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Gang Life
10 of the toughest tell their stories

By (author) Mark Totten

Biographical note (a single note referring to all contributors to a product – see PR.8.17 for a biography which is linked to a single contributor)

MARK TOTTEN is a professor of criminal justice at Humber College in Toronto whose research focuses on organized crime, corrections, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, mental health, violence, and gender identity. Over the past decade, he has collaborated with groups in Ontario and Western Canada in the development and evaluation of multi-year gang prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies.

Introduction or preface

An excerpt from the introduction:

So, who are these participants? All ten, including three women, say they are ex-gang members, who have been out of gang life anywhere between one and five years, though they still have good friends who are involved in their old gangs and keep them up to speed on gang activities. Their ages range from twenty-five to forty-one years. Three of the men immigrated to Canada at a young age with their families to flee civil wars -- one from Sudan, one from a South American country, and another from an Eastern European country. Of the remaining seven who were born in Canada, two are Cree, two are Metis, two are Caucasian, and one is mixed race from Black and Caucasian parents. They come from all across the country: two grew up and are living in British Columbia, two are in Alberta, three in Saskatchewan, one in Manitoba, one in Ontario, and one was raised and is living in the Maritimes. And they live in all kinds of communities: two are currently living on semi-remote small reserves with a population of 500 band members or less, two are in cities with a population less than 30,000, three are living in medium-sized cities with a population of roughly 300,000, and three are living in large cities with a population of over one million.

It is interesting that most of the participants indicated that it is perfectly natural for ethnic and racial groups to align against one another in their neighbourhoods as well in the gangs. Some spoke openly about their hatred for certain minority groups.

All of them are users and most of them abusers of drugs and alcohol. Only one person was never addicted, although she drinks and smokes weed regularly. Three are still hard-core addicts who for many years have abused crack, alcohol, prescription narcotics, crystal methamphetamine, and anything else they can get their hands on. These three are also still involved in low-level drug dealing and other crimes, including assaults, break and enters, and fencing stolen goods. Two injected morphine and cocaine for a long time; both are clean, but one drinks. Two more have overcome addictions to cocaine and alcohol, although both still drink regularly. The remaining two have stopped abusing alcohol and marijuana; one is clean and the other drinks occasionally. Three of the men, who regularly injected steroids throughout their gang involvement, were heavily involved in the trafficking of steroids and human growth hormones.

The participants played a variety of roles in their gangs. Of the seven men, two were enforcers and debt collectors (each played both roles); two ran a drug crew in their gang; one was a drug, gun, and money transporter; and two were presidents (leaders) of their respective gangs. Of the three women, two founded their own gangs and were leaders, and the third was a soldier who ran a sophisticated cocaine and prostitution network.

The participants also represent the three types of gangs discussed above: six were involved in highly organized mid-level gangs, three were involved in chaotic street gangs, and one ran the Canadian chapter of a multinational organized crime group. Three of the mid-level gang members were associates of Canadian chapters of international outlaw motorcycle gangs. Their own gangs and the biker gangs worked in close partnership in the trafficking of drugs, guns, and women. They also played enforcement and debt collector roles for these biker gangs.

All of them witnessed, participated in, and/or have been victims of savage violence. They witnessed murders or were directly involved in killing someone. Eight took part in torturing people who owed the gang money or who had ripped off a fellow gang member. The remaining two said that they had been present when such attacks took place but did not participate in them. Not only did they inflict violence on other people, but they also harmed themselves: five had attempted suicide multiple times, and the remaining five had taken part in self-destructive behaviours for most of their lives, such as cutting, burning, and punching brick walls with their bare fists or heads.

Nine of the participants reflected the common trait of traumatic childhoods filled with abuse, abandonment, rejection, and parental addictions. Three were adopted and five bounced around in many foster homes, constantly running away and then being sent back to the same or different homes. Six had been sexually abused when they were kids many times by caregivers (adult family members or foster fathers). The one young man who says his parents are good had serious emotional and behavioural disorders as a child, which his parents were unable to address.

In spite of this similar heritage of childhood trauma, their socio-economic backgrounds vary. Four gr

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