There are more than 20,000 gangs, with collectively over 1 million members in the United States. Gangs are present in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories, according to the Attorney General’s report to congress on the growth of violent street gangs in suburban areas (April 2008). Research by the Justice Department’s National Gang Intelligence Center estimates that 147,000 gang members sit in U.S. prisons or jails, and that criminal gangs are responsible for up to 80% of crimes committed in communities across the nation. 80 percent – it is hard to digest such an appalling statistic.
“Gangs have long posed a threat to public safety, but as this study shows, gang activity is no longer merely a problem for urban areas. Gang members are increasingly moving to suburban America, bringing with them the potential for increased crime and violence,” said Assistant Director Kenneth W. Kaiser, FBI Criminal Investigative Division. Gang members are migrating from urban to suburban and rural areas, expanding the gangs’ influence in most regions. They are doing so for a variety of reasons, including expanding drug distribution territories, increasing illicit revenue, recruiting new members, hiding from law enforcement, and escaping from other gangs.
Gangs, like organized crime rings, have taken to the Internet as a facilitator in sending messages to associates throughout the U.S. and other countries – including deported gang members, deliver threats, assert territorial boundaries that used to be scrawled as graffiti across buildings, fences, and signs, brag, and conduct ‘business’. Gang business includes drug trafficking, human trafficking, prostitution, weapons trafficking, smuggling illegal aliens across borders, murder, theft, fraud, armed robbery, auto theft home invasions, gang rapes, and more. (Source FBI 2009)
Gangs continue to recruit via traditional methods in their neighborhoods and through family members. law enforcement agencies report seeing 3rd generation gang members where grandfathers, fathers and sons are all members. The internet however has over the last 8 years increasingly become a key recruitment tool to help gangs expand, both in terms of territory (gangs are now are established in over 2,500 cities across the country) and the number of members in each gang.
Age of recruits continues to drop
Gang members are grooming recruits as young as 2nd graders according to a study sited in The Oklahoman (Nov 2009), though most frequently targeted are the tweeners in 5th – 7th grade age range. The link to schools is crucial to gangs not only for recruiting purposes, but also as a key drug distribution channel.
School infiltration is so valuable that law enforcement agencies several states report gangs are directing teenage members who had dropped out of school to reenroll, primarily to recruit new members and sell drugs. These kids typically use cell phones to conduct drug transactions and prearrange meetings with customers.
The most recent statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education only shows data through 2005, but we should expect to see stark increases in their next biennial report. “We’re seeing the gang members coming back from prison looking more and more to those middle schoolers and the younger kids to recruit them,” said Susan Manheimer San Mateo Police Chief, who speaks for the San Mateo County gang task force.
Gang outreach and ‘style’
Gang leaders know kids socialize on sites such as Facebook and YouTube, and they are actively reaching out through popular online services to create a new generation of gang members. They describe gang life as glamorous, and seductive. Recruiters tell of a life of power, leisure, and wealth, and instant gratification, as well as a ‘family’ and a sense of belonging and acceptance that many kids desperately want. They glorify the danger and the excitement.
Gangs have pushed hard to make gang clothing a fashion statement to such an extent that Gang apparel can be seen everywhere as a fashion statement for young people – on MTV and other teen sites and stations. They use images of rap artists like Snoop Dogg, and promote music with gang themes, violence and attire. Many of today’s youth who are not connected with gangs wear the gang styles and colors because of the cool factor, certainly wearing the fashion does not make a kid a gang member. However, wearing gang fashion can have tragic consequences when kids are mistaken for being a member of a rival gang. (See what happens when your clothing makes you look like a gang member links below)
For the most part, gangs use the same sites everyone else does – MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and so on.
There are tens of thousands of websites, message boards and chatrooms created by gang members or young gang wanna be’s. These ‘web-banging’, ‘cyberbanging’ ‘netbanging’ ‘phone-banging’ sites are typically set to public viewing, and are places to hang out online like everyone else – but with the gangsta cult and violence highly glorified through photos, music, gang signs, guns, tats, colors, videos, etc. They frequently contain memorials to gang members who have been killed or are incarcerated.
The videos and photos posted may just be about the ‘life’, but they frequently include documentation of crimes they want to brag about – beatings, robberies, graffiti, etc. where everyone in the video has their face covered to avoid identification (though the bragging they do online has helped solve several cases). The sites are also used to trash rivals and convey threats and intimidate ‘bystanders’.
The fact that so many identify themselves on their sites makes they relatively easy prey to predators or rival gangs who can quickly profile them and these websites also become a new battle ground – a turf to defend from being trashed or hijacked. Hacking into and disrespecting a rival gang’s site is just one more field of engagement. The threats and disrespect exchanged online are creating a new cause for offline violence as gang members settle disagreements that started online.
