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 7:
The Structure of Gangs

"Gangs are the new wave of organized crime in the United States."
(Scott Lawson, Sgt. of Narcotics, Polk County (FL) Sheriff's office. 
A quote from a live teleconference on gangs, April, 2000)

Field Note: A nationally recognized educator on Hispanic gangs told me "The California sets have a pack between themselves and they can be found in other states in Mexico. Actually, they are slowly crossing over from being a bunch of gangs to being an organized crime element. We're finding that some of them are into arms dealing."

Sounding much like organized crime in the United States in the 1920's and 1930's he said "Some of the gangs impose a tariff on other gangs if the other gang wants to sell drugs in their territory - $40 a day per seller is typical. And they are a ruthless group of predators. They have tax collectors - gang members who collect the tariffs. Prostitutes conducting business on their turf also pay a tax to the gang. So do the street vendors." 

Prior to carrying out my research, the image I carried in my mind about the structure of gangs may have mirrored that of many other Americans. They were either highly structured and referred to as "organized crime" gangs ("gangsters" or "mobsters") or they were loose confederations of youths who initiated new members then partied with each other and committed a wide range of different crimes. The impression I had was created by the mass media, for the most part, since I had limited exposure to gangs as a youth.

As I was to discover, in real life gangs exhibit a wide range of attributes along each of which there is considerable variation. The chart below illustrates some of the more significant characteristics of gangs and how each varies on a continuum. The chart is useful for a variety of reasons. It suggests that the only thing which differentiates "group delinquency" or a very low-level street/youth gang from an organized crime gang is a matter of degree of one characteristic or another along the continuum.

Field Note: The gang unit supervisor told me that "Street gangs here are getting into organized crime including the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine. And the same people are beginning to appear who are selling drugs as well as running prostitution in town."

The chart also reflects the very real potential for street gangs to develop into more organized crime units or for certain members of street gangs to be recruited into more formally organized gangs. This suggests that the loosely organized, seemingly benign street gangs in one's community could mature into a bigger problem tomorrow. Those who suggest street gangs don't develop into organized crime gangs must believe the Sicilian Mafia was created instantly.

Intelligence developed through investigations has revealed extensive interaction among individuals belonging to gangs across the Nation. This interaction does not take the conceptual form of traditional organized crime. It is more a loose network of contacts and associations that come together as needed to support individual business ventures.

There are however, some street gangs that possess structured organization in their drug operations. In cities such as Chicago and New Haven, the Black Gangster Disciple Nation, Vice Lords, and Latin Kings have a more recognized organizational structure, funneling profits upward through the organization. (Wiley, 1997)

A Continuum of Gang Characteristics

Hybrid/ Street Gangs   

Organized Crime Gangs

Loosely organized    ____________________    Highly organized
Little crime   
____________________    Crime- Specialized
Short term membership    ____________________    Long-term membership
No goals or only   
short-term goals   


   Long-Term goals

Local / Neighborhood    ____________________    Regional, National, or
Factions and factional    involvement    ____________________    Whole group involvement
Informal initiation    ____________________    Formal initiation
Informal leadership    ____________________    Formal leadership

In a study of over 1,000 gang members representing five states (California, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio), Knox (Knox, 1995) and his research associates found "the higher level gangs were more organizationally sophisticated and appeared to have a number of formalized economic functions and capabilities ... most of the gangs ... were fairly sophisticated, had some formalized rules, and their own argot or gang language ... the top leaders were for the most part adults with long tenure in the gang." (as reported in Yablonsky, 1997, pp. 183-184).

Field Notes: When asked about his perception of gangs in the city the gang unit specialist, a member of the unit for nearly 22 years, said "Street gangs are just one step below organized crime."

In another community the supervisor of the gang unit told me "The Asian gang units here are considered low-level organized crime and are handled by the department's organized crime unit, not the gang unit." 

I don't know if gangs are the next wave of organized crime in the United Status or not. Research conducted by Decker, Bynum, and Weisel suggests that this is not the case, or that it has been exaggerated in the press. (Decker, Bynum, and Weisel, 1998, pp. 422-423)  Unfortunately, their findings were based upon a study of only four gangs in two American cities. None of the gangs studied were Mexican Mafia or other gangs which have been maturing into organized crime gangs (i.e., select Asian gangs, Hell's Angels). 

If the criminalization of alcohol is referred to as prohibition then the current criminalization of drugs (i.e., controlled substances - marijuana, narcotics) may be called the new prohibition. The new prohibition has spawned a wide range of criminal enterprises, some more highly organized than others. Spergel and other researchers have expressed their concern that there may be a link between street- or youth gangs and organized crime.

