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 5:
Kinds and Names of Gangs

Kinds of Gangs

The world of gangs is very complex. I didn't expect to find that. When someone mentioned the word gang to me before I did my research, it conjured up images of a group of young men standing on a street corner at night selling drugs.  

In reality, there are many kinds of gangs in the United States and elsewhere. They may be categorized in several ways: by their degree of organization (from loosely organized street gangs to highly organized crime units such as the Mexican Mafia and Sicilian Mafia); location (i.e., street gangs, prison gangs); nation (i.e., Bloods and Crips, Gangster Disciples, People, Folk, and Mexican Mafia); mode of transportation (i.e., car clubs, biker gangs); or longevity (i.e., generational); to name a few.     

Another way in which to categorize gangs is by the ethnicity of their members and may include Latino gangs, Asian gangs, and gangs composed of people from countries such as Somalia, Russia, Kosovo, Jamaica, China, Japan, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Ghana, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, Viet Nam, and nearly as many more as there are nationalities on the planet. There are even gangs or near-gangs in other countries which would be best classified by their religion or faith.

According to Jerome Skolnick, a distinction could also be made between neighborhood-based gangs and entrepreneurial gangs. Neighborhood-based gangs are a more traditional type of street gang and are turf oriented. Protecting the 'hood (neighborhood) is a primary goal, as is socializing. Entrepreneurial gangs are oriented toward the commission of criminal acts for profit. Skolnick believes some neighborhood gangs are developing into entrepreneurial gangs. (Skolnick, 1995)

Gangs may also be categorized by the kinds of crimes their members commit. The most commonly used distinction is between street gangs and drug gangs. Table 1 (below) illustrates the differences between these two kinds of gangs according to research conducted by Malcolm Klein. (1995)

Table 1: Common Differences between Street Gangs and Drug Gangs
Street Gangs Drug Gangs
Versatile ("cafeteria-style") crime
Larger structures
Less cohesive
Looser leadership
Ill-defined roles
Code of loyalty
Residential territories
Members may sell drugs
Intergang rivalries
Younger on average, but wider age range
Crime focused on drug business
Smaller structures
More cohesive
More centralized leadership
Market-defined roles
Requirement of loyalty
Sales market territories
Members do sell drugs
Competition controlled
Older on average, but narrower age range

(Klein, 1995, p. 132)

Howell (2003) uses the following "Continuum of Troublesome and Criminal Groups" as a way of identifying different types of gangs.

Troublesome Youth Groups: Children and adolescents who hang out together in shopping malls and other places and may be involved in minor forms of delinquency.

Delinquent groups: Small clusters of friends who band together to commit delinquent acts such as burglaries.

Youth subculture groups: Groups with special interests, such as “goths,” “straight edgers,” and “anarchists,” that are not gangs.

Taggers: Graffiti vandals. Taggers are often called gang members, but they typically do nothing more than engage in graffiti contests.

School-based gangs: Groups of adolescents that may function as gangs only at school.

Street-based gangs: Semi structured groups of adolescents and young adults who engage in delinquent and criminal behavior.

Drug gangs: Loosely organized groups of drug-trafficking operations that generally are led by both young and older adults but sometimes include adolescents.

Adult criminal organizations: Small groups of adults that engage in lucrative criminal activity primarily for economic reasons.

Names of Gangs

Although many communities have gangs that bear the names of earlier gangs that originated in Los Angeles and Chicago, the actual membership of these newer gangs is often locally based and has little or no real national affiliation. These hybrids - new gangs that may have the names but not the other characteristics of older gangs - are one of the new types of gangs most frequently found in communities that had no gang culture prior to the 1980s or 1990s. (Starbuck, et al., 2001, page)

With an estimated 840,000 gang members in the United States one should not be surprised there are thousands of gang names being used. Some gang's names are a mixture of neighborhood identifier and nation. For example, the 14th Street Bandilleros (fictitious) are, as evidenced by their name, claiming to be in the nation of Bandilleros but are the 14th Street set.

So, what is a set? I am from the state of Missouri. Everyone in Missouri may be called a Missourian but when asked where they come from, they often say the name of the city in Missouri from which they come. I am a native St. Louisan. In gang slang, St. Louis would the set I belong to in the larger gang known as the Missourians. By analogy, a person may be a Bandillero but, as in our example, he will claim to be a 14th Street Bandillero. The 14th Street designation is his set within the larger group of Bandilleros.  

