National Drug Intelligence Center
National Drug Threat Assessment 2006
Organized Gangs and Drug Trafficking
Independent dealers are the primary retail-level distributors of illicit drugs in most regions of the country. However, street gangs, prison gangs, and outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs) have long been and continue to be the predominant organized retail drug distributors; their level of organization is the key factor that renders gangs a significant threat to the country, particularly in metropolitan areas. Compounding the threat that gangs pose to the nation, their influence with respect to drug smuggling, transportation, and wholesale distribution has increased sharply. A number of issues have contributed to this increase. First, many gangs--particularly national-level street gangs--have evolved from turf-oriented gangs to sophisticated, profit-driven, organized criminal enterprises that engage in polydrug trafficking activities. Second, gangs have established and increasingly seek to establish relationships with Mexican DTOs. Finally, gangs have proliferated in areas throughout the country not previously affected by gang activity, either by means of emulation, migration, or a combination of both.
Many gangs have evolved from turf-oriented gangs to profit-driven, organized criminal enterprises whose activities include not only retail drug distribution but also other aspects of the trade, including smuggling, transportation, and wholesale distribution. Some national-level street gangs are highly organized, with as many as 100,000 members and associates. The most highly organized, such as Latin Kings, Gangster Disciples, and Vice Lords, have centralized leadership cores that conspire to transport and distribute drugs throughout the country. Some prison gangs have evolved from ethnic-based protection gangs within the prison system to organized criminal enterprises that use their connections with Mexican DTOs as a means of conducting drug trafficking activities in various regions of the country, particularly the West and Southwest Regions. OMGs generally have fewer members than most large street gangs but are even better organized; most have numerous chapters with bylaws or constitutions established by a national or international hierarchy. The strength of OMGs lies in their international connections, which provide them with access to wholesale quantities of illegal drugs, particularly marijuana and methamphetamine.
Street gangs and prison gangs have, to varying degrees, established relationships with Mexican DTOs; these relationships have enabled them to evolve from retail-level distributors of drugs to significant smugglers, transporters, and wholesale distributors. While some street gangs simply obtain drugs for retail distribution from Mexican DTOs, others have established relationships with Mexican DTOs that allow them to obtain multikilogram-quantities of drugs including cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine for transportation to and wholesale distribution in locations throughout the country. The transfer of drugs from Mexican DTOs to street gangs frequently is brokered by prison gangs, some of which have organized into sophisticated and compartmentalized DTOs in their own right. As a result, prison gangs are increasingly gaining dominance over street gangs by exacting taxes from their retail drug distribution activities and managing the drug supply through major Mexican DTOs. Both gangs and DTOs benefit from these relationships, which provide gangs with access to wholesale quantities of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine and at the same time provide the DTOs with a layer of insulation from U.S. law enforcement.
While the total number of gang members in the United States may have decreased over the past few years, the proliferation of gangs and their involvement in drug activity continue to increase throughout the country. According to the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC), estimated gang membership in the United States decreased 6 percent from 780,233 in 1998 to 731,500 in 2002. Nonetheless, 2005 NDTS data indicate that the percentage of state and local law enforcement agencies reporting that either street gangs or OMGs were involved at some level in drug distribution in their jurisdictions increased each year from 44.6 and 29.8 percent, respectively, in 2003 to 51.9 and 34.7 percent, respectively, in 2005. As gangs proliferate in rural and suburban areas of the country, they seek new markets for drug distribution activities. For example, the increased availability of methamphetamine in the Northeast, Southeast, and Great Lakes Regions of the country is at least in part attributable to the proliferation of California- and Texas-based Hispanic gangs such as Latin Kings and Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) in these areas. These Hispanic gangs obtain multikilogram-quantities of methamphetamine from Mexican DTOs in the Southwest Region and transport the drug to previously untapped methamphetamine markets in the Northeast, Southeast, and Great Lakes Regions.
The threat posed by gangs will increase as gangs become better organized and more sophisticated and expand their markets. This threat is magnified by the high and increasing level of violence associated with expansion of drug trafficking activities by gangs as well as their intensifying relationships with Mexican DTOs. Such relationships will afford street gangs, prison gangs, and OMGs greater access to drugs from foreign sources. And while to date there is no evidence to suggest that U.S.-based street gangs, prison gangs, or OMGs have forged definitive relationships with foreign terrorist organizations, it is possible that some gangs may associate with foreign terrorists for the purpose of conducting drug trafficking and various criminal activities. Moreover, the potential for such relationships exists primarily among U.S. prison gangs, whose members seem to be particularly susceptible to terrorist and other extremist recruitment.
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