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Identifying the Criminal Street Gang Part 2

In the 1990s, American cities and suburban towns experienced an increase in crimes committed by gangs of juveniles and young adults, who were unique.

Many cities and communities ignored the obvious, believing there were no gangs in their backyards. The gang dynamic would change.

Many gangs weren’t identified or were dismissed because they were: 1) wannabes; 2) didn’t have the racial, ethnic or known characteristics of the gangs we had been trained to identify; 3) were independent gangs who established their own identity; or 4) were Latino gangs we had no experience identifying.

Law enforcement agencies and communities look for “known” characteristics. When we think we have identified a gang and determine it’s not like the gangs we know, we may move on. When interviewing gang members who claim membership in a lesser known or unknown gang that is from another state or country, it is likely we don’t believe the member and move on.

Don’t ignore intelligence! You may be the first to identify an emerging gang. Network with: Law Enforcement, Corrections, and Probation and Parole. Our failure to think outside the box inhibits our ability to identify and document criminal street gangs in a timely manner.

Wannabe Gangs

Wannabe gang members who are caught painting gang Pitchforks, Crowns and other symbols don’t usually have criminal histories due to their age or social status. Many communities ignore these juveniles, because they aren’t the stereotypical gang member. They are disorganized, disruptive kids: fighting, committing minor crimes, who wear common clothing / style of dress, with rule books (bibles).

Bibles are written based on whatever “knowledge” they garnered or made up. We made a mistake when we ignored the fact that they had adopted the “gangster” mentality. A mentality of defending and fighting for their gang, graffiti and committing crime to prove they were hard (tough). Their actions led to murders in communities that hadn’t experienced such crimes.

Think this way: a wannabe gang is a gonnabe gang. Many wannabes became hardcore members with dozens of juvenile arrests, serious convictions and sentences before adulthood. Many were adjudicated and imprisoned as adults at a young age, becoming violent criminals upon release. Never underestimate a 12-year-old who claims membership; document his admission and attempt to divert his activity before his state of mind and actions are irreversible.

Hybrid Gangs

Smaller communities with varying demographics and large school bussing areas bussed their students to bordering cities or to the other side of town. When they did, it created the “melting pot” effect. Students in many schools were racially, ethnically and socio-economically diverse, many had one thing in common—their gang. They joined for many reasons: family, identity, brotherhood, protection, glory, etc.

The hybrid gang doesn’t have traditional turf because they are from many neighborhoods. They are highly mobile, and assemble in parks, movie theaters, malls, beaches / lakefronts and other locations across city and county lines. This was their turf. It was not uncommon to see a white Crip or Latin King member from an affluent family living in a gated community, in a gang with members from poor neighborhoods. They didn’t fit the characteristics of an inner city gang, but had the mentality. Their mobility frequently caused them to cross paths and fight rival gangs.

Independent Gangs

In the 1990s, many cities identified the traditionally forming, independent street gang. The four gang nations were still prevalent in America, however the independent gang did not emulate or show allegiance to them, nor did they adopt their symbols, dress, traditions, or beliefs. They had limited, if any, structure. Members adopted the gangster mentality, were socially, racially and ethnically specific, and most formed in a traditional manner.

The independent gang does not usually establish alliances. If they align with other gangs, it is not like traditional L.A. or Chicago gang sets. When they do, it is out of necessity (force multiplier) or for random reasons. The independent gang’s neighborhood is their Nucleus. This is where they live, establish their identity, and recruit from. They will defend their race, ethnicity and neighborhood from outside threats, but also victimize their own community. They are localized, but sometimes identify with a county or region, not usually expanding beyond these borders.

Identifying the presence of an independent gang can be as simple as identifying graffiti. When I observed the letters “WPT” on a school wall, I thought it might be a new gang. I was in Washington Park (WP) + (T), which led me to hypothesize that the graffiti meant Washington Park Thugs (WPT). When I confirmed the name, I identified additional graffiti, and documented the membership and criminal activity. I was able to establish it was a criminal street gang pursuant to our state statue.

Other independent gangs formed the same way, but created names unrelated to their neighborhoods. The “Dog Pound Gangsters” (DPG), formed in Franklin Park, Fla., were influenced by the rap artist Snoop Dogg and his “Dog Pound.” Snoop Dogg has admitted to being affiliated with the Rolling 20’s Crips in Long Beach, Calif. Crips clothing can be seen in his videos and the references to the Crips and DPG are in his lyrics. Members of “Thug Life” stated they adopted Tupac Shakur’s mentality of living a “Thug Life” when they named their gang. Members and associates admitted to using commonly available Thug Life clothing, simple tattoos and graffiti “Thug Life” and “TL.”

Haitian, Jamaican, Puerto Rican and other ethnic gangs form for solidarity reasons and evolve into criminal activity. The “Tru Haitian Boys” (THB) require members to be Haitian, and use the Haitian flag and clothing as an identifier of their turf and membership. Members are proud of their ethnicity. On Haitian Flag Day many become involved in large school fights merely defending their ethnicity and gang.

The majority of independent gang graffiti and tattoos are simple, very easy to identify, and creative. So easy to identify, they are sometimes overlooked, because we look for overt and complex gang identifiers that require a class to decipher. Clothing and colors are usually chosen at random. Many gangs will simply use initials identifying the words Thug (T), Gangsters (G), Crew (C), Click (C) or Boys (B) as part of the name.

