From prison gangs to extortion rackets to neo Nazis, the United States is home to a variety of criminal groups and organizations. While we don’t hear about them as often as we should, they remain an active threat for the security apparatus of the country, with membership numbers comparable to some large, multinational corporations.
10. Jewish Defense League
The Jewish Defense League is recognized as a far-right terrorist group by the FBI. Formed in 1968 by Rabbi Meir Kahane, one of the stated aims of the organization was protection from anti-Semitism worldwide. It was primarily founded on the principles of Jewish nationalism, territorialism, and the use of force to defend Jews against their enemies. The JDL has since been accused of numerous terrorist attacks, including bombings, assassinations, and extortion.
The group is primarily active in the US and Israel, where it has been responsible for a number of violent incidents over the years. It first gained prominence in the 1970s, when JDL members carried out a number of high-profile attacks against Arab targets in the United States and Europe. They were also known for their staunch opposition to the USSR, as Jews across the Soviet Union were barred from emigrating to Israel. Despite its small size, the JDL was able to gain a large following in the Israeli-American Jewish community due to its aggressive tactics.
MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, is an international criminal organization that originated in Los Angeles, California, in the 1980s. Originally formed as a protection racket for Salvadoran refugees in the city, the group gradually evolved into a violent criminal organization involved in activities like drug and human trafficking. Today, the group operates in several countries, including the United States, El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala.
MS-13 got popular attention in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was responsible for a string of murders and assaults across the country. The gang is infamous for its brutal tactics, like their preference for machetes and other melee weapons to fight their rivals. Despite its notoriety, however, MS-13 remains a relatively-small gang, with an estimated 6,000 – 10,000 members in the US. In central American countries, however, the gang’s membership may be as high as 60,000.
8. Vice Lords
Vice Lords Nation originated in Chicago, Illinois, in 1958 as a community organization aimed at helping local African Americans overcome poverty and discrimination. Over time, however, the group grew into one of the largest criminal organizations in the United States, with a chapter in almost every city and town across the country. The group is known to be involved in various criminal activities, including drug trafficking, robbery, extortion, and murder.
The gang mainly operates in the Midwest and southern regions of the United States, and has an estimated total membership of anywhere between 30,000 – 35,000 regular and associate members. The US government has designated the group as a criminal organization, though despite several high-profile arrests over the years, it remains a large and influential gang, particularly in Chicago.
7. Barrio Azteca
With an estimated 3,000 members across the United States and around 5,000 in the Juarez region in Mexico, Barrio Azteca – also known as Los Aztecas – began as a prison gang in the El Paso prison system in Texas. It was formed in 1986, and has since expanded its presence to other states like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. While it’s not a particularly large gang, they’ve set themselves apart by the sheer intensity of their violence, which often spills over to either side of the border.
By the 2000s, Barrio Azteca had aligned itself with Mexico’s Juarez Cartel in their brutal fight against the Sinaloa Cartel. Many of the gang’s members have been killed or arrested in the years since – including its leader Eduardo Ravelo – severely weakening the group’s influence in the region. According to reports by law enforcement agencies, however, Barrio Azteca has regained a lot of its strength in recent years, particularly in the city of Juarez, where it’s still heavily involved in a variety of criminal activities like drug smuggling, money laundering, and extortion.
6. Mongols Motorcycle Club
The Mongols Motorcycle Club is a notorious outlaw motorcycle club founded in Montebello, California, in the 1970s. They have a strong presence in the Pacific and southwestern regions of the United States, with chapters in California, Nevada, Arizona, and other states. The group is predominantly made up of Hispanic members, though it also includes members from other ethnic backgrounds.
The Mongols gained fame in the 1980s and 1990s as a powerful and violent motorcycle club. They’ve been involved in a variety of criminal activities like assault, intimidation, and murder, including a high-profile shootout with members of rival Hells Angels gang in Las Vegas in 2002.
