This is the first in a four part series. In this series, Melody Rossi, Executive Director of Cloud and Fire Ministries, examines the missiological implications of working with gang members.
Los Angeles Street Gangs: An Unreached People Group
Mention the word “gangs,” and most people think of a kind of club or fraternity where young men on the fringe of society devise and carry out acts of vandalism and crime against innocent people. In reality, gangs are more like a tribe of people who live together in community. The gang provides the economic system for the community, shapes values, and protects the community. The bond in the gang is extremely deep. Members swear allegiance to the gang and are willing to die for one another. Generations are born into the gang and maintain the gang lifestyle, culture, art, and music. The gang is in every way what is referred to in missions as a “people group.”
In Los Angeles, which is known as “the official gang capitol of the world,” gangs can be divided into two main categories: African American gangs and Hispanic gangs. While there are great similarities between these groups, there are also many attributes unique to each. This paper will focus only on Hispanic street gangs, partly because the group dynamic among Hispanic gangs displays closer similarity to a tribal society than do African American gangs.
Hispanic gangs have existed in Los Angeles since the early 20th Century when large groups of Mexican immigrants came to the city. They settled together in neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, and there maintained their customs and cultural values. However, these barrios (neighborhoods) tended to be economically depressed, and were often lacking in the same quality of basic services that were found in other, wealthier areas of the city. Male adults became the protectors and guardians of the community, and provided their wisdom and influence to keep peace, settle disputes, and obtain justice. Barrios became synonymous with Mexican identity, and provided the backdrop for the Hispanic gangs of today.
In more recent times, Hispanic gangs have evolved dramatically into a force that is much more powerful, and much more structured than the former barrio patriarchs that sprang up during the early 20th Century. According to Tony Rafael, gang researcher, The Mexican Mafia was deliberately created in 1957 as a super-gang that operates out of the California State penal system (The Mexican Mafia, Tony Rafael, 2007). Today, Mexican gangs are extremely well organized. Most street gangs belong to the Mexican Mafia, and pay mandatory taxes, or fear reprisal. “Shotcallers,” the highest ranking gang leaders, make decrees from prison about how “business” should be conducted, and also determine how discipline should be carried out towards members who do not follow protocol. Shotcallers also issue “green lights,” or death orders for those towards enemies or those who otherwise become a liability. Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles are primarily members of the Mafia, unless they are part of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 gang, which originated in El Salvador. The Mafia and MS-13 are arch rivals.
There are currently more than 150,000 known gang members in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and the actual number is probably far greater than any of us could imagine. Many Latino youth, especially those without fathers, see the gang as a source of power. They see entrance into the gang as equivalent to achieving manhood. Acts of vandalism, robbery, violence, revenge, and murder are systematically endorsed, and boys as young as eleven or twelve years of age are indoctrinated into accepting these acts as a normal part of life. The gang lifestyle may have emerged from historical factors that made having neighborhood militias desirable, or necessary. But gangs of today are more violent than in the past. Instead of street fighting with knives, gang members today use guns. And gangs are no longer just about protection. Rather, they are often a venue in which evil is glorified.