MS-13 and the Other Most Dangerous Gangs in America

Tattoos and gang sign of Latin Kings gang
The Latin Kings originally started in Chicago. | Javier Ramirez/Wikimedia Commons

America is home to some dangerous places. We have our sketchy cities and states where you’ll want to watch your back, even though the “bad” parts of the United States tend to be much friendlier than the dangerous areas in other countries. Still, we have a culture that has ingrained a “watch your back” type of mentality. While generally trusting and friendly, we Americans retain a sense of skepticism. We know that anybody could turn out to be a cloaked villain of some sort. Or, they might even be in a gang.

Gangsters can be funny and relatable, and their crews embody a sense of freedom that few of us rarely get to experience. But that doesn’t mean that real gangs — the street gangs, prison gangs, and outlaw motorcycle clubs that are rooting around among us — are full of nice guys. In fact, many are extremely dangerous.

Below, we’ll take a look at 15 of the most dangerous and notorious gangs in the U.S. The list isn’t ranked in any way, as it’s hard to try and come up with some sort of parameters for how “dangerous” something is. But in law enforcement circles, these are the gangs that can be dangerous if you somehow find yourself face to face with them.

1. Latin Kings

  • The Latin Kings started up in Chicago in the 1950s. 

With an estimated 20,000-35,000 members, the Latin Kings is mostly comprised of Latinos from a number of different countries. Originally, the gang started up in Humboldt Park in Chicago, with the coming together of Latino groups to defend themselves against discrimination and violence. Since then, though, the gang has adopted violence as its own. Look out for the colors black and gold, and the group’s famous “sacred crown” insignia.

Next: A fearsome outlaw motorcycle gang.

2. The Mongols

Machine Gun Preacher Sam Childers and Big Al Aceves, founder of The Mongols Motorcycle Club
The founders of the club started it in the 1960s. | Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
  • The Mongols Motorcycle Club was originally founded in California in the late 1960s.

For more information on the Mongols, you can check out their official website. You can even order merch and check out chapters. They’ve even trademarked their logo. It’s an outlaw motorcycle club that’s a bit more privy to the law than you’d think. The club is estimated to have between 1,000 and 1,500 members and operates mostly in the American West. It’s also known to be involved in all sorts of criminal activity, including engaging in violence with other biker clubs.

Next: A huge gang from the Los Angeles area.

3. 18th Street Gang

A former 18th Street gang member attends a class on biblical education
They span the whole country. | Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images
  • 18th Street goes by a variety of names, including Calle 18Barrio 18Mara 18, and La 18.

If anybody is willing to give MS-13 a run for its money, it’s 18th Street. The gang has a presence in numerous states, spanning the whole country. It’s mostly comprised of Latinos from Mexico and Central America, but its main base of operations (and birthplace) is Los Angeles. It was originally founded in the ’60s and has been tied to numerous organized crime activities.

Next: A drug cartel.

4. Los Zetas

Ivan Velazquez Caballero, aka "Z 50" or "El Taliban" (2nd-R), senior leader in the Zetas drug cartel and member of the Gulf cartel
The drug cartel is one of the most advanced in Mexico. | Alfredo Estrella/AFP/GettyImages
  • Operating along the U.S. border, the Zetas have been called “the most technologically advanced, sophisticated and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico.”

You’ve likely heard of the Zetas before, as they’re one of the most brutal drug cartels in the world. We’ll spare you the details, but they’re famous for making rather gory “examples” out of people — including children. Their history is fascinating too, as, at one time, many members were actually a part of the Mexican army which fought against the cartels. But learning their methods, those military members became their own cartel and took over.

Next: A white supremacist group.

5. Aryan Brotherhood

aryan brotherhood tattoo
The gang has 15,000 members in and out of jail. | United States Department of Justice
  • This band of white supremacists has an estimated 15,000 members in and out of prison.

White supremacists have been in the news lately, and that includes people associated with the Aryan Brotherhood. Founded as a prison gang more than 50 years ago in the notorious San Quentin State Prison, the Aryan Brotherhood makes up a small percentage of inmates around the country. But the group is responsible for 18-25% of all the murders within state and federal prisons.

Next: Another fearsome outlaw motorcycle gang.

6. Hells Angels

Members of the "Hells Angels" motorcycle club ride their motorbikes
They’re one of the most famous motorcycle gangs. | Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images
  • The Hells Angels may be the most famous outlaw motorcycle club and were founded shortly after the end of World War II.

Another motorcycle gang with its own website and incorporations, the Hells Angels have a worldwide presence. Officially established in 1948 in California, the Hells Angels now have a presence in 56 countries. The history of the Hells Angels is long and rich — with too much detail to go into here. Suffice it to say that they’ve been involved in just about everything you can think of, and it’d be worth it to pick up a book about the club, like the one written by Hunter S. Thompson.

Next: A Chicago-based street gang.

7. Gangster Disciples

Gangster disciples street graffiti
They’re the sum of two smaller gangs. | Supaflyrobby/Wikimedia Commons

The Gangster Disciples is actually the sum of two smaller gangs: The High Life Supreme Gangsters and the Black Disciples. In the late 1960s, leaders of the two combined them into a larger street gang, which has been on the loose ever since. The Gangster Disciples are yet another Chicago-based gang, and though they’ve been relatively quiet in recent years, members still occasionally make headlines.

Next: A fearsome outlaw motorcycle gang.

8. Vagos

Motorcycle headlight
They’re mostly out on the West Coast, but have expanded. | joey333/iStock/Getty Images

Yet another motorcycle gang, the Vagos can typically be found wearing green and causing havoc in and around the western U.S. Formed in California in the mid-60s, the Vagos have since expanded around the country and even internationally. They were originally called the Psychos before a few members broke off and began calling themselves “Vagos.” And like the Hells Angels, many original members were former military men.

Next: A New York-based gang.

9. Trinitarios

the bars of a jail cell looking down the hallway
They started as a prison gang. | Richard Bouhet/AFP/Getty Images
  • The Trinitarios are also known as 3ni.

The Trinitarios are another gang, like the Aryan Brotherhood, that was born in prisons and has since spilled into the streets. In this case, the gang is based in New York and is mostly comprised of Dominican immigrants and their relatives. They’ve done it all, too, from murder to rape, kidnapping, and even drug trafficking. In a score for justice, however, the group’s former leader was sentenced to 19 years in prison a few years back for his role in a racketeering conspiracy.

Next: The Mexican Mafia.

10. Mexican Mafia

Silhouette of barbed wires and watchtower of prison.
Another gang started in prison. | Gatsi/iStock/Getty Images
  • The Mexican Mafia is relatively small but packs a powerful (and frightening) punch.

The name is a bit misleading, as the Mexican Mafia is yet another product of the U.S. prison system. It’s mostly centralized in the federal and California prisons systems, but the approximately 400 individuals in the gang punch above their weight. It was originally formed by 13 Hispanic gangsters in the late 1950s and is notable for its ability to form loose alliances with groups like the Aryan Brotherhood.

Next: A famous L.A. street gang.

11. Bloods

Blood gang sign
They’re well known for their gang sign. | Shawn Ishihara/Wikimedia Commons
  • The Bloods are one of the most notorious gangs in American history.

Original Blood Family, or the Bloods as they’re commonly known, are an L.A. street gang known for their distinctive hand signs and red attire. After being formed in the early 1970s, the Bloods spread all across the country. They’re also famous for their well-known rivalry with another L.A. street gang, the Crips. Today, there are an estimated 20,000-25,000 Bloods spread throughout the country.

Next: The Bloods’ chief rivals.

12. Crips

Crips Money seizure
They have been caught laundering thousands. | Drug Enforcement Administration/Wikimedia
  • Original Crip Homies were founded in the late ’60s in L.A.

Like the Bloods, the Crips are seemingly a relic of a bygone era. But they’re still very much around, and very active. There is as many as 50,000 still combing the streets around the country, and its members have been involved in murders, racketeering, and drug trafficking. Though they’re originally a California product, many young Crips are in and around New York, with arrests sometimes making the news.

Next: Are you a Sopranos fan?

13. Cosa Nostra

Special squad police officers show a picture of Mafia boss Domenico Raccuglia after he was brought by police following his arrest to the police headquarters in Palermo
They definitely didn’t disappear with Al Capone. | Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty Images
  • Better known as The Mob, or The Mafia.

The Mob, or Cosa Nostra, is actually the Sicilian Mafia crime syndicate. Of course, the American Mafia is an offshoot, which is what we typically think of when we discuss the Mob, and is made up of Italian-Americans and others. They’re mostly spread around the east coast, in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and over the years, have engaged in all sorts of criminal activity. In the U.S., there are an estimated 3,000 “made men” comprising the Five Families in New York, and groups operating around the country.

Next: This street gang is allied with the Mexican Mafia. 

14. Florencia 13

They were started way back in the 1930s. | Cas Photography/iStock/Getty Images
  • Another L.A. street gang, Florencia 13 is allied with the Mexican Mafia.

Florencia 13 is named after Florence — the area in California from which it originates. A for the 13? The letter “M” is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, and it’s meant as an homage to the Mexican Mafia. The gang was established way back in the 1930s by Mexican-Americans, and has a long history of attacking African-Americans in South Central L.A. There are an estimated 10,000 members currently, located all around the country.

Finally: Perhaps the most feared gang of them all.

15. MS-13

They work close to the White House. | Mara Salvatrucha/Wikimedia Commons
  • There are as many as 10,000 members of Mara Salvatrucha operating in 46 states.

MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, is a violent gang mostly comprised of Salvadorans. They’re not a very old gang but have quickly made a name for themselves due to their distinctive tattoos and brutal crime sprees. They’re involved in trafficking and robberies, and are known to be very violent as well. Some MS-13 members have even been terrorizing communities only miles from the White House in Washington D.C.

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