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Feature

Gang World

Street gangs are proliferating around the world. The United States has unwittingly spurred this phenomenon by deporting tens of thousands of immigrants with criminal records each year. But that only partly explains how gangs went global. Credit also goes to the Internet, where gangs are staking out turf and spreading their culture online. Gang members may have never heard of globalization, but it is making them stronger.

It’s a cold winter day in Chicago, and Hector is doing what he does almost every day, standing on his drug spot "serving" customers. Hector, a 19-year-old member of the Latin Kings street gang, is the son of Mexican immigrants. He speaks Spanglish skillfully, mixed with urban slang, and wears a uniform typical of the youth in his neighborhood — puffy coat, baggy jeans, and meticulously clean, white athletic shoes (in a city where snow salt decimates entire wardrobes). Hector has never traveled outside of Chicago and only rarely ventures beyond a three-mile radius of his apartment.

Hector stands at the end of a long and familiar global commodity chain. The little plastic bags in his palm contain $10 chunks of crack cocaine that look like jagged, disfigured sugar cubes. By the time the crack hits the streets of Chicago, it has been touched by more than a dozen people in three countries. Hector has no interest in its global supply chain. His daily concerns and activities center on a few city blocks, his aspirations reaching just as far. The majority of Hector’s day is spent doing what other 19-year-olds do — sleeping, hanging out with friends, trying to talk to teenage girls, playing video games, and standing on the street corner laughing. He sells drugs for only a few hours a day, going home with around $50 profit, little more than he’d make working at McDonald’s.

Hector’s image — that of a young, minority, "inner-city," male gang member — is transmitted, exploited, and glamorized across the world. The increasing mobility of information via cyberspace, films, and music makes it easy for gangs, gang members, and gang wannabes to get information, adapt personalities, and distort gang behaviors. Most often, these images of gang life are not simply exaggerated; they’re flat-out wrong. Flashy cars, diamond rings (real ones, at least), and wads of cash are not the gang world norm. Hustling to make ends meet, trying to put food on the table while staying out of jail, wearing the same T-shirt and blue jeans until they have holes in them, and dealing with the humdrum of school, unemployment, and child support are more typical.

Nonetheless, two images of street gangs dominate the popular consciousness — gangs as posses of drug-dealing thugs and, more recently, gangs as terrorist organizations. Although the media like to link gangs and drugs, only a small portion of all gangs actually deal in them. Fewer do so in an organized fashion. The National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) estimates that 34 percent of all U.S. gangs are actively involved in organized drug dealing. Gangs that do sell drugs essentially fill a void in the postindustrial urban economy, replacing the manufacturing and unskilled labor jobs that traditionally served as a means for social mobility.

Similarly, the name Jose Padilla is inevitably followed by two epithets — al Qaeda terror suspect and street gang member. The link between the two is extremely misleading. Padilla was arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in June 2002, reportedly en route to detonate a "dirty bomb" in a U.S. city. But, as with drug dealing, most gangs lack the organizational wherewithal to operate transnational clandestine networks. Instead, most gangs engage in what one criminologist calls "cafeteria-style" crime — a little bit of drug use, a smattering of larceny, a dab of truancy, a dollop of fighting, and so on. Padilla’s attempted terrorist act had little to do with his gang affiliation.

That said, there have been a handful of extreme examples that suggest that some gangs do in fact have the global reach necessary to commit terrorist acts. In 1986, the Chicago-based El Rukns conspired to commit terrorist acts on U.S. soil on behalf of the Libyan government, in exchange for $2.5 million. In the 1990s, the Latin Kings funneled money to the FALN, a militant group based in Puerto Rico, through ties that were cultivated inside the U.S. prison system. And, most recently, leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, which operates in at least 31 states and three countries, met in Honduras with Adnan el-Shukrijumah, a key al Qaeda leader, to discuss smuggling immigrants into the United States via Mexico.

One of the most urgent challenges for policymakers is distinguishing between the average street gang and groups that operate as criminal networks. Until recently, gang membership was a common part of city boyhood and not terribly detrimental. Members left as they got married, got a job, enlisted in the military, or simply grew out of gang behaviors. But, as cities have changed, so have gangs. The globalization of the world economy, and the resulting exodus of manufacturing jobs from developed urban centers to the developing world, has left poor neighborhoods geographically and socially isolated. Not surprisingly, street gangs and gang violence have increased dramatically with globalization. Today, gangs serve as de facto protectors, families, and employers. Members are staying in gangs longer, young women are increasingly involved, and gangs are now reported in all 50 U.S. states and in countless countries.

