Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Part 9:
Where are Gangs Found?

Field Note: I told one of the gang unit supervisors that I was studying gangs in a number of cities in the United States. When I asked if he had explored the gang situation in other cities he said "Why should I? It's the same circus, just different clowns."

Gangs consist of individual gang members who live and carry on their criminal activity just about everywhere. They are found in inner-city, suburban, and rural environments - where they are growing the fastest in the United States. (Miller, 2001, page)  They are found in the largest cities as well as the smallest towns and villages and everywhere in between. They are also found in many, if not all, countries.

Howell, et. al. report that

As observed by law enforcement agencies, gangs in newer gang problem jurisdictions (since 1991) were qualitatively different from traditional gangs in jurisdictions where gang problems began much earlier. Gangs in the late-onset jurisdictions had younger members, slightly more females, and more of a racial/ethnic mixture; were less involved in drug trafficking; and were less involved in violent crimes, including homicides. The later onset jurisdictions were most likely to be in rural counties, smaller cities, and suburban counties with populations of less than 50,000. (Howell, et. al. 2002, page)

Comparing his findings in 1999 to those found in 1998, Egley (1999) wrote "The most significant changes from 1998 to 1999 occurred in suburban counties (27-percent increase) and rural counties (29-percent decrease). Large cities, which account for 60 percent of all gang members, reported a 4-percent increase, and small cities reported a 2-percent increase." (Egley, 1999, pageThe point to be made here is that gangs are not restricted to urban areas.

Gangs are found in the military (the United States Army's Criminal Investigation Division has annual training workshops on the topic of gangs in the military), schools and universities, the workplace, on Indian reservations, in police departments, government, prisons, on the Internet, and elsewhere. As for their presence in the United States military,

The Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings and Vice Lords were born decades ago in Chicago's most violent neighborhoods. Now, their gang graffiti is showing up 6,400 miles away in one of the world's most dangerous neighborhoods -- Iraq.

Of paramount concern is whether gang-affiliated soldiers' training will make them deadly urban warriors when they return to civilian life and if some are using their access to military equipment to supply gangs at home ... gangs are encouraging their members to join the military to learn urban warfare techniques they can teach when they go back to their neighborhoods. (Chicago Sun Times, May 1, 2006, Frank Main, reporter, taken off by October, 2006.)

Violent street gangs have also become a significant problem in Indian Country. On the Navajo Reservation in Arizona alone there are approximately 55 street gangs, many of which have some affiliation with gangs in California, Phoenix, Albuquerque, and Chicago. 

These gangs have been responsible for a dramatic increase in violent crimes in the Navajo Nation. The Salt-River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community near Scottsdale, Arizona, experienced a significant increase in murders and drive-by shootings between 1993 and 1994. 

Current trends indicate that Indian gangs are mirroring the gang activity occurring in the communities surrounding Indian Country. Some Indian gang members are claiming allegiance with the larger nationally known gang "nations," such as Folks. (Wiley, 1997)

Howell and Egley (2005) found that an "appreciable number of smaller city and rural county agencies reported gang problems," (p. 2) in most the gangs were a short-lived phenomenon. They suggest that, in response to a perceived gang presence, such communities should recognize that

the characteristics and behaviors of gangs are exceptionally varied within and across geographical areas, such that communities would be far better positioned to effectively respond to a local gang problem by first examining objectively the characteristics of it before assuming similarities to other, even nearby, areas. (p. 2)

You can explore a variety of settings in which gangs are found at the bottom of this page.

A Typology of Gang Cities

In addition to cities or neighborhoods in which gangs and gang members are declining in number, there are three primary types of gang cities: gang free cities, those with an emerging gang situation, and chronic gang cities.  

1. Gang free cities: Gang free cities report having no gangs. They may have no gangs or they may have gangs but the gangs are not recognized as such by residents and local authorities.  Another possibility is that the residents and police are in denial and refuse to report the presence of their gangs so their communities appear in national surveys as gang free cities.

The majority of communities in the United States report having no gangs. (Egley, 2000)  In a gang free community a new gang can operate without being easily recognized by the police, school authorities, or others. They may, instead, be identified as "just a few kids being kids."

2. Emerging gang cities: Communities with an emerging gang problem have not had gangs in the distant past and began experiencing them within the past 20 years. The gangs are not yet entrenched

There are emerging gang communities and neighborhoods which recognize the gang situation they have and are taking action to reduce it. Unfortunately, there are many other emerging gang cities in which most residents remain in denial by viewing their gangs as imports. By believing this, residents and police can reject the notion that they have gangs. Instead, they believe they have another community's gang problem.  

