In 2011, the FBI released the results of their second in-depth National Gang Threat Assessment, which showed that gang-related activities were on the rise, and gang membership was at an all-time high. Gang activity is changing, too.
Criminal organizations are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and beginning to pivot away from high-risk activities like drug trafficking and weapons smuggling, and turning towards activities with lower visibility and detection rates, like human trafficking and white collar crime, making it harder than ever to prosecute gang crimes.
Gangs are also increasingly infiltrating law enforcement and military organizations in an effort to gain intel on rival gangs and anti-crime operations. Even more terrifying, more and more gangs are gaining access to high-powered military-grade weapons and equipment to use in their nefarious activities.
With millions of members and tens of thousands of organizations to monitor, which gangs are the ones keeping the FBI up at night? Let’s find out by taking a look at the 10 of the Deadliest Gangs in the USA.
California’s 18th Street Gang
With 15,000 members and counting, the 18th Street Gang is the largest street gang in California. The gang has expanded rapidly in recent years, and now has a presence in 32 states, strong ties to the Mexican Mafia, and has even infiltrated the military.
The 18th Street Gang is responsible for at least one robbery or assault per day in LA County, but they’ve also been known to be involved in murder, extortion, auto theft, drug smuggling and human trafficking.
The Florencia 13
The Florencia 13 are another south L.A. Sureño gang with ties to the Mexican Mafia, and they are the bitter rivals of the 18th Street Gang. The Florencia 13 are notorious drug smugglers known to commit murder and other violent crimes, and also have ties to the U.S. military. In 2010 alone, of the 94 Florencia 13 gang members who pled guilty to their charges that year, 6 members were sentenced to life in prison for their violent crimes.
The Los Aztecas
The Los Aztecas started in El Paso Texas, and many of its members are recruited from within the notorious Texas prison system. Some of the gang’s activities actually occur inside Texas prisons, including the production of heroin.
The Los Aztecas’ strict military structure and ties to Mexican cartels helps to maintain order, and members are known to participate in drug running, illegal alien smuggling, and murder, including the brutal 2011 murder of a US consulate official and their family. In total Los Aztecas killed three American consulate officials including the pregnant wife of one of the workers.
The Latin Kings
The Latin Kings originated in Chicago in the 1940s, and is now the biggest Hispanic gang in the U.S. Solid numbers are hard to come by, but there are estimated to be anywhere from 18,000 up to 35,000 Latin Kings members in Chicago alone, and the group has spread to 34 states. The strict organizational structure and strong religious aesthetic promotes loyalty, something that the Kings take very seriously.
A member suspected of violating the gang’s strict rules may be subject to brutal punishments, like a Five Minute Physical – a five-minute beating of the offender by 5 other members – or a Terminate on Sight order, which encourages other members to kill the offender on sight.
The Crips and The Bloods
Okay, so this is technically 2 gangs, but you can’t talk about one without mentioning the other. These two rival gangs are perhaps the best-known in the country. The Bloods are an L.A. street gang that was formed in the 1970s and quickly spread across the country.
There are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 active Bloods members today, quickly recognizable by their unusual hand signals and red attire. The Crips were also founded in California in the 1960s before spreading throughout the US, and they now have a strong presence in New York City.
There are up to 50,000 active members of the Crips in the U.S. Both the Bloods and the Crips have been involved in murder, racketeering and drug trafficking, and the bitter rivalry between the two gangs leads to frequent conflict and violent retaliation.
Many gang members who are recruited from the Somali immigrant community adopt Crip or Blood membership upon arrival in the U.S., but recent years have seen a rise in independent Somali gangs, leading to tension with other more established gangs.
These smaller outfits are able to commit major crimes, including alien smuggling and human trafficking, prostitution and credit card fraud. You might be surprised to learn that the biggest pockets of these Somali gangs can be found in Minnesota, Washington state and Missouri, proving that gang violence is not just a big-city problem.
The Simon City Royals
The Royals were formed in Chicago in the 1950s, and are the oldest and largest white gang in the U.S. The stereotype that gang members are predominantly people of colour is wildly inaccurate – in reality, up to 40% of gang members in the U.S. are white. Up to 53% of gang members in Mississippi are white, even though all 97 people prosecuted for gang crimes in Mississippi between 2010 and 2017 were African American.
