But some anti-gang forces have put pressure on the Internet companies that
host these Web sites to shut them down, raising freedom-of-expression issues.
"There are thousands of gang-related Web sites," said Chuck Zeglin, a
detective supervisor with the Los Angeles Police Department who has monitored
the phenomenon. However, not all gang-related sites are connected to real
gangs, he said.
"Only about 20 to 30 percent of them now -- it is increasing -- are run by
active hard-core gang members," with the others being created by former gang
members or people simply interested in gangs, Zeglin said. Kevin McGee, San
Mateo's deputy district attorney, said he's found that many message postings
on gang sites come from bored suburban teenagers, not gangsters.
According to Dr. Francine Garcia-Hallcom, who teaches about Latino gangs at
California State University at Northridge, the Web sites serve a similar
purpose to the graffiti tagging that gangs have done for years.
"Many of them have a bruised ego," Garcia-Hallcom said. "Publicity, more
attention -- that's kind of the purpose behind the whole (gang) thing."
That publicity is what makes these gang sites a threat to youths, according
to the Chicago Crime Commission.
"It's just another risk for kids -- they make (gangs) look attractive,"
said Thomas Kirkpatrick, president of the commission. "They have free e-mail,
chat rooms. It's
another recruiting avenue."
But Zeglin downplayed the Web sites' recruiting function.
"The gangs we deal with build their relationships on loyalty, trust and
and there's no way of getting that on the Internet." But at the same time,
Zeglin warns parents that the sites do promote the gangster mystique.
For example, a Web site for a Daly City gang displays photos of pit bull
dogs, expensive cars and scantily clad women -- all the trappings that can
seduce some youths into the gangster life. The site also provides instructions
for using household items such as padlocks and bottles as weapons.
Some Web sites include message boards where gangsters give one another
props (respect) or dises (disrespect). There are even "Web rings," or networks
of linked sites, devoted to gangs.
When the Chicago Crime Commission studied the Web sites of several Chicago-
area gangs, they found to their surprise that many displayed corporate
advertising, including banners for Amazon.com and computer seller Gateway.
Last month, Kirkpatrick called on those companies and others to stop
advertising on gang sites.
Amazon.com and Gateway had the ads removed as soon as reporters notified
them. Spokeswoman Patty Smith said Amazon was not aware that its ads were
appearing on a gang site because the company had purchased advertising in bulk
from FreeYellow, the hosting service that provided one Chicago gang's free Web
The decision not to advertise on gang Web pages was an easy one for the
advertisers -- few companies want their brand name associated with gangs. But
the decision posed a stickier problem for the free Web page services that
hosted the sites, because these services face public scrutiny if they are seen
as limiting their users' free expression.
In his report, Kirkpatrick asked that FreeYellow, the Express Page, AOL and
Yahoo remove all gang pages from their servers. FreeYellow and the Express
Page immediately did so, but an America Online-hosted gang site Kirkpatrick
found is still active. And a Yahoo spokesman declined to say whether the
company had shut down any gang sites as a result of Kirkpatrick's request
because the company does not comment on individual GeoCities sites.
Mark Feldman, a senior producer at Yahoo's publishing division, said that
Yahoo's policies do not automatically exclude gang-related sites.
"We want to allow people to come to our site and build Web sites about
those things that they are interested in, but we do that with the caveat that
you can't cross certain boundaries," Feldman said. Hate speech and
instructions for making bombs are against the rules, but gang sites that don't
include those things might be acceptable, he said. Not all law enforcement
officers want to see gang sites shut down.
When McGee, the deputy district attorney, first found a Web site created by
a notorious Daly City gang, his first reaction was, "Oh, neat!"
The page laid out for him information that he had sought to verify for
years: the gang's history, its structure, and the nicknames of its ringleaders
"It gives us a window into the gang to see how it works and how they think,
" McGee said, browsing the site in his Redwood City office.
He called up a photo from the site, showing a teenager brandishing an Uzi.
"We have photo evidence that he has access to firearms," he said. "It's
stuff that we can turn around and use in court."
