'Gangstas' In The Ranks

The way the police told it, almost everybody in the neighborhood knew that the Nation Wide Posse was ready to shoot it out with the Original Gangster Posse. Maybe it was because an NWP member had been beaten up by the Original angsters: maybe it was just another turf war. Whatever the motive, six squad ears arrived just after a group of NWP members showed up for what was probably going to be a drive-by shooting. The cops jumped out and drew their guns: the gangsters thought twice and surrendered. The weird part was that the confrontation took place in Rapid City, S.D, not South-Central L.A. Even more disturbing, seven of the suspects turned out to be enlisted men on active duty at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base.

Street gangs in the military? To the embarrassment of the Pentagon, the answer is definitely yes. A NEWSWEEK investigation shows that gang activity has been reported in all four branches of the armed services and at more than 50 major military bases around the nation. The list includes notorious L.A. street gangs like the Crips, the Bloods and Chicago's Folk Gangsters, as well as lesser-known groups. The crimes include drug trafficking, robbery, assault and- in at least 10 cases-homicide. Most took place off duty and off base. But army enlisted men have been photographed flashing gang signs in the middle of the Persian GulfWar-and the navy, worried by a series of drive-by shootings, was forced to build a 1,000-foot wall to protect the residents of one of its housing complexes in Long Beach, Calif. There are even reports that gangs stake out "turf" on aircraft carriers at sea.

The common-sense explanation is that the U.S. military is inevitably affected by all the problems of society at large--including the spread of gang-related crime and violence. Still, it is surprising that the military, supposedly a bastion of good order, is being shaken by gang activity in the ranks. Streetwise experts like Sgt. Wes McBride of the Los Angeles Police Department, himself a former marine, warn that the brass has been slow to react to the rise of gangs in uniform; according to McBride, "the military doesn't like to admit [its gang problem] because it destroys the image of discipline."

Confidential documents obtained by NEWSWEEK suggest, however, that the army, the air force and the navy are already taking steps to control the problem. The commander of the navy's Pacific Fleet, which supervises navy bases all along the West Coast, first warned commanders about rising gang activity four years ago, and the navy's Criminal Investigative Service is developing a computerized system to report and track gang-related incidents. The army and the air force have issued lengthy training manuals to help their criminal investigators spot covert gang activity. These manuals include descriptions of gang hand signs and gang "colors" as well as glossaries of gangster slang. (Examples: a "trey-eight" is a .38-caliber pistol, and a "double deuce" is a .22.) "The influence of gangs on the USAF appears to be growing and the frequency of gang violence related to the USAF will likely increase," the air force manual warns. "There is no such thing as a 'wannabee.' If a person wants to be a gang member, acts like a gang member [and] dresses like a gang member he is a gang member and just as dangerous."

A fair amount of this gang activity centers on relatively minor incidents-fights and stabbings, low-level drug trafficking and teenage military dependents joining gangs. But what worries some investigators is the possibility that gangs like the Crips, a known drug-trafficking organization, may be infiltrating the services for more serious criminal purposes. The air force and army warn that gangs are trying to recruit military men and women as drug couriers. And NEWSWEEK has learned that the U.S. Justice Department convened a "street gang symposium" in Johnstown, Pa., in November 1994. This gathering, prompted by Attorney General Janet Reno, produced a report warning that "some gangs have access to highly sophisticated personal weapons such as grenades, machine guns, rocket launchers and military explosives. Some street gang members who are or have been in the military are teaching other gang members concerning the use of tactics . . . With arms, weapons proficiency and tactics, some street gangs now have the ability to effectively engage in terrorist activities within the United States."

But the gang threat is already serious, as authorities at Fort Lewis, Wash., know. On Dec. 4, 1992, Allen King, whose wife is an army sergeant, was killed in a gang-related attack at their home on base. The killers, including army Specialist James Mayfield, believed King had tipped police to a crack house they operated in nearby Tacoma. Their revenge was thorough: King and his three children, 18 months and 7 and 4 years old, all were hacked to death. "We have a terrible problem with gangs in the military," says Tacoma police detective John Ringer. So even if gang terrorism lies in the future, the military has problems with simple law and order now.