Small Wars Journal

The Threat of Street Gangs, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, and Domestic Terrorist/Extremist Groups with Military-Trained Members

Fri, 03/23/2018 - 8:28am

The Threat of Street Gangs, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, and Domestic Terrorist/Extremist Groups with Military-Trained Members

Carter F. Smith and Joshua Harms

Military-trained gang members (MTGMs) have been identified in every wartime period for the United States—from the Revolutionary War to the current conflicts. MTGMs in the military threaten the cohesiveness of military units and undermine the authority of military leadership. They use the military to further their criminal organization’s goals, whether distributing illicit drugs and weapons or recruiting like-minded service members. They are a clear threat to military discipline, bringing corrupt influences, an increase in criminal activity, and a threat to military family members on military installations. They also serve to depreciate the perceived value of the military installation in the civilian community. For communities adjacent to military installations, MTGMs add a level of dangerousness to the criminal community with their warfighter training. They also share the ability to remain undetected by law enforcement or members of the community, which allows their organization to thrive and grow unchecked. It is important to note that when we talk about military-trained gang members, we typically mean not only street gang members but also members of Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (OMGs) and Domestic Terrorist Extremist (DTE) groups (Smith, 2017).

Early gang members in colonial Boston included Ebenezer MacIntosh, head of the South Enders around 1764. A member of the militia, Mackintosh led the South Enders, when they looted the homes of government officials in protest of the Stamp Act of 1765. He was known as the South Enders’ “Captain General,” a militia term used to denote supreme authority of an area or command (Smith, 2017).

Once the country was formed, militia leaders focused on defending against attacks by Indians (Native Americans). Captain Samuel Mason commanded Fort Henry, in what is now known as West Virginia, as part of the Virginia State Militia, in 1777. After his service he led contingents of both river pirates, stealing cargo and killing settlers traveling along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and later land pirates, who robbed and attacked merchants on their return trips home across the Natchez Trace (Smith, 2017).

In the late 1840s, after the Mexican-American War, many gang members were transplanted by the military from New York to San Francisco just prior to the Gold Rush. Those early MTGMs, known as the Hounds, were hired by local business leaders to return runaway sailors for $25 a head. The sailors abandoned their ships for the gold mines as soon as they arrived in port, and the bottleneck of hundreds of ships prevented others from bringing their cargo to the area. The Hounds later renamed themselves the Regulators and preyed on “foreigners” as a nationalist DTE (Smith, 2017).

While running his self-named gang in New York City, Edward Eastman used many aliases, but was best known as “Monk” Eastman. His gang and the Five Pointers engaged in many street battles and were surely the first to conduct drive-by shootings. In 1917, Eastman enlisted in the 106th Infantry of the New York National Guard and fought in the trench warfare in France during the World War (WWI), When his military service ended, the governor of New York restoring his citizenship in full. Eastman did not change his ways, however, and was murdered in 1921 while selling bootleg alcohol and drugs. He was buried with full military honors (Smith, 2017).

More recent examples of MTGMs in street gangs include Jaime Casillas and Andrew Reyes, soldiers at the National Guard Armory in El Cajon, California. Reyes and Casillas sold military property including firearms, body armor plates, and ammunition to an undercover agent, who told the pair they were procuring weapons for drug traffickers in Mexico. In all, Casillas and Reyes sold six rifles, one pistol, body armor plates, ammunition, and magazines, for a total of $15,450. The National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC) (2017) has reported affiliations between several street gangs and Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs).

The Hells Angels and Outlaws were formed prior to Vietnam War.  Several of the major U.S. OMGs were founded by Vietnam veterans. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), the Pagans are the only major OMG not started by military veterans (2010). Examples of recent MTGMs in OMGs include a Fort Carson soldier arrested for shooting a civilian after a fight at the Sin City Deciples (sic) clubhouse and two Fort Bragg soldiers who robbed and assaulted a civilian that were members of the Ruff Ryders MC (CID, 2013). In September 2010, the Department of Justice Organized Crime Program designated the Hells Angels as a “Highly Prioritized Organized Crime Group.” In March 2013, the Vagos, Bandidos, Mongols, and Pagans were added to the list. The NGIC has reported affiliations between several OMGs and Mexican DTOs.