According to Babe Howell, a criminal law professor at City University of New York who focuses on crime and race, police tend to underestimate the percentage of white gang members, and overestimate the number of black and hispanic members.
“Police see groups of young white people as individuals, each responsible for his or her own conduct, and hold young people of color in street as gangs criminally liable for the conduct of their peers,” she says.
The Aryan Brotherhood
Many of the predominately white gangs, like the Simon City Royals, were formed when white people, after being denied membership in typically Hispanic or African American gangs, began forming their own copycat gangs. But that’s certainly not the case for all of them – some white gangs were founded on extremely racist, white supremacist views, and the most notorious of these groups is the Aryan Brotherhood.
The group, also known as The Brand, Alice Baker, AB or One-Two, was founded in California’s San Quentin state prison more than 50 years ago by Irish bikers as a form of protection for white inmates in newly desegregated prisons. The group maintains a thriving prison network to this day – although Aryan Brotherhood members make up just a small percentage of the country’s prison population, they are responsible for up to 25% of all prison murders.
The Aryan Brotherhood dabbles in the typical gang activities, like drug smuggling and prostitution, but their penchant for racially-motivated violent crime makes them one of the most dangerous gangs in the U.S.
The Outlaws are one of the most dangerous One-Percenter Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in the country, second only to the notorious Hells Angels. The Outlaws are the HA’s biggest, toughest rivals, and with more than 1,700 members and hundreds of chapters, they are thought to be the biggest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang in the world.
The Outlaws were formed in 1935 out of Matilda’s Bar on old Route 66 in a suburb of Chicago, making them the oldest OMG in the world. They are extremely active in the Great Lakes region and known to be heavily involved in drug smuggling at the Canadian border.
Violent clashes with rival gangs are common, like the 2017 murder of an Outlaw chapter president by 69ers motorcycle gang members as his truck idled at a red light, and these kinds of conflicts can often kickstart a cycle of brutally violent retaliation between gangs.
The Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13
Originally formed in Los Angeles, California in the 1970s to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other LA gangs, MS-13 now has members in 42 U.S. states in addition to Mexico and Guatemala. The deportation of many members to El Salvador backfired on authorities, and led to the spread of the organization throughout Central America.
MS-13 has no official leadership structure, but their loose organization doesn’t stop them from being one the most dangerous gangs in the country. With less than 10,000 members, MS-13 makes up less than 1% of all gang members in the U.S., but they are so notoriously violent that the FBI has a separate special MS-13 Task Force to attempt combat the gang’s violence.
MS-13 members are known to be relentlessly cruel and merciless, as evidenced by a 2008 incident in which a 21 year old San Francisco MS-13 member brutally murdered an entire innocent family for briefly blocking his car on a narrow street. MS-13 was also behind a 2004 attack on a Honduran intercity bus – 6 gunmen opened fire on the bus with automatic weapons, killing 28 and wounding 14 civilians, many of them women and children.
Between these kinds of frequent high-profile violent crimes, and their involvement in horrific illegal activities like child prostitution, MS-13 has more than earned its reputation as the deadliest gang in the USA.
What is going to happen with gangs in the future?
While most of the U.S.’s 30,000-plus gangs are small-time local outfits who dabble in drugs and violence, a small but powerful number of these organizations are truly terrifying to the law-abiding public.
Big-time gangs like The Outlaws, the 18th Street Gang, and MS-13 are expanding throughout the U.S. and even internationally, gaining power and influence, and committing ever-more horrific and brutal crimes against rival gangs and even innocent citizens.
Clearly, the problem of gang violence is not going away anytime soon – in fact, it’s getting worse as gangs recruit new members, discover new illegal avenues for profit, and ramp up the violence to protect their operations. New strategies, like those aimed at deterring young people from joining gangs in the first place, will be needed to slow the spread of gang violence across the U.S. and make the streets – and even the prisons – safer for us all.
Featured Image: Gang members in prison, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Public domain