Asian gangs have been part of the gang subculture for a number of years and we have seen them grow in size and change. Due to their mobility, we have seen their impact nationwide and within the Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian communities. The nation's largest Asian street gang is probably the "Tiny Rascal Gang," otherwise known across the country as TRG.
In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, California started receiving its first Cambodian refugees. As with many refugee groups, ethnicity and limited English speaking ability helped create a barrier that isolated the refugee group from society. These groups initially are not well accepted by the established street gangs and are often viewed as community outcasts by the general population.
A familiar struggle developed within the refugee family. The Cambodian youths wanted to become westernized so they could be accepted into the general youth population. This was against their traditional customs and ended up with the young Cambodians feeling resentment toward their families. This resentment was only increased as the Western influence became stronger and the families put more pressure on the young to adhere to the traditional customs.
The constant conflict between the young Cambodians and their families resulted in many running away to live on the streets, only to be exposed to the criminal elements. These youth survived in the street by committing crime and helping each other. In addition, they were exposed to the gang life. Seeing the activities of African-American, Hispanic and Vietnamese street gangs started to impact the Cambodian youth. The cities of Long Beach, and Fresno, Calif., became relocation focal points for the refugees.
By the mid 1980s Cambodian street youths started to band together for protection from the street gangs. These young kids realized that as a group, they could be stronger, they could become the aggressors, not the victims, and they could make more money. This philosophy led the Cambodian street youths to get involved in auto-burglary, residential burglary, commercial burglary, auto theft, drug sales, assaults, firearm violations and murder. The Cambodian street youths formed into several street gangs. It was out of these groups that TRG was formed.
TRG was heavily influenced by one Hispanic gang, the East Side Longos, of Long Beach, Calif. From this gang, TRG adopted dress styles, graffiti writing and, more importantly, the gang behaviors, such as when to fight and how to be a gang member. Illustrations from a nine-page booklet penned by a gang member doing time in California Youth Authority, depict how one might become a TRG gang member. (See samples).
TRG is very mobile. TRG gang members have been identified all over the country. The gang is unique, because where it develops a strong presence, it will claim a turf. Yet, it will continue to be very nomadic and members travel in small groups across a state, or across several states. This phenomenon can help develop some strange relationships between TRG and other street gangs. One such relationship evolved into an intense rivalry with the group that influenced TRG the most: the East Side Longos. They are enemies. This conflict has led to over 40 deaths over the years. TRG has also adopted the use of guns and violence to protect turf and reputation, like other street gangs. These gang members have assaulted and attempted assaults on police officers.
Nationally, TRG gang members have been identified in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Alaska, Colorado, Nevada, Missouri, Kansas, Massachusetts, Texas, Georgia, California, New York and Canada.
TRG has focused on crime for profit. In a 1998 report from the National Drug Information Center, a total of 33 states reported the presence of Asian street gangs involved in drug sales. TRG is not an exception.
Early on, TRG was a Cambodian based street gang. In the early 1990s, TRG broke the race and gender barriers, allowing mixed race and other ethnic groups into the gang, as well as females. This has allowed TRG to grow rapidly and establish itself in many areas. There was once an all-female branch of the gang called, "LRG (Lady Rascal Gang)." In early 1990, it was disbanded and all members were made part of TRG, which became one of the first co-ed street gangs on the West Coast. Many TRG gang members are between 14-24 years old.[PAGEBREAK]
Tattoos are commonly seen on TRG members, as well as the popular shaved head. The most common tattoo is "TRG," but the three dot- and five-dot tattoos have also been noted. The clothing styles vary depending on where the TRG gang is located, but commonly seen is Hispanic gang styles of dress.
In 1996, national TRG gang membership was estimated to be over 2,000. That figure is sure to be low, especially when African-American, Caucasian, Filipino, Hispanic, Hmong, Korean, Laotian, Samoan, Cambodian and Vietnamese TRG gang members have been contacted. During criminal investigations, Cambodian TRG gang members have been misidentified as Hispanic gang members by civilian witnesses. Inaccurate and under reporting have also played a role in the underestimation of the gang population.
At one time, Asian street gangs had no formal ritual to establish membership. Another sign of Hispanic gang influence is seen in the methods that TRG uses to formally establish membership to their gang. The method may vary from individual to individual. For example, if you are well liked and have a history of supporting the gang, especially by participating in criminal activity with other gang members, you are "walked in." In other words you are just formally recognized by the gang as an official member. It would not be uncommon for one or more TRG gang members to act as sponsors, especially those who were crime partners.
The other common method used for membership is the "jump in." A prospective member has to fight two or three gang members for a specified time. The fight is symbolic, as it is supposed to show whether or not the prospective member has the heart, attitude and guts to back up the gang.
Females get in the same way or can join the gang by being "sexed in." The prospective female ahs to have sex with a number of gang members in order to be recognized as a member. Many times, females will choose this form of gang initiation because it is the least violent. Sometimes the number of sexual partners is determined by rolling dice. Sexing in a female gang member has become more popular in the last couple of years for many street gangs.
TRG is monetarily motivated. Any criminal actions that will bring in money to the gang member or gang are utilized. The gang has been involved in extortions, home invasion robberies, robberies, burglaries, auto thefts, assaults, drug sales, attempted murders and murders, and has been known to issue death threats toward peace officers. At one time it was believed that TRG gang members had access to military C-4 explosives and grenades.
Uniquely, TRG members from different parts of a state of from outside the state will work together as a team to commit a crime. A July, 1995 home invasion robbery in Sacramento, Calif. ended up with two members of a Vietnamese family being killed and third wounded. Sacramento law enforcement was able to identify the four TRG gang members who were involved. One was from Portland, Ore. The other three were from California.
This inter- and intrastate cooperation helps solidify the TRG gang and can make field investigations difficult. More recently, intelligence information showed that TRG members are maintaining a working relationship with the Asian Boys, another Southeast Asian street gang based in California. These two gangs have connections to the Ghost Shadows, a New York-based Chinese gang operating on the West Coast. It appears that the TRG and Asian Boys are receiving weapons from the Ghost Shadows in exchange for services at prostitution and illegal gambling locations.
You can expect some more unique relationships to form as the gang members grow up. Narcotics sales, prostitution and illegal gambling will continue to draw Asian street gang members to a more sophisticated criminal life. 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 regular contributor to POLICE.