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date: 21 April 2018

Gang Organization and Gang Types

Summary and Keywords

Gang organization has been an aspect of research that is often explored and debated. The concept of organization is intertwined with questions of whether gangs have leaders, whether gangs can be considered organized crime, which groups are actually street gangs, and other related questions. Though there are some crossover categories, street gangs are viewed as distinctly different than organized crime groups, prison gangs, outlaw motorcycle clubs, skinheads, stoners, and taggers.

Gang structures are widely varied, with a few being highly organized and most being loose networks of associates. The organization of a gang may change over time. There is an array of membership types that range from core members who might maintain affiliation well into adulthood to temporary members who only spend a short time in the gang. Gangs may have sub-group clique structures based on age-graded cohorts, neighborhoods, or criminal activity. Leadership roles in gangs rarely take the form of a recognizable figurehead.

These variations have led to a plethora of gang categories that include evolutionary typologies that place gangs by their stage in criminal sophistication, behavioral typologies that identify gangs by the type of criminal behavior the members engage in, and structural typologies that differentiate gangs by the characteristics of their composition. It is important to note that most of the following gang typologies are focused on gangs in the United States and may not be as relevant in other countries.

Major gang affiliations are also explored. Like other aspects of organizations, affiliations are not stable, as gang alliances are volatile. Despite the ability of affiliations to fluctuate, this categorization strategy is commonly used outside of academic research.

Keywords: gang organization, gang types, gang affiliation, gang leaders, organized crime, gang structure

Whether gangs can be considered “organized” is a question that researchers have continually debated. The question is intertwined with other queries such as: Do street gangs equate to organized crime? Do gangs have hierarchies and leaders? Are there different types of gangs? If there are different types, do they share any structural features? And are gangs with shared symbols connected? Before discussing gang organization, some of the ancillary concepts such as leadership and membership type should be examined.


Though some of the larger, more established gangs have specified leadership, most street gangs do not have any recognizable figureheads. In more structured gangs, a vertical/hierarchical pattern with three to four authority categories has been identified. This leadership structure is more common with gangs focused on economic pursuits (Jankowski, 1991). Seen more often in smaller gangs is a horizontal/commission structure, where democratic decision-making authority is shared and equally divided among the members. Another leadership structure seen in smaller gangs is the influential model, in which a charismatic leader guides the group. In this case, authority is deemed as natural and a formal structure is not necessary. In most gangs, leaders resemble team captains and fluidly shift based on activity (Curry & Decker, 2003). Leadership influence lasts for short periods of time (Klein, 1995). Individuals with more charisma or longevity are sometimes referred to as shot-callers. Though they have influence over other members, they do not have specific roles of authority.

Gang Member Types

As with many other aspects of gangs, actual membership status is unclear. The central members of a gang are referred to as core, hardcore, or regular members. These individuals engage in more violence and drug use than other members; they get involved earlier, joining between ages 10 and 14 years and leaving the gang later, after age 22, if they leave at all. The core participates the most frequently in the gang environment and activities, and each individual’s self-concept or identity is completely focused on the gang. The initial core members of the groups are often called O.G.’s, original gangsters, or founders, and older members of Latino gangs are called veteranos (Vigil, 1988).

Peripheral or associate members are regular components of a gang; however, they do not engage in as much violence or drug use as core members. Peripherals usually join between ages 14 and 18 years and leave after age 20. Their identity with the gang is strong, but there may be other activities in their lives besides the gang that the individual deems important (Vigil, 1988).

Other member types are temporary members, who are not very committed to the gang and only remain involved for a short period of time; situational members, who are those that are in the group, but only engage in specified activities (selling drugs, but not involved in violence); and fringe/affiliate members, who are people that hang around with the group but are not seen by the others as fully committed members of the gang. There are also auxiliaries, which are groups of people that support the gang in myriad ways and are identifiably connected with the group, but are not considered a part of the gang (Vigil, 1988).

Wannabes or emulators (Taylor, 1990) are individuals who are in the process of gang recruitment or are attempting to make others aware of their interest in joining a gang. They have taken on the cultural trappings of the gang and are searching for an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of the gang.

Moore (1991) provides a typology of Mexican-American former gang members, consisting of three categories. Tecatos were heroin users. Cholos used drugs other than heroin and were having difficulty transitioning to a legitimate lifestyle. Squares successfully transitioned to a conventional lifestyle. Peripheral members were more likely to become squares, and hardcore members had an extremely difficult time doing so. Bolden (2013) characterized gang status as current (active), former, and ambivalent members who desired to leave the gang but were unable to due to social obstructions, such as a felony record, that prevented successful transitions into a legitimate lifestyle.

