Recognizing the partnership between the transnational drug trafficking organization Los Zetas and the drug gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is critically important to the security of the Americas. This relationship, however, is generally misunderstood. On one side, the partnership is portrayed as a literal merger of MS-13 and Zetas—an obvious exaggeration of the situation. On the other, the situation is painted as insignificant, and the weight of the links denied. This article suggests that both sides misunderstand the decentralized nature of how both groups operate. It finds that the relationship between the Zetas and MS-13 is an alliance, and one that increases the Zetas’ ability to leverage new skills and markets, exploit gaps and vacuums, and extend their reach. It will first profile the Zetas, then examine the nature of their cooperation with MS-13.
The Zetas started out as an enforcer network for the Gulf Cartel. Composed of 31 mercenaries trained by the Mexican Special Forces (Grupos Aeromoviles de Fuerzas Especiales—GAFES), the Zetas brought advanced tactics, tradecraft, and intelligence skills. In a perverse inversion of the “train the trainer” policy beloved in military and police organizations, the Zetas trained defecting soldiers and police of a lesser caliber. They also expanded their reach by incorporating special operations defectors from the Guatemalan Kaibiles. The Zetas eventually broke from the Gulf Cartel and struck out on their own as an independent drug trafficking cartel. A brutal hierarchical entity, the Zetas now command over “10,000 gunmen from the Rio Grande, on the border with Texas, to deep into Central America.” The Zetas’ reach extends to the Petén and Alta Verapaz regions of Guatemala where, according to Commissioner for Police Reform Adela de Torrebiarte, “They recruit idle youngsters dubbed Zetitas (little Zetas), who stand at street corners and warn them when outsiders enter Zeta territory.”
The Zetas are notorious for their barbarization and use of infantry tactics. According to Leonel Aguirre, head of the Sinaloa Humans Rights Defense Commission, they employ “executions, decapitations, the melting of bodies…[They] annihilate and terrorize.” In their brutal quest to control a wide range of criminal enterprises, ranging from drug trafficking through kidnapping, counterfeit goods, and petroleum theft, they often wage highly synchronized attacks against their adversaries—rival gangs, police and military alike.
The Zetas have been implicated in some of the drug war’s most gruesome crimes. According to journalist Ioan Grillo, “Zetas killers have been arrested for some of the worst atrocities in Mexico’s drug war, including the murders of hundreds of people whose bodies have been found in mass graves with alarming frequency, the massacre of 72 foreign migrant workers headed to the United States, and the burning of a casino that claimed 52 lives.” Urban blockades, or narcobloqueos, are a quasi-political tool recently employed by Los Zetas. Massacres, primitive car bombs, grenade attacks, and assassinations complete their repertoire.
Ambushes and attacks of police are a common Zeta tactic. As a result, police in Nuevo León routinely deploy from barracks and move in convoys to counter the Zeta threat. Zetas also employ a network of spies (halcones) to enhance their freedom of movement. One “firefight between Los Zetas’ gunmen and the Mexican military left five dead on July 27 , when Los Zetas fought to retain control over a PEMEX well near Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas. The petro theft constitutes a symbolic and a financial threat to the Mexican government while providing a vast stream of income, perhaps as much as $715 million a year, that gangsters use to buy weapons, bribe officials, and bankroll their brutal assault against the Mexican government.”
MS-13, on the other hand, is a less cohesive, highly networked entity. While both the Zetas and MS-13 employ extreme violence, that is where the similarities end. A network of gangs with reach from Los Angeles to New York to Guatemala and El Salvador, MS-13 emerged in Los Angeles. Often portrayed as a consequence of the destabilizing effect of Central American civil wars during the 1980s, it is actually a byproduct of urban gang dynamics. Founded by Salvadorans living in Los Angeles, MS-13 operates in 42 states and the District of Columbia in the United States and throughout Central America. Unlike the Zetas, MS-13 lacks a cohesive organizational structure. MS-13 is essentially a network of individual “cliques” that communicate and collaborate with each other based upon relationships of influence.
It should not be taken from this, however, that there is no concept of hierarchy within MS-13. Hierarchy and order, even if implicit, exists among the most amorphous of groups. As can be seen in the current gang “truce” in Guatemala, regional groupings can exercise power. Moreover, a concept of common identity exists throughout MS-13 that binds together disparate cliques in a mode of cooperation. As Sullivan and Logan observed:
“MS-13’s network configuration frustrates many law enforcement officers looking for a hierarchical organization that they can penetrate. The lack of an overt, formalized hierarchy, manifested through decentralization and the apparent absence of a clear hierarchy or structure, is often interpreted as a lack of sophistication, or a lack of capacity. That is not the case. There is indeed a hierarchy, but it is a ‘hierarchy of influence’ where ‘respect’ and loyalties are expressed through a networked structure.”