Adult criminals may follow the street reputations of youngsters and gradually draw young gang members into criminal networks. Many youth gangs and cliques within gangs may become subunits of organized crime for purposes of drug distribution, car theft, extortion, and burglary. (Spergel et al., 1994, p. 5)

The Statuses and Roles of Gang Members

Field Note: An experienced parole officer told me she thought "All gangs are organized. Every member knows what the others are doing, who's selling drugs to who and where, where their gang's territory is, if they have one. Everyone has something to do."  

Urban Dynamics, Inc., created the following diagram. (Source) Given the wide variety of gangs and their associated structures, the diagram is a general overview of a typical street gang's structure or organization. The position titles may vary from one gang to another. For example, the leader (see "leadership" in the diagram) may be called an O.G., a Veterano, the President, the Chairman and so on. And there may be several leaders in a single gang - each responsible for a different aspect of the gang's activity (one leader for drug dealing, another for theft from cars, etc.).

The following information is taken, with permission, from the manual "Comprehensive Community Reanimation Process" published by Urban Dynamics, Inc. While the document presented here is by no means complete, it does offer a good grounding in contemporary gang phenomenon. Those interested in obtaining a complete copy of the manual may do so by contacting UDI at (708) 385-0066.

All gangs have identifiable levels of membership. These levels of membership indicate status within a gang and acts as the organizational maintenance systems. There are actually six levels of gang structure.

1. Leadership:
The leader(s) of a gang determines at what level of criminal activity the gang will function. Characteristics of the leader(s) are reflected in the day to day activities of the gang. The leader is all powerful.

2. Hard Core:
The hard core gang members are usually the older gang members, the individuals who are culturally and criminally enmeshed in the gang and are at risk of being so for life. Most violent gang activity emanates from the hard core gang members. Hard core gang members usually make up about 10% of gang membership.
3. Associate:
The associate gang member has usually made a personal commitment to the gang culture and is dedicated to achieving the level of recognition needed to attain hard core status.

4. Fringe:
The fringe gang member is still able to function outside of the gang structure and has not made a commitment to a life in the criminal gang culture. This type of member drifts in and out of the gang and seems to lack direction.

5. Wanna-Bes:
Wanna-bes are not actually gang members. They are youth who view the gang as an exciting place to be, a place where they could become "somebody". Wanna-bes may emulate gang dress, graffiti, hand signs, and other gang cultural symbols, and they may associate with known gang members, but they have not yet been excepted into the gang.

Very seldom is the gang at full strength. Exceptions to this, of course, would be times of conflict or possibly at social functions. What is most often seen as "the gang" is usually a clique from within the larger gang. The clique is a group of associate, fringe, and often, wanna-be gang members who gravitate around one or more of the hard core gang members. This somewhat resembles a gang within a gang.

An important attribute of most groups is the assignment of statuses and accompanying role expectations upon its members. We noted in our previous discussion of gang culture that there is a distinction between a person's status and his or her roles. One's status is what one is. I am a university professor. That's one of my statuses in life. I am also a an uncle and a musician. Those, too, are statuses.

One's roles are those behaviors a person is expected to exhibit within a given status. As a professor I am expected to teach, conduct research, and provide service to my university, the profession, and the community. Those are some of roles which constitute my status as professor. As an uncle I am expected to be supportive of my nephews and nieces and listen to their concerns. Those are some of the roles attached to the status of uncle.

Similarly, gang members have statuses and roles. While the names for these statuses vary widely across gangs, they include Original Gangster (O.G.), Gangster (G.) or Young Gangster (Y.G.), Associate or Baby Gangster (B.G.), and Wannabe (W.B.). In a conversation (12 March 2005) with Curtis Sliwa (creator of the Guardian Angels), he said "There are three characters out there - predators, prospects, and posers. The predators are the most heavily involved gang members. Prospects are similar to associates in that they are involved and are getting themselves further involved in gang activity. Posers, on the other hand, don't want to have anything to do with gangs, but they "get off on lookin' cool, like one of the gang, like MTV and BET. They're part of the youth culture, but not the gang culture."

In more formalized gangs there are such statuses as president, vice president, treasurer, secretary (often the keeper of the scrapbook of newspaper articles about the gang), parliamentarian, and sergeant-at-arms. In ethnic gangs the names for the various status positions are different but the roles expectations are the same. 

