The changing face of gangs

Feb. 18, 2005, midnight | By Sherri Geng | 15 years, 11 months ago

Dramatic increases in gang activity nationwide include a strong, rising female presence

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

A gun blow to the back of the head late last September. A wrecking at Wheaton Plaza in November that nearly ended in death. A brutal beating in June from those she now calls her closest family. A knife fight after a skipping party early last July.

Maria, a freshman, carries invisible scars from her gang life to school every day, the same way she wears the knife in her shoe, the blue bandanna under her foot and the small tattoo on her back that she earned after 13 minutes of being ruthlessly kicked and beaten. More convincing than any verbal promise or written contract, they remind her daily of the oath that she swore in June and serve as a testament not only to her strength but to a fierce devotion that she will be called upon to validate again and again. For Maria, the Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha 13 (commonly referred to as MS-13) is more than simply a large crew of friends or a link to the next big skipping party. Now, it has become her way of life.

The recent proliferation of gangs like the international MS-13 has garnered increasing attention in the past two decades,

with much of the focus being drawn now to the estimated 731,500 youths currently active in gangs nationwide, according to a 2002 National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) survey. Yet while few female faces are recognized as dominant players on the streets, girls like Maria are by no means unique, according to NYGC Director John Moore. Once considered as only trophies, troublemakers or inconveniences, females are now becoming increasingly powerful in a gang society where the winners are defined solely by brute strength: Female membership nationwide in gangs now hovers around 11 percent, according to the NYGC, although other recent reports place the figure at anywhere from four to 38 percent. Regardless of the numbers, says leading female-gang expert Joan Moore, one fact is becoming alarmingly clear: Underreported by police jurisdictions and long overlooked by researchers, girls have been silently changing the face of gangs.


Maria was in middle school when her best friend's brother arrived from El Salvador, where he had already joined the tightly-bound ranks of MS-13. As he began to make contacts in the U.S., she quickly gravitated towards him and his friends. Soon, she was attending parties and skipping school with them regularly.

Particularly for girls, this type of social force can be a strong pull into gang activity, says John Moore. "Girls probably have more social reasons [than boys]" for both joining gangs and forming all-female gangs, he explains. "[However], they both have a need for peer approval, friendship," as well as an excitement for being in a gang and doing things together.

Brenda, a sophomore, can attest to this. In the middle of ninth grade, she and her friends formed an all-female gang called PLC (Pandilleros ["Gangsters” in Spanish] Living Crazy). The 35-strong gang has dispersed now, but at the time, "we all had each other's backs," she says. The girls always wore black and gray bandannas, black shirts and blue jeans, and they met on Tuesdays and Thursdays to discuss "what we feel is wrong, what needs to be fixed" in the gang, she recalls - details like where, when and how to hold meetings. They were always ready to fight.

Nearly all research agrees that groups like PLC are proof that female gangs have begun to emerge for the same reason that male gangs did in the 1980s and 1990s: physical protection, often achieved by violent means. In PLC, says Brenda, the girls carried bats and knives for protection in case a rival gang wanted to fight. In MS-13, defending fellow gang members is an unspoken priority. "Because a lot of people start having it out with people and they turn their backs on you and they start threatening you, you gotta have back-up," Maria explains. "And [gangs]...that's the biggest back-up you can have."

Passing the test

Nearly all gang research agrees that it is this protection and security luring so many adolescents " both male and female " to join gangs. "The gang 'family' promises to give them all the things they want or need," Robert Walker writes in "Gangs OR Us: Gangsta Girls," a recent report on females in gangs. Often, these needs include a sense of belonging, protection or love.

According to Joan Moore and John Hagedorn's widely-referenced 2001 report, "Female Gangs: A Focus on Research,” these girls may also be victimized at home or elsewhere and thus will seek refuge in the security that gang life seems to provide. "Joining a gang can be an assertion of independence…from family," the report states.

Soon after being introduced to members of the gang, Maria found herself folded into the gang's exclusive circle of trust. "It came to a point where they were like, you know, we trust you. We want you to be with us. We want you to join," she says.

