AMU Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

The Various Dangers of Gang Life: An Insider’s Perspective

Note: This article is the first article in a two-part series, involving an interview with a former gang member about gang life. The second article in this series will cover gang involvement in human trafficking.

As a criminologist who conducts a lot of research and is actively engaged in field work in the United States and Central America, I have the opportunity to meet many people who provide various insights into crime and gang life. In April 2023, I met Keen, a former gang member.

Keen was volunteering his time to speak to over 250 current gang members in a prison in Central America. In the past, I’ve provided training to the staff and inmates of this prison as part of a large-scale humanitarian mission.

Keen was formerly affiliated with a major gang based out of Los Angeles, California. Recently, he permitted me to interview him in an effort to help others gain insight into gangs and gang life from an insider perspective.

Keen was involved in nearly all aspects of gang culture and life in Los Angeles. He was jumped (an initiation ritual involving beatings by other gang members) into a Los Angeles gang when he was 15 years old. His gang involvement led to over 20 years of imprisonment throughout California.

Today, Keen is a reformed and productive member of his community. He speaks to adults and juveniles who are susceptible to gang involvement, and he warns them of the pitfalls and dangers of going down a road of destruction that leads to either incarceration or death. He can relate to people who are entangled in gang life and shares his story as an inspiration to have others follow his footsteps out of gang life and crime. 

How Does Gang Recruitment Work?

I asked Keen about the factors that lead someone into a gang. He said, “For myself, everything I say is based on my experience. I was recruited. I also did heavy recruiting, both while on the street and while I was incarcerated.

“I was incarcerated in Los Angeles for several years and several different prisons in California. Something that drives people to gangs is a lack of love – that need of feeling important and wanted. I felt that was not good enough at home, and I was seeking that acceptance outside of the home.”

In regard to recruitment, I asked Keen how recruitment works from both inside and outside of prison. Keen explained, “From outside, it was very easy. There were always young women or men who were lacking something. They were lacking things I was once lacking, and those voids needed to be filled.

“For men, I would use women to draw them in. You would use your own girls within the gang to aid you to bring others into the gang.

“When it is inside of the prison, you will find men who are not affiliated with a gang but understand gang culture and wish to be part of the gang in prison for protection. So you bring them onboard through providing protection and access to the commissary, access to drugs, and access to unity.

“Gang membership has evolved with social media. Social media is used in a lot in gang recruitment. Social media is used to flaunt wealth and how violent your gang can be.

“Recording violence that leads to intimidation or fear may be used as a tool on social media. The more violent a gang is, the perception is that they can provide more protection than other gangs.”

Keen added that he was exposed to a life of girls, drugs, and house parties, and he could do whatever he wanted with the gang. But Keen also noted that “there was a dark side.”

He explained that by the age of 16, he was going around with his gang that was affiliated with other criminal organizations. He said, “We would go with them and see how they would extort people, move girls from one area to another, and collect money from prostitution. I was young and just absorbing all this stuff with them. I was going with them, extorting and putting guns on people.

“All of the time we were doing this, we were told we were doing this against people who were like us and that we were not taking advantage of normal people. We were acting upon other gang members and criminals in the area.

“So it normalized our activity, and it felt like we were doing a job. I witnessed a lot and saw the evolution as I got incarcerated regarding how the gang turned on each other.” 

What Is Gang Life All About?

We have all seen gangs in movies. But this interview with Keen provided a good opportunity to gain insight into what it is like to be a member of a powerful gang.

Keen observed, “Gang members have evolved into a level of criminality that puts them on the level of other major criminal enterprises. They create businesses that are legitimate. Let’s say I am a gang member with a 50-man crew, then I decide it is time for us to take over more territory.

“Instead of doing a bloody takeover, we will take $150,000 to buy a business such as a mechanic shop and then start running cocaine out of the business in the other territory. Money made from these businesses is funneled back to bullets, drugs, human trafficking, and blood.

“That opens up more doors for new business. The more money you have, the more you can expand.

“It is every gang member’s dream to expand by growing your reputation. A guy that has 15 businesses as a gang member will be more respected than a guy who kills 50 people because the guy with 15 businesses has expanded his criminal enterprise all over.”

Gang Leadership and Governance

I was intrigued to learn about gang leadership. In terms of gang leadership, Keen said, “It all depends on how high within the organization someone wants to go. You could be known as someone who has two or three sicarios [hired assassins] ready to go at any time.

“There are leadership positions in various categories that eventually have to report to three bosses. They have three bosses so that if one falls, the other comes behind them and is probably more savage than the last leader.

“To become a top leader within the gang, you have to make money and avoid losing to death and incarceration. Providing for your crew is how you make it to the top.

