Time to teach the pony another trick

Peter over at the Strategist had a post up about an article by John P. Sullivan.  I’ve written about Sullivan before and I really don’t know what it is about this guy but he really gets under my skin.  Perhaps it’s because I’m jealous he keeps getting quoted and  published even though he has nothing original to say (I suspect a social network analysis of Mr. Sullivan would be much more informative about how he manages to be quoted as an expert rather than an examination of his writings).  Never mind what he does say is total gibberish, it’s not even interesting gibberish.

I didn’t want to read it.  Lord knows, I didn’t really need to read it since once you’ve read one of Sullivan’s articles you’ve read them all (almost literally since he tends to cite himself as a source to prove his arguments) but I just can’t let it go.  So, here’s my take on…Global Cities – Global Gangs (yeah…don’t get too excited about that title).

…a rise in newer, networked ‘third generation gangs’ in increasingly ‘global’ cities means that the street gang is becoming an aspect of foreign policy warranting attention and combined domestic and international cooperation.

Whoa…newer, networked gangs?  Sounds scary.  Well, wait a minute.  I guess they really aren’t that new since Sullivan has been attempting to peddle his theory for over ten years now.  What exactly is a ‘third generation gang’? Well, accoring to Sullivan:

Third generation gangs have evolved political aims, operate or seek to operate at the global end of the spectrum, and employ their sophistication to acquire power, money, and engage in mercenary or political activities. To date, these gangs have been primarily mercenary in orientation; yet, in some cases they seek political and social objectives. Examples of third generation gangs can be seen in Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, Brazil, South Africa, and throughout Central America.

Of course this definition is so vague it’s worthless unless you just want to cherry pick examples and make it looks like it fits your theory.  What does ‘global end of the spectrum’ mean?  Is a member of the bloods who works with a Dominican to transport cocaine from Mexico qualify?  I don’t know and you won’t either because Sullivan can’t be bothered with little things like details.

The most obvious third generation examples are MS-13 and M-18, which conduct business internationally across many parts of the Americas. MS-13 is estimated to have 8,000-10,000 members and M-18 30,000 members, although telling hardcore maras from affiliates and associates is problematic.

This whole paragraph is bullshit.  First off, MS-13 exists in the U.S. and Central America, however those gangs manifest themselves in very different ways and there isn’t much other than wild speculation to indicate that the gang is organized in any sense of the term.  Most gangs in the U.S. are really best thought of as a franchise business.  Members think there are benefits to attaching themselves to a ‘big name’ gang but generally resist control or being crammed into any strict hierarchy because they’re profit seeking criminals.

As an aside, I think one of the real beauties of the American system is that even those who refuse to work outside of it’s boundaries don’t want to destroy it, they just want a quicker path to the top.  I suspect that’s why we see the disenfranchised and ‘have-nots’ join criminal gangs and not so much politically motivated groups.

No one, and I mean NO ONE, can give you membership estimates of gangs that are anything other than wild guesses.  Even if you could get an accurate number, however, it’s value would be highly questionable since gang membership is a very slippery thing.  Most gang members in the U.S. only stay in for 2 years or so before dropping out (growing up and family life tend to calm most young men down – read Clockwork Orange).  Too often, throwing out a number like ‘8,000 members’! gives the impression that you’ve got an army at your command ready to hop to at a moments notice.  The truth is that the vast majority of gang members (at least in the U.S.) don’t work that way.  You’ve a relatively small percentage of sociopathic crazies and the rest are fairly rational actors who are at various levels of loyalty to their gang.  I sure wouldn’t count of them to stand by me in a fight.

Yet other gangs elsewhere in the world combine political aims and criminal action.  These include the Latin Kings active in the US, Caribbean, and Spain; Tamil gangs in Toronto linked with Sri Lanka’s LTTE, gangs (like the Premier Capitol Command-PCC and Red Command) and vigilante militias in Brazil’s favelas, as well as Cape-area gangs in South Africa like ‘Hard Livings’ and their bitter foes, the vigilante group Pagad (People against gangsterism and drugs).

