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The label gang has been applied to various groups including outlaws of the nineteenth-century American West, prison inmates, Mafioso and other organized criminals, motorcyclists, and groups of inner city youths. Despite its diverse application, the term gang almost always connotes involvement in disreputable or illegal activities.

Social scientists use the term gang most frequently when describing groups of juveniles. This tendency dates back to Frederic Thrasher's The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago (1927). According to Thrasher, social conditions in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century encouraged the development of street gangs. In this period, many immigrants settled in ethnic enclaves in inner-city neighborhoods characterized by several features: a large, culturally diverse population; deteriorating housing; poor employment prospects; and a rapid turnover in population. These conditions resulted in socially disorganized neighborhoods where social institutions and social control mechanisms were weak and ineffective. The lack of social control encouraged youths to find other means of establishing social order, which they did by forming gangs.

Thrasher's research has influenced most subsequent theory and research on gangs. Albert Cohen (1955) theorized that gangs emerge from a subculture created by lower socioeconomic youths in response to their exclusion from mainstream middle-class culture. These youths recognize that they are unlikely to obtain the status valued by the middle class and create a gang culture that offers an alternative source of status. According to Walter Miller (1958), lower-class culture includes norms and values that are structured around the focal concerns of trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate, and autonomy. Gangs and criminal activity are behavioral manifestations of these focal concerns. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960) proposed that delinquency and gang formation stem from differential opportunity structures: the uneven distribution of legitimate and illegitimate means of attaining goals. Lower-class adolescents' limited access to the legal means of achieving goals leaves them frustrated. Gangs can reduce feelings of powerlessness by providing youths access to illegitimate means; that is, with opportunities to learn and be instructed in crime by seasoned offenders.

Interest in gangs declined in the 1970s; however, gangs have increasingly captured the attention of academics since 1980. Many of the efforts since the 1980s focus on the social disorganization perspective from which much of the original gang research originated. For example, Robert Bursik Jr. and Harold Grasmick (1993, p. 147) suggested that expanding the social disorganization model to include "a broader systemic orientation that considers the simultaneous operation of three types of control: private, parochial, and public," is a better approach to studying neighborhood crime and gangs.

Defining Gangs

Gang researchers have suggested several definitions of gangs. Thrasher (1927, p. 46) defined a gang as

an interstitial group originally formed spontaneously and then integrated through conflict. It is characterized by the following types of behavior: meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict, and planning. The result of this collective behavior is the development of tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, morale, group awareness, and attachment to a local territory.

According to Thrasher, all childhood playgroups are potential gangs. The transformation from playgroup to gang occurs when youths encounter others who oppose or display disapproval for their group. This disapproval may or may not stem from delinquent activities, and Thrasher was careful not to include delinquency in his definition of gangs. Instead, Thrasher argued that gangs facilitate delinquency.

In contrast, other scholars distinguish gangs as delinquent groups. Malcolm Klein (1995) defines a gang as a group that recognizes itself as a gang, is recognized by the community as a gang, and is committed to a criminal orientation. Finn-Aage Esbensen (2000) offers a more precise definition, arguing that a gang has all of the following features: contains more than two members who fall within a specific range of age (commonly, older than eleven and younger than twenty-five); members have some common identity (often accomplished through gang names, symbols, colors, hand signs, and graffiti); the group exhibits stability over time (a year or more); and the group members are involved in criminal activity. Esbensen suggests that the requirement of illegal activity is necessary to distinguish gangs from groups such as school and church clubs.

Other researchers have turned to the individuals who deal with gangs for a definition. Walter Miller (1975) administered a survey to workers in 121 youth-serving agencies in twenty-six areas of the United States. Eighty-five percent of the 309 respondents indicated that six items describe a gang. Miller used these six items to compose the following definition of a gang (see Bursik and Grasmick 1993):

a self-formed association of peers, bound together by mutual interests, with identifiable leadership, well-developed lines of authority, and other organizational features, who act in concert to achieve a specific purpose or purposes, which generally include . . . illegal activity and control over a particular territory, facility or type of enterprise.

The lack of a consensus about the defining features of a gang has made it difficult to generate consistent findings and generalizations. Central to the debate is the issue of criminal activity. The criminality of gangs varies greatly and using criminality to distinguish groups as gangs may be problematic; however, ignoring criminal activity makes it difficult to distinguish gangs from school, church, and youth activity groups.

Gang Formation

Joining a gang generally involves associating with gang members, gaining the acceptance of important members within the gang, and eventually being admitted (Spergel 1995). In many cases, adolescents will hang out with gang members for up to a year before making a commitment to join (Decker and Van Winkle 1996). Initiation rites, which range from being beaten by a row of gang members ("walking the line"), to committing a crime or harming a member of an opposing gang are sometimes required to join a gang, but are often inconsistently applied (Fleisher 1998; Spergel 1995; Miller 2001). Many gangs also actively recruit new members, especially when gang membership is low. Martin Sanchez-Jankowski (1991) offered three typologies of gang recruitment: (1) Fraternity—the gang advertises itself as, "cool, hip, the social thing to be in"; (2) Obligation—the gang appeals to a person's sense of community; and (3) Coercion—the gang uses physical and psychological intimidation.

The youths who join gangs do so for a variety of reasons. Common motives include camaraderie; a sense of belonging; status; new and exciting experiences; access to drugs and alcohol; and monetary opportunities through illegal markets. In most cases, youths believe that the gang will provide them with things they could not otherwise obtain. Many gang members report that they joined gangs because of the protection they offered. Youths who live in areas with gangs may be harassed, assaulted, or even killed if they do not belong to a gang, and friends who are tough and have knowledge of the streets may protect them. However, they may also be harmed if they belong to the wrong gang.

Research findings are inconclusive as to whether gangs actually protect their members from violence. Gangs may reduce victimization by encouraging their members to develop a protective group identity, as well as by providing physical protection in dangerous neighborhoods and situations such as confrontations with other gangs (Sanchez-Jankowski 1991). However, as noted earlier, gangs often use violence when initiating new members, and violence is frequently used as a way of controlling members. In addition, female gang members have heightened risks of sexual victimization by the males in their gangs (Miller 2001). Gang disputes, rivalries, and "wars" with other gangs further increase the likelihood that gang members will be victimized, as do conflicts with police and other authorities (Klein 1995; Miller 2001; Sanchez-Jankowski 1991; Venkatesh 2000). In the late 1980s, gang violence increased both in frequency and seriousness as gang-related homicides escalated with the spread of drive-by shootings and other gun attacks (Sanders 1994). Gang homicides have since declined, and by the century's end, youth homicides had declined for several years (Blumstein 2000).

Symbols of Gangs and Gang Membership

Youths often use language, dress, musical tastes, and other symbols to distinguish themselves from other groups of adolescents. Gangs represent a distinct type of relationship and as such have distinct symbols and rituals. These symbols are important in that they serve as a way of identifying fellow gang members and rival gang members. They also function as a means for gaining or maintaining status within the gang.

Nicknames are often used to represent an individual's unique role in the gang (Spergel 1995). For instance, a gang member may earn a nickname for being particularly vicious in a confrontation with another gang, thereby contributing to the gang's reputation as "tough." Alternatively, nicknames may be derogatory, having their basis in individuals' shortcomings (Klein 1995). Graffiti is used to mark territory and to threaten rival gangs. It generally includes the symbolic monikers of gang members and/or a "logo" of the gang's name. Many gangs dress in a manner that sets them apart from nonmembers. Heavily starched, baggy Khaki pants and Pendleton shirts buttoned only at the collar were at one time the uniform of many Chicano gangs. Other gangs identified themselves by wearing or displaying colored bandanas. Gangs may use hand signs and specific mannerisms, such as a particular way of walking, as symbols of gang identity.

Gangs and Crime

The 1998 National Youth Gang Survey (2000) asked a representative sample of U.S. law enforcement agencies about youth gang crime. According to police, gangs are often involved in entrepreneurial crime, the most common of which are drug sales, theft, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and robbery. Several researchers have identified gangs that are organized around drug sales or other illegal enterprises (Fleisher 1998; Howell and Gleason 2001; Sullivan 1989); however, others doubt that gangs have the organizational structure necessary to conduct drug sales on the scale often described (Klein 1995; Spergel 1995). At the same time, research suggests that most gang members do not reap large profits from drug selling or other illegal activities (Venkatesh 2000).

Although gang members commit more criminal acts than the general population, many gang members report considerable involvement in crime before joining gangs. Thus, it is not clear if gang members' higher rates of offending are a result of belonging to a gang, or because individuals who join gangs are predisposed to crime. Two studies that use longitudinal data from Rochester youths demonstrate that both processes likely contribute to gang crime. Terence Thornberry (2001) noted that although many gang members use violence before joining a gang, gang membership and not prior offending is the better predictor of subsequent involvement in violent crime. However, Beth Bjerregaard and Alan Lizotte (2001) found that youths who owned a gun for protection were more likely to join gangs than were youths who did not own a weapon. These findings suggest that youths who are involved in crime find gangs attractive, and that gangs prefer to recruit seasoned offenders.

Gangs and Neighborhoods

Gangs most often appear in troubled neighborhoods; areas that are socially disorganized, characterized by inadequate social institutions, and whose residents are economically disadvantaged. These areas may be prone to relatively high rates of school dropout, teen pregnancy, public health problems, and may have prostitution and drug sales within their boundaries.

The relationship between gangs and neighborhood residents is complex (Venkatesh 2000). Residents may disapprove of the gang and their activities, particularly their violence and illegal activities. They may form neighborhood organizations or alliances with local law and campaign in order to discourage neighborhood youths from joining gangs and to rid the neighborhood of gangs.

However, residents do not always view gangs as threatening; only about one-third of the gang members in Scott H. Decker and Barrik Van Winkle's (1996) field study of active gang members believed that their neighbors were afraid of them. Gangs may even be accepted as part of the community. If the gang is well established and has existed for some time, residents may simply accept the gang as part of neighborhood life. Residents may also feel that the gang protects the community. This is especially true when rival gangs have been a problem in the community. Gangs may also offer residents other aid: they may help residents with moving, carrying groceries, financial assistance, or providing shelter (Sanchez-Jankowski 1991). Also, neighborhood residents may profit from the illegal activities of gang youths, buying their stolen property or illegal drugs (Sullivan 1989). Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh's (2000) account of a the relationship between the Black King's gang and the tenants of a Chicago housing project illustrates the duality of neighborhood-gang relations:

Trafficking, extortion, and attempts to bribe tenants, CHA [Chicago Housing Authority] security officers, and law enforcement officials were part of their [the gang's] daily labors; however, the [gang's] leaders also monitored the behavior of strangers who entered the housing development by car and on foot. . . . It was not common, but also not entirely unusual, to see BK's [Black King's] helping tenants in their buildings with a small cash disbursement. During the summer they routinely hosted cook-outs and passed out free food and beer. Throughout the year, they offered the use of a car for errands, and they assisted tenant leaders in their search for apartment burglars.

Gangs and Ethnicity

Early twentieth-century U.S. youth gangs emerged in ethnic enclaves and formed along ethnic and racial lines. At that time, youth street gangs were ethnically homogenous, and primarily composed of Jewish, Irish, and Italian members (Spergel 1995). In 1975, almost half of all gangs in the six largest cities were primarily composed of African Americans, approximately 36 percent were Hispanic, almost 9 percent were white, and 7.5 percent were Asian (Miller 1975). The 1998 National Youth Gang Survey (2000) revealed a considerable increase in Hispanic gangs: by the late 1990s, 46 percent of gangs were predominantly Hispanic, 34 percent were African American, 12 percent were white, and 6 percent were Asian.

