Global Gangs: Street Violence Across the World

Global Gangs: Street Violence Across the World

Editors: Jennifer M. Hazen and Dennis Rodgers
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. 312p.
Reviewer: James C. Howell | May 2015

This book is both highly authoritative and very timely. Dennis Rodgers, an accomplished gang analyst in international circles, and Jennifer Hazen, an armed group expert, assembled an impressive group of scholars who had researched gangs in various national contexts for original contributions to this volume. In fact, this book grew out of a workshop that the authors convened on the matter of similarities and differences in gang studies in May 2009 at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. For purposes of discussions at the workshop, and in the interest of promoting cross-cultural comparisons, Rodgers and Hazen invited participants to adopt a broad approach to the gang phenomenon and to base their contributions to this book on a common definition of gangs. This general definition, consisting of three primary criteria, is that “a gang will (1) display a measure of institutional continuity independent of its membership; (2) routinely engage in violent behavior patterns that are considered illegal by the dominant authorities and mainstream society; and (3) consist of members who are principally, though not necessarily only, under the age of twenty-five” (Rodgers and Hazen, this volume, p. 8). We reference these gang forms generally as gangs in this review.

Rodgers and Hazen’s introduction to the volume frames two important issues that are addressed in the invited essays. The first issue is the concept of “transnational” gangs. The second issue more specifically concerns gang transformations. My review summarizes key insights this volume provides on these topics of widespread interest across disparate studies in various countries.

Unfortunately, there is no single definition of a transnational gang. Franco (2010) notes the following characteristics in various definitions:

  • These gangs are criminally active and operational in more than one country.
  • Criminal activities that gang members commit in one country are planned, directed, and controlled by gang leaders in another country.
  • These gangs tend to be mobile and to adapt to new areas.
  • The criminal activities of such gangs tend to be sophisticated and to transcend borders.

For a gang to be considered transnational, Franco (2010) suggests that it should have more than one of the preceding characteristics; however, this rule is not followed in much of the literature and media coverage, which characterizes gangs as transnational merely because they are present in more than one country. The most widely discussed case is the notorious Central American maras (gangs). These indigenous gangs first appeared in El Salvador in the 1960s (Cruz, this volume). In the next stage of development, members of the original Salvadoran maras (along with other youths) formed the Los Angeles-based Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)in the Pico Union area of West Los Angeles in the 1980s. The MS-13 gang was composed of Salvadoran youth who had migrated with their families, who fled to Los Angeles as Salvadoran civil war refugees. The Mexican-American 18th Street gang, Mara Dieciocho, already existed there, having emerged in the 1960s (Vigil, 2002). Rejected by the 18th Street gang that accepted only Mexican-American youth at that time, the Salvadoran youth formed MS-13 for protection.

After the end of the Salvadoran civil war in the early 1990s, members of both gangs were deported to Central American countries and carried with them their respective gang cultures. Cruz (this volume) reports that by 1996, 84 percent of surveyed young people in gangs in the country’s capital, San Salvador, said they belonged to either the MS-13 or 18th Street gangs; however, in a recent survey of imprisoned gang members in El Salvador that Cruz relays, only 7 percent said they were members of these gangs in the United States. Nevertheless, this “reverse migration” of gang members from Los Angeles transported gang culture to existing maras (less-structured, territorial gangs) in Central America, bolstered by gang hand signs for communication, norms, and values. Local cliques were renamed MS-13 or 18th Street, depending on which gang happened to be in control of the neighborhood or community where the future gang member lived. Responding in part to the updated and more dangerous cloak of the parent Los Angeles versions of local gangs, the El Salvadorian government enacted the 2003 Mano Dura Act in response. This law that permitted the detention and prosecution of suspected gang members had the unintended effect of strengthening the local gangs as they reorganized themselves, chose leaders, and recruited new members inside prisons. Both MS-13 and 18th Street gangs grew enormously in dangerousness and criminal expertise therein, ranging from kidnapping to extortion; and several media reports suggested that perhaps these gangs had the capacity to “dominate social institutions and carve out space within which they may exert hegemonic control over the local state” (Jones, this volume, p. 263).

But Jones, a gang expert on Latin American forms, emphatically rejects this presumption. So do Rodgers and Hazen (this volume), but such attention-garnering estimates of gang capacities serve to introduce the second issue of central focus in this book. Is it possible that street gangs could transform themselves into entities of the necessary strength so as to successfully challenge the security of nations or states? In providing guidance to the contributors to this volume, the term “gang transformation” is used to refer to the evolution of gangs over time — that is, their genesis, development, and institutionalization.

