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Working Gangs: History, Infrastructure and the Internet

Understanding gang customs, practices and expected behaviors remains an essential ingredient in investigating, solving and prosecuting gang-related crime.

June 01, 2000  |  by Al Valdez

Understanding the culture of street gangs has be­come essential for most of us in the criminal jus­tice profession. Street gangs and the associated crime has impacted the police, the courts, corrections and most imporantly the quality of life for many Americans. The violence that accompanies some gang crime has cost Americans millions of dollars. The reality of the impact can be seen today because the presence of street gangs has been reported in all 50 states.

Understanding the customs and practices of street tgangs is not hard, even though it may appear to be com­plicated. A couple of fundamental concepts will help you better understand street gang development.

First, street gang formation is a function of geography and demographics. Most of America's street gang members come from the area where the street gang forms.

Secondly, many criminal justice professionals as well as the general public believe that street gangs have formed in their city because of migrating California street gangs. If any­thing was exported from California, it probably was the gang culture via the entertainment, music and media industries.


However, a number of gang migration mechanisms have been identified. True gang migration at one time ac­counted for a small percentage of new gang formation. That is not to say that gang migration will not play a more important role in the future as street gangs form in other states and countries. Of those few street gangs that do mi­grate, they often migrate to enhance or start drug traffick­ing operations. Some street gangs have a migratory pat­tern, which places them in cities only for a short period of time. Your city may be a "transition" city. A city that is located along a major high­way or freeway, allowing for easy access by traveling gang members. Gang mem­bers who do travel use personal vehicles, buses, trains and airplanes.

Drug Trafficking

A growing number of street gang mem­bers are getting involved in the illegal sale, manufacture, transport and use of nar­cotics. The latest surveys indicate that younger street gang members are getting involved in the drug sales. Many of those gang members are armed with weapons.

The drug industry is acting as a unique adhesive between gangs and individual gang members that are normally rivals. The common goal for these gang mem­bers is to make money. The mechanism being used by many street gangs to reach the goal has become drug trafficking. This business has allowed the formation of unique alliances between gangs that normally would battle each other. The drug trafficking business has also recent­ly become a mechanism that facilitates gang migration.

This kind of gang migration can allow for an "overnight" appearance and rapid growth of street gangs in cities of all sizes. Drug trafficking can also allow for an unchecked growth in gang membership, especially if a hybrid gang is involved. As a street gang becomes larger, it tends to become more violent. Drug trafficking can also influence local and national crime rates. Street gangs battling over control of a drug sales turf is nothing new.

Remember the crack wars of the mid ­1980s? The impact can be especially dramatic if a violent street gang from a large city moves into a smaller town or rural part of the country. City gang mem­bers become "big fish in a small pond."

Drug trafficking can have a multi­faceted effect on suppression, intervention and prevention programs. It can help form unique working alliances, can facilitate gang growth, can lead to an increase in vi­olent gang-related crime, and can cause local gangs to become better armed and more violent. It can also assist in the ex­pansion of a gang, nationally or interna­tionally. Just as important, successful gang dealers can become gang leaders.

Sureno Gangs

The fastest-growing gangs in the country today are Hybrid Mexican street gangs. Hybrid gangs have broken away from traditional membership rules based on gender and race. Today, in many parts of the country, street gangs form that claim some association with Southern- and Northern-Califor­nia-based Mexican street gangs.

The most common are "Norteno," "Sureno" or "Sureno-13" street gangs. Most claim Sureno affiliation. More unique is that some of these few gangs have no direct ties to California street gangs and others do. For example, Sureno street gangs may be formed by individual migrating Southern California gang members who relocate in another state.

Individual gang members relocate for a number of reasons that range from avoiding prosecution, employment, pro­bation or parole issues, belonging to mi­grating agricultural families, divorce, school expulsion and illegal criminal ac­tivities. Sometimes, gang members who are on active duty in the military will use the transfer system to move around and recruit new gang members or associates.

The second kind of Sureno gang en­countered can be comprised of rival gang members from Southern California who are working together in a criminal enter­prise. They will commonly refer to their new gang as Sureno-13, simply meaning they all are from Southern California.

The third kind of Sureno gang is com­monly comprised of members who have no formal connection to Southern Cali­fornia street gangs. These gangs may have simply adopted the name Sureno, because it enhances status. Sureno im­plies that your gang is somehow con­nected to the violent street gangs of Los Angeles. In a similar way, a gang would be more feared and therefore more re­spected if they were associated with a Clip set from Los Angeles or a Folk Na­tion gang from the Midwest.

Of course, you cannot forget the street gangs that are indigenous to Southern California. They are also referred to as Sureno, referring to their geographical location.

Gang Status

Another trend that is becoming popular across the country is that gang members will not claim their gang association to law enforcement. The trend really started a number of years ago as gang members re­alized that police keyed on traditional gang indicia. Many gang members still display the traditional indicia, but com­monly will not verify their gang status in field contacts. As the trend has become more popular, it does not necessarily mean that gang populations are decreasing. It could indicate the emergence of non-indi­cia-type gang members.

It appears more difficult to explain gang affiliation and/or membership without a documented history of con­tacts and arrests. But it only appears that way. Think for a moment about what re­ally makes an incident gang-related or a person a gang member? Ultimately, the answer is based in the behavior of the people involved.

The customs and practices of street gang members is one method of analyz­ing street gang behaviors. Since many gang members will not readily announce the reason why they got involved in a crime, you may be able to explain it by explaining the behavior patterns and cus­toms of the street gangs in your area. Was the conduct in the crime you are in­vestigating consistent with the customs and practices of the street gangs in your jurisdiction?

Knowing the history and ori­gin of the street gangs in your jurisdiction can help determine the pattern of usual behaviors. Having regular contact with the gang members, probation, pa­role and other law enforcement officials will help you get a bet­ter grasp of what is expected gang behavior, what is common gang behavior and what past gang behavior was like. Having a good understanding of this will help you understand gang customs and practices.

A new type of gang indicia thus be­comes gang behavior or customs and practices.

Gang Types

Street and Prison gangs have been cat­egorized by academic professionals, so­ciologists and law enforcement. Some have been categorized by race or ethnic­ity; others have been analyzed by the kind of activity they are involved in. Ba­sically, there are four types of gangs. Un­derstanding what type of gang you are dealing with may help identify the mo­tive for the Clime you're investigating. It may also explain why a certain crime is committed.

Probably the oldest type of gang still encountered today is turf oriented. These gangs will claim a specific area within a city or county as their turf. They consider themselves as the policemen of their turf. Traditional Mexican street gangs are a good example of this.

The second category of gang are formed together to make a profit from criminal activity. Ex­amples could be Asian street gangs, motorcycle gangs, Blood and Crip gangs, a few cliques of 18th Street, Gang­ster Disciples (drug trafficking gangs) and prison gangs. They all operate to make a profit for the individual gang members and the gangs. Often there is no turf to protect. Gangs then are mobile and can move quickly. Some gangs can specialize in certain crimes, such as stolen cars, extortion, burglary and all types of robbery.

The third type of gang forms under a particular political or religious philoso­phy. Membership and gang activity is motivated by a particular belief system. White supremacist groups, racist skin­head gangs and occult gangs are exam­ples. Almost all hate crimes are commit­ted by racist skinhead gangs. Skinhead gangs and individual gang members can also fight amongst themselves. As with all street gangs inter-personal conflicts can cause a "skinhead brother" to attack another "skinhead brother." The motive for these assaults has been as simple as a stolen girlfriend, disrespecting a cer­tain faction of a skinhead gang, drug debts and personal differences. These types of gangs are not limited only to bias-motivated Clime.

The last type of street gang seen is the Hybrid gang. These gangs are the fastest-growing type of gang in the coun­try today. The normal membership rules do not apply. Mixed-race and other race members are allowed to join, as well as females. Gangs like the California-based Nazi Low Riders are a classic example. This is a white supremacist gang that pulls its members from the ranks of skin­heads. Mix-raced white members are al­lowed to claim their white heritage over their minority heritage and therefore are allowed membership.

One other uniqueness is sometimes seen with these types of gangs. A claimed association to a Blood, Crip or Gangster Disciple set can be seen. However, most of the time there is no formal association with the nationally estab­lished gang. Associating a gang with one of these sets can enhance a gang's repu­tation and respect. The concept of turf becomes fluid for many of these gangs. They will claim an entire city as their turf. Individual gang members may live outside the city they claim as turf. Occa­sionally, individual gang members will belong to more than one gang.


The traditional gang indicia will still help you identify and track gang members and the number and types of street gangs. Knowing that some types of street gangs can evolve or change crimi­nal behavior patterns and indicia, can aid in investigation and prosecution.

