The rising threat of gangs and increases in gang membership worldwide has created a large amount of fear and confusion amongst many. This has prompted a great deal of research into gangs: what causes an individual to join a gang, how and where a gang operates, and how exactly the gang manages to operate so effectively as a single, collective unit. Researchers have been studying things like the interactions between gangs, who exactly makes up gangs, and why gangs continue to be such a driving force in many countries. To that end, there are nine research articles that explore many of the most important issues regarding gangs.
The first aspect of gangs covered by these articles is the actual organization of gangs. Studies have shown that gangs generally have a strict hierarchical structure with clearly defined members of authority that trickles down all the way to the foot soldiers, or whatever the lowest caste of gang member happens to be (Pyrooz et al, 2012). Due to the very nature of gangs, they are also self-sufficient and are "diffuse, self-interested and self-motivated aggregations of individuals, most of whom sell drugs for themselves" (Pyrooz, 2012, p.2). This is what is known as the informal-diffuse perspective and essentially postulates that gangs are designed to work autonomously, and only very rarely cooperate, even when it would be in the best interests of both gangs to do so (Pyrooze, 2012). Another important aspect of the organization of gangs is that they must come together to perform illegal acts, as its members derive a form of personal identity from these crimes (Olate, et al, 2012). For this reason, many of the crimes gangs choose to partake in, while serious, are not generally on the level of mass murder, and gangs primarily operate on smaller-scale localized crime, oftentimes involving illegal drug distribution and trafficking, in order to attain personal gain for the collective gang (Olate, et al, 2012). This means that gangs are universal across the world, in terms of basic organization, hierarchical structure, and motivations.
Another important aspect in regards to gangs is their distribution across the globe. Although gangs are generally similar indirect motivation (generally the desire for money, power, and influence), there are a number of diverse factors that lead to the formation of gangs, how the gangs operate, and how people react to them, that differ largely depending on the geographic area that the gang is located. For example, in China, gangs scarcely even existed until just a few decades ago (Pyrooz and Decker, 2013). Nowadays, the number of gangs in China rivals the number of gangs in even the United States, with 52 percent of U.S. boys and girls reporting the presence of gangs in their neighborhood, compared to about 48 percent of Chinese boys and girls (Pyrooz and Decker, 2013). The question postulated by the researcher is this: how could the number of gangs increase so drastically in such a relatively short span of time? The answers are surprisingly in line with the motivations behind a large majority of gangs within the United States: low self-control, school and parental attachment, parental monitoring, and delinquent peers all have a strong influence on the formation of gangs in both the United States and China (Pyrooz and Decker, 2013). In particular, the issue of delinquent peers continues to be one of the largest contributors to gang initiation across the globe, and it is likely that this is why gang involvement tends to be universal worldwide. However, one problem regarding understanding the motivations of gangs worldwide is that there is simply not enough data available for gangs, as is commonly the case with China, along with many other countries, as there is with the United States. As such, much of the knowledge gleaned about gangs must come from indirect, less reliable sources such as interviews and surveys. Through these surveys, it has been found that, although about half of Chinese boys and girls report the presence of gangs in their respective neighborhoods, only about 4 percent of those surveyed have tried to steal an object from a building, and a mere 13.5 percent had been involved in a gang fight, which is even less than the 11.2 percent who carried a concealed weapon for their own protection (Pyrooz and Decker, 2013). In short, while there are a number of socio-economic factors that contribute to deteriorating conditions within a country, which leads to gangs, much of the spread of gangs within these nations comes as a result of cohort involvement; that is, a person sees their friend join a gang, and they feel like they must join as well (Olate, et al, 2012).
Gangs are not, strictly speaking, some sort of accident that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. While issues like socio-economic factors and the like are certainly breeding grounds for gangs, they are not responsible for the original formation of gangs. For that, there are two distinct causes that are deeply intertwined: migration and race alienation. To that end, one obvious conclusion that has been drawn through research is simply that immigrants to a country tend to group together into gangs (Decker et al, 2009). However, in order to understand how these factors work together, it is necessary to dig a little deeper than that. In Europe, a large amount of economic growth, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and those seeking asylum fleeing to Europe caused a large amount of labor demand for the numerous expanding countries within Europe (Decker, et al, 2009). The first two factors caused a large number of immigrants from other European nations, while the asylum seekers, being predominantly from countries like China (Decker, et al, 2009). However, while the backgrounds of these immigrants are as varied as can be, these factors did unequivocally lead to the formation of a large number of gangs, many of which remain today. These same origins can be seen, to an extent, within the United States as well. When, in the early 1900s, large numbers of European immigrants came to the United States and found themselves alienated and largely without other options but to band together, oftentimes committing petty crimes out of sheer desperation (Decker, et al, 2009). This theory, that immigration is one of the largest external factors leading to the initial formation of gangs, can be extrapolated to other countries in order to test its accuracy. One such group is Hispanics, especially those currently living in the United States. Studies show that the Hispanic population is the largest ethnic or racial minority in the United States, and, similarly, about one-sixth of the Hispanic population is involved in a gang in some form or fashion (Krohn, et al, 2011). Furthermore, these Hispanics largely congregate in urban areas, especially those who participate in gangs. This lends credence to both theories regarding gangs and immigration: that immigration is one of the purest instigators of initial gang formation, and that peer pressure helps to facilitate the continuing influence of gangs on those who would normally join them. These factors are exacerbated by a young age, numerous studies have found. Much like the issue of family deterioration in China, families with issues like oppressive parents, unemployment, or low income, are statistically more likely to have their young adult join a gang, regardless of any other factors such as geographic location or race (Krohn, et al, 2011). The problem of adolescents joining gangs has only become worse in countries such as the United States, where many researchers do not consider adulthood fully reached until the age of 30, compared to the age of 25 in most other countries (Krohn, et al, 2011). These findings are consistent with other studies that have been taken in other demographics, such as whites, Hispanics, and African Americans within the United States, which found that, on average across all races, the majority who had joined gangs did so between the ages of 14.5 and 18 years of age (Krohn, et al, 2011). Furthermore, even in countries on the other side of the world, these same features can be examined. For example, citizens of Trinidad and Tobago reported an average age of about 15 (Katz and Fox, 2010). Unfortunately, there is little to be done about the rambunctiousness of youth. Youth involvement in gangs will continue to be a driving force in gang membership rates for as long as the modern establishment continues to exist, regardless of nationality.
