An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street:Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, Chapter 16: Criminal Behavior

Francine Garcia-Hallcom

Professor emerita of the California State University (Northridge)
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Gangs exist in urban, and more recently even in rural areas as well. They number well over a quarter million youths throughout the country (Curry et al. 1992). In Los Angeles County their violent acts claim an average of one life a day (1989 McBride & Jackson).

Over the past decade, truly extraordinary law enforcement and prosecution efforts have been devised to combat gangs. But there are more than twice as many gang members today as there ever were (Burrell 1990:782).

While the spotlight on gang activity has focused primarily on the actions of African-American and Latino urban gangs, (Burrell:740) it is particularly striking to note that only 4-10% of Latino youths are associated with gangs. Nevertheless, most gang studies continue to concentrate on those who affiliate rather than on the non-gang affiliated from those same neighborhoods (Fagan, l989) (Spergel l990) To some extent, this media blitz has made all Black and Latino youths a bit suspect in the eyes of both the community and the police. As a result, these teens often endure unwarranted stops, detainment, embarrassment, and even harassment.

It seems clear that as a society, we tend to differ in our reaction to crime; we are inclined to vary in our response to crime along ethnic lines. For example, Asian gangs’ tend to commit more crimes of extortion than do Black or Latino gangs. This type of crime does not provoke the kind of mass anxiety and fear that Black and Latino gangs create with their drive-by shootings wherein anyone at random could accidentally become a victim. (Wake Forest Law Review)

Of course, it is impossible to genuinely measure the number of gang related crimes and accurately measure their threat to society. As a matter of fact, law enforcement officials themselves recognize that at least some of the increase in reported gang-related homicides may be due to the way statistics are tallied.(See “The Problem of Definition)

And reliable statistics are virtually impossible to compile because statistical collection methods vary considerably and must, therefore, be viewed with reservations. For example, “gang motivated” crimes are sometimes recorded separately from “gang related” homicides. On the other hand, every single gang-member death is sometimes counted under “gang-related” deaths, including some that were caused by automobile traffic accidents. In this instance, we get a count higher than that caused by actual gang drive-by shootings and other kinds of gang homicides.

Most of the time the lack of uniformity in data collection means that gang crime is actually under-counted. However, federal funds to support or create police gang task forces are sometimes linked to the numbers of alleged gang members that a police department present. Thus, in some cities it may be desirable to over-count. On the other hand, in some cities, like Los Angeles as well as in the Ventura County area, under-counting may be preferred for political reasons as well as to avoid creating more public alarm than there is already. But irrespective of politics, accurate law enforcement figures are impossible to come by. Once again the problem of definition immediately materializes–who is and who is not a gang member in the first place?

A gang crime incident is generally referred to as one in which there was gang motivation and not merely personal incentive. The crime should not merely involve the participation of two or three members for strictly personal gain or personal vendetta, but the entire gang for reasons identifiable to the entire group. In actuality, not all gang activities (or even sub-group activities) have a criminal purpose, nor are they planned as group or sub group activities. Many times even a seemingly harmless backyard barbecue gathering turns into criminal behavior. A rival gang drives by, someone says something that catches a member out of sorts — any number of explosive scenarios are possible with these youths.

When something does go wrong for two or three members, they are very likely to gather up more troops; thus, an activity that began for personal gain or that was motivated by two or three members, can quickly escalate into a gang activity.

Gustavo: “I’ve done a lot of stupid things just going along, you know? Things where I didn’t have no problem with someone, but one of the other vatos did and I helped. I went along with them just because I was there.”

Reportendly, gang members, as compared with non-gang affiliated youths, do not have higher rates of delinquent behavior or drug use before entering the gang. However, once they became members, the rates increase substantially. By the same token, when gang members leave the gang, their rates of delinquency drop (Thornberry, Terence et al. 1992:55-87).

Obviously, gangs do not influence teens to attend Sunday School! But it is also a lamentable fact of life that in our society there is such a ready and easily obtainable supply of real guns for children. This, coupled with the availability of drugs, including alcohol, leads to much of the impulsive violence that occurs (Stephens l994). Consequently, within the gang’s ranks, there are youths who run the gamut from pranksters to vandals to armed robbers to murderers!