There is no way on Earth that the Latin Kings can be compared to the LTTE.  None.  Full stop.  Whoever checked this article should have thrown it out at this point.  A gang trying to bribe a local councilman in order to get the authorities off their back so they can peddle their drugs is not the same thing as a decades long counterinsurgency campaign.  While the Latin Kings have very lofty rhetoric (and, incidentally, a completely incomprehensible ideology which appears to have been written by someone who had enough time on his hands to read various religious and philosophical texts but unfortunately lacked the ability to comprehend most of what he read) but it was, is and always will be a group of profit seeking criminals.  In my experience, gangs spend a great deal of time and effort to emphasize what a tight knit organization they are and how all the members need to be prepared to sacrifice for the group.  That’s usually an indication that the group leaks like a sieve and they’re all planning on how to stab each other in the back.

Just because one gang is represented in multiple places does NOT mean they are connected.  Just because a gang has connectivity over distance does NOT mean that’s a systemic characteristic of the gang.  Usually it means there’s a personal relationship involved and the connectivity does not survive beyond it.

“some networked street gangs are increasingly the locus of political authority and popular resistance against corrupt local governments that no longer provide social benefits. They attract local allegiance while expanding their own profits and power”

This is not new and does not require some sort of ‘3rd generation gang’ framework.  It’s common sense.  Human societies hate a vacuum as much as nature does.  When government retreats from an area, something will move in to take its place, usually that something is able to muster the brute force to impose it’s will.  Gangs can (and do) do that.

Networked gangs and criminal insurgents are in many ways an updated version of an old phenomenon.

So why in the world did you just say that they were a new threat?  He really should have left that whole paragraph out because it just makes him sound irrelevant.  If we already have a way to talk about these gangs, why do we need a new lexicon?  What is the utility of this generational model?  I mean other than creating a false sense of progression?

It operates on a multinational level, running a number of organized-crime style businesses and front organizations as opposed to simple opportunistic crime. It is heavily plugged into what is now a global illicit economy. In some areas where government is weak, it can offer alternative, parallel forms of sovereignty.

Sounds a lot like the mafia (who street gangs in the U.S. idolize and try to emulate at every opportunity).  So, the mafia are 3rd generation gangs?  But they’ve been around for decades as have other, similar criminal groups.  It sounds to me like this is taking old gangs, festooning them with fancy words like ‘networked’ and presenting a scary picture of them all decked out in iPhones and viola!  I’ve got myself a gig at a think-tank!

In Brazil, the leader of the PCC was also found in his jail cell with copies of books by activists and philosophers such as Malcolm X and Karl Marx

So what?  Plain fluff designed to make you think you’re being told something but you’re not.  Hey, I read Marx in college, does that mean I’m going to try to lead the proletarian revolution?  A weak argument at best.

Other than that there’s a lot of blah, blah about Mexico and Brazil.  Hey, guess what, they’re called failing states for a reason.

But I’ll end on a positive note and that is I agree whole-heartedly with his conclusion:

Most importantly, a new way of thinking about gangs is needed in order to stem the threat. Gangs should not be viewed primarily as social deviants who need to be crushed nor underestimated as purely commercial and petty youths squabbling over turf. Gangs need to be recognized as emergent social actors that combine the popular appeal of social bandits with the globalized reach that only organized crime once possessed. Solutions should not be rooted in brute force crackdowns nor conducted on a purely domestic basis.   Rather, security should form a foundation for a viable community; blending competent application of the rule of law with solutions that build resilient community structures that enable legitimate opportunity for social, economic, and political activity.

So, I’m not sure how I should feel about this.  I endorse his conclusion but hate his methodology.  I think my problem is that it looks to me like he’s so bonded to his crazy gang generations theory he’s got to fly all sorts of circles to get at a reasonable ending.  Just drop it, man.  Remember the rule.

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14 responses to “Time to teach the pony another trick

  1. Pingback: Classify that! « Travels with Shiloh

  2. Preach it, brother

  3. Pingback: Generational gangs revisited « Travels with Shiloh

  4. “Most gang members in the U.S. only stay in for 2 years or so before dropping out (growing up and family life tend to calm most young men down – read Clockwork Orange).”

    I’m not sure what gangs you’re familiar with, but if you’re getting your information from Clockwork Orange then I’ll risk a guess that you’ve only read about them.