Although ethnic or racial homogeneity within gangs is the norm, gangs are becoming increasingly diverse. The 1998 National Youth Gang Survey reveals that multiethnic/multiracial gangs account for 36 percent of all American gangs (2000). The most common multiethnic gangs involve Hispanics and whites (Klein 1995). Many Asian gangs are also ethnically heterogeneous, involving youths from Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Filipino and various Pacific Islander backgrounds (Klein 1995).

Some research suggests that the type of crime that members participate in varies with the ethnicity of the gang. Drug offenses appear to be more common among African American gangs, property crimes among white and Asian gangs, and Hispanic gangs appear more involved in territorial violence (Spergel 1990). Territorial violence typically occurs between gangs of the same ethnicity or race; thus gang violence is usually intraracial. However, ethnically or racially divergent gangs may come into conflict as a result of sudden changes in an area's racial or ethnic makeup, or when resources become scarce (Thrasher 1927; Spergel 1995).

Female Gangs

Most early gang research ignores female gang members and female gangs. Indeed, a common approach discusses females only as a means of ending males' gang involvement by encouraging commitments to marriage, fatherhood, and bread-winning. Other studies recognize female involvement in gangs, but identify them as auxiliaries of male gangs. This research describes female gangs as affiliations of a larger, male gang in which males encourage females to develop a gang that adopts a feminized version of the male gang's name, and that provides males with access to female gang members as sex objects.

Anne Campbell's (1984) The Girls in the Gang encouraged research to move beyond its traditional focus. Campbell's study focused on three women involved in three different female gangs in New York City in the early 1980s. Campbell concluded that while females generally become involved in gangs through their relationships with males, their role is not merely that of a sex object; moreover, Campbell noted that female "auxiliary" gangs are less tied to their associated male gang than previous research implied. She emphasized the independence of these female gangs, drawing attention to the ways in which females administrate their own gangs, and gain status through their behavior, rather than through their sexuality.

Several scholars have responded to Campbell's challenge, and there is an increasing body of research on female gangs. Jody Miller (2001) interviewed forty-eight gang and forty-six nongang girls in Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis. She found that most of these young women did not join a gang because of a boyfriend, but formed romantic relationships with gang males after joining a gang. According to Miller, neighborhood exposure to gangs and family contribute more to female gang involvement than do boyfriends. Miller's study, as well as other research, indicates that female gang members commit more crimes than nongang females, as well as nongang males (Curry 2001; Esbensen and Winfree 2001). Moreover, female gang members participate in the same types of offenses committed by male gang members, albeit to a lesser extent.

Recent research notwithstanding, there remains considerable uncertainty about female gangs, including their prevalence. For instance, the 1998 National Youth Gang Survey indicated that only 8 percent of gang members are female (2000). In contrast, the National Evaluation of Gang Resistance Education and Training's (GREAT) 1995 sample of eighth-grade students found that 38 percent of gang members were females (Esbensen and Winfree 2001). The GREAT survey also reports the "mixed gender" gangs far outnumber other gangs: 84 percent of male gang members reported that their gangs had female members (Peterson et al. 2001).

Family, Gangs, and the Gang as Family

The term gang often provokes images of violence, drug use and dealing, and crime. However, youth gangs also have other consequences. Gangs can provide youths with a sense of belonging and identity, social support, and solidarity. Gang youths often compare their gangs to family, and in some respects gangs resemble families.

In some neighborhoods, many members of a family have belonged to the same gang. These multigenerational gangs develop in different settings, but have been most often observed among Hispanics. Sanchez-Jankowski (1991) reported that many gang members told him that their families had a long history of gang involvement that included older brothers, and in a considerable number of cases, fathers and grandfathers. Thirty-two percent of the Los Angeles fathers he interviewed said that they had been members of the same gang to which their children now belonged, while 11 percent reported that four generations of their family had membership in the same gang. Miller (2001) indicated that 79 percent of the forty-eight gang females she interviewed had at least one other family member involved in gangs, and 60 percent had more than one. About half of the gang members in Moore's study (1991) of two Chicano/a gangs in East Los Angeles had a relative in a gang. Moore (1991) suggested that while family members may share the same gang, membership is not inherited, or simply passed on from parent to child.

According to Sanchez-Jankowski (1991), tradition plays an important role in multigenerational gangs. He argues that the long history of multigenerational gangs, coupled with parents' former involvement with the same neighborhood gangs, brings a sense of tradition to the gangs. As indicated in a comment by a gang youth Sanchez-Jankowski interviewed, many youths in these neighborhoods feel that their families and community expect them to join a gang:

I joined because the gang has been here for a long time and even though the name is different a lot of the fellas from the community have been involved in it over the years, including my dad. The gang has helped the community by protecting it against outsiders so people here have kind of depended on it . . . I feel it's my obligation to the community to put some time helping them out. This will help me to get help in the community if I need it some time.

Occasionally families are split across gangs. Comments from two gang members in Marjorie Zatz and Eduardo Portillo's study (2000, pp. 392, 391) illustrate that these divisions can be particularly devastating when families belong to two feuding gangs:

They [my relatives] are from different gangs, though . . . but I don't care about them because they be trying to shoot at us all the time. My own uncle shot at me, one of them tried to kill me already, but that's all right.

We can't have family reunions or anything because they are always fighting, like my tios [uncles] fight. At the funerals they fight, or at the park, or at a picnic when we get together, they just fight. So sometimes the family don't get together, only for funerals, that's the only time.

Thus, families contribute to gangs by modeling gang behavior through previous gang membership, providing a sense of tradition to the gang, and even directly contribute to gang violence against their own families when family conflicts with gang membership.

Families also encourage gang involvement when they fail to provide youths with resources and support typically associated with family life. In many cases, families are simply too poor to provide the economic resources that many gangs are capable of supplying. William Brown's (1998) study of seventy-nine African-American gang members in Detroit reveals that 63 percent of youths lived in a family in which their parents were employed only part-time. A comment by a gang member from Sanchez-Jankowski's (1991) study illustrates the possible consequences of parental poverty:

Before I joined the gang, I could see that you could count on your boys to help in times of need and that meant a lot to me. And when I needed money, sure enough they gave it to me. Nobody else would have given it to me; my parents didn't have it, and there was no other place to go. The gang was just like they said they would be, and they'll continue to be there when I need them.

Other family characteristics also contribute to gang life. Many gang members report that they live with parents or stepparents who are alcoholics, chronic drug-users, abusive (physical, sexual, and emotional), or involved in illegal activities. These conditions create considerable stress that youths may try to alleviate by joining a gang. Over a quarter of the women in Moore's (1991) study of East Los Angeles gangs reported that a family member had made sexual advances while they growing up. Almost a quarter of the men and about half of the women resided with a heroin addict during their childhood, and about half of the men and over half of the women had a member of the household die during their formative years. Also, more than half of the men and three-quarters of the women witnessed the arrest of a household member when they were children.

These family stresses may encourage youths to create family-like relationships in the groups to which they belong, and as such, these relationships may represent fictive kin. According to Stack (1974), fictive kin refers to people who are unrelated biologically or by marriage, but use familial labels (e.g., mother or sister) to signify relationships characterized by trust, reciprocity, and commitment. Fictive kin typically originate in settings where people have limited access to economic resources and familial networks. The insecurity and unexpected crises that characterize these settings may quickly transform a friendship into a deeper, more reciprocal, fictive kin relationship.

Ethnographic research highlights the social and emotional support that gangs can provide. In James Vigil's (1988) study, nearly half of the Chicano gang members he interviewed expressed "familial supportive behavior" when explaining the significance of their gang. Mary G. Harris (1988) found a similar pattern among girls in Chicano gangs: "The girls in this study expressed clearly a strong sense of belonging to the gang, and compared gang membership to a family." Gangs often function similarly to family, providing youths with a sense of belonging and identity, social support, solidarity, excitement, fun and new experiences, a sense of protection, and possible opportunities for economic gain. A young woman from Harris's (1988) study states it succinctly: "It was a family. We protected each other. We took care of each other. We stole for each other."

Gangs may compensate for family by providing members with a sense of belonging. Gang youths often refer to their fellow gang members as brothers or sisters, or use other familial labels to describe relationships. These familiarities stress the group nature of their interactions and provide a sense of personal and group identity. Gangs provide youths an alternate source of identity, and are a place (often the only place) for the youths to experiment with their identity (Vigil 1988). A collective ideology of family can instill a sense of brother/sisterhood, and provide the basis for a common ideology, which aids in maintaining group consciousness (Venkatesh 2000). A comment by a male from Moore's (1991) study reflects this pattern:

The year that I was there it was like, umm, they were like family, because we could all take care of each other. . . . I think they were like my own family. I think I was more with them than my own family, because I left them for a while.

Gangs Internationally

There is a tendency to view gangs as an American phenomenon. However, youth gangs have been reported across many countries. The literature on international gangs is sparse, most often simply reporting gangs' existence in a certain country. The research that has been conducted abroad generally focuses on the characteristics of gang members and gangs' involvement in criminal activity. Thus, little is known about gangs internationally, and virtually nothing is known about gangs acting as fictive kin abroad. However, gangs in many other countries share many characteristics with American gangs, and thus they may also mirror this aspect of American gangs.

Research in Canada has focused primarily on Asian gangs, describing Chinese gangs in Vancouver and Vietnamese gangs in Toronto (Covey, Menard, and Franzese 1992; Klein 1995). However, Robert Gordon (1998) highlighted the ethnic diversity of Vancouver gangs, arguing that although these gangs often have ethnic names, a minority are actually composed primarily of members from the same ethnic background. While some discrepancies remain in the research, it is clear that Canadian gangs are not as prevalent as gangs in the United States. Gordon (1998) suggests one reason for this is because Canadian cities' educational, health, and social services are more effective at addressing the underlying problems associated with gangs.

Mexican gangs appear very similar to Cholo culture of the Hispanic gangs of the southwest United States, being similar in territoriality, gang rivalries, graffiti, and delinquent activities (Klein 1995). However, as with American gangs, there also appears to be great variety in their behaviors, especially between gangs in urban and rural areas (Cavan and Cavan 1968).

The limited research on gangs in Asia indicates that youth gangs in Malaysia and Thailand commit a relatively large share of the total crime there (Holyst 1982). Chinese triads have garnered much attention from media, however these are mostly composed of adult males, rather than juveniles. Yet the triads may play a role in youth gangs, serving as a blueprint for youth gang structure and activities, as well as providing the triads with new members (Covey, Menard, and Franzese 1992). Chinese youth gangs specializing in theft and drugs have been reported, as well as other gangs that engage in a wider variety of criminal activities and are more varied in age, number of members, and degree of territoriality (Klein 1995). Compared to the United States, adult and youth gangs are responsible for greater portion of crime in Japan, although both adults and youth crime rates are higher in the United States (Spergel 1995).

