Youth Gang Drug Trafficking and Homicide: Policy and Program Implications
by James C. Howell

The relationship between youth gang1 involvement in drug trafficking and homicide is poorly understood. Unfortunately, youth gang drug trafficking is characterized mainly by public perception rather than by scientific knowledge (Hunzeker, 1993; Jackson, 1997; Johnson, 1989). The predominant public image of the role of youth gangs in drug trafficking was established by a University of California study (Skolnick, 1990; Skolnick et al., 1988) conducted a decade ago.

The University of California researchers contended that two major Los Angeles gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, had become entrepreneurial and were expanding their drug trafficking operations to markets in other cities. They argued that gang violence spread with the presumed expansion of gang drug trafficking operations. The National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) (1994a, p. 1) reports "a noticeable spread of Bloods/Crips gangs across the United States in the late 1980's and early 1990's."

Most youth gang researchers argue that typical street gang structures are inadequate to organize and manage drug trafficking operations. Klein et al. (1991), Klein and Maxson (1994), and Decker and Van Winkle (1996) describe gangs as loosely confederated groups that generally lack cohesion. Besides Skolnick and his colleagues, however, other gang researchers such as Taylor (1990) and Sanchez-Jankowski (1991) describe gangs as formal, rational organizations with established leadership structures, roles, rules, and the kind of control over members that would enable gangs to organize and manage drug trafficking operations.

Some large youth gangs, such as Chicago's Vice Lords (Dawley, 1992; Keiser, 1969) and Black Gangster Disciples Nation (Block and Block, 1993), predominantly use and traffic in drugs. Drug-selling cliques also operate within gangs that are not predominantly drug gangs. There is no question that, in particular communities in certain cities, youth gangs are very actively involved in drug trafficking.

Studies also document youth gang drug wars. Two ongoing youth gang wars over drug markets in Chicago accounted for more than 100 homicides during 1987-1994 (Block et al., 1996). This total represents 11 percent of all gang-related homicides in Chicago in that time span. Another Chicago study (Venkatesh, 1996) documents the transformation of gang wars into drug wars in the Robert Taylor Homes Public Housing Authority.

Youth gangs tend to specialize in either violent or entrepreneurial activities (Block et al., 1996). Black gangs are relatively more involved in drug trafficking; Hispanic gangs, in turf-related violence; Asian and white gangs, in property crimes (Spergel, 1990). These observations are confirmed in an examination of 30 years of Chicago arrest data (Block et al., 1996). "Because gang activity tends to be specialized, and because Chicago gangs tend to be concentrated in particular areas of the city, Chicago neighborhoods differ in the degree to which they suffer from violent gang activity versus drug gang activity" (Block et al., 1996, p. 14).

This article examines whether drug trafficking is a leading cause of gang-related homicide and whether gang migration is a key factor in gang drug trafficking. The article also reviews other characteristics of youth gang homicide patterns, including the role of firearms. The article concludes with a discussion of promising strategies and programs.

Gang Drug Trafficking and Migration

One study has examined the presumed migration of youth gangs across the country to test the assumption that gangs have spread nationwide primarily to expand drug trafficking operations (Maxson et al., 1996). Of 1,105 surveyed jurisdictions, 710 reported some gang migration. The most common migration pattern for gang members involved moves for social reasons, including family moves to improve quality of life and to be near relatives and friends. Drug market expansion and pursuit of other criminal activities were said by law enforcement agencies to be the primary motivations in about one-third of the cities. Migrants usually arrived individually rather than with gang companions. Migration preceded emergence of local gangs in only 5 percent of the cities. The most predominant migration pattern was within the region. Respondents in a majority (60 percent) of cities experiencing gang migration said migrants typically came from within 100 miles of their city.

NDIC (1994b) conducted a Street Gang Symposium in 1994 that assembled 16 recognized street gang experts from State and local law enforcement agencies, rep-resentative of cities across the Nation. Although the symposium was not limited to youth gangs, it focused primarily on the Bloods and the Crips. The experts concluded that, in exceptional instances, some well-organized street gangs are engaged in interstate drug trafficking. As gang members relocate throughout the country for diverse reasons, their gang's drug trafficking connections are indirectly expanded. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials acknowledge that, although gang drug "franchising" exists, it is the exception -- not the rule. Their view is that when gangs such as the Crips and the Bloods travel to other States, it is generally to supply goods to homegrown gangs, not to set up their own operation. Consistent with the Maxson migration study (Maxson et al., 1996), FBI officials report that gang drug trafficking operations appear to be expanding from certain cities such as Chicago (Crime Control Digest, 1997).

Youth Gang Homicides and Drug Trafficking

Photo - graffitiStudies of youth gang homicides related to drug trafficking have been conducted in six cities: Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, and San Diego. The studies are reviewed below.

Los Angeles

Two Los Angeles studies focused specifically on gang involvement in cocaine trafficking and related homicides. Klein and his colleagues (1991) examined Los Angeles Police and Sheriff's Department data in communities in which both crack and gangs were prominent during the major growth in crack sales in Los Angeles during 1983 through 1985. Comparing gang and nongang homicides, they concluded that "the drug/homicide connection . . . is not basically a gang phenomenon" and that "the purported gang connection seems in most respects to have been considerably overstated" (pp. 646-647).

A subsequent study (Maxson, 1995) was conducted in Pasadena and Pomona, CA (midsize suburban cities outside Los Angeles), to test the popular perception that there is a close relationship between gangs, drug sales, and homicide. Violence was present in only 5 percent of the drug sale incidents. Firearms were involved in just 10 percent of the incidents and showed a decreasing presence over time. Gang involvement did not significantly increase the violence of drug sales.

Other youth gang-related homicide studies conducted in Los Angeles have focused more on all types of drug trafficking. The first of these studies (Meehan and O'Carroll, 1992), covering the period 1986-1988, found that only 5 percent of gang-related homicides were related to narcotics. Only 11 percent of narcotics-motivated homicides involved gangs.

Hutson and his colleagues (1995) examined gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County during the 16-year period 1979-1994. The study found that while some gang-related homicides occurred secondarily to drug trafficking, drug transactions were not a major factor. In their study of drive-by shootings in the City of Los Angeles in 1991, Hutson and his colleagues (1994) analyzed arrest files and concluded that, "contrary to the general assumption, drug trafficking is not a major causative factor [of drive-by shootings]" (p. 326).


Miami media made a connection between gang activity and crack dealing (Inciardi, 1990). But Miami grand juries impaneled in 1985 to investigate the apparent increase in gang drug trafficking (and impaneled again in 1988 after a substantial increase in the number of gangs), found that youth gangs were not involved in crack dealing (Dade County Grand Jury, 1985, 1988).

St. Louis

In their St. Louis study, Decker and Van Winkle (1996, pp. 185-186) found most gang violence, including homicides, to be "expressive," retaliatory, or situationally spontaneous. Although some violence was related to protecting drug turf and disciplining customers, most erupted over seemingly petty acts -- disrespecting gang colors, stepping in front of another person, flashing gang hand signs, or driving through a rival neighborhood. "Whatever the 'purpose' of violence, it often leads to retaliation and revenge creating a feedback loop where each killing requires a new killing" (p. 186).


In their original Chicago gang homicide study covering the period 1987-1990, Block and Block (1993, p. 9) found that only 3 percent of gang-motivated homicides were drug related. This same percentage was revealed in the analysis of gang-motivated homicides for the period 1987-1994 (Block et al., 1996, p. 20). Block and Block (1993, p. 9) concluded that "the connection between street gangs, drugs, and homicide was weak and could not explain the rapid increase in homicide in the late 1980's."


Miller's (1994) analysis of Boston police arrest data covering 1984-1994 produced results similar to those in the Chicago and Los Angeles studies. Of 138 reported homicides categorized as "probably" or "definitely" gang related, only 10 percent involved drug use or dealing. Only 9 percent of 75 homicides categorized as "definitely" gang related involved drug use or dealing.