    If someone is in a gang for only two years, it’s because they were shot and killed. The gang is family life.

    “Most gangs in the U.S. are really best thought of as a franchise business. Members think there are benefits to attaching themselves to a ‘big name’ gang but generally resist control or being crammed into any strict hierarchy because they’re profit seeking criminals.”

    Most gangs in the U.S. operate from within prisons. That’s right, the leaders sell dope and manage affairs on the street from behind bars. Highly organized, highly efficient. In places like California and Detroit, initiation may consist of shooting the first innocent person to look you in the eyes. Leaving the gang can at the very least get you killed, and possibly your loved ones.

    “There is no way on Earth that the Latin Kings can be compared to the LTTE.”

    I do agree with you there. “Latin Kings” has become more of a common name for local gangs. They aren’t connected, and in most cases aren’t even latino. I’ve been shot at by African Americans who call themselves Latin Kings.

    So, 3rd generation gang… Al Qaeda?

    • I have very little experience with prison gangs. However most street gangs in upstate New York are just a bunch of kids with nothing to do who decide to beat people up, rob people, or sell drugs. They like to carry around little books filled with rituals because it makes them feel cool, but half of them probably can’t even read their books anyway. Rather than being like family, plenty of them rat each other out in exchange for a soda and bag of chips.

      • And this is perhaps something I should have expanded upon when I said the term ‘gangs’ really had outlived its usefulness in many conversations. Prison gangs can differ greatly from ‘neighborhood’ gangs which operate in economically/socially fragmented areas which can vary greatly from those that operate in ‘stronger’ communities.

        And it gets even more complicated in that you can have examples of all three that share the exact same name, origination myth, principles, etc. Still, their proclivity for violence, criminality and interactions with the greater community (and each other) can reveal that they are, in fact, very different networks (the word ‘organizations’ is usually too generous for gangs).

      • Oh…and I have been absolutely astounded by the ability of some kids (and adults) to memorize hundreds of pages of rules, prayers, etc in their gang books. These are kids who can barely (if that) make it through school and yet have no problem learning that nonsense.

        Of course I was probably in a similar boat for a couple of years in junior high when I was a definite under achiever but had all of the rules for D&D and most of the monsters’ stats committed to memory.

        I think that says something (not sure what though) about the inability of our educational system to motivate young people.

  5. Actually, there’s been some good research done on gangs and gang members out there. While it’s commonly peddled that death is the only way out of the gang life there just isn’t any evidence to back that up. It is true that there is a hardcore minority that is so invested in the gang lifestyle, they remain long term members but if it defies reason that anything approaching a majority of gang members stay in for an extended period of time.

    Most gang members in the U.S. flirt with the lifestyle and drop out of it. There just aren’t many who stay in past their late 20s. There are some and in some inner cities where the lifestyle in entrenched and opportunities are poor it is more common but there are very few places that fit that bill.

    I’ve heard of wild initiation rights and certainly assaults are common requirements (either on perspective members or others) but I haven’t seen any evidence of a gang which requires members to murder someone in order to get in. It’s possible but any gang with that initiation right in the U.S. is either going to be very small or attract a great deal of attention from law enforcement. While gangs generally like to have a high profile within their community in order to intimidate the neighborhood and deter rivals, they very rarely want to attract the attention of police. It’s bad for business.

    While gangs like to emphasize themselves as a ‘family’ both as a recruiting tool and in order to maintain internal discipline, they are, at best, a highly dysfunctional one. That’s why gang members so frequently inform on each other, fight amongst each other and betray each other. Their claims, pleadings, and demands for their members to act more like a family only emphasize how unlike one they really are.

    I would submit that the perception of gangs as tight knit families that have members that won’t leave without dying benefits both the gangs (who live on reputation) and the law enforcement agencies that battle them (in order to acquire resources and get favorable legislation). In short, it’s in virtually everyone’s best interest to hype the gang threat.

    Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization. The term ‘gang’ is already too watered down to have much meaning and lumping terrorist organizations in with them doesn’t do a whole lot of good.

    I was only using Clockwork Orange as a literary example of the phenomenon I was talking about. For a more realistic depiction of street gangs in America I’d refer you to: The modern gang reader (http://www.amazon.com/Modern-Gang-Reader-Arlen-Egley/dp/0195330668/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1261570484&sr=8-1), My Bloody Life (I can’t veryify the truthfulness of the book but it certainly rings true – http://www.amazon.com/My-Bloody-Life-Making-Illinois/dp/1556524277/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1261570540&sr=1-1) and Gang Leader for a Day (http://www.amazon.com/Gang-Leader-Day-Sociologist-Streets/dp/014311493X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1261570609&sr=1-1)

  6. “I’ve heard of wild initiation rights and certainly assaults are common requirements (either on perspective members or others) but I haven’t seen any evidence of a gang which requires members to murder someone in order to get in.”

    Come out to Detroit and we’ll show ya.

    I’ll agree that the majority of groups in the U.S. that call themselves “gangs” are only imitations of the real gangs that are around here. I’m sure if you go to Whiteplains the closest thing to a gang you’ll find is kids who “beat people up, rob people and sell drugs”.

    But, real gang members don’t read books. Some are initiated as young as 13, and some last into their 40’s. And no, the Sopranos type family isn’t common anymore (although in Brooklyn I wouldn’t deny its existence), but many gangs seek to emulate this. In California, entire families are involved in some gangs, and leaving the gang is leaving your family. But, the gang isn’t the family. Families are in the gang.

    “In short, it’s in virtually everyone’s best interest to hype the gang threat.”

    Live on the streets of West Palm Beach for a year, and tell me what you think about the hype. I don’t need to read about gang life.

    I don’t mean to be a jerk, but it’s hard to stand by and watch someone talk about what you’ve lived.

    As for Al-Qaeda, the only difference between a gang and an Islamic faction is level of operation. But, I have little I can say on Islamic factions.

    • You’re not being a jerk at all. I just don’t see any contradiction between most of what you wrote and what I said. Yes, there are violent gangs in the U.S. Absolutely. And they can make the lives of people who have to live where they are a terrible and frightening experience. There are also places where gang membership can be generational. No argument from me there. I still see no evidence that that constitutes a majority of gang members in the country however.

      My point is that there is no evidence gangs constitute a ‘newer, networked’ threat.

      Detroit, Chicago, L.A., and other cities do have serious, violent gang problems. But there’s a lot more to the country than those places and just because things are bad in one area doesn’t mean it’s the same all over (that’s why reading the gang literature helps fill out whatever local perspective you may have – remember, more knowledge is a GOOD thing).

      That’s one example of ‘hyping’ the threat you’ll see. I can’t tell you how many times in the past 10 years I’ve heard people (experienced law enforcement professionals) say ‘We’re going to be exactly like L.A. in a couple of years.’ Hell, Well, we’re still waiting.

      And you better believe there’s a whole bunch of pressure to hype the threat. That’s one of the ways departments get federal grant money.

      And here (yet again) is where the term ‘gang’ shows it’s lack of usefulness. Is a group of teenagers who throw up graffiti and smoke weed the same as the career criminals you’re talking about? Does it make sense to lump them together?

      About gangs and al-Qaeda being essentially similar I can only say we disagree. They are very different in terms of motivation, goals, scope and methods.

  7. Fair enough, we do agree more so than we disagree. And you’re right, it’s absolutely better to read about it. Knowledge truly is power.

    I am only pointing out that gangs exist on all levels of the spectrum, and up top, they are very well organized.

    As for local, I am a nomad. The country is my local, and hopefully someday the world.

    So, a group of teenagers who throw up graffiti and smoke weed are different than a group of middle-aged gang bangers who smoke crack and shoot each other, which is different from a mafia that slangs heroin from a state prison, which is different from a militant faction that operates on a global scale, which is different from something that calls itself a government. “Gang” can refer to anything from an army to Scoobie-Doo.

    I want to agree with you on the future, but I also want to believe that we’re moving towards a more peaceful one. Time will tell.

  8. Man, I love a happy ending. What better way to end this comment thread during a season all about peace and goodwill than with a meeting of the minds?

    Have a great holiday!

  9. Happy Holidays.

  10. me ltt pony

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