Street Level Hispanic Drug Gangs

Street gangs and their relationship to organized crime have shown a tendency to increase in the last two decades. "Gang tumult has become a nationwide catastrophe not only in the country's large metropolitan centers, but in the small urban and rural areas as well. (Kantrowitz, l993, p. 40). Statistical estimates suggest that there are in excess of 772,500 youths who are members of gangs in the United States. A major factor in the formation of these gangs is ethnicity. (Vazquez O.R.) Street gangs also have become linked to and in some cases become synonymous with, ethnic groups in the country. "In the 1960s, gangs became synonymous with minority populations -- typically African-Americans and Latinos living in the poorest, inner-city neighborhoods." (Coughlin & Venkatesh, 2003)

Statistics show that consistently "... African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately represented among gangs." (Rosenthal, 2000, p. 99) The 1998 National Youth Gang Survey estimated that "...nationwide, gang membership was 46% Hispanic and 34% African-American." (Rosenthal, 2000, p. 99) These figures vary however and another survey of law enforcement agencies in seventy-nine large cities "...estimated that 48% of gang members were African-American and 30% were Hispanic." (Rosenthal, 2000, p. 99) A similar pattern can also be seen in statistics that refer to gang related crimes. One study found that of gang-related crimes in Chicago from 1990 to 1994 showed that "...Hispanic males were about thirteen times more likely to be charged with gang-related homicide than nonminority males." (Rosenthal, 2000, p. 99)

These figures point to the fact that Latino or Hispanic crime in the United States has increased significantly during the past three decades. (Kelly 188) One of the reasons for this is related to the movement of the Hispanic population in the country. (Kelly 188)

Arfaniarromo (2001) quotes studies which show that; " Estimates place 4 to 15% (almost as many as 1 in 6) of much of the urban Latino population as gang members or otherwise gang involved." (Arfaniarromo, 2001, p. 123)

An important research finding is that in many Hispanic gangs the focus on drug trafficking. As Kelly (2002) states,

Where most criminal groups historically depended on traditional vices such as gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging to get a foothold in the underworld, Latino groups have been successful mainly because of drugs. " (Kelly 188) Studies also link this group to drug traffickers and drug manufacturers in countries like Columbia. "Colombian manufacturers will deal with Mexican and Caribbean groups who transport and distribute cocaine in the United States, leaving street sales and retail selling to African-Americans and local traffickers. Cubans, Dominicans, and Jamaicans serve as middlemen between Colombian importers and the street gangs...." (Kelly 189)

Furthermore, there are essential social codes and ethnically related modes of behavior related specifically to Hispanic gangs. There is often a strict hierarchy of command which "... enforces strict adherence to a charter of detailed rules governing gang member admission, behavior, and etiquette." (Kelly 188)

One of the sociological aspects pertaining to Hispanic street gangs is the question of marginalization from the general society. Studies show that the Hispanic immigration to the United States has also been accompanied by "... society-imposed marginalization." (Arfaniarromo, 2001, p. 123) Economic factors and the question of poverty and discrimination are also factors that have to be taken into account.

There are a number of different characteristics that set Hispanic street gangs apart from other gang types. These include the fact that Hispanic gangs are more likely to develop along ethnic and racial lines.

It should also be noted in this regard that the term "Hispanic" is a nebulous term which is often used to include other indigenous cultures such as Chicanos, Mexicans, El Salvadorians, Cubans, South Americans, and anyone else from a Spanish-speaking country." (THE PROBLEMS OF DEFINITIONS) Latino gangs are usually mainly male dominated. "Females who seemed to be with the gang all the time were perceived as more of a support system, companions, girlfriends, and some were referred to as "party animals." (THE PROBLEMS OF DEFINITIONS)

The literature also points out that there is a tendency to generalize about Latino or Hispanic gangs, which is related to the development of stereotypes. This form of generalizing can be detrimental and often increase the tendency towards isolation and the subsequent increase in gang membership. As Arfaniarromo (2001) states;."..Many in mainstream society characterize Latino gang members as psychopathic and sociopathic, yet understand relatively little about them. "(Arfaniarromo, 2001, p. 123)

