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The gangster next door

In the big cities, gangs were rooted in race and ethnicity. That’s not so true as they spread into smaller communities, where housing is cheaper and there’s less competition in the drug trade.

Profit is the loyalty migrating gangs hold true.

So the first signs of gang presence — the graffiti on the notebooks and school lockers, kids dressing gangsta style in baggy sports team and hip-hop designer clothing — could be nothing more than the play of wannabes. But the logical progression of true gang incursion is unmistakable: the sale of crack cocaine and smokable heroin and, finally, driveby shootings. “It is chic and popular to be a gang member for these younger kids until the bullets start flying,’’ says Master Sgt. Mike Bernardine of the state police.

No community is immune. Today, there are 72 recognized street gangs operating in Illinois. Most are contingents of the major coalitions formed in the 1980s — the people and the folks.

The “people” gangs — such as the El Rukns, Latin Kings and the Vice Lords — tie a five-pointed star into graffiti, while the “folks” — such as the Black Gangster Disciples — use a six-pointed star.

But the hard-core gang members will not likely announce their arrival in town, says writer Anne Keegan. “This isn’t a little boy putting graffiti on your garage door.’’

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Deadly migration

Chicago police are cracking down on drugs and murder. So gangs are following the dollar signs to suburbs and small towns.

by Anne Keegan

“We are seeing a gang migration out of Chicago. The vast majority of it is heading south, some west. Black gangs, Hispanic gangs, some whites. It started three years ago when a number of big gang leaders wanted to get out from the watchful eye of the Chicago police. So they moved out to places where nobody knew who they were and the police departments were small and ill-equipped. They figured they could get away with more out there without being caught.”

Michael Smith, deputy chief of special prosecutions,
Cook County state’s attorney’s office

“Everyone I talk to is looking for a small town. The small towns don’t know the tricks yet. In Chicago these days you got one good year, maybe, when you can buy yourself a Corvette and a motorcycle. One good summer selling drugs, then the police close the spot down, close the whole neighborhood down, and for one good summer you catch 30 years on a drug conspiracy. Chicago ain’t playing games no more. In a small town you can play games forever.”

“DRE,” former Chicago gang member, now living in Indiana

Well, things are starting to change in Chicago. And as they change there, an awful lot of other places are going to be affected. Cities miles down the interstate, suburbs just across the city line, towns, little and big, near and sometimes far, are going to have to face this fact.

There is a migration, subtle but real. And it’s becoming noticeable. The notorious Chicago street gangs are heading out to newer and, in many cases, more naive pastures. “Like the old-time gypsies,” says one Chicago street cop, “when it gets too hot, they move away from the heat and out of town.” The migration is discernible, not just to Chicago police, but to destination towns that are starting to become concerned about this influx of outsiders with big city ways.

The reasons for the movement are complex, for it isn’t limited to Illinois; it’s happening nationwide. Chicago, however, has lost patience with the organized crime that has evolved as gangs become more sophisticated and network out to suburbs and rural areas, which enables them to profit from America’s insatiable appetite for illegal drugs. Chicago simply wants them gone.

Chicago’s straight-talking new chief of patrol, James Maurer, has 10,000 troops under his command who are enforcing his warning: We’ll make it so unprofitable for you to operate a dope spot on the street in this city that you will have no choice but to move to Iowa.

“We have the worst gang problem in the country,” Maurer says. “But the message is out. Their heyday is over. We are going to close down their street operations and give them no choice but to stay out of business or move somewhere else. We’re going to make it so hard for them to sell drugs here that it will be like trying to open a candy shop on a diabetic ward.”

This time, Chicagoans are starting to believe it. The newly appointed Chicago police superintendent, Philip Cline, has begun implementing many new aggressive procedures, which are making it more than uncomfortable for Chicago’s deeply embedded street gangs to continue to wreak havoc in that city’s neighborhoods.

Between 60 percent and 70 percent of the murders in Chicago are attributed to gangs. Their presence has caused the city to become, among other things, America’s murder capital. That status had not made Mayor Richard Daley at all happy. He wants that changed and the problem fixed now. But it’s not so easy. Gangs, drugs and guns are inextricably intertwined, and have been for years. More guns were confiscated in Chicago last year — over 10,000 — than any other city in America.