Most gangs have leaders. This should not be very surprising, as few organizations can survive without some form of leadership ... Not surprisingly, leadership roles are better defined in those gangs and gang cities where gangs have operated the longest. Thus, in Chicago and Los Angeles, we find gang leaders who are older, more specialized in their activities, and more powerful. In other cities, those we have called emerging gang cities, leadership roles have a far more informal character. In these gangs, the leader of a gang can change from one day or one function to another ... As gang membership entails much criminal activity, it is not surprising to find that leaders change regularly, as members go to prison. (Curry and Decker, 1998, p. 75)

Field Note: A veteran gang unit supervisor told me "Certain gang members become involved because of skills and talents they can provide to the gang or organization. Some may have a good source of cocaine, or marijuana. Some may possess the skills needed to steal a vehicle in under 60 seconds. Finally some may have the heart, or lack of conscience, to commit random acts of violence towards innocent people or rival gang members. Usually the selection of their moniker begins to solidify their gang identity and their gang personality with monikers like 'Crazy Boy,' 'Monster,' or 'Killa' (killer)."  

The supervisor also believes that "Technology has allowed the distribution of contraband to flourish, walkie talkies, RF frequency detectors, video surveillance equipment, motion detectors, cell phones, pagers, faxes. Loyal scouts [from the gang] are placed in strategic locations throughout the neighborhood, to monitor changing conditions, and relay up-to-the-minute intelligence information about rival gangsters or police in the neighborhood."

Several of the O.G.'s I interviewed considered themselves to be teachers in the gang. They taught the younger gang members how to handle themselves in a variety of situations (i.e., in fights, during drug deals, with police, the courts, while in jail or prison, how to commit certain crimes). One of them told me he tells the wannabes in his gang that he wants them to "Walk across the stage" - go to school and graduate.

The process of acquiring rank is based primarily on length of time in the gang, blood relationships with current leaders, and level of criminal activity. Older gang members who have logged a considerable number of years as a member of their gangs are in a position to obtain rank and as a consequence are afforded special status and perform unique duties. Often referred to as OGs or original gangsters, these individuals hold the distinction of having lived through a number of years of gang life. (Curry and Decker, 1998, p. 68)

Other statuses in a gang, and some of the roles they include, are "mule" (someone who carries drugs from one place to another), "shot caller" (the leader of a gang or a specific criminal activity committed by a faction within the gang), and "look out" (someone who keeps an eye on the vicinity in which a crime or meeting is occurring to warn of the approach of rivals or police). Generically speaking, there are also gang members who fulfill the role of drug or gun buyer, supplier, seller/"foot soldier," dealer, distributor, deal maker, negotiator, guard, and tagger.   

Field Note: The head of the county gang squad began describing some of the statuses found in gangs. He described the "High Roller" by saying "We never see him. He's probably a white businessman and is part of the organized crime link to gangs - the channel large amounts of drugs move through. Another is the 'Runner' who gets the drugs to the street. The 'Steerer' finds the market - the customers for the drugs, and the 'Lookouts' stand on the periphery of the scene to warn the sellers of approaching police."

The point is this. If individual gang members have specific statuses and roles within a gang, there is reason for viewing the gang as organized. The degree of organization varies across a variety of characteristics. 

A Word of Caution About Wannabes

Leon Bing, author of the 1991 book Do or Die, which explores gang life in Los Angeles, said ... there is not much that separates a wannabe gang member from a true gang member. (Robinson, 1997)

Young people who want to be gangsters - usually called wannabes - are among the most dangerous of all the gang members. This observation was made by dozens of interview subjects during the course of my three years of field research- including established gang members. The violence and reckless abandon often exhibited by wannabes places them in a special category. Their behavior may be even more unpredictable and hard core than the most seasoned gang member's. 

Field Note: While talking about wannabes, the head of the county's gang squad told me "In the emulator's [wannabe's] mind, he or she is a gang member. They want the recognition of being a gang member in the eyes of the police and the community. An experienced gang member doesn't want this recognition."

The word "wannabe" has been co-opted by mainstream American culture. For example, it's not unusual to hear beginning tennis players call themselves "wannabe" tennis players. This popularization of the term has removed much of the negative or potentially dangerous connotation from it. That's unfortunate. Wannabe gang members are, because of this popularization, sometimes not seen for the danger they present. They are not seen as gang members, hence some communities take little action to deal with them.  

The most effective way to keep youths from joining gangs is to keep gangs from forming. "Why gangs form" is the topic of the next section.


Additional Resources: You can read about the structure of well organized Chicago-based gangs. Among the most highly structured of gangs in America is the Mafia. It's history, presence in other countries, and one of the newest forms (the Mexican Mafia) can be explored on the Internet.

York University (Toronto, Canada) hosts a site referred to as the Nathanson Centre for the Study of Organized Crime and Corruption. This page will provide you with many useful links concerning those topics.

You can read the Controlled Substances Act and find a complete listing of all controlled substances

Learn more about the life, and death, of a "wannabe."  For a list of additional gang-related statuses see Street Terms: Drugs and the Drug Trade

For additional information on the structure of gangs, visit Gangs 101. You can also learn more about Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels.

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.