America / Foreign Policy

Formal Criminal Alliances Pose a Major Security Threat to the Americas

A recent report from Guatemalan authorities focuses on a formal alliance between two major criminal entities: the Mexican Zetas cartel and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) street gang that operates throughout Central and North America. Informal and temporary alliances are often formed between criminal groups, but this is the first report of a formal alliance. Such an alliance could prove devastating to regional efforts to curb illicit activities and violent crime.

The Zetas are one of the most well known Mexican cartels. These defectors from the special forces of the Mexican armed forces originally formed as a security branch for another cartel before striking out on their own. The Zetas have increased their numbers by recruiting other defectors from the Guatemalan military’s special forces. Best known for their hyper-violent tendencies and brutality, the Zetas have recently attempted to solidify their control over illicit trafficking routes from South to North America by expanding their operations into Central America. However, it seems to me that they must have struggled to forge meaningful relationships with local Guatemalan crime families.

In my opinion, they probably turned to the Mara Salvatrucha street gang as a way to tighten their grip on trafficking routes. The MS street gang was born on the streets of California and strengthened in its prisons. Its original members tended to be Central American immigrants, and when they were deported in large numbers in the 1990s, they returned to countries that had recently emerged from brutal civil wars. MS took advantage of countries with weak institutions and populations tired of bloodshed. They control many neighborhoods in Central America through violence and extortion. MS members are known for drug trafficking, ransom kidnapping, and brutal attacks against their rivals with machetes and small arms.

There have long been informal alliances between large organized criminal operations and street gangs in the hemisphere. For example, a cartel might pay a street gang to deliver a shipment of drugs or carry out an assassination. A formal alliance between organized crime and a street gang signifies larger ambitions. While the Zetas want to solidify their control over trafficking routes in Guatemala, the cartel will also most likely seek to expand the territory under their control. Mara Salvatrucha’s reputation would fit the needs of the Zetas.

If the news of a formal alliance proves true, the Zetas would gain thousands of foot soldiers for their operations as well as neighborhoods that would function as safe havens for its operations. But, MS would also stand to benefit. They would gain a leg up on rival street gangs. Their arsenal of weapons would receive an immediate upgrade. Mara Salvatrucha would be even more feared if they were armed with AK-47 assault rifles and military-grade grenades. MS members might also receive paramilitary training from the Zeta’s ex-military personnel, which would increase the gang’s logistical capabilities. The two groups would probably take further advantage of Mexico’s porous southern border with Guatemala, a region currently abused by many criminal enterprises.

A formal alliance between the Zetas and MS poses clear dangers to hemispheric security. Mexico and Central America are currently fighting a war to preserve their states and institutions. This region of the world suffers from weak government institutions, corruption, and high levels of judicial impunity. If the Zetas and MS are able to take further advantage of this situation, it could provide a blueprint for other organizations, and we might see an alliance between the Mexican Sinaloa cartel and Mara Salvatrucha’s chief rival, the Mara 18 street gang. This would only fuel violence in the region and hamper regional security efforts.

The United States should be monitoring this closely. If the US wishes to regain its status as a leader in the hemisphere, it will increase its involvement in the region. I am not advocating for military intervention, but the US ought to recognize that if there is more criminal activity on the Mexico-Guatemala border, there inevitably will be more along the US-Mexico border. This implies an increased potential for spillover violence. Furthermore, MS has a presence in many major US cities. The governments of the US, Mexico, and Central America all claim they want to increase security cooperation. Maybe now they will take a cue from their adversaries, and create an alliance that will have a real impact.

– Max Rava

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