Gang Activity in the U.S. Military

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According to a recently released FBI report, Gang-related activity in the US military is increasing and poses a threat to law enforcement officials and national security.

The report, Gang Activity in the U.S. Armed Forces Increasing, dated January 12, states that members of nearly every major street gang have been identified on both domestic and international military installations. Members of nearly every major street gang, including the Bloods, Crips, Black Disciples, Gangster Disciples, Hells Angels, Latin Kings, The 18th Street Gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Mexican Mafia, Nortenos, Surenos, Vice Lords, and various white supremacist groups, have been documented on military installations.

Although most prevalent in the Army, the Army Reserves, and the National Guard, gang activity is pervasive throughout all branches of the military and across most ranks but is most common among the junior enlisted ranks, according to the report. The extent of gang presence in the armed services is often difficult to determine since many enlisted gang members conceal their gang affiliation and military authorities may not recognize gang affiliation or may be inclined not to report such incidences.

  • Since 2004, the FBI and El Paso Police Department have identified over 40 military-affiliated Folk Nation gang members stationed at the Fort Bliss Army Installation in Texas who have been involved in drug distribution, robberies, assaults, weapons offenses, and a homicide, both on and off the installation.
  • Fort Hood, Texas, Army Installation officials have identified nearly 40 gang members on base since 2003. Military-affiliated Gangster Disciple members at Fort Hood have been responsible for robberies, assaults, theft, and burglaries on and off base.
  • Nearly 130 gang and extremist group members have been identified on the Fort Lewis, Washington, Army Installation since 2005. These gang members are believed to be responsible for many of the criminal misconduct instances reported on base.

The FBI reports that accurate data reflecting gang-related instances occurring on military installations is limited since the military is not required to report criminal offense statistics occurring on post to the FBI.

Consequently, military data reflecting criminal instances are not incorporated into the Uniform Crime Report (UCR).

Why Do Gang Members Join the Military?

The FBI believes that gang members may enlist in the military to escape their current environment or gang lifestyle. Some gang members may also enlist to receive weapons, combat, and convoy support training; to obtain access to weapons and explosives; or as an alternative to incarceration. Upon discharge, they may employ their military training against law enforcement officials and rival gang members. Such military training could ultimately result in more organized, sophisticated, and deadly gangs, as well as an increase in deadly assaults on law enforcement officers.

  • In May 2005 an Army recruit and suspected Crip member was assigned to the US Army Finance Battalion where he engaged in drug distribution. He was eventually discharged from the Army for misconduct.
  • According to open source reporting and multiple law enforcement reporting, soldiers—including gang members—are currently being taught urban warfare for combat in Iraq, including how to encounter hostile gunfire.
  • The Defense Criminal Investigative Service reported in 2006 that gang members, particularly MS-13 members, are increasing their presence on or near US military installations.
  • Even though the policy violates military recruiting regulations, US criminal courts have allowed gang members to enter the service as an alternative to incarceration. Several instances wherein gang members have been recruited into the armed services while facing criminal charges or on probation or parole have been documented. In many instances, a gang member facing criminal charges may be provided the option to join the military or serve a jail sentence. Furthermore, some army recruiters have been known to conceal recruits' gang affiliation to help boost their enlistment numbers.

Increased Crime

Gang membership in the armed forces can disrupt good order and discipline, increase criminal activity on and off military installations, and compromise installation security and force protection. Gang incidents involving active-duty personnel on or near US military bases nationwide include drive-by shootings, assaults, robberies, drug distribution, weapons violations, domestic disturbances, vandalism, extortion, and money laundering. Gangs have also been known to use active-duty service members to distribute their drugs.

  • The Aurora Police Department reports that in July 2006 a Marine reservist and Maniac Latin Disciple gang member who had served in Iraq was charged with attempted murder in the shooting of three teenagers in Aurora, Illinois.
  • According to FBI investigative data, in April 2006 a Blood member and active duty soldier at Fort Lewis allegedly robbed a bowling alley on base and is a suspect in a home invasion robbery in Olympia, Washington.
  • In January 2005 a Fort Hood soldier and Gangster Disciple leader was convicted of two aggravated robberies in Killeen, Texas.22 According to open-source reporting, he allegedly directed 30 to 40 Fort Hood Gangster Disciple members to commit illegal activities including drug dealing, identity theft, and armed robberies.

Dangerous Situation

Military-trained gang members also present an emerging threat to law enforcement officers patrolling the streets of US cities. Both current and former gang-affiliated soldiers transfer their acquired military training and knowledge back to the community and employ them against law enforcement officers, who are typically not trained to engage gangsters with military expertise. Gang members in the military are commonly assigned to military support units where they have access to weapons and explosives. Military personnel may steal items by improperly documenting supply orders or by falsifying paperwork. Law enforcement officials throughout the United States have recovered military-issued weapons and explosives -- such as machine guns and grenades -- from criminals and gang members while conducting search warrants and routine traffic stops.