Gang Organization

In the media and among law enforcement, gangs are often portrayed as highly structured, pyramid-like hierarchical organizations. This is sometimes referred to as the instrumental-rational view (Decker, Katz, & Webb, 2008). Some gangs do fit that description, such as the larger Chicago gangs that have leadership structures, written constitutions, and by-laws (Knox, 2006). An argument has also been made that gangs with loose organization still regularly engage in the same criminal activity and therefore are specialized or organized around that criminal activity (Sheley, Zhang, Brody, & Wright, 1995). The majority of academic research, however, has consistently presented a different perspective, finding that most gangs are marginally or very loosely organized, and engage in widely varied activities. These findings have led to differing ways in how scholars have interpreted gang structures. Yablonsky (1959) refers to gangs as “near-groups” and describes them as having no measurable number of members, no definition of membership, no specific roles, no understood consensus of norms, and no clear flow of leadership to action. More recently, in a national survey of 385 police agencies, 45% indicated that the typical gang was loose-knit and 47% noted no formal structure in typical gangs (Weisel, 2002). However, Weisel (2002) also reports regional differences in gang structure, with police indicating more loosely structured delinquent gangs in the Southeast and Midwest, more violent gangs in the West, and more income-generating gangs in the Northeast. Smaller cities were more likely to have delinquent gangs, which engaged in criminal activity but had little involvement with drugs. Furthermore, violent gangs and drug-selling gangs most often did not have consistent leadership or a highly structured organization.

Weisel (2002) includes in-depth interviews with members of the Black Gangster Disciples and Latin Kings in Chicago and Lincoln Park Piru and Logan in San Diego. Consistent with what has been found with Chicago gangs, the Black Gangster Disciples and Latin Kings had extensive organizational structure. In accordance with most literature, the San Diego gangs had little structure, and members considered the group to consist of friendship/kinship networks.

Studies in other locations have also discovered loose organization in gangs. For example, Decker, Katz, and Webb (2008) found a lack of organization among gangs in Arizona, but noted that any semblance of organization had serious implications, causing an increase in violence and other criminal behavior. A review of prosecution files in Las Vegas, Nevada, found that gangs were “loose, shifting associations, without stable leadership, role expectations, or collective goals,” rather than sophisticated criminal enterprises (McCorkle & Miethe, 1998, p. 60). In Milwaukee, drug-selling gangs in low-income neighborhoods were very loosely organized as a result of social-environmental conditions (Hagedorn, 1994). Rationally organized drug gangs were not successful in that environment, because groups with a strict structure were easily targeted and eliminated by law enforcement. Due to the divisive nature of conflict and loose social organization, street gang life was not conducive to organized drug sales in Ogden, Utah, and Denver, Colorado (Durán, 2010). Gang members in these locales were more likely to sell drugs on an individual basis rather than as a group activity. After researching gangs in Newark, New Jersey, McGloin (2007), argued that gangs were amorphous networks of criminal entrepreneurs and that the viewpoint of gangs as hierarchical and structured held little utility. In St. Louis, Missouri, gang members exhibited a lack of identifiable leadership, a lack of organizational meetings, and loose, informal rules (Decker & Curry, 2000). Patterns of gang homicide in St. Louis were also the result of ineffective social organization. Gang members were most often killed by non-gang members and people within their own gang (Decker & Curry, 2002). Ethnic gangs in Southern California have also been described as highly disorganized (Vigil, 2002).

Research on street gang organization in countries outside of the United States has similarly been varied. An ethnography in Manchester, UK, found gangs to be disorganized and without leadership (Mares, 2001), as did an earlier study on gangs in Britain (Stelfox, 1998). A study in London examined the evolution of gangs from recreational groups who would eventually view crime as intrinsic to their identity. Aging out of adolescence, external threats, and financial pressures would advance the sophistication of the gang, moving it toward organized crime. These groups have rules, traditions and a leadership structure consisting of higher level/inner circle members, mid-level/elder members, and youngers (Densley, 2012). A later case study on an individual gang in London found the group to be loosely organized, and drug dealing to be independent and individualized (Windle & Briggs, 2015). In another northern British city, gangs were described as “fluid, loose, messy, and interlinked networks, very much like informal friendship groups” (Aldridge & Medina, 2007). Research into Dutch gangs found that less than 40% had rules or meetings, and less than 30% had leaders, initiations, or symbols (Weerman & Esbensen, 2005).

While some gangs appear to be highly organized, an extensive amount of research indicates that most gangs are not as structured as generally believed (Klein, 1995; Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Huff, 1996; Decker, Bynum, & Weisel, 1998).

Clique Structures

Gangs that become large may splinter into subgroups or cliques based on neighborhood location, street number, or age-graded distinction between members. Multi-generational gangs will have named subsets with each age cohort, and distance between groups is usually two to four years (Hagedorn, 1998). More often, gang members operate in activity cliques (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996), known as action sets or ego-networks (Fleisher, 2002). Criminal behavior tends to be centered on activity cliques rather than gangs as a whole. Members from different gangs may participate in the same activity clique, and moving between cliques is common (Bolden, 2014a). Gangs sharing the same territory that are on peaceful terms or operate together are referred to as being “cliqued up.”

