The Gangfighters Network is an organization designed to bridge the gap between academia and the criminal justice professions. For more information, visit and The focus is on gangs, initially adult gangs as it appears they have been ignored or absorbed into the mainstream society. There's a special focus on gang members in the military.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Revisiting some old news: FBI Probes Military Gangs

Just to set the record straight. According to, a representative from a federal investigations agency (who is not a law enforcement officer) said:

"In nearly every one of the cases that we have looked into, it is a young man or woman who thought that the symbol looked cool." . . . "We have found some people even get gang tattoos not really knowing what they are, or at least that they have not had any gang affiliation the past."

This was in response to clearly gang-related graffiti found in a war zone -- often in latrines on U.S. military bases such as Camp Fallujah in Iraq's Anbar Province, and to individuals found with gang tattoos in the U.S. military.

Individual gang members often adorn their bodies with tattoos. For the individual gang member, a tattoo is an important dynamic and symbolic indicator of gang affiliation (Riley, 2006). A gang member’s tattoos are a part of the nonverbal communication process in the gang subculture (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Riley, 2006). Gang tattoos are often categorized by police as Alpha (a name or acronym), Numerical (numbers representing primary or original street territory or a numeric representation of a name associated with the gang), Symbolic (using a familiar logo associated with the gang), or a combination of any of the three (Riley, 2006). Police are often able to recognize an individual gang member’s affiliation based solely on an examination of their tattoos.

Graffiti communicates the absence of both formal and informal social control and symbolizes the dangers of urban life (Piquero, 1999). Researchers use the presence of gang graffiti to determine the extent of an individual’s fear of crime (Lane & Meeker, 2003; Jim, Mitchell, & Kent, 2006). Graffiti writers incorporate information regarding their neighborhood (Sheldon et al., 2001), nickname, group name, area of residence, and often telephone area code into their graffiti (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Ferrell, 1998). Gang graffiti is an “an elaborate means of inter- and intra-gang communication” (Hutchison, 1993, as cited in Strosnider, 2002). Gang graffiti may contain the monikers of individual gang members (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Wilson, 1997), the symbols of the responsible (or rival) gang (Padilla, 1996; Decker & Van Winkle, 1996), or other alphanumeric communication (Klein, 1995; Decker & Van Winkle, 1996).

Any investigator who believes that an adult in a war zone paints a gang symbol or a tattoo because they think it looks "cool" is either lazy or incompetent. That same investigator, if upon hearing the lid of the cookie jar in the kitchen asked his or her child what they were doing, would also believe the response of "nothing." Such ignorance can be fixed, but only by education, not denial. By marking a wall or your body with a symbol used by a gang you are not a member of, you run the risk of receiving a beating from not only the gang whose symbol you have taken, but also their rivals. People who don't know that don't join the military, because they haven't yet finished elementary school.

Decker, S. H., & Van Winkle, B. (1996). Life in the Gang. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ferrell, J. (1998). Freight train graffiti: Subculture, crime, dislocation. Justice Quarterly, 15 (4), 587.
Jim, J., Mitchell, F. N., & Kent, D. R. (2006). Community-oriented policing in a retail shopping center. Policing, 29(1), 146.
Klein, M. W. (1995). The American Street Gang: Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lane, J., & Meeker, J. W. (2003). Women's and men's fear of gang crimes: Sexual and nonsexual assault as perceptually contemporaneous offenses. Justice Quarterly 20(2), 337-371.
Padilla, F. M. (1996). The Gang as an American Enterprise (3rd Ed.). New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
Piquero, A. (1999). The validity of incivility measures in public housing. Justice Quarterly, 16(4), 793-818.
Riley, W. (2006). Interpreting gang tattoos. Corrections Today, 68,(2), 46.
Strosnider, K. (2002). Anti-gang ordinances after City of Chicago v. Morales: The intersection of race, vagueness doctrine, and equal protection in the criminal law. The American Criminal Law Review, 39(1), 101-146.
Wilson, C. R. (1997). What’s in a name? Gang monikers. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 66(5), 14.

No comments: