Need to belong seen as factor in pushing some servicemembers to join gangs
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Being in a gang could provide soldiers with feelings of power, money, discipline, identity and friendship, and leaving the gang is never easy, experts say.
Hunter Glass, a former 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper who lectures police and government officials on problems with gangs in the military, said he first encountered military gang members from Fort Bragg, N.C., when he was a police officer in Fayetteville in the 1990s.
Glass said American street gangs are spreading throughout the world, a phenomenon likely to be fueled as military gang members deploy overseas.
“Gangs are infectious. You can see people emulating them in Japan or Europe. There are Crips in Germany and American street gangs such as Chicago’s Latin Kings and Puerto Rico’s Metas in Spain.
“MS-13 started in Los Angeles, then exploded in Central America before coming back to the States,” he said. “I’ve talked to people from the Netherlands who are worried about the influence of American gangs on young people entering their military.
Crimes committed by soldier gang members in the United States are generating negative publicity for the armed forces because people don’t associate the criminals with the gangs they join, but rather with their branch of the armed services, Glass said.
And, although not all gang members are bad people, it is a risk to enlist them in the armed forces, he said.
“If you belong to a religion that promotes theft, drug sales and the subjugation of other people, you aren’t going to change just because you join the military,” he said.
According to Maj. Robert Ray, provost marshal in Vilseck, people join gangs for a variety of reasons, including identity or sense of belonging to a group, discipline to gain or regain self-control, recognition not only from their peers but as a status symbol to others, love, belonging, sharing common bonds with people who share their beliefs, and money.
Glass said camaraderie is a big incentive for people to join gangs within the military.
“People say you have camaraderie in the Army, but the Army is huge. You’re just a number in the military just like in high school,” he said.
“Being in a gang gives you people to hang out with and a form of power, and all humans love power. You have connections, and if you say you belong to a group … such as the Gangster Disciples, you know they are going to be at the next post or the next town,” he said.
For example, a member of the Crips gang from Los Angeles might join the military then seek out fellow Crips when he reaches his first duty station, he said.
Some people join the military to get away from gang life, Glass added.
“Sometimes they stay away from it. Others join the military and get to their duty station and don’t know anybody else and a guy throws a gang sign. Then he knows somebody and has something in common. The next thing you know, he finds himself back in it,” he said.
“When a gang member goes home, he is reindoctrinated into that society like an alcoholic returning to a bar,” Glass said.
Crime among military gang members overseas runs the gamut from intimidation to theft of government property, Glass said, citing examples of soldiers who have stolen weapons and body armor while in Iraq, and then used it in gang crimes after returning to the United States.
“Is every gang member who joins the military a bad guy? No, but the potential for an explosion is high. It’s not unusual when there are major crimes committed in the military for a Gangster Disciple to be involved,” he said.
The military takes its gang problem seriously, he said.
“The Air Force has truly been very aggressive towards this. They have contacted me on numerous occasions. The Marine Corps knows they have them and is also aggressive about doing something about it,” Glass said.
“With the Navy and the Army, they are incredibly large organizations. There are important people who are very concerned and then there are guys who say, ‘Look, we are fighting a war and I don’t want to know about it.’
Related stories¶ FBI says U.S. criminal gangs are using military to spread their reach¶ Army says gangs not a threat to community¶ Chicago gang's influence seen spreading globally¶ Affiliation with a gang isn't a crime under military law
Gangs believed to seek training, arms
According to some experts, certain gangs have sent members or potential members into military service. The purpose, those experts say, is to get weapons training and to gain access to dangerous materials.
In recent years, there have been numerous examples of military materials or training being used in crimes allegedly committed by gang members. Among them, according to media reports:
¶ A series of commando-style bank robberies in the Washington, D.C., area in 2004. Last summer, investigators in the case said the fully automatic assault rifles used in the gang-related robberies were smuggled out of Iraq by an Army reservist, who sold them to the gangs.
¶ In 2005, a trio of airmen based at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., were apprehended after local police arrested a gang member clad in an Air Force-issued bulletproof vest. The airmen had stolen the vest from the base and sold it for $100.
¶ In March 2004, two Fort Campbell, Ky., soldiers were caught trying to sell 18 machine guns to street criminals. An undercover agent caught them trying to sell the weapons for $1,000 each.
¶ According to The Associated Press, Marines from the Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station in South Carolina traveled to Columbia at least four times last year in attempts to recruit teens into their gang. Four Marines from the air station and 14 others were arrested on gang-related charges.
¶ According to the Chicago Tribune, a member of the Latin Kings gang who had been charged with murder and robbery in 2005 almost ended up in the Marine Corps. Jose A. Ramirez had offered to go to Iraq with Marines instead of facing the charges, and unbeknown to prosecutors, signed up at a recruiting station. It wasn’t until he was about to ship off to boot camp that the Marines uncovered his background and kicked him out.
¶ In May, Chicago police officers stopped a vehicle and found 10 military flak jackets inside. A professed gang member in one of the vehicles eventually confessed he’d gotten the material from his brother, a Marine in Iraq.
— Stars and Stripes