Youth gangs are also common throughout Europe. Gangs committed a large portion of total offenses in Spain in the 1980s (Holyst 1982), but few gangs exist currently (Klein 1995). After a period of absence, gangs have reemerged in France, although they are still much less prevalent than in the United State. At least in Paris, the re-emergence of gangs is thought to have been spurred by the increase in drug trafficking and the growth of the underclass (Kroeker and Haut 1995). German right-wing youth groups have drawn much attention; however, some researchers suggest they should be distinguished from youth street gangs (Kelin 1995). Neo-Nazi groups resemble youth street gangs in some ways, but they are typically more focused, involved in planning their movement, and spend much more time involved in activities to further their cause, such as writing literature and pamphlets (Klein 1995). Yet their reappearance in the 1990s, and their attacks on immigrant youths are linked to the emergence of gangs more closely resembling the American street gang. For instance, Hermann Tertilt's (2001) field study of a Turkish gang in Frankfort suggests that their violence is a response to the "segregation, degradation and humiliation," inflicted on foreigners in Germany. Others have also noted that territorial youth gangs form in response to extremists' attacks on immigrant youth (Klein 1995).

A broad range of youth groups existed in the former Soviet Union; however, it was not clear that these groups actually constituted gangs. Research since the Soviet Union's demise indicates that contemporary Russian gangs mirror American street gangs in many respects. These gangs emerged in cities with minority populations; they are territorial, and are frequently in conflict with rival gangs (Klein 1995). For the most part, they are large and fairly well organized, and members appear to share a strong sense of solidarity.

Gangs have been a fairly consistent feature of the urban landscape of Britain. In the seventeenth century, British gangs routinely vandalized urban areas, were territorial, and were involved in violent conflict with other gangs (Pearson 1983). Studies of British gangs that existed in the early 1900s suggest that these trends persisted. The research also suggested that British gangs were not as large and structured, nor nearly as violent as American gangs (Cavan and Cavan 1968; Morash 1983; Covey, Menard, and Franzese 1992). However, the 1980s saw the emergence of American-style gangs: ethnic street gangs that populate metropolitan areas, work in the drug trade, and are more violent than previous British gangs (Mares 2001).

Gangs exist in many varieties and forms, across many different countries and cultures. Although their particulars and contexts differ, some trends are apparent. The economic, social, and sometimes violent discrimination immigrants often encounter appears to underpin the formation of gangs in many countries, including the United States. Gangs appear to be much more likely to form in poor, urbanized areas with underdeveloped social institutions. This is consistent with the social disorganization theory that lies at the heart of many theories of gangs. Comparing gangs cross-culturally allows for a greater assessment of the role structure and culture play in gang formation and gang activity.


Gang life and family are fraught with contradictions. The family is idealized as a place for nurturance, support, and protection. However, the majority of gang youths come from families under severe strain; families often unable to provide these things. The gang is often demonized (not without reason) as a source of delinquency and violence. Yet gangs also act as an important source of support for these youths, compensating for what is lacking in their home life. Gangs can act as surrogate families to youths, providing a sense of belonging, identity, status, and protection. Youths who do not receive these things from family or other social institutions may seek them elsewhere, and in the socially disorganized neighborhoods where gangs exist, they are an alternative option.

See also:Fictive Kinship; Juvenile Delinquency; Neighborhood; Runaway Youths


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sanchez-jankowski, m. (1991). islands in the street: gangs and american urban society. berkley: university of california press.

sanders, w. b. (1994). gang-bangs and drive-bys:grounded culture and juvenile gang violence. new york: aldine de gruyter.

spergel, i. a. (1990). "youth gangs: continuity andchange." in crime and justice: a review of research, vol. 12, ed. m. tonry and n. morris. chicago: university of chicago press.

spergel, i. a. (1995). the youth gang problem. new york:oxford university press.

stack, c. b. (1974). all our kin: strategies for survival in a black community. new york: harper and row.

sullivan, m. l. (1989). "getting paid": youth crime andwork in the inner city. ithaca, ny: cornell university press.

tertilt, h. (2001). "patterns of ethnic violence in a frankfurt street gang." in the eurogang paradox: street gangs and youth groups in the us and europe, ed. m. w. klein, h. kerner, c. l. maxson, and e. weitekamp. dordrecht, netherlands: kluwer academic publishers.

thornberry, t. p. (2001). "membership in youth gangs and involvement in serious and violent offending." in the modern gang reader, 2nd ed., ed. j. miller, c. l. maxson, and m. w. klein. los angeles: roxbury.

thrasher, f. m. (1927). the gang: a study of 1,313 gangs in chicago. chicago: university of chicago press.

venkatesh, s. a. (2000). american project: the rise andfall of a modern ghetto. cambridge: harvard university press.

vigil, j. d. (1988). barrio gangs: streetlife and identity insouthern california. austin: university of texas press.

zatz, m. s., and portillos, e. l. (2000). "voices from thebarrio: chicano/a gangs, families, and communities." criminology 38:369–401.

bill mccarthy monica j. martin


views updated May 11 2018


The rise in gang violence since the 1980s caused lawmakers to seek a variety of methods to curb the formation and activities of these gangs. According to statistics from the National Youth Gang Center, more than 24,500 gangs, consisting of more than 770,000 members, exist in about 3,330 cities in the United States. Congress spends as much as $20 billion per year in health care costs treating victims of gunshot wounds, and many of the incidents involving guns also involve street and other types of gangs.

A gang is sometimes difficult to define, especially in legal terms. Although gangs typically involve a congregation of individuals, primarily young males, certainly not all congregations or informal gatherings of young individuals constitute gangs. Definitions of gangs or street gangs vary among the laws governing them. Alabama law, for example, defines a "streetgang" as, "[A]ny combination, confederation, alliance, network, conspiracy, understanding, or similar arrangement in law or in fact, of three or more persons that, through its membership or through the agency of any member, engages in a course or pattern of criminal activity." Ala. Code § 13A-6-26 (2002).

Congress, state legislatures, and municipal governments have responded to the growing tide of gangs by considering a variety of bills addressing gang violence. Although efforts at the federal level have largely been unsuccessful, many states and municipalities have enacted laws designed to deter gang-related violence. Several of these statutes and ordinances have been fashioned as anti-loitering statutes, which often raise first amendment concerns. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 made it more difficult for municipalities to draft gang loitering ordinances when it found that an ordinance such as this in the city of Chicago was unconstitutional. City of Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41, 119 S. Ct. 1849, 144 L. Ed. 2d 67 (1999).


Activities of gangs predate the formation of the United States, though the common perception of these gangs has changed over time. The level of violence among street gangs is a relatively new phenomenon. Because different organizations and individuals define the term gang differently, accurate statistics are often difficult to compile. Many of the crimes committed by gangs are violent crimes, including homicide. Moreover, many of the gang members are juveniles or young adults.

According to the 1999 National Youth Gang Survey, 90 percent of gang members are male. Seventy-one percent of these members are between the ages of 15 and 24, and 16 percent are age 14 or under. About 79 percent of the gang members, according to this survey, are Hispanic or black, while only 14 percent are white. Because of the large discrepancy in the number of minorities, some commentators have suggested that young minority males are unfairly stereo-typed, leading to racial profiling of groups consisting of these young minority males.

Until the late 1980s, public and law enforcement agencies perceived gangs as racially and ethnically segregated, loosely organized fighting groups. However, a 1988 study of two major Los Angeles gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, showed that these gangs had become highly organized and entrepreneurial. These gangs had begun to engage in drug trafficking and had expanded their operations to multiple cities and states. As the gangs' interest in drug trade increased, so too did the level of violence perpetrated by their members. Between 1984 and 1993, the number of homicides committed by juveniles increased by 169 percent, representing a sharp increase in the number of gang-related crimes. Gang membership also increased markedly during this time. Between 1989 and 1995, the number of students reporting a gang presence at their school increased from 15 to 28 percent.

In response to the concerns caused by gang violence, several states and cities enacted statutes and ordinances designed to address street crime. In 1988, California enacted the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act), Cal. Pen. Code §§ 186.20–.33 (2001). Since that time, at least 28 other states have enacted similar legislation. Cities with traditional gang strongholds, such as Chicago and Los Angeles, enacted a series of ordinances that enabled law enforcement to take a more proactive approach in fighting street gangs in those cities.

Boston, which experienced the most number of homicides in its history in 1990 due in large part to gang violence, initiated a community-based strategy designed to target at-risk youth before they considered joining a gang. It also developed strategies for youth intervention and enforcement of gun control laws. Due to this initiative, youth homicides dropped 80 percent from 1990 to 1995. Similarly, Salinas, California, experienced a 200 percent increase in the total number of homicides from 1984 to 1994. After receiving federal funding, the city improved it anti-gang task force and developed a series of additional programs. As a result of these programs, gang related assaults decreased by 23 percent, and the homicide rate fell by 62 percent.

Federal Law

In his 1997 state of the union address, President bill clinton requested that Congress "mount a full-scale assault on juvenile crime, with legislation that declares war on gangs," including more prosecutions and tougher penalties. The same year, Congress considered two bills under the title Anti-Gang Youth Violence Act of 1997 (S. 362, H.R. 810, 105th Cong.). Despite initial support for this legislation, which would have provided $200 million in funding for local programs, neither bill passed through its respective committee.

Although Congress has been unable to enact comprehensive anti-gang legislation, other federal law and actions of federal authorities have been used in the effort to curb gang violence. Federal prosecutors have relied upon the racketeer influenced and corrupt organizations (RICO) statute to prosecute gang members. In the 1990s, the number of RICO prosecutions against gang members more than doubled. Federal authorities have also assisted local law enforcement through a variety of funding programs. For example, in February 2003, the Los Angeles City/County Community Law Enforcement and Recovery (CLEAR) anti-gang program received $2.5 million in federal funding for its efforts in reducing gang-related violence.

State Law

State legislatures have approached the problems related to gang violence through the enactment of a number of different statutes. Due to rulings by the courts within the various states, some legislatures are more restricted than others in enacting these types of legislation because of potential violations of state constitutional provisions.

Gang Participation A number of states proscribe participation in criminal street gangs, though these statutes vary from state to state. In Georgia, for instance, it is unlawful "for any person employed by or associated with a criminal street gang to conduct or participate [in such a gang] through a pattern of criminal gang activity." Ga. Code Ann. § 16-15-4 (1998). Likewise, in Texas, a person commits an offense "if, with an intent to establish, maintain, or participate in a combination of or in the profits of a combination of or as a member of a street gang, he commits or conspires to commit" one of several crimes, including violent crimes or distribution of controlled substances. Tex. Pen. Code Ann. § 71.02 (Vernon 1997).

Gang Recruitment Several states make it a crime for a person to recruit another to join a

criminal gang. In Florida, an individual "who intentionally causes, encourages, solicits, or recruits another person to join a criminal street gang that requires as a condition of membership or continued membership the commission of any crime" commits a third degree felony. Fla. Stat. Ann. § 874.05 (1999). In Kentucky, an individual who solicits or entices another person to join a criminal gang is guilty of the crime of criminal gang recruitment. Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 506.140 (2000).

Gang-Related Apparel A number of states permit schools to prescribe a dress code, and several of these states specifically allow the schools to prevent gang members from wearing their gang apparel at the schools. For example, under New Jersey law, "a board of education may adopt a dress code policy to prohibit students from wearing, while on school property, any type of clothing, apparel, or accessory which indicates that the student has membership in, or affiliation with, any gang associated with criminal activities." N.J. Rev. Stat. § 18A:11-9 (1999). Tennessee law allows similar restrictions for students in grades six through twelve. Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-4215 (1998).

Do Anti-gang Laws Violate the Constitution?

