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The secret world of crime gang initiations

A gang of men wearing masks

If you want to get involved with a serious criminal group, one known for its fraternal nature as much as its innate criminality, you can’t just fill in an online application and sign up.

Most large gangs or criminal organisations have their own rigid and non-negotiable set of procedures and rituals around recruitment. New members are often expected to fulfill some kind of task or duty, or undertake an arcane inauguration of some kind. Often there is a level of secrecy to the proceedings. Almost always, there is illegality involved. After all, these are criminal outfits we’re talking about here.

The rite of passage

Formalising and ritualising entry into the gang or group imitates other great ceremonial events in a person’s life. Think about christenings, bar mitzvahs, weddings, those kinds of milestones. This adds gravitas and cachet to the process, just by association.

Ritualised initiations are often packed with symbolism. True, many more informal criminal gangs may make the entry task something simple, but most larger and more formal organisations will have entire ceremonies full of emblematic gestures and actions. Like with religious groups or secret societies, initiates are sworn in theatrically and told that they’re ‘reborn’. The more complex and dramatic the rite, the more serious and important the whole thing will likely seem to the person and wider group.

If the process involves violence or pain, it’s seen as ‘paying your dues’. It’s an ordeal to tolerate, a price to pay. Coping with the ordeal is seen as transformative, a visual sign of the person’s improvement and the beginning of their journey within the organisation.

Reinforcing the brotherhood

Gangs work best when the connection between members is strong. A ‘family’ atmosphere, where members will die for each other and the honour of the group. Initiation comes with a rush of pride once it’s over, a feeling of community. It also fortifies the rest of the gang each time it happens, reminding them of their oath and commitment.

Preparing initiates for the ceremony, being there when it happens and supporting them afterwards can be a very quick and very effective method for establishing and strengthening bonds within a group. And the best gangs are those that are not only smart, well-organised and hard working, but those that are loyal, trust one another and can work together as a unit.

Keeping out the police

All gangs, criminal organisations, terrorist groups and fringe ensembles of any kind face a common enemy... the government. Infiltration is a real and present danger to any outfit operating on the wrong side of the law. So you want to keep the authorities out of your inner circle.

Take the vast US street gang The Bloods. To get in, a prospect must perform what’s known as ‘a buck fifty’ on a rival gang member or stranger. They’re expected to slash a person’s face as hard and as brutally as they can. We’re talking 100+ stitches, huge scars and potentially life-changing injuries. An undercover cop or federal agent isn’t going to get sign-off from their boss to do that, are they?

Having would-be members prove themselves

One simple way to prove oneself is via submission or a demonstration of self-sacrifice. College fraternity and sorority houses have been infamous for hazing for years. Criminal enterprises that have initiations simply take things up a notch. The Crips take an interesting stance on new recruits. In a brutal rite with a name reminiscent of Freemasonry, newbies are ‘squared in’. Five or six established members will, quite simply, dish out a hefty beating to the kid.

How they take that beating is then evaluated. Did they keep upright? Fight back? Were they in good spirits afterwards? Or did they show weakness…? They’re being assessed.

Also being assessed are those dishing out the beating. If you’ll viciously assault a scared-looking young recruit, perhaps even a friend of yours, then you’re committed to the cause, a useful and dedicated member.

Demonstrating seriousness and hierarchy

Imagine you’re invited to an event. A night at a member’s club, say. To gain entry, all you have to do is sign a form attached to a clipboard at the front door. No sweat, right? Hardly a chore and unlikely to raise your eyebrows or heart rate. Now imagine that the only way in is to be photographed naked and have blood drawn from your palm with a dagger. Okay, now you’re paying attention. This thing is exclusive. It’s serious.

It’s the same thing with gangs. You have to show your intent early. This is a serious group and the guys at the top mean business. Start as you mean to go on.


By no means a principal motivation for the initiation ritual - but sometimes an added bonus - is the leverage factor. Allowing in members opens up the possibility of them leaving the gang. In turn that means they’re at risk of flipping and revealing secrets and details of crimes to law enforcement, which isn’t great for business. To guard against that, you need leverage.

Film all new recruits in the act of a crime and you hold power over them. Now unless the low-level member can hand over adequate information for the authorities to take down senior levels of the enterprise, chances are they can’t excuse a video of their informant killing someone in cold blood.

‘Blood in, blood out’

You’ll have heard this phrase. Serious street gangs - and even more traditional criminal mafias - often close ranks to anyone who hasn’t murdered for the organisation. You must ‘blood in’ (kill someone) to gain entry. Once in, there’s no getting out. The ‘blood out’ doesn’t mean you need to kill again to be allowed to leave. The only way out is via your own death.