Street Gangs Versus Organized Crime in the United States

Much of the debate as to whether street gangs should be considered organized crime centers on how gangs are defined. One of the most common variants is the Eurogang Definition, which conceptualizes street gangs as “any durable, street-oriented youth group whose involvement in illegal activity is a part of its group identity” (Klein, 2006, p. 4). If used as a baseline, the Eurogang definition clearly distinguishes street gangs from other types of delinquent youth groups and adult organized crime groups. However, there are still many researchers who disagree, use various definitions, and consider street gangs to be organized crime. Gangs are not static. Typologies are primarily used for research purposes, but gangs can change and evolve at any time. There is not universal agreement on any perspective involving gangs, and all categorizations are open to critique.

If gangs are defined as “street-oriented youth groups,” then they are viewed as distinct from adult “organized crime.” Groups such as mafias, outlaw motorcycle clubs, drug cartels, and prison gangs are primarily composed of adult members and have a number of attributes (Abadinsky, 2012) that distinguish them from street gangs. As there is variation in street gang formation, the following characteristics are not absolute or mutually exclusive, and there may be crossover between categories. However, these characteristics are often used by researchers to distinguish street gangs from organized adult groups. Organized crime (OC) groups are non-ideological, meaning they have no political or religious agenda, and are more likely to have strict hierarchies. There are some organized crime groups that have adapted looser structures. Most street gangs are also not political, but they are more likely to be loose-knit social networks, rarely having a chain of command. The lack of political ideology also differentiates organized crime groups and street gangs from extremist groups, even though they may engage in similar criminal activity. A study comparing gang members with extremist members found the strongest support for an independence model, meaning the two groups had little in common (Pyrooz, Lafree, Decker, & James, 2018). Some prison gangs have political or racial ideologies, but their economic pursuits tend to supersede those ideologies. Prison gangs are generally categorized as organized crime even though there is some overlap with both street gangs and terrorist groups.

Organized crime groups usually have strict ethnic restrictions, as well as limited membership that require apprenticeship or sponsorship from senior members. While street gangs may be characterized by racial or ethnic composition, this attribute is typically not strict, and groups are more likely to include individuals of other races/ethnicities, or to be completely interracial compared to organized crime groups. Organized crime groups are concerned with perpetuity. It is assumed that the organization will continue to exist beyond its current composition (Abadinsky, 2012). Members are not only concerned with their own welfare but also with ensuring that their organization benefits future members and the member’s children, grandchildren, and so on, whereas most street gang members are primarily concerned with how to survive each day.

Members in both categories are likely to engage in illegal violence, though it is mostly used for instrumental purposes in organized crime and personal conflict in street gangs. Organized crime groups engage in bribery of politicians and law enforcement agents. Street gang members rarely have enough clout to pay off more than individual police officers. Organized crime groups are monopolistic and will not tolerate any competition with their illegal ventures (Abadinsky, 2012). They are also highly specialized in criminal behavior, having specified roles and responsibilities. The criminal activity is obscured by legitimate businesses, which the crime group may use to launder money from illegitimate activities. Street gangs consistently compete with numerous other entities, and the identity of the group may rely on conflict with other groups. Most members are criminal generalists, engaged in cafeteria-style offending, meaning they randomly participate in whichever criminal opportunities are available. Finally, organized crime members are subject to strict rules and regulations for which there are severe consequences. Although some gangs have rules, they are usually informal, and gang members often break them or sidestep them. Enforcement of gang rules is arbitrary and inconsistent. Some street gangs evolve into organized crime groups (see Gottschalk, 2017, for a discussion of street gang evolution into organized crime in Scandinavian countries), but the majority do not. The following groups are often conflated with street gangs, particularly in legal statutes, but many sociologists and criminologists view them as distinct categories.

Organized Crime is an umbrella term for various criminal groups with the aforementioned attributes of aiming for perpetuity; being hierarchical, non-ideological, and restrictive in membership; monopolizing criminal activity; and having specified roles, rules, and behavior. This category includes but is not limited to the Italian Mafia, Russian Mafia, Yakuza, Triads, Drug Trade Organizations (DTOs), and Latin American cartels.

Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs (OMC)/Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (OMG) have no accepted definition. They are commonly described as groups of adult males who have lifestyles revolving around motorcycles of American iron and view themselves as deviant or unconventional outsiders (Barker, 2007). The deviant motorcycle clubs, also known as 1%ers, have engaged in a vast array of organized criminal enterprise.

A Prison Gang/Security Threat Group (STG) is “an organization that operates within the prison system as a self-perpetuating criminally oriented entity, consisting of a select group of inmates who have established an organized chain of command and are governed by an established code of conduct” (Lyman, 1989, p. 48). Though prison gangs may derive from, create, control, tax, or otherwise interface with street gangs, their attributes place them in the category of organized crime.