The national aversion to gangs has sparked debate over first amendment rights of gang members versus citizens' safety at home and on the streets. Anti-gang injunctions and the enactment of anti-gang loitering ordinances are the two most prominent legal weapons currently employed against gangs. Critics of these efforts, most notably the american civil liberties union (ACLU), contend that these initiatives violate the First Amendment's right of free association. Defenders of anti-gang initiatives reply that society's rights to peace and quiet and to be free from harm outweigh the gang members' First Amendment associational rights.

Critics reject the idea that public safety allows the government to tell citizens they may not associate with each other. As long as citizens are not committing a crime, the state cannot tell them not to stand on a street corner together or walk down the street. The Supreme Court has recognized that freedom of association is on par with freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

The Court has allowed municipalities to require permits for parades, sound trucks, and demonstrations, in the interest of public order. However, the courts have been careful not to abridge the right of unpopular assemblies or protests. In 1977, the largely Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois, enacted three ordinances designed to prevent a march through the city by the American Nazi Party. The ACLU sued the city, and a federal court ruled that Skokie had violated the First Amendment by denying the Nazis a permit to march (Collin v. Smith, 578 F.2d 1197 [7th Cir. 1978]).

Critics of anti-gang laws also argue that just because gang members are unpopular to a large segment of society does not give society the right to restrict their right to association. Why, for example, should the ku klux klan be allowed to march through an African-American neighborhood while persons in that neighborhood cannot congregate on a playground to talk or play sports?

Critics believe there are better alternatives to controlling illegal gang activity than loitering laws and community injunctions. The ACLU contends that anti-gang injunctions do not work and may even make things worse. The resources of law enforcement are concentrated in one area, causing the shift of criminal activity into other neighborhoods. In addition, arresting a gang member for violating a loitering ordinance will not change the underlying dynamic of gang activity in urban areas. Critics argue that these anti-gang efforts are a cynical, political ploy that has more to do with creating a tough-on-crime appearance than with effective law enforcement.

As an alternative, critics would emphasize community policing, increased resources for law enforcement, and efforts to improve the economic status of urban areas. They note that crime prevention and effective enforcement of criminal laws will do more to make a community safe than telling a suspected gang member to leave a street corner. In time, they believe, both the public and law enforcement will realize that solid, everyday police work produces better results.

Defenders of anti-gang initiatives contend that although First Amendment rights should be protected as much as possible, no constitutional right is absolute. In the case of gangs, the violence and criminal activity in certain parts of urban areas have reached a stage where normal law enforcement techniques do not work. Although the ACLU may say that individual rights must be protected, such a claim rings hollow when a gang can take over a neighborhood through violence and intimidation and yet evade law enforcement. In a crisis situation, additional steps must be taken to restore public confidence in the police and local government.

Restricting gang activity is not unconstitutional, argue defenders of the laws, because the Supreme Court has made it clear that no group of persons has the right to associate for wholly illegal aims. Moreover, associations engaging in both legal and illegal activities may still be regulated to the extent they engage in illegal activities. Defenders emphasize that the mere existence of an association is not sufficient to bring all that association's activities within scope of the First Amendment. Therefore, nonexpressive gang activities can be regulated.

Defenders also emphasize that injunctions and loitering ordinances are constitutional because they serve significant, and often compelling, government interests by reducing the threat to public health and safety caused by gang activities. They note that in the case of an injunction, gang members are free to conduct their expressive activities outside of the geographic area defined in the injunction. Thus, the injunction is likely to be upheld because it is narrowly tailored.

Though defenders believe these anti-gang initiatives will become important weapons for law enforcement, they acknowledge the danger of guilt by association. They believe, however, that this problem can be avoided if law enforcement officials adhere to constitutional standards in determining who should be subjected to anti-gang provisions. Judges must also carefully review evidence for each defendant to make sure the person has not been unfairly prosecuted.

Despite criticisms leveled by the ACLU and others, proponents of anti-gang laws adamantly support their use. While some of these initiatives may prove ineffective, law enforcement should be given the chance to test new ways of addressing destructive elements within their communities. Modifications can be made, and new initiatives plotted, but proponents insist that the law is necessary to protect the health and safety of citizens.

further readings

Perez, Silvia. 2001. "Alternatives in Fighting Street Gangs: Criminal Anti-Gang Ordinances v. Public Nuisance Laws." St. Thomas Law Review 13 (winter): 619–40.

Smith, Stephanie. 2000. "Civil Banishment of Gang Members: Circumventing Criminal Due Process Requirements?" University of Chicago Law Review 67 (fall): 1461–87.

Vertinsky, Liza. 1999. A Law and Economics Approach to Criminal Gangs. Aldershot, England; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate.

Enhanced Penalties for Gang-Related Activities Some states now allow courts, including juvenile courts, to enhance the sentences of individuals convicted of gang-related activities. In Illinois, if a juvenile age 15 or older commits an offense in furtherance of criminal activities by an organized gang, then a juvenile court is required to enter an order to try the juvenile as an adult under the criminal laws of the state. 705 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 405/5-805 (1999). An organized gang under the statute is defined as "an association of 5 or more persons, with an established hierarchy, that encourages members of the association to perpetrate crimes or provides support to members of the association who do commit crimes."

Local Ordinances

Municipalities have enacted a variety of measures designed to curb gang violence. Some ordinances contain provisions similar to state statutes. For example, the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, enacted an anti-gang recruitment ordinance to protect its citizens from the fear, intimidation, and physical harm caused by the criminal activities of gangs. The ordinance provides a laundry list of offenses that are considered gang crimes and prohibits individuals from recruiting members to join criminal street gangs.

One of the most common forms of municipal ordinances aimed at reducing gang activities appears in the form of anti-loitering laws. The use of these laws to reduce unwanted elements within a city has a long history. Many cities have enacted such laws to allow police to arrest vagrants and others deemed to be menaces to society. Several cities adapted these laws to apply specifically to gang members. However, some courts have determined that these laws are unconstitutional either on their face or as applied to particular defendants.

Local governmental entities have also enacted public nuisance laws designed to allow local law enforcement to enjoin criminal activities. Like the anti-loitering ordinances, these laws have come under attack on a variety of constitutional grounds.

Constitutionality of Anti-Gang Laws

Laws aimed specifically at prosecuting members of gangs have come under attack due to a variety of constitutional theories. Anti-loitering laws have been challenged on several grounds, including First Amendment prohibitions against vagueness and overbreadth, fourth amendment proscriptions of unreasonable searches and seizures, and constitutional provisions that prevent the government from punishing individuals merely because of their status.

Vagueness has been the primary reason why the Supreme Court has determined that anti-loitering statutes have been unconstitutional. In Coates v. Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611, 91 S. Ct. 1686, 29 L. Ed. 2d 214 (1971), the Court determined that an ordinance prohibiting people from assembling on a sidewalk in such a way that it would be annoying to passersby was unconstitutionally vague because its application was based on sole discretion of police officers to determine what was "annoying." One year later, in Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 92 S. Ct. 839, 31 L. Ed. 2d 110 (1972), the Court held that an ordinance which encouraged arbitrary and erratic arrests was also unconstitutionally vague. Likewise, in Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 103 S. Ct. 1855, 75 L. Ed. 2d 903 (1983), the Court held that a California statute that allowed police to arrest individuals who could not show credible and reliable identification and account for their presence at a particular location was unconstitutional due to vagueness.

The Chicago City Council in 1992 enacted the Gang Congregation Ordinance that prohibited loitering among criminal street gang members at any public place. The ordinance allowed police officers to order any group of individuals who were congregated "with no apparent purpose" to disperse if the officer believed one of the group was a street gang member. In three years, Chicago police issued more than 89,000 dispersal orders and made more than 42,000 arrests under the ordinance.

In City of Chicago v. Morales, the Supreme Court, per Justice john paul stevens, determined that the ordinance was unconstitutional due to vagueness for two primary reasons. First, according to the Court, the ordinance failed to provide fair notice of prohibited conduct. Noted the Court," It is difficult to imagine how any citizen of the city of Chicago standing in a public place with a group of people would know if he or she had an 'apparent purpose'" under the ordinance. Accordingly, citizens, even those who appeared in public with a gang member, were not provided fair notice of the type of conduct proscribed under the ordinance. Second, the ordinance failed to provide minimum guidelines for enforcement. The determination of whether individuals were standing around with no apparent purpose was based on the discretion of the officer.

After the 1992 gang ordinance was declared unconstitutional the city of Chicago enacted a second Gang Congregation Ordinance in 2000. The second ordinance authorizes police to command gang members to disperse when they are congregated on streets for the purpose of establishing control over certain areas of the city.

Other efforts to curb gang violence have been ruled constitutional. In People ex rel. Gallo v. Acuna, 929 P.2d 596 (Cal. 1997), the city of San Jose successfully requested an injunction against local gangs based on violations of state public nuisance laws. The gang members brought suit, challenging that both the statute and the injunction violated the First Amendment. The California Supreme Court determined that neither the injunction nor the statute violated the gang members' associational rights and that the gang members' conduct qualified as a public nuisance under the statute. Several cities in California have sought and received temporary and permanent injunctions against local gangs preventing the gang members from congregating in public places.

further readings

Bureau of Justice Assistance. 1997. Urban Street Gang Enforcement. Washington D.C.: The Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Huff, C. Ronald, ed. 1996. Gangs in America. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Strosnider, Kim. 2002. "Anti-Gang Ordinances After City of Chicago v. Morales: The Intersection of Race, Vagueness Doctrine, and Equal Protection in the Criminal Law." American Criminal Law Review 101.


Racketeering; Vagrancy.


views updated Jun 27 2018


The presence of youth gangs, drug warlords and their enforcers, criminal bands, and other violence brokers in Latin American cities is a phenomenon that emerged in the 1980s. The appearance of these urban-based armed gangs was accompanied by the fragmentation and deterioration of urban areas, a by-product of the economic crisis of the 1980s and its massive spin-off of trans-generational poverty, informality of economy and society (labor without formal labour rights and formal protection by the law), and increasing social exclusion. Geographically, this process surfaced in the expansion and consolidation of the huge metropolitan slums of Latin America.

Poverty and violence are facts of everyday life in cities fractured by inequality, exclusion, and inadequate municipal administration. Persistent social exclusion, linked to alternative (i.e., informal and/or illicit) sources of income and power, combined with absent or failing national and municipal authorities, provides the means and motives for violence and intergang mini-wars. The whole or partial withdrawal of the national and municipal security functions (e.g., the police, the judiciary) in poor urban areas such as favelas, barrios, and comunas o barriadas generates a system of territorial "governance voids," where civilians fill the gap left by the legitimate (local) authorities. Governance voids exist where the legal authorities and the representatives of law and order are absent or only symbolically present. In these local vacuums of "regular" law and order, a kind of osmotic symbiosis emerges between the state (the police, the law system) and "common" criminals and criminalized former members of the armed forces, the police, paramilitary units, and, sometimes, guerrilla combatants. In this situation, "law and order" is the result of a fluctuating order of parallel forces of local power players in shifting alliances. The political dimension of this phenomenon is that the national and municipal authorities oscillate between selective involvement and abandonment. In these governance voids—generally smaller enclaves of territorial violence—informal or parallel structures arise, seeking various forms of confrontation or accommodation with the legitimate authorities and with civil society.

