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Gang Violence: The Crime Of The Streets

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In 1980, a brutally violent civil war broke out in El Salvador. Thousands of Salvadoran refugees poured into the United States seeking a better life. One of those refugees was a boy named Nelson. Nelson and his family landed in a guetto neighborhood of Los Angeles. While his parents worked numerous jobs, Nelson spend much of his time by himself, in a new country still trying to adapt to new customs and the English language. When he and other Salvadoran kids went to school, they were bullied by Chicano kids because of their foreign accents and cultures. Thinking that enough was enough, one day they took all the violence they’d known as kids and combined it with the anger they built up inside. So, that year, they formed a group of their own, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. The tables turned when suddenly the victims of constant bullying became the bullies themselves. Years later, in 1996, the U.S. government deported a large number of immigrants including Nelson. Now an adult, who spoke English and wore gangster clothes, he didn’t fit into Salvador’s culture anymore; other Salvadorans realized, but they didn’t torment him. Contrary, they wanted to be like him meaning they wanted to join MS-13. A country trying to recover and rebuild from a war, unexpectedly, had the first ever gang problem on their hands and it only got worse (Ted, 2018). In a recent TED Talk, Gerardo Lopez, a former MS-13 member, before speaking about why he joined the gang and how he found a way out, goes back to the beginning by recalling this unbelievable story that MS-13 is the tragic outcome of a tragic environment.”

Before those major events occurred that would result in the creation of one of the most notorious gangs in the country, the roots of gangs in the U.S. trace back to their surface on the East Coast circa 1783. New York’s street gangs, the first ever form of gangs, developed in three periods; the ones responsible form the formation of gangs in this northeastern part were the English, Irish, and German immigrants. Contrary to the later ones, these gangs known as “the forty thieves,” “the bowery boys,” and “the fly boys,” included youngsters fighting over local territory (Howell & Moore, 2010). Years later, in 1820, questions toward the seriousness of these gangs ceased to exist as they began their involvement in violent activity. Not long after, a wave of Poles, Italians, and Jewish immigrants began to flood and with that began more rise in gangs. The 1920’s and 1930’s, a time of rising crime, showed the establishment of Mexican-American and African-American gangs. By the 1920’s, New York City, gangs shared a link with well-known organized crime groups such as the Italian’s established, American Mafia. They were partners in crime for corrupt businesses. Afterwards, gangs spurred at different times in three other regions. They began to flourish not only in the Northeast but in the Midwest, West, and South as well. Another large city that showed that organized crime groups were prevalent was Chicago. The West region showed to have the first appearance of gangs in the early 1890’s. By the 1960’s the two most famous gangs in history emerged, Bloods and Crips. Meanwhile, the South coast rose much later as important gang territory.

Today, gangs have evolved; prison, hybrid, motorcycle, and youth gangs are among those that have emerged since the traditional street gang. These gangs often form along racial or ethnic lines. Studies show a greater percentage existing of Hispanic/Latino (46%) and African-American (35%) gang members compared with other race or ethnicities. Los Angeles is home for Hispanic gangs; its members use slang that is a combination of English and Spanish language. They are referred to as “cholo(a)s,” meaning “Chicago gangster,” or “pandillero(a).” African-American gang members are mostly seen in major cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Due to society’s perspective of them, black gang members deal with constant discrimination and racism that exists more than in any other racial gangs. The other 11% consists of white and 7% among other gang members (Asian) (Cassada, 2010).

The term “gang” has no official definition as may meanings exist, none which have been established as the universal one. Researcher and author of The Gang, Frederic Thrasher, states that a gang is “an interstitial group, originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict. It is characterized by the following types of behaviors…The result of this collective behavior is the development of tradition, unreflective, internal structure…and attachment to a local territory.” Thrasher’s definition influenced multiple researcher’s definition of a gang. Gang bangers are proud of who they are, and they want their presence to be known. So, they employ characteristics such as a name, logo, colors, clothing style, hand signs, and tattoos. These features set gangs apart from one other; they each have their own. Each gang has a distinctive name and claims control over their turf, which can be a block, neighborhood, or an entire part of their city. Gangs will often use graffiti and vandalize property with their symbols and colors to inform the community that they marked their property. Graffiti is not simply art, gang graffiti on buildings and other public places is also used to bring intimidation to rival gangs. Gangs are identified by their colors worn by their members. The traditional gangster clothing style is the Nike Cortez shoes, Dickie Pants, Panettone shirts, and bandannas around the head or hung loosely in the back pocket.