Noteworthy examples of recent criminal activity by MTGMs in DTEs range from police assassinations to crowd attacks with a vehicle. On July 7, 2016, Micah Johnson, a former member of the Houston chapter of the New Black Panther Party (NBPP), shot 14 police officers in Dallas, Texas, killing five at a Black Lives Matter protest (Fernandez, Perez-Pena, & Bromwich, 2016). Johnson, an Army Reservist, served in Afghanistan from November 2013 to July 2014. The NBPP is a black separatist DTE. On, August 12, 2017, James Fields drove his vehicle into a crowd of people that included counter protesters at a white nationalist "Unite the Right” march in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally was held to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Fields was said to have a "fondness" for Adolf Hitler and Nazis (Bromwich and Blinder, 2017). Fields was in the Army for 4 months, typically the length of basic and advanced training.


The U.S. Department of Justice (2016) defines street gangs and OMGs the same. As of March 1, 2017, the definition was (1) an association of three or more individuals; (2) whose members collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity which they use to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation frequently by employing one or more of the following: a common name, slogan, identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or other physical marking, style or color of clothing, hairstyle, hand sign or graffiti; (3) the association’s purpose, in part, is to engage in criminal activity and the association uses violence or intimidation to further its criminal objectives; (4) its members engage in criminal activity, or acts of juvenile delinquency that if committed by an adult would be crimes; (5) with the intent to enhance or preserve the association’s power, reputation, or economic resources; (6) the association may also possess some of the following characteristics: (a) the members employ rules for joining and operating within the association; (b) the members meet on a recurring basis; (c) the association provides physical protection of its members from other criminals and gangs; (d) the association seeks to exercise control over a particular location or region, or it may simply defend its perceived interests against rivals; or (e) the association has an identifiable structure.

The U.S. Code (Title 18, Section 233(5)) defines Domestic Extremists as those who engage in activities known as domestic terrorism, that—(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or of any State; (B) appear to be intended—(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. Because of the multiple and potentially confusing uses of the terms terrorist and extremists, in addition to other qualifiers that may or may not be used consistently by all U.S. government entities, unless inappropriate based on definition or context, we will use the term Domestic Terrorist Extremist (DTE) to identify such groups and their members.

A Military-Trained Gang Member (MTGM) is defined as a street gang, prison gang, OMG, or DTE group member per the applicable jurisdiction's definition, with military training or experience, as perceived by a reasonable, typical, police officer (Smith, 2017). MTGMs display indicators that they received military training either directly or indirectly. Indicators of military training include the use of military tactics, weapons, explosives, or equipment to conduct gang activity, and the use of distinctive military skills, particularly if gang members are trained in weapons, tactics, and planning, and then pass the instruction on to other gang members. Military tactics include the techniques and strategies taught in a variety of military occupational specialties, ranging from tactical assault to organizational leadership strategies (Smith, 2017).

The Fiscal Year 2016 Gang and Domestic Extremist Activity Threat Assessment (GDEATA) by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigations Command (CID) (2017) was the most recent official report available. The report identified the threat posed by gangs and DTEs on Army Installations as LOW, based on the number of gang and DTE-related reports as a percentage of all felony investigations. The report also assessed the threat of gangs and DTEs in the communities surrounding military installations as LOW. The 2016 CID assessment appeared to contradict the information in this article in that regard.  Additionally:

  • The report observed the threat of gangs and DTEs seeking to capitalize on the skill development opportunities was well documented, although unsupported by actual documented facts.
  • The 2016 GDEATA identified 26 street gang, 10 OMG, and 2 DTE investigations (Law Enforcement Reports), in addition to over 250 intelligence reports indicating some activity that either was not a felony or was not within the investigative jurisdiction of the Army CID.
  • The report verified the presence of military-trained members in the street gangs, OMGs, and DTE groups identified by the respondents, in addition to many others.

There has never been a longitudinal analysis of efforts, failures, and successes from year to year made public by the CID, yet the reports have been produced since 2005.

Research Related to Gang Members in the Armed Forces

At present, the literature lacks much research regarding the presence of MTGMs in communities. Limited research has been conducted on MTGMs in the community (Smith, 2011; Smith and Doll, 2012; Smith, 2015). The Military Criminal Investigative Organizations (MCIO) - the CID, Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), and Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) - have identified military personnel with gang membership or affiliation in every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces (NGIC, 2013). While military laws prohibit active membership, street gangs, OMGs, and DTE groups all have members who have or are enlisted in the armed forces. Gang members and associates may join the armed forces in order to get away from the gang lifestyle and the criminal temptations associated with it. They may also join to try to acquire military training and access to weapons and sensitive information (NGIC, 2013).

