Recently, our colleagues at Fundar discovered a truly bizarre document buried deep inside the Web site of Mexico’s National Institute for Migration (INM): an 86-page report featuring graphic photos of the body art adorning the bodies of Mexican and Central American gang members. (You can download the full report here.) In some cases, the individuals in the photographs—who were presumably detained by U.S. or Mexican immigration authorities—seem to be seriously wounded or even dead. (Warning: Some of the photos are disturbing to say the least. See below.)
Written in Spanish, the document appears to have been produced by an unspecified U.S. law enforcement agency and bears the markings of the 2012 “Anti Gang Program” for Mexico. Stranger still, INM published the document without further explanation on a lonely, uncategorized outpost of its Web site that is essentially unreachable unless you perform a Google search for the document title: “Pandillas Latinas y Los Tatuajes del Pandillero” (“Latin Gangs and the Tattoos of Gang Members”).
The document is especially interesting in light of a 2012 Wall Street Journal report that gang tattoos are preventing some would-be immigrants from obtaining visas and green cards. “Tattoo checks have ensnared scores of immigrants—mostly from Latin America—even though they have no criminal conviction,” according to the report.
So where did this handbook on gang tattoos come from? Lacking any additional information, it’s impossible to be sure. There are any number of “Anti Gang” units attached to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. But it seems most likely that the document stems from a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program called “Operation Community Shield,” a domestic anti-gang program that was expanded in 2010 to include coordination with Central American and Mexican authorities. In 2011 testimony before Congress, an ICE official described the unit’s activities in Mexico and Central America, including “Project Southern Tempest,” identified as “the largest ever Homeland Security Investigations-led national initiative targeting gangs with ties to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.”
Of related interest is an 84-page handbook on “Tattoos and Their Meanings,” produced by the Canadian Border Services Agency in 2008, featuring the body ink of Latin American gangs and a host of other groups, including the Russian mafia, white supremacists, and others.
A few of the images from the Pandillas Latinas report are included below.
Warning: Some of these are graphic.