NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 2, 2009

Criminal gangs in the United States have swelled to an estimated 1 million members responsible for up to 80 percent of crimes in communities across the nation, according to a gang threat assessment report by the Justice Department's National Gang Intelligence Center.  Researchers conclude that gangs are the "primary retail-level distributor of most illicit drugs" and several are "capable" of competing with major U.S.-based Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

Over the last 10 years, the number of gang members has steadily increased, and a rising number of U.S. gangs are intent on developing working relationships with U.S. and foreign drug-trafficking organizations and other criminal groups to gain direct access to foreign source of illicit drugs.  Moreover, most regions in the United States will experience increased gang membership and increased gang-related criminal activity, say researchers.

Other findings:

  • About 900,000 gang members live within local communities across the country, and about 147,000 are in U.S. prisons or jails.
  • Last year, 58 percent of state and local law enforcement agencies reported that criminal gangs were active in their jurisdictions, up from 45 percent in 2004.
  • More gangs use the Internet, including encrypted e-mail, to recruit and to communicate with associates throughout the United States and other countries.
  • Gangs "pose a growing threat" to law enforcement authorities along the U.S.-Canadian border.

One group that continues to spread despite law enforcement efforts is the violent Salvadoran gang MS-13.  The group gained national prominence in the 1980s in Los Angeles, where members were linked to incidents involving unusual brutality.  Since then, it has formed "cliques" across the United States.

A task force launched in 2004 amid concerns about the gang's rapid spread has seen some success, but a "revolving door" on the border has kept the gang's numbers steady -- about 10,000 in the United States -- even as many illegal immigrant members are deported. 

Source: Kevin Johnson, "FBI: Burgeoning gangs behind up to 80% of U.S. crime," USA Today, January 29, 2009.

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