There are more than 73 active street gangs in Chicago encompassing between 68,000 and 150,000 members (if you count all the suburbs). They give Illinois the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita gang membership in the country (8 to 11 gangsters per 1,000 residents) and were responsible for 62 percent of all the violent crimes in Chicago last year, according to Chicago Police. They are armed, they are dangerous, and in far too many cases, they are run by 17-year-olds.
For years, the public perception of gangs has been shaped by stereotypes going back to the 1960s. The Blackstone Rangers, Vice Lords and Spanish Lords came out of the turbulent racial conflicts of the late 60’s. For a brief period, each took advantage of (some would say scammed) foundations and federal poverty programs to build their base as community organizations. But it took less than a decade for the older gangs and newer, even more lethal ones to consolidate their power around the drug trade.
The six largest gangs in Chicago, according to the 2012 Chicago Crime Commission GANG BOOK, all came out of that era. They include the Latin Kings (10,000 plus members), Gangster Disciples (10,000 to 30,000 members), Vice Lords (14,000), Black Disciples (4,500), Black P. Stone Nation (7,700), and Four Corner Hustlers (6,500). Most have extensive connections in the suburbs, branches in other cities and states, and even outposts in Mexico, Canada and Puerto Rico where they are now integrated partners in the drug cartels.
Not Your Father’s Black P. Stone Rangers
The flood of drugs into Chicago in the 80s and 90s turned many gangs into sub-rosa corporations that thrived on a paramilitary organizational chart. While the leaders spent their profits on fancy homes in the suburbs, they maintained a strict hierarchy of area managers, lieutenants, corner captains and soldiers that had a virtual stranglehold on many Chicago housing projects. This is the model captured so well in David Simon’s HBO series The Wire and featured on cable documentary series like Gangland.
But it is an outmoded view of what’s happening in gangs across Chicago today. The profits to be had from the drug trade––control of the Robert Taylor Homes alone was said to be worth $1 million a year––fostered deadly gang wars in the 1990s and worse: attention from federal and state prosecutors.
An increasingly active Drug Enforcement Administration (and FBI) began using federal RICO statutes to bust top gang leaders and their key lieutenants. State and federal prisons filled with gang leaders, so many that the prisoners split into alliances to protect themselves: followers of the Latin Kings became “The People” and most everyone else became “The Folk.”
The prison alliances and the rivalries they created filtered back on the street. But the new street leaders didn’t care what their prison-bound superiors had to say. Harsher sentencing (like life) would put them out of action for long periods of time, and the new leaders were ready to freelance within the gang itself––or even with rivals gangs if the drug trade rewards were good enough.
The End of The Projects
Even more unsettling to the gang hierarchy was the decision of the Chicago Housing Authority to tear down its highrise housing projects. When the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes was completed in 2007 and Cabrini-Green in 2011, tens of thousands of families were forced to find accommodations in other neighborhoods.
“These re-locations accelerated a cataclysm in the typical operations and inner workings of street gangs with the city,” the Crime Commission reported. “After being forced out of the housing projects, the gangs attempted to establish themselves in new neighborhoods where, in many instances, rival gangs had long laid claim. If gang members wanted a new home, they had to fight for it.”
But the battle for new turf pitted would-be gang leaders against each other for smaller and less defined territory. “Street gangs, both large and small, have splintered into subgroups, or factions, each with its own distinct leader who controls no more than a few blocks,” the Crime Commission said. “These factions claim the name of the gang under which they were first organized, but they also adopt a new title to set themselves apart.”
The Map, The Colors, The Insignia
In its 2012 GANG BOOK the crime commission provides an excellent overlay of gang territory on a map of all 25 Chicago police districts. The map is an intricate patchwork of colors showing block by block where each of the 73 gangs is active. Along with the map, the GANG BOOK has a listing of all known gangs, their membership, history, insignia, colors, and profile pictures of known leaders.
Chicago residents trying to decipher the gang graffiti on their garage door will learn from the GANG BOOK that an “I” or “M” in the insignia identify a gang as part of the “Insane Family”, an umbrella organization of several small gangs formed by the Spanish Cobras, or the “Mania Family” started by the Maniac Latin Disciples (MLDs). If there is an “A” at the beginning, it stands for “Almighty”; an “N” at the end means Nation. Thus ALKN means Almighty Latin King Nation.
