BASTA header

Why Youth Join Gangs

Levels of Gang Involvement

Girls and Gangs

Girls and Gangs Videos

En Espanol

Why Do Youth Join Gangs?

Sense of Belonging

Young man thinking

Everybody wants to feel a part of something. If a young person doesn’t develop a sense of belonging through their family, their community, their school, a sport or other extra-curricular activity, they may seek it in a gang. Unlike most social groups the gang accepts a youth regardless of how smart they are, how much money they have or how good looking they may be. They gang accepts young people as they are with open arms. The only requirement is their willingness to participate and to follow the code of ethics.

Family History of Gang Involvement

young boy and father with gang signs

Youth may have parents, uncles, cousins or older siblings already involved in gangs. The gang lifestyle (beliefs, dress, speech, activities) may be ingrained in youth as would any family culture. For youth growing up in such communities, rejecting the gang lifestyle is a difficult choice and may involve disappointing the people they love or look up to the most.


If a youth is being bullied or threatened by a particular person or group, the neighborhood gang may offer protection and security. Youth may also be threatened or intimidated into becoming members of a gang.

Neighborhood Influences

Youth Tagging

Youth who live in gang-infested neighborhoods may be recruited as soon as they step out of their front door, walking to and from school, and in simple everyday activities such as taking out the trash.

Social Influences

Young people often imitate gang members or even join gangs to be a part of a particular social group, or to be accepted by a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend.

Young Man


Young people with too much unsupervised time after school and on the weekends can be easy recruits for the gang. Often they are out on the streets, without adult supervision, and may be drawn to the gang as a way to prevent boredom. Compared to their lives, gangs may seem exciting and even glamorous.

Child holding cards

Economic Opportunity

Youth who feel that their economic futures are bleak may join gangs for money. Between drugs sales, robberies, acting as a look-out or delivering messages or packages, gang activity can seem like fast and even easy money. A young person engaged in this illegal activity may earn more in 15 minutes than their parents may earn in a week.

Gang Party

Access to Free Drugs, Alcohol, Girls & Parties

Gang members offer free drugs and alcohol as an effective recruitment tool. Santa Cruz county gang- involved youth say this is one of the primary reasons why they initially got caught up in gangs.

BASTA home Santa Cruz County Office of Education Santa Cruz Police Department Watsonville Police Department Santa Cruz County Gang Task Force Criminal Justice Council