The Answer Is Better Gangs

Colin Lloyd/Baltimore, Maryland

Daniel Aguilar, 23, had been Christopher Ash’s friend before leading him into an ambush in Carson, a neighborhood in Los Angeles’s South Bay. Aguilar was sure that Ash had been talking to the cops about the then-recent murder of Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old black girl gunned down in 2006. She had been killed just a few miles away while skateboarding with friends.

Aguilar was friends with Ash, but he was also friends with Cheryl Green’s killer: 22-year-old Jonathan Fajardo. They were both members of the 204th Street gang, one of multiple L.A. street gangs that had been told by the Mexican Mafia that black Angelenos needed to go. Racial violence was a fact of life among prison gangs like the Mexican Mafia, and their command was why Fajardo had fired at Cheryl Green and her friends. 

After luring Ash to the right spot, Fajardo, Aguilar, and several other members of the 204th Street gang stabbed him dozens of times for being a snitch. The later trials showed that their suspicions were wrong all along. But this was L.A. in the 2000s, and such a death was a real risk for a kid in the wrong circles. Ash, Aguilar, Fajardo, and the rest had probably been in the wrong circles since their playground days.

What do you do with a population of young men versed in both loyalty and violence? The difficulty of finding a path into civic life affects all races and classes. Anyone who fails to thrive in the classroom doesn’t have much room to assimilate into a respectable part of society. Among America’s poorer and lower-middle-class communities, however, a tempting alternative is sometimes available. Shadow industries like drug trafficking are thriving in America, and the powerful and organized networks of gangs that service them have plentiful recruits.

The military was once the preferred method of transforming wayward adolescents into good Americans with civic potential. Churches, shop floors, and private societies played similar roles. Those old paths and that old machinery have either disappeared, stopped assimilating their members, or otherwise failed to attract young men.

The gang hierarchies that have emerged since then are responsible for many of the smash-and-grab robberies, carjackings, and shootouts in U.S. cities. Today, home-grown groups affiliated with criminal organizations in Latin America are the big players in the landscape, having pushed out earlier rivals like the Crips and Bloods. The Latino population is growing through continuous immigration, and the archetypal recruit is a second-generation kid with some ties back home. The criminal enterprises are worth billions of dollars, routed internationally. The Italian mob lasted for several decades at its height, but the Latino groups are already pushing that and seem set to surpass them in longevity.

What is also different about organized crime now is that social media has made its specter more alarming. Viral videos frighten people more than headlines about homicide rates do. The recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin indicates that even residents of liberal cities are second-guessing their soft-on-crime proclivities. The circa 90 percent approval rating of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, meanwhile, demonstrates that anyone who solves the crime problem can claim political legitimacy as a reward. His popularity in some U.S. circles exists on that same basis: given the current lack of home-grown crimefighters, some Americans are vicariously embracing those abroad. Those still unconcerned with crime assume that our institutions are just too strong—street violence is one thing, but what happened in Colombia and Mexico surely can’t happen here. 

Yet, overdose deaths have climbed from under 20,000 annually in the late 1990s to over 100,000 as of 2021. The rise in customers implies a growing logistics network operating within and across U.S. borders. If the network wants to keep growing, gangs and cartels must do what all companies must do: recruit and foster talent. Half-hearted attempts to reach America’s lost boys through education, community centers, or antipoverty initiatives will not stem this flow. Pulling kids from gangland into baseline American society requires that there are attainable places for them that service not only their material needs, but also their desire for respect, loyalty, and glory. 

The main ladder to money and prestige in the U.S. runs through a set of schools and professional service industries that are already constrained by global competition for spots. These spots are largely out of the reach of your average kid from a poor family in a metro area suburb, barring the few that can muster the scholarships. More importantly, that path just isn’t as cool and won’t win you any clout with your closest friends.

When I spoke to those who had lived the gang lifestyle about their motivations, it was exactly that desire for personal clout, loyalty, and ambition that motivated the kids to become criminal soldiers. It is an ethos that does not absorb well into the professionalized environments of “good schools” and service economies. As long as criminal enterprises are the best gangs around, kids will continue to join them. In that case, the right question to ask is where the better gangs could be.

Jumped In

The story of Aguilar, Fajardo, and the rest ended with convictions at varying levels for the murders. But they had all first learned the readiness to commit violence many years earlier, at the moment they were “jumped in” to their local neighborhood gang of kids. It usually happens in a neighborhood alley or an elementary schoolyard, and it happens when a person is very young. It is a simple process of your friends beating you up and seeing if you can take it.

I was in fifth grade when I got jumped in. Like most public schools in the L.A. metro region, mine was part white and part Hispanic. My friends were trying to see “if the white boy can hang,” but I ran like hell after a couple of kicks. We all remained friends afterward because not all of us took it seriously. For me, getting jumped in was a joke. But a few of those old pals—the ones who suggested the idea in the first place—took it more seriously.