2. Theoretical perspectives.

The phenomenon of gangs and gang behavior is a common factor in modern industrial society. As one study notes, "Gangs are not a new phenomena." (THE PROBLEMS OF DEFINITIONS) Gang behavior in criminological theory is often related to the human desire to belong to groups. There are therefore a wide range of theoretical perspectives on the development of street gangs. These include theories that investigate the motivation behind gang formation, such as the need for peer approval and the impact of ethnic isolation and socio-economic status within the society.

One of the classic theoretical works on gangs was the 1936 sociological study on the subject by Thrasher.

This work includes the study of 1,313 gangs with approximately 25,000 members. (THE PROBLEMS OF DEFINITIONS) This study was also to pave the way to the exploration of various other issues, as well as the relationship between gang behavior and various theories of psychological and sociological behavior patterns in society.

Among the many research findings on gang behavior are facts such as the influence of home and family and the effect of the lack of parental supervision. "Studies have demonstrated that gang members tend to grow up in homes with parental or family conflict, low monitoring/supervision, not living with both parents, and with parents who have pro-violent attitudes and poor family management practices." (Vazquez O.R.)

Another well received theory is the "strain" theory, by Cloward and Ohlin. This theory explains the emergence of delinquency and gang behavior in terms of society and the quest for upward mobility. "Western industrialized societies, they observed, claim adherence to meritocratic principles, but when individuals come to believe that their aspirations cannot be realized by legitimate means, they experience pressure toward deviant behavior." (Rosenthal, 2000, p. 99)

Another view is the underclass theory which states that the creation of an underclass or a "lower class" in society often leads to deviant behavior. This is mainly due to factors such as discrimination and the obstruction to upward mobility and the increase in poverty. The members of the underclass therefore feel deprived and frustrated and tend to become involved in illegal actions in order to compete with mainstream society. This theory applies particularly to the Hispanic population. (Vazquez O.R.) This theory is also related in some respects to the Alien Conspiracy view that will be discussed below.

One theory that has been suggested to explain criminal behavior is the Rational Choice Theory of human behavior. Rational Choice Theory states basically that criminal human behavior patterns are the result of rational or reasoned decisions made by the criminals. In other words, criminal behavior is a matter of reason and decision that is determined by the individual. This theory therefore suggests that outside forces and aspects are not essentially vital in the explanation of criminal behavior. This stance places the focus on individual choice as well as personal decision making and is related to classical theory and theorists such as Jeremy Bentham and their views of human behavior

It is also a theory which opposes "labeling" theories of criminal behavior, where the causes of criminal behavior are related to outside causes such as race or ethnicity. "Rational choice theory has an image of the offender who thinks before he acts, even if only for a moment, taking into account some benefits and costs in committing the offence." (The Rational Choice Perspective: The Home Office, 1988)

However, in the light of what has already been discussed about Hispanic street gangs and the importance of the influence of ethnicity, social groupings and economic status, it seems that the Rational Choice Theory is not an altogether appropriate theoretical tool for the complete understanding of Hispanic street gangs.

Another theory that has been applied to the analysis of ethnic street gangs is the Alien Conspiracy Theory. This theory states that that the origins of organized crime and hence street gangs in the United States began with criminal gangs from Europe; especially Sicilian or Italian immigrants. (Historical interpretations on Prohibition and organized crime)

This then developed into crime syndicates such as the mafia. In the same way the theory sees the introduction of Hispanic gangs as a threat to the stability and the harmony of the country and views these ethnic gangs as essentially an import from outside. This view therefore purports that "... forces outside of mainstream American culture threaten otherwise morally sound American institutions." (Historical interpretations on Prohibition and organized crime)

However, while this theory has relevance and is a viable point-of-view, it does not take full cognizance of the various aspects…