Where All the Madness Began: A Look at Gang History
Marcus Hoover
Poverty & Prejudice: Gangs of All Colors
May 28, 1999

Criminal street gangs have become one of the most serious crime problems in California. Gang violence-particularly assaults, drive-by shootings, homicides, and brutal home-invasion robberies-accounts for one of the largest, single, personal threats to public safety in this state.

The Department of Justice estimates there may be as many as 175,000 to 200,000 gang members in California. These figures are approximations only since there is no statewide, centralized repository of gang-related information to accurately measure the number of gang members in California. However, these figures represent an approximate 230 to 280 percent increase over the past 11 years when former Attorney General George Deukmejian's Youth Gang Task Force estimated 52,400 gang members in the state during 1981. The Youth Gang Task Force figures were based on a series of hearings held throughout the state in 1981.

The current estimates are based on:

A 1991 telephone survey by the Department of Justice of California law enforcement gang units, with the exception of those in Los Angeles County. The survey indicated approximately 50,000 gang members in California, exclusive of Los Angeles County.

A May 1992 report by the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office. The report indicated "there are 125-130,000 gang members on file in the combined databases for Los Angeles County," which included "roughly 5,000 duplicate names." They also reported "2 0-25,000 gang members active in LA County who have not yet shown up in any gang database."

For the purpose of this report, gangs are defined as "any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities the commission of one or more of the criminal acts enumerated in paragraphs (1) to (8), which has a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity." (California Penal Code Section 1 86.22[f])

The following criminal acts are enumerated in paragraphs (1) to (8):

1 Assault with a deadly weapon or by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury


3.Unlawful homicide or manslaughter

4.The sale, possession for sale, transportation, manufacture, offer for sale, or offer to manufacture controlled substances

5.Shooting at an inhabited dwelling or occupied motor vehicle


7.The intimidation of witnesses and victims

8.Grand theft of any vehicle, trailer, or vessel

A gang member is defined as "any person who actively participates in any gang with knowledge that its members engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity, and who willfully promotes, furthers, or assists in any felonious criminal conduct by members of that gang." (California Penal Code Section 1 86.22[a])

Both definitions are restrictive. Not all gangs have names, identifying signs, or symbols; and gang members may include associates affiliated with the gang for purposes of criminal activity. Hardcore gang members devote their lives to the gang, but criminal associates do not. This report takes these elusive circumstances into consideration and includes them-along with Penal Code Section 186.22 (a) and (f)--as gangs and gang members throughout the document.

The gangs, which comprise the majority of the violent gangs in California, include Hispanic gangs; African American gangs, particularly the Crips and Bloods; Asian gangs; and white gangs, especially the Skinheads.

Hispanic gangs comprise the majority of the gang population in California. They are involved in a variety of criminal activities, and their arsenals are expanding to large-caliber. handguns and automatic weapons.

The Crips and Bloods have become the most well-known of California's African American gangs, They are involved in robberies, burglaries, assaults, drive-by shootings, murders, and narcotics trafficking throughout California and the United States.

Asian gangs-especially Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian gangs-are becoming one of the fastest growing gang-related crime problems in this state. Their members terrorize their own community, and most of their home-invasion robberies include threats or bodily harm to the victims. Some of the robberies have resulted in the torture and death of the victims.

White gangs, particularly the Skinheads, are involved in hate crimes. Murders and assaults attributed to Skinheads are on the increase, and most of their crimes are racially

motivated. The connections between the Skinheads and other established white-supremacist groups-like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Aryan Resistance-are increasing.


Hispanic Gang History:

Hispanic gangs began forming in California during the early 1920s. They started as looseknit groups banding together for unity and socializing in the barrios (neighborhoods) where the same culture, customs, and language prevailed. Gang members were male youths ranging from 14- to 20-years-old. Property crimes such as burglary, strong-arm robbery, and vandalism were their crimes of choice.

These gangs had no formal structure nor leadership. They were very defensive of their barrio, and they would protect it with a vengeance. Gang fights occurred between rival gangs as a result of disputes, turf differences, or transgressions-whether real or imaginary. Often, their weapons included knives, zip guns, chains, clubs, rocks, and bottles.

The commission of a crime became a way of gaining status within the gang. Imprisonment in the California Youth Authority or the California Department of Corrections earned a gang member great stature with other gang members.

By the 1980s, these gangs began targeting their communities and surrounding neighborhoods for drive-by shootings, assaults, murders, and other felonious crimes. Violence became a way of life.

