Transborder gang partnerships on the US-Mexico border

Peace work in urban arenas faces two realities. First, gangs are a permanent feature of urban life (at least for now) in all major cities around the world. Second, while the majority of youth gangs are not involved in transnational organized crime, some gangs are becoming engaged in criminal enterprises normally associated with better organized and more sophisticated crime syndicates.

Undertaken with these ideas in mind, this article describes the transborder collaboration between large organized gangs operating in the Sister Cities of San Diego and Tijuana. Large organized gangs differ in three ways from small, loosely structured, turf oriented gangs: they (1) pursue drug trafficking for profit, (2) operate across cities and countries, and are (3) organized in sophisticated networks. The devastating war in Mexico has raised the relevancy of gangs and criminal networks for those concerned with potential increases in gang violence in the San-Diego conurbation.

A conurbation is a continuous urban and industrially developed area. It can be relatively small in size, as in the Fergana – Kyzyl-Kiya conurbation between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (300,000 residents) or much larger – for example, the Lahore-Amritsar conurbation between Pakistan and India is home to a combined 12 million people.

San Diego-Tijuana is the fourth largest bi-national conurbation in the world, and the largest between the US and Mexico. Tijuana and San Diego are International Sister Cities, a relationship characterized by maintaining bonds between people from different communities, celebrating or appreciating differences, and building partnerships that reduce the likelihood of conflict.

Like most definitions of sister cities, the one above invokes relationships between governments. However just as relevant is the set of relationships existing between governments and criminal organizations, and between gangs, across the international border. Seen through this lens, conflict not only exists but actually thrives on bonds and partnerships between the Sister Cities. Hispanic gangs are deeply embedded in US-Mexico border communities through generations of family members. Future trend analysis depends in part on analyzing the cohesiveness of transborder networks of gangs and criminal organizations.

Transborder gang structure
Gangs are present in almost every neighborhood in San Diego and Tijuana, but they are different entities. In San Diego, the largest, most established gangs are concentrated in the more socially disadvantaged — and among the more violent — neighborhoods of the city. (1) Some of the largest gangs have Facebook pages and use other social media outlets to brand themselves. San Diego’s Hispanic street gangs are affiliated with the umbrella organization La Eme (the family). The La Eme prison gang, also known as the Mexican Mafia, was formed in the late 1950’s in the California Department of Corrections. La Eme is not presided over by a single leader. Leadership structure consists of a very small, tight knit group of people who have the authority to order murders. Each individual has a specific crew consisting of comandadas (officers) who carry out those orders and oversee criminal activities. La Eme controls all Hispanic Gangs in California. (2)

In Tijuana, the neighborhood gangs (or pandillas) have 12 members on average, and arm themselves with sticks and broken bottles. Field interviews indicate that a few pandillas are morphing into cliques in the periphery of armed Mexican gangs, becoming involved in extortion and drug trafficking, but not violent or lucrative jobs (assassination, trafficking, kidnapping, money laundering) carried out by the core. (3) Unlike in San Diego, the larger, more organized gangs do not originate from specific neighborhoods, and they do not have Facebook pages. They are paid to carry out specific tasks by drug cartels, and their members come from different places. They are armed and often lack any sense of connection to the places they ‘police’. Some of these gangs are affiliated with the large Salvadoran gang MS-13 and M-18 (18th Street Gang), both of which are structured as loosely connected cells or cliques. Drug cartels sometimes recruit particular cliques for specific tasks: enforcement (assassinations and other forms of instrumental violence), kidnapping/ ransom, or trafficking/distribution.

What gangs on both sides of the border do have in common is their participation in transborder trade alliances, a pattern of social relationships that affects how individual gangs behave.

Inter-gang social networks
Social network analysis is a method for visualizing relationships between people and groups and analyzing the structure of their interactions. It is based on a theoretical approach that studies how patterns of social relationships (i.e. alliances or rivalries) affect the behavior of individual people, groups, and organizations. Social network analysis has been used to study how individuals behave within gangs, but was used here to study the connections between gangs in San Diego-Tijuana. Types of relationship varied between degrees of rivalry versus cooperation. Using social network analysis software to perform a set of centrality measures enabled identification of just how influential particular gangs and organized criminal groups were in the San Diego-Tijuana conurbation.

The location of gangs in a transborder network can be evaluated by identifying core and peripheral actors (also called nodes), and by measuring varying levels of cohesion by looking for “relatively strong, direct, intense, frequent, or positive ties”. (4) San Diego-Tijuana gangs differed both on frequency and type of contact/communication. For example, when a large gang is in charge of other “sets”, they tend to exert greater influence over communication between those sets.

In addition, a huge degree of direct (positive) connections between gangs highlights a greater potential for cooperation. Sex-trafficking, for example, is a gang activity that appears to engender a high degree of inter-gang cooperation. In San Diego, former rivals have called truces and worked in conjunction to run join circuit trips, share resources and information, and help “protect” and discipline each other’s victims. The potential for cooperation is heightened even further if the gangs involved are connected not just to other gangs, but to other highly connected gangs.

Structure of transborder gang partnerships
The social network analysis showed that San Diego gangs have linkages with three major Mexican drug cartels: the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), Sinaloa, and Los Zetas. The US Mexican Mafia prison gang and AFO (5) had the greatest number of ties (the most direct connections) and are thus considered ‘connectors’ or ‘hubs’ in this transnational network. They are the most active nodes, and thus control communication between other actors.

