On Jan. 9, 2005, Andres Raya caught police in a calculated ambush outside a liquor store in Ceres, California. He shot two officers, killing one, before the police returned fire and killed him. After the incident, detectives discovered that Raya belonged to the Norteños gang. Video from a break-in at Ceres High School showed him throwing gang signs and flashing gang graffiti, and displayed an American flag cut up to spell “F–k Bush” on the floor of the gymnasium. Lance Corporal Raya was a Marine on leave from a tour in Iraq.
Street gangs—particularly Hispanic gangs, the fastest growing in the U.S.—are making major inroads into America’s Armed Forces. Hunter Glass, a retired police detective and gang expert in Fayetteville, N.C., home to Fort Bragg and the 82nd Airborne, knows of members of Florencia 13, Latin Kings, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Norteños, and Sureños serving in the military. A 2006 report produced by the Los Angeles Joint Drug Intelligence Group also lists the 18th Street Gang, Eastside Longos, and Vagos as having military-trained members. According to the FBI, “Members of nearly every major street gang … have been documented on military installations both domestically and internationally.”
Glass points out, “The military is merely a reflection of the society it serves. As gangs grow in the U.S., they will grow somewhat comparatively in the military.” But recent figures indicate that gang membership in the Armed Forced significantly surpasses civilian levels. Stars and Stripes reported that 1 to 2 percent of the military are gang members, compared to 0.02 percent of the general population. The proliferation of gang graffiti in Iraq and the prevalence of gang tattoos among soldiers underscores the point.
Hispanic gangs often rumble with black gangs, like the Gangster Disciples and Crips. Members of the Avenues, a Latino gang in Los Angeles, were convicted in 2006 of federal hate crimes for deliberately targeting African-Americans. An informant told the FBI that the Avenues members were under orders to kill blacks on sight in their Highland Park neighborhood.
These rivalries spill over into the military. Texans saw the problem up close after soldiers associated with the Gangster Disciples and Crips transferred from Fort Hood to Fort Bliss in El Paso, where the mestizo gang Barrio Azteca dominates. Reginald Moton, Gang Investigations Supervisor of the El Paso Police Department, recalls an incident on Feb. 20, 2005, when two black men with possible gang connections, a soldier from Fort Bliss and a former soldier recently chaptered out of the military, wrangled with members of Barrio Azteca at a nightclub. Words were exchanged and afterwards, at a nearby fast-food restaurant, the dispute “resulted with both sides of the altercation firing handguns at each other.”
So pronounced is the gang problem at Fort Hood that when 23,000 troops and their families were slated to transfer to Fort Carlson, Colorado last year, the Colorado Springs Independent ran a piece warning, “In recent years, the Chicago-based Gangster Disciples have been active at Fort Hood, and alleged members have been linked to slayings, robberies and drug and gun trafficking. Police in Colorado Springs and Killeen, Texas, which is home to Fort Hood, confirm that they are sharing gang information to prepare for this relocation.”
Gang-related incidents in the military are isolated now, but law-enforcement officials worry about long-term dangers. The Los Angeles Joint Drug Intelligence Group’s report saw a twofold threat. First, gangs “infect America’s armed forces with the degeneration and violence characteristic of gangs,” and some even recruit while serving in the military. Second, gang members return to their gangs “having acquired new soldiering skills and weapons training and pose an even greater threat to civilians and law enforcement.” The report goes on to say that over 100 military-trained gang members in the Los Angeles area “present a latent danger to its residents.” If each of these gang members were to pass on his military training to just four others in LA, they would “overwhelm present law enforcement tactics.”
The tactics of military-trained gang members already overwhelm police. When Andres Raya opened fire with an SKS assault rifle, he used a military tactic known as “slicing the pie.” He was able to outmaneuver police, wounding one officer. When backup arrived, he defended his position using “suppression fire” before killing a veteran policeman.