Some of the Hispanic kids had older brothers or cousins running in gangs, too. The word “gang” frightened and excited the white and middle-class Mexican-American kids. We didn’t know what it meant. That kind of gang was different from a gang of friends, which all of us had. It was not uncommon to find a group of 10-year-old boys taking turns getting pummeled in the center of a melee of limbs. We didn’t know it, but the divergence in our life paths was also beginning there.

I had these memories at the back of my mind as I talked to “Billy,” a former Sureño. The gangs that use that name pay tribute to the Mexican Mafia, the same prison-based organization that instigated the racial killings of the 2000s. Billy says that gang life starts with groups of friends formed in late elementary school, junior high, and early high school. Eventually, by the time you cook up a name for yourselves, there is a potent loyalty between everybody. For most of us who grow up and drift away in later adolescence, that kind of bond is a fleeting one that lasts a few years at most. But during those youthful flashes, you are inseparable. Gang life seizes on this devotion, and it is so fundamental to growing up that policies and policing can never squash it. By 18, says Billy, young men growing up in barrios beset by gangs and their ethos have been claimed for good. 

National and regional politicians often misunderstand what drives young men and women into gang life in the first place because they underestimate how young it all starts. Military recruiters visiting elementary schools would scandalize many people, but by that age gangs are already getting to kids and offering them a vision of pride, loyalty, and excitement.

When schoolyard gangs form among the younger kids, the older ones that are plugged into more organized gang life take notice. They infiltrate these youthful bonds to foster talent and figure out who can be valuable for what. The only thing stronger than friendship at age 12 is recognition from 16-year-olds. “You guys can hang with us” is a powerful motivator. By the time those kids turn into teens and then into young adults, they have been in the crew for half their life. There is little else to counterbalance these ties, especially when most of the kids have divorced parents or an absent father. 

Billy recounts to me that three castes emerge during these initial stages of gang life: entrepreneurial leaders, killers, and followers. The kids that have an extra chip on their shoulders are the ones who learn to be leaders. Those who become killers understand little about their organization other than that loyalty and aggressive behavior are rewarded. Fajardo, the gangster who shot Cheryl Green, was a killer. 

The other young Latinos involved in Cheryl’s shooting and in Christopher Ash’s ambush were followers. In all likelihood, no amount of dope or alcohol would have stopped their hands from shaking as they rushed Ash. Yet, here is where the early ritual of getting jumped into a gang leads: youthful bonds are cultivated to eventually produce young men who can become soldiers. The ability of those kids to say no to Fajardo, and to whatever big homie gave Fajardo his shooting orders, probably went by the wayside in ninth grade—maybe in sixth.

Most kids, Billy tells me, have no idea what sort of international network they are plugging into when they form or join a street gang of friends to watch each other’s backs. Anyone who has grown up in the barrio or the hood understands that kids feel vulnerable to menacing forces at an early age; Billy and his friends formed their clique as a response to kids from blocks away always looking for a fight. A “protection racket” is a type of gang activity, but “protection” is also a useful term for understanding the street-level reality of what gangs are for even their own members. The result is that boys hardly old enough to shave are continuously recruited into a corporate, criminal structure they know nothing about. 

Looking at a list of cliques, gangs, cartels, and their links can be a dizzying experience, like disentangling the terrorist networks of the 2000s. The 18th Street gang, White Fence, and the 204th Street gang are all at war for turf on the streets of Los Angeles. But behind bars, they are all Sureños—“Southlanders”—pledging allegiance to the Mexican Mafia. Some gangs are united on the street in theory because the same cartel supplies their narcotics, and their profits funnel upward to that cartel. In practice, they will often end up shooting at each other. Sometimes, gangs are supplied by different cartels, but these adversaries on the streets will chill together behind bars, united against the greater threats of the black and white prison gangs. No 12-year-old that gets jumped into a street gang understands any of this. 

However, the edifice makes more sense if you compare the cliques, gangs, and cartels to another landscape of American drug distribution: alcohol sales. The “brands” in the liquor aisle—Budweiser, Busch Light, or Modelo—are like the bewildering array of gangs and cliques. Like alcohol brands, certain gangs dominate a large geographical and economic territory, while others are local. Everyone knows Bud Lite and MS-13, but not everyone knows Ballast Point Brewery or the 204th Street gang. 

However, no matter how large or powerful, gangs and brands are just the public endpoints of a network of production, distribution, and corporate ownership. It takes a powerful, centralized organization to coordinate all the materials and personnel required to get a case of brand-name beer or a dime bag of coke to the customer. The gangs are just the brands in that larger game, and behind them lie the comparatively few centralized cartels that coordinate the supply chain. 