In many cases, the police and the judiciary are ineffective in dealing with crime and violence. Sometimes they are the most active protagonists. At present, in many of the largest Latin American cities the police are highly distrusted and often seen as the most undesirable of all the armed groups in the slums and poor neighborhoods. Even the explicitly violent youth gang leaders and drug lords—who at least are residents of the poor neighborhoods—are less hated than the formal representatives of legitimate law, order, and public security, who are widely detested for their militarized approach and warlike tactics. This sentiment has been voiced time and again by leaders of slum associations and federations and confederations of poor neighborhood organizations across the Latin American and Caribbean region. The urban poor are disproportionally affected by violence and criminals: This has been demonstrated by anthropological and sociological research in the major cities of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru during the 1990s and 2000s. This research often comes under the heading "divided" or "fragmented cities"—cidades partidas in Brazil and ciudades divididas in the Spanish-speaking Americas—and indicate an "uncivil society" in the larger cities of Latin America and the Caribbean. Scholarly attention to this relatively new problem of urban violence has been reinforced by moving and critically acclaimed films, such as City of God (Cidade de Deus, 2002), which depicts youth gangs and mini-narco-wars in a well-known favela of Rio de Janeiro, and Carandiru (2003), a film about Latin America's largest prison, in São Paulo, which culminates in the police's ruthless repression of an inmate rebellion that leaves 111 prisoners dead.


In the metropolitan cities of Brazil a spatial segregation has taken place, resulting in the formation of hundreds of local favelas where children and adolescents gain prestige, income, identity, and respect through criminal activities associated with drugs and violence. The formal labor market is not easily accessible to slum dwellers, and informal and illegal work is the alternative. Most of the informal jobs involve low-paid, microentrepreneurial or self-employment activities. Drug-related opportunities of the illicit economy are more attractive to many, particularly the favela youth. In cities such as Rio de Janeiro, law and justice often is represented by the local drug traffickers (traficantes) and their drug gangs (quadrilhas). The traficante dominates significant aspects of the favela economy, and his political weight must be acknowledged on matters of codes of conduct, protection, and contact with rivals and with the municipal authorities, including the police and the judiciary. Infractions are severely sanctioned, often by expulsion or by death. Sometimes the traficante is also the local development benefactor, financing educational and recreational facilities, sports clubs, religious centers, and various community groups. Employers and enforcers in the drugs trade act as the local mediators, judges, and punishers. In 2007 these local drugs associations were loosely organized in several city-wide factions; even in the penal institutions the differences between the rival factions are strictly perceived. Conflicts between competing factions occur frequently; when mini-wars spill out of the favelas into public consciousness, the police enter the favelas with hundreds of special troops. Then the favela communities are caught between two competing armed groups on different sides of the law, and the effect typically is distrust, even hatred, toward the official representatives of law and order and the municipal authorities. Since the 1980s a continuous cycle of violence and repression has been one of the leading characteristics of everyday life in large segments of the Brazilian urban environment.


In the case of the Caribbean—and of Central America—migration flows and of previous deportation schemes from the United States influenced the origin of youth gangs and drug-related bands. Violence and drugs determine the ambience in which armed youth gangs operate in Kingston, Jamaica. The first territorial gangs operated in the city's ghettos and slums where the underprivileged and the poor received a hard-handed "suggestion" during electoral campaigns. Clientelist political entrenchment to a system of bipartisan political representation was accompanied, from the 1970s on, by gunmen organized in gangs and affiliated to one of the two political parties. More than half of the constituencies of the poor Kingston districts are characterized by ingrained preferences for political candidates. Whereas politicians previously protected ganja trading and drugs bosses, the affluence of the drugs money started to reverse the relation between gangs, drugs and political support. In the 1980s a crack and cocaine trafficking network was consolidated in Kingston—in fact, across Jamaica—with linkages to the Colombian producer market and the U.S. and European consumer markets. In the early twenty-first century, drugs gangs finance politicians and even share part of the drugs surplus with the police to buy "protection." The Jamaican posse—a loose collection of Jamaican gangs—have established "posse colonies" on the U.S. West Coast and especially in New York City. The U.S. posses and their British affiliates—called "yardies"—are notorious for their use of violence in drugs-related activities.


Violence is also the characteristic of the Central American maras, youth gangs in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and—in lesser degree—Nicaragua. The maras emerged during the 1980s and were consolidated after the Central American Peace Agreements in the 1990s. The names of the oldest maras in San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, and San Pedro Sula are reminders of their U.S. origins: The Salvadoran maras Salvatruchas and Barrio 18, for example, are named after Salvadoran street gangs in Los Angeles, and were formed by gang leaders deported from the United States to El Salvador. Maras proliferated in the poor barrios in Central America's most important cities, recruiting the unemployed—and unemployable, because of their tattoos—young boys and girls in the slums. In 2007 the maras were considered a serious threat to national security in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The estimates of their affiliates vary widely, from 10,000 to 35,000 in each country. In the early twenty-first century the number of victims of mara violence had already surpassed the number of victims of the civil war in the 1980s. In 2003 deaths from mara confrontations accounted for 45 percent of all homicides in El Salvador and Honduras and for 20 percent of homicides in Guatemala.

The mareros (mara members) form a very loose collection of rival gangs engaged in disputes over small territories. Their subsistence is guaranteed by extortion of local smallholders, taxi drivers, and transporters, and by petty drugs trafficking. They have comparable repertoires of rituals, tattoos, codes of conduct, internal loyalty, and extreme violence in order to "be respected." The Central American authorities have specific anti-mara laws and special anti-mara units, formed from the armed forces and the national police. In Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where the national police have elaborate intelligence networks and rely strongly on community policing, there are considerably fewer local maras.


Of all the Latin American countries, Colombia is the country most plagued by armed gangs of various kinds. Organized crime associated with the drug economy manifested itself openly in Colombia in the 1980s, and Medellín and Cali acquired a lugubrious reputation as the capital cities of the world's major drugs cartels—criminal rings that controlled the regional illicit economy. Bogotá was less affected, but the southern sectors of the city, where the poor neighborhoods are concentrated, is a territory of violence. In Medellín, the worst affected, after the destruction of the drug cartels by army and police in 1993 about 250 mini-cartels were established, each with its associated sicarios (young hired assassins) and oficinas (cartel-controlled outfits and enforcers). The possibility of controlling urban territories attracted other power players—urban-guerrilla units (frentes), criminal gangs (bandas, combos, and parches, a typology in descending order of violence and internal organization), and paramilitary units (bloques)—who disputed local territories and sometimes fought mini-wars over the control of a few street blocks. Between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s Medellín was the theater of continuously shifting territorial wars in shifting alliances, always accompanied by violence, extortion, and deaths. Sometimes the municipal administration succeeded in negotiating local pacts and cease-fires. But the variety of (state and nonstate) armed groups, and the fact that most gangs are fuelled by the illicit economy, was a certain guarantee that after a while a new succession of urban mini-wars would erupt. The national pact between the government and the paramilitary forces, and the subsequent disarmament and reintegration of most of the rank-and-file members, resulted in a substantial reduction of the urban violence. As of 2007, Cali was becoming a new focal point of urban violence, with a growing presence of criminal bands and guerrilla frentes moving from the Amazon regions of the country to the Pacific Coast to safeguard "their" drug trafficking corridors.

Colombia's cities are not the only areas affected by violence and criminality. The disputed drug regions, the (former) zones of paramilitary forces, and the territories of guerrilla influence are mostly in the country's periphery: in the mountains of the three cordilleras (mountain ranges), in the northeastern and northwestern Pacific and Atlantic Coast zones, in the Amazon regions, and in the frontier regions with Ecuador, Brazil, and Venezuela. These are also the regions of illicit coca cultivation protected by the drug gangs, the remaining paramilitary forces, and the criminalized segments of the guerrilla. Armed disputes over control of the regional economy by contesting gangs, bands, and other armed groups; interventions by the Colombian armed forces; and the effects of the Colombian and U.S. spraying programs account for most of the internally displaced persons. This refugee stream and the inhabitants of the large urban slums provide a continuous recruitment reservoir of new rank-and-file members for Colombia's manifold gangs and armed groups.

See alsoCities and Urbanization; Drugs and Drug Trade.


Chaves Pandolfi, Dulce, and Mario Grynszpan. A favela fala: Depoimentos ao CPDOC. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Fundação Getulio Vargas, 2003.

Clarke, Colin. "Politics, Violence, and Drugs in Kingston, Jamaica." Bulletin of Latin American Research 25, no. 3 (2006): 420-440.

Koonings, Kees, and Dirk Kruijt, eds. Fractured Cities: Social Exclusion, Urban Violence, and Contested Spaces in Latin America. London: Zed Books, 2007.

Moser, Caroline, and Cathy Mcllwaine. Encounters with Violence in Latin America: Urban Poor Conceptions from Colombia and Guatemala. London: Routledge, 2004.

Rotker, Suzana, Katherine Goldman, and Jorge Balán, eds. Citizens of Fear: Urban Violence in Latin America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Ventura, Zuemir. Cidade partida, 1st edition. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Companhía das Letras, 2002.

Walton, John. "Guadalajara: Creating the Divided city." In Metropolitan Problems and Governmental Responses in Latin America, edited by Wayne Cornelius and R. U. Kemper. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1976.

                                        Dirk Kruijt


views updated Jun 08 2018



Youth gangs are variously defined in the social science and criminal justice literature. They are commonly understood to be a loosely-organized association of socially excluded, alienated, or bigoted individuals acting together within a fluid structure with informal leadership. Youth gangs are bound by a common ethnicity, race, social class, or other determinant and employ distinctive symbols, including style and color of dress, hand signs, tattoos , and graffiti. Loyal gang members follow a gang-defined system of rules, rituals, and codes of behavior. Gangs serve some individuals as a substitute family structure. Membership imparts a sense of empowerment as members act together to defend territory and provide mutual protection. Youth gangs typically engage in delinquent, criminal, and violent activities, often for financial gain.


Gangs have been a part of U.S. culture since the early 19th century. Immigrant youth organized themselves into street gangs, often as a means of economic survival. Social scientists have been studying and reporting on gang membership and attributes since early in the 20th century. Gangs have been seen as a normal adolescent peer activity that occurs "within a continuum of behaviors, from conventional to wild," as suggested by the classic 1927 research of Frederic Thrasher, a social scientist who studied 1,313 Chicago gangs. A more recent view by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1998 holds that "a group must be involved in a pattern of criminal acts to be considered a youth gang." This criterion is also used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation who contend that it is "participation in criminal activity" that separates a community group or social club from a gang.

Gangs are more prevalent in neighborhoods where the community network is weak, with few ties among individual residents or between residents and conventional community institutions. Among adolescent males, the best predictor of gang membership is the absence of a positive male role model. Most girls who participate in gang activity have run away from home at least once due to family problems including the drug addiction and/or arrest of a parent.

Gang violence has reached a crisis level in the United States. A 1998 study revealed that gang members possess significantly more guns than other at-risk youth. The ready availability of such deadly weapons has led to an increase in violence such as drive-by shootings and a loss of life among gang members and others caught in the crossfire. Research reported in 1991 found that gang access to firearms "led to lethal violence in circumstances that might otherwise have been settled with less-than lethal means." Gang culture increasingly involves its youth membership in the use of weapons, drugs, and criminal activity.