“You can’t talk about a gang problem without talking about the narcotic problem. You can’t talk about the narcotic problem without talking about the gun problem,” says Michael Smith, deputy chief of special prosecutions in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. “You can’t peel one off from the other. And the result of all three is violence and death.”

“Gangs aren’t just a bunch of teenagers hanging out on the corner anymore,” says Commander Mike Cronin of Chicago’s gang intelligence unit. “They are not street gangs anymore. They are a business. In the 30 years that I have been on the street, they’ve gone from gang banging and shooting at each other to selling dope and turning it into big business.

“Gangs aren’t about gang colors anymore like they used to be. They are all about one color — green — the color of money. Street gangs have become dope crews. Gangs are beyond graffiti.”

Gang leaders no longer boast they are gang leaders or admit to gang affiliations, says Cronin. They don’t wear hats cocked to one side or jewelry hanging off their necks. “They want to be anonymous. That’s why they started moving out, where nobody knows them or what they are doing.

“They don’t drive flamboyant cars. Instead, they often rent them. They buy nice houses whose lawns are mowed. They look like a working guy and don’t want to attract attention. When they move out to the suburbs, or a smaller town, they aren’t touching the drugs themselves that much, so it’s hard to catch them.

“There’s a guy named ‘Psycho’ who runs a street [drug] operation in Chicago, but he’s out in one of the Iowa towns. The police there know all about him. He has a $250,000 home, but they can’t catch him doing anything illegal out there. He still comes here to Chicago, don’t get me wrong, and he’s still a leader with the New Breeds selling narcotics. The narcotics unit just shut down one of his spots for the second time but didn’t get him. He’s one of many like that.”

Gangs have evolved over decades from social to corporate, says John Firman, director of research for the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Washington, D.C. “In the major cities, where there have traditionally been gangs, the police have gang units and [have] learned more and developed some savvy, so the logical question for the gang leader is, ‘Where can I go and get out of the spotlight?’ Especially when you have a big brawny police force after you. They move to the smaller town. The problem is there are 14,000 police departments in America with less than 24 officers. They are scraping for resources. How are they going to deal with the gang problem?

“What is going to hurt gangs eventually is the Homeland Security technology developed because of the need for intelligence sharing among agencies. Well, that intelligence sharing doesn’t have to be limited to terrorists, it can include gangs. Big police agencies will be able to web in [link to] the little ones with information. But, if I am a small town officer and I’m not watching out on my beat, then the gang problem is going to sneak up on me, web or not.”

DuPage County Assistant State’s Attorney Paul Marchese says, “As long as I have been here — and that is seven years — the majority of the gang members came from Chicago.”

“This gang migration is across the collar counties around Chicago, and it has grown,” says Marchese, who heads that county’s gang prosecution unit. “For them, there is less emphasis on territory and more on making money.”

Looking at a map of Illinois, with stars to mark the existence of a gang of some kind, there is nary a county that is not part of the galaxy — a vast Milky Way, whose great center is Chicago, with rogue offshoots trailing all the way down to the Ohio River.

A 2003 study conducted by the Gang Crime Prevention Center out of the office of the Illinois attorney general queried more than 1,000 police officers statewide in 290 jurisdictions, and the majority of the individual officers and their agencies reported gang migration in their districts. In one phase of the study, 86 percent of the agencies reported migration into their gang population.

The study found that gangs are a major presence in communities throughout Illinois. Respondents from 222 law enforcement agencies reported an average of five gangs and 67 gang members in their jurisdictions.

The number of gangs in individual jurisdictions ranged from none to 80, and the number of members per gang ranged from none to 3,445.

Respondents to the study agreed on three reasons for migrations into local gangs: 83 percent of the agencies cited family moving into the area; 69 percent stated the reason was to be near family or friends; 37 percent credited an expanding drug market.

“Therefore,” the report stated, “the primary reasons for individuals to migrate to gangs are for non-gang related reasons. For the most part, gang members move for the same reasons that non-gang members move.”

Gang experts in Chicago might agree in part with that conclusion, but they have a different perspective. “Of course, when they go, they have to have somewhere to go,” says Commander Cronin. “They don’t just throw a dart at the map and head out. They know somebody there. A girlfriend, a cousin, a friend they met in the penitentiary. When they are from Chicago, they commute back and forth — Minneapolis, Des Moines, Indianapolis and back to Chicago.”

