Street gangs have existed in the United States since the 1800s. But in the last few years, street gangs have grown more violent, more numerous and more widespread, from the big cities to rural areas. Many gang members are illegal immigrants, mostly from Latin America.
An adolescent may hunger for a sense of power. Especially if that youngster has few things in life: no money, little education, a broken family and no cultural attachments to his community. Analysts say teenagers may find power and fear through a street gang, and that is why gangs are growing so rapidly in the United States.
Robert Clifford is the Director of the MS-13 National Gang Task Force at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI. "They want to belong to an organization where they are respected, feared, where they have an opportunity for advancement, self enrichment."
He says gangs are involved in a wide range of criminal activities that include robbery, drug dealing, extortion and even murder; often their communities, and sometimes, fellow gang members, are the victims of their crimes.
Gangs offer a sense of family or community. For a long time, tattooing was required, to indicate membership and increase the sense of belonging. The distinctive tattoos made it easy to get in to a gang but very difficult to get out. Lately gangs have evolved and some members do not have tattoos or have them removed. The fact that the markings make gang members easily identifiable by law enforcement has made them change.
Mr. Clifford emphasizes the point. "Some of the more sophisticated members of these gangs you will not find tattoos, you will not find a lot of street activity, because they know how to laundry money, they know how to organized and they know how to instill discipline, they know how to remain outside the reach or outside the attention of law enforcement."
The largest gangs in the U.S., such as Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, 18 Street, and Latin Kings, all started in California in the 70s and 80s as a result of Central American migration to the region. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are nearly 800,000 gang members in the U.S., mostly between 14 and 27-years-old.
According to a study done by the National Youth Gang Center nearly half of the gang members are Hispanics. They come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. Thirty percent are African American and the rest are white and Asians. Many of the immigrants are illegally in the U.S. and have been deported several times.
Mr. Clifford says deportation normally is a strong tool in the law enforcement arsenal but in the case of gangs, it actually can backfire. Deportees in Mexico and Central America have organized and strengthened gang groups in their home countries. Jail doesn't do much good either.
"Some of these individuals serve prison in the U.S. or their home countries, only to come out more hardened, more experienced, a more committed gang member, and are able to organized other gangs as they come out," says Mr. Clifford.
Manuel Orozco, an active member of the Washington think tank The Inter American Dialogue, says many gang members in the U.S. have become stateless pariahs.
"The problem is that many of those deportees were individuals who came to the U.S. when they were two years old, so their home country is not really the country they were born in but is actually the U.S."
Mr. Orozco also says many Central American gang members bring from their countries of origin a culture of violence, which is reinforced by their experiences in the U.S. While it has not happened yet, the FBI's Robert Clifford says the gangs could easily be infiltrated by terrorists.
"Any time you have an infrastructure that moves people, moves money, moves documents, moves weapons, the potential always exist for a terrorist group to harness or to infiltrate such an organization."
The hardening and incredible expansion of the gangs in the U.S. and Central America led to a recent hearing by the U.S. Congress. A national gang task force has been created and cooperation with the international community has been increased. But among all parties involved there is a growing sense that if gangs continue their present trend, they could pose a serious threat to regional stability.