In operational terms, the “hierarchy of respect” is expressed through a web of social relationships within individual cliques and social/business relationships between cliques. At the clique level, leadership is distributed. There are two primary leaders, the “first word” (primera palabra) and the “second word” (segunda palabra) who operate something like a commander and an executive officer in military settings. The segunda palabra from large, powerful cliques often exerts influence over smaller or subordinate cliques. In many facets, this leadership is neo-feudal, where leadership is determined by fealty to a leader who collects taxes and the support of warriors and in turn offers protection. Order and control are exercised through a variety of communications (including meetings and the targeted use of violence as an enforcement measure).
This decentralized structure allows individual nodes (or cliques) to operate with relative freedom. Within its own area of influence, each clique is allowed to run local operations (as long as “respect” is provided and taxes paid). This entrepreneurial ethos is a characteristic of loosely-coupled networked gangs with broad geographic reach. MS-13 developed this structure as it spread across the United States and into Central America. This loose-coupling does not mean that individual cliques have complete autonomy. Each clique must demonstrate loyalty to the overarching gang and respect to influential cliques and their leaders. Enforcing fealty is a brutal process and is simply expressed in the gang’s informal motto, “Mata, Controla, Viola” (kill, control and rape).
MS-13 is distinguished from other large, hierarchical gangs in the way its modular structure allows it to intersect with larger drug markets and interact with drug cartels. In Mexico, MS-13 serves as foot soldiers (contractors or tactical allies) for cartels (including the Zetas) and facilitators for the human trafficking trade (a skill they learned when moving their own deported members back to the United States).
MS-13’s neo-feudal structure helps it adapt to shifting alliances and rivalries while leaving it free to exploit local opportunities. MS-13 is involved in drug distribution, robbery, prostitution, theft, human trafficking, and provides assassins for hire to other transnational drug cartels.
Assessing the MS-13-Zeta Alliance
In 2012, various news reports warned that “an alliance between the Zetas cartel and Mara Salvatruchas street gang will pose a major challenge for law officers who are battling the Mexican drug cartels.” Insight Crime discounted these as unfounded, assessing the “alliance” as apocryphal and unsubstantiated. The Insight assessment looked at why the Zetas would or would not want to ally with MS-13:
“There are reasons why the Zetas, and other large criminal organizations, might want to work with maras and, in some cases, do. Foot soldiers: As the AP [Associated Press] article rightly points out, the maras are numerous. Territory: Mara numbers allow them to occupy territory, something the Zetas are also interested in, and much of it valuable urban territory where lucrative extortion and micro-trafficking activities take place. Propensity for violence: Maras are known to carry out brutal acts without remorse. Hierarchical structure: Maras have some ability to direct large numbers in unison.Intelligence: Large numbers means many eyes and ears.
“However, there are many reasons why the Zetas would never integrate gangs into their enterprise. Discipline: Maras are notoriously undisciplined and unprofessional. Loyalty: Maras’ loyalty is to their gang, not the Zetas. Lack of training: Maras do not know how to handle assault weapons. Lack of anonymity: Maras are visible, obvious, and frequently the easiest target for security officials.”
It should be understood, therefore, that MS-13 and the Zetas joining together is not equivalent to a signed treaty that facilitates formal cooperation between two groups. It is not known how such a deal was conducted, but it is sure to be something other than a literal declaration of fealty. Rather, what the Zetas gain from such a loose agreement or understanding is the ability to conduct business with cliques on a continent-wide basis. While there is no explicit hierarchical central leadership within MS-13 and alliances are likely negotiated at the individual clique level, consensus among cliques throughout the gang are necessary to sustain the relationship. Key cliques in Los Angeles and San Salvador would exert a great deal of persuasion in this regard.
Several points used to dismiss MS-13 involvement are easily discounted. Extreme violence is no barrier since that is a shared trait; lack of anonymity likely applies equally to both groups. Lack of weapons training is easily mitigated, and loyalty can be bought or coerced in the short-term.
The importance of such a deal should not be underestimated. As the Zetas continue to expand, they will require new methods of distribution, and retail gangs such as MS-13 are certainly one means to accomplish this growth. The Zetas also need an ability to fill power vacuums created by cartel struggles. MS-13 also allows the Zetas to provide personnel to operate in new markets, some of which may have been previously out of reach due to lack of geographical penetration. Having a “plug and play” ability to do business with the wide affinity network MS-13 has built up will certainly be a resource for the Zetas. This advantage could be extended to other gangs and cartels. Indeed, gang alliances are often short-term, shifting arrangements. While individual cliques may locally align with competing factions, these relationships are volatile as the gang’s network will seek to eliminate alliances that interfere with the gang’s overarching identity and business interests. Essentially, local alliances are permitted to the extent they do not compete with the network’s ability to function as a whole.