The Rise of Cliques
The most telling sign of the new gang structure are the number of “factions” the Crime Commission has identified in each gang. Among the Gangster Disciples, for instance, the commission counts 250 separate factions; among the Vice Lords, 240; within the Latin Kings, 86. And these are just the major divisions in a few major gangs. Gang affiliations and behavior have proliferated in neighborhood cliques as small as 20 members, and there are now over 1,000 them.
The rise of these “cliques” comes with an ominous warning from the Crime Commission: “Juveniles are now increasing their criminal involvement and holding leadership positions within factions, and it makes the policing of gang activity progressively more complicated, since law enforcement cannot as easily cripple the gang from the top down.”
Many of the new clique leaders are 15 to 17 years old, the commission reported, but they are behaving in traditional gang fashion. Often they have a “gang gun” kept in a secret location that is handed out to 13 and 14-year-old recruits, as a rite of passage, to carry out a gang grudge.
The Effect of Social Media
The new generation of gang leaders, like their contemporaries, are Internet savvy. They have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts and they use them to post pictures of gang parties, tag other gang sites with unwanted posts and pictures (like putting up graffiti in the alley), and instigate attacks on rival gangs from the privacy of their home computer and cell phone. They access Chicago gang websites to read about themselves, and issue anonymous threats in the comments section.
All this leaves a digital trail for authorities to piece together the circumstances surrounding an individual crime, to map gang territories, identify rivals and allies, crack gang code words, and, in some cases, anticipate future crimes. But it would take an effort on the level of a Homeland security monitoring network to effectively use this information to prevent crimes.
Gang Varies Hugely by Neighborhood
In the new gang order, homicides are less a fight for control of the drug trade than a show of power. People die over petty thefts, insulted girlfriends, disrespected turf boundaries, or just sitting on their front porch when two hopheads decide to go at it.
But gang violence is not uniform across Chicago. Steve Bogira in The Reader recently compared the homicide rate in the five wealthiest neighborhoods in Chicago to the five poorest and concluded you are 13 times more likely to be killed in a poor community than a rich one.
The five poorest community in his study were Englewood, East and West Garfield Park, Fuller Park and Riverdale –– where 40 to 60 percent of the residents live below the poverty line. Poverty is an obvious breeding ground for gangs. Broken families, inadequate social services, high dropout rates in school, and lack of job opportunities put kids on the street with no one to respect and nothing to do. No wonder gangs attract them.
Nonetheless, there are citizens willing to stand up to the gangs. In Roseland, Diane Latiker started Kids Off The Block in her living room to keep her own children occupied after school. It has grown into a national model for gang prevention based in no small part by her continuing to walk around her neighborhood asking people how things are going. In countless other neighborhoods, a concerned parent calls the police when he suspects gang activity –– and a murder is prevented. Being aware of what is going on around you is sometimes all it takes.
Breaking The Maniac Latin Disciples
In June 2011, a member of the Maniac Latin Disciples wounded two young girls playing in Avondale Park while he was trying to shoot a rival member of the Latin Kings.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy vowed that he would “eradicate” the gang as an example to other cliques. Over the last year, the Sun-Times reported that Chicago police have made over 2,500 arrests of MLD members; but 90 percent of the arrests are for misdemeanors. “We are arresting the same MLDs multiple times – six to a dozen times,” Deputy Police Chief John Escalante told the Sun-Times. Targeting specific gangs is a popular but not necessarily winning not strategy. It certainly can’t be replicated in all 25 Chicago police districts. And the Sun-Times reported that––although violent crimes dropped for five months when police flooded MLD gang territory with patrol units––they are back a year later to the same level as they were before the shooting.
The best weapon against gang violence is as old as the gangs themselves. An active neighborhood where residents sit on the stoop and watch out for each other’s children is hard for gangsters to penetrate. Discipline your children. Take away their guns. If you think something is awry, call the police. It probably is. Maybe the police will respond – before something bad happens.
And if they don’t, slap your kid upside the head and tell him what my father always told me, “Don’t do anything dumb.”