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A gang is a group of people who, through the organization, formation, and establishment of an assemblage, share a common identity. In current usage it typically denotes a criminal organization or else a criminal affiliation. In early usage, the word gang referred to a group of workmen. In the United Kingdommarker the word is still often used in this sense, but it later underwent pejoration. The word gang often carries a negative connotation; however, within a gang which defines itself in opposition to mainstream norms, members may adopt the phrase as a statement of identity or defiance.Reports of gang-related homicides are concentrated mostly in the largest cities in the United Statesmarker, where there are long-standing and persistent gang problems and a greater number of documented gang members—most of whom are identified by law enforcement.

The United States Department of Justicemarker estimates there are approximately 30,000 gangs, with 800,000 members, impacting 2,500 communities across the United Statesmarker.

Gang is from the past participle of Old English gan "to go". It is cognate with Old Norse gangr "a group of men", and it is in this sense that the word is used today, rather than the older meaning.


The term gangster (or mobster) refers to a criminal who is a member of a crime organization, such as a gang. The terms are widely used in reference to members of gangs associated with American prohibition and the Americanmarker offshoot of the Mafia, such as the Chicago Outfit or the Five Families. The related word "mobster" is a term derived from Latin and Aramaic.

Historic criminal gangs

A wide variety of historic gangs, such as the The Order of Assassins, Adam the Leper's gang, Indian Thugs, Chinese Triads, Snakehead, Japanese Yakuza, Irish mafia, American Old West outlaw gangs, Russian mafia and Italian Mafia crime families have existed for centuries. For example during the 1200s the members belonging to Sardinian Camorra, best known as Gamurra, consisting of mercenaries, before going to Naplesmarker worked in Cagliari town as private policemen and bodyguards.

Many poor children and orphans in Londonmarker survived by joining pickpocketing gangs controlled by adult criminals. At the beginning of the 19th century, child criminals in Britain were punished in the same way as adults. They were sent to adult prisons, transported to the various Australian penal colonies, whipped or even sentenced to death for petty theft.

In 1850 (around the same time Los Angelesmarker was incorporated), New York Citymarker recorded more than 200 gang wars fought largely by youth gangs. All the major cities of Victorian England in the late 19th century had gangs. Chicagomarker had over 1,000 gangs in the 1920s. These early gangs were known for many criminal activities, but in most countries could not profit from drug trafficking prior to drugs being made illegal by laws such as the 1912 International Opium Convention and the 1919 Volstead Act. Gang involvement in drug trafficking increased during the 1970s and 1980s, but some gangs continue to have minimal involvement in the trade.

Gang signs

Gangs often establish distinctive, characteristic identifiers including graffiti tags colors, hand-signals, clothing, jewelry, hair styles, fingernails, slogans, signs such as the swastika, the noose, the cross, five-pointed and six-pointed stars, crowns and tridents , flags for example the Confederate flag, secret greetings, slurs, or code words and other group-specific symbols associated with the gang's common beliefs, rituals, and mythologies to define and differentiate themselves from rival groups and gangs. As an alternative language, hand-signals, symbols, and slurs in speech, graffiti, print, music, or other mediums communicate specific informational cues used to threaten, disparage, taunt, harass, intimidate, alarm, influence, or exact specific responses including obedience, submission, fear, or terror. One study focused on terrorism and symbols states: "... Symbolism is important because it plays a part in impelling the terrorist to act and then in defining the targets of their actions." Displaying a gang sign, such as the noose, as a symbolic act can be construed as "... a threat to commit violence communicated with the intent to terrorize another, to cause evacuation of a building, or to cause serious public inconvenience, in reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or offense against property or involving danger to another person that may include but is not limited to recklessly endangering another person, harassment, stalking, ethnic intimidation, and criminal mischief."

Gang population

Los Angelesmarker is the Gang capital of America with an estimated 120,000 gang members. There were at least 30,000 gangs and 800,000 gang members active across the USA in 2007. About 900,000 gang members lived "within local communities across the country," and about 147,000 were in U.S. prisons or jails in 2009. By 1999, Hispanics accounted for 47% of all gang members, Blacks 31%, Whites 13%, and Asians 6%.

There are between 25,000 and 50,000 gang members in Central America’s El Salvadormarker. The Mexican drug cartels have as many as 100,000 foot soldiers. The Yakuza are among one the largest organized crime organizations in the world. In Japanmarker, as of 2005, there are some 86,300 known members. Hong Kongmarker's Triads include up to 160,000 members in the 21 century. It was estimated that in the 1950s, there were 300,000 Triad members in Hong Kongmarker. The Chinesemarker government claims that police have eliminated 1,221 triad-style gangs across China since a crackdown was launched in 2006. More than 87,300 suspects have been arrested. The FBImarker estimates the size of the four Italian organized crime groups to be approximately 25,000 members and 250,000 affiliates worldwide.

Gang violence

Gang violence refers to mostly those illegal and non-political acts of violence perpetrated by gangs against innocent people, property, or other gangs. Throughout history, such acts have been committed by gangs at all levels of organization. Nearly every major city was ravaged by gang violence at some point in its history. Modern gangs introduced new acts of violence, which may also function as a rite of passage for new gang members.