Skinheads are considered hate groups rather than street gangs. They have many similarities to street gangs, such as group names, territories, group signifiers, initiations, and various criminal activities. They differ from street gangs because they have a political/racial ideology, lack durability, offend as lone wolves or have temporary co-offenders, and often operate behind closed doors rather than in the streets (Klein, 1995; Simi, 2006). There are some skinheads who fight against racism and are thus in conflict with racist skinheads (Dichiara, 2008).

Stoners engage in drug use and some graffiti or vandalism. Their delinquency does not tend to go any further, and they do not have any other gang characteristics (Shelden, Tracy, & Brown, 2001).

Taggers display their nicknames or names of their tagging crews through the use of graffiti. The markings are viewed as artistic expression by taggers, and participants earn fame by accomplishing more difficult and prominent tags. Criminal behavior does not generally go beyond vandalism, though some competition has led to conflict between tagging crews and the subsequent label of tagbangers (Wooden, 1995).

Table 1. Street Gangs Versus Organized Crime in the United States


Street Gangs

Organized Crime


Mostly teens and young adults

Older adults





Loose-knit networks

Occasional hierarchies

Strict chain of command

or loose-knit structure



Fast, single-event initiations

Loose ethnic characteristics


Apprenticeship or sponsorship

Ethnic restrictions









Limited to a few law enforcement officers


Law enforcement

Business activity

Illicit activity

Legitimate business

Illicit activity

Money laundering

Criminal specialization


Specified roles

Capacity for competition

Competition required


Rules and regulations

Informal, arbitrary

Strict, severe consequences


There is a wide array of gang types. Attempting to make systematic sense of gang organization has led to a plethora of gang typologies. For the purpose of brevity, three general categorization strategies are used. Evolutionary typologies identify gangs by their process of emergence or by their stage in criminal evolution. Behavioral typologies focus on the criminal conduct of the group. Structural typologies identify groups by their variable composition. These category schemes are not mutually exclusive.

Evolutionary Typologies

Cloward and Ohlin’s Differential Opportunity

Cloward and Ohlin (1960) offered one of the first theoretical explanations of variations in gang emergence. Just as there are different legitimate opportunities available to people based on environmental variables, there are also different illegitimate opportunities available based on circumstance. In integrated communities, a connection exists between an adult criminal subculture and juveniles with criminal potential. The adult criminals are organized, professional, sophisticated, and utilitarian. Juveniles can be socialized into the adult criminal network. In disorganized communities, adult criminals and juveniles are not tied closely together. Adult criminality is unsophisticated and petty. Three forms of delinquent subcultures emerge as a result of a community being integrated or disorganized.

Criminal Subcultures are profit-oriented delinquent groups that emerge when an adult criminal subculture exists in an integrated community. The adults are role models for the youth and teach them techniques and networking for criminal gain. These groups are economically focused.

Conflict Subcultures arise when there is not an adult criminal subculture in a disorganized community. There is no one to teach them how to commit crime for profit, so they come up with their own method of status achievement, which is dominance in conflict.

Retreatist Subcultures can emerge in either an integrated or disorganized community, but for various reasons they have failed to become criminal or conflict subcultures. Instead, they choose to retreat from reality through other kicks, such as partying and drugs.

Other category schemes focus on gangs evolving into more sophisticated criminal organizations. Knox’s Threat-Level typology (2006) and Sullivan’s typology (Sullivan & Bunker, 2007, p. 3) are examples of this.

Knox’s Threat Level Typology

Level 0. Pre-gangs are informal playgroups, not engaged in ongoing crime.

Level 1. Emergent Gangs are single gangs. They operate on an informal basis.

Level 2. Crystallized Gangs have formalized and have defined structure and rules. They may have multiple “sets” operating under the same name.

Level 3. Formalized Gangs are highly structured “super gangs,” or corporate gangs, with institutionalized rules and several sets or divisions.

Level 4. Organized Crime consists of groups engaged in political corruption and using legitimate businesses as cover.

Sullivan’s Typology

First Generation Gangs “are traditional street gangs with a turf orientation. Operating at the lower end of extreme societal violence, they have loose leadership and focus their attention on turf protection and gang loyalty within their immediate environs (often a few blocks or a neighborhood). When they engage in criminal enterprise, it is largely opportunistic and local in scope. These turf gangs are limited in political scope and sophistication.”

Second Generation Gangs “are engaged in business. They are entrepreneurial and drug-centered. They protect their markets and use violence to control their competition. They have a broader, market-focused, sometimes overtly political agenda and operate in a broader spatial or geographic area. Their operations sometimes involve multi-state and even international areas. Their tendency for centralized leadership and sophisticated operations for market protection places them in the center of the range of politicization, internationalization and sophistication.”

Third Generation Gangs “have evolved political aims. These are the most complex gangs and they operate—or aspire to operate—at the global end of the spectrum, using their sophistication to garner power, aid financial acquisition and engage in mercenary-type activities. To date, most 3 GEN Gangs have been primarily mercenary in orientation. In some cases, however, they have sought to further their own political and social objectives.”