Risk factors

According to Lonnie Jackson, author of the book Gangbusters: Strategies for Prevention and Intervention, many factors contribute to the likelihood of youth gang involvement. Some of the factors he cites include:

  • frequent exposure to crime and violence during formative years
  • few positive role models, particularly of their own ethnicity
  • unstable family life, with little parental control
  • lack of economic opportunities conducive to lawful self-sufficiency
  • inadequate constructive social and recreational activities for youths
  • hopelessness engendered by minimal employment opportunity
  • inadequate skills, education, or employment qualifications
  • lure of power and money, particularly through the drug trade
  • cultural environment that highly values immediate gratification
  • unmet needs for safety , a sense of belonging, and secure emotional relationships
  • low self-esteem and feelings of insignificance and powerlessness


"Gang activity is notably prevalent in the biggest cities (over 100,000 population) in the United States," according to research reported by the National Youth Gang Center. Between 1996 and 2001, more than 90 percent of the largest U.S. cities reported gang activity. However, between 1998 and 1999, the research shows an increase in gang membership by 27 percent in suburban areas and by 29 percent in rural areas. Gang membership is no longer limited to ethnic minorities in America's inner cities, but is found in all ethnic groups, economic classes, and in rural, urban, and suburban settings.

Researchers studying gang life focused first on the behavior of male gangs. Later research, however, has revealed a growing number of girl gangs, with estimates as high as 10 percent of all youth gangs. However, the incidence of female gangs may be much higher than reports indicate. Female gang activity is less violent than that of their male counterparts and is underreported by law enforcement agencies.

Gang membership remains predominantly the province of male adolescents and young adults from 12 to 24 years of age. When young women become involved in gangs, it is usually through relationships with boyfriends or brothers, according to research by A. Campbell reviewed in the Journal of Criminal Justice. Girl gang members experience more long-term, harmful effects from gang membership than their male counterparts, and some research finds that "gang membership itself opened up young women to additional victimization risk."

The proportion of gang members of particular race or ethnicity reflects the demographics of the community where they live. "Nearly half (49 percent) of all gang members are Hispanic/Latino, 34 percent are African American/black, 10 percent are Caucasian/white, 6 percent are Asian, and the remainder are of some other race/ethnicity," according to respondents to the 2001 National Youth Gang Survey. The Survey estimated that "youth gangs were active in over 2,300 cities with populations over 2,500 in 2002."


Research studies throughout the 1980s and 1990s, during a period of growing gang involvement among North American youth, cite complex social problems as the root cause of the persistence and proliferation of youth gangs. Dysfunctional families, often with an absent father, low socio-economic circumstances, poor educational opportunities, unemployment, indigence, deteriorated neighborhoods with high crime rates, racism, and limited opportunities for bringing about a change in circumstances, are among the serious factors that put youth at high risk for gang involvement.

Though there is no conclusive evidence, many critics of popular media cite youth exposure to violent films and song lyrics, particularly rap music, as a negative influence glamorizing gang life and encouraging at-risk youth to join gangs or to participate in gang-related crime as a means of gaining a sense of belonging and empowerment.

When to intervene

Early intervention is the most effective means of diverting at-risk youth into pro-social activities and associations before they seek affiliation with youth gangs. Children as young as eight years old are attracted by the lure of gang membership. Parents, teachers, and concerned others should seek the help of culturally-sensitive and well-trained counselors who can intervene with information and alternatives that address unmet needs for safety, and provide a feeling of belonging, and a sense of power and purpose.


Concerned and attentive parents and school counselors should be on the alert for indications of possible gang membership in at-risk youth. Some indicators are poor academic achievement and frequent truancy , anti-social and delinquent behaviors, adoption of gang dress in style and color, appearance of tattoos, use of hand signals, and other gang-related signs, preference for music with gang themes, and the presence of gang activity in the community.


Effective treatment must be culturally sensitive, diverse, and experienced as relevant to the lives of the gang-involved youth. Treatment plans must address the myriad and serious underlying personal and social problems that lead to gang involvement. Young people need information about alternatives to street gangs that can realistically meet their needs in pro-social ways. Treatment for drug addiction, sexual abuse, and other physical and emotional traumas are a prerequisite to providing lasting help. Mental health treatment must address delayed stress issues from repeated exposure to trauma, violence, and economic hardship. Education and training in skills of nonviolent conflict resolution are also important components of a successful treatment plan. Counselors must be skilled, knowledgeable, and trustworthy and able to help the gang-involved youth to examine choices in ways that encourage clear thinking and provide a broader view of potential and possibilities outside gang life.


Early intervention with at-risk youth to relieve some of the personal and environmental stressors that lead to gang involvement has the best prognosis. Youth who have already joined a gang usually also have well-developed manipulative skills. They exhibit a fierce loyalty to other gang members and are highly resistant to change, even after arrest and detention for gang-related crimes.


Community intervention at the grassroots, neighborhood level, can be an effective first step in a multifaceted approach to prevention of gang involvement. Eliminating underlying social problems that lead to development of youth gangs and strengthening community ties can reduce the influence of gangs and deter gang crime that thrives when neighborhoods fail to work together. Parental involvement with teachers can head off many problems of truancy, and community education on gang culture will help parents and teachers to identify early signs of gang involvement. Strong after-school programs that assist working parents meet children's needs for supervision and provide structured, pro-social activities to young children may reduce attraction to gang-related activities. Former gang members who are willing to speak about the negative side of gang life, and adults who are willing to serve as mentors and tutors can provide critical positive role models for at-risk youth, an indispensable component to a successful prevention strategy. Job skills training and meaningful employment opportunities will divert many youth from the path to gang membership.

Parental concerns

The prevalence of youth gangs throughout the United States, and the increase in violence associated with gang membership are serious issues of concern for any parent. Delinquent and antisocial behaviors in young children, particularly those who live in environments where poverty, unemployment, and drug addiction are common, are early danger signs. Seeking help from concerned and qualified school counselors, church, and community leaders can alleviate many parental concerns and provide opportunity for early intervention.



Branch, Curtis W. Clinical Interventions with Gang Adolescents and Their Families. Boulder: Westview Press., 1997.

Jackson, Lonnie Gangbusters: Strategies for Prevention and Intervention. Lanham, Maryland: American Correctional Association, 1998.

Wolff, Lisa Gangs. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 2000.


Decker, Scott H. and G. David Curry. "Gangs, gang homicides, and gang loyalty: Organized crimes or disorganized criminals." Journal of Criminal Justice 30, no. 4 (JulyAugust 2002): 343-352. Science Direct.

St. Cyr, Jenna L. and Scott H. Decker. "Girls, guys, and gangs: Convergence or divergence in the gendered construction of gangs and groups." Journal of Criminal Justice 31, no. 5 (SeptemberOctober 2003): 423-433. Science Direct.

Wang, Alvin Y. "Pride and prejudice in high school gang members." Adolescence 29 no. 114 (Summer 1994): 279. EBSCO.


Institute for Intergovernmental Research. National Youth Gang Center. Post Office Box 12729, Tallahassee, FL 32317; Phone:(850) 385-0600. <>


"Chicago officials innovative in battling street gang life." Los Angeles Daily News. Belleville News-Democrat and wire service sources. [cited October 11, 2004]. <>.

"Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Gangs." National Youth Gang Center. Institute for Intergovernmental Research. [Cited October 11, 2004]. <>.

"Gangs Fact Sheet." National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. [cited October 11, 2004] <>.

Hagedorn, John. "Discussion of Gang Definitions." Crime & Justice: A Review of Research. 24. (1998): 366-368. [cited September 27, 2004]. <>.

Clare Hanrahan


views updated May 18 2018


A group of people recognized as a distinct entity and involved in antisocial, rebellious, or illegal activities.

A gang is a group of people whose members recognize themselves as a distinct entity and are recognized as such by their community. Their involvement in antisocial, rebellious, and illegal activities draws a negative response from the community and from law enforcement officials. Other characteristics of gangs include a recognized leader; formal membership with initiation requirements and rules for its members; its own territory, or turf; standard clothing or tattoos; private slang; and a group name. In a document published by Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the U.S. Department of Justice has divided gangs into several types. Territorial ("turf" or "hood") gangs are concerned with controlling a specific geographical area. Organized, or corporate, gangs are mainly involved in illegal activities such as drug dealing. Scavenger gangs are more loosely organized than the other two types and are identified primarily by common group behavior.

Since the 1980s, gang activities have become an increasing cause for concern in many areas of the United States. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of peopleperhaps upwards of a millionbelong to thousands of gangs in major urban centers, suburbs, small cities, and even in rural areas. A study conducted at the University of Southern California found gang activity in 94% of the country's major cities and over 1,000 cities altogether. The number of gang members in Los Angeles County alone was estimated at 130,000 in 1991. In the same year there were an estimated 50 gangs in New York City, 125 in Chicago, and 225 in Dallas. Today's gangs are more involved in serious criminal activities than their predecessors. Gang-related violence has risen sharply, involving ever-younger perpetrators who are increasingly ready to use deadly force to perpetuate rivalries or carry out drug activities. In addition, the scope of gang activities has increased, often involving links to drug suppliers or customers in distant locations.

Gangs are found among virtually all ethnic groups. Mexican American gangs, whose members are sometimes referred to as cholos, have long been active in the Southwest and are now spreading to other parts of the country. Today these groups include not only the traditional Mexican American membership but also new immigrants from Central American countries such as El Salvador. The most visible Hispanic gangs on the East Coast have traditionally been the Puerto Rican gangs in New York City, originally formed by the children of immigrants who came to this country in the 1940s and 1950s. African American gang affiliations often center around the Crips and Bloods, Los Angeles gangs that are bitter rivals, or the Vice Lords and Folk Nation, which are Chicago gangs. Chinese gangs, which began in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, prey on the Asian community, extorting money in return for protection. With the wave of immigration from Southeast Asia following the Vietnam war, Vietnamese and Cambodian gangs have formed, also terrorizing their own communities.

The most visible white gangs are the skinheads (named for their close-shaven heads), who typically embrace a racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay philosophy, often involving neo-Nazi symbolism and beliefs. There are thought to be between 3,000 and 4,000 skinheads in the United States, including such groups as the Aryan Youth Movement, Blitz Krieg, and White Power. Skinhead activities have included painting racial slurs on buildings, damaging synagogues and the homes of Jews and blacks, and sometimes fatal assaults on members of minority groups. The white Spur Posse, a gang of white high school athletes in California, received media attention in the late 1990s for sexually molesting teenage girls.

A variety of factors have been cited as causes for involvement in gangs. Social problems associated with gang activity include poverty, racism , and the disintegration of the nuclear family . Some critics claim that gangs are glamorized in the media and by the entertainment industry. On a personal level, adolescents whose families are not meeting their emotional needs turn to gangs as substitute families where they can find acceptance, intimacy, and approval. Gangs can also provide the sense of identity that young people crave as they confront the dislocations of adolescence . Teenagers also join gangs because of social pressure from friends. Others feel physically unsafe in their neighborhoods if they do not join a gang. For some people, the connection to a gang is through family members who belongsometimes even several generations of a single family. Yet another incentive for joining is money from the gangs' lucrative drug trade. Drug profits can be so exorbitant as to dwarf the income from any legitimate job: teenagers in one suburban high school in the early 1990s were handling $28,000 a week in drug money, with individual profit averaging $5,000.

The basic unit in gangs, whatever their origin or larger structure, is a clique of members who are about the same age (these groups are also called posses or sets). A gang may consist entirely of such a clique, or it may be allied with similar groups as part of a larger gang. The Crips and Bloods consist of many sets, with names such as the Playboy Gangster Crips, the Bounty Hunters, and the Piru Bloods. It is to their clique or set that members feel the greatest loyalty. These neighborhood groups have leaders, who may command as many as 200 followers. In groups affiliated with larger gangs, these local leaders are accountable to chiefs higher up in the gang hierarchy. At the top is the kingpin, who has the ultimate say in how the gang conducts its financial operations and oversees its members.

