Elusive, ephemeral, ever-changing, fluid - these are
words that come to mind in describing youth gangs today. While some
gangs in chronic gang cities are more stable, many gangs, regardless of
where we find them, are fluid. Their fluidity is exhibited in several ways.
1. Leadership: One
gang member may lead an entire gang or there may be several different
leaders, each with a small group of gang members following him or her in
the commission of their criminal activity. For example, gang members
who are into the drug trade may do their thing while other members of the same
gang who are not into the drug trade go about committing the offenses they
prefer to commit. Leadership may change due to leaders being arrested, incarcerated,
injured, leaving town to avoid prosecution, or attempting to leave the
2. Gang Composition: Not all gang members stay in the same gang for a long period of
time. The composition of a gang may change as a result of the
recruitment of new gang members and due to established members' moving out of
town, quitting the gang, getting arrest, being incarcerated, injured, or dying.
3. Size: A gang may
consist of five members one year, 30 the next, and disappear the following
4. The Nature of Crimes
Committed: The nature of the criminal activities exhibited by
gang members may change from time to time depending upon who is in the gang
and what their interests are, the desires of its leaders,
shifting opportunities for crime, and the nature of law enforcement
practices in the community.
5. Migration: Some gang
members migrate from one country to another, one community
to another within the same nation, and within communities (from one
neighborhood to another).
In 1999 it was reported that 34% of
gang members in rural areas had migrated there, 27% of small city gang
members were migrants, 20% of gang members in suburban counties were
migrants, and 17% of large city gang members were migrants from other
2000, p. 2)
According to the 1999 National Youth
Gang Survey, 18 percent of all youth gang members had migrated from
another jurisdiction to the one in which they were residing.
et al., 2001,
International migration (from one country to another) is
foremost on the minds of anyone today who is concerned about the gang
phenomenon. The world of gangs now includes gang members from
practically as many nations as there are on Earth. The collapse of
the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Berlin Wall resulted in
the spread of people of various nationalities throughout Western Europe,
the United States, and elsewhere.
Likewise, the movement of populations from the
underdeveloped, Third World nations into developed nations continues
unabated as does the movement of South- and Central American's into
North America. Given the reality of the immigration tradition, a small
portion of each of the migrating populations is likely to be found
participating in gang activity.
6. Gang Affiliation: A
given individual may be a member of one gang one
day and another gang the next. The gang member may even quit after only one or two
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 (Esbensen and
Huizinga) and Rochester (Thornberry, et al.,1993) 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,
Relationships between Gangs:
While most people believe that certain gangs never get along with
other gangs (i.e., Crips and Bloods are viewed as arch rivals), the fact
is that some gangs/sets don't get along with one another and others do.
Depending upon the local situation, previously-competing gangs may be
associating with one another, committing crimes side-by-side or
coalescing into one larger gang or set.
This situation became obvious to me as I watched drug dealers selling
their drugs on a corner in Kansas City. On the same corner were young
men wearing red bandanas and other red clothing standing next to young
men wearing blue bandanas and other blue clothing. They were interested
in making money by selling drugs, not fighting or establishing dominance
over one another.
In other neighborhoods and cities, the battle lines between certain
gangs is clear and inviolable. The only way to characterize their
relationship with one another is to say it is hostile and, at times,
Gang turf can change, typically in reaction to pressure put on the
gang members by police. A neighborhood may be the locus of gang activity
one year and relatively free of gang activity the next year because the
gang activity moved to a different neighborhood. This phenomenon is so
common that it now has a name --- gang displacement.
The location of a gang may also change as its members leave the gang,
get arrested and incarcerated, are injured, killed or move to a
Given the fluidity of the gang situation, it is difficult, if not
impossible, to generalize about gangs. When it comes to
addressing a specific community's gang situation, each
community needs to study its own situation and steer clear of national or
state-wide data. "Know thyself" is the rule when it comes to
determining what must be done to reduce problems associated with the
presence of gangs in one's community.
The Extent and Impact of Migrating
During my research I had an opportunity to accompany
officers dealing with Afro-Caribbean drug dealers on the south side of the
Thames River in London, England. These gang members were, at one time,
members of various Posses in their native Jamaica. The migration of the Jamaican drug gang members mirrors the migration of other gangs'
members who move from one country to another in furtherance of their criminal
More common in the United States, however, is the migration
of gang members from one city to another or within the same
A probation and parole officer told me about a new treatment center which
was created in the community. She said "Bringing in the Treatment
Center - where troubled youth socialize, play sports, and take classes - ended up introducing outlying gangs to a new neighborhood and new
markets for selling their drugs."
In another community a gang unit
officer told me "Another way gang members migrate is forced by school systems with
magnet schools that require children to go to school in neighborhoods other than the ones
they live in. Busing causes the same problem."
From a series of studies completed in the United states we've learned
Migrant gang members may stimulate the growth
of gangs and gang membership through a variety of processes, such as
recruiting locals to establish a branch of the gang in previously
unaffected areas. This approach, described as the importation model,
involves efforts by gang members to infuse their gang into new cities,
primarily to establish new drug markets and other money-making criminal
(Decker and Van
Winkle, 1996). This is also referred to as
al., 1996) and gang colonization
Tobolowsky, and Downs, 1994).
Alternatively, migrants may establish a new gang
without structural affiliation to an existing gang. Furthermore, if a
sufficient number of individuals from a gang move to a new location, they
may replicate a migrant subset of their former gang. No matter what
process is used, new local gangs will most likely emerge in response to
territorial challenges or perceived protection needs. Regardless of the pattern of new gang initiation, gang member migration
would create an increase in both the number of gangs and gang membership.
Another way migrant gangs may stimulate gang
proliferation is by introducing new and exciting cultural distinctions
from existing gangs. In a city in which gangs exist but are not firmly
established, migrant gang members may act as cultural carriers of the
folkways, mythologies, and other trappings of more sophisticated urban
gangs. They may offer strong distinctions from other gangs and cause a
rivalry with existing gangs, such as the rivalry between the Bloods and
Crips in southern California and between the People and Folks in the
Midwest. In addition, the solidification of local gang subcultures may
increase the visibility or attractiveness of gangs to local youth. It may
also influence the growth of rival gangs.
Conversely, there are a variety of circumstances in
which migrant gang members have little or no impact on gang proliferation.
If the geographic location allows, migrants may retain their affiliation
with their original gangs by commuting to old territories or they may
simply discontinue gang activity altogether. In cities with relatively
large and established gangs, it is unlikely that migrant gang members
would have a noticeable effect on the overall gang environment.
(Maxson, 1998, page)
The gang unit supervisor shared his concern saying he feels "bad because our approach has
been to run the bad guys out of town. Problem is, they pick up and move to surrounding communities and continue to gang bang over there. I feel bad
about that," he said. He is referring, of course, to crime displacement, or, what we might call,
The following illustration of the United States indicates
that, as recently as 1992, nearly every region of the country has
experienced gang migration.
When we move to a discussion of why gangs form we will take a closer look
at the impact of migrating gang members on the neighborhoods into which they