San Diego

The findings of Sanders' San Diego study (1994) may be an exception to those reported above. He reports that the rate of gang-related homicides in San Diego jumped from 3 to 11 per 100,000 population between 1985 and 1988. Sanders largely attributes this rise to an increase in crack cocaine wars, frequently involving Crips and Bloods, but occasionally involving other Los Angeles gangs. Sanders (1994) suggests that the increase in gang-related homicides is less related to traditional gang-motivated violence than to competition for money and turf in drug trafficking, although he does not present substantiating data.

Homicides Committed by Individual Gang Members

Homicides committed by individual gang members may be as prevalent as those committed in conjunction with the gang. Whether a study counts only gang- motivated homicides or gang-related events (in which a gang member need only be involved in some capacity) can make a big difference in the result.2 Using Chicago and Los Angeles data, Maxson and Klein (1990) showed that the motive-based police arrest records in Chicago produced homicide estimates only half as large as those produced based on the member-based police record criterion used in Los Angeles. Large jurisdictions use either gang-related or gang-motivated criteria in about equal proportions, while small jurisdictions tend to use the narrower gang-motivated criterion (Johnson et al., 1995).

Block and her colleagues (1996) note that there could be an indirect relationship among homicides, drug offenses, and gang activity. Many of the gang-related homicides might not have occurred if the drug markets did not exist and routinely bring members of opposing gangs into contact with one another. These incidents are not included in Chicago arrest data because police used the narrower, gang-motivated criterion.

Youth Gangs and Adult Criminal Organizations

Youth gang studies have provided little information about the adult criminal organizations that manage and control drug trafficking operations. The relationship between drugs and violence is widely accepted in such adult criminal organizations as drug cartels and prison gangs (General Accounting Office, 1989, 1996). In some instances, however, it is difficult to distinguish these adult criminal organizations from youth gangs (see Klein, 1995, pp. 122-126 and Spergel, 1995, pp. 129-141 for excellent discussions of this issue).

Spergel (1995, p. 81) suggests that there is some indication that particular street gang cliques might be integrated into some criminal organizations. But Fagan (1996, p. 74) contends that this is not a predominant pattern. Like Hagedorn (1994a, 1994b), Klein (1995), and Moore (1990), Fagan argues that there is no evidence to support the notion that criminal organizations might be integrating youth gangs into their organizational structures; rather, this transition involves individual young gang members, not groups. NDIC (1994b) concluded that most street gangs are involved in drug trafficking to some extent, generally as a street-level distribution network, both individually and in small groups. Such trafficking is frequently self-serving; that is, the participants retain the profits and do not distribute them to others within the gang.

Gang Homicide Patterns

Photo - Mural paintingBlock (1985, 1993) discovered that gang homicides occur in spurts and are clustered in limited areas of Chicago, probably reflecting periods of intense competition over the expansion and defense of gang territory along a border. In addition to territorial disputes, the "expressive" aspect of gang violence involves impulsive and emotional defense of one's identity as a gang member, defense of the gang and gang members, defense and glorification of the gang's reputation, and recruitment of gang members. Once a spurt ends, the homicide level recedes, but to a level higher than it was previously. Spurts usually are not citywide but occur in specific neighborhoods and involve specific street gangs. In Chicago, this means that street gang victimization patterns differ by racial and ethnic group. Peaks in gang homicides tend to correspond to a series of escalating confrontations, usually over control of territory -- either traditional street gang turf or an entrepreneurial drug market (Block and Christakos, 1995).

During the 1980's, a period of sharply increasing gang homicides in Chicago, the most dangerous areas were along disputed boundaries between small Latino street gangs (Block et al., 1996). Generally, the drug-motivated gang homicides seemed to be concentrated in areas where a drug "hot spot" intersected with a turf "hot spot." However, spatial analysis indicates that a "marauder" pattern is common, in which members of rival gangs travel to the hub of their enemy's territory in search of potential victims (Block et al., 1996).

