Guatemala Arms, Explosives Seizures Point to Gang Sophistication

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Authorities in Guatemala have seized an extensive weapons cache and remotely operated explosives belonging to the country’s “mara” street gangs, in an indication these groups are growing in sophistication — a trend also seen in El Salvador and Honduras.

According to Guatemala’s Interior Ministry, two alleged members of the Barrio 18 gang were arrested on August 27 in the municipality of Santa Catarina Pinula — just outside Guatemala City — with two home-made explosive devices. In addition to the explosives, the alleged gang members were carrying two cellphones authorities believe may have been rigged to detonate the devices, as well as a document explaining manufacturing and operational procedures for the explosives.

Authorities found two additional mobile phones on the alleged gang members containing videos and images showing the recent murder of two women, reported the Interior Ministry.

In another operation on August 26 in the nearby municipality of Villa Nueva, authorities captured five alleged members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang and seized a large arms cache including explosives and high caliber weapons, reported Guatemala’s National Police (PNC). The arsenal, discovered in a home used as a hideout, included five AK-47 assault rifles, a submachine gun, six fragmentation grenades, three bulletproof vests — one of which bore the PNC logo — and clothing resembling police uniforms. A cadaver was also discovered on the premises.

A police official told Prensa Libre the gang had been amassing the arsenal in preparation for an offensive against their Barrio 18 rivals.

InSight Crime Analysis

Both the seizure of military grade weaponry and the leap to remote-controlled explosive devices are troubling indications of the growing sophistication of Guatemala’s Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs, which authorities warned last year were becoming more hierarchical and better organized.

A similar shift appears to be occurring in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras.

In El Salvador, a 2013 report warned of the MS13’s access to sophisticated weaponry and deepening ties to transnational drug trafficking organizations including Mexico’s Zetas. According to another more recent news report that cited anonymous officials, the group has also conducted military training sessions for some of its members. 

SEE ALSO: MS13 Profile

Meanwhile, the Barrio 18 gang ambushed a Salvadoran police patrol in April, leading authorities there to warn that the group was expanding its territory and drug trafficking operations and had acquired military grade weapons.

In Honduras, the Barrio 18 has also reportedly begun to professionalize its operations, and now counts lawyers, architects, and engineers among its members, as well as a medical team.

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