Gangs 101

The word Gang causes a great deal of controversy and fear every time it is uttered. There is a great deal of myth and misconception about just what is a gang, how they recruit/operate and the danger they pose to our society, our families and children. Working with gang members for a great number of years, I’ve watched as they have become more sophisticated and violent as time has passed. What was once given short shrift or ignored as an anomaly is now recognized as an incredibly complex problem, not only for law enforcement but for our society as a whole. This article is a good starting point for parents and youth who want to see the truth about what gangs are, and are not.

When we hear the term “Gang” it conjures images of drugs, bullet ridden bodies, money and fear. The reality is; gangs are not new. In fact there is documented evidence of gang related activity going back as far as 1400-1500 AD. What is changing is the increased communications and cooperation on joint criminal ventures between gangs that would traditionally be at war or in competition for the same drug territory. Expertise and even technology are shared in an attempt to evade law enforcement and increase the bottom line. If it’s beginning to make gangs sound more than just a little like a business, it’s because they are. The only difference is that their products are crime, fear and death.

When you take a close look at how many gangs operate, patterns begin to emerge. Gangs want the same thing as any corporation. They want to grow and expand in their territory/target niche. Profit is the bottom line and ruthless business tactics are often employed in the name of gaining a competitive edge. To further the corporate analogy, gangs also use brand recognition and targeted advertising to reach their target demographic. Every gang member I’ve ever known describes himself as a “businessman”.

We won’t be discussing the different types of gangs in this article. That’s a whole separate discussion and best left for another time. Nor will we examine the complex social problems that allow gangs to flourish. These issues are far too large to explore in one article and are best digested in small doses. Instead in this article we will examine some risk factors for young people being targeted for recruitment or victimization by gang members and the some of the myths and misconceptions that abound with this topic in general.

Young people become involved in gangs for a lot of different reasons; a sense of belonging, family/friends involved in gang lifestyle, money, protection, etc. The point is; everyone is potentially vulnerable to or affected by gangs on some level. As parents we need to recognize the potential warning signs of attempted recruitment and acknowledge that while we can’t reduce all of the risk factors in our children’s lives, but we can give them enough resiliencies to deal with the problems when/if the time comes.

Parents always ask how they will know if their children are becoming involved with gangs. You will notice changes in their behavior and interactions with family, authority and society in general. Some of the changes that parents would notice immediately would include;

-Sudden changes in friends
-Change in appearance
-Disrespect for authority
-Withdraws from family activity
-Desire for excessive privacy
-Staying out all night
-Extravagant spending beyond explainable income
-Having unusually large amounts of cash
-Begins using gang related slang, graffiti, hand signs
-Unexplained cell phones or pagers
-Drugs or weapons found in their rooms/bags
– New tattoo’s or unexplained cuts and bruises

I think it’s important to note that these indicators are not definitive. I know a lot of teens who display several of these identifiers and are no more affiliated to criminal gang activity than I am. What these warning flags should do however is alert parents/teachers and anyone working with youth that there is a potential for recruitment/association if early intervention does not occur. There are other risk factors that cannot be controlled such as;

-Living in a “High Risk” neighborhood
-Socially isolated
-Living in poverty
-Recent immigrant
-Sex (most gang members are male, however female membership is on the rise)
-Early exposure to violence or substance abuse
-Limited opportunities for training or employment
-Limited education

For every risk there are also resiliency factors. Resiliency is the product of a set of influences and circumstances that would pre-dispose youth away from negative lifestyle choices. Strong family ties, involvement in organized activities and strong adult role models and community involvement can go a long way to helping young people keep from becoming involved in gangs and other negative activities. It’s important for parents to realize that in many ways they are the ones on the front lines in the war on gang/criminal activity.

There are a great number of myths and misconceptions around gang culture. Some of them are loosely based in reality, but utilized by gangs to increase recruitment and perpetuate the fear/respect and “silence through intimidation” they need to operate. One of the biggest myths is;

Gangs will protect me from my enemies. The facts would indicate otherwise. It is physically impossible for any gang to protect their members 24/7. The United States Secret Service spends billions of dollars and has tens of thousands of agents to protect a very small number of individuals. Gangs, no matter how much money they are making from the sales of drugs and other criminal acts have neither the financial resources, the training, nor will to protect a lowly foot soldier on the street. Replacing them when they are killed or incarcerated is easy. Finding and training a new foot soldier is a much more cost effective business decision than paying lawyers. Secondly your risk of death increases dramatically when compared with actuarial tables of youth not involved in gangs. A police officer well known for his expertise in these matters summed it up beautifully. He said;

“The moment you join a gang, you automatically gain one hundred new enemies you never even knew you had.”

Gangs also rule by fear and intimidation of their own members. This means that in addition to the risk of being kidnapped, assaulted or killed by rival gangs; gang members often face the same risks from their own group.

Joining a gang will give me respect. This is one of the most common misconceptions in gang culture. When gangs talk about respect what they really mean is fear;

“Respect is earned and always there. Fear is generally present only when the object of the fear is nearby. Fear often coincides with hate. It is the power of illusion.”

We need to understand and convey to our young people that they are not the same things. Gangs must rule by fear in order to maintain their control over a very competitive drug market and other crime related activity. If their enemies don’t respect/fear them, then their drug markets will be taken over and their runners “jacked” and assaulted. If their members don’t respect/fear them, then they could potentially rip off the gang by running independent operations and skimming profits. Let’s face it; one of the best ways to control a violent criminal is to be a bigger and more violent criminal yourself.

Gang members are my friends. Over the years I’ve come to know a lot of young people involved in gangs. Many of them had friends and family involved in the gang lifestyle. Unfortunately many of them are also dead, or know a lot of other young people who are. Although there is the perceived loyalty to the gang and its members it is always interesting to note that the loyalty only goes one way. An average gang member who is working as a runner/soldier for any gang is not making a lot of money. Don’t let all of the cash you see them being arrested with confuse you. That money is the proceeds of crime and the property of the gang’s hierarchy. Foot soldiers no more get to keep the proceeds of their criminal activities than the salesman at car dealership gets to keep the money for the sale of a new BMW. In fact those arrested are likely on the hook and fined by the gang for the loss of the drugs and money. Gang members are paid a salary like any other employee; they just get the added privilege of needing to wear body armor to work and going to jail and/or being shot at as a condition of their employment. Secondly if gangs are so loyal to their members, how come they never seem to use any of the millions that they are making on drug sales to get incarcerated members the best lawyers possible?

I will be at the top someday. Realistically there is next to no possibility of this happening. An average foot soldier would likely have no opportunity to become the leader of a large gang. In order for this to happen it would involve surviving; the street, jail, internal dissent, rival gangs, etc. Then potential leader would actually require some business acumen and organizational talent, because as mentioned previously gangs are in the business of making money period. They are just involved in a huge array of criminal offences and operations to fulfill this goal. The facts are that sometimes gangs are controlled by larger criminal organizations much as a subsidiary company would be controlled by a large corporation. They have the ability to engage in independent action, but the overall organizational vision is determined by the more powerful entity (Organized Crime).

I can’t get out now that I’m in. Not all gang members are created equal. Don’t get me wrong, gangs are a huge problem and need to be dealt with. We can’t treat every gang member like they are the head of a Triad and spend inordinate amounts of money protecting society from them after they have caused untold damage to people’s lives. It is counterproductive, costly and mostly ineffective. Most gang members are not members of the leadership or upper management whose knowledge of the groups operations and intelligence would make them a liability to the gang should they attempt to leave. Most gang members are foot soldiers who are involved in the day to day operation of a small part of the organization as a whole and likely not in possession of any knowledge that could seriously damage the gang’s leadership or operations. Many times gang members simply walk away with no repercussions whatsoever.

In other articles we will explore the world of gangs and gang culture and look at topics such as;

-Types of gangs/gangsters from want to-be to made men, and hate groups to crime syndicates.
-The gang/money connection.
-Graffiti vs. gang graffiti and how to tell the difference.
-Colors and tattoos what do they mean?
-Gang initiations and exiting.
-Rising through the ranks.
-Gangs and the internet.
-Girls in gangs.
-Community mobilization and education.
-Intelligence lead policing.
-Why tougher anti-gang laws are not working.
-What we can do to help lessen the risk and take back our communities.

In the meantime, take the initiative to find out what resources are available in your community and avail yourself of their time and experience in educating yourself on this issue. Believe it or not what you don’t know can hurt you. There is a lot of excellent free literature available online to give you an overview of general information on this subject. Talk to you children about the dangers of gangs and know their friends. Know who/where they are hanging out and any potentially dangerous areas to avoid. Educate yourself and your children on Personal Safety and basic Self Defense and teach them how to reduce as much risk in their lives as possible. The best you can do is provide them with as much Resiliency as possible and hope that it can outweigh the risk.