Behavioral Typologies

Evolutionary and threat level typologies may hold more utility for law enforcement than for academics in general. The majority of other typologies focus on identifying activity characteristics of a gang or motivations for a gang to exist. The categorizations of Fagan (1989), Huff (1989), Taylor (1990), and others fit into the behavioral perspective and include the following general gang types.

General Behavioral Typologies

Drug Gangs are smaller and more cohesive than other gangs. There is strong, centralized leadership. Members have market-defined roles and the focus is on the drug business. Drug gangs are generally viewed as different than street gangs (Fagan, 1989).

Hedonistic/Social Gangs engage in moderate drug use and moderate offending. These gangs are focused on having a good time, and there is little involvement in serious crime and violence, but some involvement in property crime (Huff, 1989).

Hybrid Gangs are groups that may have an interracial composition, unclear rules, associations with more than one gang, individuals participating in and cooperating with more than one gang, and mergers of smaller gangs (Starbuck, Howell, & Lindquist, 2004). This categorization is most often seen in law enforcement literature. Bolden (2014a) argued that hybridity may be an erroneous designation, because most gangs actually have these characteristics.

Instrumental Gangs are engaged in profit-oriented property crimes. Members may use drugs like marijuana, but do not sell it (Huff, 1989).

Organized/Corporate Gangs have heavy involvement in serious crime and drug trafficking. They resemble major corporations in that they have separate divisions, rules and regulations, discipline, and room for promotion. Membership is based on an individual’s value to the group, and crime is committed to attain a goal rather than for fun. The corporate gang is reached through the evolutionary stepping-stones of scavenger and territorial gangs (Taylor, 1990).

Party Gangs include heavy use and sale of drugs. There is little involvement in other crimes, except vandalism (Fagan, 1989).

Predatory Gangs engage in robbery and muggings. Members may be abusing serious addictive drugs, though there is less drug use than in a party gang. Members may be involved in drug sales, but not in any organized fashion (Huff, 1989).

Scavenger Gangs, also known as “urban survivors,” prey on the weak and are involved in petty crimes and occasional violence. Their criminal behavior is impulsive and nonstrategic. Members have a strong need to belong; they are likely to be illiterate and low-achieving and to have no goals (Taylor, 1990).

Serious Delinquent Gangs have heavy involvement in both serious and minor crime. Their involvement in drug use and drug sales is low (Fagan, 1989).

Territorial Gangs make claims to specific areas or turfs for drug business. They are engaged in conflict over their respective turf (Taylor, 1990).

Wilding Gangs are allegedly groups of psychologically disturbed, extremely violent individuals, with virtually no organization, who use the group as a rage outlet. Wilding gangs are largely considered to be an example of media-constructed moral panic generated by anxiety over Black and Latino youth (Welch, Price, & Yankey, 2002). The term is rarely used and is not considered a valid category for most sociological and criminological research.

These typologies may be useful for discussing general gang behavior, but they present the assumption that the gang is static. Typologies focusing on particular criminal activity do not capture the social processes of the gang or a particular gang’s relationships with others. Some of the categories rely on precarious variables such as amount of drug use and types of crime engaged in, which have extreme within-group variation and are not stable over time. Regardless of organizational structure or type, gang members tend to be criminal generalists (Weisel, 2002), or, using Klein’s (1995) terminology, cafeteria-style offenders. They do not specialize in any specific crime but pick and choose criminal activity as opportunity arises.

Valdez’s Mexican-American Gang Typology

Although limited by focusing only on Mexican-American gangs in San Antonio, Texas, Valdez (2003) provides a typology that bridges gang structure and social network dynamics.

The Criminal-Adult Dependent Gang is the least common, and is a highly organized group that is focused on earning illegal income, usually through drug sales. Adults outside of the gang provide the group with weapons, drugs, stolen merchandise, protection, and extensions to their criminal networks. There are two subtypes. One is a family network in which the adult criminals are closely related to the gang members. The other subtype is dependent on a prison gang, which exerts control over the street gang.

The Criminal Non-Adult Dependent Gang is also concerned with economic profit, but on an individual basis (e.g., personal drug dealing), rather than a centralized one. These groups are not connected to any adult criminal element. There are also two subtypes: a highly organized subtype with committed membership, and a loosely organized subtype with weak leadership.

The Barrio-Territorial Gang is the most common form; its members are criminal generalists, loosely organized, ritualistic, and randomly violent, except in the case of turf disputes. There is also no adult criminal influence, and criminal activity is committed on a personal basis.

The Transitional Gang is a group that is either growing or experiencing organizational breakdown. These groups tend to center on a charismatic leader, are only semi-organized, have individual-based criminality, and may gain drugs and guns from adult criminals. A subtype of the transitional gang is school-based groups that are geographically dispersed, and therefore are only active when school is in session.

