The Barrio Azteca gang emerged in Texas prisons, later served as armed support to the Juárez Cartel, and has since evolved to control local drug trafficking in Juárez. The gang’s highly organized nature has helped it gain membership on both sides of the border, and it could now be in a position to make the leap into large-scale transnational organized crime.
The Barrio Azteca gang, also known as “Los Aztecas,” was formed in the El Paso, Texas prison system in 1986. The gang expanded after 1996, due in part to increasing deportations of imprisoned Mexican criminals by the United States. By the early 2000s, the gang controlled prisons in Chihuahua, and has since continued to grow. According to US estimates, it had around 3,500 members in 2011. By 2013, it reportedly had up to 5,000 in the Juárez area alone and an estimated 3,000 in the United States. According to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Barrio Azteca also has members in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and Texas authorities have reported a Barrio Azteca presence in New Mexico.
As of March 2015, the organization’s top leader was Eduardo Ravelo, who formed part of the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list until he was arrested in July 2018. Ravelo was believed to issue orders for the organization in Juárez, to move back and forth across the US border, and to be responsible for a great deal of the violence that has wracked the border state. Much of the rest of the Barrio Azteca leadership is based in US jails, where leaders use telephones, the postal service and secret messages filtered to visitors to communicate with members on the outside. The Cereso jail in Juárez has also served as an important operational center for weapons and drugs smuggling, according to one former member.
Beginning in the 2000s, Barrio Azteca started to assist Mexico’s Juárez Cartel with operations, and the gang became an important element in the battle between the Juárez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel for control of the city of Juárez. The Juárez Cartel’s armed wing, “La Linea,” recruited members from Barrio Azteca to fight the Sinaloa Cartel in 2008, and many gang members were killed or arrested. The group also helped the Juárez Cartel to move people and drugs as well as to acquire weapons and vehicles.
In 2010, Barrio Azteca members allegedly murdered 15 teenagers at a party, and later that same year, killed a US Consulate employee, her husband and the husband of another employee in Ciudad Juárez. The attacks brought down a great deal of pressure from the US government, which issued a federal indictment of 35 Barrio Azteca members in Texas in March 2011 on counts of extortion, murder, drug trafficking and money laundering. Ten of these members were specifically indicted in connection with the 2010 Consulate case. Of the 35 indicted, 33 had been arrested and 26 had been convicted as of March 2015. The mastermind behind the murders, Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, received a life sentence in April 2014.
Despite US efforts, the gang has apparently regained strength, and maintains significant power in Juárez, particularly as the power of the Juárez Cartel has declined. According to the US Department of Justice, Barrio Azteca profits by moving heroin, cocaine and marijuana across the border. The gang also controls local drug distribution, extortion rackets and human smuggling in Juárez, and uses other smaller, local gangs for manpower, as well as charging other criminals to operate in its territory. Drug distribution is believed to represent over half of the gang’s revenue.
Barrio Azteca also draws recruits from Juárez jails who are attracted by the strict order that the gang enforces on members. The gang, which refers to itself as the “Familia Azteca,” requires members to prioritize gang activities over all else and has a set of “sacred rules,” the breaking of which is grounds for harsh punishment and even death for gang members and their families.
According to the February 2014 testimony of one jailed Azteca member serving as a witness in the trial of former leader Arturo Gallegos, members of the gang have received training from the Zetas in assassination, extortion and security. Some of these trainings took place further south of the border, in Torreon, Coahuila, indicating the group has expanded its reach into Mexico and is building its connections.
The power of Barrio Azteca in Juárez puts it in an advantageous position. The group has control over other local gangs, has members across the border, and already moves drug shipments across the border. All of these factors create a very real possibility that, if the gang were to gain control over US-bound drug shipments moving through Juárez, Barrio Azteca could move into full-blown international drug trafficking.
The gang operates with a hierarchical structure similar to that of the army. A committee of “generals,” both in and out of prison rule by consensus. Below them, captains control mini-plazas that are run by lieutenants. These command sergeants, who are not always fully-fledged members, and finally soldiers, or “indios,” who are often underage and are used for the local distribution of small amounts of drugs. In addition, the gang has reportedly fixed some tactical errors that put it at an initial disadvantage, including beginning to use older model vehicles to maintain a lower profile and providing better training to its members.
The states of Juárez and Chihuahua in Mexico; El Paso, Texas; Massachusetts; Pennsylvania; possibly New Mexico.
Allies and Enemies
The gang’s key ally is the Juárez Cartel and its armed wing, La Linea. Barrio Azteca also works with the Zetas. A principal enemy is the Sinaloa Cartel, along with its subcontractor, the Mexicles gang.
The gang’s control over Juárez puts it in a position to move into major transnational drug trafficking. The group already controls local drug distribution, smuggles drugs across the border, and has members in Texas, providing it with essential connections to expand operations. However, the 2018 arrest of Ravelo, the gang’s reputed top leader, suggests authorities are aware of the threat posed by the group and are working to confront it.
While Barrio Azteca remains the dominant gang in El Paso, it lost in power in the city in 2014 as the Juárez Cartel continued to decline, according to the 2014 Texas Gang Threat Assessment, and a competitor gang called Sureño 13 grew as a result of a relationship with the Sinaloa Cartel. Nevertheless, the FBI’s 2015 National Gang Report says Barrio Azteca remained one of the most active gangs in the US border region, and will likely remain a major criminal actor for the foreseeable future.