Al-Qaeda’s Unlikely Allies in Central America

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 1

Recently there have been reported sightings of al-Qaeda operatives in Honduras. According to some observers, their alleged presence in that country conforms to their desire to secure land routes to the United States, through collaboration with Central American gangs. This report, compiled with the assistance of Central American diplomats, promotes the view that cooperation between al-Qaeda and Central American gangs – while theoretically possible – is unlikely. To better understand why al-Qaeda could be interested in contacting these loose criminal networks, and to appreciate why these contacts are unlikely to develop into sustained relationships, it is necessary to explore the background of these street gangs.

These gangs are a recent phenomenon, originating in U.S. inner cities, during the Central American migration of the 1980s. The problems and threats encountered by these migrants led them to create their own security networks which in time came to be recognized as the “Mara Salvatrucha”. This name is composed of two slang terms of endearment and loosely translates into “group of streetwise Salvadorans”. At the beginning, the gang was mostly composed of youths from El Salvador, but as the Mara Salvatrucha expanded into other inner cities within the U.S., it started to absorb members of other Central American nationalities. Today, there are two predominant Maras in American inner cities, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and Mara 18th street (M18) – they are regarded as deadly rivals. These two Maras cover the whole of the continental U.S. including Alaska [1], and since 1988 have been catalogued by the Los Angeles and New York Police Departments as being among the most dangerous street gangs in the country. [2]

The MS and the M18 expanded into Central America and Mexico by means of a vicious, migration-related circle which started around 1992. At that time, the United States began to apply a migratory policy of deporting convicted criminals of foreign nationality to their countries of origin. Among these deportees were thousands of Mareros who arrived in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and began recruiting and setting up branch operations. In Central America, the problems posed by MS and M18 gradually escalated from local nuisance to national security threat, as their membership and criminal activities increased. The Maras were recognized as an official threat to Central American regional security at the beginning of 2004. [3]

A combination of factors propelled the penetration of the Maras into Mexico, thus starting the second half of the vicious circle and their return to the United States. The first Mareros to arrive in Mexico were most likely many of the original U.S.-based gang members of Central American origin who had been deported but wished to return to the inner cities of Los Angeles and Washington D.C. The presence of the Maras in Mexico was consolidated by local recruitment, and an influx of Central American Mareros fleeing from the law enforcement initiatives adopted in their countries since 2003. Once in Mexico, the Maras flourished in the corrupt environment found along the Guatemala–Mexico border in the Mexican state of Chiapas. There they rule over considerable portions of the smuggling networks which transport people, drugs and weapons between these two countries, and into the north of Mexico, by means of a cargo railroad which departs from the border city of Tapachula.

The inexorable expansion of Mara activities has not been ignored by the U.S. government. Indeed last summer, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed that Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a known al-Qaeda member and suspect in the planning of 9/11 (and for whom the U.S. has offered a $5 million reward) was allegedly spotted in July 2004 in Honduras meeting with leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha. Shukrijumah was allegedly trying to secure entry routes into the U.S., along the Mexican border, as the MS is purported to have established a major smuggling center in Matamoros, Mexico, just south of Brownsville, Texas. [4] The announcement by Ashcroft was followed by a “confirmation” by U.S. officials on October 5 that Shukrijumah had attempted to acquire radioactive material for the production and smuggling of a “dirty bomb” into the United States. After such declarations, the Maras are likely to be surveilled more closely by the Mexican government, especially since it has signed with its U.S. counterpart a series of bilateral initiatives on shared security responsibilities along their common border. Nevertheless, Central American diplomatic sources consulted for this article claimed that the subject of Shukrijumah’s presence has not been raised as an issue in the diplomatic summits recently held in Central America. However, the matter has likely been addressed by the region’s intelligence community.

The U.S. has also worked at the hemispheric level, in order to develop an institutional framework to address a possible cooperation between the Maras and al-Qaeda. The Special Conference on Security of the Organization of the American States (OAS), held in Mexico City on October 2003, at the request of Mexico and the U.S. government, led to the “Declaration on Security in the Americas”. Through this declaration, the conference recognized that the hemisphere, aside from facing traditional threats, is now confronted with new security threats which merit a multi-dimensional response. [5]

The key question, of course, revolves around the likelihood of Mara/al-Qaeda cooperation. Broadly speaking there are four factors which make such cooperation unlikely. Firstly the Maras are not a centralized organization; on the contrary they are a highly de-centralized transnational criminal network. In short they do not have the central decision-making mechanisms to establish a relationship with a sophisticated, non-indigenous organization like al-Qaeda.

Secondly the Maras do not have an anti-American agenda. However, their crimes are becoming more political in Honduras, where Shukrijumah was allegedly spotted. In late December 2004 Honduran Maras committed mass murder by machine gunning a bus, killing more than 20 people. The perpetrators left a banner justifying the killings as a protest against the anti-Maras policies adopted by the Honduran government.

Thirdly the Maras are a public and widely known organization, which makes them unlikely partners for an ultra-secretive network like al-Qaeda. Moreover the Maras’ original territories lie in Los Angeles and Washington D.C., and this makes their extended social and criminal networks, not only a collateral target for an al-Qaeda attack, but an easy target of Homeland Security actions. This is especially the case since many of their members are well known to local and federal law enforcement agencies. On the other hand, it is possible for their branches inside Mexico to act independently upon offers of money and provide human smuggling services to al-Qaeda. But this does not explain why Shukrijumah would want to meet Maras members in Honduras.

Finally, although the U.S.-Mexico border is vulnerable to penetration – a reality underscored by the many migrants that cross it every day – this fact alone does not make it the first choice of entry to the U.S. for al-Qaeda. The very fact that the border is vulnerable to penetration means that it is subject to constant surveillance by a multitude of U.S. agencies, including the intelligence community. Moreover Canada offers more penetration routes to al-Qaeda since it has a larger division line and shares two borders with the continental U.S. (mainland and Alaska). Furthermore the Canadian borders are not subject to the same intense surveillance as the Mexican borders.

The upshot is that the Maras, despite their status as a regional security threat, constitute unlikely and problematic allies for al-Qaeda or any other sophisticated and secretive terrorist network.


1. “Port Police arrest 8 MS-13 Gang Members”, Port Washington News, online Edition, March 6, 1998.

2. “Yaroslavsky announces major crackdown on east hollywood violent gang activity”, County of Los Angeles Press Releases, March 4, 1998.

3. “Centroamerica Tendra orden comun de captura”,, January 15, 2004 edition.

4. “Al Qaeda seeks tie to local gangs”, The Washington Times, September 28, 2004, by Jerry Seper.

5. “Declaration on Security in the Americas, Organization of American States.” October 28, 2003.