From its birth in Southside Chicago some 30 years ago, the gang calling itself the Gangster Disciples today stretches from Chicago to Baghdad.

The gang is making headlines as a U.S. soldier in Kaiserslautern, Germany, undergoes a pre-trial investigation in the death of Sgt. Juwan Johnson, who was beaten to death allegedly during a Disciples initiation ceremony in July 2005.

Several Internet sites place the beginnings of the gang in the late 1960s with David Barksdale, once leader of Gonzanto Disciples, and Larry Hoover, leader of Supreme Disciples. The two groups united to form the Black Gangster Disciple Nation.

The following information was gleaned from the sites:

The gang uses a number of symbols, including a six-pointed star, which for them represents “life, loyalty, understanding, knowledge, wisdom and love.” They also use a pitchfork facing upward, and a heart with wings.

Tattoos include a devil’s tail, a top hat with pitch fork and the number “360.” At the bottom of the pitchfork’s staff is an upside-down cross. The members often carry white, light gray or black bandannas.

According to the FBI, Gangster Disciples is one of the most violent of four gangs that hang out on the Southside of Chicago.

The Vice Lord Nation is the oldest street gang in Chicago, followed by the Black Gangster Disciple Nation, today known as the Gangster Disciples.

Gangs in Chicago traditionally belong to one of two alliances — Folks or People, according to an FBI account. The alliances were established in the 1980s in the Illinois penal system to determine association and provide protection. The Folks and People are rivals.

Gangster Disciples, as a Folk gang, is a staunch enemy of the People gangs and of a network led by Vice Lord Nation.

Gang leaders recruit mostly young men and push some to join the military for several reasons: to garner strong leadership skills, obtain weapons or explosives, or transport drugs.

In El Paso, Texas, near the Army’s Fort Bliss base, for example, police and FBI officials noted an increase in military membership in a gang called Folk Nation.

Gang leaders ask young people to avoid criminal activity so they might enlist in the military, “and then once they’re in the military, they want them to try and gain access to weapons and explosives and basically try to filter that back to the street level,” Jeremy Francis, a special agent with the El Paso FBI, was quoted as saying in a report by KFOX-TV in El Paso.

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