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Gang Characteristics and Growth

A gang differs from a drug distribution organization in structure, objective, and methods (specifically in its use of violence). An urban drug organization is a small, loose confederation of individuals who are usually in their late 20s. This type of group unites to cash in on the lucrative drug market, and its main goal is to accumulate wealth. The drug of preference is cocaine, and distribution is above the street level. For a drug organization, violence is a defense mechanism—a reaction in the face of a crisis or a byproduct of the trade. With the widespread use of cocaine and its derivatives, the number of drug trafficking organizations rose dramatically in the 1980s.

In contrast, a youth gang is an organization of tightly bonded youth who are joined together and controlled by a criminal leader. A gang is often conceived and nurtured by an individual who uses it as a vehicle to raise himself or herself to a position of power among his or her peers. In Baltimore, the gang's energy is directed toward distributing narcotics or providing support services for the drug trade, which may include murder for hire.

In specific inner-city territories, Baltimore gangs control drug distribution from street-level consumption to bulk wholesale. Gangs dominate the heroin market and distribute cocaine as a side venture. Gangs maintain and expand their control through systematic violence—establishing a reign of terror that stifles opposition and increases a gang's influence.

Unlike a stereotypical street drug dealer, who plies the trade in the local neighborhood and treats this occupation as a live-and-let-live proposition, a gang leader seeks to dominate territory and expand the gang's geographic control. A violence-prone gang easily intimidates the neighborhood drug dealer, assimilating or tolerating the dealer's presence but on an unequal, tenuous footing.

After the base of operation is secured, a gang focuses on optimizing the territory for the sale of street-grade heroin and cocaine. Under the leader's direction, the hardcore gang members—soldiers1 whose loyalty to the leader is expected to be absolute—secure drug stash houses and paraphernalia for the operation and recruit the expendable dealers, runners, touts, and lookouts. As the gang's profits grow, more expendable, lower-level members are recruited, and the gang's size and influence expand.

The gang leader maintains dominance over the membership by a mixture of rewards and violence, with an emphasis on the latter. The leader is the focal point of the gang's activities, the final arbiter of disputes, the source of spending money and bail, and the receiver and dispenser of information. He or she manipulates gang members by testing loyalties, determining status, and keeping members off guard and subservient to his or her will—perfecting a totalitarian form of control.

While the gang secures the lines of distribution, the leader controls the flow of drug revenues and maps out supply lines. The gang leader is in contact with established local leaders of other gangs and with former gang leaders who now work in the criminal underworld and no longer require the services of the gang. These more experienced gangsters coach the younger criminal in matters such as hiring lawyers, hiding money, creating communication networks, and researching police investigative procedures and ways to avoid them.2

A product of the leader's desire for power, the gang is driven to generate terror. The fledgling gang announces its presence by committing violent acts to establish its claim to a neighborhood and, after gaining control, by continuous fighting to maintain and expand control. Rivals, recalcitrant dealers, potential witnesses, and other enemies are identified and dealt with in a variety of ways, which often culminate in murder. These acts are publicly acknowledged by the gang. Credit is taken, and the crime is added to the reputation of the gang and symbolized through the leader's name.

Gangs use the art of name recognition to maintain control. Using violence to accomplish his or her goals, the leader sees that his or her name becomes inextricably associated with terror. When the leader's name is mentioned, opposition is expected to crumble. Witnesses and victims often use the phrase "he don't play" to explain their reluctance to cooperate with an investigation. At some point in a gang's evolution, a leader's name seeps beyond the criminal realm and into the public consciousness. As parents learn the names of gang leaders from their children, the names spread throughout the city and strike fear. Fear works in favor of the leader and his or her agents because families, fearing retribution, encourage potential witnesses not to get involved in any investigation of the gang.

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