A few days ago I finished a book called Always Running: Gang Days in L.A. This autobiography follows Luis J. Rodriguez’s life as a criminal and a student, a drug user, and older brother — all of the faces he had as a gang member. The book is a riveting true story about a lost boy, who did not know how to escape the cruel world of gang violence.
One specific quote really struck a chord in me. When Rodriguez was 12 years, he had to choose between two gangs that made up his neighborhood. Usually, one would be assigned a hood; however, the boy lived in-between the two largest gangs in that area: the Lomas and the Animal Tribe. When Miguel, a Tribe member, was trying to convince Rodriguez of joining his hood, he said that “there’s no choice. You wanna live, you wanna breathe air, you got to be in the Tribe” (Rodriguez, 54).
How come there is no free will? Why can’t these boys and girls just say no? These questions were running through my head, when I read this part of the book and the I came to quite a simple, but sad conclusion: These kids do not have a choice. Not one bit. They are sucked into such a lifestyle and cannot find a way out.
Gang violence occurs in all 50 states in the US and the problem is only getting worse. There is an increase in gang membership and street-level drug sales are being controlled more now than ever by criminal street gangs. The 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment states that gang membership increased the most in the Northeast and Southeast of the US. According to the FBI, some 33,000 violent gangs, which include street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs, with about 1.4 million members are active in the US today. This represents a 40 percent increase from about 1 million gang members in 2009.
GANGS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR AN AVERAGE OF 48 PERCENT OF VIOLENT CRIME
Gangs are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and therefore more dangerous. Having access to new and advanced technology, they are able to facilitate criminal activity discreetly, improve their criminal operations, and connect with other criminal organizations nationwide, even worldwide.
The before-mentioned new technology comes from a variety of different sources, one of them being the military. Members of at least 53 gangs have been identified on both domestic and international military installations. With access to advanced training and weaponry in the military, they are able to use both on the street, when they return to their communities.
One area that gangs have been actively involved in and using such new technology is the distribution of illegal drugs. This is made possible by the increasing coordination between Mexican drug cartels, alien smuggling networks, and US-based gangs. The National Drug Intelligence Center stated that 69 percent of US law enforcement agencies report gang involvement in drug distribution. This percentage is staggering and sadly only rising.
“The alien smuggling networks that operate along the Southwest border are unable to move human cargo through drug cartel controlled corridors without paying a fee. The typical Mexican illegal alien now pays approximately $1,200 to $2,500 for entry into the United States. The fee is considerably higher for aliens smuggled from countries other than Mexico, which may even be more alluring for the cartels. It is estimated that criminals earn billions of dollars each year by smuggling aliens through Mexico into the United States.” — House Committee on Homeland Security, US Congress
The main point the book “Always Running” is trying to bring across is that it is not the teenager’s fault for being in a gang. It is expected of them to join and violent consequences can follow if one does not submit to one of the hoods. While we cannot stop gang violence, there is a way to reduce gang-related crime. Luis Rodriguez had mentors that guided him and showed him the power education. He had people there for him, who understood him, supported him, and helped him find a passion in life. We need to help these lost gang members find a way out. We need to show them that there is a better world out there for them than being in a gang. We need to give them a future.
If you would like to learn more about gang violence, then listen to a This American Life podcast called Harper High School. It is a fascinating story that changed the way I think about the world.