Street Gangs Have Their Own Criminal "Culture"

Don't let anyone tell you that gang life is part of any ethnicity's culture. It's not.

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In order to stimulate a different way of thinking about and understanding gangs when I was training law enforcement officers, I would begin by telling them to forget everything they thought they might know about gangs and to imagine instead that they were traveling in a foreign country and in a different culture.

The people of this gang culture speak strange languages and "dress funny." They have customs and codes of conduct very different from our own ethnic cultures. I would then outline the seven gang axioms about gangs and the gang culture.

Valdemar's Axioms

1. Gangs are not part of the Hispanic, Black, Asian, or White Culture.

2. All gangs are part of a criminal culture.

3. It is the nature of criminals to band together.

4. All gangs are formed in defense, and later prey on their own kind.

5. Gangs multiply by dividing.

6. Gangs develop their own "code of conduct."

7. To a gang member, the gang comes before: God, family, marriage, community, friendship, and the law.

Armed with this new way of thinking about gangs as members of a foreign culture, I would make some useful suggestions to use in the interview or interrogation process. Over my 33-plus years as a member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department primarily working as a gang detective, I developed a system for interviewing gang members. After making an arrest, or identifying a gang suspect, the first hurdle is to get the subject to talk. The second is to get him to waive his Miranda rights.

Building Rapport

I would begin by walking the subject into the interview room myself. Prior to walking with the subject I would put all of the available information on the subject into a manila folder with the subject's name on it. If this folder was sparsely filled, I would thicken it with unrelated or empty pages. This "prop" made the subject feel like I knew all about him. As I walked I would review simple booking information so I would mechanically get him or her used to speaking to me.

I would try to establish some kind of rapport by talking about anything other than the facts of the case. Sports, girls, the weather, or the subject's tattoos were non-threatening conversation subjects I might try. Surprisingly, most of the thousands of gang members I have interviewed waived their Miranda Rights and admitted their gang membership.

I also placed a pencil and paper in front of the interview subject. This sometimes resulted in the subject unconscientiously doodling on the paper. This doodling often resulted in the subject self disclosing his gang affiliation, gang moniker, and gang associates. When the subject described a location or described how something happened I would have him draw a diagram. The diagram is an excellent investigative tool, whether true or false. When several subjects were interviewed in this manner and different diagrams compared, discrepancies and inconsistencies could be glaring. The diagram also would often unintentionally provide some details not given in the statement.

However, the truth of Gang Axioms numbers 1 and 2—gangs belong to their own, criminal culture—were commonly validated by a series of questions and the answers illustrated in the following few paragraphs.

Question Members' Beliefs

Near the end of the interview I would ask, "Are you down for your neighborhood?" This is like asking a baseball nut, "Are you a Yankee or Sox fan?" This question would often elicit an enthusiastic reply such as "Hell yes, my varrio total," "My set is number one," "I live and die for my hood," or "Rifamos (we are the best), controlamos (we control), chingamos (we f—you up), aqui stamos! (here we are!)"

But my next question would be, "Would you like your little sister (or daughter) to join your gang?" and the answer inevitably would be, "No!" This is because every gang member intrinsically knows, and social scientists seemingly don't, that being a member of a criminal gang is a very bad thing.

I would ask, "Are you down for your race?" A Hispanic gang member would answer, "Simon Vato, I'm an Aztec warrior!" or "Que rifa la Raza!" And if the subject was black it would sound like this: "Yeah fool, I'm down for my race, I am a proud African warrior." And that is what they have been taught, that this militant racist attitude reflects their cultural heritage. Yet 90 percent of gang murders occur within the suspect's own race. In other words, almost always Hispanics kill Hispanics, Blacks kill Blacks, Asians kill Asians, and Whites kill Whites. Only in prison do the various street gangs unite under separate racial groups and war interracially.

I would then place another chair in the middle of the interview room and say, "See this chair? It is really a time machine." I would then have the gangbanger sit in the chair and I would take him back in time. The Hispanic gang member would, by imagination, transport back to ancient Mexico, to the court of the great Aztec chief, Montezuma. I would present the gang member as an Aztec Warrior to Montezuma and tell him, "This warrior participated in a drive-by shooting." I would then ask the gangster, "What do you think Montezuma would do to you?"

There would follow a long pregnant pause because the gangster knew that a drive-by shooting is not a courageous or honorable act. It is a cowardly and sneaky act unbecoming a true Aztec warrior. I would then remind the cholo that cowardly Aztec warriors were executed by having their hearts cut out by a sharp obsidian stone while they were still alive and their hearts were still beating. Clearly, gang behavior is not part of the Aztec warrior culture.

In the case of a Crip or a Blood gang member, I would, by imagination, transport him back in time to ancient Africa. Back in time to the court of the great Zulu tribe and its legendary chief, Chaka Zulu. I would then act out presenting this gang member as a Zulu warrior who sells crack cocaine in his own village. Then I would ask the gang banger, "What do you think Chaka Zulu would do to you?"

Almost always the same pregnant pause would follow. Every gang member knows that selling dope in your own community is selfish, greedy, and destructive. I would remind the gangsters that warriors who did not protect the village and exploited the tribe for their own greed were commonly killed by true Zulu warriors. The short Zulu spear was thrust into the exploiter's heart, because selfish greed and drug pushing were not part of the African Zulu culture.

Smoking dope, raping, stealing, killing, bullying, and assaulting defenseless victims are not part of anyone's ethnic culture. They are part of a criminal culture.

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Sergeant (Ret.)
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