Gangs don’t resemble those in West Side Story much anymore, they’re more bloodthirsty, harder to spot, willing to subcontract with rivals, and all about making money.
There are about 1.4 million people involved in over 33,000 gangs across the U.S.
The distribution of gang members is about 88% on the streets, around 10% in prisons, and 2% in outlaw motorcycle organizations, according to the F.B.I.’s Gang Threat Assessment report. Gangs rely on drug trafficking for income more than prostitution, robberies, and other crimes, using legitimate-looking businesses as “fronts” for money laundering and other transactions.
Gangs are increasingly using social media and sophisticated technologies to make deals and monitor law enforcement responses to their activities. Colleges have been adopted as gang territories in recent years as members become students and potentially recruit others on campus. Even professional athletes and celebrities may have gang affiliations.
The glorification of gang swagger in video games, rap songs, and in movies makes it easier to recruit new members. Poor urban kids with few family ties, poor role models, and a desire for material wealth and status are easily won over by older gang members who show them respect and provide payment and gifts for small tasks such as delivering packages or acting as lookouts. Pop singer Cardi B has recently admitted associating with gang members while growing up Dominican in New York City, and other celebrities of music and movies attempt to identify with inner-city youth by exemplifying “thug life”.
Experts say young suburban kids aren’t immune from gang influence either. In order to evade detection, older gang members often farm out tasks to young kids who are willing to do anything for a few dollars and attention. Using kids as young as 12 years old means they will face less serious consequences if they get caught. Gangs are moving into suburban and even rural areas to corner the drug trade and evade cameras that might monitor their activities in cities.
Kids may be recruited through multiplayer video games as well as in neighborhood hangouts. Those with older siblings or relatives already in gangs are at high risk for recruitment. Signs that young kids are involved with gangs include:
While gang members may be visible in gritty neighborhoods, the unseen hands behind many gangs are in cell blocks of state and federal prisons. From the inside, the warlords of city gangs use encrypted messages and smuggled cell phones to direct the activities of their counterparts on the streets by buying off guards. Gang members sent to prison become hardened by their experiences and prepared to re-enter their neighborhoods tougher and meaner than ever.
When larcenies rose in urban centers over the past decade, law enforcement figured out why: gangs have been increasingly turning to white-collar crime to avoid lengthy mandatory prison sentences for drug crimes and because they’re harder to trace. Instead of always selling drugs on the street, they have recently been stealing peoples’ identities, cashing bad checks, making fraudulent gift cards, paying employees to skim customers’ credit card numbers, and cashing in on faked tax returns.
New York City law enforcement has responded to this criminal crossover by coordinating efforts among gang detectives and white collar crime divisions as it becomes more common.
While Hispanics are the ethnicity most represented in gangs, many feel that new efforts to classify and track youngsters who are potential gang members unfairly target youth of color. As punishment for gang involvement becomes more harsh, those who police have been tracking are more likely to get maximum penalties for breaking the law, even if police cannot prove a direct gang affiliation.
Black and Hispanic youth are disproportionately likely to be sent to prison – or deported, sometimes to a country they are unfamiliar with - for the same offense as a white person.