The gangs developed some organization and structure, and leaders emerged from the ranks of older gang members who had been stabbed or shot in gang fights or released

from the youth authority or prison. Known as "veteranos," these gang leaders began to recruit new members and train them in gang-related criminal activities. They continued to be turf oriented, and gang fights progressed to gang wars.

The age span for gang members widened, encompassing male youths ranging from 12- to 25-years-old who were willing to fight and die for the gang. Most of the gangs required new members to commit a crime, such as stealing a car or committing a burglary or robbery, before becoming a gang member.

Female associates had little claim to the gang. They assumed the role of traditional girlfriends but, at times, would challenge other females in rival gangs to fight. Because they were less likely to be arrested for gang activities, they were sometimes used by male gang members to carry weapons and narcotics.

As the Hispanic gang members evolved, they established unique trademarks such tattoos, hand signs, monikers, and graffiti. Elaborate tattoos depicting the initials or name of a gang symbolized loyalty to a particular gang. Hand signs formed the letters of the gang's initials. Monikers were names assumed by-or given to-gang members, and they were usually retained for life. Intricate graffiti-or placa-clearly marked the gang's territorial boundaries and served as a warning to rival gangs. Gang members used these distinguishing characteristics to demonstrate gang allegiance, strengthen gang participation, and challenge rival gangs.


African American Gang History:

African American gangs began forming in California during the 1920s. They were not territorial; rather, they were loose associations, unorganized, and rarely violent. They did not identify with graffiti, monikers, or other gang characteristics.

These early gangs consisted generally of family members and neighborhood friends who involved themselves in limited criminal activities designed to perpetrate a "tough guy" image and to provide an easy means of obtaining money.

From 1955 to 1965, the African American gangs increased with larger memberships and operated primarily in south central Los Angeles and Compton. This was partly due to more African American youths bonding together for protection from rival gangs.

It was not until the late 1960s when the Crips and Bloods-the two most violent and criminally active African American gangs-originated. The Crips began forming in southeast Los Angeles by terrorizing local neighborhoods and schools with assaults and strong-arm robberies. They developed a reputation for being the most fierce and feared gang in the Los Angeles area.

Other African American gangs formed at about the same time to protect themselves from the Crips. One such gang was the Bloods, which originated in and around the Piru Street area in Compton, California; thus, some Bloods gangs are referred to as Piru gangs. The Bloods, which were outnumbered at the time by the Crips three to one, became the second, most vicious African American gang in the Los Angeles area.

Both the Crips and Bloods eventually divided into numerous, smaller gangs (or "sets") during the 1970s. They kept the Crips' and Bloods' (Piru) name, spread throughout Los Angeles County, and began to claim certain neighborhoods as their territory. Their gang rivalry became vicious and bloody.

By 1980, there were approximately 15,000 Crips and Bloods gang members in and around the Los Angeles area. The gangs-or sets-ranged in size from a few gang members to several hundred and had little, if any, organized leadership. The typical age of a gang member varied from 14- to 24-years-old.

Initiation into a gang required the prospective member to 'lump in" and fight some of the members already in the gang. Another initiation rite required them to commit a crime within the neighborhood or an assault against rival gang members.

They remained territorial and motivated to protect their neighborhoods from rival gang members. They established unique and basic trademarks such as colors, monikers, graffiti, and hand signs. The color blue was adopted by the Crips as a symbol of gang recognition; red became the color of the Bloods. Monikers-such as "Killer Dog," "12-Gauge," and "Cop Killer' '-often reflected their criminal abilities or their ferociousness as gang members. Graffiti identified the gang and hand signs displayed symbols-usually letters-unique to the name of their gang. It was not unusual for members to "flash" hand signs at rival gang members as a challenge to fight. They took great pride in displaying their colors and defending them against rival gangs. They were willing to die for the gang, especially in defense of their colors and neighborhood. It was not until the early 1980s that the era of drive-by shootings began.

They became involved in a variety of neighborhood crimes such as burglary; robbery; assault; and the selling of marijuana, LSD, and PCP. The issue of gang involvement in narcotics trafficking was generally considered to be of a minor nature prior to the I 980s. However, by 1983, African American Los Angeles gangs seized upon the availability of narcotics, particularly crack, as a means of income. Crack had supplemented cocaine as the most popular illicit drug of choice. Prime reasons for the widespread use of crack were its ease of conversion for smoking, the rapid onset of its effect on the user, and its comparatively inexpensive price.

The migration of African American Los Angeles gang members during the 1980s to other United States cities, often for reasons other than some vast gang-inspired conspiracy, resulted in the spread of crack sales and an attendant wave of violence. This spread of crack sales can be traced back to the gang members' family ties in these cities and to the lure of quick profits. These two reasons provided most of the inspiration and motivation for the transplanted gang members.