Structural Typologies

Structural typologies have focused on membership characteristics, composition, and recruitment styles. These categorization strategies are not well known, except for Klein’s Structural Typology, which is the most commonly used method in the field of gang research.

Klein’s Structural Typology

The most prominent structural categorization schema comes from Klein (2002), who provides a measurable typology. Five gang structures are based on age range, length of existence, subgroups, territoriality, and number of members. This typology includes the following:

The Traditional Gang exists for more than 20 years; is made up of several hundred members who identify strongly with a territory; includes a wide age range of members; and contains several named subgroups, commonly delineated by age.

The Neotraditional Gang exists for less than 10 years; includes 50 to several hundred members who are territorial; and possibly, although not necessarily, consists of subgroups.

The Compressed Gang exists for less than 10 years; consists of up to 50 members who possibly, but not necessarily, identify with a territory; does not contain subgroups; and includes members representing a relatively small age range.

The Collective Gang exists for 10 to 15 years; consists of 100 or more members, with no subgroups; and includes members representing a relatively large age range.

The Specialty Gang exists for less than 10 years; consists of less than 50 members whose territory is based on either residence or crime specialty; does not consist of subgroups; and includes members representing a variable age range.

The variables in Klein’s (2002) typology are easier to assess, and any shift in nominal or numerical value simply places a gang in another category instead of causing confusion or ambiguity about which description best fits the gang.

Lesser-known structural typologies have been generated through qualitative research in specific locales. In a small-scale study of recruitment in San Antonio gangs, groups were characterized as Hoods if they were long-standing neighborhoods that gained new members from reputation and from people living there, Clans if they were small gangs consisting of friends and close family members, and Hybrids if they were emerging gangs that actively sought to recruit new members (Bolden, 2010).

In a larger study of barrio gangs in Denver, Colorado, and Ogden, Utah (Durán, 2010), Mexican-American gangs were described in three categories.

Established Gangs were institutionalized into their neighborhoods, had a large membership, consisted of young and old members, had female auxiliaries, had no centralized leadership but included both charismatic and experienced leaders, and used a fraternity-like recruitment style which drew new members by community reputation.

Fractured Gangs emerged after 1986 and consisted of two subtypes. In one, the gang was well known but not integrated into the neighborhood. These gangs had loose organization, no hierarchical leadership, and females were integrated in to the gang. These gangs primarily used coercive recruitment, causing people to join under threat or duress, or took on people who were otherwise rejected by established gangs. In the other subtype, the gang was a small group of close friends that was only marginally connected to the neighborhood, was formed in prison, or had emerged in a new neighborhood. Only close associates were recruited, and the gang was likely to dissipate after a single cohort. Some gangs in the category were all-female.

Unlabeled Gangsters consisted of white, lower- to middle-class youth (preppies) who engaged in drug dealing activities or poor, white, rural youth (cowboys) who engaged in territorial conflict. Both types had shared clothing and gang symbolism. There were no female members in these groups.

Major Gang Affiliations

There have been virtually no academic examinations of gang affiliations as a whole, although they are often independently mentioned in gang research. Most of the information is generally accepted and can be found in gang textbooks or in law enforcement reports. The following are the primary gang affiliations that are found throughout the United States. Some agencies still mistakenly continue to believe that these are gigantic national gangs and are thus referred to as supergangs or gang nations. In reality, they are loose confederations of small groups with little or no connection to each other, other than sharing the same cultural trappings, such as colors, signs, and clothing. Distinct gangs within the same affiliation are referred to as sets.

Crip gangs emerged in the late 1960s in the void left from the dismantling of black civil rights organizations like the Black Panther Party. The identity quickly became prominent among African-American gangs in Los Angeles (Alonso, 2004). Crip groups are not an alliance, and are often as likely to fight other Crips as they are to have conflict with anyone else. Their primary gang color is blue, though several sets have alternate colors like black (Hat Gang Watts Crips), brown (Fudge Town Mafia Crips), and purple (Grape Street Watts Crips). The organizational form in Crip gangs varies with each set, but a horizontal structure with independent decision-making is most common. Though Crips started as an African-American gang in Los Angeles, Crip sets can be found throughout the United States and in other countries, with membership of various ethnicities. Factional alliances are referred to as “Crip Cards,” and include:

Neighborhoods/2x (Deuces). Began with the Rollin 60s Neighborhood Crips, purportedly the African American gang in Los Angeles with the most members. This Crip card includes allies of the Rollin 60s and any set with “Neighborhood” in its name. Some gangs in this faction wear baby blue. The “Neighborhoods” have been feuding with the “Gangsters” for over four decades.

Gangsters/3x (Trays). Began with the 83 Gangster Crips, which is the African American gang with the largest territory in Los Angeles. This Crip card generally includes allies of the 83s and any Crip gang with “Gangster” in its name. Some gangs in this faction wear grey. The 83s are one of the few Crip gangs on peaceful terms with some Blood gangs.

Hustler Crips. Are not an alliance. Each set independently chooses its allies. Hustler Crips wear green.