As Horowitz (1983) explains, "In seeking to protect and promote their reputation, gangs often engage in prolonged 'wars,' which are kept alive between larger fights by many small incidents and threats of violence." One gang may claim "precedence, which means that the other group must challenge them if they want to retain their honor and reassert their reputation" (p. 94).

Based on his analysis of gang violence in St. Louis, Decker (1996) delineates the following seven-step process that accounts for the peaks and valleys of gang violence:

  1. Loose bonds to the gang.
  2. Collective identification of threat from a rival gang.
  3. A mobilizing event (possibly, but not necessarily, violence).
  4. Escalation of activity.
  5. Violent event.
  6. Rapid deescalation.
  7. Retaliation.

Decker argues that most gang violence is retaliatory -- a response to violence (real or perceived) against the gang. He suggests that the perceived need to retaliate with violence helps explain the increasing sophistication of weapons used by gang members. The ensuing arms race is predicated on the belief that rival gangs have guns. Because gang members wish to avoid deficient firepower in a shootout, there is an escalation in securing and using guns (Horowitz, 1983; see also Block and Block, 1993; Strodtbeck and Short, 1964).

The Role of Guns in Gang Homicide

The growing use of increasingly lethal weapons in gang assaults has been driving gang homicides for the past 10 to 15 years. From 1987 to 1990, virtually all of the increase in Chicago's gang-motivated homicides appears to be attributable to an increase in the use of high-caliber, automatic, or semiautomatic weapons (Block and Block, 1993, p. 7). The Blocks found that gang homicides increased during a period in which there was no increase in street gang assaults, indicating that the lethality of weapons (deaths per incident) accounted for the greater number of homicides (see also Zimring, 1996). In Los Angeles, the proportion of gang-related homicides involving firearms increased from 71 percent in 1979 to 95 percent in 1994 mainly because of the increased use of handguns, particularly semiautomatic handguns (Hutson et al., 1995).


A preeminent gang researcher (Miller, 1974, p. 112) made this observation: "It happens that great nations engage in national wars for almost identical reasons [that gangs do] . . . personal honor, prestige, and defense against perceived threats to one's homeland . . . When a solution to this problem [of fighting nations has been found], we will at the same time have solved the problem of violent crimes in city gangs."

More attention should be focused on solving youth gang problems. The priority should be youth gang homicides, which appear to be increasing. Although national data are not currently available on youth gang homicides,3 it appears that they may not be following the national homicide pattern, which is in a downturn. From 1990 to 1993, the number of gang-motivated homicides in Chicago "escalated far more than ever before," while other types of homicides in the city increased only slightly or declined (Block et al., 1996, p. 9). The annual number of street gang-motivated homicides in Chicago increased almost fivefold between 1987 and 1994 (Block et al., 1996). Gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County more than doubled from 1987 to 1992 (Klein, 1995).

Those designing programs and strategies to prevent and reduce youth gang homicides should consider the following observations:

Bullet First, some gang homicides are directly related to drug trafficking. Although most gang drug wars appear to involve adult criminal organizations, some involve youth gangs. These gangs often take part in drug-related homicides, especially during ongoing gang wars.
Bullet Second, most youth gang homicides appear to be integrally related to everyday gang life. Decker (1996) organized gang activities into a sequence of events that culminates in gang violence and homicide. He illustrates how these evolutionary steps produce spurts of gang violence, which Block and her colleagues (1996) documented in Chicago. This is the main collective (i.e., group dynamic) aspect of gang violence, which spreads throughout a gang and from one gang to another in a community.
Bullet Third, drug trafficking is an indirect aspect of gang violence. Although studies indicate that drug trafficking is an infrequent cause of gang homicide, the existence of gang drug markets provides a context in which gang homicides are more likely to occur. Most youth gang homicides involve intergang conflicts, and drug markets bring rival gang members into proximity with one another.
Bullet Fourth, the growth in youth gang homicides over the past decade is driven by increased access to and use of firearms and, particularly, more lethal weapons (automatic and semiautomatic firearms). The proportion of youth gang homicides committed with a firearm has been increasing; currently almost all of them involve firearms.

