By Matt Kennard
July 17, 2009
Gang-bangers know a lot about war – it's their raison d'être. But
until the 'war on terror' that expertise had never wholesale shifted
from the inner city to the U.S. military, from South Central to Baghdad.
According to the FBI's own National Gang Intelligence report,
released in January 2006, "Gang-related activity in the military is
increasing and poses a threat to law enforcement officials and
FBI gang investigator Jennifer Simon told Stars and Stripes, "It's no
secret that gang members are
prevalent in the armed forces, including internationally." She said
gang member had been documented on or near U.S. military bases in
Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Iraq.
In Iraq it's not uncommon to see armored vehicles, concrete
barricades and bathroom walls serving as canvasses for gang graffiti.
Signs like "GDN" for Gangster Disciple along with the gang's six-pointed star.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command reported 61 gang
investigations and incidents in 2006, compared to just 9 in 2004.
Some experts say that up to 2 percent of soldiers on active duty –
that's 20,000 – are members of a gang.
Scott Barfield is a former Defense Department gang detective. He told
the Chicago Sun-Times that he had identified more than 300 soldiers
at the base (what base?) as gang members. "I think that's the tip of
the iceberg," he said. "It's often in the military's best interest to
keep these incidents quiet, given low recruitment numbers and recent
negative publicity. The relaxation of recruiting standards, recruiter
misconduct and the military's lack of enforcement (gang membership is
not prohibited in the Army) have compounded the problem and allowed
gang member presence in the military to proliferate."
One infamous case of gang-related crimes in the U.S. Army took place
in Germany on the night of July 3 2005 when Sgt. Juwan Johnson was
battered to death by eight other soldiers as part of the initiation
rights in the 'Gangster Disciples'.
"I feel like I didn't prepare him enough to deal with this and I
should have," his mother said. "But how would I have known there were
gangs in the military? I could have had that talk with him."
A report in 2006 surfaced that a Marine reservist and Maniac Latin
Disciple gang member who had been in Iraq was being charged with
attempted murder in the shooting of three teenagers in Aurora, Ill.
The FBI report explicitly warns of this future saying that while
allowing gang members to service in the military may temporarily help
meet recruitment goals, U.S. communities will be faced with violence
and disruption as the soldiers return home to the inner-city streets.
Even while serving, a Milwaukee police detective tells the San
Francisco Chronicle, "Gang members are going over to Iraq and sending
The military itself recognizes it should have more of a handle on it.
"If we weren't in the middle of fighting a war, yes, I think the
military would have a lot control over this issue," said Hunter
Glass, a retired police detective in Fayetteville, North Caroline,
the home of Ft. Bragg and the 82nd Airborne. "But with a war going
on, I think it's very difficult to do."
The situation had got so bad in 2008 that when the military planned
to transfer 10,000 troops to Fort Bliss, Texas, the FBI feared a turf
war between "members of the FolkNation gang… [and] a criminal group
that is already well-established in the area, Barrio Azteca." The New
York Sun quoted an FBI agent as saying, "FolkNation, which was
founded in Chicago and includes several branches using the name
Gangster Disciples, has gained a foothold in the Army."
There have also been numerous reports of recruiters trying to cover
up the history of gang-members. In 2005 a Latin King member was
allegedly recruited into the Army at a Brooklyn, NY, courthouse,
while awaiting trial for assaulting a police officer. He was
allegedly told to conceal his gang affiliation, according to
journalist Rod Powers.
The reasons for gangs joining up are according to the FBI twofold;
first, some may enlist to escape their gang lifestyle. But more
plausibly members enlist to receive weapons, combat and convoy
support training; to get access to weapons and explosives, or as an
alternative to incarceration (gang-members have been offered clemency
in exchange for service). The 'moral waivers' being granted to felons
and other criminals undoubtedly compound the problem.