The authors of the 2006 U.S. Army Gang Activity Threat Assessment (GATA) reported an increase in both gang-related investigations and incidents in 2006 over previous years. That was the first semi-proactive focused effort by the U.S. military since 9/11. The report did little to distinguish the types of gangs with members in the military. More recent investigations have yielded much the same results. In the FY2011 Gang and Extremist Activity Threat Assessment (GEATA, recently adding the word Domestic to make it GDEATA), the CID (2012) started distinguishing Street Gangs from OMG and DTE groups in their annual reports. No explanation was made for the adjustment.

According to the 2015 NGIC report on gang activity in the U.S., military-trained gang members (MTGMs) pose a serious threat to law enforcement and to the public. They learn combat tactics in the military, then return home to utilize those skills against rival gangs or law enforcement. Military training of individual gang members could ultimately result in more sophisticated and deadly gangs, as well as deadly assaults on law enforcement officers. Additionally, armed forces members’ access to weapons and their perceived ability to move easily across the U.S. border may render them ideal targets for recruitment (NGIC, 2015).

The NGIC has included MTGMs in their periodic reports on gangs, and recently found that known or suspected gang members in over 100 responding jurisdictions had sought or obtained employment in the military or a public criminal justice field in the previous two years (2015). Employment with the U.S. military ranked as the most common, followed by corrections. This research was conducted to examine the presence of military-trained gang members in jails and community corrections.

Street Gang Members in the Armed Forces

According to the 2015 NGIC report on gang activity in the U.S., gangs seek employment within the military as a way to secure power. The report observed that MTGMs pose a serious threat to both law enforcement and the public, as they learn combat tactics, increasing the likelihood of a deadly assault on law enforcement officers (NGIC, 2015).

In the most recently examined CID GDEATA, that of fiscal year (FY) 2016 (CID, 2017), 26 felony reports of investigation and 43 criminal intelligence reports involved members of street gangs. Drugs were the focus of 11 of the investigations and 3 were homicide-related. There were 45 soldier subjects identified, and 7 of them had SECRET Clearances (CID, 2017).

In their 2017 report, the NGIC highlighted prosecutions involving two street gangs that indicate significant participation by MTGMs in major street gang activities. In January 2017, the Richmond County District Attorney’s Office in California indicted 17 members of the Loyalty Over Everything (LOE) gang under the RICO Act for crimes ranging from murder and armed robbery to drug distribution and witness tampering. One of the suspected members was an active member of the military. In May 2017, federal prosecutors obtained indictments for 83 members of the Nine Trey Gangsters set of the United Blood Nation (UBN) gang. One of the suspects was an active duty military member. The NGIC also reported several connections between street gangs and Mexican DTOs, namely the partnership between the Sinaloa Cartel and various factions of the Crips, Gangster Disciples, Norteños, and Sureños. The Gulf Cartel and the Zetas were also known for their street gang affiliations.

Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Members in the Armed Forces

OMGs and their support clubs actively recruit active-duty military personnel for their knowledge, reliable income, tactical skills and dedication to a cause. According to the ATF, a large number of support clubs have recruited active-duty military personnel and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) contractors and employees (2010). OMG members have represented their gang by flying (wearing) their colors while serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations where service members are deployed across the globe.

According to the 2015 NGIC report, OMGs have successfully gained access to military installations; recruited several active duty military personnel; and associated regularly with active duty military personnel. Additionally, the ATF reported that OMG members have been employed as federal employees and contractors, active duty military, reservists, and National Guardsmen, which has enabled growth of their criminal organization (NGIC, 2015).

According to the International Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigator’s Association (IOMGIA), for every OMG member there are an estimated 10 associates. The NGIC (2015) noted that street gangs and extremist groups serve as significant recruiting pools for OMGs, with approximately equal recruitment from each category. Especially noteworthy was the observation that Black OMGs were known to recruit members from street gangs.

In the FY2016 GDEATA, 10 of the felony investigations and 202 criminal intelligence reports involved OMGs with 207 soldier subjects identified. The investigations involved the offenses of robbery, theft, drugs, and firearms. Three of them had SECRET Clearances (CID, 2017).

