Hispanic Gangs: Not Just a California Problem Anymore

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Gangs are not a new problem to the United States. Gangs have often been romanticized in literature and the media with a classic example being “West Side Story”. Americans have long been fascinated with the Mafia, and infamous gangsters such as Al Capone and John Gotti have even been elevated in status as cultural icons. Americans have seen an uprising in “Gangster Rap” since the early 1990’s. Many people tend to think of gangs in America as being made up primarily of young inner-city black males with a small percentage of white males. Americans tend to forget that gangs also include girls, adults, and children. One area that most Americans have not started to look into yet is the influence of the growing number of Hispanic Gangs.

Hispanics are the fastest growing minority group in the United States. Between 2000 and 2003 the Hispanic population increased 13% from 34.7 million to 39.9 million. The 2001 National Youth Gang Survey reported that 49% of all gang members were Hispanic. These statistics are quite alarming considering the fact that Hispanic immigrants coming into the United States illegally are not included in these surveys. As the number of both legal and illegal Hispanic immigrants in the United States continues to increase, so does the percentage of Hispanic gang members.

Most of the Hispanic gangs in the United States started gaining recognition in California during the 1980’s. The Hispanic Gangs were commonly classified as “Los Norteños” (Northerners) and “Los Sureños” (Southerners). Generally the Norteños and Sureños do not get along with each other, however not all Norteños get along with each other, nor do the Sureños. Norteños are usually identified by their use of the color red and the number 14 because “N” is the fourteenth letter of the alphabet. Sureños are usually identified by their use of the color blue and the number 13 due to their alliance with the Mexican Mafia prison gang who uses the letter “M” which is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.

Street gangs have long used tattoos and graffiti as means of identification and the Hispanic gangs are no different. Tattoos can be elaborate designs or simple dots but they all signify a relation to a particular gang and have significance to the bearer. Graffiti is mainly used to specify a gang’s “turf” or to send messages to gang members or to rival gangs that will not be understood by citizens who do not participate in gang activity.

Many Central American countries have passed zero-tolerance laws concerning gang related tattoos by which anybody caught with one will be imprisoned without any question as to their gang involvement. There are also vigilante groups such as the “Sombres Negras” (Black Shadows) that take the law into their own hands by killing people with gang tattoos or suspected gang involvement. These groups are thought to be made up of rogue law enforcement officers and military personnel. However, the government denies all knowledge of the groups and does nothing to prosecute them. These heavy handed judgments and vigilante groups contribute to the allure of the United States over the individuals’ home countries. This also leads to the newer generations of gang members becoming more discreet with their tattoos.

Clothing is also a major means of identification among gang members. Often times the color of the clothing combined with clothing styles will differentiate sub-sets or “clickas” of one main street gang. Athletic jerseys are popular due to the different colors as well as the use of numbers to identify a particular gang. While a jersey having the number “67” on it does not signify a particular gang, 6 and 7 can be added together to become 13, thereby denoting an affiliation with Los Sureños. Baggy and loose fitting clothing is also a good way for gang members to hide weapons and drugs.

Any gang evolves out of the need, or rather the perceived need, for protection against another group...
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