The formation of gangs in the United States has historically been primarily a product of the country’s history of immigration and the attendant poverty in which newly-arrived ethnic groups usually subsisted. These developments generally combined with a seemingly natural inclination for some young males to want to protect their neighborhoods from groups of boys from other neighborhoods who want to expand their presence and influence beyond the confines of their own community. The history of gangs in the United States tracks the history of waves of immigration fairly closely. While the first American gangs developed soon independence, they did not become a major social and cultural problem in the United States until the mid-19th Century, with the mid-20th Century witnessing the greatest single expansion of street gangs in the nation’s history. The ethnic component to gangs is no accident. With each major wave of immigration from particular regions of the world, for example, Poland and Eastern Europe, Ireland, Mexico, Italy, and so forth, ethnic-oriented gangs emerged within the consolidated communities in which these immigrants settled. Criminal elements organized themselves for the express purpose of preying on their own ethnic groups, most of whom were innately suspicious of law enforcement (given the prevalence among police officials in the countries from which they emigrated towards corruption and brutality) and such communities, be they Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, or whatever, were easy targets for extortion. While these ethnically-oriented gangs preyed on their own communities, however, they also took pride in “protecting” these communities from incursions from other gangs. “Turf wars,” consequently, were a routine part of gang activity.
Many of the most deeply-entrenched gangs emerged in the northeast and southwest where mass waves of immigration primarily occurred. Ellis Island was the main entry point for immigrants from Europe, with the aforementioned Mexican (and, later, Central American) waves occurring across the U.S. southern border while Chinese immigrants formed large insular communities in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia. Irish gangs were prominent in New York and Massachusetts; Jewish gangs were active in New York and Detroit; and during the later 20th Century, Vietnamese gangs, a result of the massive wave of immigration that followed the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the communist forces of North Vietnam emerged to prey on their communities in places like California and Texas.
The main characteristics of these gangs, as noted, was a common ethnicity born of their parents’ or grandparents’ immigration experiences. They were overwhelmingly male, young, and from lower-income families. They tended to initiate new members into the gang through violent and/or illegal initiation rites ranging from the commission of crimes as proof of “courage” to physical beatings of new recruits, a major characteristic of Mexican-American gangs. Leaving the gang was often not an option. In instances where individuals were permitted to leave or quit the gang, they first had to endure additional beatings. Former undercover law enforcement officer William Queen, who successfully infiltrated the Mongrels motorcycle gang, the most violent such organization in the country, told of how a prospective recruit into that particular primarily-Hispanic gang who changed his mind and wanted out was forced to play “Russian roulette” before being permitted to leave the gang.
Motivations for gang membership often involve the need for security and “family.” As noted, most gang members come from poor, often broken families with little or no cohesion. Gangs provide a substitute “family” and physical protection from other gangs. Other motivating factors include a desire for power, which gangs often represent, and the money that comes from illegal activities like drug trafficking and extortion. It is also important to mention, however, the propensity of some individuals to join gangs merely because they exhibit psychopathic tendencies that propel them towards criminal and anti-social activities.
Gangs haven’t evolved that much over time, except for the weaponry they wield. Having resided in south-central Los Angeles during the time when shipments of AK-47 assault rifles reached the streets, with the expected explosion in drive-by shootings that followed, I can attest to the increase in danger associated with an evolution from knives to handguns to semi-automatic rifles. Culturally, however, gangs exhibit much the same characteristics as they did a century or more ago.
Some of the most powerful gangs throughout American history include Chicago’s Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings, El Rukns, and Black P-Stone, the latter one of the older such organizations. The Bloods and Crips have their origins in south-central Los Angeles and communities like Compton and have subsequently expanded across the nation, with branches in many major cities. Motorcycle gangs, which took off following the Second World War and that were mainly comprised of military veterans, have branches in foreign countries like Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Germany, and other countries, with violent warfare between competing motorcycle gangs a common occurrence. In fact, during the mid-1990s, disputes over drug territory motivated open warfare between the Scandinavian branches of the Hells Angels and the Bandidos, both U.S.-origin gangs that spread beyond American shores.
The most “successful” gangs throughout history tend to be those associated with organized criminal organizations commonly known as the Mafia, or La Cosa Nostra (loosely translated as “our thing”). The Five Families of New York, until a series of successful government prosecutions during the 1980s and 1990s inflicted serious damage on them, were enormously powerful. These organizations, which have their antecedents in the wave of Italian migration during the early 20th Century, had survived for many decades through strict adherence to their code of secrecy, or omerta, and through that code’s strict enforcement through the brutal execution of those who violated it. Stricter criminal penalties associated with the Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations Act (RICO), a series of laws passed in 1970 but not successfully utilized to combat organized crime until then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani’s prosecutions of major Mafia figures during the mid-1980s, enabled the federal government, for the first time, to get the upper hand on Italian organized crime. Other major American gangs include the aforementioned Hells Angels Motorcycle Club; the Russian organized crime groups mainly based in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, now commonly referred to as “Little Odessa”; Mara Salvatrucha (or MS) 13, a massive (estimated to currently have 70,000 members) street gang founded by Central American immigrants in southern California that has taken root in their native countries of Guatemala and El Salvador; and the Mexican Mafia, an extremely violent gang founded in the California Prison System in the mid-1950s and subsequently expanded to prisons across the country and whose ex-con members provide “muscle” for the gang to intimidate the families of prison guards and others.
In each of these examples, the formation of the gang was a product of the immigration experiences of different ethnic groups, with the exception of the black gangs, which are a product of histories of social and economic deprivation. In each example, the gangs began within the confines of closely-knit communities from which they spread out as their size and power grew. Additionally, unlike the Italian-American organized crime groups, like the Gambino, Bonanno, and Genovese “families” of New York, which were relatively easier for law enforcement organizations to infiltrate, many of the other ethnic-oriented gangs present far greater difficulty and danger for such operations. La Cosa Nostra, while extremely deadly, nevertheless understood the practical limitations of its power with respect to the murder of law enforcement personnel. Certain motorcycle and other ethnically-oriented gangs do not observe such limitations, and the pool of prospective police recruits that could be used to infiltrate those gangs is much smaller. Consequently, it has been much harder to infiltrate those gangs and gather the kind of intelligence on their inner workings that prosecutors need to make strong cases.
A prominent gang in the U.S. is the MS-13. Originating from Los Angeles, CA, the gang began to rival another gangs in the area. The gang has continued beyond their origin and spread across the world (more specifically in Spanish-speaking regions). What began as a means for protection, soon spiraled into one of the most dangerous gangs in the world.
MS-13 thrives because of their strict rules and moral code. They enact in violent acts and "regulate" their area. New members often join with the promise of family and protection. It is very difficult to leave the MS-13 as well due to the promise of death.