Guatemala City – Shipped back to the Central American countries of their birth from the streets and prisons of southern California in the 1990s, the tattooed and scarred members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang quickly grew into a powerful and deadly force throughout the region.
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.
"As a result of this union with the Zetas, the Mara Salvatrucha have more ability to organize, strategize and maneuver," Velasco said. "The Mara Salvatrucha want to build up their inventory of long-range weapons, grenades and drugs for their own use and for sale ... they know the economic benefit is great for them and that the Zetas, as an outside group, need the Maras' network in order to grow inside Guatemala."
The Zetas have not tried to recruit the Salvatruchas' rival MS-18 gang, also a group whose name and organization originate in the slums of Los Angeles, because it is not as powerful or sophisticated, Velasco said.
The Zetas' ultimate goal, according to analysts, Guatemalan authorities 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 first 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 reasons of personal safety.
The suspects were incarcerated alongside 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, Velasco said.
Another operation led to the dismantling of a group of kidnappers, Velasco said. The head of the gang became a cooperating witness and told authorities he had sent 18 members of his group to a Zeta training camp in Veracruz, Mexico, paying each 5,000 quetzales ($640). They came back to Guatemala and worked as kidnappers for him. He was planning to send another six for training when he was arrested.
Velasco declined to elaborate on the case.
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.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.