Gang-Related Pressures




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Gang-Related Pressures


Sonoma County was once known for it’s lazy wine country retreats, but now, violent gang-related crimes are pressuring the county to take measures to prevent them from continuing. It is estimated that 2,000-3,000 gang members are in twenty active gangs currently on the street. The biggest gangs—and most troublesome—are the Hispanic Norteños and Sureños. But Sonoma County also has Asian, white, and black gangs as well. Most of the gangs are in Santa Rosa, but they are showing up in rural places too. Gang members are now committing most of the homicides in Sonoma County. Other gang-related criminal activities also include drive-bys, drug trafficking, petty thefts, and graffiti.

Historically, gang-related activities has taken place in major cities, but gang turf wars and influx of new recruits from immigrants and targeted youths have made the problem spread into less populous cities and rural counties. Additionally, with the recent influx of immigration and the lack of social support for many immigrant youths, gang membership has seen an increase in Hispanic involvement. In a National Juvenile Center survey, it was estimated that 49% of gang members were Hispanic, 37% Blacks, 8% White, and 5% Asians.

gangWhen asked about the perceptions of gang participation, 59% of youths identified as juvenile delinquents indicated that peer pressure and the absence of family bonding were the main factors of perpetuating gang participation. Most groups also surveyed gang participation as a way of seeking protection. Other reasons include family breakdowns and school failure.



Why do Teen Youths Join Gangs?

  • Poverty. Many gangs exist mainly as a moneymaking enterprise. By committing thefts and dealing drugs, gang members can make relatively large amounts of money. People who are faced with a lack of money may turn to crime if they can't earn enough with a legitimate job. This partly explains why gangs exist in poor, rundown areas of cities. However, not everyone who is poor joins a gang, and not every gang member is poor. Thus, “feeling marginalized” in our society – that one’s economic prospects are bleak—can make the lucrative drug market seem highly attractive. The allure of making money, selling drugs, and having nice cars and nice clothes is given as a frequent reason by youth who have joined gangs.
  • Peer pressure. Gang members tend to be young. This is partly because gangs intentionally recruit teenagers, but it's also because young people are very susceptible to peer pressure. If they live in a gang-dominated area, or go to a school with a strong gang presence, they might find that many of their friends are joining gangs. It can be difficult for a teen to understand the harm that joining a gang can bring if he's worried about losing all of his friends. Many teenagers do resist the temptation of gang membership, but for others it is easier to follow the crowd. Peer pressure is a driving force behind gang membership in affluent areas. Neighborhood and peer pressure, and generational gang pressure, are a reality for many youths. A child might feel immense pressures to join a gang if their parents, older siblings, or most of their friends are gang members, or if they come from a neighborhood where they are “expected” to join a gang.

"Carlos," 18, is a member of the Norteños. Polite and soft-spoken, Carlos tried to stay neutral to the gangs when he first entered high school. Yet every day he felt pressured to pick sides. If he hung out with people in one gang, he was hassled by the other. Even the color of his clothes was an issue.

"Basically, if you are Hispanic, you couldn't wear red because one day the Sureños be talking shit to you, and the next day, you couldn't wear blue because the Norteños be talking shit to you," he says.

Eventually, Carlos picked sides by default. He became friends with some Norteños, hung out with them and was soon known as one of them.

  • Boredom. With nothing else to occupy their time, youths sometimes turn to mischief to entertain themselves. If gangs are already present in the neighborhood, that can provide an outlet. Alternatively, teenagers might form their own gangs. This is why many communities have tried to combat gangs by simply giving kids something to do. Dances, sports tournaments and other youth outreach programs can literally keep kids off the streets. Unfortunately, many youths and even gang experts use boredom as an excuse. Authors of articles about gang violence often write something like, "There's nothing else to do where they live." Indeed, youth sports programs, swimming pools or even libraries are often in short supply or poor repair in tough urban areas. But for every teenager who gets bored and joins a gang, there are 10 who find positive, productive ways to spend their time.

Some ideas for after-school programs include:

  • Join an athletic team or club.
  • Join an arts program.
  • Participate in an out-of-school program.
  • Take a part-time job.
  • Talk with your parent(s).
  • Talk with your religious leader, school teacher, or guidance counselor.
  • Talk with someone you trust.
  • Look for a "safe zone" in your school or community.
  • Do not join a gang.


  • Despair. If poverty is a condition, despair is a state of mind. People who have always lived in poverty with parents who lived in poverty often see no chance of ever getting a decent job, leaving their poor neighborhood or getting an education. They are surrounded by drugs and gangs, and their parents may be addicts or non-responsive. A neighborhood gang can seem like the only real family they'll ever have. Joining a gang gives them a sense of belonging and being a part of something important that they can't get otherwise. In some cases, parents approve of their children joining gangs, and may have been a member of the same gang in the past.

“Mario”, a teen part of the Sureños gang, says "I needed the support and the love that I wasn't getting at home." Statistics support the fact that gangs are most prevalent in areas where there are many single-parent families (particularly without fathers), where parents are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, and/or where parents are not supportive or supervising their children.

gangYouth who perceive particular deficiencies in their lives often seek to compensate by joining gangs. Gang-life offers a loyal support group of peers, who both understand and value each member in a way that parents and other relatives cannot, attracts adolescents in the throes of self-doubt, uncertainty, and feelings of powerlessness. Beginning with gang initiation, however, intimidation and a new kind of fear that feeds on violent exploitation of others lead youth away from the mainstream and into byways and back alleys where weapons, drugs, delinquency, and crime replace schooling and responsible citizenship. Although gangsters may seek freedom from the pressures of society, school, parents, etc.,"...they are the ultimate conformists within the contexts of their gang rules...'Violations' (physical beatings) are regularly meted out to those who violate the gang rules."

Once inside a gang, a member instantly becomes aware that he has to follow the rules and do what he's told--or pay the price. "Right away, you can notice the person who's a higher rank than you," says Carlos. "He has the word, because if anything happens, he would be the one to tell us go do this, go to this neighborhood and do this." One of the hardest thing to do after joining a gang is getting out of it. The brutal truth of gang life is that the only way most gang members leave the gang is in a body bag. Some do manage to move on to a better, peaceful life. It might be because they reach a level of maturity that allows them to see the dangers of gang life in a different light. If they have family or get a good job and a home, they want to protect those things.

For more information, check out:

Youth gangs and violence

Getting Help in Sonoma County

Awesome list of resources in Sonoma County for at-risk youths