Tag Archives: gangs

The bikerless biker gang (now with fewer bikes!)

Outlaw motorcycle gangs in Europe are a pretty interesting lot and Der Spiegel doesn’t disappoint in a story about a potential conflict between the Hells Angels and a newly formed chapter of the Mongols MC (man, they have a nice website.  I’m not sure is outlaw motorcycle clubs should have facebook pages though.  Seems kind of weird.)  in the city of Bremen.

There are a couple of added twists to the story, however.  First the Mongols are made up of Kurds who are part of a community that immigrated to Germany in the 1980s.  Second (and most strangely for a motorcycle gang), these guys apparently didn’t have motorcycles…

According to investigators, the new bikers have neither motorbikes nor the requisite motorcycle license. Whenever they cruise through Bremen’s downtown area, they drive powerful cars. Mustafa B. was the only member of the clan who had actually gotten his license, two weeks before his untimely death.

So now German authorities are concerned about two potential scenarios:

  1. The Mongols and Hells Angels (the dominant motorcycle gang in Bremen) start to battle it out over control of illegal markets and turf
  2. The Mongols and Hells Angels cooperate to form a criminal partnership

Neither one of those is desirable to German authorities.

Gangs in New Jersey

The Asbury Park Press is running a 7 part series on street gangs in Monmouth and Ocean counties.

Only the first three parts are up as of today but I’ve got some initial thoughts on what’s up so far.

First, let me get this out of the way without further comment.  Draw your own conclusions about why I link to it…

If you’re going to expend the time and resources to produce a big project like this you better make some pretty bold statements.  Saying “Meh…It ain’t that bad”, probably won’t cut it.  Unfortunately, when you talk about gangs it’s easy to get into the realm of unsubstantiated statements like the following:

“…gangs the No.1 threat to residents of the Shore and New Jersey, according to law enforcement authorities at all levels.”

I have no idea how they came to that conclusion.  I’m not saying they’re wrong but law enforcement agencies aren’t really known for coming up with rigorous (or even slapdash) criteria and metrics so I’d be surprised if this sort of statement doesn’t have it’s origin firmly in anecdotal evidence, fuzzy definitions and unexamined assumptions.

“They commit, according to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment, 80 percent of the crime in communities nationwide.”

A highly dubious number that the threat assessment distanced itself from in its own report.

Some of the sources of information for the stories were gang members.  While their bona fides were apparently confirmed with local authorities, the authors appeared to take their claims at face value.  For example:

“We’re planning for the future,” said a Latin King who long has played a leadership role in the Central Jersey-based branch of the gang that’s highly structured and business-oriented. “Kings are very versatile. Financiers? Sometimes those bigwigs are Latin Kings. We’ve got Kings on Wall Street.”

Yeah…that might be true but it should be noted that the Latin Kings have been singing that same tune for almost 20 years now.  They have demonstrated a better ability to organize than other street gangs and have expressed an interest in expanding into legitimate businesses for some time but don’t go thinking they’re sitting on the board of Goldman Sachs or anything.  That’s a different type of crook.

A member of the Sex Money Murder set of the Bloods known as “P” said he leads with military precision some 5,700 members of his Bloods set who live in Monmouth County.

Just for some context here.  Monmouth County, New Jersey has a population of 642,000.  A Bloods population (remember that’s separate from any other gang members in the county) of 5,700 members would be .88% of the country population.  Think about that for a second.  Approximately 5,700 members of a highly disciplined organization that’s able to do all the things the term ‘military precision’ entails while being able to keep such an organization a secret from authorities.  Are we really to believe that an organization which would outnumber the combined size of all law enforcement agencies in the county would confine itself to the shadows?  That is, after all, about twice the size of a Brigade Combat Team.  So, like one does with ancient historians, best to divide all estimates of the size of forces by 10…

It is a shame they let a quote like that go unchallenged, especially since it’s so out of whack and there is evidence to contradict it.

Gang leaders frequently state that they want skilled members to assist the gang in making the transition from petty street crimes (narcotic sales, extortion, etc.) to more profitable organized criminal activity.  The problem has always been that their recruitment pool has generally come from the same place; socio-economic depressed areas where the skills and chances of social mobility are low.  You’ve got a small pool of people who will complete high school, have the money and/or interest in attending college to choose from.  Further, the work required to get those skills the gang thinks it wants requires an investment in time that it’s not clear gangs are willing to make in a systematic way.

Gang spokespeople also like to talk about developing skills in a way similar to spy agencies developing moles but I haven’t seen any evidence that there’s much appetite for that sort of long term investment on the part of gangs OR patience on the part of members who usually join gangs to do something other than go to school get a job and spend years getting into position to make a big score.

Gangs in schools (primary, secondary and university level) is a subject of much speculation and little fact.  The subject is delicate since it involves children and money and the general response from authorities has been to avoid looking or commenting on it with too much detail.  As a result it’s hard to know what’s really going on in any educational facilities with any degree of confidence.  Universities, in particular, have a reputation for avoiding discussions about crime on their campuses (After all, how would you feel about dropping 35k-50k a year for your kid to go to a school reported presence of organized crime groups?) and gang issues are no different.