Furthermore, it is typical in our society for gang-style violence to be centralized in impoverished neighborhoods where other factors such as parental neglect, exposure to violence, miseducation, and poverty itself simply augment the general disorder. It is also worth repeating that movies, videos, and even fashions in our society all seem bent on glamorizing youth rebellion and the junkie and gangster lifestyle. A number of studies concur. (Moore 1987)(Kantrowitz l993:40-46)


A prevalent but inaccurate theory from the 1980′s in Los Angeles maintained that a substantial proportion of the increasing incidence of homicide among youths was attributable to the escalating involvement of gang members in illicit drug trafficking at the time. However, more recent data has revealed that gang motivated homicides are less likely than other homicides to involve narcotics and vice versa; narcotics motivated homicides are less likely to involve gang members (Mehan & O’Carroll 1992).

There is little hard evidence to support the notion that gang involvement in the narcotics trade is responsible for a substantial share of the homicides among youth in Los Angeles. Yet this notion has a direct bearing on the design of homicide prevention programs (Meehan and O’Carrol 1992:683). There is certainly no doubt that a substantial proportion of homicides are attributable to gang activity–but not also to drugs, and even less so among Latino street gangs.

Frequently in the literature, data on gangs is generalized. Thus, considerable gang violence had reportedly occurred not only between rival gangs, but between conflicting interest groups within the same gang. For instance, Crips kill each other four times as often as they kill Bloods. Today’s African American gang fights are frequently not so much over turf or insult to one another as they are over rivalries, individual malice, sales territories and drug rip-offs (McBride & Jackson 1989).

Furthermore, the Crips and Bloods, of course, are African American street gangs. Because contentiousness among Latino gangs develops over different types of issues, here again is information that cannot be generalized to apply to all street gangs. And once again the problem of statistic gathering emerges.

Although homicide figures have been going down in many areas, according to the Department of Justice, between l987 and l99l the number of teenagers arrested for murder nationwide rose by 85% (Kantrowitz, l993). However, in 1990 in San Diego, police and journalists gave figures stating that gang membership was up 31%. At the same time, there had been a 50% drop in gang related homicide for the same period. This could mean that there were more gang members, but fewer homicides among them. Or it could mean that something was wrong with the data collection procedures.

Occasionally casual conversation after an interview especially among non-gang affiliated participants, turned in the direction of homicides committed by one gang or another. Sometimes parents and extended family members had witnessed drive-bys and other violence. Research suggests that people such as these may be suffering from posttraumatic syndrome (Guevarra 1992). Many individuals seemed eager to talk about gang-related homicides.

In the current study, however, questionnaire items did not include information on gang-related homicides. The purpose of the study was to address issues that might give clues for better intervention assistance particularly at junior high school age; therefore, a discussion as far-reaching as gang-related homicides was infeasible, but certainly one worthy of further study.


Most Latino street gangs are not so well structured as the public might think. Their hierarchies appear to be informal. The members are fairly irresponsible and unfettered about going off on their own criminal sprees and misadventures (See also “Street Gang Organization” above).

In recent years, journalists and police have referred to a new kind of “gang,” an entrepreneurial drug-dealing gang they call “instrumental gangs.” These groups are primarily African American street gangs–again a problem of generalizing data from one group to all street gangs resulting in manufactured ideas that simply are not true. In addition, the University of Chicago study (1990) and more recently the Maxon study (l995) assert that the connection between gangs, drug dealing, and violence has been greatly overstated.

The Maxon study points to numerous statistical gathering problems when collecting police records–i.e. some depend on enforcement activity and highly subjective determinations of who is or is not a gang member (See “The Problem of Definitions” above).

Maxon also demonstrates that gang drug sales characteristically involve street sales of “relatively small amounts of rock or crack cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and PCP.” (1995) Based on post interview conversations, Latino gang members are probably more involved in the sale of many other types of drugs than in the sale of cocaine per se, and the quantities are probably also in line with the findings of the Maxon study. Data on that issue was not systematically collected and was beyond the scope of the study. Interview conversations consistently referred to 8-balls of cocaine, crack in very small portions, but mostly to other kinds of drugs including heroin, the use of which seemed to be on the increase.

