Global cities – global gangs

Global cities linking global economic circuits are also home to transnational criminals and global gangs. This essay examines the policy implications of gangs in the global city.

Adam Elkus John P. Sullivan
2 December 2009

Gangs, like death, war, and taxes, have always been with us.  They are likely to remain a feature of everyday life. For the most part, gangs have been rather low priority in terms of domestic policy. In America in particular, gangs and other street-level criminal organizations have oscillated between objects of benign neglect and sensationalized panic over criminal ‘super-predators’. The global and foreign policy implications of gangs have been rarely considered.

However, a rise in newer, networked ‘third generation gangs’ in increasingly ‘global’ cities means that the street gang is becoming an aspect of foreign policy warranting attention and combined domestic and international cooperation. New criminological theories are also focusing on gangs not as simple products of youthful rebellion or social disorganization but social actors, social bandits, and networked sovereign agents in the global system.

New perspectives in criminology

Traditional criminology has focused on street gangs in the granular, turf-gang model. However, in recent years criminologists have recognized that gangs have become global enterprises. In 2007, prominent criminologist John Hagedorn released a seminal compilation titled Gangs in the Global City (See John Hagedorn, Gangs in the Global City: Alternatives to Traditional Criminology). Utilizing the ‘global city’ framework developed earlier by Saskia Sassen, Hagedorn and his colleagues argued three points diverging from traditional criminology: gangs are institutionalized in social environments, gangs are globalized and can be found in increasingly globalized urban spaces, and gangs are ‘social actors’ whose identities are formed by identity-based repression, participation in the underground economy, and constructions of gender.

Hagedorn challenges traditional criminologists who brand gangs an American phenomenon, primarily adolescent in nature, and solely mute products of social disorganization (see, for example, Malcolm Klein, The American Street Gang, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).  Rather, he turns his attention to larger influences not seen in analysis that primarily focuses on their commercial activities. These analyses dovetail with a recent emphasis on globalization’s morphing of gang networks and reach by Sullivan, ‘global guerrillas’ by John Robb, as well as work by theorists such as Max Manwaring.

Third generation gangs

Third Generation gangs differ from First Generation gangs, which are essentially turf organizations that engage in opportunistic crimes, and the more market-focused Second Generation gangs that sometimes operate on a national level. The small but growing number of third generation (3 GEN) gangs are internationalized, networked, and complicated structures that sometimes evolve political aims (for an example, see John P. Sullivan, “Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America,” Air and Space Power Journal Spanish edition, July 2008).

The most obvious third generation examples are MS-13 and M-18, which conduct business internationally across many parts of the Americas. MS-13 is estimated to have 8,000-10,000 members and M-18 30,000 members, although telling hardcore maras from affiliates and associates is problematic. Yet other gangs elsewhere in the world combine political aims and criminal action.  These include the Latin Kings active in the US, Caribbean, and Spain; Tamil gangs in Toronto linked with Sri Lanka’s LTTE, gangs (like the Premier Capitol Command-PCC and Red Command) and vigilante militias in Brazil’s favelas, as well as Cape-area gangs in South Africa like ‘Hard Livings’ and their bitter foes, the vigilante group Pagad (People against gangsterism and drugs).

Manwaring has produced many studies of gangs in central America, and argues that some networked street gangs are increasingly the locus of political authority and popular resistance against corrupt local governments that no longer provide social benefits. They attract local allegiance while expanding their own profits and power (See Max Manwaring, Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency, Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, March 2005).

Networked gangs and criminal insurgents are in many ways an updated version of an old phenomenon. The historian Eric Hobswam coined the term ‘social bandits’ to describe those living on the margins of society who come to be seen as offering social resistance or alternative forms of power to authority (See Eric Hobswam, Bandits, New York: Pelican, 1972). These figures, Hobswam argues, are often subjects of popular lore similar to the narco-corridos seen today in Mexico, or rather, popular gangster rap songs in the United States.

Amalgamated together, these perspectives provide a picture of today’s emerging multinational ‘street gang’. It operates on a multinational level, running a number of organized-crime style businesses and front organizations as opposed to simple opportunistic crime. It is heavily plugged into what is now a global illicit economy. In some areas where government is weak, it can offer alternative, parallel forms of sovereignty.

In Mexico, gang identity sometimes is formed by political, ethnic, and increasingly religious influences. This forms the foundation for societal warfare. Acting as ‘post-modern social bandits’ these gangs fill a bio-political void. La Familia markets itself as an agent of divine redemption, complete with a gangster-cum-evangelist leader.  Los Zetas evoke the cult of Santa Muerte (‘Holy Death’) to forge social cohesion. Gangs in Brazilian favelas also use religious imagery to solidify their niche. In Brazil, the leader of the PCC was also found in his jail cell with copies of books by activists and philosophers such as Malcolm X and Karl Marx (See Alvaro de Souza Pinheiro, Irregular Warfare: Brazil’s Fight Against Urban Guerrillas, Hurlburt Field: Joint Special Operations University, 2009).

Most disturbingly, in select cases street gangs are becoming ‘street guerrillas’ who challenge the state for brute control. Mexico’s example has become well known, but fewer are familiar with the PCC’s pitched — and violent — battles with the Brazilian police. Others increasingly subvert public institutions and law enforcement agencies in order to create local fiefdoms.

Conclusion: a new approach is needed

Some may argue that gangs are domestic matters that do not deserve to be seen as top-priority security issues. In much of the developed world, this may be true, but in the developing world — and some areas of the developed world —‘security’ as experienced in everyday life is not geopolitics, great power games, or counterinsurgency warfare. Rather, it is an everyday struggle for survival in which endemic crime, a lack of basic security, and heavy-handed policing form a dialectic of brutality.  Globalization in turn exacerbates violence as networked gangs and organized crime interact to form a public security problem in fragile communities in many parts of the developing (and developed) world.

Both new policy and new approaches are needed to deal with globalized gangs. On the international level, cooperation, intelligence-sharing, and police training and mentoring programs are needed to help stem the gang threat. The example of how the United States and Italy teamed up in the 1980s to help deal with the transnational threat of the mafia is instructive. On the street level, a different kind of police force may be needed to deal with the increased reach and firepower of gangs. While able to operate in increasingly challenging conditions, this force should not be overly militarized and instead be focused on community policing responsive to public concern to sustain legitimacy.

Most importantly, a new way of thinking about gangs is needed in order to stem the threat. Gangs should not be viewed primarily as social deviants who need to be crushed nor underestimated as purely commercial and petty youths squabbling over turf. Gangs need to be recognized as emergent social actors that combine the popular appeal of social bandits with the globalized reach that only organized crime once possessed. Solutions should not be rooted in brute force crackdowns nor conducted on a purely domestic basis.   Rather, security should form a foundation for a viable community; blending competent application of the rule of law with solutions that build resilient community structures that enable legitimate opportunity for social, economic, and political activity.

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