Gang sites often use a kind of cryptic language that has evolved between gang members enabling them to convey messages on public sites through language and inferences that others will not understand. (See links to typical sites at the bottom – though when you read this, the links may or may not still be in use as these sites change frequently)
The actual number of hard-core gang sites is hard to estimate, but is assumed to be only a couple of thousand. These sites are private and much harder to monitor. These are used to plan crimes – the kills and raids on rivals, and the long list of crimes cited above, plus provide a place to brag about their past crimes and document the gang’s ‘history’.
At risk kids
Impressionable youth of either gender can find the secret handshakes, clothing and slang of gang cultures commonly found on gang-affiliated websites, appealing. They may start out in their online exploration of gangs with just an interest in the music, or pictures lauding street gangs, or the gangsta fashion, yet their online actions make it more likely they will be approached for recruiting – online and offline.
Some are drawn to gangs through parties, girls, and drugs. Some want a sense of respect and power. Others want to make money — to help out at home or to have nice clothes, etc. They may be kids who feel adrift – disconnected at home – lacking in positive role models, or who have few friends or perhaps have moved frequently. The kids may be angry or rebellious and want to lash out. They may grow up in an area with a strong gang presence and gang culture. They may already be in trouble with the law, or are looking for a thrill. Some join for protection because they are picked on by another gang. Most have some real or imagined problem with their families that makes the streets preferable to being home.
It may begin with participation on a wanna-be site where the conversation seems innocuous, but then arguments arise, threats are made and kids are caught in an escalation they had not intended. “The type of profiling they’re doing of themselves makes them prey to predators and also at odds with and challenging other gangs,” said Manheimer. “So, we’ll see something start on the Internet, and actually turn into an assault or a gang fight that actually results out of Internet profiling.”
Kids drawn to the content posted online that glorifies the gang lifestyle are being invited to parties where the real recruitment and initiation occurs. Most recruits want to be ‘cool’, some young enough to believe that killing is just an extension of the video games they play. Gangs groom these kids with ‘respect’, bling, and attention – something most are missing in their lives.
These young recruits are particularly useful to gangs for a couple of key reasons, they don’t place much value on life and they are hard to identify as they have no prior criminal histories; even if caught their age keeps them out of the worst legal responses.
Cell phones have become as essential to gang members as they are to organized crime groups. Gangs members may have several prepaid phones and calling cards to ensure their calls are untraceable for any communications about criminal activities, and easily disposable. They use encrypted internet technologies like VoiceOverIP (VoIP) on products like Skype on their mobile phones or computers to avoid wiretapping – making it nearly impossible for law enforcement to track their actions or crimes.
Gangs use cell phones cameras and video to document crimes or collect information for future crimes, and use GPS coordinate attacks and crimes, as well as surreptitiously monitor those they think might be ratting them out.
They use cell phones to assist in robberies, for extortion, as evidence of accomplished hits, to arrange drug deals, set up transactions, prostitute girls and boys, commit identity theft, and more. Gangs have been known to place a member inside a bank, (or near an ATM, or any other place that cash is transacted) to take photos of likely victims and watch to see who withdraws large sums, then send it to another gang member sitting outside the banks to identify the victim to follow and rob.
Gangs also use cell phones to communicate with members behind bars, allowing incarcerated gang leaders to continue to conduct business, and for members outside to request hits against rivals also serving time. Though cell phones are illegal, prisons appear to have a very hard time of preventing them from getting into the hands of incarcerated gang members.
What to look for
According to the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, the best defense against gangs begins in the home. Family conversations are critical to debunk the perceived glamour and show gang life for the thuggery it represents. Keeping kids out of gangs in real life now has to include teaching them to avoid becoming targets of propaganda in the virtual world.
In addition to conversations, experts advise watching for the following gang signs:
- Gang insignia downloaded onto their phones, websites, clothing – this can include what appear to be Major League Baseball logos for the Giants or Yankees, which have been modified to represent gangs.
- Ringtones or songs glorifying gangs and violence – on cell phones or web pages
- Pictures of gang leaders or dead gang members
- Gang colors, or other gang images – this means educating yourself about the colors and signs of gangs in your area
- Requests for tattoos – or simply showing up with tattoos – or ear piercing (of course, ear piercing alone may be simple fashion statements unrelated to gangs)
- Gang style cloths, bandanas, gang related jewelry – or perhaps suddenly tilting their baseball cap to one side, or rolling up the cuff of a pant leg. Gang branding may be more subtle in the beginning, are their gang symbols inside their hats or collars?
- New gang-looking friends, secrecy about friends, sneaking out
- Change of language – new nickname, phrases you are unfamiliar with,
- Involvement in any criminal activity – graffiti, vandalism, theft, drugs, etc.
- Change in interests, grades dropping, cutting school
- Has your child been injured—boys are often beaten and girls raped as part of their initiation into a gang.
If it looks like your child is headed down the wrong path, get help. If you are afraid your kid is in a gang, they probably are.
Links to gang related public sites – most is just art, photos and music, but they give a flavor of this kind of mentality. (Note that these sites change all the time, these may become obsolete quickly, but even the names are illustrative)
Examples of Gangsta Videos