Globalization and street gangs exist in a paradox: Gangs are a global phenomenon not because the groups themselves have become transnational organizations (although a few have), but because of the recent hypermobility of gang members and their culture. At the same time that globalization isolates neighborhoods heavily populated by gangs, it also helps spread gang activity and culture. Gangs have, in a sense, gone global.

GANGSTERS WITHOUT BORDERS

Gangs exist in 3,300 cities across the United States — essentially, any municipality with a population of more than 250,000 people — and in a growing number of small towns and rural areas. This figure is about a 433 percent increase from estimates in the 1970s, when gangs were reported in roughly 200 cities. The NYGC estimates that today there are more than 731,500 gang members in 21,500 different gangs in the United States. Such proliferation is not confined geographically. Gangs and other violent "youth groups" have been reported in France, Greece, South Africa, Brazil, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Britain, Jamaica, Mexico, Canada, Japan, China, Australia, and elsewhere.

A common myth used to explain such proliferation is that gangs "migrate" in search of new members, turf, or criminal opportunities. Although that is true in the rare cases of groups like the Latin Kings and MS-13, very little evidence suggests that gang proliferation is associated with calculated entrepreneurial ambitions. A more plausible explanation is that when people move, they take their culture with them. For example, Trey, a member of Chicago’s massive Gangster Disciples, moved to a small town in Arkansas where his brother, who is not a gang member, had found a job. Although Trey tried to "go legit," he soon found that his status as a Gangster Disciple from the housing projects of Chicago gave him a formidable reputation in small-town Arkansas. Within nine months, he started a new Gangster Disciples "chapter" with 15 members. But this new gang had no formal connection with the group in Chicago.

The same trend is occurring internationally, particularly in Latin America and Asia. In a recent survey of more than 1,000 gang members, the National Gang Crime Research Center found that about 50 percent of gang members believed that their gang had international connections. Analysis conducted by this author suggests the rate is considerably higher for Hispanic (66 percent) and Asian (58 percent) gang members, who are more likely to be immigrants.

The movement of gang members overseas not only spreads gang culture but also helps to establish links between gang members in different countries. When Lito, a member of Hector’s Latin Kings gang, ran into trouble with the law in Chicago, his family sent him to live with an aunt in Mexico. There, he quickly became a go-between for gang members in the United States looking to avoid detection and for Mexican immigrants searching for jobs in the United States. The Latin Kings, in fact, turned these connections into a lucrative business by manufacturing fake ID cards. A 1999 investigation of several Latin Kings recovered 31,000 fraudulent IDs and travel documents.

Of course, gang members do not always travel overseas as a matter of free will. Since the mid-1990s, U.S. immigration policy has dramatically boosted the proliferation of gangs throughout Latin America and Asia by deporting tens of thousands of immigrants with criminal records back to their home countries each year, including a growing number of gang members. In 1996, around 38,000 immigrants were deported after committing a crime; by 2003, the number had jumped to almost 80,000. Often, gang members have spent nearly their entire lives in the United States. But once they run afoul of the law, their immigrant status leaves them vulnerable to deportation.

The countries that receive the flood of deportees are usually ill-equipped to deal with so many returning gang members. Although estimates vary, experts believe that there are now nearly 100,000 gang members spread across Central America and Mexico. In 2003, the United States deported more than 2,100 immigrants with criminal records to the Dominican Republic. The same year, nearly 2,000 were deported to El Salvador. The U.S. government does not keep track of how many of these criminal deportees are gang members, but many Latin American states see a connection and say gangs are now one of their biggest threats to national security. In 2003, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, and Mexico agreed to work together to find new ways to beat the challenges gangs pose.

It’s not as though many gang members wish to remain in the countries of their birth. With little or no connection to their new homes, deported gang members typically face a simple choice: either find a way to return to the United States or seek protection from local gang members. In the case of MS-13, the U.S. government has deported hundreds of members, many of whom continue to illegally migrate back and forth, often carrying goods or people with them. Those that remain in their home countries are almost sure to connect with other deported gang members, and authorities in these countries say they are responsible for a large upswing in crime and violence. In a sense, U.S. immigration policy has amounted to unintentional state-sponsored gang migration. Rather than solving the gang problem, the United States may have only spread it.

