Looking at a Year of Developments

Looking back at this year, street gang behaviors have changed little. However, those of us who work the street must have noticed a few unique changes in the types of gang alliances, memberships and the crimes in which some street gangs have been involved.

As the Christmas holidays approach, many of us reflect on what has happened over the year and think about what is going to happen in the next year. Looking back at this year, street gang behaviors have changed little. However, those of us who work the street must have noticed a few unique changes in the types of gang alliances, memberships and the crimes in which some street gangs have been involved.


Throughout the year, police agencies across the country have reported the formation of alliances between gangs that were once thought to be rivals. This is not a new phenomenon. More and more street gangs are getting involved in nonviolent, gang-related crimes. Movement into welfare fraud, check fraud, credit card fraud, fraudulent identification, bus-pass fraud, and the fencing of stolen property allows a street gang member to make money. If arrested and convicted, the gangster expects to serve less time. Why? Because the crime is nonviolent and not traditionally associated with the gang subculture. The illegal criminal enterprises allow unique relationships to form between rival gang members, especially if the crime occurs in another part of the state or out of state. The teamwork also guarantees increased profits.

Drug abuse is expanding, especially within the 14-24 age group. Coincidentally, the majority of the country's gang population is also found within this age group. Nationally, many street gangs are getting involved in drug sales, and younger gang members are selling drugs. These younger gang members are also arming themselves, according to a National Drug Information Center report. By younger, I mean kids as young as 12 or 13 years old.

The drug business and nonviolent, gang-related crime fuel a partnership between street gang members who were once rivals, though this often occurs in a state different from the gang's origin. For example, Los Angeles-based Hispanic gang members, who were rivals in Southern California, turned into drug-dealing business partners in Albuquerque, N. M. In New Mexico, the individual gang members teamed up under a common name. They became known as "Sureño-13." These types of alliances can also grow very quickly and invade a city literally overnight. Thanks to great work by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Albuquerque Police Department, this drug-selling gang was dismantled.

Street gang members from the Midwest, East and West Coasts have been encountered working together. These new alliances have been seen in Hispanic, Asian, black, and white street gangs. The drug business has also fueled an increase in gang migration and unique gang alliances. Academic research at one time indicated that gang migration accounted for a small proportion of new gangs forming outside California. However, there have been no recent studies to show if that trend is still true.


Gang members who move to different parts of the country travel in a variety of ways. Air travel is used, but more frequently, personal vehicles, buses and trains are the mode of travel chosen by migrating gangsters. A few gang members have told me in interviews, "It is cheaper and you're less likely to be stopped by the police." This makes sense; the last thing a gang would want is to draw attention to itself. The major highways of the country thus become drug transportation routes.

Spotting out-of-state license plates might be one way of noticing the presence of out-of-state gang members. These people will not be your normal tourists. I know we all are busy, but having a contact at the local bus and train terminals might help track the arrival of new gang members in your city. Many times, out-of-state gang members arrive in your city to visit relatives. Once there, they sense that an opportunity to make money is available. Surveillance can offer a good method to collect the intelligence needed to confirm or deny gang activity. Patrol officers can become major sources of information and intelligence. Legal stops and good field interview reports can become the best source of gang intelligence.

Female Gang Members

An ad hoc survey I conducted with police officers has yielded some surprising results about how male officers stereotype female gang members. The model that has emerged is that of an overweight, homely looking female with tattoos. That couldn't be further from the truth. Many female gang members are petite, articulate and have no tattoos. Don't let a stereotype lead you into a false sense of security.

Female gang members are being used as drug mules, especially to transport drugs between states for their gang-member boyfriends. Sometimes the female gang member will be disguised as a single parent with a small child, traveling to visit "family." Female gang members have confided that they use many different types of containers to transport the drugs. Fake flashlights, fake six-packs of soda, hidden compartments in dolls, stuffed animals and car seats are common.

A few of the lady gangsters interviewed indicated they like to travel in small groups of two or three cars. If you make a car stop, check for trailing vehicles. Lady gangsters, when transporting drugs, can be armed. Although no formal studies have been done, the limited number of female gang members interviewed have said when they transport drugs they are always armed. There is no stereotypical female gang member.

Gang Membership

Some traditional, ethnic-based street gangs have changed their membership rules. We all have seen Crip and Blood members who are not African-American. In the last couple of years, we have seen the appearance of mixed-race skinhead, Southeast Asian, Hispanic, and Gangster Disciple gang members. This mixed-race membership has been occurring within some gangs for some time. Changing the membership rules allows a street gang to grow very quickly within a short period of time. Rapid growth and large size are also factors that influence gang migration. The larger the gang is, the more violent it tends to be.

Because of this size, the large street gang tends to operate in smaller cells, sets or cliques. The divisions might depend on age or geographical boundaries.

Females are also allowed to join these types of hybrid gangs. The appearance of coed gangs is now being reported in smaller towns and rural America. Often, these gang members are referred to as "wannabes." Once again, savvy patrol officers could confirm the existence of these types of gangs through good field contact reports.

In the event of a major crime involving the gang, the field interview reports can become  important sources of suspect or witness identification for the detectives assigned to the case. Remember, the gang subculture is always evolving.

The formation of street gangs has traditionally resulted from many factors, including racism, poverty, bias and prejudice. Once a gang is formed, new members join for similar reasons. The lack of job opportunities and poverty seem to be mentioned often to explain why kids from lower social economic areas of the country join street gangs. Within the past two years, Southern California law enforcement has encountered fighting gangs (Police, Nov., 2000). The unique thing about these gang members is that they come from upper-middle-class and affluent neighborhoods and homes.

Often, mom and dad have provided opportunities that the inner-city kids don't have. Yet, some of these "rich" kids form and join part-time gangs. They  are often good students with no prior police contacts. They group together and crash private parties. Once there, they assault non-members. The members never claim gang membership to parents, police or teachers. Nevertheless, their behaviors are gang-like.

Gang members can come from any walk of life. Ultimately, it is the behavior that dictates whether or not someone is a gang member or an incident is gang-related.

Have a wonderful holiday and be safe!

Al Valdez is an investigator for the Orange County (Calif.) District Attorney's Office and author of the book, Gangs.

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