In this regard, prisons and schools share some commonalities.  Both have captive populations and authorities of both are unable/unwilling to look to deeply at the extent to which gangs operate in their facilities.  Both are the primary points of recruitment (gangs generally don’t knock on doors or leave fliers announcing a recruitment drive) and yet receive little in the way of attention or resources to counter.

Gangs in New Jersey were increasing in size, scope and territory, the State Commission of Investigation concluded that “highly structured super-gangs” were, in effect, supplanting La Cosa Nostra in many areas of the state.

Here’s where the term ‘gang’ is showing its inadequacy.  When you have a term that can encapsulate both a trio of graffiti artists who occasionally sell marijuana and a highly organized network that engages in sophisticated and/or highly violent activities, the label begins to lose its value.

The stereotype of the typical gang member as being a street thug is being debunked in recent reports issued by the National Gang Intelligence Center, the State Commission of Investigation and the State Police.

I don’t think that’s the case at all.  The vast majority of gang criminality (at least according to this report):

“…tend to be ‘crimes of opportunity’ or ‘impulse crimes’ rather than crimes requiring planning, resources or organization.”

That’s not to say that some gangs aren’t breaking with that stereotype but just that the stereotype is probably still valid in the majority of cases.  In fact, one could argue that once a network has broken the stereotype they should no longer be considered a ‘gang’ and rather should be declared some other type of criminal group.

More later if it’s warranted.

COIN in cities (con’t)

Wired took up the COIN in cities theme today but argued that it had limited viability and significant dangers when applied to cities here in the U.S.  Unfortunately, I think they make the mistake of getting suckered into buying unchallenged notions of what our law enforcement problems are in cities and how COIN might be adapted to address them.

Still, it starts off on the right track:

At first glance, counterinsurgency (at least the “soft,” population-centric American version) bears a fair amount of resemblance to community policing: It’s all about changing the dynamic in the communities where insurgents operate, encouraging troops to “walk the beat” and bringing in social services. And many of the tools of the modern counterinsurgent — forensic exploitation, pattern analysis and social-network diagramming — would be familiar to any detective.

From here the article goes downhill as it makes COIN look like the target of the doctrine is the gang member (or the insurgent) when, in fact, it’s the population.

And if you look at the geographic reach and organizational sophistication of some gangs — think Mara Salvatrucha or 18 — and it’s tempting to draw comparisons with, say, a Hizbollah or a Hamas.

(Actually, no it’s not.  At least not for the vast majority of the country.  Street gangs are nowhere near the same league as Hizbollah or Hamas.)

Sullivan, the co-founder of the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning Group, told Danger Room the parallels with community policing — patrolling contested areas, identifying centers of gravity — make it tempting to view counterinsurgency as a tool for containing gang violence. But domestic policing and military operations, he added, are inherently different. “It [counterinsurgency theory] is attractive, and I think that people looking at gangs should look at the literature,” he said. “But to wholesale take it in and do it is probably not a good idea.”


First, TwS readers will know Sullivan from my rant about one of his recent works.  I still don’t buy his ‘generations of gangs’ argument which really is just Lind‘s generations of warfare with the combat stuff cut out and crime stuff pasted in.  Yes policing and military operations are inherently different.  I think you could also say COIN and traditional military operations are inherently different.  So what?  The point is that both COIN and policing attempt to address similar problems through similar means.

But, in short, it ain’t about the gangs.  It’s about the fact that non-gang members don’t trust the authorities or view them as legitimate.  They don’t see the need or value to engage with a state system which has abandoned them and so will follow the rules of anyone who offers some stability or can make realistic threats.  Police?  Yeah, they’re great for the brief period they show up but they don’t offer anything like the promise of long term security (and that’s assuming they aren’t viewed as a hostile presence).

The center of gravity in COIN is the population.  I’d argue that in Iraq (pre-2007), Afghanistan (pre-2009 kinda-sorta) and in most troubled urban cities today our center of gravity remains on the terrorists (the former cases) or criminals (the latter).  Kick down doors, scoop up the bad guy (or someone whose close enough) and get the hell out of there.  Not exactly a recipe for instilling confidence, feelings of security or winning hearts and minds.

Insurgency, at its heart, is a political struggle. I don’t see drug dealers or street gangs expressing a political grievance, or trying to control of some part of the government

That’s a very true statement (the first bit).  The problem is that while gangs aren’t expressing political grievances or even thinking in overtly political terms, in many of our cities criminal networks (of which gangs are only the most visible) end up wielding informal power as we relinquish formal power.

