carrillo Fuentes Organization)

La Familia-Knights Templar

La Linea and Los Linces

La Resistencia

Los Gueros

Los Mexicles

Los Negros

Los Pelones

Los Zetas

Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion

Sinaloa Organization aka Sinaloa Federation

South Pacific Cartel

The Hand with Eyes

Zhenli YeGon Group


American Airlines Smuggling Ring


Figueroa Agosto Network

Reñazcos Family

“Roloand” and “Topo” Organization

USPS Drug Trafficking Group


Adnan G. el-Shukrijumah

Air Holland Money Laundering Ring

Ayoko Gangs

Lobato Gang

Port of Santos Gang


Trade Minister Laundering Ring


Cartel del Sol (AKA: Los Soles)

Los Catalanes

Los Guajiros

Los Indios

Los Paz

“The Organization”

Walid Makled Organization


1. Improve Prison Conditions

Though problems like poverty and underdevelopment are often considered to be the root causes of crime, the formation of gangs after criminals have been arrested can be curbed with the improvement of living conditions inside detention facilities.  Currently, prisoners justify their rioting, brutality against guards, and general violence as retaliation against, and protection from, states that violate their basic rights.  Whether from a lack of prisons or stringent arrest policies, overcrowding plagues the prison systems of the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America.  Prisoners from the latter three regions complain they are denied basic necessities like blankets and soap, and international human rights organizations validate their claims.  If authorities address inadequate living conditions, prison gangs will be denied the foundations of their moral claims, and possibly, the subsequent support from sympathetic and often impoverished populations outside the prisons (i.e. in Central and South America).

2. Inmate Labor for Underdeveloped Neighborhoods

If infrastructure deficiencies and underdevelopment are contributing to poverty-based crime in place like Central and South America, then development projects aimed specifically at these higher-risk neighborhoods may help prevent young people from joining gangs out of economic desperation.  Additional manual labor programs for prisoners would reduce the costs of development and contribute to long-term solutions to the gang problem.  By partnering with non-government, non-profit, or charitable development organizations, law enforcement officials could bring economic stability to the impoverished populations that contribute to and often support the illegal operations of gang members.  Using inmate labor would also remove prisoners from the overcrowded conditions of their cells.

Risks, of course, exist.  The chances of prisoner escape during projects increase, so programs would have to be accompanied by an increase in the number of prison guards.  Communication between prisoners and non-inmate gang members may also be facilitated by the travel.  Cell phones inside prisons, however, already allow inmates to communicate with their colleagues; adding “community service” to prisoners’ daily activities may serve more as a distraction than as an added benefit for them.

3. Separate Housing Facilities Based on the Nature of the Crime

Prisoners should be housed in separate facilities based on the crime committed.  For example, inmates convicted of less serious crimes (i.e. vandalism and petty theft) would be placed in one detention block, while those guilty of serious crimes (i.e. murder and drug trafficking) would be placed in separate blocks.  This policy goes beyond isolating gang leaders and members from the general prison population, although the intended aims are the same: the prevention of gang “contamination” of unaffiliated prisoners.  The majority of individuals are incarcerated for a variety of petty crimes and often have little interest in gang culture.  But when these inmates are mixed with prisoners from other criminal professions, there is a high probability they will encounter individuals who proselytize the economic and personal merits of gang membership.  By recruiting inmates with diverse backgrounds, prison gangs gain new contacts to diversify their criminal networks (acquiring the skills of counterfeiters, marijuana growers, etc.), making them harder to disrupt and dismantle.  By isolating gang members from regular prison populations, and further separating prisoners according to the nature of the crime committed, the pool of criminal knowledge available to the prison gangs will be restricted and gang membership will decrease.

4. Increase Funding for Prison Guards

Most prison officers in the United States and Latin America are paid wages lower than other professions, tempting them facilitate the activities of prison gangs to supplement their incomes.  An increase in funding for prison personnel will not only provide higher salaries to stave off corruption, but also lead to more guards per prisoner strengthening state authority and the ability monitor illicit gang activity.  However, the opportunity costs may include less funding for food, training, and rehabilitation programs, etc.  In times of economic stress, intelligent retrenchment strategies (i.e. targeted cuts) from the various prison systems in the United States and Latin America can locate funding for guards to offset the opportunity costs in a satisfactory manner.

