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National Drug Intelligence Center
Attorney General's Report to Congress on the Growth of Violent Street Gangs in Suburban Areas
April 2008

The Domestic Gang Landscape


Gangs, which have existed in urban areas throughout the United States for at least the last 3 decades, have emerged as a primary public safety concern to law enforcement officials in many suburban communities. Violent urban gangs that have migrated from inner cities to surrounding areas perpetuate this concern. Gang migration from urban areas to suburban communities began in the late 1980s and intensified in the 1990s. At present, more than 20,000 gangs consisting of approximately 1 million members exist in all regions of the United States (see Appendix E, Map 1 for regional delineation). Gangs are present in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories.

Gang members often migrate from urban areas to suburban and rural locales in order to expand their areas of operation and generate additional income; they also seek to escape law enforcement operations targeting gang activity. According to data from the 2007 NDIC National Drug Threat Survey (NDTS), law enforcement officials in 1,970 of 3,054 jurisdictions responding to the survey reported a gang presence in their area. Of those jurisdictions reporting gang activity, 1,098 were identified as urban, 585 as suburban, and 287 as rural. (See Appendix E, Maps 2 and 3.) Many of the suburban and rural law enforcement agencies reported that a large percentage of the gang members present in their areas migrated from larger urban cities to establish subsets or chapters of their original gangs or to establish new gangs. For instance, law enforcement officials in Selma, California, reported the growing presence of Fresno Bulldogs, Loc Town Crips, Sureños, and Norteños2 gang sets in their jurisdiction--members of the sets migrated to Selma from Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. The gang sets are increasingly engaging in violent criminal activity, including drive-by shootings, to intimidate the citizens of Selma. In migrating to new areas, gangs generally recruit local individuals from various racial and ethnic groups in an attempt to blend within the resident population and mask their operations. Moreover, gangs appear to be motivated to move into new areas, in large part by an expectation of increased criminal revenue.

Gangs in suburban communities engage in myriad criminal activities, including violent crimes such as armed robbery, assault, homicide, and shootings. Additionally, gangs dominate retail-level drug distribution throughout the country and increasingly are becoming involved in wholesale-level drug trafficking. Law enforcement officials report that Mexican drug traffickers affiliated with the Federation, the Gulf Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel maintain working relationships with at least 20 street gangs, prison gangs, and OMGs that operate in suburban areas across the nation. Such affiliations have significantly increased the availability of illicit drugs in many suburban areas.

Law enforcement initiatives have impacted gang operations in many communities. Law enforcement officials in several areas report that gangs in their jurisdictions are reducing their use of violence in an attempt to avoid law enforcement apprehension. Moreover, successful law enforcement and community initiatives have caused gangs to reduce their level of operations in a number of urban and larger suburban areas. As a consequence, some gangs moved their operations into surrounding communities. For example, law enforcement officials in Bristol Township, Pennsylvania, report that Bloods street gang members are beginning to move into their area from nearby Trenton, New Jersey, to distribute illicit drugs and expand their territory; this is evidenced by gang graffiti and a rising number of gang-related "recruiting parties." Additionally, law enforcement officials in Levittown, Fairless Hills, and Morrisville, Pennsylvania,3 report an increasing presence of Trenton Bloods members in their jurisdictions, many of whom are attempting to attract junior and senior high school students to join their ranks. Officials in all of the jurisdictions believe the migration of Bloods gang members to their areas is a result of heightened law enforcement scrutiny of the gang members' operations in Trenton. (See Appendix E, Map 4.)

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Types of Gangs

Gangs vary in size, ethnic composition, membership, and organizational structure; however, most can be categorized as street gangs, prison gangs, or OMGs. Street gangs are typically associated with a particular neighborhood, town, or city and may incorporate the locale's name in their own, for instance, the Fresno Bulldogs. However, law enforcement officials report that several street gangs have attained regional or national status and operate in a number of states throughout the country. For example, Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, is one of the largest Hispanic street gangs in the United States; it is known to be active in at least 38 states and the District of Columbia. MS-13 is particularly active in the northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C. MS-13 members expanded into these areas from Los Angeles, California, in early 1992. After establishing a presence in northern Virginia, particularly Fairfax, Herndon, and Reston, MS-13 members migrated to the nearby counties of Montgomery, Prince William, and Prince George's, Maryland. MS-13 members have reportedly engaged in a host of criminal activities in these communities, including aggravated assault, homicide, and drug distribution.

Prison gangs are criminal organizations that operate within federal and state prison systems as self-perpetuating criminal entities; they also operate outside of prisons, typically through the activities of members who have been released from prison into communities. For instance, Barrio Azteca, one of the most violent prison gangs in the United States, has an estimated membership of 2,000 and operates in federal, state, and local corrections facilities in Texas and outside prison in communities within southwestern Texas and southeastern New Mexico. OMGs are criminal organizations whose members use their motorcycle club affiliation as a conduit for criminal activity. The Bandidos, one of the largest OMGs in the United States, has between 2,000 to 2,500 members in the United States and 13 other countries. According to the NDTS, OMGs are a growing criminal threat to the nation, particularly in terms of cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine trafficking.

Depending on their level of sophistication, gangs operate at the national, regional, or local level. National-level gangs generally maintain loyal subgroups, commonly referred to as chapters or sets, located in communities in multiple states throughout the country. National-level gangs typically are highly structured, have a large number of members, and have ties to transnational criminal and drug trafficking organizations. Regional-level gangs primarily operate in locations in multiple states within a limited geographic area. These gangs vary in structure and number of members and have limited ties to DTOs. Local gangs typically operate in a single location or in several locations that are in proximity to each other. They usually are less structured, have fewer members, and generally have no ties to DTOs; however, exceptions do exist--several local Hispanic gangs operating in Southwest Border states reportedly maintain ties to Mexican DTOs. For instance, the Tri-City Bombers and Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos have been linked by law enforcement officials to Mexican DTOs, particularly those affiliated with the Gulf Cartel.

End Notes

2. Gang sets can be defined as smaller subgroups of a larger gang. For example, the Chicago-based Latin Kings street gang has sets that operate in dozens of cities throughout the United States.
3. Bristol Township, Levittown, Fairless Hills, and Morrisville, Pennsylvania are located within the area commonly referred to as the Pennsylvania Route 222 Corridor.

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