Mean Streets: Gangs Going Digital

Imagine being a prisoner in your own neighborhood.

That's how Wichita, Kan., police Chief Norman Williams describes communities struggling with the unexpected and emerging epidemic of gang violence in U.S. cities.

"They feel that there is no way out, that there's no hope, and so they just have to live with it. It has a tremendous impact on quality of life in a in a neighborhood," Williams said of those communities.

Williams says that there's a new generation of gang members, and that they're starting as young as ages 11 to 14.

"The concerns you have with that generation is they do not have a criminal history. And so because they do not have a criminal history, we don't have a lot of information on them," Williams said.

Without that information, Williams says, members of the new gang generation will commit many crimes before they develop criminal records -- acts that will instill fear and danger within many communities.

"What we're finding is a lot of our kids have no respect for life. They don't respect their life, and thereby they don't respect other peoples' lives. They think that the violence is like playing a video game. You turn it on and off. And it's not," he said.

Gang Recruitment Moves Online

According to a recent survey by the Justice Department, there are currently more than 21,000 gangs in the United States. Their membership is 700,000 strong and growing, and they're using the Internet to recruit members.

By posting online content that glorifies the thug lifestyle, gangs are using the Web to recruit -- some using children as young as 8 years old as part of the online recruiting process, known as "Net Banging."

They sell drugs and guns, run car theft and prostitution rings, and use "bling" -- money, cars, and jewelry -- to entice troubled teens from poor neighborhoods, many with little or no family to speak of.

And the types of gangs fueling the country's surge in violence run the gamut: international gangs like MS-13, the Bloods and Crips, motorcycle gangs and local street gangs.

How Gangs Emerge

Chip Burress, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Division, said, "It's not becoming an epidemic, it is an epidemic."

Burress says gang activity "starts small" with a handful of people who "begin to get a little more organized in their patterns of activity."

"They take control of territories and [they] recruit new members. They have to have some mechanism for making money, and usually that's in the drug trade, or the gang, or the firearms trade," Burress said.

"With that, you begin to get numbers," he said, "and you begin to get the type of traffic in an area that brings the standard of living down for the people that are living in that neighborhood."

An Inside Look at Gang Initiation

Undercover FBI video released to ABC News reveals footage from one gang initiation: a group of Bloods gathering with potential recruits in East Orange, N.J.

As their meeting began, the gang's leader, Tewhan Massacre Butler, preached to new recruits.

"I put my life on the line for y'all every day, every day," Butler says. "I am facing the rest of my life in prison for every one of y'all."

Some of the recruits in the video -- many who appear to be teenagers -- are eager to "bang," or join the Bloods.

"I am ready to bang it official," one recruit says.

"Ready to bang for the Blood here," says another.

To join, the initiates must endure an intense beating for at least 31 seconds.

The FBI says the Bloods in the video, known as the "Double II Set," were a particularly violent subset of the gang, murdering more than two dozen people over a three-year period.

FBI special agent "John," who targets the group, said one case in particular continued to haunt him.

"Right here, at this spot, a father was killed in front of his children," he said.

"He was killed trying to protect his son from becoming a member of the Bloods," the special agent said. "The man that killed him told another member of the Bloods, 'Take me to get my gun. I'm gonna show you how to murder somebody.'"

One of the challenges the FBI faced when dealing with the Bloods was that the gang was so open about violence that community members were terrified to come forward.

The FBI says it has dismantled that particular franchise of the Bloods. To date, 42 members have been convicted under federal racketeering laws. Though some communities have not been this lucky, in the last year there have been 500 fewer acts of violence on what had been the gang's turf.

The Federal System

The FBI's Burress says the benefit of having the FBI engaged is access to the federal prison system.

"Gang members who go away to local jails, or even state penitentiaries, go to places where they're not as uncomfortable. They go into structures in prisons that they're very comfortable with." Burress said.

Burress said: "With the federal system, what you get is that gang member's suddenly going to a prison far, far away in a structure where he or she's not comfortable in. As a result, we, I think we do a greater service to the community by putting these guys away in areas where they're not able to continue their criminal enterprise."