As a member of the US military, you learn many things: how to take apart a gun, how to survive a gas attack, even how to kill a man with your bare hands. It can, they say, be the making of you. But what happens when these skills are taught to the wrong people? When they’re taught to those who want to use them to undermine law and order, rather than to serve their country? That’s the battle that the American military seems to be fighting right now - and it’s hard to tell if they’re winning.
It’s actually a situation that’s been a problem for years, having started in the 1970s when neo-nazi gangs and white supremacists decided to start preparing for the "inevitable" race war. In October 2011, the FBI issued a warning that street gangs had now infiltrated “every branch” of the US military: “Members of nearly every major street gang, as well as some prison gangs and OMGs [organised motorcycle gangs], have been reported on both domestic and international military installations.” Among the evidence presented was photographs supposedly showing soldiers flashing gang signs and tagging vehicles in foreign battlefields.
At present, there are believed to be more than 33,000 gangs operating in the United States, with well over one million members. Defined by the FBI as an association of three or more people who engage in crime and are united by a group identity, such as tattoos or wearing a particular colour, they are believed to be involved in criminal activity on every level, from street crime to sex and drug trafficking. Among the most well known of these gangs are LA rivals the Bloods and the Crips, the notorious Hells Angels and MS-13, an El-Salvadoran criminal network that President Trump has vowed to target; all three of these are believed to have members actively serving in the military.
So what’s the draw? Isn’t the structure and discipline of military life inherently at odds with the lawlessness of gang life? Well, a large part of the allure is believed to be the access to high level combat training, something that’s making law enforcement officials very nervous, with the FBI warning that the skills obtained: “could ultimately result in more sophisticated and deadly gangs, as well as deadly assaults on law enforcement officers.” Add in the access to weapons - despite regular stock checks, over the past few years there have been repeated incidences of rifles, grenades and body armour going missing, only to reappear on the streets - and you’ve got a deadly combination.
The perceived "easier access" to supply routes and cross-border activity is also considered to be a drawing factor in gang activity within the military, as gangs increasingly turn their attention towards sex and drug trafficking in search of profit. In his 2012 book Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror, former soldier Matt Kennard explained that military-trained gang members have long been in particular demand along the Mexican border, with one report finding “40 Folk Nation gang members stationed at Ft. Bliss who had been involved in drug distribution, robberies, assaults, weapons offences, and even homicide.”
It is believed that the US Army, Army Reserves, and the Army National Guard are the most frequent targets for gang infiltration and these services are now taking a tough approach to suspected snakes: “Commanders are not required to wait until a crime occurs; they can take action based solely on evidence of active participation in a gang.”
In an effort to combat the issue, recruiters are also being asked to step up their efforts to spot potential gang members earlier on in the process by cooperating with local law enforcement, who are best placed to know and be able to spot gang members and markers.
However, it’s not necessarily as simple as that; given that it is often younger gang members with few or no criminal convictions, identifying tattoos or known gang affiliations that are pushed towards army life by their superiors, they can be hard to spot. There is also the problem of former gang members who have used the army to escape that are being drawn back into crime as they come into contact with old associates. Both of these instances create a catch-22 dilemma: By giving people the benefit of the doubt you risk exacerbating this situation, but by barring them, you effectively ban them from the chance to turn their life around and do something honourable for their country.
Against a backdrop of an increasingly divided America, the knowledge that the military services may be unwittingly training gang members for a life of crime will undoubtedly add further fuel to the fire for those who want to “build the wall”. But the truth is that gang life can be easy to be drawn into and hard to break out of, the latter being an opportunity that the military has successfully provided time and time again. So, rather than cracking down at army level, surely it's better to focus more time and effort in stopping young people becoming involved in gangs in the first place?
Featured illustration by Egarcigu