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

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
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 13:
The Fluidity of Gangs and Gang Members

In the latter part of the 1980's this country was impacted by the migration of inner-city gang members across America. This migration from metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Chicago, set in motion a social phenomenon of violence and anti-authority defiance among youth. Fueled primarily by family relocation rather than a desire to expand into new criminal markets, the migration drastically altered the violent crime problem of communities across the Nation. (Wiley, 1997, page)

Field Note: There is a poor part of town that is mostly occupied by African-Americans. Some live in wealthy housing areas, and there is some interracial dating. We drove through all the blocks of housing occupied primarily by African-Americans and the gang unit supervisor told me "Lots of our black families have roots and other family members in Denver. They travel back and forth and sometimes they bring the gang influence with them when they come back here from Denver. They've been around gangs for generations, so it's normal to have them, as they see it."

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 gang.

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 year.

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 communities. (Egley, 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. (Starbuck, et al., 2001, page)

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 years. 

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, 1994, page)

7. 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, deadly.

8. Location

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 different location.

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 Gang Members

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 activities.

More common in the United States, however, is the migration of gang members from one city to another or within the same city.  

Field Notes: 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 that

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 enterprises (Decker and Van Winkle, 1996). This is also referred to as gang franchising (Knox et al., 1996) and gang colonization (Quinn, 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)

Field Note: 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, gang displacement.

The following illustration of the United States indicates that, as recently as 1992, nearly every region of the country has experienced gang migration. 

figure 1
(Maxson, 1998, page)

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 migrate.


Additional Resources: For more information on street gang migration see "Street Gang Migration, How Big a Threat?" and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's 1997 National Youth Gang Survey section on "Youth Gang Migration."  Or explore the observations of David Starbuck, retired head of the Kansas City Police Department's Gang Squad, as he discusses gang migration and hybrid gangs.

"The Influence of Gang Migration on Gang Proliferation," as found in Gang Members on the Move, is an exceptionally  thorough piece on gang migration.

CNNInteractive offers "Youth Gangs No Longer Just a Big City Problem" which deals with families that move and take their gang-oriented children with them. 

You can also read about Jamaican Posses (click on "Gang Information" then click on Jamaican Posses - or any of the other gangs listed at this site) and their infamous violent behavior.

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.