Tag Archives: street gangs

Beta testers needed for gang data website

A university team I know is putting together a website which displays publicly available street gang data.  They’re going to need some beta testers however to give the system a once over and provide some feedback as to its usability.  They’re looking at the testing taking place from (approximately) the 19th of November to the 23rd.

It shouldn’t be a heavy lift and you don’t need to have any knowledge or gangs and you can spend as much (or as little) time poking around the data as you’d like.

If there are any interested parties out there, please contact me at TwShiloh (at) gmail (dot) com.

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CNAS talks gang gibberish

I was really excited to hear that CNAS was gong to take a look at gangs, drug cartels and instability throughout the Western Hemisphere.  I took a look at the document last night and was thoroughly disappointed.  If your central thesis is “the United States is under attack, domestically and afield, by a networked
criminal insurgency that must be defeated” you better be able to substantiate that claim.

Instead, there are a lot of assertions without support, uncritical acceptance of opinion as fact and arguments hung upon structures of unexamined assumptions.  I can’t speak to the parts of the document that deal with events south of the border but their description of events in the United States and characterizations of the criminal environment here must draw their entire work into question.

So, where to begin?  Let’s start with the assertion that the U.S. is facing an ‘insurgency’ and is under attack.  If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I often argue that there are a lot of lessons to be learned by the military regarding COIN from experiences here in America, particularly areas where the rule of law has broken down and criminal networks have moved in to supplement  an apathetic government (usually in economically devastated, socially excluded urban areas).  Likewise, I remain convinced that there are lessons from the military experience in COIN that could have a positive benefit to law enforcement operations here in the U.S.

That is very different from saying that I think there’s an insurgency here.  The authors even seem to realize they overstretched when they used that term by almost immediately walking it back in this way….

An insurgency is actually an attempt to weaken or
disrupt the functions of government,

Using that definition, I expect upcoming CNAS titles to include “Che and Jon Stewart:  A profile of two insurgents”, or perhaps “Why citizens protesting local zoning laws are the new VeitCong”.  That definition can include such a wide range of activities (both intentional and accidental) to be almost meaningless.

To demonstrate that the gang threat in the United States is growing, the authors use the fact that the FBI has an MS-13 task force.  Uh…that’s been around for awhile and it might be worthwhile to look into the question of whether the FBI’s focus on MS-13 was due to any attempted assessment of the group’s threat or if it was a knee jerk response to a couple of grisly murders in the Washington D.C. area that caused a bunch of high level civil servants and politicians to begin demanding the FBI do something.  I’m not saying MS-13 made up of a bunch of dangerous dudes but the fact that the FBI created a task force is indicative of nothing other than the fact that the FBI can create task forces.

But don’t worry about MS-13 because the Bloods and Crips “are far more organizationally and operationally sophisticated than international rivals like MS-13 and others.”

If the Bloods and Crips are the ‘gold standard’ for organizational and operational sophistication I think we can all relax.  These groups, by and large, are disparate, engage in endless infighting and most have a great deal of difficulty in coordinating activity.  The only thing that really keeps them together is the potential for huge profits from narcotics sales (thanks Uncle Sam!).  They exist because of our current prohibition system.  While the authors assert that criminal networks supplement their income with other crimes (like kidnapping) they are unable to prove (or really even make a decent case) that these organizations would be able to survive in anything like their current state without their narcotics income.  The fact of the matter is that these other crimes are generally ancillary ones that occur because of the narcotics trade and aren’t independent of it.

I was starting to smell something fishy as I was going through this report and then I found it….my nemesis.  So readers are treated to this bullshit about generational gangs again in a desperate attempt to fit the ideas of Lind and generations of warfare into the criminal world.  Argh!  Nothing like giving a crap theory legitimization without having it being given any scrutiny.

And, of course, we have to push all the fear buttons so the author’s make sure to say that this insurgency is linked to crime and terrorism (!) in new, dangerous ways!  Oh, god…where’s my duct tape?  Where’s the freakin’ duct tape?!  So, without any real evidence the authors try to assert that there are these mysterious transnational criminal networks that control all the evil in the hemisphere from the mass production of narcotics all the way down to bullying your kid in the school yard.  It’s all being planned, organized and controlled.

Now, let me be very, very clear.  I’m not saying that transnational criminal networks don’t exist.  Or that criminal groups don’t threaten the general public and some communities.  I just argue that 1) this isn’t as new as is being asserted and 2) there simply isn’t enough information to support wide eyed claims of broad, highly coordinated threats.  The plural of anecdote isn’t data.

