Zetas now teaming up with Mara Salvatrucha
Guatemalan authorities have begun to see disturbing evidence of an alliance between the Mara Salvatrucha street gang and another of the most feared criminal organizations in Latin America — a deal that could set back U.S.-backed efforts to fight violent crime and narcotics trafficking in Central America.
Jailhouse recordings and a turncoat kidnapper describe a pact between leaders of the Maras and the Zetas, the brutal Mexican paramilitary drug cartel that now controls much of rural northern Guatemala to dominate drug-trafficking routes from South America to the United States.
In recent months authorities have seen Zetas providing paramilitary training and equipment to the Maras in exchange for intelligence and crimes meant to divert law-enforcement attention.
Launched a decade ago by defectors from Mexico’s army special forces, the Zetas have already joined local druglords in the Guatemalan countryside and recruited Guatemalan special forces soldiers for operations in Mexico and Guatemala, officials in both 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 Mara Salvatrucha bands paid to sell individual shipments of drugs, but officials have seen no formal alliance between the gangs. A durable treaty with the Maras could bring the Zetas thousands of new foot soldiers, extending the cartel’s reach into the cities of Guatemala and other countries in Central America where the Maras dominate urban slums.
Guatemalan authorities report that Zetas have trained a small group of Maras in at least one camp in Mexico. Zeta members have spoken of recruiting 5,000 more but their progress on that is unclear, officials said.
Secret recordings of jailhouse conversations between Zeta and Mara leaders mention a deal between the two groups, according to high-ranking investigators.
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.
The Zetas’ ultimate goal, according to analysts and international officials, is to integrate the Maras into their network and become the most powerful group in Guatemala — criminal or legitimate.
“The Zetas are a paramilitary organization that wants to control all the legitimate, illegitimate and criminal activities in Guatemala,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, regional head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Organized Crime.
Miguel Angel Galvez, a judge who hears narcotics and organized crime cases, said the Mara-Zeta alliance was increasingly evident in the cases he hears, and had been documented in notebooks found on arrested Zetas that detailed payments to Mara members.
“The Zetas come to a group like the Maras and grab total control,” he said.
Authorities learned of the alliance after arresting 50 suspected Zeta members linked to a May 14 massacre on a cattle farm in Petén province that left 27 people dead, 25 of them decapitated, another law-enforcement official said on condition of anonymity for his own personal safety.
The suspects were incarcerated together with Maras, and their secretly recorded conversations contained the first mention of an alliance, the official said.
The Zetas expressed the desire to completely integrate with the Zeta members of the Mara Salvatrucha and are providing them with military training and indoctrination in Mexican camps. Mexican officials have dismantled Zeta training camps in the state of Nuevo León but declined to comment on the Guatemalan claims. U.S. officials in Guatemala also declined to comment.
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