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Thursday, March 07, 2013

Report: MS-13 Smuggles Missile Launchers, Teams Up With Zetas Cartel

Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, became El Salvador’s deadliest gang 
through force of numbers and the power of the handgun — while 
inking some pretty crazy tattoos. Now if they weren’t deadly 
enough, the gang is transitioning into adopting heavier weapons 
while teaming up with Mexico’s Zetas.

It’s not easy tracking guns inside the gangster’s paradise of El 
Salvador, as the Maras are not prone to advertising their alliances 
and hardware. But according to a recent report (.pdf) from Douglas 
Farah and Pamela Phillips Lum of the International Assessment and 
Strategy Center, a hawkish national security think-tank, the gang is 
moving “away from a dependence on handguns via the acquisition 
of automatic rifles such as AK-47s, along with grenades, rocket 
propelled grenade launchers, and Light Anti-Tank Weapons,” or 
LAWs. The report’s conclusions also draw straight from the source: 
MS-13 gang members themselves.
Worse, the authors write that the gang recently funneled multiple 
shoulder-fired SA-7 anti-aircraft missile launchers “to a clandestine 
arms market that operates in the Bajo Lempa region of El 
Salvador.” According to the authors’ sources, these SA-7s were 
first taken from stockpiles in Nicaragua left over from the country’s 
civil war, transferred to the arms market in Bajo Lempa, and “were 
eventually sold to the FARC for use in Colombia.” Going price? 
Danger Room can’t independently corroborate these claims, but the 
report notes an SA-7 was seized by Colombian troops in November. 
Last summer, the FARC also released a video showing what 
appears to be a rebel with an SA-7 launcher shooting down an 
airplane – likely a Colombian Air Force Super Tucano.
Ironically, the Maras’ upgrade to automatic rifles is being 
inadvertently helped by the Salvadoran government. Gun buy-back 
programs, drawn up by the government to get guns out of the hands 
of street gangs, have allowed MS-13 to exchange old guns forcash
and then buy newer weapons — albeit in smaller quantities. Most 
of these weapons come from war-era stockpiles — many of them in 
Nicaragua — or by stealing (or even buying) them from the 
Honduran and Salvadoran armies. The MS-13 trade in firearms, 
whether for themselves or for selling them to larger and more 
organized groups like the FARC and the Mexican drug cartels, 
“appears to now be one of the primary activities of the MS-13 in El 
Salvador and beyond.”
The report also details a growing link between the MS-13 and the 
link hasn’t always been well-established. An Associated Press story 
first made the connection last year, and quoted a Guatemalan 
interior ministry official who said the Zetas trained 18 MS-13 
members at a camp in the Mexican state of Veracruz before sending 
them to Guatemala to conduct kidnappings. Days later, the chief of 
the Interior Ministry in Guatemala City dismissed the report, saying 
there was no evidence of a connection and denied the AP’s source 
was an employee at the ministry.
But the connection does exist, according to Farah and Lum. Gang 
members told the authors that the Zetas and MS-13 reached an 
agreement “in the past few months” to arrange for MS-13 to 
smuggle drugs, weapons and human beings for the Zetas. MS-13 
members are being trained at Zetas camps outside the Salvadoran 
capital of San Salvador, and then go on work for the cartel in 
Mexico for $400 per month. But the totalnumbers of MS-13 
members trained “has not been so many,” according to one MS-13 
member. The monthly salary doesn’t always go to the individual 
gangsters, instead being sent to the gangster’s clique back in El 
This new partnership was also a way to patch-up some prior beef 
between the cartels. In 2010, the Zetas attacked MS-13 extortion 
gangs operating along railroad tracks in Mexico, where immigrants 
from Central America often travel to the U.S. border. The two sides 
fought for several months, with multiple people killed, until 
reaching a truce that divided up the territory. “We can’t let 
ourselves be run off by anyone in our territory,” said one MS-13 
member. “We can work with anyone, but we won’t work 
foranyone. That was what the fight was about.”
It’s very pragmatic-minded. MS-13 is also in a strong position to 
work with the Zetas, or pretty much anyone who wants illicit access 
to cocaine and automatic weapons. Their ability to do so, and cross 
borders with “relative impunity makes their organization ideal for 
the movement of guns,” the authors note.
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