I couldn’t even finish the document.  Don’t waste your time.

There may be a dumber idea…but I’m not sure I can think of it.

I totally get the fact that we’re a sensation craving, superficial society (how else to explain the Double Down?) but I still get surprised by some of the more wild ideas out there.

The latest (h/t boingboing) is something called ‘L.A. Gang Tours‘.  Yes for the low, low price of $65 (usually $100!) you get:

…a true first-hand encounter of the history and origin of high profile gang areas and the top crime scene locations in South Central, Los Angeles. Each tour bus for LA GANG TOURS will have a guide from the South Central areas who has gained hands-on knowledge and experience of the inner city lifestyle.

So, in other words, you get to ride around in a bus while somebody tells you that some dude got shot here over some bullshit grudge or over there because some other dude tried to sell some bad weed…

Is this something America and the rest of the world is really calling out for?

Now, I will say that it appears the motivation of the organizer is quite good.  He states the goal is to:

…create jobs for the residents of South Central, Los Angeles; to give profits from the tours back to these areas for economic growth and development, provide job/entrepreneur training, micro-financing opportunities and to specialize in educating people from around the world about the Los Angeles inner city lifestyle, gang involvement and solutions.

Hey, I’m all for that but this is a bit exploitative of the community and does have some risk.  I can only imagine the subtle forces that could create all sorts of problems.  Will headline grabbing news of violence or gang activity attract pathetic thrill seekers and gawkers?  Might that drive more outrageous activity, especially if any of the money ends up going to some of these gang members?  I suspect it might, directly or indirectly based on this statement from their website:

Your participation allows the success of a cease-fire agreement between three of the largest and most notorious gangs in L.A. history. This agreement will allow young people and children safe passage (gun fire free safety zones).

I’m not sure why you couldn’t look for other ways to get small business opportunities to residents of South Central.  The fair trade movement could be a goal but it would require a shift in thinking that everyone can jump into the high skill, education reliant economy in one jump.  If we could get cities to quit building all these moronic mega-projects in the hopes of ‘revitalizing’ their cities (it’s like they went to the Stalin and Chairman Mao school of the Great Leap Forward) and instead accept the fact that many of their cities are going to get smaller, not have a significant manufacturing base or a pool of highly skilled workers and deal with it.  Identify land which can go to pasture and encourage small scale (boutique) farming to feed the booming organic/local food markets.  How about manufacturing of handicrafts and small cooperatives for light manufacturing or semi-skilled labor?

Look, I’m neither an economist or an urban planner and I shouldn’t knock somebody for trying to improve the community.  If this is the best we can do, however, I think we’re in some trouble.

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.

Bizarre Swedish Crime Story Friday

You can’t make this stuff up…

Black Cobra gang steals selection of small cakes

If you’re going to go in the confectionery theft business you better have a pretty tough name or the other gangs will totally make fun of you.  It should be noted that the Black Cobras are supposed to be Danish (Damn you Denmark!  They’re the bullies of Scandinavia.)  They had a reputation for trafficking in narcotics and extortion but have apparently decided to muscle their way into the lucrative snack food market.

Criminals with connections to the Black Cobra network are suspected by police of pilfering 120 boxes of almond tarts, punch rolls, apple crowns and brownies from a delivery truck in southern Sweden on Thursday.

Ah…but the police are on the job.  Bottom line, don’t get between cops and their donuts…even in Sweden.

“We have conducted raids at a number of addresses and have confiscated cakes,” police spokesperson Charley Nilsson told local newspaper Helsingborgs Dagblad.

Generational gangs revisited

So, a couple of days ago I wrote a post reviewing an article about gangs that really annoyed me.  That post has been gnawing away at me ever since.  I think I let my frustration get the better of me which is unfortunate because I think it takes away from my central argument that:

1)  Sullivan fundamentally misunderstands the gang problem (its causes,scope and relation to society)
2)  His attempt to pigeon-hole gangs into his generations theory makes understanding gangs more complicated rather than less and provides no insight into developing anti-gang strategies or predicting gang activity
3)  His arguments are repetitive and lazy

When I first started this blog I made a decision to limit re-writes, edits and deletions to the bare minimum and because of that I’m going to keep that post up as a lesson (to me) that I can and should make better arguments in the future.

I think I made a much better case in my earlier critique of another Sullivan article that addresses many of the same issues.  So if you’d like a review with a little less heat I’d recommend that.

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.