The Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings and Vice Lords were born decades ago in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. Now, their gang graffiti is showing up 6,400 miles away in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods—Iraq.
Armored vehicles, concrete barricades and bathroom walls all have served as canvasses for their spray-painted gang art. At Camp Cedar II, about 185 miles southeast of Baghdad, a guard shack was recently defaced with “GDN” for Gangster Disciple Nation, along with the gang’s six-pointed star and the word “Chitown,” a soldier who photographed it said.
“I have identified 320 soldiers as gang members from April 2002 to present,” said Scott Barfield, a Defense Department gang detective at Fort Lewis in Washington state. “I think that’s the tip of the iceberg.”
Of paramount concern is whether gang-affiliated soldiers’ training will make them deadly urban warriors when they return to civilian life and if some are using their access to military equipment to supply gangs at home, said Barfield and other experts.
“I know there is a lot more going on here,” he said. “I don’t inspect off-base housing or married soldiers’ housing.”
The Gangster Disciples are the most worrisome street gang at Fort Lewis because they are the most organized, Barfield said.
Barfield said gangs are encouraging their members to join the military to learn urban warfare techniques they can teach when they go back to their neighborhoods.
“Gang members are telling us in the interviews that their gang is putting them in,” he said.
Barfield said a big concern is what such gang members trained in urban warfare will do when they return home.
He pointed to Marine Lance Cpl. Andres Raya, a suspected Norteno gang member who shot two officers with a rifle outside a liquor store in Ceres, Calif., on Jan. 9, 2005, before police returned fire and killed him. One officer died, and the other was wounded by the 19-year-old Raya, who was high on cocaine. Raya had spent seven months in Iraq before returning to Camp Pendleton near San Diego.
Photos of Raya wearing the gang’s red colors and making gang hand signs were reportedly found in a safe in his room.
Hunter Glass, a Fayetteville, N.C., police detective, said he has seen an increase in gang activity involving soldiers from nearby Fort Bragg. A Fort Bragg soldier—a member of the Insane Gangster Crips—is charged with a gang-related robbery in Fayetteville that ended in the slaying of a Korean store owner in November, said Glass, a veteran of the elite 82nd Airborne based at Fort Bragg.
He estimated that hundreds of gang members are stationed at the base as soldiers.
A law enforcement source in Chicago said police see some evidence of soldiers working with gangs here. Police recently stopped a vehicle and found 10 military flak jackets inside. A gang member in the vehicle told investigators his brother was a Marine and sent the jackets home, the source said.
Barfield said he knows of civilian gang members in the Seattle area who also have been caught with flak jackets that he suspects were stolen from Fort Lewis.