A large enough gang’s power can seem to rival that of the cartels. MS-13, due to its size and international scope, is better known than the Gulf Cartel. In contrast, the power of lesser gangs like White Fence in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood may only stretch across three square miles of urban turf. But in both cases, the gang’s power begins with retail and ends with wholesale distribution. Gangs who try to source and control their own narcotics supply and logistical network are acting like cartels, which can land them in very hot water. 

The analogy is not perfect. The Mexican Mafia’s prison-based structure does not overlap with the cartels, so their realms of power do not conflict very often. InBev or Constellation also rely on sales and investments for cash flow, while gangs and cartels can pad drug sales with kidnapping, extortion, grand theft, and bank fraud.

These complex structures of farms, labs, pilots, drivers, storage units, and weaponry allocation access a U.S. customer base worth around $150 billion per year. The local crews of boys are the last mile deliverers, the FedEx drivers of the game, with shift managers like Jonathan Fajardo to keep them in line. As long as this industry remains more attractive than schoolwork to the boys it recruits, it will continue to thrive. In that case, the question is where such boys can be initiated into something better and more useful. The real problem is that baseline American society neither desires nor, increasingly, permits any healthy form of the gang-like social fabric to occur within its ranks at all.

The Social Form of the Gang

During our conversation, Billy admitted to me that he “liked the violence, the fighting,” and that was part of the Sureño gang’s appeal. Few politicians say it out loud, but most societies have roles for young men like him, and America is no exception. But these boys need very different structures from those that professional-track institutions tend to prioritize. These look like small groups with tight, personal loyalties; room for conflicts that establish internal hierarchies; encouragement of instincts like physical courage and aggression; a group spirit that you orient your whole life around; and hierarchy based on personal charisma and not just formal officialdom. 

Criminal gangs are not the only sorts of organizations that achieve this. There is a reason that Latin America is rife with ideological paramilitaries, cell-structure martial arts dojos, and, more recently, cells of Evangelical churches that dot poor neighborhoods. Similar institutions, barring the paramilitaries, dot poor Hispanic neighborhoods in the U.S. They draw on the gangs themselves for recruitment, with current and former members often finding them to be natural environments to fall into.

In particular, the churches tend to become a landing place for those wanting to leave the lifestyle, using regimens like 5 a.m. wake-ups, Bible-reading, and labor to provide structure and discipline. These communities can replace criminal gangs because they mimic so many of their features. As a result, gangs will often spare them from conflicts or even extend a sort of protection. If you want to govern men like Billy or Fajardo, you must have fluency in the structures they themselves exist in. 

This requires reaching these children with a better alternative before the gangs do. Criminal industries sustain themselves from the bottom up, and the cornerstones of every power structure are the foot soldiers. Remove those stones and the whole thing topples over. If the U.S. learned anything from the War on Terror, it is that targeting the hydra’s heads is counterproductive. Remove one, and two grow back. El Chapo goes to jail, but the Chapos-in-waiting fight until new leaders emerge, and that infighting spills out into the streets and claims civilian lives. Locking up the big homies doesn’t work because it just creates a leadership void in a profitable and healthy corporate structure. 

The tail of the hydra is the other potential target: the foot soldiers, the boys on the corner who, if not thrown into jail, might be caught early enough and guided into a legitimate pathway toward adulthood. This extended tail is larger and more unwieldy than the individual heads, but it is collectively far more vulnerable. 12-year-olds remain 12-year-olds, whatever neighborhood they are in. The problem is that no agency or institution in the U.S. has pursued this strategy with force and urgency.

In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele carried out his own version of this strategy: he rounded up every kid with a hint of gang affiliation, including tattoos. In so doing, he got rid of the street-level cliques on whom the cartels rely for the “last mile” of retail distribution. Bukele did not wait for murder indictments to appear on their records. He swept them up before the fact. 

What makes Bukele’s policy noteworthy is that, despite its use of legal and judicial structures, it is also an application of gang logic at the political level. In terms of Western legal norms, lawbreaking is a defined action that activates a judicial response. Bukele instead identified a whole population as an enemy of the state and updated the legal and judicial structures to take them off the streets. In terms of academic political theory, this is a classic “friend-enemy” distinction. In El Salvador, it’s a lot more simple: the state is now the biggest gang in town, and messing with it puts you in a cell. That is not just a slogan for posing tough, but an actual political consciousness and mode of exercising power. It exists in tension with aspects of the liberal political ontology, like human rights and due process, but gets along much more comfortably with other aspects, like sovereignty and monopoly on force. 

This is not a level of gang logic that current U.S. leaders are interested in employing against organized crime, least of all against the footsoldiers. It is a nuclear launch button that no American leader will press, no matter the number of bystanders who get shot in Chicago, L.A., or U.S. border towns. Most Americans don’t want it pressed anyway, if they are being honest. Locking up tens of thousands of young men and women without due process starts a cascade that can lead to the Colombian and Mexican situations, where citizens are subject to legal friend-enemy lines that don’t line up with who actually feeds and protects them on the ground, or with their desire not to see siblings and cousins vanish from the dinner table.