  • In June 2006 an incarcerated US Army soldier and active gang member identified 60 to 70 gang-affiliated military personnel in his unit allegedly involved in the theft and sale of military equipment and weapons. The soldier reported that many of the military personnel in charge of ammunition and grenade distribution are sergeants who are active gang members.
  • A May 2006 interview with a former Marine and Gangster Disciple member incarcerated in Colorado detailed how easily soldiers -- many of whom were gang members -- stole military weapons and equipment and used them on the streets of US cities or sold them to civilian gang members.
  • In December 2005 a National Guard soldier allegedly smuggled several machine guns back from Iraq and sold them to a gun dealer in Georgia, according to open-source information.
  • In a May 2006 interview with the Colorado Department of Corrections, an incarcerated Gangster Disciple member and former Marine discussed the advantages of military training and how it assists gang members in bank robberies, home invasions, and confrontations with police.
  • A 2006 news interview revealed that a Marine, who was a King Cobra member, stationed at MCAS Camp Pendleton, taught members of his gang how to engage in military-style ambushes and how to position themselves for tactical advantage. He further admitted that he joined the Marines "to learn how to shoot guns."

Threat to Dependents

Gang members commonly target dependent children of military personnel for recruitment. Military children are considered potential candidates for gang membership because the transient nature of their families often makes them feel isolated, vulnerable, and in need of companionship. Dependents of service members may be involved in drug distribution and assaults both on and off of military bases. Lax security at open installations may facilitate recruitment by allowing civilian gang members to access the base and interact with military personnel and their children.

  • Fort Bragg officials report that a number of violent instances occurring on post often involve gang members and transpire at on-post nightclubs.
  • In May 2005 the Fort Bragg Provost Marshall (PM) closed the Fort Bragg Fair early because of multiple fights prompted by youths flashing gang signs. The PM remarked that similar instances had also occurred at the prior year's fair.
  • A retired Special Forces soldier and President of the Hells Angels Fayetteville, North Carolina, chapter regularly visits Fort Bragg.
  • US Department of Defense (DoD) youth program staff have acknowledged that military children are heavily influenced by gangs. However, many military spokespersons have dismissed these children as “wannabe gang members.”
  • According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, military facilities in the continental United States, as well as overseas military facilities, have all experienced gang activity committed by dependents of service members.

Getting in the Military

Gang members have been known to enlist in the military by failing to report past criminal convictions or by using fraudulent documents. Some applicants enter the criminal justice system as juveniles and their criminal records are sealed and unavailable to recruiters performing criminal background investigations. Many military recruiters are not properly trained to recognize gang affiliation and unknowingly recruit gang members, particularly if the applicant has no criminal record or visible tattoos.

  • In August 2006 a Latin King member from Milwaukee joined the Marines while under federal indictment for racketeering. The recruiter reported that despite the gang member's indictment, he was still eligible for military service because he had not yet been convicted. He was, however, ultimately denied enlistment from service before reporting for duty.
  • In 2006 an MS-13 member stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington reported that he and several other MS-13 members joined the military after their clique's leader was incarcerated. The soldier claimed that he was candid about his gang membership when recruited.
  • In 2005 a Latin King member was allegedly recruited into the Army at a Brooklyn, New York, courthouse while awaiting trial for assaulting a New York police officer with a razor. He was reportedly instructed by the recruiter to conceal his gang affiliation.
  • In 2005 a California probation officer reported that they were lobbied by Army recruiters to support early probation terminations for gang-affiliated probationers to facilitate their military recruitment.

The FBI report concludes that while allowing gang members to serve in the military may temporarily increase recruiting numbers, US communities may ultimately have to contend with disruption and violence resulting from military-trained gang members on the streets of US cities. Furthermore, most gang members have been pre-indoctrinated into the gang lifestyle and maintain an allegiance to their gang. This could ultimately jeopardize the safety of other military members and impede gang-affiliated soldiers' ability to act in the best interest of their country.

Army Disagrees

In sharp contrast to the FBI report, an Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID), Gang Activity Threat Assessment for FY 2006, calls the threat of gang activity in the Army LOW. Their report concludes:

  • Overall, the assessment of the threat of gang activity in the Army is considered LOW.
  • There are indicators that gangs remain active in some military communities. During FY 2006, the CID initiated 16 gang investigations and reported 44 gang related incidents which occurred on Army installations or in Army communities.
  • Reports indicated there is a small number of Soldiers involved in gangs or gang-related activity. However, there has been an increase in violent gang-related investigations in FY06. Gang related violence in FY06 resulted in the loss of life of one US Army Soldier.
  • The majority of subjects in gang-related investigations are junior enlisted (E-1-E-4) and/or youthful civilian dependent family members. During the period of October 2003 to September 2006, a total of 35 CID investigations were identified as felony crimes with gang related activity There have been no Senior NCOs or Officers identified in any gang related incidents or investigations.
  • Military communities continue to be a more stable, secure and lawful environment than their civilian counterparts, especially given recent access control and other security enhancements.
  • Much of the gun growth across the US can be attributed to the influence of the gang subculture rather than actual gang migration. Many communities are experiencing an emulation of nationally recognized gangs.
  • Forming multi-agency task forces and joint community groups is an effective way to combat the problem. However, decreases in funding and staffing to many task forces have created new challenges for civilian communities. Limitations on recourses for authorized spaces, especially criminal intelligence spaces, have had a similar effect on CID's ability to be proactive in this area.

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