Vol. 76, No. 2External submissions

New-age gangs

Gang players are fluid, mobile and connected


The definition of criminal street gangs in North America has become particularly blurred, as academics, law enforcement and the media have tended to apply the term "street gang" to loosely structured youth groups and highly organized criminal enterprises alike.

In contrast with the long-standing model of occidental street gangs in North America, "new-age" gangs appear noticeably less structured: there's little to no role differentiation, members are better conceived of as players, they don't tend to adopt common modes of dress, and these gangs have not typically claimed geographic or territorial 'turf.'1

In short, new-age gangs exhibit an operating structure distinct from the established patterns of both organized crime groups and geographically anchored, territorial-based occidental gangs.

Comparing definitions drawn from many diverse sources, the term "street gang" has generally been applied to those groups whose identity is shaped by a cluster of characteristics that preferentially emphasize the following:

  • age range consisting of young adults and/or adults
  • has a name or identifiable leadership or structure
  • controls a geographic, economic or criminal enterprise 'turf'
  • has a sustained or regular affiliation between those involved
  • engages in criminal activity, which may include violence

And while both new-age gangs and those modelled in the long-standing North American model share elements of these characteristics, what differentiates the two gang paradigms is where the emphasis is placed and how enduring the role structure remains.

New-age gangs

While new-age gangs share an identifiable leader, the gang itself does not share an enduring membership structure. Rather, new-age gangs are mobilized based on relationship, not through identifiable enduring roles.

For this reason, I have chosen to reference their members as 'players,' a term that implies a configuration analogous to activities such as team sports where individuals are mobilized and see action based on leader-centered decisions and elements of individual skill.

Associated with a new-age gang structural fluidity among its players, is an equally significant geographic mobility that has served to hinder attempts by law enforcement to disrupt and dismantle their criminal activity.

Due to the fluid and mobile organization of new-age gangs, there exists a diminished emphasis on geographic turf and a corresponding increased emphasis on economic and commodity-based turf. This characteristic breaks them free of geographic anchorage and a fixed membership structure.

It's this very characteristic of mobility across jurisdictions that can fuel turf encroachment and bring them into conflict with other street gangs modelled in the paradigm of geographic anchorage.

The fluidity and mobility exhibited by new-age gangs is a feature of organization, not structural continuity. And while it may appear contradictory to describe new-age gang participants as 'players' while also implying a structure, the distinction rests with the observation that gang players are preferentially mobilized from a street gang leader's personal network. That, in and of itself, lends that structural continuity.

Today's new-age gang leaders use networks of personnel that reach transnationally and serve to define both their economic and commodity-based 'turf.'

Implications for police

While gangs modelled in the different paradigms of occidental and new-age – or indeed new-age gangs dealing in different commodities – can coexist, that coexistence is tenuous at best. It's generally only a matter of time before one group's money-making ability is compromised and violence erupts.

Depending on the 'fall-out' from these spates, the length of calm that eventually ensues is somewhat determined by how significant the destabilizing 'casualties' were, regardless of whether they occurred through gang violence or police arrest.

What has been observed during periods of inter-gang rivalry is that rival groups or even factions within an affiliated street gang leader's own group often supply information to police to further police investigative efforts.

These types of actions are frequently a prelude to increased violence and may be indicative of players who have evolved to a point where they too possess the ability to form their own leader-centered, new-age gang network. In short, they're in a position to rival for affiliation at the level of organized crime and, by implication, secure a predictable source of income for their following.

Those involved in these types of attempts are well aware that they too may be targeted by those they're looking to overtake, and are equally aware that the last thing a rival gang wants to do is to risk harming an innocent bystander – a consequence that brings unwanted attention from the police, the media, politicians and the public.

For them, the safest places become very public places during peak activity times; locations that present a large number of potential witnesses who may pose a deterrent to those targeting them. In other words, they seek refuge in a public safety net.

