Back in 2013 a patrol deputy in my county stopped a vehicle full of young men. After the deputy checked the occupants through a law enforcement database, he learned that some of the occupants of the vehicle were confirmed gang members. The deputy then called over the radio for a gang unit to respond to his scene.
As a sheriff's office gang investigator I answered that call and was intrigued by what I found. The confirmed gang members in that vehicle were in different, and traditionally competing, criminal street gangs including Versatile Clique, Bloods, and Crips.
Competing gangs associating with one another was and is not a completely new phenomenon to me or other law enforcement officers, but after that call I saw that it was beginning to become increasingly common.
Today's gangs are ever evolving, as are most things. The gangs veteran cops grew up investigating seem to be fading faster each day. Alliances shift and change every day and are often influenced by the desire to illegally obtain money in a short amount of time. The result can be alliances between such traditional enemies as Bloods and Crips. These alliances create decentralized hybrid gangs that organize, plan, and execute robberies, burglaries, and pharmacy thefts.
Often these hybrid gangs are temporary. However, in the case of neighborhood gangs, they can form into their own group with an informal set of rules and standards effectively modeling themselves in the image of the traditional gangs that seem to be diminishing. This is true for both street gangs and prison gangs.
Let's be clear; hybrid gangs are not new. The concept has been familiar to cops who police the gang world for quite a few years now. I believe the first time I remember seeing the word "hybrid" applied to gangs was in the FBI's National Gang Threat Assessment in 2011. Under the sophistication section that report stated, "Gang members are becoming more sophisticated in their structure and operations and are modifying their activity to minimize law enforcement scrutiny and circumvent gang enhancement laws. Gangs in several jurisdictions have modified or ceased traditional or stereotypical gang indicia and no longer display their colors, tattoos, or hand signs. Others are forming hybrid gangs to avoid police attention and to make it more difficult for law enforcement to identify and monitor them, according to NGIC reporting."
As I read that FBI assessment back in 2011, I didn't realize how big of an impact hybrid gangs would carry for me in the future. I have to admit that even as an experienced gangs investigator, I was still stuck on the traditional version of how gangs operate, and I was convinced the hybrid gang/clique thing was a fad. I didn't think it would pick up the traction that it did. I ignorantly admit the traditional (read "California") gang mindset was hard for me to break.
Only after I continued to encounter the same situation as the 2013 traffic stop that I discussed, and talked to officers from surrounding gang units, and interviewed numerous documented gang members, did I realize the old way of looking at gangs had to change.
So what does this mean for us in the law enforcement profession?
It means we have to work harder, dig deeper, and ask more questions. In the words of Sun Tzu, we must "know our enemy." If we know our "enemy," in this case the members of the gang subculture, then we can better understand the motivations and understand the phenomena behind organized criminal gang activity.
It's not just that gang members from other gangs who you would not expect to see together are now cooperating to commit crimes, but even the things that were presumed truths are not the same anymore. It used to be that a traditional Blood gang member would not be caught dead wearing blue. That doesn't mean he would only wear red. But he would never wear blue. And his Crips counterparts had the same feelings toward red.
I have worked several investigations now where a Blood seems to have more photos on open social media wearing "rival" gang colors than his own crew's. We as gang investigators have to work twice as hard because the information and indicators that used to jump out at us are now lost in the mess of the hybrid gang's evolution.
As our culture goes, so goes our gangs. The attitudes of millennial gang members are not much different than those of many non-criminal millennials. They have no patience, so we are living in a world of gangs where their motto is the same as the one shouted on the TV ads of financial services company J.G. Wentworth: "It's my money and I want it now." Their immediate predecessors would have to prospect or probate for a year (time varied from gang to gang) only to start off at the bottom and hope to work their way to the top. Today's young gang members are not wanting to wait around for what they feel they are entitled to now. They don't see why they should wait, why they should put in the time, why they should have to answer to leadership. They aren't as concerned with the rules and regulations or what color to wear or not wear. They also rebel against the leadership that says the money they work for should go to anyone other than themselves.
In fact, money is the biggest reason for this change. Numerous gang members have stated they are a Blood in a car with Crips or a Tango in a car with a Texas Syndicate member because the only color that matters to them is green. They are not as concerned with climbing the ranks the traditional way when they can get richer faster being their own boss.
This change in gang culture is not just affecting street gangs. We are seeing it in the prisons as well, at least here in Texas.
The fastest up-and-coming inmate group in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is the Tangos. I call them a group because even though they are documented as a gang on the streets, they have yet to be labeled by TDCJ as a security threat group (STG).
Tangos say they started off as a Hispanic protection group, but to paraphrase John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, "absolute power corrupts absolutely." In prison numbers is power. And the number of Tangos in Texas prisons is huge and any concept of them being a protective group has been absolutely corrupted.
I have had conversations with several TDCJ personnel who have told me there is no way they could make Tangos an STG because there is no way they could segregate them all due to their numbers. So now Tango is said to be the largest, if not one of the largest groups of concern within the Texas prison system.
I'm not saying Tangos are considered a hybrid gang, but I think they share some startling similarities in their disdain for set rules and regulations, and their ablity to be a member of another street gang outside, and Tango inside.
Criminal gangs are seeing the same problem with today's youth as we are in law enforcement and other sectors of American life. Young gang members exhibit a growing lack of respect and a "I don't want to wait," and "why should I have to work for it" mentality. This is why I believe we are seeing a huge increase in hybrid street gangs as well as evolving prison groups like Tango and Independent Peckerwoods.
And since I don't see an end to this trend anywhere in sight, I believe it's going to be up to us as law enforcement officers to communicate with these gang members and each other so we can evolve our methods and tactics to meet this challenge.
A. Frisina assisted in the writing of this article.
Ryan Jones is assigned to the gang investigations unit at the Montgomery County (TX) Sheriff's Office. He has been the lead investigator in several felony gang-related investigations. As part of his current assignment he is a Federal Task Force Officer with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and is a member of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office's SWAT Team.