Why gang signs and symbols are tricky for investigators

Gather information about gang signs and symbols from as many sources as you can manage, but know that what something means someplace else may not hold true in your jurisdiction


Gang symbols and signs have been very useful to investigators in cracking otherwise difficult cases. Savvy investigators practice a form of modern iconography — a form of art history, that examines “the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images.” 

As a member of numerous gang associations, I see a lot of emails from other gang detectives asking for assistance regarding identification of graffiti, tattoos, and other gang signs, and symbols. This kind of cross talk is important because it allows us to see trends and make connections between crime and criminals in different jurisdictions. 

However, we must remember that gang symbols can be easily misunderstood, and these misunderstandings can lead to misidentification and false leads in cases.

Symbols Vary
Too often, gangs are incorrectly viewed as highly organized groups that identify with the same signs and symbols everywhere. For example, it would be easy to think that a Crip in Los Angeles is the same as a Crip in New York and that they recognize the same symbols (tattoos, colors). That isn’t the case. 

Symbols vary from state to state, city to city, even from one street to the next. I know of two warring factions of the Norteno gang in a city that borders mine. They are fighting over a variety of things but a big part of the dispute is over their name. One claims the initials MNM the other MMN. Pretty stupid right?

Opposing gangs can share the same signs and symbols. Case and point is the Norteno gang. Their primary color is red. One of their main rivals in California is the Fresno Bulldogs whose primary color is also red. Two opposing gangs occupying the same city and wearing the same color!

In the city I work,  there’s a crew that goes by the Little Mexico Gang or LMG. There is another LMG a couple of cities over. They are both Norteno gangs but they generally don’t associate with each other. In an episode of Gangland,  they profiled a different LMG gang altogether. A request for information from an out of state investigator could yield a variety of responses, many of them contradictory.

It gets even worse when it comes to numbers as symbols. Many of the gangs where I work use the number of the block they claim as an identifier. There is a gang known as Vera Street (who actually claims Vera Avenue but, whatever). They claim the 400 block of Vera as their center of gravity, thus they identify with the number 400. 

I can think of at least two other gangs in the area that also claim a 400 block. So you see how easy it would be to misidentify a gangster on that information alone. So if a gang investigator from Missouri asks me if there are any “400” crews in California I’d have to say yes and that there are probably dozens of them. Just about every street in America has a 400 block so the potential for misidentification is huge.

The same goes for the members themselves. There generally aren’t any unified fronts when it comes to gangs. They may share the same name but that by no way means they are all working in concert. Consider MS13 — one of the largest gangs, with over 70,000 members. The reality is that an MS13 member in Massachusetts probably has no connection to the larger gang in Los Angeles or the parent gang in Central America. There is no international chapter of MS13 website where budding gangsters go online, sign up, and choose between a one-year, five-year, or lifetime membership. In the town where I work we saw some limited MS13 activity but it was a group of Central American immigrants who opted to use the name given its notoriety. There was no connection to the larger gang.

It’s a very useful exercise to gather information on gang signs and symbols into an organized library, and keep adding to that reference set. Gather information about gang signs and symbols from as many sources as you can manage, but know that what something means someplace else may not hold true in your jurisdiction. And conversely, be careful when responding to another agency’s request for information about a gang in your area. Remember to couch your response with the caveat that although a certain symbol means something for gangs in your area, the same may not be true elsewhere. 

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