Filed Under:  Los Zetas

Tattoos & the Drug War

February 16th 2012   ·   0 Comments

ttoo’d criminals leave an embedded image in many minds when thinking about drug gangs and the drug war. Thugs with tattoo’d faces and arms are often paraded in front of the press for photos that make headlines across the globe, while their non-tattoo’d associates are often left standing to the side of them.

Gangs use tattoos for more reasons than just intimidation and bragging. Tattoos are used to identify gang members to members of a common gang in unfamiliar places. They can save ones life who enters prison and needs to join up with unfamiliar members of the same gang. Kidnappers may have unknowingly kidnapped a gang member and then immediately release that person after the tattoos identified them as a feared gang member. Proud gangs members usually see more benefits of touting their gang in ink than hiding it in most cases. While it may mean more scrutiny by police, it can mean respect among the masses.

A heavily tattood gang member usually has a step by step process in covering ones body. The first is typically the gang patch. This identifies that person as a member of the gang. It would consist of the gang name or number that represents that set. The next tattoos are usually personal tattoos. These will represent that persons family and neighborhood. The next wave of tattoos typically show the changing rank of the member and the tasks they have completed. Lost love ones are respected and family members are cherished in ink.

Tattoos are not common practice among all drug gangs and cartels. They in fact are only being used commonly by Mexican Cartels in the last few years. On the other hand street gangs across the globe have used tattoos that for some time. These often originate from local native, tribal, and religious customs. Identifying and crime glorifying tattoos have grown in popularity in the last 20 years.

With the prevalence of tattoo’d gangs like Mara Salvatrucha 13 and the bonds between street gangs and drug cartels, tattoos have made their way into drug war headlines. Tattoos are becoming an interest and even an obsession to journalists and police forces. I have read many articles which claim a suspect is a devil worshiper simply because he adorns a Sante Muerte tattoo. People are often searched and detained unlawfully because of tattoos.

Regardless if you are a fan of tattoos or not, they stimulate the eye to see the dark ink across a persons body. In many Western countries over 25% of certain age groups have tattoos. The majority of these are not criminals. Most are law abiding citizens who pay taxes. Regardless of intent or ideals of those with ink, it is clear that many gangsters and inmates are covered in tattoos. You can often tell a life story of an individual if you can decode the meanings of numerous tattoos.

I myself have been getting tattood for over a decade and currently have over 20 tattoos. I have spent countless hours in tattoo parlors. Various cultures and religions have different takes on being inked, but those that have a significant amount of it wear it with pride. The meanings are in the ink and can sometimes only be decoded by those that wear them. The fact you wear ink does not make you a criminal. It is the person under the ink and the story that is told that makes the man.

Tattoo Meanings

Number tattoos= usually correspond with that letter in the alphabet (13=M). Can also identify a street or area code.
13= Typically stands for M. Used by Mara Salvatrucha, the Mexican Mafia, and all Hispanic Sureno gangs.
(To read more on Mara Salvatrucha/MS-13 read my previous post )

18= Typically represents the 18th street gangs and maras in California and Central America.14= Used by Norteno gangs in Northern California to represent the letter N.

Grim reaper= Is a crude image representing Santa Muerte. (to read more on Sante Muerte read my previous post )

Tear Drops= Represents different aspects of death. Can mean one murdered a person, but usually mean that person lost someone close to them.

Three dots in a triangle= a basic and often homemade tattoo that represents living a gang life (mi vida loca, my crazy life) Can also represent the Catholic trinity. Is usually on the web of the hand or below the eye.

Cross between the eyes= Typically represents someone who was murdered multiple people.

Rosaries, Saints, and Crosses= Used by many religious people for protection.

Joker and Clown symbols= Often used by Hispanic street gangs members to represent a lack of fear.

Stars on Shoulders= Represent a man of status or respect.


Mara Salvatrucha Members
Mara Salvatrucha members bore tattoos on their faces in the beginning to strike fear into enemies. Many members mastered the art of tattooing during prison terms. They went on to cover much of their bodies to pay respect to the gang. In recent years the gang has asked members to be less obvious with tattoos to avoid heat from police forces.
Mara 18 Member
 Mara 18 and the 18th street gang formed from a similar culture as Mara Salvatrucha. They have been known to cover there faces and bodies with ink representing the gang.
Los Zetas Member
Victim with Santa Muerte Tattoos
Santa Muerte tattoos rose to infamy in the last decade in Mexico and now across the Americas. Most wear it for protection from death. Followers believe respecting the Saint of Death will help you live another day.
Los Zetas Member
Zetas members commonly have tattoos in connect with their military background and their connection with the US/Mexico border culture.
Gulf Cartel Leader

Gulf Cartel members are often tattood because of their border culture and shared United States gang culture.

The Barrio Azteca gangs operates on both sides of the border in the Juarez area. They are infamous with their tattoos which mix US gang culture and Aztec art.

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