The 2017 NGIC Report noted in September 2017, a military service member was arrested for involvement in a gang-related homicide that resulted in the death of two individuals affiliated with the Outcast MC. The service member was a pledged member, or prospect, of a rival gang, the Thunderguards MC. The NGIC also reported connections between several OMG and Mexican DTOs, namely the partnership between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Hells Angels, Mongols, Sons of Silence and Vagos MC. The Gulf Cartel and the Zetas are also known to have OMG affiliations.

Domestic Terrorist Extremists in the Armed Forces

The NGIC identified three main types of DTEs: Black Separatist extremists, Sovereign Citizen extremists, and White Supremacist extremists (2015). Black Separatist extremists are individuals or groups who seek a separation from the non-black U.S. population wholly or in part through the use of force or violence in violation of federal law. Sovereign Citizen extremists are U.S. citizens who reject their citizenship and seek to advance their beliefs through force or violence, in violation of federal law. White Supremacist extremists are driven by their belief in the superiority of the “white race.” Each of these groups work with gangs to facilitate illegal activity and advance their cause. Recruiting gang members enables these groups to expand and spread their doctrine (NGIC, 2015). Meanwhile, the gangs benefit by finding ways to justify or conceal their criminal activities. Approximately one-quarter of jurisdictions and 44 percent of correctional facilities reported gang members in their jurisdiction joined extremist groups. There was little mention of extremist groups in the 2017 NGIC report.

In the FY2016 GEATA, there were 2 DTE investigations and 9 criminal intelligence reports (CID, 2017). The DE investigations involved drug offenses and domestic terrorism. Thirteen soldier subjects were identified, and none had SECRET Clearances (CID, 2017).

Military Service and Criminal Activity

Military members with simultaneous membership in a gang or other criminal organization have a dilemma. On the one hand, they agree to support and defend the Constitution of the U.S. and obey the orders of the President and officers appointed over them (U.S. Department of Defense, 2007). That requirement usually prohibits criminal activity, but for those that are not dissuaded the increased level of dangerousness in the military or civilian community is likely to follow.

Relatively recent attention to the relationship between service in the military and desistance from criminal activity suggests there may be a link. Galiani, Rossi, and Schargrodsky (2009) examined the process of drafting young men into military service in Argentina. They looked at a cohort of males born between 1958-1962. Galiani et al. (2009) determined that military service increased the likelihood of developing an adult criminal record, both during peacetime and wartime. They identified positive effects of military service:

  • Military service teaches obedience and discipline, which can limit criminality
  • Military service might improve labor market prospects, preventing the inclination to commit property crime.
  • Military service serves to incapacitate young men from the ability to commit crimes while in the service.

Galiani et al. (2009) also proposed alternative, negative effects of military service:

  • Military service delays entrance into the labor market, limiting opportunities.
  • Military service provides firearms training, reducing the entry costs to crime.
  • Military service provides a social environment that is prone to violent responses.

Albaek, Leth-Petersen, le Maire, and Tranaes (2013) found that military service reduces the likelihood of criminality for those previously disposed to commit crime. In a study of Danish youth who were born in 1964 and drafted into the military while they were between ages 19-22, military service was found to reduce property crime for up to five years. Albaek, et al. (2013) found no effect on the commission of violent crime from military service, and no effect for the majority of draftees.

Teachman and Tedrow (2015) suggested that voluntary military service did not affect the risk of committing or being convicted of violent crimes. In the first study to focus on the effect of military service on crime in the twenty-first century, Teachman and Tedrow (2015) found that voluntary military service reduced the likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system, especially for men with a history of delinquent or criminal behavior prior to enlisting. They studied a cohort of men born between 1980 and 1984. Teachman and Tedrow (2015) found that voluntary military service significantly reduced the risk of committing or being convicted of non-violent crimes.

Finally, Boucai (2007) made the argument that active recruitment of criminals would provide a recruitment pool for the military and provide a disciplinary foundation on which individual criminal reform could be attempted. Boucai (2007) noted that the U.S. Armed Forces regularly provides waivers for recruits with misdemeanor and felony crimes on their record. Additionally, the enlistment process often depends on the recruit to tell the truth about their criminal history, as juvenile records may be off-limits. As a result, some service members enlist with criminal histories and neither request nor receive a waiver. Most of those service members do well to avoid committing crime during the term of their enlistment, Boucai (2007) noted, as military service has been shown to help reduce an individual’s criminal propensity (see, for example, Teachman & Tedrow, 2015). Why not, then, Boucai (2007) wondered, change the informal policy of allowing recruits with criminal history and actively solicit them?