In fact, since California law allows longer sentences for gang-related
crimes, just appearing on this Web site could lead to three extra years in
One part of the life that has not been seen much online is the crime.
Zeglin recalls one Web site, www.killercop.com, that offered rewards for
murdering Los Angeles police officers a few years ago. But since the LAPD had
that site removed, Zeglin has not seen street gangs doing anything illegal
online. Most gang members, even those with the basic skills required to set up
a rudimentary Web site, don't have the know-how to carry out online fraud or
hacking, Zeglin believes.
"I can't see them getting that sophisticated, to be serious hackers,"
Garcia-Hallcom, the professor, agreed.
There are a few so-called "cybergangs" that exist solely online. "If we get
lots and lots of people like 200 and then we go out and make a big hit we'll
be known to half the Web," read a page from one group.
Some local police officers who follow gangs were surprised to hear that
gang members even have access to the Internet. But "Lista," a former gang
member who volunteers as an online counselor for a site called GangStyle (www.
gangstyle.com), believes that Web access is not out of reach for many
gangsters these days.
"Most have jobs and can afford to purchase a computer and access the
Internet from their own homes," Lista said. GangStyle is a site where gang
members can go to chat with other gangsters -- but without promoting the
lifestyle or verbally attacking anyone.
"Others go to the library," she said, although she added that accessing
gang-related sites from a library can be difficult because of the blocking
software many libraries use.
Doug Jones, a teacher at the Community Computing Center in Bayview-Hunters
Point, said gang members do not use computers at that free center. Using HTML
skills to promote a gang online is a waste of ability, he said.
"If you could just focus that intelligence into something positive, just
think about what they could really do," Jones said.
Rev. Roger Minassian, who runs Hope Now for Youth (www.hopenow.org), a gang
intervention program in Fresno, agrees that gangbanging online isn't much
better than doing so on the street. So does detective Zeglin, who compared
learning HTML to further a gang's reputation to learning how to hot-wire a car.
"You're learning electronics, but what are you going to use it for?" Zeglin
WEB SITE OFFERS RARE INTER-GANG COMMUNICATION
Before going to work every day, "Lista" puts on a watch and two bandages to
hide her tattoos.
The three marks on her body represent the gang she belonged to from
age 12 to 23. Now 29, Lista spends her days working as a probation
officer in Southern California. In the evenings, she sits at her
computer counseling gang members and other youth on a Web site called
She estimates that about half the site's visitors -- it's recorded 345,000
hits in the past six months -- are active gang members. The others are simply
troubled youth. The gangsters who visit GangStyle are seeking the same things
that millions of other people look for online: new friends and information.
In one recent posting, a young woman identified as "Miz" said she is
considering joining her friend's gang. She asked for help making the decision.
"I alwayz been kinda attracted ta tha whole gang thang," Miz wrote. "(but)
i am a young white female, an i probably woodnt make it long in tha game."
When she sees a posting like this, Lista always has the same advice:
"Read the other posts," she tells young people like Miz. Dozens of posts on
GangStyle tell stories of gang members' lost friends, arrests and fears of
losing their lives.
"If I could turn bak da time i would neva joined my nation," wrote one
visitor, who went on to tell of how his best friend died in a drive-by
shooting, leaving him to care for his friend's wife and child.
In one conversation, members of different gangs compare their experiences
being "beat in" -- an initiation ritual where a new gang member is beaten by
other members for a set amount of time.
"I was stab'd in leg an chest hit with bat bottles," "Boink" reported. "In
end thou they took me to hospital."
The Internet's anonymity allows gang members to get past their fear
and communicate with people from other gangs about the problems that confront
them all, Lista said.
"You can get a gang member off the street and ask him questions and he's
not really going to answer you," she said. "But here, it's a good way for them
to help each other, because they don't know who each other are."
The site, run completely by volunteers, includes a section for poetry
written by gang members and another where visitors can request that a pastor
pray for them.
As for Lista, helping people online is not just a spare-time pursuit, but a
career path. After taking some more college classes, she would like to become
a professional counselor.
This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle