2011 National Gang Threat Assessment – Emerging Trends and The Internet

The FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC)has just released their 2011 gang assessment and trends report view printable version (pdf), and it is another sobering read, particularly as it highlights the ways and means in which gangs are leveraging internet technology to expand their reach and the types of crimes they commit.

Here are the reports key findings:

Gangs are expanding, evolving and posing an increasing threat to US communities nationwide.

Many gangs are sophisticated criminal networks with members who are violent, distribute wholesale quantities of drugs, and develop and maintain close working relationships with members and associates of transnational criminal/drug trafficking organizations.

Gangs are becoming more violent while engaging in less typical and lower-risk crime, such as prostitution and white-collar crime. Gangs are more adaptable, organized, sophisticated, and opportunistic, exploiting new and advanced technology as a means to recruit, communicate discretely, target their rivals, and perpetuate their criminal activity. Based on state, local, and federal law enforcement reporting, the NGIC concludes that:

  • There are approximately 1.4 million active street, prison, and OMG gang members comprising more than 33,000 gangs in the United States. This represents a 40 percent increase from an estimated 1 million gang members in 2009. Gang membership increased most significantly in the Northeast and Southeast regions, although the West and Great Lakes regions boast the highest number of gang members.
  • Gangs are responsible for an average of 48 percent of violent crime in most jurisdictions and up to 90 percent in several others, according to NGIC analysis. Major cities and suburban areas experience the most gang-related violence. Aggressive recruitment of juveniles and immigrants, alliances and conflict between gangs, the release of incarcerated gang members from prison, advancements in technology and communication, and Mexican Drug Trafficking Organization (MDTO) involvement in drug distribution have resulted in gang expansion and violence in a number of jurisdictions.
  • Gangs are increasingly engaging in non-traditional gang-related crime, such as alien smuggling, human trafficking, and prostitution. Gangs are also engaging in white collar crime such as counterfeiting, identity theft, and mortgage fraud, primarily due to the high profitability and much lower visibility and risk of detection and punishment than drug and weapons trafficking.
  • Many gang members continue to engage in gang activity while incarcerated. Family members play pivotal roles in assisting or facilitating gang activities and recruitment during a gang members’ incarceration. Gang members in some correctional facilities are adopting radical religious views while incarcerated.
  • Gangs encourage members, associates, and relatives to obtain law enforcement, judiciary, or legal employment in order to gather information on rival gangs and law enforcement operations. Gang infiltration of the military continues to pose a significant criminal threat, as members of at least 53 gangs have been identified on both domestic and international military installations. Gang members who learn advanced weaponry and combat techniques in the military are at risk of employing these skills on the street when they return to their communities.
  • Gang members are acquiring high-powered, military-style weapons and equipment which poses a significant threat because of the potential to engage in lethal encounters with law enforcement officers and civilians. Gang members also target military and law enforcement officials, facilities, and vehicles to obtain weapons, ammunition, body armor, police gear, badges, uniforms, and official identification.
  • Gangs are becoming increasingly adaptable and sophisticated, employing new and advanced technology to facilitate criminal activity discreetly, enhance their criminal operations, and connect with other gang members, criminal organizations, and potential recruits nationwide and even worldwide.

Current Gang-Related Trends and Crime

Many gangs have advanced beyond their traditional role as local retail drug distributors in large cities to become more organized, adaptable, and influential in large-scale drug trafficking. Gang members are migrating from urban areas to suburban and rural communities to recruit new members, expand their drug distribution territories, form new alliances, and collaborate with rival gangs and criminal organizations for profit and influence.

Local neighborhood, hybrid and female gang membership is on the rise in many communities. Prison gang members, who exert control over many street gang members, often engage in crime and violence upon their return to the community. Gang members returning to the community from prison have an adverse and lasting impact on neighborhoods, which may experience notable increases in crime, violence, and drug trafficking.

Gang Membership and Expansion

Law enforcement in several jurisdictions attribute the increase in gang membership in their region to the gangster rap culture, the facilitation of communication and recruitment through the Internet and social media, the proliferation of generational gang members, and a shortage of resources to combat gangs.

Nationwide Gang Presence

Source: NGIC and NDIC 2010 National Drug Survey Data

Threat Posed by Gangs, According to Law Enforcement.

The NGIC collected intelligence from law enforcement officials nationwide in an attempt to capture the threat posed by national-level street, prison, outlaw motorcycle, and neighborhood-based gangs in their communities.

Source: 2011 NGIC National data

Gang-Related Drug Distribution and Trafficking

Gang involvement and control of the retail drug trade poses a serious threat to public safety and stability in most major cities and in many mid-size cities because such distribution activities are routinely associated with lethal violence. Violent disputes over control of drug territory and enforcement of drug debts frequently occur among gangs in both urban and suburban areas, as gangs expand their control of drug distribution in many jurisdictions, according to NDIC and NGIC reporting. In 2010, law enforcement agencies in 51 major US cities reported moderate to significant levels of gang-related drug activity.

NDIC survey data indicates that 69 percent of US law enforcement agencies report gang involvement in drug distribution.

NDIC reporting suggests that gangs are advancing beyond their traditional role as local retail drug distributors in large cities and becoming more influential in large-scale drug trafficking, resulting in an increase in violent crime in several regions of the country.4

  • Law enforcement reporting indicates that gang-related drug distribution and trafficking has resulted in an increase of kidnappings, assaults, robberies and homicides along the US Southwest border region.

Juvenile Gangs

Many jurisdictions are experiencing an increase in juvenile gangs and violence, which is often attributed, in part, to the increased incarceration rates of older members and the aggressive recruitment of juveniles in schools. Gangs have traditionally targeted youths because of their vulnerability and susceptibility to recruitment tactics, as well as their likelihood of avoiding harsh criminal sentencing and willingness to engage in violence.

  • Juvenile gang members in some communities are hosting parties and organizing special events which develop into opportunities for recruiting, drugs, sexual exploitation, and criminal activity.

Gang Alliances and Collaboration

Collaboration between rival gangs and criminal organizations and increased improvement in communications, transportation, and technology have enabled national-level gangs to expand and secure their criminal networks throughout the United States and in other countries. 

Gang Sophistication

Gang members are becoming more sophisticated in their structure and operations and are modifying their activity to minimize law enforcement scrutiny and circumvent gang enhancement laws. Gangs in several jurisdictions have modified or ceased traditional or stereotypical gang indicia and no longer display their colors, tattoos, or hand signs. Others are forming hybrid gangs to avoid police attention and make to it more difficult for law enforcement to identify and monitor them, according to NGIC reporting.

Many gangs are engaging in more sophisticated criminal schemes, including white collar and cybercrime, targeting and infiltrating sensitive systems to gain access to sensitive areas or information, and targeting and monitoring law enforcement.

Gangs and Alien Smuggling, Human Trafficking, and Prostitution

Gang involvement in alien smuggling, human trafficking, and prostitution is increasing primarily due to their higher profitability and lower risks of detection and punishment than that of drug and weapons trafficking. Over the past year, federal, state, and local law enforcement officials in at least 35 states and US territories have reported that gangs in their jurisdictions are involved in alien smuggling, human trafficking, or prostitution.e

Alien Smuggling

Many street gangs are becoming involved in alien smuggling as a source of revenue. According to US law enforcement officials, tremendous incentive exists for gangs to diversify their criminal enterprises to include alien smuggling, which can be more lucrative and less risky than the illicit drug trade. Over the past two years numerous federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies nationwide have reported gang involvement in incidents of alien smuggling. In some instances, gang members were among those being smuggled across the border into the United States following deportation. In other cases, gang members facilitated the movement of migrants across the US-Mexico border.f

An immigrant is smuggled in a vehicle

In October 2009, ICE agents in Los Angeles, California, arrested suspects linked to a drug trafficking and alien smuggling ring with close ties to the Drew Street clique of the Avenues (Sureño) street gang in Los Angeles. The ring allegedly smuggled more than 200 illegal aliens per year into the United States from Mexico, concealing them in trucks and hidden compartments of vehicles and then hiding them in a store house in Los Angeles

Source: FBI

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is another source of revenue for some gangs. Victims—typically women and children—are often forced, coerced, or led with fraudulent pretense into prostitution and forced labor. Some gangs in the New England area are combining human trafficking and drug trafficking operations, where females are used to courier drugs and participate in prostitution.

Prostitution

Prostitution is also a major source of income for many gangs. Gang members often operate as pimps, luring or forcing at-risk, young females into prostitution and controlling them through violence and psychological abuse. Prostitution is reportedly the second largest source of income for San Diego, California, gangs. According to November 2010 open source reporting, African-American street gangs in San Diego are pimping young females to solicit males.18


Communication

Contraband Cell Phones

Smuggled cell phones are a continuing problem for prison administrators in correctional facilities throughout the country. Smuggled cell phones and Smart Phones afford incarcerated gang members more influence and control over street gangs through unrestricted access and unmonitored conversations via voice calling, Internet access, text messaging, email, and social networking websites. Instances of violence directed by inmates using mobile devices are also a growing concern for corrections officials. Incarcerated gang members communicate covertly with illegal cell phones to plan or direct criminal activities such as drug distribution, assault, and murder.

Cell phones smuggled into correctional facilities pose the greatest threat to institution safety, according to NGIC and BOP reporting.

  • In 2010 a New Jersey inmate was prosecuted for using a contraband cell phone to order the murder of his former girlfriend in retaliation for her cooperation with police regarding an investigation involving the inmate.

The majority of illegal cell phones in California prisons are smuggled in by visitors or correctional staff. Many cell phones have also been discovered
in legal mail and quarterly packages. In 2010, more than 10,000 illegal cell phones were confiscated from prisoners in California.

Historically, correctional staff who have been caught smuggling phones have been successfully prosecuted only when the phone was connected to a more serious charge such as drug distribution,
and district attorney offices rarely prosecute unless a more serious offense is involved. In March 2011, legislation was approved in the California State Senate to criminalize the use of cell phones in prison, including penalties for both smugglers and inmates.

Sources: US Bureau of Prisons and CDCR; California State Senate Press Release, 22 March 2011

Gangs, Technology, and Communication

Gangs are becoming increasingly savvy and are embracing new and advanced technology to facilitate criminal activity and enhance their criminal operations. Prepaid cell phones, social networking and microblogging websites, VoIP systems, virtual worlds, and gaming systems enable gang members to communicate globally and discreetly. Gangs are also increasingly employing advanced countermeasures to monitor and target law enforcement while engaging in a host of criminal activity.

Internet Use for Propaganda, Intimidation, and Recruitment

According to open sources and law enforcement reporting, since 2005, MDTOs have exploited blogs and popular websites like YouTube and MySpace for propaganda and intimidation. MDTOs have posted hundreds of videos depicting interrogations or executions of rival MDTO members. Other postings include video montages of luxury vehicles, weapons, and money set to the music of songs with lyrics that glorify the drug lifestyle. While some of these postings may offer specific recruitment information, they serve more as tools for propaganda and intimidation.
Gang members routinely utilize the Internet to communicate with one another, recruit, promote their gang, intimidate rivals and police, conduct gang business, showcase illegal exploits, and facilitate criminal activity such as drug trafficking, extortion, identity theft, money laundering, and prostitution. Social networking, microblogging, and video-sharing websites—such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter—are now more accessible, versatile, and allow tens of thousands of gang members to easily communicate, recruit, and form new gang alliances nationwide and worldwide.

NGIC reporting indicates that a majority of gang members use the Internet for recruitment, gang promotion, and cyber-bullying or intimidation. Many also use the Internet for identity theft, computer hacking, and phishing schemes.

  • According to NGIC reporting, gang recruitment and intimidation is heavily facilitated through the Internet. Gangs use social networking sites such as Facebook to promote their gang, post photos of their gang lifestyle, and display their bravado, which ultimately influences other youth to join gangs.

The proliferation of social networking websites has made gang activity more prevalent and lethal—moving gangs from the streets into cyber space. Gang members, criminals, and drug traffickers are using the Internet not only to recruit and build their social networks, but to expand and operate their criminal networks without the proximity once needed for communication. Likewise, youth in other regions and countries are influenced by what they see online and may be encouraged to connect with or emulate a gang, facilitating the global spread of gang culture.

According to information obtained from multiple state and federal law enforcement sources, incarcerated gang members are accessing micro-blogging and social networking web sites such as MocoSpace and Twitter with smuggled prepaid cellular telephones and using the messaging features to coordinate criminal activity.

Street gang members are also involved in cyber attacks, computer hacking, and phishing operations, often to commit identity theft and fraud. 

Gangs and White Collar Crime

NGIC reporting indicates that gangs are becoming more involved in white collar crime, including identity theft, bank fraud, credit card fraud, money laundering, fencing stolen goods, counterfeiting, and mortgage fraud, and are recruiting members who possess those skill sets. Law enforcement officials nationwide indicate that many gangs in their jurisdiction are involved in some type of white collar crime.

  • Members of the Black Guerilla Family in Maryland used pre-paid retail debit cards as virtual currency inside Maryland prisons to purchase drugs and further the gangs’ interests, according to August 2010 open source reporting.52

Some gangs, such as the Bloods and Gangster Disciples, are committing sophisticated mortgage fraud schemes by purchasing properties with the intent to receive seller assistance loans and, ultimately retain the proceeds from the loans, or to comingle illicit funds through mortgage payments. Gang members are also exploiting vulnerabilities in the banking and mortgage industries for profit.

Outlook

Street, prison, and motorcycle gang membership and criminal activity continues to flourish in US communities where gangs identify opportunities to control street level drug sales, and other profitable crimes. Gangs will not only continue to defend their territory from rival gangs, but will also increasingly seek to diversify both their membership and their criminal activities in recognition of potential financial gain. New alliances between rival gangs will likely form as gangs suspend their former racial ideologies in pursuit of mutual profit. Gangs will continue to evolve and adapt to current conditions and law enforcement tactics, diversify their criminal activity, and employ new strategies and technology to enhance their criminal operations, while facilitating lower-risk and more profitable schemes, such as white collar crime.

The expansion of communication networks, especially in wireless communications and the Internet, will allow gang members to form associations and alliances with other gangs and criminal organizations—both domestically and internationally—and enable gang members to better facilitate criminal activity and enhance their criminal operations discreetly without the physical interfacing once necessary to conduct these activities.

Globalization, socio-political change, technological advances, and immigration will result either in greater gang expansion and gang-related crime or displace gang members as they search for criminal opportunities elsewhere. Stagnant or poor economic conditions in the United States, including budget cuts in law enforcement, may undercut gang dismantlement efforts and encourage gang expansion as police agencies redirect their resources and disband gang units and taskforces, as reported by a large number of law enforcement agencies.

Maps. Gang Presence in the United States

FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) Violent Crime, 2009

Linda

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