Gang Activity: Prevalence and Prevention

A  “gang” refers to a group of people who organize themselves  in opposition to mainstream society and want others to perceive them as a distinct and often deviant group. This type of group is made up of three or more persons who share a common name, identifying signs, colors, or symbols. They have leadership, are very organized, and commit criminal acts in the community. Gangs establish their reputation by the types and severity of the crimes they commit.

Currently, there are approximately 35,000 gangs in the United States with 1.5 million members affiliated. Of these gang members, 40% are under the age of 18 and 60% are adults. Between 90-94% of these gang members are male and 6-10% are female. Approximately 360,000 teenage boys and 32,000 teenage girls are involved in gangs. It is important to note that female gang membership has skyrocketed. They are often forced to have sex with the male gang members for their initiation as well as carry weapons and other drugs. Since the mid-19th century, gangs have roamed the streets of America’s major cities exerting criminal activity and wreaking general havoc on the populous. Among those gangs are street gangs, both on the national and local level, outlaw motorcycle gangs, prison gangs, gangs affiliated with organized crime, and gangs made up solely based on ethnicity. According to the CDC, a few of the cities with the highest reported gang activity are Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Oklahoma City and New York. However, every city in the U.S. with at least 250,000 people has some level of gang activity whether it is reported or not. 9 out of 10 boys in detention, work camp, residential placement or corrections have some level of gang affiliation.

Ten of the Most Dangerous Gangs in America based on current criminal justice reports include:

1. Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)- Present all over the United States. (Founded in Los Angeles but most prevalent in Washington D.C.) Following the death of Brenda Paz (former gang member turned federal informant) in 2003, serious efforts to combat the largest and fastest growing gang in the U.S. began. They are particular in their level of brutality as a tool to intimidate their rivals. Members are involved in drug distribution, murder, prostitution, rape, kidnapping, robbery, carjacking, and home invasions, each of which carry the distinct possibility of innocent civilians being victimized. For more information on the story of Brenda Paz and the MS-13 Gang, please visit:

2. Latin Kings- Most prevalent in Chicago but are present all of the U.S.- Considered by many to be the most organized Latin gang in the country with a rigid hierarchy and various tribes stationed in different states. Most known for drug distribution.

3. Crips- Most prevalent in Los Angeles, Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Est. in 1969, this gang currently has over 30,000 members nationally. This gang has been marketed in popular culture by rap icons such as Snoop Dogg and the late Easy-E. Most of these members are African American, though some white, Hispanic, and Asian members have been inducted.

4. 18th Street Gang- Most prevalent in Los Angeles and other parts of the Southwest. For more than 50 years, this gang has participated in everything from distribution of cocaine and marijuana to producing fraudulent immigration and customs enforcement cards. This gang is estimated to have upwards of 40,000 members, many of whom are illegal immigrants –mostly from Mexico and/or Central America. FBI has recently organized nationwide raids in attempt to neutralize them.

5. Hells Angels- Prevalent all over the United States as well in parts of Europe and Australia. Undoubtedly one of the most well-known gangs worldwide, this Harley driving biker gang is notorious for violent criminal activity such as extortion, drug dealing, and trafficking of stolen goods.

6. Bloods- Most prevalent in Los Angeles but members in almost every state. Historically, a rival of the Crips, both battled over territory in LA as crack cocaine became the money-maker during the 80’s. Similarly to the Crips, most are made up of young African American males recruited from the low income neighborhoods of the city. Though they are still dangerous, they are not considered as threatening as some of the more prominent gangs in the US.

7. Mongols- Prevalent in Southern California for the most part, with members in 14 other states as well as Australia, Mexico and parts of Europe. Formed to be an alternative gang to the Hells Angels, they specialize in much of the same criminal activity including extortion, drug dealing, and any other activity that has the potential to be lucrative.

8. Nuestra Familia- Inside and outside of Northern California federal and state prisons, this gang thrives on the brutality within the prison system. This gang was formed as a rival to the Mexican Mafia—a similarly structured prison gang consisting of Mexican Americans. Outside of prison, this gang thrives on drug trafficking, extortion, and racketeering.

9. Mexican Mafia- Inside and outside of California federal and state prisons—this is the original Mexican prison gang. Just like Nuestra Familia, they are involved in drug trafficking and extortion. Members of this gang are extremely loyal and the penalty for leaving is often death.

