Two of Latin America's deadliest gangs join forces

By Romina Ruiz-goiriena

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 7 2012 5:55 a.m. MDT

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, APRIL 8, 2012 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - This May 15, 2011 file photo shows the site of a massacre at a local ranch in the hamlet of Caserio La Bomba in La Libertad in northern Guatemala. Authorities arrested 50 suspected members of the Zetas in connection with the massacre that left 27 people dead, 25 of those decapitated. Guatemalan authorities say they have begun to see new and disturbing evidence of an alliance between the Mara Salvatrucha street gang and the Zetas drug cartel, one of the most feared criminal organizations in Latin America, a deal with the potential to further undermine the U.S.-backed effort to fight violent crime and narcotics trafficking in the region.

Nuestro Diario, File) GUATEMALA OUT - NO USAR EN GUATEMALA, Associated Press

GUATEMALA CITY — — Hardened in the streets and prisons of California and deported in the 1990s to the Central American countries where they were born, the members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang swiftly grew into a force of heavily tattooed young men carrying out kidnappings, murder and extortion.

Now, Guatemalan authorities say, they have begun to see new and disturbing evidence of an alliance between the Maras and another of the most feared criminal organizations in Latin America — a deal with the potential to further undermine that U.S.-backed effort to fight violent crime and narcotics trafficking in the region.

Secret jailhouse recordings and a turncoat kidnapper have described a pact between leaders of the Maras and the Zetas, the brutal Mexican paramilitary drug cartel that has seized control of large parts of rural northern Guatemala in its campaign for mastery of drug-trafficking routes from South America to the United States.

In recent months, authorities say, they have begun to see the first signs that the Zetas are providing paramilitary training and equipment to the Maras in exchange for intelligence and crimes meant to divert law-enforcement resources and attention.

The Zetas, formed more than a decade ago by defectors from Mexico's army special forces, have already joined forces with local drug kingpins in the Guatemalan countryside, and recruited turncoat members of Guatemala's military special forces for operations in Mexico and Guatemala, officials in the two neighboring countries have said.

There is some evidence that other Mexican cartels have paid Central American street gangs to sell drugs for them. And Salvadoran authorities said they are aware of informal links between the Zetas and local cliques of the Mara Salvatrucha paid to sell individual shipments of drugs, but officials have seen no proof of any formal deal between the gangs.

But a formal, durable alliance with the Maras could bring the Zetas thousands of new foot soldiers, extending the cartel's reach into the cities of Guatemala, and, potentially, other countries in Central America where the Maras maintain a grip on urban slums.

Guatemalan authorities told The Associated Press that they believe the Zetas have trained a small group of Maras in at least one camp inside Mexico. Zeta members have spoken of recruiting 5,000 more, although the extent to which they have succeeded remains unclear, officials said.

Surreptitious recordings of jailhouse conversations between Zeta and Mara leaders contain mentions of a deal between the two groups, according to a high-ranking investigator who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive and dangerous nature of the information.

Eduardo Velasco, head of an Interior Ministry task force on organized crime, told the AP that authorities believed the Maras' training by the Zetas had manifested itself in the increasing brutality, planning, organization and firepower of Maras' operations in Guatemala.

Previously armed mainly with handguns, Maras, recognizable by intimidating, dark tattoos that cover swaths of their bodies and often their faces, have begun carrying AR-15, M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles and military fragmentation grenades.

In the city of Villanueva in January, a group of Maras armed with assault rifles burst into a suburban disco and opened fire on a meeting of rivals, killing five people.

Maras have also begun chopping off the fingers of kidnapping victims to pressure their families into sending ransoms, a technique previously seen in Mexico, Velasco said.

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