Using gang activity on social media to drive intelligence-led policing

Known as “cyberbanging,” gangs are recruiting new members, intimidating rivals, promoting criminal activity and advertising their brand online


Editor's note: In resource-strapped times, intelligence-led policing is a key to identifying and investigating gang activity. This special coverage series reviews strategies departments can deploy to take a data-driven approach to reducing gang-related crime.

By Joseph J. Kolb, P1 Contributor

Over the past 20 years there has been an increasingly effective use of social media by street gangs. (Photo/YouTube)
Over the past 20 years there has been an increasingly effective use of social media by street gangs. (Photo/YouTube)

The ever-expanding reliance on social media has transcended banal conversation between friends and family to the more sinister realm of gang-related criminal activity, requiring law enforcement to stay ahead of emerging trends and platforms.

“If your law enforcement agency has yet to incorporate social media investigations as a routine step during your investigative process, your agency is falling behind and missing out on a gold mine of intelligence gathering,” according to Aaron Concepcion, a correctional sergeant in New York with 15 years of service,  five of which as the head gang investigator assigned to an intelligence center. 

Social media platforms

Over the past 20 years there has been an increasingly effective use of social media by street gangs.

According to the National Gang Investigators Association, the most popular platforms are Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Google, Flickr, WhatsApp and kik.

In what is referred to as “cyberbanging,” gangs use the broad reach of social media to recruit new members, intimidate rivals, promote criminal activity, advertise their brand, communicate between members, brag about accomplishment to validate street credibility/dominance, and antagonize rivals.

One aspect increasingly frustrating to address is the communication capabilities of the PlayStation4 and XBox Live where players can communicate with each other not only locally but internationally via the game making it an extremely disturbing modality for transnational gangs such as MS 13 who can communicate with leadership in El Salvador with virtual impunity because of the difficulty involved in tapping into the system.

A recent case in New Mexico found narco traffickers using social media to run drugs from Ciudad Juarez into the U.S. In the federal case, 14 residents of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and a Mexican national are facing federal heroin trafficking charges as the result of a two-year, multi-agency investigation into Jesus Salvador Otero-Martinez, 32, of Ciudad Juarez, the alleged source of heroin supply for numerous street-level heroin traffickers in Las Cruces. This alleged heroin trafficking operation continuously provided heroin to couriers who smuggled the drug in their body cavities from Ciudad Juarez into El Paso, Texas, and Las Cruces, where it was delivered to street-level dealers. According to court filings, the defendants used social media messaging platforms to facilitate their heroin trafficking activities. 

In gang-plagued Chicago, Lamanta Reese, 19, was gunned down in May 2017 after posting a YouTube video disparaging a rival gang, which included a possibly misconstrued emoji that his shooter believed was an insult against his mother.

The Mexican cartels have become disturbingly effective in their social media sophistication. The notorious Los Zetas have tracked down and murdered at least four bloggers posting opposition. This includes a 39-year-old woman who was decapitated and two men hanged from an overpass with a sign saying, “This is going to happen to all internet snitches. Pay attention, I’m watching you!”

Online tools for LE

As daunting as the task may seem, law enforcement has been effective in its efforts to conduct surveillance and interdiction operations. The new generation of tech-savvy millennials joining the ranks of law enforcement are more in tune with social media trends.

Concepcion says he has utilized a wide variety of online tools: “There’s no one-stop-shop or sole technique for mining information online. You might find success with a particular technique on one case, and then find it unsuccessful on another,” he said.

There are various subscription-based social media analytic software and mining programs used to geographically track open source social media pages, like Media Sonar or Geofeedia. There are also many free resources Concepcion has found to be effective. One such example is Inteltechniques.com, which provides a range of online investigative tools.

“You would be surprised at the amount of information you can acquire by simply running a name on Pipl.com,” said Concepcion.

While most gang members attempt to conceal their identity and rarely use their real name on social media, searching the profiles of their family, friends and visitors who are less cautious often leads directly to the suspect or provides valuable intelligence.

Social media surveillance

There is no shortage of operational successes utilizing strategic social media monitoring.

In June 2014, NYPD used 1 million Facebook posts in its largest recorded gang raid when officers stormed the General Ulysses S. Grant and Manhattanville housing projects in West Harlem, arresting 40 suspects charged with crimes including murder, assault, and conspiracy in a 145-count indictment.

Another successful case comes from San Diego, California, where members of the West Coast Crips were arrested after some posted selfies that were taken at murder scenes to Facebook; 56 gang members were charged with racketeering and conspiracy to distribute drugs and guns.

“Mining social media may not always hand you a home run like the above cases, but it can provide you with pieces of the puzzle, like a photo for facial recognition, gang affiliations, associations or current locations,” said Concepcion.

Conducting social media surveillance does take departmental commitment, but is surprisingly simple to implement.

Concepcion suggests departments choose at least two officers and begin sending them for training. Next, start searching for suspects they’re already familiar with and continue mining for information.

“If there is a particular gang in your area, I’d research and decipher their lingo, as well as read through their lessons if possible,” he said. “You can execute a simple hashtag search on google or Instagram using the same lingo such as #MS13 #BlazingBilly.”

Create files and utilize programs like the snipping tool that comes with most Windows-based computers, and take screen shots as you go. Using the snipping tool also saves the date and time stamps your activity. There is no doubt you will come across pages with photos of familiar suspects, guns and drugs. Your biggest issue will not be finding the activity, but organizing the information and identifying the suspects.

Other considerations for effective social media investigations include the following:

  • Must be comprehensive and look at known or suspected outlets;
  • Must be familiar with gang terminology to better comprehend message content;
  • Can be used to forecast criminal activity;
  • Can be used to disrupt criminal activity;
  • Can be used to locate suspects; undisciplined or brazen gangs will post exploits;
  • “Friends” can be used effectively for link analysis.

About the author
Joseph J. Kolb, MA, is the executive director for the Southwest Gang Information Center, master instructor for the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and instructor in the Criminal Justice program at Western New Mexico University.

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