In emerging gang communities, everyone - not just the police - needs to be educated as to what a gang member looks and acts like as well as what it is that constitutes a gang. Early detection and effective action can limit the extent of gang development in these communities.

Howell and Egley (2005) provide a very helpful analysis of emerging gangs in small towns and rural counties:

Your community is not alone if you have an emerging youth gang problem.  Many small towns and rural areas are experiencing gang problems for the first time.  In other communities, local observers jump to the mistaken conclusion that gangs are present.  This may occur because small groups of delinquents are very common, even in the smallest communities.  Adolescents enjoy hanging out together, and the reality is that juvenile delinquency is often committed in groups.  The visibility of these groups in shopping malls and on street corners and their frequent troublesome behavior may suggest gang involvement.  Another factor that may lead to the mistaken conclusion that a gang problems exists is the recent transfusion of gang culture into the larger youth culture.  Certain clothing styles and colors commonly worn by gang members have become faddish in the popular youth culture.  One need only watch MTV for a short period of time to see the popularity of what once were considered exclusively to be gang symbols.

Even if the local youths are displaying gang symbols such as the colors of big city gangs, this alone does not necessarily signify a genuine gang problem.  Local groups of youths often imitate big city gangs, generally in an attempt to enhance their self-image or to seek popularity and acceptance among their peers.  Furthermore, although community officials and/or residents may encounter episodic or solitary signs of gang activity in an area (e.g., graffiti, arrest of a nonlocal gang member, and other isolated incidents), absent further conclusive and ongoing evidence, this is not necessarily indicative of an “emerging” gang problem that is likely to persist.

In most cases, the gang problem is short-lived and dissipates as quickly as it develops.  Most often, this is mainly because small towns and rural areas do not have the necessary population base to sustain gangs and any disruption (e.g., arrest, members dropping out) may weaken the gang.  For prolonged survival, gangs must be able to attract new members to replace short-term members and older youths who typically leave gangs toward the end of adolescence.  Research across a number of cities with typically longer-standing gang problems has found considerable movement in and out of gangs:  approximately half of the youth who join leave the gang within a year.

3. Chronic gang cities: Chronic gang cities are characterized as having well established gangs - even gang entrenchment. Chronic gang communities have long recognized and acknowledged the presence of gangs and find it difficult, if not impossible, to rid themselves of them. In fact, some social institutions, such as government, may find itself in cahoots with gang members and, in a roundabout way, support them, albeit not their criminal activity.

A symbiotic relationship develops between politicians and gangs in certain low-income communities, particularly those in the process of considerable demographic or political change. Political aspirants who have a weak base of support and who are short of manpower sometimes call on youth gang members to perform a variety of tasks needed to compete in local politics. These tasks include obtaining signatures on petitions, putting up or tearing down election posters, browbeating voters, and getting votes out to the polling place.

Gangs are used by a variety of organizations at times of urban or organizational disorder to try to control disruption or the outbreak of a riot, and thus to stabilize volatile community situations. Gangs and gang members have received income, acceptance, status, and occasionally a limited degree of influence for their services. (Spergel et al., 1994, p. 4)

The level of tolerance of police, judges, juvenile officers, and probation/parole officers for gang activity in gang entrenched neighborhoods has risen in response to overwhelming gang activity. It were as though an attitude of "If they aren't killing one another and innocent people, don't call" because there's enough murder, rape, and other significant criminal activity to keep all the justice practitioners busy for years.

The message, however, is that a certain amount of drug dealing, theft and other criminal activity will be tolerated. If not tolerated, at least offenders know the worst consequence for getting caught is a night or two in jail or a month or year on probation. In effect, everyone is involved in the gang activity through default. The situation is tolerated and, therefore, entrenched.

Denial of a gang presence in a chronic gang city is rare, although there are neighborhoods outside the chronic gang neighborhoods where residents deny the existence a gang problem. And, as is true in many cities, they may be right - at least there are no gangs in their neighborhood, but there are gangs in nearby neighborhoods.

Recent studies have shown the length of time a person remains in a gang may be related to whether the city has a chronic gang presence or an emerging one.

Studies of established gangs in chronic gang cities since the 1920's have documented long delinquent gang careers. Recent studies in emerging gang problem cities, like Denver and Rochester have found that most juveniles stay in the gang for no more than a year. Their delinquency levels were much lower both before and after joining the gang. (Howell, 1994, page)

Howell and Egley (2005) provide a very useful cautionary note as concerns the issue of identifying one's community as having no gangs or having an emerging gang situation.


