America's Response to the Gang Culture
By Vincent J. Bove, CPP
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
On March 9, 2006 federal agents from the
Department of Homeland Security's
U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
arrested 375 gang members and associates in 23 states with assistance from a partnership with law enforcement agencies nationwide.
These arrests, under the auspices of
Operation Community Shield,
are an initiative launched to disrupt transnational, violent street gangs.
This comprehensive program is the first time the federal government has used immigration and customs
authorities in a partnered national campaign against American street gangs.
Over the last year, the efforts of ICE have resulted in arrests of 2,388 members of 239 different gangs and the seizure of 117 firearms.
Fifty-one of those arrested were gang leaders. Roughly 922 were from Mara-Salvatrucha (MS-13).
National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations (NAGIA)
2005 National Gang Threat Assessment
was published by
in partnership with the
Federal Bureau of Investigation,
National Drug Intelligence Center
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In the executive summary of this document, available in its entirety on their web site, is
the commentary that gangs are pervasive throughout America and they undeniably instill fear
and violence which threaten our schools, children and homes.
According to the report, there are general trends of American gang activity which include:
- Gangs remain the primary distributors of drugs in America
- Gang members are becoming more sophisticated in the use of computers and technology to communicate and facilitate crime
- Prison gangs are a unique law enforcement threat where high ranking members exert street influence from within
- Women are taking more active roles, assisting in the movement of drugs and weapons and gathering intelligence on other gangs
- Numerous American communities refuse to acknowledge a gang problem and only respond to a high profile gang incident
- Multi-agency task forces and community groups are effective but funding decreases are creating significant challenges
- Migration of the California style gang culture and sub culture is a particular threat that reaches continually into new neighborhoods
Federal Bureau of Investigation
As expressed on the
FBI web site, about 30,000 violent street gangs,
motorcycle gangs and prison gangs with approximately
800,000 members operate in the United States.
Many are sophisticated and well organized;
all use violence to control neighborhoods and boost their illegal money-making
activities which include drug trafficking, robbery, theft, fraud, extortion, prostitution rings and gun trafficking.
The response of the FBI includes:
- A National Gang Strategy that defines the gangs posing the greatest danger to American communities and targets them with the coordinated resources of law enforcement and the same federal racketeering statutes, intelligence and investigative techniques used to defeat organized crime. The FBI web site has a complete list of the connections to Central America and Mexico that are being targeted.
- More Safe Streets Violent Gang Task Forces have been formed; from 78 to 108 and 20 more are planned. Since 1996, the works of these task forces have led to 20,000 convictions and the dismantling of more then 250 gangs.
- A National Gang Intelligence Center which will coordinate the national collection of gang intelligence and help in its sharing with partners around the globe.
- The new MS-13 National Gang Task Force to help speed the flow of information and intelligence on MS-13 nationally and internationally and assist in coordinating investigations.
The Worlds Most Dangerous Gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)
recently presented a special documentary on MS-13 entitled,
The World's Most Dangerous Gang.
This is a gang of particular concern to law enforcement.
On the FBI web site is this graphic description of MS-13's barbaric behavior,
"they have severed the fingers of their rivals with machetes… brutally murdered suspected informants including a 17-year-old pregnant federal witness…
attacked law enforcement officers… committed a string of rapes, assaults, break-ins, auto thefts, extortions and frauds across the United States…
been involved with everything from drug and firearms trafficking to prostitution and money laundering…
and are sowing violence and discord not just in the United States but around the world".
In a January 5, 2006
report are these MS-13 facts:
- Origins: Formed by Salvadoran immigrants who fled to the United States during El Salvador's civil war in the 1980's. The name comes from Salvadoran references, Mara which is slang for a group of young people or a mob; Salva for a reference to El Salvador; Trucha for slang for "on guard" and 13 for 13th street in Los Angeles where there is a strong MS-13 presence.
- Number of Members: In the United States, estimates are up to 10,000 and in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico there is an estimated 50,000 more.
- United States Presence: 33 states, the District of Columbia with the largest concentrations in California, Virginia and New York.