There may be thousands of sets within a nation of gangs (i.e., Crips, Bloods, Gangster Disciples, or whatever nation) and anywhere from one to hundreds of sets in one city or another. Set members tend to name themselves according to the names of the streets on which their founder or several of their members live, or the name of their local neighborhood, parks, schools, or other landmarks in their vicinity. Some gangs have no such territorial ties and name their gangs using other rationales. The derivation of some gangs' names are unknown, even to some of their members.

Before I began my research I thought each nation (Bloods, Crips, etc.) got along with their own members, knew one another, and were of the same cloth, so to speak - shared the same rules, goals, and beliefs. Instead, sets in the same nation may or may not get along with one another, seldom know one another, and seldom share the same rules, goals, or beliefs.

The name of a "nation" in association with the name of a local gang may have nothing to do with that nation. For example, the use of "Crip" after a local gang name (the name of the set) does not mean that the members of that gang know any of the other Crips in another city, although they may know some of the Crips in other local Crip sets. And they may or may not get along with other sets of Crips.

It is important to note that when a gang has taken the name of a nationally known gang, this does not necessarily indicate that the gang is part of a group with a national infrastructure. According to the NDIC [National Drug Intelligence Center] Report the majority of gangs do not have interstate connections or a hierarchical structure. These loosely structured gangs are often more violent and criminally active than the gangs they seek to imitate. (Wiley, 1997)

Field Note: A police gang unit supervisor in a large west coast city told me "We have Crip and Blood sets that get along better with one another than some Crips get along with Crips and Bloods get along with Bloods. And which one gets along with the other is constantly changing!"

The most recent research on gangs highlights the growing hybridization of gangs. "Hybrid gang culture is characterized by mixed racial and ethnic participation within a single gang, participation in multiple gangs by a single individual, vague rules and codes of conduct for gang members, use of symbols and colors from multiple - even rival - gangs, collaboration by rival gangs in criminal activities, and the merger of smaller gangs into larger ones." (Starbuck, et al., 2001, page)

Emerging Information on Hybrid Gangs
(Starbuck, et. al., 2001)

Hybrid gangs are more frequently encountered in communities in which gang problems emerged during the 1990s than in localities that reported onset of gang problems in the 1980s. Hybrid gangs tend to have the following nontraditional features:

bulletThey may or may not have an allegiance to a traditional gang color.
bulletLocal gangs may adopt the symbols of large gangs in more than one city.
bulletGang members may change their affiliation from one gang to another.
bulletIt is not uncommon for a gang member to claim multiple affiliations, sometimes involving rival gangs.
bulletExisting gangs may change their names or suddenly merge with other gangs to form new ones.

While the general public may hold a stereotype of gangs as being like those in California (i.e., Bloods and Crips), the fact is that the nature of the gang phenomenon varies from one community or neighborhood to another. To effectively address a neighborhood's gang problem it must be studied so that its exact nature is well understood.

Regardless of the kind of gang or its name, researchers have found many of them have a culture of their own - a subculture within society's larger culture, if you will. Gang culture is our next topic of discussion.


Additional Resources: Visit the site of the Southeastern Connecticut Gang Activities Group, look in the frame on the left side of their web page, click on "Gang Information" then scroll down and click on "EME - Mexican Mafia."

Highlights of the 2006 national Youth Gang Survey

You can view the names of gangs organized by the states in which they operate as posted and continually updated on Robert Walker's Gangs OR Us web site. On the right side of his home page, Walker provides access to various police gang unit sites.

Visit this site for a listing of just a few of the names of gangs in Florida cities.

The links provided below are to both learned and popular articles about all kinds of gangs (street gangs as well as ideological gangs) and to some of the respective gangs' Internet sites. While not condoning the content of the gang sites, a cursory look at what they offer may provide a better understanding of their purpose, goals, and activities.

Type / Name of Gang

Internet Sites

Prison Gangs Article, Link1
Bloods and Crips Article, Link 1, Link 2, Crips, Bloods
Gangster Disciples Article, Link 1, Link 2, Link 3
Hybrid Gangs Article
People and Folk Nations Article
Mexican Mafia Article (click on "Gang Information" on the left of the page then click on EME in the center of the page)
Latino Gangs Article 1, Article 2 , Article 3
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) Article 1, Article 2, Article 3, News
Asian Gangs Article 1, Article 2, Article 3
Russian Gangs Article 1, Article 2, Article 3, Article 4
Jamaican Gangs Article 1, Article 2, Article 3
Chinese Gangs Article 1 , Article 2, Triads
Japanese Gangs Article 1, Article 2
Hmong (Laos) Gangs Article 1, Resource
Vietnamese Gangs Article 1, Article 2, Article 3
In general ... A Brief History of Street Gangs

© 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.