American criminal gangs consider themselves members of a warrior culture, "soldiers for the neighborhood." Physical combat is part of their lifestyle. A proficiency in martial arts and expertise in the use of weapons is highly prized. And the more lethal, the better.

In the movie "Gangs of New York," which is set in the 1850s, you can see early gangs utilizing the common primitive weapons of their time, including fists, clubs, saps, and common working class tools like axes, hammers, and knives. You can also see this weapons creativity in ancient China. During this time, the emperor outlawed swords and other weapons among the common people. In response the Buddhist Shaolin priests developed kung fu and adopted common farming tools as deadly weapons.

Following the First World War and into the 1930s, American criminal gangs utilized some of the most sophisticated firearms in their wars against rival gangs and the police. The Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and Thompson Submachine Gun were weapons found among the armories on both sides of the law. Imagine facing a hardcore gang member today proficient with the BAR.

In the 1940s Pachuco or Zoot Suit Gangs operated in most large American cities. These rival gangs normally utilized fists, bottles, bats, and occasionally knives and straight razors in combat with one another.

In the infamous "Sleepy Lagoon" incident of 1942, the gang murdered Jose Diaz near a water reservoir in South East Los Angeles.  This incident preceded the 1943 "Zoot Suit Riots." The accused 38th Street gang members were said to have utilized their numbers to "rat pack" and physically beat the victim to death.

Over the years small handguns began to be used in some Hispanic gang incidents, but gun use was generally considered cowardly by most gangs. Macho Hispanic gangs preferred face-to-face, hand-to-hand combat. But in the 1950s, the East Los Angeles White Fence Gangs, which is generally credited with pioneering the "drive-by" shooting tactic in L.A., started using guns. During this period switchblade knives, and cheap "Saturday Night Special" pistols became the most common gang weapons.

In the 1960s and 1970s, militant revolutionary groups, returning military veterans, and drug trafficking organizations introduced more modern military and firearms to American street gangs.

The Crack Wars of the mid 1980s pitted L.A.-area police and sheriff's deputies against gang members armed with: assault weapons like the M-16 and the AK-47, and machine pistols like the Uzi and the MAC-10. This was the period of the highest gang murder statistics Los Angeles had ever seen. The National media blamed lax gun laws and the availability of assault weapons and large capacity magazines for the carnage.

I was curious about the media's claims, so I contacted the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office to try to determine what the most lethal gang weapons were. My research revealed that during the early crack wars the .22 caliber rifle was the number one gang killing machine in L.A. This was followed closely by the shotgun (often sawed down) and small caliber pistols such as the .22 and .380. This did not fit the media's stereotype at all.

Since the early crack wars, there have been tangential lines in the gangs arm race.

Incarcerated gang members, who because of their confinement are generally prevented from using traditional firearms, have developed jail manufactured weapons like clubs, spears, garrotes, and zip guns. But the "shank" or "shiv" (jail manufactured knife) has become the incarcerated gang member's favorite weapon. When they get back on the street, edged weapons remain a favorite among ex-cons.

The second tangent is gang use of chemical and biological weapons and the development of improvised explosive devices. To this we can add gang use of military hand grenades and anti-tank rockets. In the gang world, these are weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Like jail manufactured spears and shanks, inmates have developed many chemical and biological weapons. One is a mixture of urine and human feces called "gas" by hardcore inmates that is commonly employed against correctional officers. To this mixture some inmates add chlorine bleach or ammonia, making "gassing" a chemical and biological weapon deployment. Hepatitis C and HIV virus-infected substances are also sometimes smeared on prison shanks and spears in an attempt to infect the victim.

If you read the "Anarchist's Cookbook" and similar publications, you will soon discover that bombs can be made from many household products. Inmates have demonstrated an ability to make bombs from coffee creamer, match heads, toilet bowl cleaner, ammonia, dry ice, urine, and jail made gunpowder. These are truly improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  However, prison gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood have also smuggled in and used military C-4 plastic explosives. The license plate factory at Folsom Prison was damaged by a bomb in the 1980s.

Outside the prison walls American motorcycle gangs, which began after World War II, employed weapons like chains, knives, and brass knuckles at first. But by the 1960s firearms were their weapons of choice. In the 1980s, police began to see pipe bombs and other IEDs used against other outlaw motorcycle rivals. Today reports coming from Europe and Canada tell of motorcycle gangs firing anti-tank rockets and military grenades against their rivals. It is only a matter of time before such devices are directed against law enforcement.

For many years in Los Angeles we have heard rumors of gangs in possession of military hand grenades, but rarely have any live grenades ever been recovered or documented. However, in 2004 the Arson and Explosives Unit of my department (LASD) reported a marked increase in finding explosive devices and military explosives associated with gang members. With so many soldiers and Marines returning from the Iraq War, I expect this phenomenon to increase.

On Jan. 31 of this year, several off-duty police officers were enjoying their time off in a bar in the city of Pharr, Texas. A gang member with ties to Mexican drug cartels suddenly tossed a live fragmentation grenade into the crowded bar. The grenade bounced and landed on top of the pool table. For an instant all eyes were fixed on the grenade in anticipation of the expected explosion. One of the off-duty officers leaped up, grabbed the baseball type grenade and tossed it back out of the door. Fortunately, it failed to detonate and no one was injured. The gang member had pulled the grenade pin but failed to disengage the secondary safety clasp.

Whether the cops were the intended targets, or the bar patrons, or the bar owners, is unknown. But this type of grenade attack is very common against the Mexican police by Mexican cartel cowboys. The Pharr grenade had similar markings to one thrown at the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, in October, and at a Monterrey TV Studio in January. They were all from the same batch manufactured in South Korea. Mexican authorities say more than 1,600 grenades were seized in Mexico last year and so far over 950 this year. 

In November 2008, the Mexican military raided a house a dozen miles south of the border in Reynosa, Mexico. Gulf Cartel members were caught with 165 grenades and 14 sticks of TNT. In the same month a few miles south of the Arizona border, a Mexican state police chief was murdered after grenades were used as a diversion in Nogales, Mexico.

Thousands of surplus military fragmentation grenades and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) were left over from the Central American civil wars. Corrupt military suppliers, communist governments, and weapons dealers are other sources for arms traffickers offering grenades and RPGs on the black market.

Over my 33 years with LASD I arrested or was involved in the arrest of many hundreds of criminal gang members for weapons possession. Not once have I ever found these gang members to be in lawful possession of a weapon. As minors they are prohibited from possessing any firearm, (in California any fixed ammunition as well). As adults the great majority of gang members I have come in contact with are convicted felons and on probation or parole, and therefore also legally forbidden from firearms possession.

What this means is that gangbangers don't buy their weapons at the local gun stores or gun shows as often claimed by anti-gun proponents. Like narcotics, illegal weapons are readily available to criminals in the underworld criminal network that operates in every city. The possession of many of these weapons, especially the explosives and automatic ones, is illegal for almost anyone, except the military and police. Gun laws have little effect on the illegal trafficking of weapons by criminal gangs.

The weapons gangs use will increase in technical sophistication with the growth and criminal evolvement of the gangs. Gang members who spend time in jail and prison will increase their weapons making and weapons proficiency skills. Association with prison gangs, drug trafficking organizations, and the presence of gang members in the military will sharply increase the likelihood that military guns (fully automatic) and military explosives will be obtained and utilized by the gangs.


Richard Valdemar
Richard Valdemar

Sergeant (Ret.)

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

View Bio