Gangs as Cartel Foot Soldiers
The Zetas are believed to have established cells in Laredo, Dallas and Houston and have allegedly conducted at least eight murders on U.S. soil to date. In addition to operating on their own, they rely on gangs for local operations. MS-13 is not the only U.S. gang working with cartels. Other gangs mentioned in this context include Eighteenth Street (M-18), Barrio Azteca, Partido Revolucionario Mexicano, the Texas Syndicate, and the Mexicles and Artistas. San Diego’s Logan Heights (Calle 30) gang, which carried out the assassination of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, worked with the Arellano-Félix Organization in Tijuana. As Mónica Ortiz Uribe noted in a Fronteras news report, “To transport their drugs inside the United States, Mexican drug cartels want a distributor who operates within the black market and is familiar with life on America’s streets. That’s where American gangs step in. The two make a convenient alliance.” Alliances among gangs can be both domestic and transnational, and gangs can be both territorial and transactional.
Interaction and cooperation among criminal enterprises can benefit both parties involved. A Zetas-MS-13 alliance offers many benefits—including profit and plunder. Rather than viewing such an alliance as a merger, however, it is more accurate to view it as a limited joint venture. Alliances can also be protean, changing as members gain or lose prominence, become engaged in personal conflicts, or get a better offer that promises more profit or power.
The endpoint for such an alliance would be an addition to what the Zetas already possess: a powerful network of gangs and cartels. Observers dismiss this deal and its ramifications because the hybrid organization created would not be a strictly traditional foe. Yet the Zetas themselves have voted with their wallets: MS-13 gives them an agility, responsiveness, and adaptability that they currently lack. This greater reach would be a force multiplier not only against already beleaguered Latin American law enforcement, but also against U.S. law enforcement personnel. The Zetas would be able to operate throughout a greater area in the United States and elbow aside local competitors.
John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He currently serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He is also an Adjunct Researcher at the Vortex Foundation, Bogotá, Colombia; Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST); and Senior Fellow at Small Wars Journal-El Centro. He is co-editor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006) and Global Biosecurity: Threats and Responses (Routledge, 2010). He is co-author of Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency: A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology (iUniverse, 2011). His current research focus is the impact of transnational organized crime on sovereignty in Mexico and other countries.
Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is a Ph.D. student at American University. He is Associate Editor at Red Team Journal and is a contributor to Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency: A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology (iUniverse, 2011). He is also a frequent contributor to Small Wars Journal and has published at numerous venues including The Atlantic, Defense Concepts, CTC Sentinel, Infinity Journal, and other publications. He is an associate at Small Wars Journal-El Centro and blogs at Abu Muquwama, CTOVision and Information Dissemination on strategy, technology and international politics.
 Samuel Logan, “A Profile of Los Zetas: Mexico’s Second Most Powerful Drug Cartel,” CTC Sentinel 5:2 (2012).
 Ioan Grillo, “Mexico: Zetas Rewrite Drug War in Blood,” Vancouver Sun, May 29, 2012.
 Julie López, “The Zetas’ Bad Omen,” ReVista (Winter 2012).
 John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Tactics and Operations in the Mexican Drug War,” Infantry 100:4 (2011).
 Quoted in Tracy Wilkenson, “Sinaloa Cartel, Zetas Push Mexico’s Drug Violence to New Depths,” Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2012.
 John P. Sullivan and Samuel Logan, “Los Zetas: Massacres, Assassinations and Infantry Tactics,” The Counter Terrorist 3:6 (2010/2011).
 For a detailed history of MS-13 and its operations, see Samuel Logan, This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang (New York: Hyperion, 2009).
 Hannah Stone, “El Salvador Gangs Confirm Truce,” Insight Crime, March 23, 2012.
 John P. Sullivan and Samuel Logan, “MS-13: Networks of Influence,” The Counter Terrorist 3:4 (2010).
 Romina Ruiz-Goiriena, “Mara Salvatrucha, Zetas Joining Forces? Guatemala Authorities See Disturbing Evidence,” Associated Press, April 7, 2012.
 Diana Washington Valdez, “Zetas Cartel-Mara Salvatruchas Alliance in Mexico Unites Brutal Gangs,” El Paso Times, April 15, 2012.
 Steven Dudley, “Reports of Zetas-MS-13 Alliance in Guatemala Unfounded,” Insight Crime, April 17, 2012.
 Prison gangs offer cartels the advantage of extreme coercion since they can enforce their will upon gangsters inside and outside of prison. See Jason Buch, “Cartels Cooperate with Prison Gangs,” Houston Chronicle, January 2, 2012.
 Sebastian Rotella, “Cardinal’s Slaying Had Ties to San Diego Barrio,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1993.
 Mónica Ortiz Uribe, “U.S. Gangs As Foot Soldiers For Drug Traffickers,” Fronteras, May 25, 2012.
 See, for example, this synopsis of MS-13 and M-18 activity in Honduras: “Honduras: Areas of operation of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara 18 (M-18) (also known as the 18th Street gang) in Honduras; domestic and transnational networks; nature of any alliances and whether the maras dispute territory; violence perpetrated by gang members against other gang members (2009-December 2011),” Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, February 3, 2012.