If accepted, the offer to join a gang is followed by an initiation ritual, usually violent. In PLC, all gang wannabes had to first answer a question correctly and then endure getting jumped by the entire gang of girls for 15 seconds. "If you don't [answer right], then I'm sorry; you don't get in," Brenda says. "You had to pass the test."

In another female gang at Blair, the girls developed an initiation process similar to PLC's, says Jessica, a current sophomore and former member. "We decided [that] if someone gets in, they have to get jumped; if someone gets out, they have to get jumped too," she describes.

In MS-13, the initiation process offers girls a choice between being raped by 27 male gang members in front of the three gang leaders or savagely beaten for 13 minutes with any objects at a gang member's disposal - "whatever they can find," says Maria. "If they can find sticks, they can beat you with the sticks. They can kick you. If you live through it, then you're in it. And that's how it goes."

For girls who choose the rape, the initiation then takes place not in an alley, where the beating takes place, but at a gang leader's house, where the leaders select the men who will rape the girl one by one. "They put three chairs, and you sit there, and you have to just have sex," Maria says. The physical torture of rape is compounded with the emotional pains of humiliation: Even after the painful initiation, these girls are held in lower esteem, says Maria. "You have your respect," she explains. "If you got through it, and you got beaten, you're real tough, and you get respect. If you have sex to get in it, they don't respect you as much."

According to "Female Gangs: A Focus on Research," such sexual exploitation of females is not uncommon and is a primary reason why female gang membership is such a serious social concern. In a Milwaukee gang, for example, males tricked female gang "wannabes" into believing that group sex was the initiation ritual when in fact it was not. After being sexually victimized, all "wannabes" were rejected from the gang.

In June, Maria chose to enter the gang the same way all males did: For 13 minutes, she lay sprawled on the ground while men and women stepped on her face and viciously kicked her legs, arms, body and head. At 10 minutes down, one girl found a stick and began to whip her back violently with it. Then just as suddenly, the pounding stopped, and hands reached out to pick her up, sit her down and bring her water. As she rested, she was given her tattoo (a small "13" inked on her back), along with other accessories marked only for MS-13 members: a gun or knife, a blue bandanna representing MS-13 colors, a belt, a shirt and pants.

"All right then, let's wreck”

Yet, girls in male-dominated gangs are often held at arm's length even if they, like Maria, have endured the same painful initiation as the men. This wariness stems from a general distrust of all females: The men "don't trust many girls because girls are not like guys; girls will backstab each other like anything," Maria offers as an explanation. "But guys, they do not put nothing over their friends - nothing. Nothing."

Less-respected and less-trusted than males, girls are also often perceived to be weaker and less capable in fights. "As an MS member you want to go represent your people, but sometimes they're just like, 'Oh, you're a girl; you can't do nothing - they're going to beat you up anyway,'" Maria says. "If we're just hanging out, and somebody calls up, and they're like, 'Oh there's a wrecking down at [some] mall, and we need you to be here; send three cars, and bring the guns and everything,'" she adds, the guys will turn to the girls and say, "Naw, y'all can't go because y'all too weak."

To earn the gang's complete trust even after initiation, girls must prove themselves tough enough to fight and win for their gang on the streets. Maria got an opportunity to do so at a skipping party a few months ago, after a group of girls threatened her best friend, who was not in MS-13. "We gonna get the VL on you," they told her friend, referring to a rival gang. Maria reported the threat back to other MS-13 members that night, and a fight was arranged between the two gangs for the next night.

Under the cover of darkness, the two groups met in front of Einstein High School in Kensington. Maria and her friend stepped out first and, fists balled, stood silently facing their opponents, nine girls from VL.

"All right then, let's wreck!" one of the nine shouted.

Maria bent down to retrieve the knife hidden in her shoe, and her friend twisted her hair " a sign for the rest of the pack to come out. Fifteen of Maria's girls stepped out from the car, each carrying a knife.

Concerned that the police would be called, the girls moved the fight from Einstein to a house nearby, where the fight began to dwindle as some girls were "carved" (cut by the knife) and others ran off. Then, the girl who began the entire fight approached Maria.

"I spit on MS," she said, and she spat in Maria's face.

Maria grabbed her knife and ran it across the girl's face.