Becoming a part of a gang means making a commitment. Besides proving their pledge of loyalty and gaining the other members trust, he or she must go through a tough initiation first-that involves a strict procedure before making their position official. Yet, they are willing to do whatever it takes to be a part of something bigger and more powerful than themselves. For males this means being beaten, fighting against current member(s), or carrying out a mission, or committing a crime. Meanwhile, females, most of the time, have two options: being hit for a short amount of time or having sexual intercourse with gang veterans.

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People constantly hear about them in the news, gang bangers have been called murders, violent, destructive, lawbreaking, and criminals. A lot of what people have heard about gangs is true, while some of it tends to be incorrect. The form that news media interprets gangs often misleads the concept of their reality. Mike Carlie, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at SMSU, argues that mass media misinterprets the gang problem by focusing on individual gang violence rather than on the social causes that contribute to the formation of gangs. Often, the media presents black youth as a representative of all gang bangers. People’s view of gangs is also shaped by law enforcement, who typically define gangs as “organize crime” (Stark, 2000). Therefore, the distorted image created in the people’s mind is that the world is a completely frightening place. The press has published a large number of gang-related articles, and the most controversial trending topic is Trump vs MS-13. Although information may be false, the fact that gangs are dangerous is without no doubt.

Statistics suggests that young adults joining gangs is a serious problem that America faces. According to an FBI report, 1.4 million are currently active in more than 33,000 U.S. gangs. As of 2010 reports from law enforcement agencies show that teenagers ages thirteen to eighteen make up the largest percentage of the gang demographics across the country. There are about 24,500 youth gangs with approximately 772,500 teen members, this is equal to 7% of the U.S. teen’s population (Frieden, 2011).

As research shows. the number of young adults involved in gangs has spiked. There are many factors that contribute to why youths join gangs. According to Karen L. Kinnear, she references that those main reasons are peer pressure, poverty, and lack of parenting (Kinnear, 2009). In some cases, being in a gang runs in the blood. Daily, young adults are pressured not only from their friends but their family as well to be a part of a gang; most of the time, they tend to look up to their role models, but sometimes those models are not good ones. Rather than being told not to follow in their footsteps, they are encouraged to carry on the family legacy. There have been times when they remind themselves that they’re not meant for that lifestyle, but they feel like they have that sense of duty. People have come to believe that gangs were the result of the growing number of dysfunctional or broken families. Gang member usually come from the low-class city areas, and many of them are recent immigrant to the U.S. Teens feel frustrated when their parents don’t provide them with their standard necessities. When they see an opportunity to help their family financially, they sacrifice themselves by joining. Lopez was born in L.A.; the neighborhood he grew up in as a kid was MS-13 territory. As a child, he knew he did not want to be a part of a gang; sadly, his mother wasn’t around most of the time, and he would spend much of his time alone in the streets. One day, an MS-13 gang member pointed a gun at his face and robbed him. He would try to dodge him, by doing anything to avoid being seen, which meant traveling miles outside of the neighborhood in order to escape the gangs; he wasn’t safe no matter where he went. Lopez recounts the time he saw them from his apartment window celebrating Nelson, who recently came back from El Salvador. Unlike Nelson, who had respect, power, and pride, Lopez yearned to have those three things. It wasn’t until then that he wanted to be revered in his own neighborhood, so at only 14 years of age, he chose to join MS-13. All that glory he felt vanished in thin air; it wasn’t long before he regretted his decision. Before attaining gang membership, teens think that joining is their only option for survival and there’s no other door open for them. Unfortunately, like Lopez, many youths are affected by the role of social factors and fall victims to believing that there is no other option. However, they must realize that they always have a choice. They should realize that gang membership means seeing as how they are putting their lives at risk and sacrificing and dealing with the dangers and ruthless streets.

Throughout the years, the amount of gang violence has increased and the number of deaths due to the violent acts has skyrocketed. The aftermath of it all is that the loved ones of the innocent lost lives are left behind to endure the pain. Gangs are responsible for 48% of violent crime, in most jurisdictions (Frieden, 2011). The #justiceforjunior trial is the latest that drew outrage among the city and across the nation. On June 20, 2018, at nearly midnight, Lesandro “Jr.” Guzman-Feliz, laid dead right outside of St. Barnabas Hospital. Minutes before a group of gang members, who carried machetes and knives, hunted and dragged Jr. from a Bronx-neighborhood bodega. the incident, captured by, revealed the barbaric strategies of the gang called the Trinitarios, a Dominican gang that was established in New York prisons, went viral on all social media platforms (Wabc., 2018).

