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Eric Goldschein and Luke McKenna

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Jan. 16, 2012

More than 1.4 million Americans are wearing the colors of more than 33,000 gangs across the country, according to a report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Based on evidence from federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement, the FBI says gangs commit 48% of violent crime, and are only becoming more dangerous. Some even source weapons from the military.

While many of these groups are regional and only loosely organized, many gangs are expanding their ranks and establishing themselves at international levels.

The 18th Street Gang is considered the largest street gang in California

One of the most well-known of the “Sureño” gangs in Southern California, the 18th Street Gang is said to be responsible for at least one robbery or assault a day in Los Angeles County. The gang is one of the most rapidly expanding criminal groups in the country, with a reach that extends across 32 states, from Maryland to Hawaii.Though loosely connected, the gang is thought to be the largest street gang in California, with roughly 15,000 members.

18th Street gangsters have been linked to homicide, extortion, alien smuggling, drug smuggling, and auto theft,. They have also infiltrated the U.S. military.


Florencia 13 members have been caught buying weapons from U.S. military personnel

Another rapidly expanding Sureño gang, Florencia 13, works closely with the Mexican Mafia and is a rival of the 18th Street set. Based out of South Los Angeles, Florencia 13 is part of a terrifying gang war scene that has turned L.A. into one of the most dangerous counties in the country.It also has members and influence in states like Virginia and Iowa.

The gang has racked up charges ranging from piracy to conspiracy to sell drugs and murder over the last few years. They also have been cited as another gang infiltrating the U.S. military. In 2010, six members were given life sentences out of the 94 that pleaded guilty to their crimes.

Barrio Azteca has ties to several major Mexican drug trafficking organizations

Originally based out of El Paso, Texas, Los Aztecas have become a powerful paramilitary force on both sides of the Mexico border. Now many of the gang’s members are recruited from Texas prisons, and some of its work takes place inside prison walls, such as heroin production.Los Aztecas work with the Juarez cartel and Los Zetas running drugs, smuggling illegal aliens and murdering consulate officials.The gang has a military structure that has helped keep order.

In March 2011, 35 members of the gang were charged with a variety of crimes, including 10 gangsters involved in the murder of the U.S. Consulate employee and several family members.

Juggalos are somewhere between ridiculous and dangerous

Originally just the crazed and face-painted fans of the horrorcore rap group Insane Clown Posse, “Juggalos” have become a non-traditional hybrid gang with a loose structure and unclear motives.Many Juggalos only engage in low-level crime, like simple drug possession and theft. But the FBI has noticed increasingly gang-like behavior, such as forming organized subsets and committing more serious crimes, “such as felony assaults, thefts, robberies, and drug sales.”

Though only recognized as a gang in four states, the already established Juggalo culture has aided the transition to greater violence and gang-like activity. The transient nature of the group makes it hard to locate exact pockets of influence, but Juggalo activity has been noted in states like California, Pennsylvania and Utah.

The Almighty Latin King Nation is said to be the largest Hispanic street gang in the country

Originally formed in Chicago in the 1940s, the strictly organized structure of the Latin Kings has helped them become the biggest Hispanic gang in the U.S. The gang’s influence stretches to 34 states, and there an estimated 18,000 members in Chicago alone.Though the gang is splintered into the original Chicago clique and an east coast set, all members subscribe to being Latin Kings. All gang members subscribe to the group’s religious aesthetic, which calls for the eventual rebirth of a member as a New King, enlightened and ready to serve the downtrodden peoples of the world.

The Kings have been the subject of multiple federal operations, looking to arrest gang members and limit the group’s growing influence. Recently, the latest sting produced a conviction of Augustin “Tino” Zambrano, considered to the be the highest ranking out-of-prison member in the nation.

Somali gangs are seeing increasing influence in places like Minnesota

Somali gangs are seeing increasing influence in places like Minnesota


While some Somali immigrants adopt Blood or Crip membership, separate Somali gangs are becoming more prevalent across the country. They often experience tension with other African-American gangs, such as groups comprised of Ethiopian refugees.Somali gangs have been involved in alien smuggling, human trafficking, credit card fraud, prostitution and violent crime.


Strangely, the biggest pockets of Somali gangs can be found in states like Minnesota, Washington, and Missouri.

MS-13 is the gang that has the FBI most worried

Mara Salvatrucha is perhaps the most dangerous gang in the country at this point. Originating in El Salvador, the gang has gone transnational, with members across the United States (in 42 states) and in countries like Guatemala and Mexico.MS-13 has worked with Mexican drug cartels and communicates frequently with incarcerated members despite no official leadership structure.