Considerable diversity is displayed by Crips and Bloods gangs and their members in narcotics trafficking, which allows for different levels of involvement from narcotic selling by adolescents to the more important roles of directing narcotics trafficking activities. In the past, an individual's age, physical structure, and arrest record were often principal factors in determining gang hierarchy; money derived from narcotic sales soon became the symbol which signified power and status.

Crips and Bloods have established criminal networks throughout the country and capitalized on the enormous profits earned from the trafficking and selling of crack cocaine. In 1987, nine members of the Nine-Deuce Hoovers-a Crips gang-migrated from Los Angeles to Seattle, Washington, where they ran three crack houses, with crack .transported from California each week. One gang member was subsequently arrested and pleaded guilty in 1988 to selling crack near a school and using a gun to further his narcotic enterprise. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison and is currently incarcerated in Leavenworth Federal Prison, Kansas.

Asian Gang History:

Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian gangs represent the bulk of the Asian criminal street gang problem in California. It was not until the late 1970s that Vietnamese gangs began to emerge, followed by Laotian and Cambodian gangs in the early I 980s.

These gangs ranged in size from 5 to 200 gang members; and their crimes included residential and business robberies, auto thefts, and burglaries. Rarely were they involved in drive-by shootings. The gang members varied in age from 15- to 25-years-old, and the older gang members were usually the leaders.

Early formation of Asian gangs was loose-knit, and the gang members did not associate with each other on a continuous basis. They had little, if any, loyalty to a particular gang. Unlike Hispanic and African American gangs, Asian. gangs began with no unique Characteristics such as tattoos, hand signs, or graffiti. They had no names for their gangs, nor were they organized or turf oriented. There were no female Asian gangs and few female Asian gang members.

By 1985, the Vietnamese gangs were committing organized auto thefts, extortions, firearms violations, home-invasion robberies, witness intimidations, assaults, and murders. They frequently used some type of weapon during the commission of their crimes. Vietnamese gang members began targeting their own communities with ruthless and vicious crimes and would often travel to various Vietnamese communities throughout the country to commit these crimes.

The Laotian and Cambodian gangs remained predatory. They became turf oriented, and their crimes were random property crimes-usually involving some form of robbery or burglary.

White Gang History:

White gangs have been forming in California for decades. Early white gangs were oriented around motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels. Today's outlaw motorcycle gangs are not considered street gangs but, rather, organized crime groups. It was not until the late 1980s that the Skinheads were identified as the primary source of white street gang violence in this state. They were characterized by their shaven heads and white-supremacy philosophy and, for the most part, were factionalized and unorganized.

Skinheads formed as racist gangs and were not turf oriented nor profit motivated. Their crimes ranged from vandalism and assaults to murders. Generally, targets of their crimes included non-white, Jewish, homeless, and homosexual individuals. Confrontations between the Skinheads and their targeted victims were often random, but they usually culminated in serious injury or death to the victim.

The age of the Skinhead gang members varied from early teens to mid-20s. Both males and females belonged to the gang; and their weapons included baseball bats, knives, fists, and steel-toed boots.

Similar to other gangs, Skinheads resort to graffiti, hand signs, and tattoos as typical gang characteristics. Common graffiti includes swastikas and lightning bolts. Most of the graffiti is used to deface property rather than indicate gang territory. Hand signs include both the Nazi salute and formation of the letters "W" and "P" for White Power. Tattoos include swastikas, Nazi flags, hooded Ku Klux Klansmen, and the letters SWP for Supreme White Power and WAR for White Aryan Resistance.

Skinheads began to establish associations with some of the more traditional white supremacy groups-such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the White Aryan Resistance (WAR). Gang members would travel throughout California and other parts of the country to attend KKK and WAR rallies, marches, and demonstrations. Skinheads have participated in cross-burnings and become members of the American Klan in Modesto.

Skinheads have attended the annual meeting of the Aryan Nations' Church, a Neo-Nazi organization in Idaho linked to The Order-a former domestic terrorist organization. Skinhead gang members identify with the imprisoned and deceased Order members as "prisoners of war" and "martyrs" in the white-supremacist movement.

Skinheads from California were residing with Skinheads in Portland, Oregon, during December 1988 when the Portland Skinheads used a baseball bat to beat an Ethiopian immigrant to death. The Oregon Skinheads were arrested and convicted for the murder, and the San Diego leader of WAR was indicted by a federal grand jury and found guilty of inciting violence by encouraging them to commit the murder. He had sent Skinheads from California to teach the Skinheads in Oregon how to commit crimes of violence agai nst minorities.




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