For example, many Southeast Asian street gang members of the early 1980s are now older and more mature. Some have gotten involved in non-violent gang crime such as check and credit card fraud. Many have started using comput­ers to help with their criminal enterprises.

Some gang members regularly ex­change e-mail or converse in public and private chat rooms. Some gangs have Web pages and advertise their gang philosophy on the Internet. For example, using your favorite search engine, run the key word "gang" with "crip," "blood," "skinhead," "gangster disciple" or "female."

The advent of the personal computer and the access to the internet has led to a whole new type of gang, a technology gang. Thefts in computer chips, check and credit card fraud, counterfeiting software and Internet extortion are a few of the new types of crimes that technol­ogy gangs are committing.

Millions of dollars are lost each year. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of these are investigated, most by federal agencies. An interview with a member of a group called "Masters of Downloading" candidly said that members of his group live in different states. They meet on the Web, have nicknames, a few have tattoos and refer to themselves as a group of "crackers." Maybe the future law enforce­ment investigative specialties will include a cyber gang cop. Virtual trials could be held to avoid jurisdiction issues.


The definition of one word has never played such a major role in causing countless assaults and deaths. For street gangs, respect is an essential ingredient for sur­vival and yet at the same time, a source of power and reputa­tion. A common practice for all street gangs is to never let an insult go unanswered, no matter how small. In other words never let anyone disre­spect you and if they do, let them know not to do it again. Respect for street gang mem­bers in the' 50s and' 60s was based on a different definition.

In the "old days," respect meant to show honor to and hold older gang mem­bers (veteranos or GO's) in esteem. This was partly based on the fact that these gang members were older, more experi­enced and acted as older brothers - a sort of honored extended family member. In fact, those who were respected were lis­tened to and could direct the activities of the younger gang members. The art of fisticuffs was used to test your strength, fighting skill, courage level and heart. A jumping in was a test of these skills.   Something started to change in the late 1950s. The gun, seldom ever used before then, started to become a factor. The iso­lated incident over the next 30 years would become standard as gang members moved away from traditional values to a new set of standards or gang ethic.

Respect today, takes on a totally dif­ferent meaning for street gangs. Respect is based on fear. The more you fear me, the more you respect me. To create fear, gang members use crime to intimidate and control peer gang members, areas within a city, and rival gang members. The tool used in Clime to create such fear has become the gun. For example, na­tionally, juvenile gang killings stm1ed to increase in early 1980, and in 1985 in­creased dramatically.

Today, even though juvenile violence overall is decreasing, the category of ju­venile gun violence is still rising. As street gangs became more violent, the definition of respect for street gang members changed.

Female Gangs

As the gang subculture continues to change, female gang members have also taken on a different role. Early on, most female gangs and gang members were like auxiliary units. Never allowed to take part in a crime, these girl gangs often associated with a particular male gang. Today, there are two other types of female gangs.

The first of these are classified as inde­pendent female gangs and their number has grown since 1980. These street gangs usually have a female leader and can com­mit Clime on their own. They do not nec­essarily attach themselves to a particular male gang. However, that does happen.

These independent female gangs can develop rivalries with other female or male gangs. Although, for the most part they will remain in a certain area, some are mobile.

The second type of modem female gang is really a male co-ed gang. Females are allowed to join a normally all-male gang. The female members are considered equals and are expected to hold their own, just as male gang members would. These girl gang members have several ways of joining the gang. Some will be "jumped in," others will commit a crime, some will be spon­sored into the gang and others could be "sexed in."

 A word of cau­tion: Many male officers have a preconceived no­tion of female gang members. The most common image is that of an overweight, home­ly, unintelligent, tattooed female. Officer safety issues arise because if that model is applied, a petite, pretty, articulate female could not be a gang member and there­fore, could not be a threat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many female gang members do not fit the model.

Gang trends, such as clothing styles, haircuts, graffiti, stylized haircuts, turf and membership rules will continue to change. These changes will most likely be regionalized.

However, understanding gang customs, practices and expected behaviors will still remain an essential ingredient in investigating, solving and prosecuting gang-related Crime.

Be safe!

Al Valdez is an investigator with the Orange County (Calif.) District Attor­ney's Office and author of the book Gangs. He is a longtime contributor to POLICE and columnist for our monthly "In the Hood" department.

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