Thus, it appears that offenders are more often than not merely individual gang-members or small groups, “entrepreneurial” only in the sense that they are working within a small clique among whom it is well known that sales are transacted. Conversations never referred to centralized activity or cartels or syndicates.

Most law enforcement agencies will readily admit that their gang files do not accurately represent all gang members within their cities. Even with better technology, they are not able to keep track of new and old members who fade in and out in a very gradual process. Members sometimes graduate into prison gangs, or out grow the gang and even move away. Others become independent agents of sorts. But certainly how any agency would go about keeping a reliable count of these young people is obscure. It is not as if one day a member tears up the membership card, resigns from the gang, and renounces his allegiance at gang headquarter where a secretary carefully deletes him/her from the computer data base.

A little known fact is that not all gang members come to the attention of police; some are just lucky. Others with only marginal or transitory criminal involvement escape identification even with the most rigorous gang designation procedures (Maxon 1995).

There are two competing views about the role of gangs and gang members in drug sales. The current research concurs with the second:

Instead, in the current field investigation, gang members frequently acted independently of the total group. More often than not, the proceeds from drug sales benefitted no one but the individual vendors. There is not a gang “kitty,” nor are there treasury coffers. In the eminent sociologist Malcolm Klein’s “The American Street Gang” monograph on their composition and organization, gangs are also described as loose and unstructured associations (l995).

In the current investigation, if the proceeds were indeed pumped back into the gang in any way, it was via “partying” –free beer and other drugs, food, and loud music purchased by the revenue obtained in the sale of drugs. Clearly, with nothing terribly productive to do, drug selling is the only really lucrative means of generating revenue.

As a matter of fact, some of the more independent drug traffickers often resisted affiliation with a gang and even bragged about that particular point precisely because they considered themselves independent of any and all ties.

Tomas: ” I don’t need no gang behind me. They’d only get in my way. They’d be – `Orale carnal, give me some of this, give me some of that.’”

Interviewer: “Or I’ll pay you later.”

Tomas: “Orale! que gacho (laughed in agreement) I know the gangs and they’re always doing stuff See–I don’t want no responsibilities like that. I don’t take order from nobody. I don’t have an old lady, or kids,–nothing, see? That’s how I want it. Mejor solo que mal acompaniado.” (Better to be alone than in bad company.)

Ironically, Tomas considered the gang “bad company.” Yet he was trafficking drugs, probably on a regular basis; but in conversation with Tomas, it became clear that he saw himself as a fairly nice guy.


The moral development of those who live in violent and destructive surroundings has been extensively examined (Wilson) (Berland, Homlish and Blotchksy: 36). Presumably when youths arrive at moral decisions, the power of authorities as well as the threat of punishment are indeed considered (Berland, Homlish and Blotchky 1989:36).

Other social scientists have taken Piaget’s stages and concluded that adolescents have fully developed cognitive processes and know what should and should not be done, not so much out of fear of being caught, but because they have a desire to uphold a value (Kohler and Kramer). Akin to Kant’s categorical imperative, most adolescents’ behavior is rooted in wishing to prevent chaos which would inevitably result if everyone disobeyed the law.

Delinquent youths, however, find psychological reward in disobeying the law as well as material reward in the profits garnered from illicit sales of drugs and stolen goods. They secure further reward in defying the power of authorities, of parents, and of the society at large. They receive still more psychic rewards at the hands of their delinquent peers whose approval and respect they gain. Consequently, “doing time” or “going to Juvie”– as juvenile detention centers are commonly referred to–simply boosts their status among the group.

The thrill of the commotion and flurry over having been “busted” or having made headlines, just adds infamy and is applauded. Media attention makes them feel special and further hoists the status they will receive from the group. When an all out war against gangs is declared by local authorities, they are bolstered in their efforts. The silent majority — the working people, the law abiding citizens, the youths who are non-gang affiliated as well as law enforcement personnel are perceived as weak and witless.


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