Unsurprisingly, La Eme has the largest number of ties to San Diego street gangs, and little direct influence over street gangs in Tijuana. But La Eme is still supremely central to the entire network because it is tied to three regional Mexican TCOs – Los Zetas, Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), and Sinaloa. This means the Mexican Mafia is a primary go-between for pairs of other actors and is in a position to broker many — potentially lucrative — connections. It is worth emphasizing that the nature of these connections is loose affiliation through discrete working relationships between core members of each organization. According to a gang expert, “One or two members of La Eme escape to Mexico and they’ll work down there for the cartels”. (6)

Given a network of criminal organizations who must coordinate in order to smuggle drugs, arms, and persons and given that only a small number can be investigated/arrested), centrality metrics also help determine which ones should be chosen in order to maximally disrupt the network. Of the more than 200 gangs in San Diego, three were identified has having the greatest number of direct connections. (7)

The implications for the San Diego-Tijuana conurbation are two-fold. First, taken as a total transnational network, street gangs in San Diego and Mexican organized crime, form a decentralized system of actors that is resilient to intentional disruptions (arrests, or killings). Clearly, some organizations are more important than others, but overall this means that many individual nodes and links can fail while allowing the remaining organizations to still reach each other over different network paths. There is a cultural connection to this, “the result of physical proximity and strong familial ties that many US-based Hispanic gang members retain with family and friends in Mexico”. (8) Even when a particular connection between San Diego gangs and Mexican drug cartels disappeared, similar social networks have reappeared in other parts of the city.

The Hispanic street gangs do operate in conjunction with some of the Mexican cartels. The gangs are used to protect the drug shipments and to guard those who are brought to the US for human trafficking. Many of the agreements are done through the control and direction of the prison gangs. (9)

A second implication is that groups at the periphery of the regional network – an Iraqi group, two white gangs, and three Somalian gangs – warrant vigilance. A peripheral location does not mean that a group is tangential to the network, even though the centrality scores are very low. Instead, peripheral nodes are often connected to networks that are not currently mapped. For example, some African Mafia Crips are sympathizers with al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group operating in Somalia that is rumored to have ties with Al Qaeda.

Challenges and opportunities
Ongoing challenges for the San Diego-Tijuana conurbation are that transborder links between armed actors are flexible and resilient, and the drug-trafficking industry is virtually impossible to disrupt. San Diego-Tijuana is affected by the larger regional threat in Mexico and Central America posed by organized crime. Complex networks of transnational actors, each pursuing their own economic and political interests, are interlinked across state borders from South to North America. At both ends and in between, people suffer the cost of violence associated with giant underground economies of drug and human trafficking.
The Hispanic street gangs do operate in conjunction with some of the Mexican cartels. The gangs are used to protect the drug shipments and to guard those who are brought to the US for human trafficking

The good news is that a variety of actors are taking, proactive and multi-faceted actions to reduce social vulnerability and boost communities’ adaptive capacities to mitigate the impact of armed actors. In addition it has been noted that “as social actors within poor communities with weak mechanisms of formal social control, gangs, militias, factions and cartels have the capacity not only to wage war, but to rein it in”. (10) The toolbox of conflict resolution and peacebuilding strategies is gradually being extended in cases involving gangs and transnational criminal organizations, even if their application runs into normative, legal, and practical roadblocks.

Communities – both local and international – will have to face the fact is that the nature of armed conflict has changed dramatically, and often includes links between transnational organized crime and local armed actors. The most basic issue is protecting and improving the lives of local populations. Building community resilience to gang violence refers less to efforts at eradicating gangs themselves, but understanding and differentiating between their various types, and taking proactive and multi-faceted actions to reduce social vulnerability and boost communities’ adaptive capacities. Since half of all civilian casualties are children, not to mention those forcibly recruited into gangs and other armed groups, the urgency facing peace workers in the urban arena is most pressing.


The author:

Ami Carpenter is an Assistant Professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at University of San Diego. She holds a PhD from George Mason University and has taught courses on international, community and organizational conflict prevention and resolution at George Mason University (Arlington, Virginia), National Taurida Vernatsky University (Simferopol, Ukraine), and California State University (Dominguez Hills). Dr. Carpenter worked on numerous initiatives as a mediator, facilitator, trainer, and conflict resolution consultant. She currently advises the San Diego Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention and the San Diego County Advisory Council on Human and Child Sex Trafficking. Her previous publications cover resilience in fragile states and violent conflict in Mexico and Central America. Her research focuses on community resilience to violence, and the criminal dimensions of political conflicts. Currently, she is researching vulnerability and resilience to conflict in Iraqi and Guatemalan communities, and the connection between transnational gangs and criminal networks in Central America.

1 Gangs cluster in disadvantaged and disorganized neighborhoods often characterized by poverty, inequality and family disruption.

2 Surenos refers to all Southern California criminal street gangs except the Maravilla gangs of East Los Angeles. The word sureno translates to “southerner” in Spanish. Surenos are not a cohesive unit. The term is a designation that ultimately all pay taxes and allegiance to La Eme. Surenos consists of different gangs, many of whom are rivals.

3 For example, Barrio La Linea 13 was a pandilla that gradually became involved in cross-border human trafficking in Colonia Libertad, a neighborhood in Tijuana that straddles the border.

4 Wasserman, Stanley and Katherine Faust. 1994. Social Network Analysis: Methods And Applications. New York: Cambridge University Press.

5 In the San Diego/Tijuana border region at time of research, AFO had almost triple the number of ties than Sinaloa and Los Zetas, although this may have changed.

6 Confidential law enforcement interview, November 20, 2011.

7 Names have been withheld.

8 National Gang Intelligence Center (2011). 40.

9 Sergeant, San Diego County Sherriff’s Department, email correspondence, November 4, 2012.

10 Hagedorn, John (2005) A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press: 163.