One aspect of gangs that frequently fails to be addressed is the actual use of gang violence. While much of the crimes that gangs commit are pettier such as dealing drugs, oftentimes gangs are forced into violence against individuals, authority figures, or rival gangs. While many of these spats are due themselves to drugs, there are other, more important, underlying factors that lead to these bouts of violence. The first cause is the availability of firearms. In Trinidad and Tobago, there were a mere 98 incidents of violence in 1998. By 2008, that number had skyrocketed to 544 incidents: an increase of 555 percent (Katz and Fox, 2010). Researchers attributed this spike in violence partially to an increase in gang activity, but, more importantly, to the increased availability of firearms to these gangs (Katz and Fox, 2010). Another factor that leads to increased amounts of violence amongst gangs is the rise of more organized crime. While gangs, by their very nature, would be considered "organized," there exists an entirely different echelon of gang organization that is able to operate on a much wider, and much more ruthless, scale. For example, in Mexico, a rise in the drug trade has led to the number of killings linked to organized crime, such as drug lords, to increase six-fold (Corcoran, 2013). Furthermore, these organized crime syndicates are more apt to target innocent civilians, prompting increased fear and media attention, which, in turn, only leads to these organized crime groups becoming that much stronger (Corcoran, 2013). This is reinforced by studies that show that if a gang has telltale signs of being strongly organized, such as having written rules, unique insignia (i.e. special symbols, signs, colors, or clothing items), regular meetings, and a clear leader, the delinquency (thus, violence) of the gang almost doubles (Pyrooz, et al, 2012). Thus, it can be postulated that the more organized a gang is, the more deadly that gang becomes, and the desperate situations many gangs find themselves in leaves them with no choice but to become strongly organized.
Knowledge about gangs and their practices has been woefully limited in the past, but across the globe, efforts are being made to research gangs in order to attain a better understanding of how they work. For example, police in England will frequently label youth groups as gangs, even when this is clearly not the case, which results in more severe charges for these supposed "gang members" (Maxson and Esbensen, 2012). For this reason, there are criteria that are used to determine whether or not a social group should be classified as a gang. They are self-identification (i.e. does the individual refer to themselves as a gang member), the individual's attribution of their "friendship group" as a street gang, and if this "friendship group" meets the standard criteria for being a gang (Maxson and Esbensen, 2012). These distinctions are more than mere labels, as they do indeed have effects on how the gang is both treated by law enforcement and viewed by society at large. A gang that is, in fact, merely a social group of rowdy youngsters will not generally be perceived as much of a threat by law enforcement or citizens of the country.
While true understanding of the ins and outs of gangs and their organization will continue to elude researchers for some time, there has been a growing amount of research into gangs, which increases knowledge about factors that lead to gang membership and inclusion, as well as organization. In the interest of public safety, it is necessary to continue researching these gangs to understand just how they affect things like the economy, the political climate, and the citizens of each country in general. While gangs are certainly a negative force, they do not deserve to be simply wiped off the map without first understanding their motivations, methods, and ultimate goals. Violence only breeds more violence, but by researching the concept of gangs, perhaps they can be eliminated eventually.
Corcoran, P. (2013). Mexico’s shifting criminal landscape: changes in gang operation and structure during the past century. Trends in Organized Crime, 1-23.
Decker, S. H., Van Gemert, F., & Pyrooz, D. C. (2009). Gangs, migration, and crime: the changing landscape in Europe and the USA. Journal of International Migration and Integration/Revue de l'integration et de la migration internationale, 10(4), 393-408.
Katz, C. M., & Fox, A. M. (2010). Risk and protective factors associated with gang-involved youth in Trinidad and Tobago. Revista Panamericana de Salud Pública, 27(3), 187-202.
Krohn, M. D., Schmidt, N. M., Lizotte, A. J., & Baldwin, J. M. (2011). The impact of multiple marginality on gang membership and delinquent behavior for Hispanic, African American, and white male adolescents. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 27(1), 18-42.
Krohn, M. D., Ward, J. T., Thornberry, T. P., Lizotte, A. J., & Chu, R. (2011). THE CASCADING EFFECTS OF ADOLESCENT GANG INVOLVEMENT ACROSS THE LIFE COURSE*. Criminology, 49(4), 991-1028.
Maxson, C. L., & Esbensen, F. A. (2012). The intersection of gang definition and group process: Concluding observations. In Youth Gangs in International Perspective (pp. 303-315). Springer New York.
Olate, R., Salas-Wright, C., & Vaughn, M. G. (2012). Predictors of violence and delinquency among high risk youth and youth gang members in San Salvador, El Salvador. International Social Work, 55(3), 383-401.
Pyrooz, D. C., & Decker, S. H. (2013). Delinquent behavior, violence, and gang involvement in China. Journal of quantitative criminology, 1-22.
Pyrooz, D. C., Fox, A. M., Katz, C. M., & Decker, S. H. (2012). Gang organization, offending, and victimization: A cross-national analysis. In Youth gangs in international perspective (pp. 85-105). Springer New York.