Tom Diaz


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Transnational crime on August 12, 2009 at 3:43 pm


Today, when the government puts more money into consumers’ pockets, it means that Chinese factories recall their workers and start making more.

“Just One Word: Factories,” By Harold Meyerson, Washington Post, Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It’s still all about the economy, even — nay, especially — when one looks into the Latino gang problem.  Harold Meyerson’s opinion piece in today Washington Post, quoted above and available in full here, touches directly on one of the most powerful forces responsible for the hardening of Latino gangs into criminal enterprises and their likely growth.  It’s the same force that has devastated the blue collar middle class all over America: decline of manufacturing in the United States:

Since 1987, manufacturing as a share of our gross domestic product has declined 30 percent. Once the world’s leading net exporter, we have become the world’s leading net importer. In 2007, we exported $1.2 trillion worth of goods and services but imported $1.8 trillion. If there were a debtor’s prison for nations, we’d all be in the clink…the decline of manufacturing presents a huge obstacle to U.S. economic recovery. As scholars and journalists have noted, in every recovery since the Great Depression through 1990, when American consumers started buying more, U.S. factories recalled laid-off workers and started making more. Today, when the government puts more money into consumers’ pockets, it means that Chinese factories recall their workers and start making more. It means that American retailers will hire more low-wage workers, while American manufacturers won’t — a sectoral shift that will lower Americans’ median income, since manufacturing wages are roughly 20 percent higher than the wages of the rest of the non-professional, non-managerial workforce.

2008 Protest at Closed Factory in Illinois

2008 Protest at Closed Factory in Illinois

The connection between the rise of the modern gang and the decline of manufacturing is not elusive.  It’s just rarely discussed.  Today’s “commentators” would rather bloviate about the “problem” of Latino immigration than analyze what went wrong with the classic American Dream Factory.

Gangs and gangsters are a product of many things.  In addition to the personal decision to become a gangster (that every gangster makes), a complicated calculus of factors created and drives the modern Latino gang and its members.  These include:

  • Wars,
  • Economic change,
  • Globalization,
  • Cultural, racial, and ethnic factors (including fear, loathing, competition and conflict),
  • Transnational organized crime,
  • Migration flows and demographics,
  • Law enforcement and national security resources and policies, and
  • Gang adaptation.

I discuss at some length the impact of economic change on the transformation of barrio gangs into hard core criminal enterprises in my book No Boundaries:  Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement.

This excerpt describes the overall effect of the loss of manufacturing jobs on the economic prospects of immigrant youth and the children of immigrants:

The economic change from smokestack manufacturing industries to service and information industries was an unforgiving crucible in which many Latino gangs were transformed and hardened. Many gangs went from traditional local “fighting” associations to enduring, institutionalized, and irreducibly violent alternative societies for the most marginalized youth within marginal communities. The largest of these gangs have become well-organized criminal enterprises. Latino street gangs today are family, mistress, employer, and nation to that small fraction of immigrant and especially second-generation youth—the children of immigrants—who are most alienated and least capable of adapting to the majority population’s social, cultural, and economic norms. In an earlier era, unskilled, poorly educated youth without language ability might have pulled themselves up from poverty on assembly lines, at the furnaces of steel mills, or in tire plants. Now, they find it harder to get a hand on any rung—much less a ladder—to a better life.

A more tightly focused look at the critical period of the 1970s and 1980s in California is summed up in this paragraph:

[In the 1970s] the industrial economy that had sustained Los Angeles for three decades—comprised of smokestack plants of General Motors, Firestone, Bethlehem Steel, Goodyear, and others—was shutting down, just as it was all across the American Rust Belt. The demise of the industrial economy and, with it, entry-level jobs for the unskilled and undocumented during the 1970s was an ominous curtain-raiser to the coming crack epidemic, Latino immigration surge, and gang eruption of the 1980s.

Finally, the original Latin Kings were formed in Chicago in the 1960s, precisely at a time when increased Puerto Rican migration ran head on into decreased manufacturing employment:

[In Chicago in the late 1950s] It came to appear to Puerto Ricans that jobs had dried up in New York but were plentiful in the great blue-collar city of Chicago. For the first time, large numbers of Puerto Ricans migrated to Chicago. By 1960, the number of Puerto Ricans had risen [significantly].  The catch was that most of these new migrants were unskilled laborers who spoke little or no English. They were relying on the great ladder of industrial blue-collar work by means of which those without language or trade had traditionally pulled themselves up in pursuit of the American dream. But the perception that the ladder still existed in Chicago was a cruel illusion. Puerto Rican hopes, along with those of the black and Mexican communities that had been in Chicago for decades, were crushed by the shift in the economy from manufacturing to service jobs, well in progress by the 1960s. The city was hemorrhaging blue-collar work. It was losing jobs at an alarming rate, as factories shut down and shipped them off to management-friendly, nonunion suburban and rural locations or offshore to countries in the third world.

[No Boundaries is primarily “narrative nonfiction.”  It tells real life stories of gangsters and cops.  But it also contains descriptive analysis like these nuggets to hopefully explain and portray the complexity of the Latino gang universe.]

Meyerson’s analysis in the Washington Post examines a particular facet of the dismal employment picture described in The New York Times column by Bob Herbert that I linked to in a posting yesterday (here).

Economics is huge in gangs.  Anyone who thinks that the problem of gangs is simply and only a problem of gang suppression or immigration is at best looking at  only half the picture.  It reminds me of an adage I once heard a drill sergeant use to illuminate the thought processes of an offending recruit:  “A man who only shines only half his shoes, is like a man who only wipes half ……”  Well, you get the picture.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

  1. […] this post interests you, also see this later post on the loss of manufacturing jobs […]

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