Coded message used by gangs

Imprisoned gang leaders in Honduras are receiving instructions from their counterparts in El Salvador on how to transmit coded messages, reported El Heraldo, highlighting the collaboration between gangs in the two countries.

According to intelligence information obtained by Honduran newspaper El Heraldo, gang members from El Salvador have entered Honduras to train their incarcerated counterparts and new recruits in secret communication techniques.

As a result of a government initiative to block cellphone signals near the country's prisons, gangs in Honduras -- such as the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) -- are resorting to coded messages police refer to as "willas" to maintain contact between incarcerated leaders and members on the outside, El Heraldo said.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

The coded language, comprised of a seemingly random mix of letters and figures, is used to order assassinations and other crimes, as well as send motivational messages reminding gang members to remain strong and united, the report said. According to security officials cited in the story, these messages are communicated via handwritten notes, as well as social media sites.

InSight Crime Analysis

Reports of Salvadoran gang members training their Honduran counterparts to use coded messages illustrate the level of communication and coordination between groups in the two countries. Barrio 18 and MS13 members in Honduras maintain ties to their counterparts in neighboring El Salvador, which is considered the spiritual headquarters of both gangs.

The interactions come when gang members seek refuge in territories controlled by others from their group based in the neighboring country. It may also include exchange of weapons, tactical knowledge and intelligence.

The gangs have also communicated more as the MS13 and Barrio 18 negotiated a truce in El Salvador. For a time, a similar effort seemed to be afoot in Honduras, but that negotiation process quickly fizzled. And El Salvador's truce unraveled this year during a handover of presidential power.  

The use of coded messages also reflects the gangs' ability to adapt to changes in law enforcement tactics. Incarcerated gang members in Honduras previously relied on cell phones to conduct operations and commit crimes, including extortion, from their jail cells. Most of the top leadership of these gangs in both countries are in jail.

In December 2013, however, Honduras passed a law blocking cell phone signals where prisons are located in an effort to weaken the ability of incarcerated gang members to send orders from behind bars. Faced with the same problems, authorities in El Salvador adopted a similar measure in May.

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 Profile

Central American gangs aren't the only criminal groups who have used coded messages to communicate. In 2012, authorities in Mexico dismantled a communication system used by the Knights Templar cartel, which employed secret codes to communicate via radio, while the Zetas have reportedly used a similar system.

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