But the social form of the gang is already spreading beyond its traditional bounds, cropping up closer to the frontlines of the violence. One of the best examples of this cascade is the existence of deputy gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD).

According to testimony given to the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, an inmate at Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) heard one deputy say to another “Ready to earn your ink?” just before the inmate’s orbital socket was smashed in. The ink in question was a Roman numeral II, the tattoo for the 2000 Boys, a warden clique in the 2000 block of MCJ. In May 2023, the L.A. County Office of the Inspector General demanded the names of inked members of the most violent deputy gangs, the Banditos and the Executioners, who operate respectively out of the East L.A. and Compton stations. It requested interviews with at least 35 deputies, and local supervisors backed its intent to break the influence of the deputy gangs.

It is not surprising that young deputies form ingroups within their shifts and stations. Gang dynamics among police units is an old story, from crooked cops during Prohibition to the Rampart scandal in the 1990s, which involved cross-contamination between street gangs and an elite deputy unit. The behaviors adopted by the newer deputy cliques clearly mimic the culture of a street gang. The tattoos and handshakes of gang life become a point of reference—an ethos and style acting as influences on the bonds created even within a strong institution like the LASD. 

The reason this works is that the police fit many of the traits that young men like Billy thrived on in the criminal gangs themselves. Organized around clear battle lines, it is not surprising that some of the same dynamics would take over. And yet, if you want to alleviate crime and win authority or political power while doing it, turning young men’s desire for warrior loyalty around on the very gangs who would otherwise exploit it is a good strategy.

A Better Kind of Mara

Institutions with anti-gang recruitment mandates tend to resist “anger and all” approaches to reaching America’s lost boys. These larger organizations want to acculturate boys into an “educational attainment” vision whose appeal will always lose out to the life offered by the cool kids in the hood.

El Salvador’s MS-13 gets its name from Mara Salvatrucha. A mara is a gang in the same double sense as the English term: either a violent organization or a group of young friends. Every boy in the world has been part of a mara in one form or another and understands those youthful loyalties. Only some are salvatrucha: street-smart and hungry in a way that middle-class friend groups will never understand. MS-13 and its rivals exist because they are the best maras around, and they will get displaced only when those who are salvatrucha have something better to be hazed into.

There have been very occasional exceptions: in the 1970s, the L.A. suburb of Chino fought its local gang, the Chino Sinners, with a boxing club instead. Gang roundups in the 1990s removed those in the lifestyle from the streets, but the club is recognized today as having played an important role in eliminating the influence of the Sinners among Chino’s young kids. There is a void waiting to be filled by anyone who knows that most 10-year-olds in the barrio will be more drawn to a boxing ring than a classroom. 

It is a void that cannot be filled by outsiders. If you have not been through hazings, risked life and limb for friends, and fought against others just because they are others, you have missed out on the whole category of life that defines the barrio kids’ existence. Now-mainline U.S. institutions like organized labor were originally constructed by rallying these same instincts in a population of working men familiar with them from childhood. The replacement of these generations with their professionalized offspring eventually coincided with the end of organized labor’s power, as the economic roles requiring such men and the older immigrant neighborhoods that formed them began to vanish.

The gang will abide because it works, and not just in its criminal incarnation. While the social damage done by the criminal element is high, extinguishing the last remnants of these instincts from an already over-professionalized U.S. population is a totally counterproductive goal. 

As Latin American immigration continues and U.S. fertility remains highest at the population’s economic tail-ends, an increasingly large number of men with personal experience or adjacency to gang life will exist. Under pressure and social osmosis, police departments and other institutions in the large metropoles will likewise continue to adopt gang-like dynamics among themselves. The tensions between the frontlines and the more cushioned segments of professional society will only continue to grow. The legal-political structure can certainly crack down on and break up gangs when they become real threats to its stability, but high levels of street violence and rising urban homicides seem to be tolerable situations for it.

The advantage will go to those who have fluency in the gang social form. In the coming decades, it is likely that we will see the rise of significant power players that fit that description, especially in the local and state politics of regions like the Southwest. These, in turn, are bases of national power and influence. In that environment, you will not be able to play high-level politics without understanding how to command and compel the respect of men who might have—and perhaps once did—join the ranks of violent street gangs. Likewise, simply driving out groups like MS-13 will not solve the problems of criminal gangs. As long as kids bind together for protection and glory in their neighborhoods, the seeds of their successors will exist.

Seth Largo holds degrees in linguistics and rhetoric. A native of Los Angeles’ suburban sprawl, he is now an English professor on the high plains.