An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street:Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, Chapter 10: Crimes

Francine Garcia-Hallcom

Professor emerita of the California State University (Northridge)
First published on:
with a statement as “This website is no longer supported by Dr. Francine Hallcom. Feel free to use all the information found on this website.

First appeared: 1999 published at the California State University (Northridge),
First redistribution at MarkupDancing: 2010-10-05 00:10:18,
Last modified: 2020-02-19 10:53:52.

Although gangs are often portrayed as organized entrepreneurs, that was not the case in the Maxon study which used observations, questionnaires, and many of the same techniques used in the current investigation (1995:21). Some research has reported well organized, highly entrepreneurial drug distribution by gangs in California and in the Midwest. Drug syndicates may be highly structured and well organized, but Latino street gangs certainly are not. If members work for well-ordered syndicates, that is quite another matter. But the organizational perception of gangs and drug sales in general does not appear to be accurate and it has recently been challenged by studies in Chicago and Boston as well as in Los Angeles.

There is no doubt that gang members are clearly involved in drug sales. They were arrested in 27% of 1,563 cocaine sale arrests in two L. A. suburban cities--Pomona and Pasadena -- just between 1989 and 1991. This percentage was lower than anticipated although drug use among young people between the ages of 8 and 12 has increased sharply since the early l990’s (Forbes 1996). There has also been a sharp increase in the use of heroin in the last two years--varying, of course, from city to city. Most of the drug trafficking discussed by interviewees in the current study sounded very non-syndicated and more like the work of individual operators acting as distributors and vendors for their suppliers. These suppliers may have been part of a larger syndicate, but no evidence of such was reported.

In fact, the day-to-day life of a gang member can be quite boring in many respects! Stark reality means having no money, no prospects for a job, no opportunities leading to any kind of promise for the future, and a lack of recreational opportunities in the present. There are long days unfilled by work, or school, and hours and hours to whittle away on street corners. “Hanging out” often translates into doing nothing.

When there are drugs and money available, solace and/or escape are the result of getting high, and getting high is simply becoming numb to reality and escaping into oblivion. Some youths were unhealthy looking and complained about the toxic effect of drug highs and too much alcohol. For many of them, the next day life merely returned to the same old dreariness and hustle for cash. If this is all there is day after day, life becomes meaningless even to the point that for many self-preservation had become inconsequential.

To create excitement, gang members reported to Audrey Duff in a summary on the San Antonio Texas gang wars, “We get all hyped up. We do a drive-by” (Duff 1994:132-139).

Although much of their daily existence is unorganized and rather unpredictable, a pecking order of sorts within the gang clearly exists with the most “cholo” generally being at the top of the hierarchy and the most respected.

There exists an assorted drug culture consisting of marijuana, barbiturates, amphetamines, crack, cocaine, heroin and alcohol. Theirs is an upside down culture with the worst--by most people’s standards-- frequently being perceived as the best. The meanest or the craziest being the most celebrated.

The majority of the gang members are unskilled, uneducated, and usually unemployed. If the writing samples on the questionnaires serve as examples, the majority of these youths have very poor writing skills and lack proficiency in the three R’s in general.

Some actually hold down jobs at least until the next “bust” and subsequent incarceration period, or until the next explosive episode erupts between them and an employer or fellow employee. Because the gang teaches them to put up with very little, they have virtually no tolerance of the ups and downs common to the interactions among personnel in the work-world. As employees, they are inclined to become entangled in volatile situations even at work.

A few rules exist like codes of honor among the membership. For example, “You don’t mess with another vato’s woman. Well, you shouldn’t, but sometimes you do it anyway.” Other studies on codes of honor concur with the current investigtion (Maclovio 1996).

There is an intense sense of loyalty to “camaradas,” although Luis Rodriguez reports that the very people he would have died for, actually shot at him nearing the end of his gang career (Rodriguez -1993).

Actually, the members believe unquestioning in their code of honor; however, the moral development of the individuals involved in gangs is such that a member’s position within that code of honor can be readily vetoed.

Gangs have in common the fact that they participate in anti social behavior. Either individually or collectively they engage in battery, mayhem, sexual assault, damage to property, larceny, murder and other criminal activity. Among the latter are gang wars.

However, there have been no gang wars lasting for decades as has been reported by journalists. Actually, the gang members are mostly teens who eventually out-grow the gang or in some other fashion fade-out of the gang, so to speak; therefore, what in fact occurs is that new recruits come into the fold. Then it is they who continue the animosities for new reasons, new rivalries between new players and, of course, over turf. Issues mount and new vendettas must be paid.


Important to research is recognizing that a flawed public understanding exits, and that it is from that faulty perspective that anti-gang initiatives are all too often propelled. Because gangs are loose confederates, or small neighborhood gangs, rather than highly structured hierarchical organizations, they are not “armies” of terror as journalists have reported on occasion. They are, of course, terror evoking in the degeneracy of their misconduct--but hardly as organized armies.

Shortly after the L. A. riots, Don Terry’s article in the New York Times, “Hope and Fear in Los Angels as Deadly Gangs Call Truce,” referred to armies in the traditional, highly organized sense (May 12,1992). The more seasoned members seem to give the orders, but surprisingly enough new members and even associates routinely make suggestions that are actually acted upon.

From time to time, leaders emerge--for example, in the recent “truces,” in various parts of the country. A number of spokes persons for the gang surfaced, but whether or not they are “leaders” in the traditional sense of that word is quite another matter.

Another unfortunate media error is that of considering gangs together irrespective of ethnic background as described above. Whether for intervention, prevention, or management purposes, it is common for African-American, Latino, and Asian gang members alike to be lumped together behind the subterfuge of trying to deal with the “gang problem.”

This type of amalgamation is damaging to all minority youths and does next to nothing about the “gang problem” itself. Instead it often gives sanction to the notion that minority teenagers be viewed differently from other teens.

The “sweeps” merely help to reinforce that notion. Police officers in arresting suspected gang members, have in the past conducted generalized “sweeps” of minority teens. But how is one to know who is a gang member and who is not? Certainly not by looks or apparel--most teens in the area dress the same. Nevertheless, “sweeps” are the kind of police procedure that tacitly ratify the notion that minority teenagers are either gang members or potential criminals of one kind or another. Most are not!


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