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4 steps to understanding the structure of street gangs

Gang investigators need to think globally, but act locally when handling gang cases with subsets


In this Nov. 28, 2014 photo, a MS-13 gang graffiti is painted next to door of the Jose Ramon Montoya school in a Travesia neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

AP Photo/Esteban Felix

In its heyday, the American Mafia was a dominant criminal force with its tentacles in everything from garbage collection to the motion picture industry.

When law enforcement took steps to combat the Mafia through the RICO Act, they targeted the organization – the Mafia itself and the families that were part of it, rather than the individuals that made up the organization. This is pretty much the same thing we do on the local level with gang laws that target criminal gang activity.

Overall, this was a successful strategy. It led to the indictment and eventual conviction of mobsters at many levels. The downside to this approach though is the mistaken belief by law enforcement that all conspiracy crimes are committed by well-organized, global crime groups with well-defined rank structures, a functioning chain of command and a group of individuals working toward a common goal.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Even within the Mafia there was constant fighting between families and, on an even grander scale, in-fighting between different bosses, crews, made members and soldiers from within those families. Members in and out of their respective families were constantly scheming and conniving against each other. This resulted in members killing each other, ratting out their rivals to law enforcement, and forming alliances with other crews and individuals to garner more power.

It was every man for himself.

Understanding the structure of street gangs

The same can be said of the street gangs we deal with today. Like the Mafia of old, gang members are criminals who do what’s best for themselves and screw everyone else. The gang provides protection and intimidation but make no mistake about it, the criminals that make up gangs put themselves first.

It’s important to understand this when developing anti-gang strategies. Currently the federal government is proposing anti-gang legislation, some of it focused on MS13. Global membership of MS13 is around 70,000 members, with gang members in all 50 states, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America and elsewhere.

But what does it mean to be an MS13 member? Is there a central leader or Godfather, if you will, in Los Angeles or Central America in charge of the whole gang? Are there captains (or capos) in each country who have lieutenants in each state or territory reporting to them?

The obvious answer is no. An MS13 set in Pennsylvania may have no connection to a crew in Virginia. Sets in different states most likely don’t report to the main gang In Los Angeles. Conversely, Los Angeles MS13 may not tax different MS13 crews in different states. In reality, they may not even be aware of their existence.

There is no centralized leadership or roster of members complete with rank structure at the international, national, state and local levels. A new crew setting up shop in Rhode Island doesn’t need to apply for a charter, go through a probationary period and get validated by LA MS13 members. All it takes is for a couple of criminals to come together and decide to call themselves MS13.

Why is this important to gang investigators? We need to embrace these differences and address them when it comes to gang case prosecution.

Here are four considerations for investigators when working with gangs with subsets.

1. Recognize local signs, symbols and identifiers

Small cliques that claim to be part of a larger gang (Bloods, Crips, Nortenos, Surenos) may use some of the larger gang’s identifiers, but they also may have some that are unique to their own smaller group.

Where I work, we have seen Norteno gang members wearing Oakland Raiders gear, a traditional symbol for their hated rivals, the Surenos. They still claim Norteno and operate under the banner of the Nuestra Familia gang, but they choose to wear something that has nothing to do with that organization.

This is important because in court a gang investigator would have to explain this local nuance to a judge and jury. It doesn’t weaken the validity of a gang case, it just needs to be articulated.

2. Acknowledge internal conflicts

The Bloods have the Crips, the Gambinos had the Colombos, the Sharks had the Jets and so on. Long-standing, bloody rivalries exist between street gangs. Each large gang organization has a hated enemy gang they have fought with for decades.

That being said, subsets of major gangs fight all the time as well.

In Los Angeles, Sureno street gangs are often at war with each other over turf, money and respect. The umbrella group, the Mexican Mafia, doesn’t like this and considers it to be a violation of their by-laws, but there is little they can do about it.

Going back to the Mafia analogy, organizations made up of self-serving criminals will always default to taking care of themselves first.

You may have to testify on a gang case where it is red on red (or blue on blue depending on whatever colors the gang identifies with). It’s still a great gang case despite the fact that it is a violent act that occurred within a subset.

3. Know when to reference the umbrella organization

Despite their differences, the cliques and subsets still generally abide by the basic rules and tenants of the overall umbrella organization. For example, Norteno gang members use the Nuestra Familia’s 14 bonds (a Norteno gang member’s version of the 10 commandments) as their set of rules, regardless of their cliques’ internal mores and standards.

Gang investigators need to know when to cite the gang’s commitment to the umbrella organization’s identifiers in court, as well as point out when a specific identifier is used by a particular clique.

This is a slippery slope to navigate but it is part of what separates good gang testimony from the not so good.

4. Understand differences between in-custody gang activities and life on the streets

In jail or prison, “set tripping” (fighting between different subsets) generally isn’t tolerated. Differences are supposed to be set aside and everyone is supposed to ally with the umbrella organization. 18th Street Surenos and Florencia 13 Surenos in Southern California may be going to war on the street but once in custody, they are all soldiers of the Mexican Mafia prepared to fight other threat groups such as the Nuestra Familia, Black Guerilla Family and Aryan Brotherhood.

Gang investigators working in-custody cases like jail fights and removals need to be aware of this. Conversely, those who work the street also need to be able to articulate cases of internal beefs between different subsets, and even crews or individuals within those subsets.

Violence is an integral part of gang life and it is of an “equal opportunity” nature to be doled out to whoever demonstrates disrespect. This includes rival gang members, but also members of your own crew.

When it comes to taking these cases to court, be prepared to embrace these differences and make sure your prosecutors make these crooks, “An offer they can’t refuse…”

Nick Perna is a Detective Sergeant in charge of the Street Crime Suppression Team with the Redwood City Police Department in Northern California. He has spent much of his career as a gang and narcotics investigator. He is a member of a Multi-Jurisdictional SWAT Team since 2001 and is currently a Team Leader. He previously served as a paratrooper in the US Army and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has a Master’s Degree from the University Of San Francisco.

Contact Nick Perna