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Street Gangs Growth in California USA


Since the beginning of the 1900s Americans have observed their youth forming what has become popularly known as gangs (Gardner and Herz, 1993) 1999, suggest that membership of the juvenile gang in general was already on the rise. (Evans, Fitzgerald, Weigel and Chviliek, 1999, 267) There is also growing evidence that the growth of gang membership in juveniles is not confined to urban areas, since urban areas have been developed gang activity in both suburban and rural areas. (Cronwell, Taylor and Palacious, 1992) Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence that as of the 1990s rural America is becoming increasingly associated with gang violence and drug use. (Maxson, 1993) Street gangs are therefore, no exception. This paper looks at the growth of street gangs in rural America, with a focus on California.

Street Gangs

            The United States Criminal Code describes a street gang as a group of at least five people whose main purpose is to commit at least one criminal offence. (US Criminal Code) Perhaps the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada offers the best definition of street gangs, and describes this term as:

“A term that law enforcement traditionally used to categorize crime groups that consisted predominantly of young males from similar ethnic backgrounds that were usually engaged in a low level of criminality, often based within a specific geographical area.” (Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, 2004, 29)

Street Gangs Growth in California USA

The US Department of Justice, however, notes that since the 1990s, street gangs have ceased to be gender specific and have generously spread its reach beyond urban areas and into rural areas. (McGloin, 2003, 1) Moreover, street gang crime has become more prevalent as of the 1990s and is attracting persons of all ethnic groups and ages. (Fleisher and Decker, 2001, 65-77)

Criminologists typically agree that the impact of street gangs on their community and the residents is largely negative. (McGloin, 2003, 1) This is because street gangs contribute to firearms activity, violence, drug supply and demand, home invasions, auto theft, murder “and/or general decline in the quality of life,” and other serious crimes. (McGloin, 2003, 2)

Growth of Street Gangs in America

With its growth, the makeup and demographics of street gangs have changed since the 1990s. (Esbensen and Winfree, 1998, 505-526) As gangs and gang membership increases throughout America, they divide into rural areas and attract diverse ethnic and gender communities. (Esbensen and Winfree, 1998, 505-526) While the street gangs do not demand the kind of concern that cybercrime and terrorism raise, the law enforcement challenge is unique because of their diverse and dynamic nature. (McGloin, 2003, 1)

The United States Department of Justice (2008) reports that gangs in general have infiltrated many suburban and rural areas of the US since the 1970s and this expansion continued into the 1980s, with “full-scale migration” taking place in the 1990s. In the 1970s, street gangs became more organized and as a result began to reach into the surrounding areas of the urban areas they occupied. (US Department of Justice, 2008)  In the 1980s, the drug market was primarily responsible for growth and expansion into the suburban and rural areas. (US Department of Justice, 2008) The motivation came with a desire to open up more markets for the distribution of illicit drugs. (US Department of Justice, 2008)

As street gangs and street membership increased into the 1990s, street gangs expanded and street gang crime grew as a result. (US Department of Justice, 2008) The idea was to obtain a formidable reputation, protect their respective territories and to expand their criminal commercial operations. (US Department of Justice, 2008) By way of example, Members of a South Los Angeles street gang, known as Surenos 13, shot innocent African Americans purely for the purpose of intimidating an African American rival street gang. In another incident, Surenos 13 members were responsible for drive-by shootings which targeted buildings in Dalton, Georgia for no other reason than to intimidate the community. (US Department of Justice, 2008)

Research findings indicate that street gangs are able to attract more and more groups in all sectors of the community because, youth are typically drawn to street gangs as a means of compensating for fundamental needs that they do not gain from family, school and the community. (Sussman, Steinmetz and Peterson,1999, 406)  A survey conducted by virtue of questionnaires and participant observations in rural, urban and suburban areas in southern California from 1971-1981 found that the youth who subscribed to street gang membership was able to formulate some form of self-identification. (Sussman, Steinmetz and Peterson,1999, 406)

From 1975 to 2000, street gangs increased from 4,481 to 30, 818 so that by 2007 there were at least 24,000 gangs in the US with just below 800,000 members operation in 29, 000 jurisdictions across America. (McShane, 2007, 41) The early gang cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago have lost their notoriety as gangs spread out to cities in Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Washington, Wisconsin and as far as Hawaii. (McShane, 2007, 41) In addition, street gangs have been “documented on reservations” and in both suburban and rural areas. (McShane, 2007, 41).

The early spread of street gangs in California in membership as well as to rural and suburban areas gave way to the Street Terrorism Enforcement Act (STEP) which mirrors to a great extent, the Racheteer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. (RICO) (McShane, 2007, 42) RICO is a legislative tool for responding to organized criminal conduct aimed at deterrence through enhanced investigative powers of law enforcement. (McShance, 2007, 42) In fact California was the first US state to pass the STEP Act (McShane, 2007) which speaks to the prevalence and rapid growth of street gangs and street gang crime activity in California.