The lowest level on which a young person may be associated with a gang is as a lookoutthe person who watches for the police during drug deals or other criminal activities. Lookouts, who are commonly between seven and twelve years old, can be paid as much as three hundred dollars a week. At the next level are "wannabes," older children or preteens who identify themselves with a gang although they are still too young for membership. They may wear clothing resembling that of the gang they aspire to and try to ingratiate themselves with its members. Sometimes they cause trouble in or out of school as a way of drawing the gang's attention. Once wannabes are being considered for entrance into a gang they undergo some form of initiation. Often it includes the commission of a specified crime as a way of "proving themselves." In addition, gangs generally practice certain initiation rituals, such as "walking the line," in which initiates have to pass between two lines of members who beat them. In other cases, initiation brutalities follow a less orderly course, with a succession of gang members randomly perpetrating surprise beatings that initiates have to withstand without attempting to defend themselves. Other rituals, such as cutting initiates and mixing their blood with that of older members, are also practiced.

Gangs adopt certain dress codes by which members show their unity and make their gang affiliation visible both to members of other gangs and to the community at large. Gang members are usually identifiable by both the style and color of their clothing. Latino gangs traditionally wore khaki pants, white T-shirts, and plain cotton jackets, but today black pants and jackets are favored, often worn with black L.A. Raiders caps. The Crips are strongly associated with the color blue, typically wearing blue jackets, running shoes with blue stripes and laces, and blue bandannas, either tied around their heads or hanging prominently from a back pocket. (The color of the rival Bloods is red.) Two rival African American gangs in Chicago wear hats tilted in different directions to signal their affiliation. With the increased use of deadly force by today's gang members, gang clothing codes can be very dangerous: nonmembers have been killed for accidentally wandering onto gang turf wearing the colors of a rival group. In addition to their clothing, gang members express solidarity by adopting street names and using secret symbols and codes, often in graffiti spray-painted in public places.

Although most gang members are male, women do join gangseither mixed-gender or all-female gangs (which are sometimes satellites of male gangs and sometimes independent of them). Traditionally they have played a subservient role in mixed gangs, assisting the males in their activities and forming romantic attachments

within the gang, but generally not engaging in criminal activities more serious than shoplifting or fighting girls from other gangs. To be initiated into a mixedsex gang, female members have often been required to have sex with multiple gang members. Today girl gang members are more apt than in the past to participate in serious violence, such as drive-by shootings, armed robbery, and "wildings," savage group attacks on innocent victims in public places, often involving sexual assault.

Perhaps the most troubling feature of gang activity in the 1980s and 1990s is its increased level of violence, which often victimizes not only gang members themselves but also innocent bystanders who unwittingly find themselves in its path. Thousands of people with no gang connections have been killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most gang-related killings are linked to fights over turf (including drug turf), "respect" (perceived threats to a gang member's status), or revenge. In Los Angeles County, the number of gang-related slayings soared from 212 in 1984 to 803 in 1992. Nationwide, the total number of teenagers murdered every year has risen 55% since 1988, an increase thought to be closely linked to the growth of gang activity. In 1991 over 2,000 people were injured or killed in drive-by shootings, 90% of which are thought to be committed by gang members. A major factor that has raised the level of gang violence is easy access to such weapons as automatic rifles, rapid-fire pistols, and submachine guns.

A common feature of membership in gangs is the difficulty encountered by people who want to quit. They are virtually always punished in some way, ranging from ritualized beatings (mirroring the initiation ceremony) to murder. Sometimes the member's entire family is terrorized. Many personsand sometimes even their familieshave had to relocate to another city in order to safely end gang affiliations. In some cities, there are organizations some staffed by ex-gang members) that help people who want to leave gangs.

Further Reading

Greenberg, Keith Elliot. Out of the Gang. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 1992.

Gardner, Sandra. Street Gangs in America. New York: Franklin Watts, 1992.

Knox, Mike. Gangsta in the House: Understanding Gang Culture. Troy, MI: Momentum Books, 1995.

Monti, Daniel. Wannabe: Gangs in Suburbs and Schools. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994.

Oliver, Marilyn Tower. Gangs: Trouble in the Streets. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1995.

Webb, Margot. Coping with Street Gangs. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1992.

Further Information

National Youth Gang Information Center. 4301 Fairfax Dr., Suite 730, Arlington, VA 22203, (800) 4464264.


views updated May 14 2018


Youthful street gangs have become a seemingly ineradicable fixture of American urban life. Stories abound of well-armed black or Latino teenagers locked in heated battle, often to the death, with their rivals, growing rich off the profits of drug dealing, and swelling the ranks of already overcrowded state prisons. By the end of the twentieth century, as hysteria over the existence of these gangs increased, a sort of historical amnesia appeared to take hold of the press and the general public. It is easy to forget—or so it would seem—that the existence of gangs has been a consistent social phenomenon since the nineteenth century, causing sociologists to lock horns in debating the origins and motivation of the street gang. Common sense, however, dictates that any group, such as deprived inner-city youth, excluded from the general prosperity, will compensate for deprivation by staking a claim to their neighborhood, to the square blocks of ghetto they can control with relative impunity, and will profit from their position by any means at hand.

Prior to the Civil War, gangs of young Irish toughs were common in New York City. (In the field of gang studies, New York virtually monopolized the attention of sociologists, criminologists, psychologists, and others until the mid-twentieth century.) These youths had, by all accounts, provoked and fanned the draft riots that consumed New York in 1863, leaving an estimated 5,000 dead. With colorful names—such as the Pug Uglies (who took their name from their battered pug hats), the Dead Rabbits, and the Swamp Angels—and distinctive costumes, the different gang contingents were easily recognizable to each other and had an unsettling effect on the more genteel folk in the neighborhood. They engaged in street crime and extortion, murder and mayhem for hire, their services itemized in a price list that gang-members often carried with them. Such a list carried by one Piker Ryan priced ear removal at 15 dollars; murder itself commanded a mere 100. As an additional source of revenue, certain gangs leased their services to Tammany Hall politicians, intimidating voters and controlling elections. With the support of the corrupt Tammany Hall politicians, and payoffs to local police, the street gangs could indulge in all manner of petty larceny, and were much feared in the neighborhoods they controlled. In reading accounts of their activities, the parallel with gang activities in the South Central area of Los Angeles in the late twentieth century is striking, but with two major differences: the early gangs were white ("no dogs and Irish" signs appeared in New York business premises at the time), and they did not carry automatic firearms.

By the turn of the century, politicians were forced to buckle under public pressure and withdraw their patronage from the gangs, and with it, police protection for their illicit activities. By then, the hegemony of Irish gangs throughout the Eastern seaboard was being challenged by successive waves of immigrants from Europe, and Italian and Jewish street gangs mushroomed, impinging on Irish territory and profits. In a perverse example of market demand, the price for strong-arm services fell to a new low. Many gangs began diversifying their activities, adding union-busting (or striker protection) to their racketeering in extortion and protection. It was a volatile situation. "By the latter part of 1913," wrote the historian Herbert Asbury, "it is likely that there were more gangs in New York than in any other period in the history of the metropolis; the number and the ramification of their alliances were so bewildering that of hundreds there now [1927] exists no more than a trace…."

Less than ten years later, gangs were spoken of in the past tense; an overly optimistic assessment as many gang members, cognizant of street crime's limitations, had simply gone professional, attaching themselves to one or another of the Irish, Jewish, or Italian mobs. In the 1920s, Prohibition provided ample and lucrative opportunities in the bootlegging trade, and with newfound wealth came a patina of respectability. The now fully fledged criminals forsook raffish outfits for smart, if ostentatious, business wear, bought fancy cars, and acquired a certain prestige in their communities; money brought them the temporary illusion that they had transcended their marginal social position.

Inner city neighborhoods are like fragile ecological systems, their balance of power disrupted by new arrivals. In New York waves of Puerto Rican and black immigrants arrived throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They came to seek an escape from rural impoverishment, but found, instead, its urban corollary. Following a by then familiar pattern, neighborhood youths organized under distinctive names, using the local candy store or soda shop as a base from which to enforce their territorial prerogative. They established alliances and bitter rivalries, often but not exclusively along color lines, and made war in the time-honored fashion. Now street fighting was called "rumbling," and it was fought with knives, chains, and homemade zip guns, but seldom with actual firearms. Of course, in this more civilized age, mayhem no longer had the same fiduciary incentive, and street gang crime was petty rather than serious. In short, the newer generations seemed more driven by the emotional need to form bonds and establish a distinctive identity.

The public, however, reacted to the mid-century gangs as if they were some fascinating new phenomenon. Their very existence may have been seen as an affront by the police, but sociologists studied them intently and a regular cottage industry was comprised of professors writing about "alienation and the juvenile delinquent." Hollywood capitalized on the sturm und drang of disturbed youth, romanticizing their fashions, their primitive chivalry, and their violence. To all appearances, it was as if the term juvenile delinquent, having been thus coined, made the problem more comprehensible, but it was never clearly understood. Perhaps Hollywood came closest to doing the topic justice. Broadway's hit musical West Side Story (subsequently filmed) gave a romantic gloss to the subject of gang warfare by very virtue of the music, dance, and love story at its center, but The Blackboard Jungle (1955) caught the tenor of urban alienation, and Rebel without a Cause, released the same year, captured the flavor of suburban teendom and the ways in which it aped the anomie of the ghettoes. A consequence of these films was to inspire teenagers everywhere to adopt the "delinquent" style of dress—black leather jacket, greased hair, tight jeans—and to unleash a wave of mindless and destructive middle class hooliganism.

By the 1960s, many gangs had assumed a radical agenda, as much a sign of the changing times as the radicalization of the poor. In an inversion of this trend, the Black Panther Party adopted a stylized version of gang-wear, sporting uniform black leather suit-jackets and berets. The Panthers, who could not technically be considered a gang, as well as bona fide gangs, initiated community self-protection (and self-help) programs, while joining the throngs in search of War on Poverty grants and lobbying the Federal government for funding. In his long essay, Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers, Tom Wolfe caught the methods of intimidation—not so different from the tactics adopted when extorting money from neighborhood businesses—used by gang members to cash in on the Federal largesse. With the collapse of the War on Poverty, economic and territorial imperatives reasserted themselves and gangs returned to the petty crimes and drug dealing that had long supported them.

Out of the wreckage of the 1960s, new gangs emerged, and with them, a new hysteria. Left to their own devices, gangs in public housing projects, like the infamous Cabrini Green in Chicago, turned to drug dealing, especially after the introduction in the early 1980s of crack cocaine, a cheap, smokable, and virulent form of the drug. Projects and ghetto neighborhoods like South Central Los Angeles became no-go areas, patrolled by the new breed of gangster, or gang-bangers as they called themselves, well-armed, tightly-organized cadres inured to violence and ready to give their lives for their colors. Especially in Los Angeles, the new breed of gangs—the Crips, the Bloods, the Mexican Mafia—introduced a paramilitary discipline to their activities, enforcing the age-old territorial imperative with an impressive array of weaponry. These gangs became one of Los Angeles' most talked-about exports, with Crips and Bloods appearing as far afield as small towns in the Midwest.