THE VIRTUAL STREET CORNER

A search for particular gang slogans or phrases on any major search engine uncovers Web sites with gang manifestos, bylaws, pictures, symbols, and, yes, even turf. The Internet provides a new platform for gang warfare, and cyberspace is serving as an outlet for activities that could lead to violence if attempted on the street, such as "disrespecting" rival gangs, making claims of superiority, or disclosing gang secrets. Reputations are developed through verbal combat with vague, often anonymous, rivals. Individual gangs flaunt their Internet savvy by posting complex Web sites, including some with password protection. Entire Web sites are dedicated to celebrating the history and cultural icons of individual gangs, including internal documents, prayers, and photos. But, unlike exchanges in the real world, virtual spats rarely lead to actual violence.

Still, few gang members ever discuss or mention the Internet. Many don’t possess the hardware, software, or technical skills (not to mention the necessary telephone lines) to manage the Web. Most gang-related Web activity appears to come from gang members who have moved beyond their neighborhood, perhaps to attend college, or gang members and wannabes in suburbs or smaller towns. On the Internet, it’s easy to co-opt the identity of well-known, mythic gangs.

A now defunct Web site of a gang calling itself "The Black Gangster Disciples," after the notorious Chicago gang, contained several pages of gang prayers, oaths, and other sensitive organizational materials. The Web page’s guest book was a virtual street corner where surfers gave shout-outs (salutations or greetings) or disses (slanderous remarks) toward the group. Ironically, the site also contained a picture of the gang — a group of white, adolescent males flashing gang signs (the wrong ones, I might add), in someone’s well-furnished basement. 

Such digital proliferation has unlimited global potential. Police in the Netherlands have identified groups using the names of California-based gangs, such as the "Eight Tray Crips." But these exported gangs miss the hyperlocal point of their namesakes — the "Black" in the Black Gangster Disciples was added during the 1960s as the gang identified with civil rights activity on Chicago’s South Side; "Eight Tray" refers to specific streets in California. Neither of these copycat gangs is able to, geographically or historically, live the local meaning found in the names of their gangs.

This proliferation of gangs on the Net might give the false impression that they are now soliciting members across the globe. The anonymity of cyberspace might build up the egos or reputations of people pretending to be something they are not, giving psychological reasons to seek other gang outlets or create them where none exist. Of course, it is possible that some of the more sophisticated gangs may already be exploiting cyberspace for illicit purposes, such as arranging drug deals or transferring illegal funds. Although it is impossible to stop gangs and gang members from posting Web pages, differentiating between the banal and the potentially dangerous virtual gang activity will be an important task in the years ahead. Gangs will no doubt take advantage of technological advances. The difficult part is figuring out what is real and what is not.

IS GLOBALIZATION JUST A WORD?

Street gangs are proliferating. What comes next depends in part on how globalization continues to affect our cities and how we deal with its consequences. As the global economy creates a growing number of disenfranchised groups, some will inevitably meet their needs in a gang.

Criminal organizations such as the Gangster Disciples, Crips, Bloods, MS-13, and Latin Kings are dangerous entities. But these groups are an anomaly in the gang world; they represent the worst of what gangs can become, not what most gangs are. Treating all gang members like mafia kingpins or terrorist masterminds is overestimating people who, more often than not, are petty delinquents. At their core, gangs are not just a criminal justice problem; they are a social problem. One of the biggest challenges is reintroducing an offender into a community. Labels such as "ex-offender" and "gang member" follow people throughout their lives, making it next to impossible for someone to make a fresh start. Scores of gang members go through the revolving criminal justice door and return to communities that offer no viable employment opportunities. In some prisons, gang members are trained for jobs that are not available when they are released.

No amount of law enforcement will rid the world of gangs. Strategies at all levels must move beyond simple arrest and incarceration to consider the economic structures of the cities and neighborhoods that breed street gangs. Otherwise, there will be nothing there to greet them but the waiting and supportive arms of the gang.

For Hector, globalization is just a word. It means nothing to him. It’s possible that he has never even heard it. And it’s certain he never sees globalization’s benefits or associates its forces with his everyday life. On this cold winter day, I ask Hector where he thinks the drugs he sells come from. He laughs. "Man, what do I care? All I care is that the shit gets here," he says, stomping his feet to stay warm. A block away, I hear another gang member shouting, "Rocks and blow." The Latin Kings are open for business.

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