5. Build More Supermax Prison Facilities

To successfully alter the effectiveness of prison gangs, there is a strong need to build more exclusive maximum security prison facilities.  There are numerous maximum security prisons throughout the United States and other nations, but the majority rely only on a designated area in which the most dangerous inmates are housed.  The ADX supermax prison facility in Florence, Colorado, is entirely designated for the most dangerous offenders and has largely been a success story in keeping these offenders in complete isolation, essentially cutting off their influence in the outside world.  Gang leaders thrive off the ability to reach prison populations with their ideology and recruit more members.  Therefore, there is a need to keep leaders in total isolation in these maximum security prisons where such communication is an impossibility.  Supermax facilities like the one in Florence, Colorado should be replicated throughout the United States and Latin America to meet the challenges of housing prison gang leaders separately from their soldiers.  This approach is very costly, yet it is the most effective strategy for crippling the capabilities of prison gangs by diminishing the influence of the men who dominate the decision-making of gangs.

6. Gang Prevention Programs

Increased opportunities for education and gang prevention are two policy options that may further decrease gang activity.  The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice, and Delinquency Prevention recommends a number of prevention strategies such as parent training, after school activities, truancy and dropout prevention, re-entry programs, tracking former offenders, and job programs for youth in high-risk neighborhoods.  The Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program places uniformed police officers as instructors in middle schools to teach students about the negative consequences of gang participation.  Non-profit groups like the Boys and Girls Club of America provide after-school activities that may keep children from joining gangs.  Some Central American countries have also enacted programs designed to prevent youths from turning to gangs, such as the Open Schools program to keep schools in high-risk neighborhoods, or “red zones,” open on the weekends and various vocational training efforts.  In Guatemala, for example, an alliance of human rights organizations provides schooling and social development activities to help at-risk youths raise their self-esteem.  These programs form an important starting point for Central America, Mexico and Brazil, but they should be expanded further, drawing on successful U.S. programs.  A scaled-up effort to change youth attitudes toward gang involvement could drastically reduce gang membership in the long run.

7. International Action to Address the Root Causes of Poverty and Interrupt the Drug Trade

National legislation is an important step in combating the prison gang problem.  However, most Central American countries lack strong government structures, resources, and incentives to enforce national laws.  International efforts are needed to strengthen the rule of law, address poverty, and expand educational opportunities.  National governments must continue their efforts to strengthen internal governance, increase stability, and create fair legal procedures, but Central American nations have thus far been unsuccessful at solving the problems posed by gangs alone. The only way to address these problems is with assistance from other countries in the form of an international initiative to address the root causes of gang activity.

8. Inmate Therapy

Rehabilitative programs offer another way to combat the root causes of gang membership.  Expanded rehabilitation efforts would serve to reintegrate gang members back into society.  As Juan Fogelbach has argued, “Gang members should be provided with alternatives to gang life, including education, music, art, youth sports, and trades that may allow them to survive in society.”[1]  Rehabilitation programs that assist gang members in developing a sense of self-esteem and acquiring skills to gain legal income will further deter gang activities.


[1] Fogelbach, Juan J. “Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and Ley Anti Mara: El Salvador’s Struggle to Reclaim Social Order.” San Diego International Law Journal 7 (Fall 2005): 209-210.




Key Findings

Similarities between Prison Gangs in the United States and Latin America

1. Reasons for Expansion

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

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

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

2. Gang Cooperation as a Response to State Activity

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

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

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

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

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

4. Recruitment via the Prison Establishment

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

5. Decentralization

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

6. Communication with External Supporters

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

7. Involvement in the Drug Trade

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

8. Brutality

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

9. Dispersion of Members by Authorities

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

10. Lack of Rehabilitation Programs Inside Prisons

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

11. Release from Prison Back into Previous Environments

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

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

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

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

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


1. National Approaches to Reform

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

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

2. Transnational Affiliations

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

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

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

3. Treatment of Prisoners

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

4. Differences in Power and Control in Prison Systems

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

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

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

5. Reasons for Formation

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

6. Members with Military Experience

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

7. Ability to Operate Without Interference from State Authorities

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

8. Separation of Different Gang Members in Central American Prisons

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

9. Forced Recruitment

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

Larger Implications: Why the Similarities and Differences Matter

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

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

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

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

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

3. Dual Approach in Combating Prison Gangs

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

Image Source:

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


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.