Like many medium to large Midwestern cities, Indianapolis, Indiana, has witnessed the growing presence of Latino street gangs over the past decade. This recent development is clearly linked to a substantial Latino population influx to the region that began in the early 1990's. Seizing on the opportunity to analyze the early stages of gang emergence, this study seeks to advance theoretical understanding of gang formation. The project is guided by two competing perspectives on how and why these gangs are emerging in the Midwest. Most research on gang emergence in new locations claims it is a "homegrown" problem, a function of increasing local poverty and human adaptation to deteriorating social conditions. An alternate view, common among law enforcement officials, suggests that gang members strategically migrate from other places in the U.S. or Latin America as a way to expand their criminal operations. The researchers will conduct extensive fieldwork to investigate the issue in a large Midwestern city and determine which of these processes best explains the Latino gang growth phenomenon.

The research team began interviewing gang officers, school personnel, and members of Latino street gangs in the summer of 2004 and have followed developments there ever since. The evidence gathered to date slightly favors the migration explanation over the homegrown thesis. Many gang members claim direct or indirect gang ties to California, Chicago, New York, and several Latin American countries. The gangs they claim affiliation with are well-known street organizations with branches or "sets" across the nation. This research continues to interview former and current gang members about their reasons for migrating to the Midwest and whether they brought their gang affiliations with them or joined locally-formed groups. Upon completion, this research effort will yield the most thorough understanding of domestic and international migration as a cause of Latino gang formation in U.S. cities historically devoid of such groups.

Project Report

This project addressed the recent emergence of Latino street gangs in Indianapolis, Indiana. It is one in a string on gang proliferation in large Midwestern cities (Hagedorn 1988; Decker and Van Winkle 1996). While modest in scope, it is similar to these works both in its methodological approach and in its analysis of newly emerging street gang subcultures. Indianapolis was chosen for its size and for the rapid growth of the Latino population there. As with other traditional "rustbelt" cities, its structural context made it an ideal site for addressing Latino gang formations in places where they had not yet surfaced. Although the study was early-terminated due to logistical issues in the field, a pilot project yielded interesting theoretical and conceptual results. Documenting the early stages of gang formation in Indianapolis, competing perspectives on how and why these gangs emerged were evaluated. The work was supplemented by ethnographic work with Latino gang members, non-gang Latino residents, public school employees, and police. The result (forthcoming in Tapia 2012) is a contemporary historiography of Latino gang emergence, framed by a description of the social and structural context in which these groups are situated. References Decker Scott and Barrik Van Winkle. 1996. Life in the Gang. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Hagedorn, John. 1988. People and Folks: Gangs, Crime, and the Underclass in a Rustbelt City. Chicago: Lakeview Press. Tapia, Mike. 2012. "The Emergence of Latino Street Gangs in the Midwest: Strategic Franchising or Natural Migration?" Crime and Delinquency XX(X): 1-35.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Program Officer
Christian A. Meissner
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University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio
United States
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