As the girl began to bleed, Maria and her gang ran off. Later, when the girl threatened to press charges against Maria, the MS-13 clique from Wheaton threatened to kill her and her family, and the charges were dropped immediately.

For Maria, this carving was validation: She could now trade blows with the big boys.

Just like the boys do

Girls like Maria who can walk away from savage acts like carving or beating with little remorse are shocking gang researchers, who used to believe that females shied away from the violent aspects of gang life. "In general, female gang members commit fewer violent crimes than male gang members and are more inclined to property crimes and status offenses," reports "Female Gangs: A Focus on Research."

Yet John Moore sees the tide turning. "We have heard that females are becoming more violent in street fights and fights with other gang members," he says. Such instances may include females in male-dominant gangs proving themselves, like Maria, or all-female gangs proving that they are just as tough as the boys.

According to Brenda, PLC took pride in being exclusively female. "Girls don't need guys," she says. In any gang, she adds, "girls can do the same things as boys; girls can always be tougher."

Maria remembers one girl, Tanya, in MS-13 who at 17 had two children and was married to another MS-13 member. "She was one of the toughest girls - I've never met a girl like that," she recalls. "She did not even act like a girl. Physically she was just so tough; she did not care if it was like the biggest guy, all muscles and everything - she did not care. She still went against him if she had to."

Tanya is dead now, shot and killed at a fight several years ago. But Maria finds inspiration even in her death. "I loved her so much that I looked up to her,” she says softly. "I want to be like her, in the sense that I want people to have respect for me, like everybody has for her." Even men respected her, Maria adds, a rarity in the male-dominant MS-13 gang. At Tanya's funeral, "there were even guys that were just crying," she remembers. "You could not look at them, their eyes were so swollen from crying."

Research indicates that, like Tanya, most female gang members will have children. "Most male gang members also have children, but the consequences are greater for females," reports Joan Moore and Hagedorn in "Female Gangs: A Focus on Research." They must rear the children themselves, and if the children are born into the gang - not uncommon, as girls tend to date exclusively within the gang - they must choose between gang life and protecting their young.

Fortunately for most girls, marriage and motherhood will begin to eclipse the gang lifestyle, writes Walker in "Gangs OR Us: Gangsta Girls." Unfortunately for Tanya, gang life eventually won out. She left behind two children: one 5-year-old and one 3-month-old.

Getting out

Death is not uncommon on the streets, and when compounded with the harsh consequences of gang life, it is enough to make even the most devoted gang members second-guess their decisions. At Blair, a no-tolerance rule is enforced through the discipline policy: 10-day suspension, with recommendation for expulsion is given to any student who is suspected of gang activity. "[Principal Phillip] Gainous has taken a hard stance against gang involvement," warns Assistant Principal Patricia Hurley.

Outside of school, gang members face jail time if caught. One student, a friend of Maria's, was released from jail only one month ago after carving "MS-13" on an enemy's neck, and another, a former Blair student, is currently serving time for jumping and almost killing a man with a gun.

By the time PLC began to split up, Brenda had realized the futility of gang life. "You give bad impressions to everybody you know. It's not cute; they're like, 'You know, you're stupid for being in that. You got more important stuff to do,'" she says.

Maria has already begun having fears that her own family and future children will follow her path to a gang lifestyle. For all that she loves "her people," she hopes her younger sister will never join MS-13. "If something happens to my sister, I got her into it. They're not going to blame me, but it's going to be in my mind," she confesses. "The guilt is going to follow me forever."

Yet, Maria knows that her options are limited; trying to leave MS-13 is tantamount to tempting death, and gang members that try are tracked down and killed. Once you are in MS-13, she says, you are in for life. And often, particularly for girls, that is the most conflicting part of all.

If you know anything about gang activity, please call the Gang Task Force Hotline at (240) 773-4264.

Tags: print

Sherri Geng. Sherri Geng is a senior in the Magnet and SUPER excited for what promises to be another excellent year of Silver Chips! She has insane love for chocolate, sleep, funny people, and her big fat lovable dog Teddy, who is the smartest and most perfect … More »

Show comments


No comments.

Please ensure that all comments are mature and responsible; they will go through moderation.