Despite several attempts by law enforcement agencies to stop them, the Mongols Motorcycle Club remains a potent and influential gang, with many of its members maintaining strong ties with other Hispanic street gangs spread across the Los Angeles area.
5. Crips And Bloods
Crips and Bloods are two rival gangs based in Los Angeles, California. Their origins are disputed, but some reports from the time suggest that Crips was born as a neighborhood protection gang in 1971, and Bloods was formed in response to the growing power of the Crips. Both the gangs eventually evolved into influential criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking and extortion, as well as violent crimes like robbery and murder.
Crips and Bloods have a long-standing rivalry that has resulted in numerous violent clashes over the years. It’s fueled by a complex mix of factors, including territory, reputation, and personal conflicts between various gang members. Both are known for their heavy use of graffiti, hand signs, and colors to identify themselves.
The gangs’ criminal activities have led to a lot of violence and devastation in the communities they operate in, with innocent bystanders often getting caught in the crossfire. Despite various efforts by law enforcement, however, Crips and Bloods remain a major problem in many urban areas of LA.
4. Latin Kings
Latin Kings was formed in Chicago in the 1960s as a predominantly Mexican and Puerto-Rican street gang. They’re known to be involved in multiple criminal activities, like drug trafficking, burglary, homicide, identity theft, and money laundering, as well as high profile assassinations of law enforcement officers in cities across the United States. Currently, Latin Kings operate under two umbrella factions, Motherland and Bloodline, for their Chicago and New York Chapter, respectively.
The group first got media attention in the 1980s and 90s, when they were associated with several gang-related murders and other crimes across Chicago. With over 160 chapters and 20,000 – 35,000 members around the country, Latin Kings is easily one of the largest gangs in the US, with a strong presence in multiple cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Miami.
3. Gangster Disciples
Black Gangster Disciple Nation – later renamed to Gangster Disciples – is a prison and street gang formed in Chicago in the 1960s. It was founded by the merger of two gangs led by Larry Hoover and David Barksdale – the Black Disciples and Supreme Gangsters. It’s a predominantly African-American gang involved in activities like drug trafficking, extortion, and murder.
While Gangster Disciples have a significant presence in the Midwest, particularly in Chicago and Detroit, the gang is also known to be active in other parts of the country like the East Coast and the South. It has grown into a large and powerful group in recent years, with an estimated 25,000 – 50,000 members spread across the United States.
2. Aryan Brotherhood
The Aryan Brotherhood started out as a white supremacist prison gang formed in response to race wars against rival black gangs. Over the years, it has grown into one of the most feared criminal organizations in the country, with many of its members openly sporting tattoos of Nazi insignia and other fascist symbols.
Members of the Aryan Brotherhood primarily operate in prisons, though they’re also quite active on the streets. The group is involved in a wide range of criminal activities like drug trafficking and extortion, and while it’s not as large as other gangs like the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood remains a potent force in the criminal underworld.
While law enforcement agencies have been working to dismantle the Aryan Brotherhood for decades, the group’s highly-structured hierarchy and its members’ fierce loyalty to the organization make it difficult to infiltrate. Still, there have been numerous high-profile arrests of Aryan Brotherhood members in recent years, and many of its leaders have been sentenced to long terms in prison. Despite these efforts, however, the Aryan Brotherhood continues to operate as an influential and fairly-large gang in multiple parts of the country.
1. Mexican Mafia
Also known as La Eme and Los Carnales, Mexican Mafia is one of the largest prison gangs in the United States, with members active in over 13 states. It was founded in 1957 in southern California by former street gang member Luis Flores, and many of its early members were leaders of hispanic gangs active in LA and nearby areas. Since then, it has grown into one of the deadliest and most influential gangs in the country.
As of now, the Mexican Mafia operates both inside and outside the US prison system, and its crime portfolio includes robbery, extortion, assault, murder, and drug trafficking. It’s estimated that the gang has about 350 to 400 members inside US prisons, with tens of thousands of additional foot soldiers on the streets throughout California and beyond.