The prevalence and growth of street gangs in California is hardly surprising, when one takes into account the fact that street gangs typically engage in illicit supply and use of drugs. California borders Mexico, a formidable location for the export of drugs into the US.  Hand in hand with the supply of drugs by street gangs is the motivation for turf protection.  Researchers found that in California, drugs’ sales by street gangs increased in a manner that corresponded with the increased unemployment rates and the increase of crack cocaine in the 1980s. Even so, drugs remain a significant activity for street gangs in California. This growth in the drugs trade and the need for expansion, reputation reinforcement and turf protection gave way to a significant branching out into both suburban and rural California.((Reiner, 1992)

            Over all 27 percent of all New York municipalities reported in 2002 that just under 50,000 people have had some sort of gang-related problem, indicating the spread and growth of street gangs to rural America. (National Youth Gang Survey (NYGS) 2002)  California however, is noted for its attraction of migrants to street gang membership. There are two particular internationalised groups of note, the 18th Street and the Mara Salvaturcha gangs who have infiltrated the cities, surrounding areas and rural California.(Valdez, 2004)

To understand how these groups infiltrate the rural areas it is necessary to explain how they operate. The 18th Street in particular,  coordinated with Mexican migrants in Los Angeles in the 1960s and was the first international street gang known to recruit young Americans. They primarily preyed on young children, recruiting them from middle and elementary schools to steal, solicit protection money and to sell illicit drugs. To day, Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers continue to operate via the 18th Street in the US, particularly in California in all sectors of the community, including rural areas. (Valdez, 2004)

18th Street is estimated to have at least 30,000 to 50,000 members. (Narcotics Digest Weekly, 2005)  80 percent of 18th Street gang membership is said to be comprised of f illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. (Narcotics Digest Weekly, 2005)  In addition to street level drug distribution, 18th Street also engages in a wide range of criminal activities in urban, suburban and rural areas, including drive-by shootings, carjacking, auto theft, extortion, murder, identity theft and robbery. (Narcotics Digest Weekly, 2005)

The Fresno Bulldogs is another street gang operating in California with significant activity in urban, suburban and rural areas. Not surprisingly, this street gang’s main source of income is illicit street level drug distribution and primarily Hispanic in ethnic make-up. Even so, the Fresno Bulldogs commits a number of other crimes, including murder, burglary, drive-by shootings, robbery and auto theft. (Narcotics Digest Weekly, 2005) There are several other street gangs in active operation in California and many of them have branched out into rural areas, although not to the extent that they occupy the inner cities. (Narcotics Digest Weekly, 2005)

In general, the growth of street gangs in the rural America is relatively small compared to  its growth in urban areas, there is a significant increase of street gang activity in rural America. (Evans et ales, 1999) California has seen a greater expansion of drug oriented street gang activities in rural areas, as have Chicago and New York. (Evans et ales, 1999)  Even so, there is no real distinction between the rural and urban gang membership, although urban gang members are the subject of greater neighborhood concern than are rural membership. This gives way to the impression that urban street gang members have primarily negative interaction in terms of violence in their neighborhoods than do rural street gang members. (Evans et ales, 1999)


            There is a growing body of evidence that rural America is experiencing a rapid increase in street gang membership. Even so, it is important to keep in mind that in the larger picture, street gang membership nationally, comprise a very small portion of the population. (Evans et ales, 1999)  This fact might explain why law enforcement in general report having relatively moderate gang activities in rural areas throughout the nation. (Leone and Evans, 1996) Another reason, for moderate gang activity, may be the fact that rural areas have a closer community networking so that rural gang members are not inclined to conduct gang activities as visibly as their urban counterparts for fear of detection and arrest. (Evans et ales, 1999)

Be that as it may, rural populations are significantly smaller than urban populations and generally do not experience the high rate of crime that urban areas experience. It is therefore hardly surprising that law enforcement have experienced moderate gang related criminal activity in rural America. Obviously, street gangs have taken up residence in rural America and will continue to do so as long as gang membership increases and gangs branch out to expand their territory and to reinforce their reputations.

Works Cited
  • Criminal Intelligence Service Canada. (2003) Annual Report on Organized Crime in Canada. Ottawa: On.
  • Cronwell, P.; Taylor, D. and Palacious, W. (1992) “Youth Gangs: A 1990s Perspective.” Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 43(3), 25-31.
  • Esbensen, F. And Winfree, L. (1998) “Race and Gender Differences Between Gang and Non-gang Youths: Results From a Multisite Survey.” Justice Quarterly, 15(3) 505-526.
  • Evans, W.; Fitzgerald, C.; Weigel, D. and Chvilicek, S. (1999) “Are Rural Gang Members Similar to their Urban Peers? Implications for Rural Communities.” Youth and Society, 30(3), 267-282.
  • Fleisher, M. and Decker, S. (2001) “Going Home, Staying Home: Integrating Prison Gang Members into the Community.” Corrections Management Quarterly, 5(1), 65-77.
  • Gardner, S. and Herz, C. (1993) Street Gangs in America. Franklin Watts.
  • Leone, M.C. and Evans, W. P. (1996) “A Transitional State: Gangs and Social Change in Nevada.” Nevada Public Affairs Review. 4-10.
  • Maxson, C.L. (1993) “Investigating Gang Migration: Contextual Issues for Intervention.” Gang Journal 1(2), 1-8.
  • McGloin, J. (2003) “Street Gangs and Interventions: Innovative Problem Solving with Network Analysis.” US Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
  • McShane, M. (2007) Youth Violence and Delinquency: Monsters and Myths. Praeger Publishers.
  • Editor. (Oct. 4, 2005) “Gangs in the United States.” Narcotics Digest Weekly. 4(4).2-11.
  • Reiner, J. (1992) “Gangs, Crime and Violence in Los Angeles.” Office of the District Attorney of the County of Los Angeles.
  • Sussman, M.; Steinmetz, S. and Peterson, G. (1999) Handbook of Marriage and the Family. Springer.
  • US Department of Justice: National Drug Intelligence Center. (2008) “The Growth of Gangs in Suburban Areas.” Attorney General’s Report to Congress on the Growth of Violent Street Gangs in Suburban Areas.
  • Valdez, A. (2004) “California’s Most Violent Export.” Orange County District Attorney, Investigator.

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