Gangs Increasing in Military, FBI Says

A group of nine gathered, ready for an initiation.

Juwan Johnson of Baltimore, Md., willingly took a savage beating to join the Chicago-based gang Gangster Disciples. He was punched, kicked and stomped until he was barely conscious. After the beating, his new brothers put Johnson back in bed where he later died from his injuries.

This did not happen in a back alley of a gang-infested urban city. It took place at Kaiserslautern Army Base in Germany.

In 2005, the decorated 25-yearold Army sergeant was killed after completing a tour of Iraq because he wanted to join a gang -- one he found while in the military.

According to an FBI published report, "gang-related activity in the U.S. military is increasing and poses a threat to law-enforcement officials and national security."

The report, released in February 2007, noted that members of nearly every major street gang -- including MS-13, Bloods, Crips, 18th Street, Hells Angels and various white supremacist groups -- have been identified on both domestic and international military bases.

"It really is not secret that gangs are in the Army," said Hector Ordonez, 39, a former resident of Victorville who was in the Army from 1989 to 1994. "There were a few guys in my unit from Los Angeles and a couple from Chicago."

"We don't have that issue out here," said John Wagstaffe, director of public affairs for Fort Irwin. "It surprises me, based on the fact that we are so close to L.A."

Wagstaffe went on to say that most gang members tend to be younger and because of the high number of officers at Fort Irwin, it was not a problem.

There are no official statistics on gang membership in the military, but some experts have estimated that 1 to 2 percent of the U.S. military are gang members, FBI gang investigator Jennifer Simon said in a published article. It is believed that only .02 percent of the U.S. population are gang members.

"Gang membership in the U.S. Armed Forces is disproportional to the U.S. population," she added.

Some experts have calculated that out of every 100 people who enter the military, two have some sort of gang affiliation.

One reason why more gang members are getting into the military is recruiting practices.

"As this war continues, recruiters have to drop their standards," said retired Los Angeles County Sheriff Sgt. Richard Valdemar, who is a gang expert and trains various law-enforcement agencies across the country about gangs and gangs in the military.

Valdemar attributes this to variances.

"This is where (recruiters) are allowed to break the rules of recruitment, and this happens mainly in the Army and the Marines," Valdemar commented.

Between 2003 and 2006, the Armed Forces permitted 4,230 convicted criminals into the Army, according to an investigation by the Michael D. Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Also admitted during that time were 58,561 people with drug use.

"As to recruiter impropriety, our practice is not to condone it," said Lt. Col. George Wright with the Army Public Affairs office in Washington, D.C. He went on to say that the number of known gang members is not a demographic group for which the Army keeps statistics.

In the Army, allowable offenses include making threats and kidnapping, according to Army Regulation 601-210.

According to a fact sheet released by the U.S. Armed Forces, since 2003 there have been at least 104 gang investigations conducted by the Criminal Investigation Command Department since 2003.

"The number of gang-related felonies continues to be an extremely small percentage of the overall number of CID investigations Army-wide," according to the statement.

But some gang experts see that number as flawed.

"That is because most military bases don't have the expertise to identify gang members," Valdemar said. "Also, most of the gang activity occurs off base."

As evidence of this fact, Hunter Glass, a former police detective in Fayetteville, N.C., has several pictures and even a video of military personnel throwing gang signs while on patrol, scrawling graffiti on walls and tanks in Iraq and even two men performing a Cripwalk for Iraqi children.

At an international antigang police summit in Los Angeles in March, some officials were split about whether gang members have infiltrated the U.S. military.

"These are just rumors," said Christy McCampbell, deputy assistant secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

But at the summit, Martin Escorza, head of the National Gang Task Force, said the issue is real.

"Even with all this, the military will still say there is no gang problem," said Glass, who monitors gang activity at Fort Bragg and across the military. "Gangs are a bad word, but the truth is that gangs are real, they do exist and they are a huge part of our society as well as in the military."

© Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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