Mafia Crips. Are an alliance of gangs with “Mafia” in the name. Groups in this Crip card wear yellow.

Hoover Criminals. In the late 1990s, a large faction known as Hoover Crips became independent of the Blood/Crip dichotomy, changing their color to orange.

There are many other subsidiary alliances that may cut across Crip cards, including Rollin 0s, 4-Pacc, 6-Pacc East Coast Crips, and the Acacia Town Farm (ATF) alliance, which wears brown.

Blood gangs emerged as an alliance of African American gangs such as the Bishops, Brims, Bounty Hunters, Denver Lanes, Lueders Park Hustlers, and Pirus in Los Angeles, California (Brown, Vigil, & Taylor, 2012), but can be found throughout the United States and in other countries. Blood gangs generally remain allied, though conflict between groups does occur. Members wear red, though some groups wear other colors like burgundy or green (Lime Hood Piru). There is no set organizational structure in Blood gangs, as it varies from group to group, with most members operating independently.

There are two primary factions of Bloods: the original West Coast version is a loose alliance between different gangs. The East Coast Bloods, which is officially called the United Blood Nation (UBN), originated among African Americans in the New York prison system. The UBN has a stricter hierarchy, more centralized authority, and is more concerned with the legitimacy of people claiming to be Blood. Whether these two factions get along is a matter of contention. They are often assumed to be a united front, though their origins are very different.

There are hundreds of Chicago gangs, and there have been several short-lived alliances among them (see Hagedorn, 2015). The most well-known and far-reaching confederations are the People and Folk alliances. Started in prison as a way to bring order to the numerous gang affiliations, the Folk Nation are gangs that were aligned with the Black Gangster Disciples (which was subsequently separated into Black Disciples and Gangster Disciples again). The Gangster Disciples have a corporate structure, with a chairman as the highest-ranking member, overseeing a board of directors. Chairman Larry Hoover is believed to be responsible for the Folk Nation alliance that would eventually include Ambrose, Insane Ashland Vikings, Brazers, Maniac Campbell Boys, Insane C-Notes, Insane Cullerton Deuces, Insane Deuces, Insane Dragons, Gangster Party People, Almighty Harrison Gents, Almighty Imperial Gangsters, Almighty North Side Insane Popes, Insane King Cobras, Krazy Get Down Boys, Insane La Orquestra Albany, La Raza, Latin Dragons, Almighty Latin Eagles, Insane Latin Jivers, Insane Latin Lovers, Latin Souls, Latin Stylers, Maniac Latin Disciples, Milwaukee Kings, Insane Gangster Satan’s Disciples, Almighty Simon City Royals, Sin City Boys, Insane Spanish Cobras, Spanish Gangster Disciples, Two-Six, Two-Two Boys, Insane Maniac Young Latino Organization Cobras, Young Latino Organization Disciples, and others (Chicago Crime Commission, 2006). After the federal RICO takedown of Larry Hoover and his board of directors, the Disciple gangs have been operating under a looser organizational structure. Groups that have branched out on their own and refuse to follow traditional organizational structures are referred to as outlaws or renegades. Folk gangs are represented by a six-point star and a three-pronged pitchfork pointing up, in addition to their own specific symbols. There have been several subsidiary alliances such as the Almightys, North Side Insanes, and Maniacs.

People Nation is an alliance created by three large gangs, the Black P Stones, the Vice Lords, and the Latin Kings. Also a part of this affiliation are the Bishops, Four Corner Hustlers, Gaylords, Insane Unknowns, La Familia Stones, Latin Angels, Latin Brothers, Latin Counts, Latin Pachucos, Latin Stones, Mickey Cobras, Noble Knights, Saints, South Side Insane Popes, Spanish Lords, Spanish Vice Lords, Stoned Freaks, Twelfth Street Players, and others. People gangs are represented by a five-point star in addition to the specific symbols of each gang.

The Black Gangsters/New Breed is a large Chicago gang that is independent of People and Folks. Its organizational structure allegedly was created to mimic organized crime. In order of authority it includes a Don, two princes, field marshals, generals, lieutenants, and soldiers (Knox, 2006, pp. 767–774). The People and Folk affiliations seem to hold greater sway in the Illinois Prison system than on the streets of Chicago. However, the alliances have a stronger hold in other places in the United States.

The Latin Kings in Chicago reportedly have a sophisticated organizational structure, with a “Supreme Crown/Sun King” that is the authority in the free world and “La Corona” controlling the gang in prison. The group also has a “Crown Prince,” council of princes, crown councils, chiefs of security, treasurers, investigators, finance committees, business committees, and secretaries (Knox, 2006, pp. 719–727). After major chapters of the Latin Kings began to emerge in other regions, the original faction became referred to as the “Motherland.” The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation (ALKQN), also known as the “Bloodline” faction, originated in Connecticut but was more strongly associated with New York, where it caught hold among Latinos in the prison system. After spilling out into the streets, it became the biggest gang in the city for part of the 1990s. It is loosely associated with the Chicago Latin Kings, but has its own manifesto and its conflicts are geared toward the other large New York gangs such as the UBN. The ALKQN also has a structured hierarchy with the “Inca” as the leadership position, “Cacique” as the vice president, treasurer, advisor, and enforcer. The group has spread throughout the Northeast, and its chapters are known as “tribes” (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004).