Certainly, changes to the doctrine would be needed in our (or any country trying to apply these lessons to a crime problem) in order to keep in line with our laws and cultural sensibilities and in fact, the law enforcement community has been dancing theoretically around the issue for years with community oriented policing, intelligence led policing, etc.  The problem is that almost nobody puts such ideas in practice for any serious period of time or make the requisite institutional changes necessary for such changes to stick.  Let’s face it, COIN (or whatever the civilian equivilent might be called) is hard work.  Much easier to wrap a guy up, throw him in jail, do some paperwork and go home.

My position is that gangs are a manifestation of underlying problems in a community just as insurgency is a reflection of underlying problems in a society.  Different manifestations of similar (but not the same) problems.  Lack of confidence in existing institutions, widespread corruption, lack of security, lack of opportunity, etc.  You can lock people up all day and if you don’t address those problems you’re going to keep having no-go zones in your cities and prisons packed beyond capacity.

COIN in the cities

I’ve been of the opinion (as you surely know) that the principles of COIN doctrine can have real utility in areas of our country (including, but not exclusively, depressed urban areas) where the government is no longer able to exercise its basic functions of rule of law, social services, infrastructure maintenance, etc.  When the state does not fulfill its duty and creates a vacuum of authority and services, the spirit of Mr. Hobbes rises from the dead and a leviathan emerges, to assert some sort of order on the community.  That order may be brutal and slipshod but (as wonderfully described in Venkatesh’s book) is preferable by almost everyone to anarchy.  Generally, the state’s response has been to respond to the problems caused by this situation by focusing on those elements which organize the most and, therefore, appear most threatening to the state system.  As soon as a criminal organization is able to accrue enough power to exert its will geographically on a (semi) regular basis, law enforcement moves to crush it.  While that results in a tangible good (bringing to justice those who have preyed upon local inhabitants and broken laws) it creates a host of cascading consequences that are almost never dealt with (a return of anarchy, increased violence as previously supressed actors fight for control, etc.) until another network attracts the attention of the state.
The problem is crime and other undesirable manifestations of failed state control of areas have root causes which must be addressed if you want anything other than temporary improvement.  Hence, my desire to see a modified version of COIN applied to the lawless areas of our country.
So, it’s nice to see that at least one city out there is experimenting with the concept.  As reported in the Washington Post, Salinas, California had such a serious gang/crime problem that was clearly out of control of local authorities.  The mayor (perhaps given the budgetary problems in the state, they were told not to expect any assistance from Sacramento?) asked for help from the Naval Postgraduate Institute.  And what has the team from NPS discovered?
In Salinas, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the uniformed forces patrolling “are still viewed as an occupying force,” said Police Chief Louis Fetherolf.
Gangs and police compete in the aftermath of gang shootings — witnesses in a position to see everything share nothing with police.

The distrust rises partly from differences of culture and language: Many Hispanics in the city have roots in nations where police are often viewed as predators.

I think that last sentence is a bit disingenuous.  While it may be true, it misses the fact that there are lots of people who are born and raised in this country who view police (and most government representatives for that matter) as predatory and a threat (and I’m not talking about tea-baggers).  The way this is written threatens to undermine the whole idea that the problem is one of failing government and allows it to be supplemented with one that blames those dang immigrants.  The solution to that problem is much easier than all this ‘root cause’ stuff and we can just throw more armed guards on the border and our cities will naturally get better.

But Fetherolf, who took office this year, also blamed a tradition of police officers who “love the chase. They get into this business to kick ass and take names, by and large. We’re at odds with ourselves because of the people we hire.”

Now, that’s a very interesting quote and it’d be interesting what the chief does to follow through with it.  Does this mean he’s going to implement new criteria to hire, train, and promote police officers.  Assuming that isn’t a throw away line it could indicate big changes.
Certain adjustments were required: “Commander’s Intent” became “Mayor’s Intent.”
I’d argue this is a HUGE development.  I’ve been involved with trying to get some agencies to adopt the idea of ‘intent’ in order to guide their collection and analytical process (success to date:  meh).  It’s really the first step of the Planning and Direction process, without which you really aren’t going to get very far in producing meaningful intelligence products.  The biggest problem is that very few are willing to explicitly identify their priorities either because:
  1. the don’t understand the various threats sufficiently to establish priorities
  2. fear of suffering political/professional repercussions for not establishing the ‘right’ priorities (and by ‘right’ I mean the ones that end up blowing up in their faces.  Nobody wants to have to explain why they were focusing on North Korea (or whatever) while 19 Islamists were busy flying airplanes into buildings.  Better to just not make any priorities and claim everything is a priority (ahem…I’m talking about you ‘All Crimes, All Hazards’).

So, if, in fact, they are actually establishing priorities for operations and intelligence that would be a big step in the right direction.

If you’re interested in more on this, I’d recommend this thread on Small Wars Journal, although it gets off topic after the first page.  Here’s another that looks interesting as well.  In the past I’ve been dubious of authors with a SWJ pedigree in the past when they start talking about gangs and insurgencies but I think I may need to be a bit more discriminating in the future.