The Global Extent of Gangs

While the research for this book did not focus on the global nature of gangs, that aspect of their organization did not escape attention. It appears that there are several ways gangs may be understood as being global.

bulletGangs consisting of nationals (local citizens) can be found in cities and rural areas in countries throughout the world.
bulletGangs from their home countries can also be found in host countries (although the hosts are not very happy to host them). These gangs, while existing in both the home and host countries, are not always affiliated with one another.
bulletSome gangs are transnational - their membership crosses national boundaries and they are affiliated with one another, often in a complex organizational structure.

This is not a new development. The Italian Mafia, Yakuza (of Japanese origin), and the Chinese Triads took decades to mature into the international organizations they are today, and there are other transnational and highly organized crime gangs. What is new is that there appears to be a proliferation of such gangs including formerly American-only Motorcycle Gangs (such as the Hell's Angels and the Pagans) and Honduran and El Salvadoran gangs now found in those countries and in as many as three other countries and spreading throughout the United States. (Wennor, 2004).

The activities and presence of youth gangs in countries throughout the Americas are of growing concern. The problems associated with gangs, such as crime, violence and the trafficking and abuse of illicit drugs pose a serious threat to public security and public health in much of Latin American.

Gangs are more than a century-old problem in the Americas and one with an important international dimension. As used here, globalization refers to a process in which more and more people, goods, currency and information flow across international borders (as do) security, social and health problems. (y)outh from many countries increasingly participate in the drug trade, use drugs, form gangs, engage in violence and other high-risk behaviors. (Rogers, 2003, pp. 33-34)

There is great and growing concern among people of many nations about the movement of gangs across national borders and the concomitant growth of transnational gangs.

In Closing

The reason for putting forth Spergel's typology of gang cities is to lay the foundation for the notion that communities, regardless of the country in question, need to configure their approach to gangs to be consistent with the type of gang community they are experiencing. Gang-free neighborhoods need to focus on prevention while emerging and chronic gang neighborhoods should support prevention programs (to keep non-gang youth from joining the gangs) and offer intervention and suppression programs.

It should be remembered, however, that suppression (arrest and incarceration) alone is not sufficient - although it is an integral and important part of any approach to the gang phenomenon. Treatment following suppression should be pursued, even for the most hard core gang member. Many of the hard core gang members I spoke with did not want their little brothers or sisters involved in gang activity. That is, the hard core gang members knew it was a hard life and, in the end, usually a short one. With that as an underlying notion, treatment just might be accepted in the right setting.

Chronic gang communities may need to stress suppression to remove the negative influence of the core and committed gang members while offering prevention and intervention opportunities. As for suppression, one can only hope that convicted gang members stay out of the gang when they return from prison or treatment.


Additional Resources: You can read about the Los Angeles Summit concerning international street gangs (published in 2007), efforts in Toronto (Canada, 2008) concerning international gangs and about international street gang members arrested in Las Vegas in August of 2009. These are only a tip of the iceberg as concerning the international scope of street gangs as well as more organized crime gangs. For what blogs are worth, if you have an interest in gangs around the world take a look at:

You can visit the 1998 National Youth Gang Survey to see a list of all the jurisdictions, by state, reporting the presence of gangs in 1998.

Barbara Mendenhall and Dr. Troy Armstrong wrote an in-depth and very interesting article entitled "Native American Youth in Gangs: Acculturation and Identity." In March of 2004, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention issued an excellent report entitled "Youth Gangs in Indian Country." There are other articles about gangs in Indian County/Reservations: Article 1, Article 2.

Learn more about gangs: in the military, in schools (Article 1, Article 2), in police departments (scroll down to "Gangs in Law Enforcement") and the Ramparts fiasco, and politics, in prisons (Search the US Federal Bureau of Prisons Library for related publications), Article 1, Article 2, Article 3, and as described by the Florida Department of Corrections, on the Internet, in the suburbs (Article 1, Article 2, Article 3), and in rural areas (Article 1, Article 2, Article 3)

If you'd like to learn more about the transnational or global aspects of the gang problem, please read Gangs: An International Approach by Sean Grennan, et. al. (Prentice Hall, ISBN0-13-324856-9), take a look at related articles as found in The Journal of Gang Research, and visit the website of the Eurogang Research project (an ongoing inquiry into the nature of gangs throughout Europe and solutions to the gang phenomenon).

You can explore the gang situation in Glasgow, Scotland, and many other cities and countries by simply using or any other large search engine. Just type in the name of the city or country in which you are interested plus the words street gang.

© 2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.