“[G]angs are joining the military for a reason,” notes William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration. “They have an agenda, and it is to gain access to elite weaponry and training.” In fact, many gangs go out of their way to groom prospects for military enlistment. Others benefit from having their juvenile records sealed, fail to report criminal convictions, or use fake documents.
FBI agent Andrea Simmons told the New York Sun, “The intelligence that we have thus far indicates that [gangs] may try to recruit young people who have clean records and encourage them to keep their record clean to get into the military. … They would get great weapons training and other types of training and access to weapons and arms, and be able to use that knowledge.” Hunter Glass adds that although some of the finest soldiers he has known are Hispanic, “Latino gangs … know very well what they can learn from the military and [what] will assist them in their criminal endeavors.”
Given these threats, why are gang members allowed to infiltrate the Armed Forces? Recruiters are desperate, and the bar has been lowered. “From the perspective of the military command staff, the present need for a large number of troops may outweigh the need for quality troops,” concludes the Los Angeles threat assessment. In 2005, a member of the Latin Kings was recruited by the Army while awaiting trial for attacking a police officer with a razor.
Recent Defense Department statistics indicate that the percentage of Army recruits with high-school diplomas has dropped from 94 percent in 2003 to 70.7 percent. According to the New York Times, the number of moral waivers offered for recruits with criminal backgrounds has grown 65 percent, resulting in 11.7 percent with criminal histories in 2006.
Acknowledging the growing problem, the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill forbids gang membership. (Current regulations only ban membership in organizations that “espouse supremacist causes.”) Representative Mike Thompson, who introduced the amendment, commented in Stars and Stripes, “I’ve heard from police officers across the country that there are problems with gangs on posts.” He continued, “The FBI suggests there are problems not only in the states but bases abroad.” But such measures will probably come up short: it’s easy for soldiers to keep their gang affiliations secret.
Furthermore, most members, even if they had a way to leave their gangs, do not want out. Investigator Scott Barfield interviewed 320 soldiers who admitted gang membership, and only two said they wanted to leave. “They’re not here for the red, white and blue. They’re here for the black and gold [the gang colors of the Latin Kings],” Barfield told the Chicago Sun-Times.
The tribal loyalties of gangs go back to ancient times and dwell deeper in the psyche than any abstract allegiance to the state. Hunter Glass has found that “gangbanging is a way of life, and gangs act as a replacement for the natural family, so for many this is the only way they know how to act or interact. …The military cannot stop a gang member from being a gang member anymore than it can stop a Christian from being a Christian.”
And while the government may try to weed out gang members, the problem only intensifies as demand for soldiers increases. Many see increased immigration as the solution. In the Washington Post, Max Boot and Michael O’Hanlon wrote that it is “time to consider a new chapter in the annals of American immigration.” We can increase military recruitment by “inviting foreigners to join the U.S. armed forces in exchange for a promise of citizenship.” A provision in the most recent version of the DREAM Act, which failed to gain cloture last October, would have granted legal status to illegal immigrants who served two years. But young illegal alien males are particularly vulnerable to gang culture, and while most would no doubt serve honorably and welcome citizenship, others might come with conflicting loyalties.
A 2007 FBI assessment pointed out, “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 the country.”
During the recent Capitol Hill hearings, General Petraeus was asked about gang activity in the military. He said that he wasn’t aware of any. Perhaps he hadn’t heard of Juwan Johnson, whose mother encouraged him to join the Army to escape the drugs and gangs back in Baltimore. The young sergeant was decorated for his Iraq service and was back in Germany, due to be discharged in two weeks. He never made it home.
Eight of Johnson’s fellow soldiers handled his brutal initiation into the Gangster Disciples. He was found dead in his barracks the next morning, killed by blunt-force trauma. Two servicemen have been convicted.
Meanwhile, Gangster Disciples graffiti—its initials and distinctive six-pointed star—continues to show up throughout Iraq. “When these cats, these gang members, come back,” Airman First Class Miguel Robinson, a Los Angeles Crip, told ABC, “we’re going to have some hell on these streets.”
Matthew A. Roberts writes from Kansas City, Mo.