Gangs in the Military
Print Issue: February 2012
GANGS ARE becoming a significant criminal threat in the military, states the FBI’s recent National Gang Threat Assessment. According to the report, “Members of at least 53 gangs have been identified on both domestic and international military installations. Gang members who learn advanced weaponry and combat techniques in the military are at risk of employing these skills on the street when they return to their communities.”
The report states that law enforcement officials in at least 100 jurisdictions “have come into contact with, detained, or arrested an active duty or former military gang member within the past three years.” Gang members are believed to be in every branch of the military, with a particular emphasis in the U.S. Army, Army Reserves, and National Guard.
Even individuals who join the military to escape gang life can be sucked back in; they “often revert back to their gang associations once they encounter other gang members in the military,” states the report.
And the gang presence in the military has had deadly consequences. U.S. Army Sgt. Juwan Johnson reportedly died after a beating he took by members of the Gangster Disciples in an alleged initiation rite. However, the beating did not take place in Chicago where the gang is based or even in the United States; it was on a military base in Germany and carried out by other military personnel.
Some point to relaxed recruiting practices as a reason that more gang members might be infiltrating the military. “Whenever we go to war, we tend to make recruiting a little easier for the recruiters and accept people that sometimes we didn’t accept when we were more stringent on recruiting rules,” says Richard Valdemar, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department Sergeant and a gang specialist. “We have what we call a waiver, and the waiver is being used much too often to waive people with criminal records and gang affiliations.”
More stringent recruiting standards would not completely solve the problem, however. The report notes that younger gang members without criminal records are joining the military, and they are covering up any gang tattoos during the recruitment period.
Some gangs target the military “to expand their territory, facilitate criminal activity such as weapons and drug trafficking, or to receive weapons and combat training that they may transfer back to their gang,” states the report.
Valdemar adds that there are other reasons to be concerned about gangs in the military, including intra- or intergang violence, as well as the threat that gang members will place gang loyalty above loyalty to the military and the United States. Additionally, gang presence in the military can make it more difficult for those looking to leave the gang to do so.
To help solve the problem, the military’s noncommissioned officers (NCOs) must learn to spot gang members, according to Valdemar. “You’ve got to educate your NCOs and officers [as] to what these signs mean.”
And when gang members are spotted in the service, it’s important “to give them a way out of the gang. For instance, remove those tattoos, have them make a contract with the military to disassociate with the gang. Cut those ties with gang members on the outside,” says Valdemar.