The study was conducted to determine the perceived presence of military-trained gang members in jails and community corrections and to examine whether there was a relationship between the perceptions of sheriff’s deputies regarding the presence and a number of variables. A modified version of the Military Gang Perception Questionnaire (MGPQ) was used to collect data (Smith, 2011). On August 26, 2015, a survey was conducted of attendees at the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) FTO training conference in Pigeon Forge, TN. The survey instrument, the Modified Military Gang Perception Questionnaire (M-MGPQ), contained questions designed to identify the respondents’ perceptions of the presence of MTGMs in their jurisdictions. Questions were asked to assess indicators of MTGMs, whether they directly obtained the training or training was passed on by someone else who received the training directly, and the knowledge and sources of knowledge regarding MTGMs in the respondents’ jurisdictions.

The 274 professionals attending the 2015 conference were surveyed, with a final sample of 242 respondents. That response rate provided a 95% confidence level and a 2.16 margin of error. Most of the respondents (93.8) reported working at the local level, with a few (3.6%) at the state level. The majority (96.3) worked in corrections. Most (81%) had not served in the military. The average conference attendee was a white male with some degree of rank (Corporal or higher), 25-45 years old, with at least a high school diploma and no previous experience in the criminal justice system.

Survey Results

The primary questions were designed to determine the perception of the respondents regarding the presence of MTGMs in his or her community. The questions were as follows:

1) Gang members in my jurisdiction are increasingly using military-type weapons or explosives.

2) Gang members in my jurisdiction use military-type equipment (body armor, night-vision, etc.).

3) Gang members in my jurisdiction use military-type tactics.

4) Gang members in my jurisdiction commit home invasions.

5) Gang members in my jurisdiction commit armed robberies.

6) There are gang members in my jurisdiction that currently serve in the military.

7) There are gang members in my jurisdiction that have served in the military in the past.

8) Military representatives advise our department when gang members are discharged.

The results are summarized in Table 1.

Image 1.

Presence of Gangs in the Military

Street gangs, OMGs, and DTEs were represented by the MTGMs in respondents' jurisdictions (2014). Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, and Vice Lords were present in about half of the represented jurisdictions. The OMG with the highest (about half) representation was the Outlaws, and DTEs known as White Supremacists and Sovereign Citizens were reported in about the same percentages. Criminal investigations involving MTGMs included: Drugs, Sexual Assaults, Assaults, Weapon Smuggling, Homicides, and Robberies.

Most (49.7%) of the survey respondents reported 1-10% of the gang members in their jurisdictions were MTGMs. Some (20%) respondents estimated the number was over 11% (many up to 20%), and many (30.6%) reported none (0%) of their gang members were MTGMs. In response to a follow up question, most (56.4%) respondents reported the MTGMs in their jurisdiction received military training directly, as a member of the U.S. military. Some (39.8%) reported the MTGMs in their jurisdiction received military training indirectly, from a member or former member of the U.S. military. Few (9.8%) reported the MTGM they identified received training indirectly, from a member or former member of another military.


An index was created using the questions addressing military weapons, equipment, tactics, home invasions, armed robberies, military service, and past military service. With each of these factors a higher value (closer to strongly agree) indicated a greater threat. Additionally, this index accounted for the question regarding the percentage of gang members with military training. Again, a larger response would indicate a larger threat. When accrued these questions were used to create a 34-point scale measuring the perceived threat of MTGMs. The mean score for this scale was found to be 16.82, with a standard deviation of 4.28. Other descriptive statistics are found in Table 2.

Image 2.

It was expected that professionals with ample experience with gang members would view MTGMs as a greater threat and those without such experience would view them as a very minor threat. That would produce a binary distribution with very high and low values, but very few in the middle of the distribution. Surprisingly, that was not found to be the case. The skewness of the distribution was 0.13. It is actually safe to assume that the perceived threat is a normally distributed variable due to this value being so close to zero. However, to fully address the questions of the current study we sought to compare this scale with a number of other variables.

Image 3.