However, when inter-gang rivalry escalates to the point where the high-risk targeting attempt is the only attempt, the risk to public safety becomes somewhat inevitable.

When these incidents of plain view shootings occur – particularly within a tight time-frame – this should alert police to the likelihood of an urgent need among the groups involved to resolve a power struggle. The reasons for such imminence are essential to furthering investigative and intelligence efforts.

While gang rivalry and spates of associated violence frequently place the public at risk, these sensationalized events also carry with them the potential to bring unwanted attention at the level of organized crime. In turn, such actions can cause street gang leaders who may have been involved in high risk-to-public-safety offences to be 'cut adrift' from their organized crime-level affiliation.

A street gang leader no longer able to meet the payroll of his players has few options other than to engage in even higher risk activities that move him out of his former comfort zone. In so doing, he increases the likelihood of being apprehended by police, which provides police with an opportunity to focus intelligence efforts at a higher level within the criminal organizational structure.

In all instances, the street gang leader remains the key individual in the new-age gang network. He is the conduit to the organized crime level, the players are activated and known to him alone, and he determines which players to activate for specific types of criminal activity.

Managing the new-age gang model

Using the word "managing" for this discussion recognizes the structural dimension of new-age street gangs, their interface with organized crime, and their potential for transnational connections and mobility.

Anti-gang community-based efforts designed to stem recruitment of at-risk youth have shown some success against gangs modelled in the long-standing North American model of geographic anchorage. Likewise, community-based programs that focus on building community capacity within geographic areas where these gangs are operating have also proven to effectively assist police investigative efforts.

By contrast, new-age gangs in which fluid players move across police jurisdictions have proven more difficult to disrupt. The fluidity of gang players in an increasingly connected world reinforces that new-age gang networks rest with a plurality of relationships across a leader-centered network. This pattern of interaction is drawn from the street gang leader's 'live, work or play' sites and frequently includes "friends of friends."

As such, targeted anti-gang strategies emphasizing asset-based policing within a model of community policing, and predicated on identifying individual player networks within a street gang leader's own social network, hold the promise of success.

The fluidity and mobility associated with new-age gangs makes them a particular challenge to police investigations. While their mobility requires that policing jurisdictions be in closer contact than ever before to share information, a mix-and-match fluidity among players serves to delay investigative collaboration across those jurisdictions.

Police investigations remain reliant – to greater or lesser extents – on a regular pattern of operation (modus operandi) and repetition among participants, neither of which is characteristic of the new-age gang configuration.

If a jurisdiction's initial contact with gang activity is with those modelled in the new-age paradigm, then previously established community contacts will greatly enhance attempts at intervention.

At some level, players within a street gang leader's social network will have some connection to the jurisdiction by virtue of their own social network and/or daily activities. Therefore, it's paramount that police establish and sustain community partnerships so that when required, they're already firmly entrenched.

The "code of silence" that police agencies have referred to when stifled in investigations speaks to a fear among community members to come forward with information.

Although beyond the intended scope of this article, effective community outreach benefits both police investigative pursuits and the community at large. Real or perceived, fear of gang reprisals has a negative impact on investigative timeliness.

Those who choose to come forward early in police investigations carry with them the potential to further evidence collection, which in turn, can reduce the reliance placed on witnesses by supplementing witness testimony with physical evidence.

A paradigm shift from occidental gangs characterized by a fixed membership and geographic anchorage, to new-age gangs characterized by player fluidity and an associated geographic mobility, challenges existing community-based policing partnerships to similarly shift from proactive strategic planning to proactive strategic thinking.

Accomplishing this challenge, however, requires enduring partnerships with community stakeholders. To do otherwise assists only the new-age gangs.

Dr. Cathy Prowse is a former 25-year police officer with the Calgary Police Service and holds a PhD in anthropology. She currently teaches in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University on the topics of social control, crime and justice.


1 C.E. Prowse, Defining Street Gangs in the 21st Century, SpringerBriefs in Criminology, 2012.

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