The linking of former Maniac Latin Disciple gang member, Jose Padilla, to Al Queda had all the markings of the perfect stereotype. After all, haven't gangs been labeled "terrorists"by many in law enforcement, and aren't many laws against gangs called "Anti-terrorism" acts? Newt Gingrich also claims that gangs and terrorists have links. Attorney General Ashcroft's simplistic pronouncements can be realistically seen as one more sign of repression. Gangs aren't terrorists. But this doesn't end the story.

The press has been full of stories linking Mara Salvatrucha 13 to Al Queda. However, the leader of an FBI Task Force had this to say last February about such claims:

"The FBI, in concert with the U.S. intelligence community and governments of several Central American republics, have determined that there is no basis in fact to support this allegation of al-Qaeda or even radical Islamic ties to MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha)," says Robert Clifford, director of the new task force.

What is a gang? Is it the same as a terrorist group? I define gangs this way:

Gangs are organizations of the socially excluded.

While most "street organizations" are unsupervised adolescent peer groups, many others have institutionalized in neighborhoods, ghettoes, barrios, favelas, and prisons. Often these persisting gangs become business enterprises within the informal economy. Many share a media-diffused culture and a few are linked to international criminal cartels. Gangs have variable ties to conventional institutions and, in given conditions, assume social, economic, political, religious, or military roles.

As can be seen by the definition above, institutionalized gangs do share some important characteristics with other organizations of the socially excluded. First, gangs are organizations of armed young men, like other criminal, militant fundamentalist, nationalist, and even terrorist groups.

Second, gangs share with other armed groups a racialized identity - most gangs form in socially excluded ghettoes, barrios, or prison, and strongly identify with their racial group. Gangs also have embraced Islamic principles, notably the Conservative Vice Lord Nation, but also other gangs. Minister Farrakhan has been working with Bloods in LA and Vice Lords in Chicago and many gang members, like Sanyika Shakur (aka "Monster" Kody Scott) have converted to a militant brand of Islam.

Finally, gangs, like other organizations of the socially excluded, are supported by the underground economy, particularly the sale of drugs.

Gangs are not religions, nor are they revolutionary organizations, but, in given conditions, they can be both. In the global era, gangs, like other organizations of armed young men, are seeking an identity to protect them from a world they cannot control and where everything that is solid turns to air. Gangs, like some Islamic militants, try to shrink the world by adopting essentializing identities in spaces which have often been excluded from the global economy. [next column]

Other Important Sites

neither War nor Peace

Crimes of War

Fourth Freedom Forum

Institute for Policy Studies



[continued]Gangs, like other organizations of the socially excluded, are waging war against a globalized world out of their control. Often they do it destructively and follow the god of money more than trying to do good for their people. However, gangs are social actors and should be included in a broader stuggle for democracy while being held to non-violent, democratic norms. A "zero tolerance" policy of repression and indiscrim-inate incarceration is likely to make matters worse.

For the Critical Mind:

Susan Sontag on Terrorism!

Noam Chomsky on 9-11

Mark Twain's War Prayer


Terrorism Law & Policy

Edward Said on the role of intellectuals

Matthew Lippman's Terrorism Syllabus

UN Response

Child Soldiers
(Amnesty International)

Altternative Resources


Human Rights Organizations


UN Office Human Rights

Human Rights Watch

Amnesty International

Lawyers Com. for Human Rights

Physicians Com for Human Rights

War Child Projects