Similarities and Differences Between Los Zetas and MS-13

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There are a variety of interesting similarities and differences between the organization, methods, and histories of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Los Zetas, two of the largest and most powerful criminal gangs in the world. The comparison between the tactics and structures of these two groups sheds a great deal of light on the emerging face of international crime and the myriad issues presented by the proliferation and strengthening of such groups. In many ways, particularly in terms of their most common areas of business, there is a great deal of overlap between MS-13 and Los Zetas. In addition, they share a number of similarities in terms of their organizational structure and hierarchies. However, in terms of their organizational histories, there are significant differences between the two groups. Better understanding the reasons for both the overlap and variation in the structure and dealings of these organizations is essential to understanding the future of multinational organized crime and how to best curb this growing problem.

One of the most important ways in which the two groups are largely similar is in their diverse business strategies. Despite the fact that both organizations are largely thought of as drug distributors first and foremost by the public, the fact is that “In 2007, UNODC concluded that the mara groups (MS-13 and M-18) play very little role in transnational cocaine trafficking,” instead finding the group engages in “Mainly extortion (bus companies, local businesses, individuals), street-level drug trafficking (cannabis and some cocaine), theft and robberies, murder-for-hire” (“Transnational Organized Crime” 2012, p. 5, 27). While it is clear that drugs play a role in the illegal activities of MS-13 it is equally evident that the organization has branched into a wide variety of illicit industries and avenues, and is not solely dependent on the drug trade as a source of income. This makes the organization particularly difficult to stamp out because even victories against the drug side of the operation leave many other sources of income available to fuel the gang. This is mirrored by the increasingly diverse illicit activities of Los Zetas.

Los Zetas are another group that, while heavily involved in the international drug trade, has begun to branch into various other criminal enterprises. As Dwight Dyer and Daniel Sachs state, “Rather than concentrating on trafficking drugs, the Zetas’ portfolio includes everything from piracy, extortion, kidnapping, and migrant smuggling to theft from oil pipelines and levying taxes on other criminal organizations. Some of these activities provide the group with greater profits than they receive from drugs” (2013). Clearly, as in any other business, these criminal organizations have come to realize that diversification of sources of income provides them with a steadier and more reliable stream of finances while making it more difficult for law enforcement to deal crippling blows to their organizations. The increasing trend of diversification within both MS-13 and Los Zetas indicates the need for multi-pronged and innovative law enforcement approaches to ensure that these groups lose access to their many sources of illicit funding. Furthermore, there are interesting similarities between the two organizations in other arenas.

Both MS-13 and Los Zetas have highly decentralized hierarchies and structures in terms of leadership. As the Federal Bureau of Investigation states, “a single national or international MS-13 gang leader has not been identified within the United States or abroad. The autonomy of the gang’s cliques makes them difficult to target as there is no centralized leadership” (“MS-13: An International Perspective” 2005). This unusually loose and informal leadership structure makes infiltration of the organization by law enforcement extremely difficult, in addition to making dealing a crippling blow to the organization through the arrest of leadership extremely difficult. This decentralized power structure is one of the defining features of MS-13, and one that has been adopted by other criminal organizations such as Los Zetas as well.

Los Zetas also have an interesting leadership structure in terms of their surprising lack of a formal hierarchy and centralized control. As Dyer and Sachs state, “Instead of developing a strong vertical hierarchy, they have built a horizontal, decentralized one. The Zetas do have identifiable leaders, but their individual cells have always been empowered to exploit opportunities available in their respective locales. They do not have to wait for a top commander to issue orders” (2013). Unfortunately, this horizontal power structure can enable these groups to adapt more quickly and effectively to pressure from rivals or law enforcement groups, enabling them to continue their campaigns of gang violence and destruction. Adaptation to this increasingly common decentralized power structure amongst criminal organizations will be a crucial tool for law enforcement in the future. However, despite the myriad similarities between the two groups in terms of organization and areas of crime, there are a number of differences between MS-13 and Los Zetas.

The main difference between MS-13 and Los Zetas is the history of the groups, and as a result of these wildly divergent origins, the background of their typical members. As Clare Ribando Seelke states, “MS-13 was created during the 1980s by Salvadorans in Los Angeles who had fled the country’s civil conflict,” and they “later expanded their operations to Central America” (2012). The fact that the organization was founded by poverty-stricken refugees who failed to assimilate into the American environment in the Los Angeles area, and then exported US gang culture back to their country of origin in El Salvador is a crucial element of MS-13’s identity. While the horrific acts of violence and criminality by the gang cannot be condoned in any way, the failure of social programs to socially, economically, and politically incorporate the poor and marginalized within the United States have undeniably contributed to some degree to the emergence of the MS-13 organization. However, the poverty-stricken beginnings of the gang stand in marked contrast to the highly specialized origins of Los Zetas.

Los Zetas were not founded by poor and traumatized refugees from a civil war, but rather by highly trained military personnel. As June S. Beittel states, “This group was originally composed of former elite airborne special force members of the Mexican Army who defected to the Gulf cartel and became their hired assassins...Los Zetas split with the Gulf cartel in the period of late 2008 to 2010 (analysts disagree on the exact timing) to become an independent DTO” (2013). The fact the founders of this criminal organization were once government officials trained specifically to combat the forces of narcotrafficking and international organized crime makes it clear that extreme oversight of the application of government resources against criminal organizations is necessary to ensure the proper usage of these assets. Furthermore, it stands in marked contrast to the origins of MS-13, where rather than being spurred to some degree by political and economic circumstances, the motivations appear to be pure greed. This development illustrates the massive amount of money at stake in international criminal trade, and the vigilance required to ensure the honesty of those charged with halting such a massively profitable industry.

Overall, there are a variety of similarities and differences between the methods, leadership structures, and histories of MS-13 and Los Zetas. Both organizations exhibit a willingness to diversify into a wide number of criminal enterprises, as well as surprisingly decentralized power and leadership networks. However, the groups have radically different historical origins that point to vastly different political, social, and economic issues that need to be addressed to adequately curb the rise of new organized crime organizations. The parallel and divergent aspects of the structure and makeup of these two criminal groups provide a number of insights into the environment of organized crime in the present day, and how best to combat this trend.


Beittel, J. S. (2013, April 15). Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Violence. Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from

Dyer, D., & Sachs, D. (2013, August 5). Los Zetas' Spawn. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13): An International Perspective. (2005, August 26). Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from]

Seelke, C. R. (2014, February 20). Gangs in Central America. Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from

Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment. (2012, September.). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from