The gang is notoriously violent, relentlessly cruel and merciless, with plenty of well-documented public crimes, such as a San Francisco member who killed a family for briefly blocking his car.

Though the gang is included in the 2011 Gang Assessment, the FBI has a separate section, and an MS-13 Task Force, dedicated to stopping the group and alerting the public of the threat it poses.

The Trinitarios is the fastest-growing gang in New York

Formed in New York’s prison system in the 1980s, the ultra-violent Trinitarios quickly spread to the streets as inmates were released. Its influence is now felt in all five boroughs of New York and in at least 10 statescovering all corners of the country.The predominantly Dominican gang, with deadly rivalries with Bloods, Crips and Dominicans Don’t Play (DDP), is notorious for recruiting in high schools throughout New York and New Jersey, and is said to be behind a number of teen shootings and machete deaths.

Last year the FBI locked up the leader of the Trinitarios’ Long Island chapter on drug charges, and another 50 members were captured in The Bronx in a raid linked to illegal firearms and numerous murders — especially around Upper Manhattan.

Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos runs Texas’ prisons

Another prison gang, Pistoleros Latinos, was born in, and now dominates, Texas’ correctional facilities. Outside, the Hispanic group owns the streets of Laredo, in the state’s south, and has strong ties to Mexican drug-runners across the border.Pistoleros Latinos is heavily organized with its own constitution, traditions and life-long membership, often marked by life-size tattoos of handguns inked just above operatives’ pants-lines.

The group’s leader, Jesus Espinosa, is serving a life sentence for drug trafficking — Hermanos Pistoleros is known to be a huge importer and seller of cocaine and marijuana. The gang has also been linked to armed burglaries, car-jacking, prison gambling and protection rackets, inmate assaults, staff intimidation and multiple murders.

The Mexican Mafia is the oldest, most powerful prison gang in the U.S.

Most Latino gangsters who are incarcerated in southern California throw aside old rivalries and unite under the banner of the Mexican Mafia.Formed in a juvenile correctional facility in Tracy, California in the 1950s, the group has steadily grown in size and extended its reach into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Control is now shared by hundreds of operatives in prisons right throughout those states, with the power to order thousands of loyalists to murder guards and other enemies. They also run the drug trade and various rackets within institutions.

The group commands influence on the outside, too. In 2010, 20 members were arrested for running drugs and carrying out stabbing murders ordered from within the prison system. Others have infiltrated the US military.

The Mongols battle with brass knuckles, pipes and steel-toed boots

In a swipe at the American Motorcycle Association, which is said to have claimed 99% of bike riders are law abiding citizens, the Mongols proudly identify as “one-per-centers”. The outlaw biker gang is allied with the Bandidos, Outlaws, and the Sons of Silence.The crime syndicate, formed by Hispanic Vietnam vets who were denied membership to the Hells Angels, is headquartered in southern California but has a presence in 14 states and runs international chapters in Australia, Germany, Italy, Mexico and parts of Scandinavia. They war openly and violently with rival gangs — a nightclub brawl in New Mexico last year ended with a double homicide.

In 2008, a three-year federal sting resulted in the arrest of 61 Mongols on offenses including racketeering, murder, drug trafficking and money laundering. Their weapons of choice include guns, knives, brass knuckles, lead pipes and steel-toed boots.

The Vagos Motorcycle Club are at war with the Hells Angels and police

Originally known as “The Psychos”, the Vagos Motorcycle Club is a violent crime organization active throughout southern California.Vagos, many military trained, are notoriously ruthless with their enemies and have declared war on law enforcement. A recent spat with the Hells Angels over the turf surrounding a Starbucks store in California left two people dead and eight others wounded. Thirty more members were arrested over a separate plan to kill police detectives with home-made booby traps.

The gang is known for producing and selling narcotics, an operation backed up with a cache of weapons and a long history of assaults, extortion, thievery and money laundering. They have also been accused of witness intimidation and insurance fraud.

Wheels of Soul members are judged by their brutality

The Wheels of Soul is a predominantly black, national biker gang headquarted in Philadelphia. A spate of arrests last month suggests the group is criminally active in at least six other states.Gang members are encouraged to strive for “1%er” or “Diamond” status within the group through particularly cruel acts violence. Members currently stand accused of stabbing a rival gang member in the head and shooting another in the stomach in a recent attack at a Chicago motorcycle club.

According to a federal indictment in December, the Wheels of Soul also orchestrates robberies and kidnappings and is involved in the production and sale of drugs.