Recent warnings of security threats are underscored by the potential evolution of increasingly more dangerous gangs in a formulation of various stages of gang transformations (Sullivan and Bunker, 2002; Wilson and Sullivan, 2007). First-generation gangs are viewed as traditional turf-protecting street gangs. Second-generation gangs may transition from turf protection to market-oriented drug gangs and drug-trafficking operations. Third-generation gangs might mix political and mercenary elements. Manwaring (2007) suggests that these hypothetical third-generation gangs could possibly transform themselves into a “new urban insurgency” and “begin to acquire political power in poorly governed space” (p. 6). Manwaring also contends that some third-generation gangs might act as mercenaries for larger and better organized criminal organizations. He goes farther in suggesting that, “as they expand their activities to compete with or support long-established transnational criminal organizations, they [also] expand their geographical and commercial parameters. Then as gangs operate and evolve, they generate more and more violence and instability over wider and wider sections of the political map and generate sub-national, national, and regional instability and insecurity” (p. 4). Although Manwaring acknowledges that “most gangs stay firmly within" [the] first generation of development, more than a few have evolved into and beyond the second generation” (p. 4). Wilson, Sullivan, and Manwaring went further, suggesting that a direct linkage between gangs and insurgents such as drug cartels and warlords could represent a potential “new urban insurgency” that aimed to depose or otherwise control incumbent governments in Central America.

But several contributors to this volume, particularly Rodgers and Hazen, along with Jones, seriously question the specter of third-generation gangs of such capacity that they could transform themselves into a “new urban insurgency.” Moreover, this volume does not confirm the validity of evidence to date in substantiation of such a gang transformation. Rather, various chapters draw attention to more realistic modes of gang transformations. Several chapters focus on gangs and the contexts that shaped them — that is, factors related to gang transformations. Rather, “what the case studies presented in this volume suggest is that gangs can follow a number of paths, reaching a number of end points; which path is chosen depends on a set of factors both internal (e.g., leadership, organization) and external (e.g., state response, politics, drugs), and what end state is reached may depend on an entirely different set of factors” (Rodgers and Hazen, p. 15). For example, in El Salvador, Cruz suggests that evidence of gang transformation points to a more intricate response than backward-and-forward migration between this country and the United States. Gareth Jones addresses the presumed link in Mexico between gangs in Los Angeles and El Salvador in his appropriately titled chapter “Hecho en Mexico” (i.e., made in Mexico), noting that “when journalists report in more detail, the case for a mara ‘invasion’ seems weaker” (p. 264).

Other examples of factors that various chapter authors associate with gang transformations follow.

  • Urbanization and specific cities’ political economies in South Africa (Jensen).
  • Recurrent Mexican immigration and migration in the United States (Vigil).
  • The transition to a liberal economy in the Russian Federation that opened illegal as well as legal opportunities (Salagaev and Safrin).
  • The dynamics of social control associated with rapid social and economic changes in China (Zhang).
  • Drug trafficking opportunities in France (Mohammed).
  • Massive police crackdowns and imprisonment of gang members in El Salvador (Cruz).

Other chapter authors reporting early studies grapple with definitional questions and classification of groups as gangs in light of the enormous diversity of groups so classified. These chapters unveil a variety of examples of a number of gang-like groups and dissimilar groups around the world, in accord with sometimes, fuzzy gang definitions in Indonesia (Ryter), Urban India (Utas), Sierra Leone (Sen), Kenya (Rasmussen), and Brazil (Arias).

A major contribution of this authoritative volume is that it directly informs assessments of the actual threat that the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs present. Rodgers and Hazen issue an important point of caution: “Gangs go through a number of transformations. But not all transformations bring gangs to a higher level of organization” (p. 15). Moreover, gangs sometimes reach a point of stability or equilibrium, which can be at a point of institutionalization—a context of great importance in studying gang transformations. In defining the institutionalization concept, Rodgers and Hazen specify three criteria: a higher level of organization, more formalized structures, and greater embedment in the social, economic, and political activities of a community.

Concluding the volume with an afterword, Venkatesh praises this book for the interdisciplinary and long-term perspective of contributors, which holds promise for better understanding street gang transformations. Yet a common framework has not been applied across studies. This is the important next step that Rodgers and Hazen promote. All gang researchers are indebted to these scholars for illuminating, with their landmark book, the pathway that future studies need to follow toward better understanding of gang evolution or transformations in this challenging line of research.

James C. Howell, Ph.D.
National Gang Center, USA


Franco, C. (2010). The MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats? (CRS Report RL34233, updated January 22, 2010). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.

Manwaring, M. G. (2007). A contemporary challenge to state sovereignty: Gangs and other illicit transnational criminal organizations in Central America, El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica, and Brazil. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army College (

Rodgers, D. and Hazen, J. M. (this volume). Introduction: Gangs in a global and comparative perspective. In J. M. Hazen and D. Rodgers (eds.), Global gangs: Street violence across the world (pp. 1-25). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Sullivan, J. P. and Bunker, R. J. (2002). Drug cartels, street gangs, and warlords. Small Wars and Insurgencies, 13(2), 40–53.

Wilson, G. I. and Sullivan, J. P. (2007). On Gangs, Crime, and Terrorism, Special to Defense
and the National Interest, February 28, 2007. Available at

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