Latino gangs in California generally fall into the Sureño and Norteño affiliations. Sureño refers to Latino gangs originating south of Fresno, California (the dividing line is sometimes presented as Delano or Bakersfield, California). Sureño gangs are usually in conflict with one another, and the affiliation holds more sway inside of prison. The group names often include the number 13 (e.g., Drifters 13, Florencia 13, Harpys 13, Lennox 13, Playboys 13, Tepa 13). The number is used to represent the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, “M,” for Mexican Mafia. Sureño gangs pay taxes to and follow some rules set down by the Mexican Mafia prison gang, but are not controlled by them. Recruits into the Mexican Mafia members are chosen from Sureños.

Norteños follow the same pattern and include Latino gangs north of Fresno, California. They primarily feud among themselves, except in prison. Gang names sometimes use the number 14, which represents the fourteenth letter of the alphabet, “N,” for Nuestra Familia. Norteños give their tribute to the Nuestra Familia prison gang and are chosen as its new members.

Bulldogs are gangs in the Central California space that separates north and south (Lopez-Aguado, 2016). Occupying Fresno and the rest of the central corridor, they identify as separate from Norteños and Sureños. They wear the symbols and colors of the Fresno State University athletic teams.

The Maravilla gangs of East Los Angeles have sprouted several different sets and are large enough to exist on their own outside of the Sureño/Norteño dichotomy. This has caused long-term feuding with Sureños.

Maras are Sureño gangs that have taken on a transnational characteristic through a cyclical process of deportation to Central American countries and reentry into the United States. The two largest factions are Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and 18th Street, also known as Mara 18 (Bolden, 2014b). A decade-long ethnography on MS-13 found that the members disdained authority, and instead of having leaders, dedicated members would enthusiastically volunteer for things that needed to be done for the gang (Ward, 2012).

There are no simple answers to question of gang organization. Street gangs are distinctly different from adult organized crime. Gang leaders were characteristic of older, more established gangs, but most modern gangs do not have identifiable figureheads. Some gangs are highly organized, though most street gangs are loosely structured. Some gangs evolve into more sophisticated criminal enterprises, some do not. The only thing that is certain is that there are a wide variety of gang types, variations, and structures.

Further Reading

Cloward, R., & Ohlin, L. (1960). Delinquency and opportunity. New York: Free Press.Find this resource:

Decker, S. H., Bynum, T., & Weisel, D. (1998). A tale of two gang cities: Gangs as organized crime groups. Justice Quarterly, 15(3), 395–425.Find this resource:

Decker, S. H., & Curry, G. D. (2002). Gangs, gang homicide, and gang loyalty: Organized crime or disorganized criminals. Journal of Criminal Justice, 30, 343–352.Find this resource:

Decker, S. H., Katz, C. M., & Webb, V. J. (2008). Understanding the black box of gang organization: Implications for involvement in violent crime, drug sales, and violent victimization. Crime and Delinquency, 54(1), 153–172.Find this resource:

Decker, S. H., & Weerman, F. M. (Eds.). (2005). European street gangs and troublesome youth groups. Oxford: Altamira Press.Find this resource:

Densley, J. A. (2013). How gangs work: An ethnography of youth violence. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Durán, R. (2010). Gang organization: Slangin,’ gang bangin’ and dividin’ by generation. Latino Studies, 8(3), 373–398.Find this resource:

Gottschalk, P. (2017). Maturity levels for outlaw groups: The case of criminal street gangs. Deviant Behavior, 38(11), 1267–1278.Find this resource:

Hagedorn, J. M. (2009). A world of gangs: Armed young men and gangsta culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Hagedorn, J. M. (2015). The insane Chicago way: The daring plan by Chicago gangs to create a Spanish mafia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Klein, M. W. (1995). The American street gang: Its nature, prevalence, and control. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Weisel, D. L. (2002). The evolution of street gangs: An examination of form and variation. In W. L. Reed & S. H. Decker (Eds.), Responding to gangs: Evaluation and research (NCJ 190351) (pp. 25–65). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.Find this resource:


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Decker, S. H., & Curry, G. D. (2002). Gangs, gang homicide, and gang loyalty: Organized crime or disorganized criminals. Journal of Criminal Justice, 30, 343–352.Find this resource:

Decker, S., Katz, C. M., & Webb, V. J. (2008). Understanding the black box of gang organization: Implications for involvement in violent crime, drug sales, and violent victimization. Crime and Delinquency, 54(1), 153–172.Find this resource:

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