Could Latino Street Gangs Transform Themselves into Transnational Drug Mafias?


06.09.09diazcoverTom Diaz, author of a new book, “No Borders: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement,” looks at the potentially ominous future of criminal street gangs in the U.S.

In the 1980s, few law enforcement officials had heard of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) or the 18 th Street gang. Yet within two decades, these gangs metastasized from local urban-based organizations in Los Angeles and other California cities into transnational criminal enterprises operating throughout the Western Hemisphere, including El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

As Mexico's violent drug-fueled turf wars threaten to spread north of the border, many wonder whether the gangs have become integrated with Mexican drug cartels.

One way to answer this question is to ask a better one: what will these gangs look like in ten or twenty years?

Street gangs are important to the Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Their profits depend on the activities of such gangs as primary retail distributors of illicit drugs in the United States. Latinos are not the only groups who serve DTOs' interests: African-American, outlaw motorcycle, prison, Asian, and other street gangs have also been identified as significant players in the trade in cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and other illegal drugs in the U.S.

Estimates of the annual value of the illicit drug trade vary widely. The Congressional Research Service estimates a range of $13.6 billion to $48.4 billion. The private intelligence service Stratfor puts the upper limit as high as $100 billion. Whatever the actual value, there is no doubt that Latino gangs are in the thick of the business, and are involved in a range of drug-related crimes associated with organized criminality, such as extortion and murder. To that extent, they are certainly an integral part of the DTO's operations.

Data on gang membership and gang crime are notoriously subjective. They are based largely on estimates collected by federal agencies from local law enforcement agencies. Given that caution, the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC) reported in its National Gang Threat Assessment 2009 that in September 2008, “approximately” 1 million gang members belong to “more than” 20,000 gangs that were criminally active within all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The report states that criminal gangs “commit as much as 80 percent of the crime in many communities.” NGIC has identified 11 gangs that operate nationally, among them four Latino gangs. Of the latter, the 18th Street gang and MS-13 also operate trans-nationally.

But the current relationship between transnational gangs and drug cartels cannot be neatly described. A major problem is that abstract terms like “affiliation” and “integration” are often used in government and media reporting alike in this context without concrete definition or specific example. My own view has been refined the more I look into the specifics. In looking at gangs and DTOs, I now take “affiliation” to mean a criminal business relationship, in which occasional or ongoing contacts between the organizations are primarily for the purpose of buying, selling, or trading goods and services, but the two do not share a command structure or employer-employee relationship.

On the other hand, I take “integration” to mean a relationship in which the gang is a functional part of a larger enterprise, subject to the latter's command structure. The difference might be thought of as that between a local independent drug store and the local outlet of a chain drug store. They might each buy similar products from the same source, but the chain store is directed by, and answers to, corporate headquarters.

Law enforcement opinion is divided on the extent to which gangs like MS-13 are actually integrated into DTO structures. Based on what I have learned from my continuing discussions with U.S. and Mexican sources, I believe that the better view today is that gangs are “affiliated” with, but not yet “integrated” into the Mexican DTOs. Depending on circumstances and opportunity, the gangs operate principally as “contractors.” Have gangsters been used as “muscle” to protect cartel interests and “hit men” in cartel battles? No doubt. Have some opportunistic gang leaders made deals with DTOs for profit or power? Yes. But, are the gangs integrated as DTO “soldiers”? Almost certainly not.

Observers and students of transnational criminal enterprises largely see them as flexible cellular networks that change in response to opportunity, need and law enforcement pressure. Little is to be gained by such a fluid network from integrating street gangs who are often resistant to outside management directly into DTO structures. More specifically, many DTO leaders see the gangs as too volatile to embrace organizationally. DTOs certainly do not shy away from extreme violence, but many of their leaders regard street gang violence as reckless, often pointless, and therefore hard to control.

The next two decades however could see some significant changes in the structure and operation of Latino gangs.

Predicting the behavior of these dynamic human structures is difficult. But three factors – and one wild card – suggest more growth, violence and challenge to U.S. law enforcement and society from transnational Latino gangs.

First, the proportion of second-generation Latino youth (those 18 and under born of immigrant parents) grew from 30 percent of the U.S. Latino youth population in 1980 to 52 percent in 2007. This proportion will not shrink for another decade. Second generation youth are precisely the population from which ethnic street gang members are drawn. Caught between old and new cultures, these youngsters often face “multiple marginalities” that make their socialization – education, employment, and cultural integration – difficult. Although most of these young people will socialize and raise stable third-generation families, a small but significant portion – perhaps ten percent – will fail to adapt, fall between cultures and seek the gang as alternative to school, family and nation. Gangs are therefore likely to grow from this pool, no matter what happens to border control.

Second, the National Gang Threat Assessment 2009 states that some Latino street gangs are moving into the wholesale drug trade, “increasingly distributing wholesale-level quantities of marijuana and cocaine” in urban and suburban communities. Some of these gangs are assessed as “capable of competing with U.S.-based Mexican DTOs.” Other government reports echo these assessments. These developments mean market change, which in the drug trade means violent conflict: drug markets are rationalized by guns, not negotiations.

Finally, there are reports that Mexican cartels are shifting operations into Central America in response to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement pressure. Central America is the queen's nest of the two most dangerous transnational Latino gangs, MS-13 and the 18th Street gangs. A variety of scenarios – none of them good – could develop from this mix.

There is, however, a wild card: so far, no one has succeeded in forging MS-13, the 18th Street gang or any other transnational Latino gang into a unified, well-coordinated enterprise. One ambitious gangster, Nelson Varela Comandari, wanted to hammer MS-13 into an integrated empire. Born in El Salvador and raised in the United States, Comandari was charismatic and feared enough to have succeeded–had his career not been cut short by a federal drug trafficking indictment and other charges.

Comandari has been in federal custody without hearing or trial for four years. As I explain in detail in No Boundaries, he has almost certainly been negotiating an omnibus plea agreement to resolve multiple, serious felony charges from different jurisdictions, including the federal government and the city of Los Angeles at a minimum. Such a deal would certainly require him to “flip,” or cooperate. One law enforcement agent told me Comandari could be the equivalent of the notorious informant Sammy “The Bull” Gravano.

There is no reason to think that other ambitious gangsters of similar mold won't try to turn their gangs into powerful, mafia-like organizations. The natural next step would be to challenge existing organizations, especially the Mexican DTOs, for control of lucrative transnational operations.

If that happens, all bets about the future are off. A well-integrated, consolidated transnational Latino gang would naturally connect every form of transnational crime imaginable from whatever its global source to communities throughout the United States. In the classic style of the Mafia, a true Latino mafia would turn its attention to existing smaller local gangs and criminal operations of whatever ethnicity. (Some of that “muscling in” is going on now between national gangs and local gangs.) A war between U.S.-based Latino gangs and Mexican DTOs would be extremely violent, witness current events in Mexico.

All of this would put enormous stress on all levels of law enforcement, and most particularly local agencies. For all of its faÇade of being in control everywhere, the federal law enforcement community is stretched thin. This is why a principal objective of the U.S. Department of Justice is precisely to prevent the emergence of a genuine Latino mafia in the form of a consolidated and empowered transnational gang.

How I Got the Story

I utilized four types of sources: (1) in-depth interviews with law enforcement agents and prosecutors; (2) deep research into the records of selected criminal trials (and appeals) I used for case studies; (3) media reports; and (4) academic books and articles.

I also attended two law enforcement gang seminars. One of them was a highly restricted week-long event in El Salvador, sponsored by the FBI and Salvadoran National Civil Police. I got there because two key people trusted me. My experience has been that the best contacts open up only if the researcher is vouched for by someone in the law enforcement community.

The FBI was by far the most helpful federal law enforcement agency. The Department of Justice was also helpful in making available to me knowledgeable senior lawyers and prosecutors. On the other hand, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security (ICE and CPB) were useless. Their public affairs officials promised that they were seeking interviews for me, but none materialized despite repeated efforts on my part.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was of marginal use. After a good start, ATF's management seemed to be “spooked” by their perception of where I wanted to go with my research. I thought ATF had a story to tell, so I found a good case involving the Latin Kings in Chicago, dug the records out of the Federal Records Center, and pestered ATF into letting me sit down with some of the agents involved.

In contrast, local law enforcement and prosecutors in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Texas, and Virginia were cooperative and interested in telling their stories.

Generally speaking, the lawyers – prosecutors and their supervisors – were much more comfortable about sharing details and documents than the cops and agents. This is probably because their organization is less “militaristic” than the typical law enforcement agency, and lawyers know better the bounds of what they can and ought to make public.

I love court records. They are a seriously underutilized source for crime writers. Transcripts, affidavits, and motions often contain rich detail.

06.11.09diazpicTom Diaz is a lawyer, author, and former journalist. He is senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center a national nonpartisan educational organization working to stop gun death and injury in America. He wrote Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America, and co-authored Lightning Out of Lebanon: Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil. Diaz was counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice from 1993 to 1997. He was an assistant managing editor at The Washington Times for six years and covered the Supreme Court and national security affairs for three years before that. He is currently researching a book on “sophisticated techniques” of investigation. Email him at

Comments are closed.