Cartel Tattoos And The Meanings Behind Them

Tattoos have long served as important badges of honor for criminal enterprises. By inking your body you are making a permanent commitment to your organization, signifying a blood oath - you are in this for life. While many gangs and criminal groups have employed the use of tattoos for decades, it's a relatively new phenomenon for the brutal Mexican drug cartels, and the pictures of these cartel tattoos show they're bigger and badder than ever.

The reason groups like the Zetas and the Sinaloa are now marking their members is an economic one. By covering their employees in facial and other highly visible tattoos, they are effectively making them unhirable anywhere else, and in turn, dependent on their organization. Some of these photos of cartel tattoos will show you just how intense tattooing can get. This list illustrates some of the tattoos that adorn Mexican cartel and gang members, along with the meanings the lie behind them. 

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  • Crosses And Skulls Between The Eyes

    Crosses And Skulls Between The Eyes
    Photo: Elizabethcastro / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Many cartel and gang members have begun placing skull or cross iconography between their eyes, creating a truly menacing image. It's a highly visible tattoo designed to indicate its wearer has committed murder. Unlike, say, the familiar teardrop tattoo, the skull or cross signifies a person with a high body count.

  • Three Dots

    Three Dots
    Photo: United States Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The three dots tattoo is fairly common among gang members, and it doesn't belong to one organization or cartel in particular. Commonly seen in prison - as it's a pretty easy tattoo to do with homemade instruments - the three dots are typically placed in a highly visible area (like the hand, or around the eye) to send a clear message. The design is meant to convey "my crazy life," or mi vida loca, indicating the person who has it operates outside the law.

    The three dots tattoo has also been known to represent a protective purpose, symbolizing the Holy Trinity of the Catholic Church: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

  • Mara Salvatrucha

    Mara Salvatrucha
    Photo: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement / Wikipedia / Public Domain

    Mara Salvatrucha, otherwise known as MS-13, is one of the largest, most notorious street gangs in the world. Though it originated in Los Angeles, the gang has deep ties to Mexico's Los Zetas cartel, and since the 1990s and 2000s, it has become a major player in the North American drug trade.

    For members of Mara Salvatrucha, marking yourself with the gangs initials is a rite of passage, with many opting to get inked in bold letters on the neck or face. 

  • Santa Muerta

    For members of the Mexican drug cartels, the grim reaper-like image of Santa Muerta - whose mysterious roots are said to track back to Aztec culture, as well as Catholicism and Voodoo - offers a measure of protection. Santa Muerta is believed by some to be the queen of the underworld or a saint of the dead, and some have speculated she has a cult-like following among the cartels.

    The belief is by honoring Santa Muerta, and in turn, the dead, one buys themselves more time on this Earth even though they've committed evil deeds.

  • Devil And Horns

    If you're trying to send a message through your tattoos, a picture of the devil himself is worth 1,000 words. By placing an image of a recognizably satanic figure on one's person, they're telling the world exactly how they are going to behave. In other words, you've got a real devil on your hands. 

    In the world of the Mexican gangs and drug cartels, the image of the devil is frequently used by MS-13, as it replicates one of their commonly used gang symbols: the extension of the index and pinky fingers to simulate devil horns. 

  • Teardrops

    The teardrop tattoo is fairly well known in popular culture. The simple, dark blue tears under the eye are often meant to represent the deaths of people close to the person who wears them. For the gangs and cartels of Mexico, however, this tribute can take on a more sinister form, sometimes signifying the murders the wearer has committed.