Commander Wayne Wiberg, who headed Chicago’s narcotics unit, says, “We can see some of them going, but they are not going away, like disappearing, just moving.”

“I’ve talked to some officers from the towns outside Chicago and they hate us because they say we’re sending them these guys, and I respond, ‘Believe me. I’d like to send you more,’” says Wiberg, who now works in the police academy. “They get these gang members out of Chicago and all of a sudden they have a drug problem. Not just people living there who are using drugs, but people living there that are selling.”

Officer Bruce Malkin is with a five-man unit that works gangs in West Chicago, a DuPage County suburb. He is seeing a large migration of Hispanic gangs into the Midwest from California. West Chicago, population 25,000, has had five murders in the last three years and four out of the five were gang-related. His unit, which is large for a small force, was approved by citizen referendum to deal with escalating gang violence.

“The key to comprehending what is happening with the gangs is street intelligence,” he says. “You have to know what to look for in order to find it. A lot of these gangs now are not overt in the way they act.’’

There are several reasons why some gang leaders and lower-echelon gang members are migrating out of the inner city of Chicago. One reason is the systematic tearing down of the high-rise public housing projects whose dank hallways and empty apartments became rat warrens and hideaways for the gangs. They served not only as incubators of gang crime but as recruitment centers for the very young, and often were as impenetrable to law enforcement as a moated medieval castle with its drawbridge raised.

The second reason is the massive gentrification of the city that has spilled out to Chicago’s notorious West Side. Though small in geographic size, the West Side and surrounding neighborhoods are responsible annually for 1 percent of all murders in the free world, says Maurer. On its eastern rim, where broken skeletons of houses and sagging two flats once lined the streets, new condominiums have sprouted by the hundreds. Yuppies have replaced the poor. Briefcase- carrying whites now stand on corners where thugs used to hang. The gangs have moved somewhere, perhaps only blocks away, for the West Side’s Fillmore Police District is still considered one of the most dangerous sections of real estate in America. Where all these thousands and thousands of displaced or migrating people have gone, nobody is sure. There is no census for gang members.

Then there are the moves that the new police superintendent is making. Cline reactivated a gang intelligence unit and promoted to its head a veteran of the street and an old hand with gangs, Mike Cronin, who, when he stops a young gang member on the street, often had locked up his father, arrested his grandfather and may have known his grandmother when she was selling marijuana out of a candy store. What Cronin is looking for is intelligence on drugs, guns and, most important, murder.

Cline has taken the 25 district tactical units — which he says “are the young hard chargers” who often had been used for frivolous details such as parades — and now sends them as a concentrated battalion to problem areas. He has ordered the top brass — all commanders — to be out on the street Friday and/or Saturday nights when gang violence has its highest potential so that they can see for themselves what is going on rather than just reading a report about it while sitting at a desk on Monday morning.

Every three weeks, he starts a street corner conspiracy case on a drug spot using undercover body wires and videotaping equipment. Once the corner operation is raided and shut down, it stays down. Cline puts blinking “blue light” cameras on a pole on the corner and a squad that sits there watching. And to cover these closed-down drug spots and others still in operation, Cline has ordered 1,000 desk-bound officers to spend some time on the street. Once every five weeks for one week, they rotate out on the street and sit on drug spots, in uniform, in a marked car. It puts a serious damper on business.

Flashing blue lights with revolving cameras have been installed on the main West Side thoroughfares where gangs have traditionally gathered, and occasionally rioted. On a Saturday night, and a warm one for February, there was no one hanging around or loitering, even near the eerily blinking blue lights. Big brother, the police, or somebody was watching.

Things are indeed starting to change in Chicago. And what happens there, in the city with the greatest gang violence problem in America, could have repercussions throughout the state and beyond.

As “Dre,” a former Chicago gang member says, “They moving out to make more money cause you don’t get caught. Besides, you might be a punk in Chicago, but you’re a chief in a small town.”

“There is a need for a national gang strategy,” says prosecutor Smith. “This could become an epidemic because there are no borders for gangs, and it’s not just a problem of big cities like Chicago anymore. Big city police departments are experienced, the smaller ones aren’t. The answer to how to deal with this problem is as complex as the problem itself.”


Anne Keegan is a Chicago writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for more than 25 years. She is currently writing On the Street Doing Life, a book about police and gangs on Chicago’s West Side.

Illinois Issues, April 2004

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