Promising Strategies and Programs

Photo - 2 boys with baseballSpace limitations preclude extensive discussion of program options (see Howell, in press, for a detailed historical review of program evaluations). Although no particular approach has been demonstrated through rigorous evaluation to be highly effective in preventing or reducing serious and violent gang delinquency, a number of promising strategies exist.

Preventing children and adolescents from joining gangs may be the most cost-effective long-term strategy. Evaluation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) Program has shown positive preliminary results (Esbensen and Osgood, 1997).

The Clinton Administration's Anti-Violent Crime Initiative has targeted violent and drug-trafficking gangs through the use of Federal, State, and local interjurisdictional task forces (see the Attorney General's Report to the President, 1995; General Accounting Office, 1996). The Attorney General (1995) reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration uses mobile enforcement teams (MET's), working with State and local law enforcement authorities, to dismantle drug organizations. The Houston MET was deployed in Galveston, TX, where a high rate of juvenile homicides was attributed to drug-trafficking problems caused by three street gangs. The MET arrested 17 gang members, 13 of whom were charged with violent crimes.

Vertical prosecution4 of gang criminal activity enhances the application of criminal justice sanctions, particularly when combined with multiagency investigation, prosecution, and sanctioning (Working Group on Gangs, 1996). The San Diego Jurisdictions United for Drug Gang Enforcement (JUDGE) program involved a multiagency task force of prosecutors, probation officers, and law enforcement that targeted drug-involved gang members. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (1997) has identified other promising program models for coordinating gang prosecution with juvenile justice systems. Multiagency gang task forces administered by police departments are also growing in popularity (for examples and results see Weisel and Painter, 1997).

Photo - 2 boys playing with swordsThe program model that proves to be most effective in long-term reduction of gang homicides is likely to contain multiple components incorporating prevention, social intervention, treatment, suppression, and community mobilization. Program components must be integrated in a collaborative approach and supported by a management information system and rigorous program evaluation. The Comprehensive Community-Wide Approach to Gang Prevention, Intervention, and Suppression Program developed by Spergel and his colleagues is the most comprehensive program model (see Thornberry and Burch, 1997). It contains 12 program components for the design and mobilization of community efforts by police, prosecutors, judges, probation and parole officers, corrections officers, educators, employers, staff of community-based agencies, and members of a range of grassroots organizations. Variations of this model are currently being implemented and tested in five sites with OJJDP funding.

Another version of this comprehensive model, the Gang Violence Reduction Program, has been implemented in Chicago and is showing very promising results in reducing gang violence, according to a preliminary evaluation (Spergel and Grossman, 1996). Targeting serious, violent, and chronic offenders (who are most likely to be gang members) for graduated sanctions can also be accomplished by implementing the OJJDP Comprehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders (Wilson and Howell, 1993).

A gang suppression model, the Boston Gun Project (Kennedy et al., 1996), is employing a "coerced use-reduction" strategy, targeting gun violence and violence prevention instead of the gangs themselves. To carry out its deterrence strategy, the Boston Police Department's Youth Violence Strike Force through Operation Night Lite uses probation and police officers and gang streetworkers, patrolling the streets in teams, to identify gang members, enforce conditions of probation, and increase sanctions for probation and parole violations. Evaluation results are not yet available, although a 5-year, 80-percent drop in gang homicides in the city has been reported (The White House, 1997).

Other gun control strategies appear to be promising. These include the restriction of access to guns by potentially dangerous individuals (Cook and Leitzel, 1996); supply reduction (Koper and Reuter, 1996); compensation for information leading to confiscation of illegal guns (Blumstein and Cork, 1996); use of metal detectors in schools (Kamin, 1996); parental permission for warrantless searches (Rosenfeld and Decker, 1996); and undercover purchases of firearms from adolescents, control of the supply channels, creation of ammunition scarcity, bilateral buyback agreements, and nonuse contracts with financial compliance incentives (Zimring, 1996).

Article References

James C. Howell is an Adjunct Researcher with the National Youth Gang Center in Tallahassee, Florida.

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