Graph 1: Severity of Perceived Threat

Bivariate Analysis

Four variables were thought to potentially influence the professional’s perceptions; their own military service, previous knowledge of MTGMs, function in criminal justice, and the level of government at which the individual is employed. The individual’s military service and previous knowledge of MTGMs were simply measured with binary questions (yes or no). The individual’s function in criminal justice was defined as either law enforcement or corrections. And various levels of government employees were represented in the sample.

Bivariate analysis was conducted using both independent sample t-tests and a one-way between groups analysis of variance (ANOVA). Table 3 shows the test used for each bivariate relationship and the said value of each test.

Image 4.

The only variable found to have a statistically significant relationship with the perceived threat was previous knowledge of MTGMs. On average, those with previous knowledge of MTGM scored 3 points higher than those without. However, what may be more noteworthy are those variables that did not yield statistically significant results. The level of government in which the individual was employed did not significantly impact the perceived threat of MTGMs. Nor was there a difference between law enforcement and correctional officers. Even personal military experience did not impact the perceived threat of MTGMs. That much uniformity was perhaps just as noteworthy as most statistically significant results as it was expected that someone with higher levels of government, working in the community, or with military experience might be better able to detect military training in gang members in their jurisdiction.

Recommendations for Future Research

Future research should be broadened to include other local, state and national participants. Surveys focusing on larger jurisdictions both adjacent to and distant from a military installation should be considered for additional research, as should jurisdictions with varying experiences with gangs and those considered more geographically diverse.

Additional studies should include states with a longer history of gang activity (e.g. Illinois, California, and New York), and states and cities with a shorter history of gang activity (e.g. Arizona, Oklahoma, and Georgia), as well as states outside of the southeast United States (e.g. Northeast, Midwest, and Northwest) and countries other than the United States, especially Canada, Mexico, El Salvador, and other Central American countries.  


The current study has revealed ample data to support the claim that MTGMs pose a real threat in our communities. Tests for statistical significance might not show that level of government employment, criminal justice function, and military experience signify significant differences in perceptions; however, the measurement of the threat of MTGMs showed that it is a constant in the views of criminal justice personnel. The normal distribution of this variable shows that it is not simply seen as a severe problem by a select few. Rather it is a problem perceived by many professionals. The most parsimonious analysis of the current data shows that more respondents than not see gang members with past or present military experience, using military weapons and tactics. This sufficiently shows the threat posed by MTGMs and the need for further inquiry.

Although the increasing number of military trained gang members is alarming news to both criminal justice practitioners and the community, the majority of the population does not realize that this trend is occurring, nor are they aware of the seriousness of the threat to the safety of the community.  One of the purposes of the current study was to promote the awareness of the MTGM problem in our society and encourage scholars and practitioners to conduct research concerning this issue in other states and countries and find strategies to control the problem or mitigate the effects. The hypotheses tests and correlations indicate that military leaders should pay more attention to the gang members in their unit and their whereabouts and have better communication with community law enforcement agencies since the presence of MTGMs is a significant predictor of serious and violent crimes. 

Military-trained gang members (MTGMs) have been seen in every wartime period since the founding of United States. Those who dismiss their existence or threat suggest the relatively small numbers are not significant. The dangerousness of the groups makes such dismissal ill advised, as it would be regarding cancer in one’s body or poison in one’s beverage. Even a small amount of either would likely provoke an instant action of removal, not an attempt to make light of the situation. Whether trained in combat arms, logistics, finance, or other military occupational specialties, the gang member with military experience should be considered more advanced and dangerous than the gang member without military experience, and the potential threat to law enforcement is significant.

Recommendations for commanders from the 2016 GDEATA included compliance with Army Regulation (AR) 600-20, and Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 1325.06, identifying soldiers engaged in gangs and DTEs and reporting them to military law enforcement, and reporting gang and DTE affiliation confirmed by other law enforcement agencies to the Soldier's security officer. We support those recommendations. Commanders should ensure there are designating persons in or accessible to their unit to screen new personnel for potential gang membership. New unit members who have gang affiliation may tattoo their bodies with gang symbols and wear clothing of a certain style or color to represent their group or they may be more advanced gang members, who cannot be so easily identified. Unit representatives and military police have public access to many resources to learn basic gang knowledge, while more advanced and current gang training is available for military law enforcement and criminal intelligence personnel.