Gangs rob the youth of their teenage years, and whatever the reason they had for joining deprived them from a normal life. The love they claim they have for the gang and for brotherhood blinds them from a future. They start making bad choices, are exposed to a life filled with violence and filthy crimes that will eventually land them in jail. Many like Lopez, lament joining in the first place and feel regretful. After a series of life reflecting, Lopez decided it wasn’t too late for him to get out. Therefore, there should be more done to help prevent further gang involvement. Unfortunately, like he mentions, society also plays a huge part in this. Society tends to ignore young people who are following a wrong path and pay less importance. Preventing greater spikes of gang violence begins with preventing young adults from joining gangs or having any involvement with them. By telling his personal story, Lopez wants to raise attention to the current ongoing issue. Alex Sanchez, a former MS-13 gang brother that he looked up to, told him about the opportunity to join his gang intervention group. Part of Lopez was reluctant; he feared not knowing who he would be without the gang. He thought about the younger generation than him and was inspired to get out. Lopez states how young vulnerable kids want to feel that sense of belonging and accepted, which is a main target for gangs. They don’t have to go the same route as their friends and family, there is always a different path, the right one. Sadly, not all make it, as families are left behind mouth fill with prayers that it wasn’t their child’s dead body laying underneath a white sheet. The strong bond they form with their brothers fades once they see their bodies in caskets. The youth must be led in the right path. With the help of the program and his personal will, Lopez soon realized that members from other gangs felt the same, the only thing that separated them was the name of their gang. At the program they learned to express themselves without using drugs and violence, and it took them traveling to different places to share their story and more people listened. By speaking to audiences, they gained the same feeling of respect, pride and power they had while being a gangbanger. Lopez faded away from the gang, ultimately leaving. He admitted that not even a police department welcomed the gang intervention group instead treated unlawfully. After receiving his degree in criminal justice, Lopez worked in youth detention facilities as a youth counselor to continue to get kid gangs. Although MS-13 was his past, he continued to be punished by society for his past. Lopez stresses the importance to get kids out of gangs. They feel alienated and just want to belong and belong, feel valued and have a purpose; it’s no surprise why Lopez decided to join. After leaving MS-13, Lopez had his gang intervention group to support him. Strong families are key to violence prevention group session interactions build a mutual understanding across generations (Ted, 2018). Unfortunately, most people don’t have that luck. They have nowhere to turn to and nowhere to go. Lopez states 70% of kids who try to leave a gang but don’t have another support system in place fail. The only way to accomplish to get kids out and keeping them out is to create an environment that will support them through every stepping stone. Now, Lopez, is the executive director of Homies Unidos Denver, a gang violence prevention and intervention organization. This facility empowers youth and families to become advocates of social change rather than agents of self-destruction. The sense of self-esteem that a gang provides them is false you have to love yourself first no one can do that for you. Their negative actions have impacted their family’s communities and each other. They begin taking responsibility for their actions.

What started as a group of street kids hanging out in the boroughs of New York led to the emergence of modern-day gangs. The current growing gang problems the nation faces are the results of years of complex factors. Today, gangs have become a tragic epidemic. Unfortunately, like Lopez, other gang member’s life has become the tragic outcome of a tragic environment. Throughout history, gangs have been cultivated and become profoundly recognized as the most feared group, such as MS-13 being considered the most “dangerous” gang in the world. Gangs have highly developed from the late 18th century to present day. Gangs are the cause of the increased number count in deceased tortured people occurring around the world. The fear being consumed by everyday gang violence eats away the lives and hopes of others.

Works Cited

  1. Cassada, Raychelle. “Teen Gangstas.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 11 Oct. 2010,
  2. Curran, Amanda. “Common Characteristics of Gangs.” Http://, 24 Apr. 2009,
  3. Dudley, William, and Louise I. Gerdes. Opposing Viewpoints: Gangs. Gale., 2005., pp. 24-31
  4. Frieden, Terry. “FBI Report: Gang Membership Spikes.” CNN, Cable News Network, 21 Oct. 2011,
  5. Friedrichs, Matt. Gangs: Problems and Answers, Ethics of Development in a Global Environment (EDGE) , 26 July 1999,
  6. Stark, Evan. Everything You Need to Know about Street Gangs. Rosen Pub. Group, 2000., pp. 35-40
  7. Wabc. “Justice for Junior: After Innocent Bronx Teen’s Death, Lawmakers Take Aim at Gang Violence.” ABC7 San Francisco, 28 June 2018,

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