“It is hard to get to the top because everyone is for themselves today. Before, everyone watched out for one another. Now, your crew may be susceptible to turn on you because they want what you have.”

That led me to my next question about if there are rules by which a gang is governed? Keen observed that rules on the street used to include:

  • No shootings around schools
  • No abusing the elderly
  • No sexually abusing underage girls
  • No drug houses near schools
  • No drive-by murders – If you are going to murder someone, you don’t do a drive-by. You go and pull the trigger face to face.
  • No robbing shops within the community
  • No affiliations with or selling drugs to other races or gangs

Keen explained, “We had a meeting with the key members of my gang in East LA. They came up with the plan that they did not want shootings or drugs near the schools because our sisters and children go to these schools. We did not want our families to see the lifestyle that we have.

“Everything was pushed a couple blocks away from schools. In turn, it was good because the police showed us appreciation and gave us leeway to operate. It was less work for them to patrol the school areas because there was no crime happening.

“Today, gang culture has changed and has become more dangerous for communities as gang rules are not followed as they used to be.”

Related: MS-13 Gangs: An Increasing Threat to the World

Escaping from Gang Life

Keen noted, “It is very dangerous to escape a gang. The saying is that ‘once a gang member, always a gang member.’

“However, there are options. Someone may say, ‘This is not for me.’ They will be given a pass to no longer affiliate with the gang but if you do not disassociate from that gang and try both sides, you will be lured into a trap.

“If the powers-that-be grant you the pass to escape, but you try to recruit or don’t fully leave the gang, you will be killed. This rule only applies to gang members who have not committed any gang violations, such as becoming an informant. 

“If you say you no longer want to be a part of the gang because of the Lord, they will release you. However, if the gang leaders find that someone leaves the gang because of the Lord and does heroin, sells drugs, or does other illegal activity, they will not ask any questions and will kill you.

“Most gang members who are given the opportunity to leave the gang fall back into the entrapments of gang culture, and that mistake will cost them their lives. It is not that you cannot leave the gang. It is that you can leave, but you can never come back.

“But most people when they leave have such a deep connection to gang life that they believe it is okay to go to a party or two continue to hang out with the gang members. However, that is a violation and will end in death.

“Most men do not take the pass and say, ‘Thank you, God, for giving me the chance to walk away from this.’ Most men take the opportunity to leave but try to come back and are punished severely.”

Related: Organized Crime: From Street Gangs to International Groups

What Does Law Enforcement and the Public Need to Know about Gangs?

The opportunity to speak with Keen provided a good opportunity to gain insight into gangs beyond the textbooks. Keen stated, “There is a trend with 13- to 14-year-old females that are turning more to street life. They are very exposed to becoming recruited by gangs.”

He said, “Gang members can be your next-door neighbors or classmates. They are old, they are young and they are every race. A functional member will go to a normal job and then engage in gang activity when not at work.”

Keen added, “Anyone can be a gang member on the streets, but not everyone can be a gang member in prison because so much politics are involved in prison. In prison, someone may be affiliated with a specific gang on the street. But when someone commits crimes and is sent to prison, their gang may not be powerful in prison, which is dangerous for that gang member.

“In order for you to be accepted in prison, you have to show how ruthless your gang can be. If a gang member is sent to a prison that does not have a large population of their affiliated gang, the person will have to show without a gun how powerful they can be with a knife and their brain.

“For example, let’s say outside, there are only 10 in your gang and then there is no representation in prison. Then, gang members have to adapt and affiliate themselves with a prevalent gang in the prison. The political game in prison is totally different than the streets.”

Keeping People Away from Gang Life

I asked Keen how law enforcement can be more effective in mitigating gangs and gang recruitment. He expressed the importance of law enforcement and community services reaching children before the gangs do.

In terms of law enforcement, Keen noted, “Instead of using force to stop them, officers must use themselves to stop gang recruitment. You have to take away their recruiting tools.”

Keen also explained the importance of receiving services when a former gang member leaves prison and integrates back into society. He said, “Transitional housing is key to avoiding the entrapments of falling back into gang membership. It helps former gang members transition back to society slowly. It is an alternative to being placed on the same streets that led them to prison.

“Teach them life skills, like how to set up a bank account and money management. Provide a 90-day stay during the transitional period between prison and being back in society.

“They also need spiritual therapy. That way, these men and women won’t be forced to show their face in the same entrapments.”

I really admired Keen’s candor and willingness to speak about his past in an effort to help others gain insight into the dangers of gangs and gang life. Keen has spoken to hundreds of current incarcerated gang members and shared his gang life story in an effort to help them see the dangers of gang culture and offer a path of redemption.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. For more information on Jarrod and links to his social media and website, check out

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