- Who are MS-13: At first, MS-13 were exclusively immigrants from El Salvador. Now, members are from Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
- Distinguishing Characteristics: Tattoos bearing the number 13, the letter M, the letters MS or the phrase "Salvadoran Pride".
- Criminal Activities: Stealing and exporting cars from the United States (estimates are that as high as 80% of vehicles in El Salvador are stolen American owned vehicles), burglary, drug sales, home invasions, weapons smuggling, carjacking, extortion, murder, rape, witness intimidation, illegal firearm sales and aggravated assaults.
North Jersey Regional Crime Prevention Officers Association
On March 25, 2006, under the leadership of Lt. Patrick Fay of the
Hackensack Police Department
and President of the
North Jersey Regional Crime Prevention Officers Association,
the association in partnership with
Fairleigh Dickinson University
held a special training session on MS-13 at the Teaneck, NJ campus.
Detective Joseph Viola, retired from the
Bergen County Sheriff's Department
and member of the governor's task force delivered a compelling MS-13 awareness presentation.
Over 200 rank and file law enforcement (federal, state, county and local representatives) and
private security officials (particularly from colleges and schools) attended the event entitled
America's Most Dangerous Gang: MS-13.
This event rivaled the association's other largest attendance venue of January 25, 2005 on
Gangs, Guns and Drugs.
The presentation highlighted aforementioned concerns of MS-13 and utilized clips from the National Geographic documentary.
Answers to Common Gang Questions
What is a gang?
A basic definition is any structured group of three or more individuals united together on a continuing basis for the purpose of committing antisocial or criminal acts.
What are gang indicators?
Although there are numerous indicators (and indicators must be discerned in a complete context to avoid simplistic overreaction),
these are red flags that signal potential problems; graffiti, colors (beads, bandanas, clothing, hats, shoe laces, national flags, etc),
hand signs, tattoos, admissions of associations, hangouts, etc.
What are clues of gang membership?
Early Indicators of Possible Gang Involvement:
More Serious Signs of Gang Membership:
- Change of friends
- Decline in grades at school and truancy
- Keeping late hours without justification
- Having large sums of unexplainable money or expensive items
- Drug Use
Gangs are a reality of the culture of American violence and are often disenfranchised and marginalized youth
who can themselves be products of a cycle of violence and the deterioration of the American family.
Gang members can often also be individuals from other oppressed countries where violence and a
"survival of the fittest mentality by any means is a way of life". The desperate association of American
youth to the deceptive and dangerous allure of the gang culture is expressive of a need for recognition and
sense of belonging rather then being ostracized and alienated. America's response must be exercised through not only the
criminal justice system where there must be consequences for illegal activity but though collaboration of law
enforcement, private security, family, community and educational partnerships.
- Unexplainable injuries from indoctrination
- Gang graffiti on items such as books, posters and bedroom walls
- Wearing gang clothing or colors
- Using hand signals to communicate with others
- Having photographs showing gang names, slogans, insignia or gang activities
- Gang tattoos or body markings
- Credible people connecting the individual to gang activity
- Actual admission of gang membership
Prevention of gang involvement must begin in the most preventive settings available,
that is, at early years of educational formation in the home and school so positive alternatives
of acceptable social avenues may be the attraction instead of the false allurement of a
disastrous gang culture that ends only in disillusionment, prison or death.
Vincent J. Bove, CPP
is a Board Certified Protection Professional, Board Certified Crime Prevention Specialist,
Certified Law Enforcement Instructor and U.S. Department of Justice Certified Community
Anti-Terrorism Awareness Trainer.
He is the 2007 New Jersey recipient of the prestigious
FBI Director's Community Leadership Award
and was hand-selected to serve as a facilitator and mentor for the 2007
National Conference on Ethics in America
and speaker for the 2008 conference at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
"Vincent J. Bove is considered one of the foremost
national experts on school and workplace violence
prevention, specializing in facility protection,
evacuations, terrorism prevention and leadership
training." -- U.S. Senate
You can visit Mr. Bove's website at
or email him at