Military leadership should continuously examine the activities of all suspected military gang members to identify active gang affiliation for retention or discharge purposes while evaluating the degree or extent of any gang affiliation for security clearances. Current policy guidance, specifically DoD Instruction 1325.6, prohibits military service members from active gang membership, yet the primary determination of such activity appears to be the presence of a criminal record. That was a systemic weakness, as not all gang members are detected and arrested by law enforcement each time they commit a crime. For service members requiring a security clearance, any identified gang affiliation in the recent past should be considered as potential grounds for disqualification, even passive or associate membership, unless accompanied by a complete and public renunciation of the gang and follow up evaluation by representatives of the appropriate medical and criminal justice authority.

Other 2016 GDEATA recommendations included having recruiters continue working with local law enforcement agencies and their gang units to identify gang and DE members in an effort to deny gang and DTE members entry into the Army. That would amount to a recruiter gathering criminal intelligence, which would not likely be provided by someone in law enforcement. Recruiters should neither be suggested nor expected to attempt to identify gang and DTE members. Recruiters can request criminal background checks, but most crimes are not reported or solved by law enforcement so only the incompetent or unlucky criminal gang member is likely to have a criminal record. Knowing someone is an active gang member and identifying a criminal record are not the same activity. A trained Military Police liaison should be used for that purpose.

The suggestion that CID offices and/or Military Police (MP) Investigators continue to participate in unit leader development training to increase awareness of gang, DTE, and other criminal threats was also made. Assuming they have a basic understanding of gang indicators and activity, that recommendation is supported. MTGMs might seek access to military-type weapons, ammunition, and explosives, as well as equipment. Periodic unit audits of inventory may limit access of these items to gang members. Enhanced security may serve as a way to verify the trustworthiness of unit members.

Responsible investigative units should coordinate and liaise with local law enforcement gang specialists and ensure they are aware of MCIO and DoD policies and contacts regarding the identification of gang members in or connected to the military. Regulations direct such activities to ensure that criminal investigative, or other information of mutual interest, is exchanged or disseminated (US Army, 2009). The MCIOs encourage federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to report information concerning military personnel in their communities who have suspected gang affiliations. MCIOs should ensure they report similar information to the supported communities.

Generally, it has been recommended that the term Security Threat Group (STG) be used to describe the groups identified in this report. STG is a term adapted from Corrections, specifically prisons and jails, and identifies the subculture referred to in this report. A typical STG is a group of three (3) or more persons with recurring threatening or disruptive behavior including but not limited to gang crime or gang violence (Knox, 2012). By identifying them as an STG, any recognition they may draw from publicity about their group or its activities is limited or eliminated. Also, the term accurately describes how these groups can impact the security of military operations and law and order.


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Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Joshua Harms, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice in the Department of Criminal Justice Administration at Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro, TN. Prior to his transition to full time scholarly interests Dr. Harms was a Field Officer with the Dallas County, TX Adult Probation Office. His research interests include Terrorism, Terror Financing, and Criminal Accomplices.

Carter F. Smith, J. D., Ph.D. is the Graduate Coordinator for the Department of Criminal Justice Administration at Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro, TN. As a U.S. Army CID Special Agent, Carter was involved in military and federal law enforcement for over twenty years and identified the growing gang problem in the military community in the early 1990s, later starting the Army’s first Gang & Extremist investigations team at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Carter received a Ph.D. from Northcentral University after completing his dissertation on military-trained gang members. He received a law degree from Southern Illinois University.  Carter has provided training on Gangs and their impact on the community to many gatherings and conferences, including those sponsored by the Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mid-Atlantic, Mississippi, North Carolina, Northwest, Oklahoma, Southern California, Southern Nevada, and Tennessee Gang Investigators Associations, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, the National Crime Prevention Council, the Regional Organized Crime Information Center, the National Gang Crime Research Center, the Southern Criminal Justice Association, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Army.  He has written many articles, consulted with several media outlets, written two textbooks on gangs, and has appeared twice in the History Channel’s Gangland series. He was a founding board member of the Tennessee Gang Investigators Association, a recipient of the Army CID Command Special Agent of the Year award and is a three-time recipient of the Frederic Milton Thrasher Award of the National Gang Crime Research Center. Carter recently published the book Gangs and the Military: Gangsters, Bikers, and Terrorists with Military Training.