10. Aryan Brotherhood- Present in New York, California, Texas, New York, Arizona, Ohio, Indiana, federal and state prisons. With their distinctive swastika tattoos, this gang has accounted for a large portion of prison deaths in recent years and they are most known for drug trafficking and prostitution.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gang homicides generally occur in public and involve the use of a firearm. They frequently involved youth as victims and are often times retaliatory reactions to gang conflict. Investing in early prevention, pays off in the long run. It helps youth to learn the skills necessary to resolve conflict without feeling the need to resort to violence while keeping them connected to their families, schools, and communities—making it less likely that they will join a gang in the first place.
Some of the factors that lead to gang involvement for youth are:

• School failure and truancy
• No pro-social extracurricular involvement
• Delinquent peers who may already be gang involved
• Mental/behavioral disorders/disciplinary issues
• Police involvement
• Early involvement in petty theft/other minor crimes
• Low income families
• Sexual abuse/victimization
• Family dysfunction
• Early substance use/sexual promiscuity
• Exposure to violence/trauma
• Seeking prestige or power/friendship/sense of brotherhood and belonging/protection
• Seeking a way to make money quickly
Gang intervention generally works best when it occurs prior to full development. This requires early recognition that a gang is forming or operating in a new area. Some signs to look out for include:
• Changes in the way neighborhood youth are dressing ( similar colors, tattoos, bandanas, or rolled pant legs)
• Suspicious new people hanging out with the neighborhood youth
• Sudden changes in youth behavior such as loitering late at night, public intoxication, violence..etc)
• New graffiti—potentially including images of stars, pitchforks, numbers, crowns and/or pyramids
• The use of hand signs

The earlier, the better when it comes to identifying these signs. This often starts within the school environment. School violence is youth violence, occurring on school property or at a school-sponsored event. A youth can be a victim, perpetrator, or a witness of said violence and it may also involve or impact adults. This type of violence can range from bullying all the way to gang behavior and assault, leading to serious injury or even death. To learn more, please visit

School violence and gang activity within the youth at our schools has become a public health problem. Although school associated violent deaths are rare, 11 homicides of school-age youth ages 5-18 occurred at school during the 2010-2011 school year alone. In 2012, there were almost 750,000 nonfatal violent victimizations at school among students 12-18 years of age. In 2011, 18% of students ages 12-18 reported that gangs were present at their school during the school year. There are countless more statistics on the topic of school violence that I could share including percentages of students reporting they feel unsafe at school, have been in a physical fight, carried a weapon or seen a peer carry a weapon, and/or having been threatened or injured on school property—all of these ranging between 5 and 20%. At the end of the day, when it comes to safety, these numbers are too high.

Not only does gang activity often start in schools, but the consequences can be catastrophic. While many students experience minor injuries including broken bones, cuts, and bruises, other injuries such as gunshot wounds and head trauma occur as well and can lead to more permanent disabilities. (Not to mention the psychological issues caused by gang violence in schools including constant heightened anxiety levels, depression, drug use, and suicide)

Prevention at the school aged level is the key to reducing the number of gang affiliated adults. Some if the prevention strategies that have been identified and used are universal school-based prevention programs normally run by the social work and/or guidance counseling staff. They may also include school based mental health professionals who are contracted out by community mental health agencies. These are put into place to significantly lower the rates of aggression and violent behavior through teaching of emotional regulation, self- awareness, social skills, conflict resolution, and teamwork. Parent and/or family-based programs can also improve family relationships—ultimately lowering the risk for violence by provide families with the education and tools necessary to understand child development and communicate properly to reduce unwanted tension in the home. Community/Street outreach programs are also used to reduce youth and gang violence. They connect trained staff with at-risk youth to conduct peer mediation, make service referrals and to help alter their core beliefs about the acceptability of violence. Youth who become involved in gangs drastically limits their opportunities for the future. Research has shown that these youth are more likely to commit serious crimes, increasing their chances of being incarcerated and to become victims of violence themselves. The female youth especially vulnerable to sexual victimization. These youth are also less likely to graduate high school, find stable jobs and are much more likely to develop alcohol, drug, and other health problems than their non-gang affiliated counterparts.

Further gang prevention in our own communities starts with us. Gangs thrive most in disorganized environments where youth are unsupervised and have little to no prosocial activities to occupy their time. In attempt to prevent this, parents must take an active role in supervising their children’s activities. Make it a point to know what is going on in their lives day to day by talking to them, know who they are spending time with, and remain consistent in your parenting whether it be with disciplinary efforts or general involvement. It is important to remember that youth need structure and clear boundaries. The majority of parents need to raise their gang awareness level—they usually have no clue that there are several gangs corrupting their children under the guise of so-called “youth groups” to Rap artists, to camouflaged socially conscious self-help or save the children organizations such as Growth and Development and the Gangster Disciples. Many of our socially conscientious, community involved, fashion minded, youth are targeted by sneaky street-wise criminals. Parents need to be as invested as possible in their children’s lives even when it is inconvenient or difficult so that the youth receive the message that they are supported, loved, and worthwhile. Community members as a whole can contribute by serving as positive role models for youth as well as doing their best to keep their community clean and in good repair. This, along with partnerships between law enforcement, parents, schools, and the community will discourage gang development and criminal activity in general from establishing a presence.

For more information on youth gang involvement and/or how you can prevent youth violence, please visit:
The World’s Most Dangerous Gang. Dir.
Lisa Ling. Perf. Lisa Ling National
Geographic, 2006. Web. 3 Oct. 2015

or call 1-800-CDC-INFO (232-4636)


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