Gang identification

Most gang members have identifying characteristics unique to their specific clique or gang affiliation. The Bloods for instance wear red bandanas and the Crips blue, allowing the two sides to "represent" their alliances. Any disrespect of a gang member's color by an unaffiliated individual is grounds for a violent retaliation, often by multiple members of that gang. Tattoos are also common identifiers. For instance, a "18" above the eyebrow is a common 18th Street member tattoo. Tattoos help a gang member gain respect and help add the essence of dedication for life. They cannot only be inked on, but burned as well. The Sureno for instance wear blue bandanas and identifier they have tattoos such as "13" and Xlll,x3,southside. The nortenos for instance wear red bandanas and identifier they have tattoos such as "14" and xiv,x4,northside.


Many types of gangs make up the general structure of an organized group. There are street gangs, which are people with similar backgrounds and motivations. These usually involve criminal activity. Prison gangs are groups in a prison or correctional institution for mutual protection and advancement.

Typical activities

Gangs are involved in all areas of street-crime activities like extortion, drug trafficking, and murder, both in and outside the prison system, victimize businesses through extortion or theft activities like hijacking, stealing goods. Gangs also victimize individuals by car theft, bank robbery, burglary, Jewelry theft, Kidnapping.

Street gangs' take over territory or "turf" in a particular city and are often involved in "providing protection", often a thin cover for extortion, as the "protection" is usually from the gang itself, or in other criminal activity. Most members retain their gang affiliations when sent to prison (see prison gang). Many gangs use fronts to demonstrate influence and gain revenue in a particular area.

Notable criminal gangs

Perhaps the best known criminal gangs are the Italian Cosa Nostra, most commonly known as the Mafia. The Neopolitan Camorra, the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, Abruzzian Rancitelli (mafia), the Sardinian kidnappers or Anonima Sarda and the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita are similar Italianmarker organized gangs. Other criminal gangs include the Russian Mafia, the Serbian mafia, the Israeli Mafia, the Albanian Mafia, Mexican and Colombian Drug Cartels, the Indian Mafia, the Chinese Triads, Irish Mob, the Japanese Yakuza, the Jamaican-British Yardies, the Turkish Mafia and other crime syndicates. On a lower level in the criminal gang food chain are many street gangs, such as the Sureños, Nortenos, Latin Kings, MS-13, Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, Bloods and Crips. Criminal gangs may function both inside and outside of prison, such as the Mexican Mafia, Folk Nation, and the Brazilian PCC. Biker gangs such as the Hells Angels are also involved in organized crime.

Gangs in prison

Many prison gangs require members to have gang tattoos to recognize other member of the organization. Most prison gangs follow the policy of "blood in - blood out." It generally means that to get into a prison gang, one has to spill someone else's blood. Most often this requires a murder.

It should be noted that prison gangs often have several "affiliates" or "chapters" in different state prison systems that branch out due to the movement or transfer of their members.

Most correctional facilities have policies prohibiting the formation of prison gangs. However, many prison gangs continue to operate with impunity. Many members are serving life imprisonment (a few are on death row) for various crimes, thus they have no incentive to leave a gang or to integrate with the general prison population.

Gangs in the military

The FBI’s 2007 report on gang membership in the military states that the military's recruit screening process is ineffective, allows gang members/extremists to enter the military, and lists at least eight instances in the last three years in which gang members have obtained military weapons for their illegal enterprises. "Gang Activity in the U.S. Armed Forces Increasing", dated January 12, 2007, states that street gangs including the Bloods, Crips, Black Disciples, Gangster Disciples, Hells Angels, Latin Kings, The 18th Street Gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Mexican Mafia, Nortenos, Surenos, and Vice Lords have been documented on military installations both domestic and international although recruiting gang members violates military regulations.

A January, 2007 article in the Chicago Sun-Times reports that gang members in the military are involved in the theft and sale of military weapons, ammunition, and equipment, including body armor. According to a conversation recorded by an undercover FBI agent, one U.S. soldier may have stolen military body armor with intentions to supply Chicago gangs with the stolen equipment. The Sun-Times began investigating the gang activity in the military after receiving photos of gang graffiti showing up in Iraq. A 2006 Sun-Times article reports that gangs encourage members to enter the military to learn urban warfare techniques to teach other gang members.

In 2006, Scott Barfield, a Defense Department investigator, said there is an online network of gangs and extremists, and that: "They're communicating with each other about weapons, about recruiting, about keeping their identities secret, about organizing within the military."

Known gang members

See also

Further reading

  • Frederick Thrasher, The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927 ASIN: B000IZWOBA
  • Varrio Warfare: Violence in the Latino Community, Gabriel C. Morales, 1998 ASIN: B0018HRNHM
  • Roberson, Cliff. "Exploring Juvenile Justice", California: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2000 ISBN 978-1928916093
  • Daniels, Peggy. ed. "Gangs", Michigan: The Gale Group, 2008



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