The "rumble" was a thing of the past. Now gangs engaged in a sort of automotive warfare, the drive-by shooting, that bore as much resemblance to the rumble as a duel to an air raid. And once again, Hollywood turned the social unrest to its advantage, churning out a string of dystopic (The Warriors, 1979) or topical (Colors, 1988, New Jack City, 1991) gang films, while gangsta rap, a sub-genre of rap that celebrated the gang-banging lifestyle in graphic terms, made billions for record companies. Young white suburbanites did not fail to appreciate the nuances of "the life," and gangster slang and fashion overran white America, much to the distress of suburban parents. As in the 1950s, a cognitive dissonance developed between the fictitious depiction of gangs in music and film, enormously popular amongst white suburban teenagers, and the gangs themselves, who were vilified in the press and subjected to increasingly restrictive police measures. But no one would argue that cost in human life merited the celebration, especially after several high-profile rappers died (most prominently, Tupac Shakur, the son of a Black Panther, who had already survived one murder attempt) as the result of bi-coastal gang feuding; was it art imitating life or life imitating art?

It would appear that few social problems have remained as intractable as the street gang. But are street gangs a genuine danger or simply a bugbear, conveniently trotted out to justify the growth of police departments? This is of some import since, historically, gangs are depicted in the language of crisis. It becomes difficult to separate the phenomenon itself from the overlay of media coverage that concurrently obscures and defines the street gang. But for the atomized middle class public towards whom most media is slanted, gangs remain a disturbing phenomenon. That the media hysteria itself might not have an agenda is seldom discussed. It may be true that over the years the excesses of street gangs have become more alarming (there is no way to put a positive spin on the spate of random assaults and murders that have plagued New York, the result of "wilding," that is, young gangs hunting in packs for their human prey), but those who would vilify poor colored youth, fail to see their relationship to the problem, a relationship as intractable as the problem itself. John Q. Public would do well to read accounts of gang activity in the nineteenth century. He would soon realize that gangs are inextricably related to socio-economic conditions, and not a sign of impending societal collapse—the barbarians clamoring at the gate. The barbarians have always been among us.

—Michael Baers

Further Reading:

Haskins, James. Street Gangs: Yesterday and Today. New York, Hastings House, 1974.

Salisbury, Harrison. The Shook-Up Generation. New York, Crest, 1958.

Shakur, Sanyika, aka Kody Scott. Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member. New York, Penguin Press, 1994.

Whyte, William Foote. Street Corner Society. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1943.

Wolfe, Tom. Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers. New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1970.

Youth Gangs

views updated May 23 2018

Youth Gangs

Youth gangs are self-identified, organized groups of adolescents, banded together under common interests and a common leader in activities that typically are regarded as menacing to society or illegal. Gangs, or their prototypes, have existed for hundreds of years in a number of cultures, however many scholars locate the emergence of the modern youth gang in the nineteenth century, during the shift from agrarian to industrial society. Most youth gangs arise among the urban poor, though not always. Although gangs participate in unlawful activities associated with controlling a territory or illegal enterprise, most of their pursuits remain purely social and within the law.

Gangs and youth groups have existed since at least the Middle Ages. Accounts from England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries describe criminal gangs that robbed, extorted, and raped. In France, England, and Germany, medieval juvenile groups known as abbeys of misrule participated in violent sports and fights against rival groups in honor of the abbeys from which they were recruited. Other youth groups rioted and intimidated deviant villagers, and were sanctioned by adults for enforcing the social order. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, English gangs wore colored ribbons to mark their allegiances, battled rivals, and terrorized communities. In the American colonies, people complained about troublesome groups who caroused, fought, and stole, as well.

Although these earlier prototypical gangs possessed characteristics associated with the modern youth gang, quintessential urban street gangs only emerged in the nineteenth century. In the United States, the social and economic pressures associated with rapid industrialization, urbanization, and immigration gave rise to organized criminal gangs that thrived under these conditions. Gangs like the "Pug Uglies" and the "Dead Rabbits" conducted illegal activities in slums and recruited youths and adults. They were linked with the criminal underworld, saloons, and political machines. As new immigrants arrived and ethnic conflicts increased in the late 1800s, ethnic youth gangs battling for turf and status became more prevalent.

Urban reformers interpreted the gang phenomena as part of the depravity and degradation of city life. Alarmed by the tenacity and success of some of these organizations, they began to study the causes of gangs. Significantly, researchers focused on the role of juvenile delinquency in the development of adult criminal gangs. Partly as a result of these studies, many reformers throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries promoted child welfare services and education as a means of stemming gang activity and reestablishing social order.

Frederic M. Thrasher's work The Gang (1927) epitomized this new trend in the study of gangs. Thrasher located the roots of criminal groups not only in the miserable living conditions and economic disadvantages of the poor, but also in adolescent development. He proposed that gangs were a normal adaptation to slums and an extension of natural adolescent bonding. Young gang members entered into adult organizations only when social conditions remained inadequate and social mobility was unattainable. Influenced by Thrasher's study, public officials and experts throughout the 1920s and 1930s largely either dismissed juvenile gangs as adolescent play or elevated them to the level of adult organized crime, rather than recognizing them as menacing, independent entities of their own.

Youth gangs received heightened attention during World War II. In Europe, the disastrous upheaval of war caused a significant rise in delinquency. Acting out of necessity, juvenile gangs participated in the black market, prostitution, and theft. In the United States, the increase in youth gang activity was as much a product of Americans' new awareness of the problem as it was of true increases in numbers. Public officials and the press blamed wartime conditions, like disruptions in family life, for contributing to juvenile delinquency. At the same time, people became concerned with ethnic youth subcultures and fads, like the zoot-suit fashion. The style, and its connection to a series of race riots in 1943, created a situation in which minority youths began to band together into ethnic gangs for protection, and which also crystallized the public's conception of youth gang violence. By the end of the war, the combined awareness of the juvenile delinquency problem and of interethnic clashes solidified American's fears about youth gangs.

In the postwar period, American youth gangs were a major social dilemma on the streets and in the public consciousness. In the 1950s gangs were characterized by their ethnic and racial affiliations, their control of territory, and their greater use of violence against rivals. Law enforcement and social services targeted gangs for research, surveillance, and interventions, and the popular media portrayed youth gangs in movies like The Wild Ones. However, by the mid-1960s, adolescent gang activities slowed. Gang intervention programs and public policy did much to disrupt gangs. Scholars also suggest that political involvement in civil rights issues and the anti-war movement drew many youths away from gang participation, or redirected gang activities into militant groups like the Black Panthers. Moreover, the increased use of drugs such as heroin by gang members destroyed gang cohesion and created loose drug subcultures in its place.

Youth gangs resurfaced in the 1970s in response to the economic downturn in inner cities and to the growing drug culture. A number of returning veterans from Vietnam reorganized gangs and provided new leadership and experience. Though youth gangs actually fought against the prevailing drug culture at first, many juvenile gangs increasingly turned to drug trafficking for profit. By the 1980s, gangs were involved in more predatory crimes, and battled for control of illegal markets as well as turf. Gang activity was marked by brutal violence as gang members began to carry and use guns.

Modern juvenile gangs have been a problem around the world. Various youth gangs in Great Britain and Germany have emerged in response to ongoing class rivalries and rising immigrant populations, including rowdy and nationalist soccer hooligans and racist, violent skinheads. Studies in African youth gangs have also turned up groups like the skollie gangs of South Africa, who provide protection, support, and economic survival for their members. In Jamaica, posses recruit members living in extreme poverty, and commonly use violence and torture in their drug trafficking operations, and in Colombia, adolescent gangs protect territory and carry out murders for drug cartels.

See also: Juvenile Court; Law, Children and the; Soldier Children; Zoot Suit Riots.


Asbury, Herbert. 1970 [1927]. The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld. New York: Capricorn Books.

Covey, Herbert C., Scott Menard, and Robert J. Franzese, eds. 1997. Juvenile Gangs, 2nd edition. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Jankowski, Martín Sánchez. 1991. Islands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schneider, Eric C. 1999. Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thrasher, Frederic M. 1947 [1927]. The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Laura Mihailoff


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First brought to the forefront of American popular culture by the Jets and Sharks in the 1961 film West Side Story, gangs have long been a part of illegal activity around the world. From the Sicilian Mafia (see entry under 1960s—The Way We Lived in volume 4) to the Chinese Tongs to the outlaws of the American frontier, gangs have brought together criminals who joined in brotherhood for strength and protection.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, urban street gangs began to appear in the poor neighborhoods of many U.S. cities. These gangs were mostly made up of young men and women from harsh, underprivileged backgrounds who looked to fellow members for social support and physical protection. Gangs were often divided along ethnic lines. They formed to claim and protect territory from other ethnic groups and newly arriving immigrants. Gang membership in the 1950s did not always involve crime but almost always involved fighting and violence. Films like The Wild One (1954) and romantic actors like James Dean (1931–1955; see entry under 1950s—Film and Theater in volume 3) and Marlon Brando (1924–) gave these gangs a glamorous image, at least to middle-class American youth who were not involved in them.

Although gangs never entirely disappeared, they were overshadowed by the counterculture youth movement and radical politics of the late 1960s and 1970s. Gangs reemerged in the public awareness in the 1980s, with news reports about the Bloods and the Crips of Los Angeles, California. Early gangs had fought with chains, brass knuckles, and switchblades. These new gangs not only had much more advanced weaponry, they also developed strict organizations and very profitable businesses selling drugs. They also received abundant attention from the press. This attention resulted in both fear of the gangs and imitation of them.

Meanwhile, gang activity kept increasing. Rising school dropout rates and the lack of jobs have both contributed to the rise of gang membership. In Los Angeles alone, the number of gangs increased from four hundred in 1985 to eight hundred in 1990. Films about gang activity like Colors (1988) and New Jack City (1991), along with popular "gangsta" rap (see entry under 1980s—Music in volume 5) music glamorized gang life. Suburban middle-class teens who had little connection with gangs began to wear colors and styles identified with gang members. Although parents and school officials have tried to discourage gangs by outlawing these gang colors and styles, gangs have historically fulfilled real needs among underprivileged youth. Gangs will continue to exist until replaced by something more positive that fulfills their needs for self-esteem, protection, and a place to belong.

—Tina Gianoulis

For More Information

Alonso, A. A. (accessed April 4, 2002).

Haskins, James. Street Gangs, Yesterday and Today. New York: Hastings House, 1977.

Johnson, Julie. Why Do People Join Gangs? Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2001.

Walker, Robert. Robert Walker's Gangs OR Us. (accessed April 4, 2002).

Yablonsky, Lewis. Gangsters: Fifty Years of Madness, Drugs, and Death on the Streets of America. New York: New York University Press, 1997.


views updated May 29 2018

gangs Frederic M. Thrasher (The Gang, 1927) challenged earlier images of gangs as simply loose groups of street-roaming law-breakers, and presented an analysis influenced by the approach of the Chicago School: gangs as structured groups of working-class youth, bound by loyalty, territoriality, and a hierarchy. Furthermore, the formation of gangs reflects social dynamics, such as identity search in the face of urban change; thus, to quote Thrasher, ‘the gang develops as one manifestation of the economic, moral and cultural frontier, which marks the interstice [between areas of the city]’. Other key works include William Foote Whyte , Street-Corner Society (1955)
and Albert K. Cohen , Delinquent Boys (1955)
. Questions of race and gender were neglected until recently. See also DELINQUENCY; SUBCULTURE; YOUTH CULTURE.