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US Street Gangs Spread Across the Country

Gangs of various kinds have existed in the United States for years, traditionally in large metropolitan areas. In recent years, however, gang activities, some of them increasingly violent, have spread to smaller cities as well as rural areas.

The recent capture of 103 alleged members of the street gang Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, has reminded the general public of the dangers of home-grown terror. Members of the MS-13 gang have been tied to murder, extortion, robberies, burglaries, rapes, carjackings and mutilation. They have targeted innocent civilians, rival gang members, even police officers. While the gang once operated mainly in Los Angeles, where it originated in the late 1980s, some of the 103 MS-13 members were arrested in the states of New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Texas.

Edward Cohn, Executive Director of the National Major Gang Task Force, a private, non-profit organization based in Indianapolis, Indiana, says gangs have spread across the United States.

"They are going into the suburbs and the rural areas. Your smaller towns are not exempt form having gangs any more. And gangs are not necessarily coming from the other side of the tracks or from the poor groups. You've got some kids and young adults that are from (families of) affluence and that have education. It's not all poverty ridden any more," says Mr. Cohn.

According to the U-S Justice Department, some 30,000 gangs with about 800,000 members operate in the United States. They range from small local groups to large multi-state and multi-national organizations. Violent street gangs spread like wildfire during the 1980s as the United States became the world's number one consumer of illegal drugs. Even though the U-S crime rate decreased during the 1990s due to the concerted effort of federal and local law enforcement agencies, membership in street gangs continued to grow.

In a 1998 national school survey conducted by National Youth Gang Center, 7 percent of boys and 4 percent of girls said they had belonged to a gang in the past year. A 2001 survey showed that while all racial groups are represented in street gangs, about 30 % are African-Americans, but nearly half of all members are Hispanic.

David Brotherton, Professor of Sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says children of illegal immigrants, often join gangs.

"These kids are pretty far from the 'American Dream' and so the group offers a support mechanism, something for them to latch on to, because these kids are extremely marginalized," says Professor Brotherton.

U-S street gangs have traditionally formed in ethnic and minority neighborhoods. They have been linked to poverty and poor education. But Mr. Cohn says this is changing. "One thing that the gangs are more synonymous with today than ever before is business. It's money," says Mr. Cohn. "They are not in it for the socialization any more. They are not in it because they are from the same neighborhoods or from the same ethnic group. They are in it because it's a business."

Louis Kontos, a sociology professor at Long Island University in New York, disagrees. He says street groups often form for social rather than criminal purposes. Young people, he says, tend to join gangs because their friends or relatives are already members. Professor Kontos also notes that when some gang members become successful and well integrated in the mainstream society, they do not necessarily cut all of their ties to the group.

"Some of them are very isolated and particularly those that are foreign-born. MS-13 has a large number of these people. So do the Guatemalan groups and so do the Columbian groups. But the Puerto Rican groups and the Dominican groups that have been here for many years, for decades, have organizations that are multi-generational -- they interact quite freely, quite readily. These are people that have jobs. These are people that have a high percentage of members that go to school. These are groups that produce college graduates, as a matter of fact."

Professor Kontos says even though members of most gangs break the law in some way, it is very important to distinguish groups that are not dangerous to the society from violent criminal rings such as MS-13. He also says juvenile delinquents who are jailed are more likely to join gangs than those who remain on the street.

Edward Cohn of the National Major Gang Task Force acknowledges that U-S prisons are infested with gangs. "We have a minimum of 1,625 different gangs that are certified and represented throughout the United States in all of the prisons," he says.

Many young people who have spent years behind bars with gang-members return to society as seasoned criminals. Most analysts say the gang violence may grow unless young people are offered more alternatives to street life.