The identification of the independent gang is not as complex as a traditional gang, but requires more effort to prove. When members wear common clothing a non-gang member wears and / or has common tattoos, the investigator must establish why they are gang related. This is done when members admit the tattoos are gang related, identify the amounts and names of members who wear the clothing and / or use the symbols, and commit the crime in furtherance of the gang. The key is relating the characteristics to one another.

When testifying in court, your training and experience in gang investigations will be challenged. Defend your case. This includes, but is not limited to, the information you and your agency have gathered, and other agency information that has been shared with you. When you testify, clearly articulate how the information you have gathered relates to gangs in general, the specific gang involved, and how the information meets state gang statue.

Central American, Mexican, Latino Gangs

It is important to understand the history, ethnicity and evolution of Southern California gangs. They are extremely diverse and complex making it hard to cast a broad stroke when identifying. They formed and established their identity based on a variety of factors: 1) geography—a housing project, i.e., Maravilla or street / avenue, i.e., 18th Street; 2) family-generational, i.e., Lopez; 3) physical borders established to prevent a particular race / ethnicity from crossing railroad tracks, i.e., White Fence; and 4) alliances formed in prison for protection. Most are ethnically and racially specific. You must identify commonalities and may need to seek assistance from experts.
Latino criminal street gangs, primarily Mexicans, have been entrenched in the Los Angeles area since the 1800s. These gangs and its members were simple people when they migrated to America, forming to protect their ethnicity. They evolved into today’s criminal street gangs—selling drugs, organizing prostitution, killing, etc. In the 1990s the L.A. street gang “18th Street” dominated Southern California. The 18th Street expanded to many states and countries. The Lopez family is an example of a familial-generational California gang.

In the 1980s El Salvador experienced a large civil war causing hundreds of thousands of its citizens to flee. A majority of these El Salvadorians fled to the United States, forming Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13). MS13 was primarily composed of El Salvadorian nationals, but relaxed their membership requirements allowing non-Salvadorian Hispanics and Blacks to join. Their openness caused a riff with other gangs, including the Eme (Mexican Mafia) who handed down an unfavorable edict from prison.

MS13 is ultra-violent, fearless of law enforcement with direct links to the El Salvadorian military. These contacts provide automatic weapons, hand grenades, etc. Since they are Hispanic, they have members in California and other prison systems they claim Sureno. Their graffiti and tattoos are symbolic of their allegiance and name. They commonly graffiti and tattoo “MS13,” “XIII,” “Sur 13” and Sureno 13.

SURENO / NORTENO alliances are conceptually similar to how the Folk(s) and People nation alliances were formed in Illinois prisons and jails. When Latino gangs became a large population in the California penal system, it became necessary to establish alliances. The Sureno (South) and Norteno (North) were formed. Contrary to common belief, not all Hispanic gang members are from Southern California. Norteno and Sureno are used to identify members of street gangs operating either North or South of Bakersfield, the geographic divider of California.

While imprisoned, the gangs’ geographic area of operation implied an allegiance to other imprisoned Sureno or Norteno gangs. The alliance expanded as members of Sureno or Norteno gangs were imprisoned in other states. The Surenos aligned with the Eme, a superpower prison gang, while the Norteno’s aligned with the La Nuestra Familia. The Eme routinely exerted power from prison, influencing street gang activity. The Eme financially taxes many California street gangs.

Multi-Agency Gang Task Forces

Law enforcement agencies, specifically gang units, must exchange gang intelligence. Forming a Gang Task Force is an ongoing way to accomplish this. Intelligence includes, but is not limited to recent and anticipated gang activity, newly identified members and associates, trends, and criminal cases possibly involving gang members in other jurisdictions.

The Multi-Agency Gang Task Force (MAGTF) is a personnel and intelligence multiplier. In addition to investigations, MAGTF is a highly visible deployable resource for events / locations where there is a known gang history or anticipation of gang activity. Gang investigators “know their gang members.” The mere fact that city “X” Crips show up in a city for a “Y” event or are cruising in another city is cause for alarm. The presence of MAGTF acts as a deterrent and an intelligence multiplier, providing mobile human databases that know gang members you may not know. More eyes looking for a problem will be more successful in preventing it.

Probation and Parole is an excellent resource to have on MAGTF. They can provide the conditions of gang members and associates probation (prohibition from associating with the gang, etc.), and field identification. This is a two-way street! If you know the conditions of a gang member’s probation, you may be able to arrest them during a field contact. If they are not arrested, the mere police contact and notification to their P.O. may result in a Probation violation and issuance of a warrant—a gang member is off the street.

The key to identifying these types of gangs is to keep an open mind, work the street, and continuously gather raw intelligence. Collaborate with other gang investigators and become part of gang associations. Help to form a MAGTF. They may have intelligence you need. You may also have what they need. Finally, when testifying in court, educate the prosecutor, judge and jury. Become the subject matter expert in your area.

Lt. Darin D. Dowe is a 24-year veteran of a large southeast Florida sheriff’s office, a veteran SWAT operator, tactical WMD program coordinator, SWAT instructor in multiple disciplines and a former sniper. Dowe also has a background in Homeland Security, investigations and patrol and is a frequent contributor to Tactical Response and LAW and ORDER. He can be reached via e-mail at

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2011

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