Unearthing an underground empire: A city divided

Art & design by E.N. Rodriguez

By Managing Editor

Click here to read Part I of Unearthing an Underground Empire.

When drugs infiltrated Chicago’s gangs in the late 1980s, they brought prosperity to gang leaders. Moving pounds of crack-cocaine and raking in thousands of dollars a day, the men who controlled the drug trade were at the height of their careers—until it all came crashing down in the mid-1990s.

At that time, local and federal law enforcement began aggressively targeting and jailing gang leaders, stripping the organizations of their most powerful assets and leaving young members without guidance. Some tried to assume the vacancies, but power struggles quickly led large gangs to divide into smaller factions, birthing a raucous generation with allegiance to no one but themselves.

“The guys today is all about me. It ain’t about us, community,” said Aaron Wright, 42, a former chief enforcer of the Mickey Cobras. “They don’t even know who they are, so you got one guy that’s blind leadin’ all the blind dudes.”

Today, Chicago has hundreds of gang factions—a significant increase from just a few decades ago when there were only about a dozen gangs, according to Robert Lombardo, a retired Chicago Police Department officer and professor of criminal justice at Loyola University.

“I almost hate to say it, but when they were more monolithic there was better control of the gang members by the gangs’ leaders,” Lombardo said. “Now that they’ve splintered into so many different factions, that element of informal social control really is gone. They’re constantly fighting with each other for space and over silly things that may not have happened when they were all, as they say, riding under the same symbol.”

When leaders fell, young gang members grew particularly unruly with no one to keep them in line, said Maurice McFarlin, a gang expert and professor at Northeastern Illinois University. He said some young people living on the South Side turn to gangs because they lack stability in their everyday lives.

“These are people who are fragile and feel anonymous in society,” McFarlin said. “There’s extreme fear in this younger group, and they feel like they’ve got to do something because the world is hostile toward them and they’ve got to take it into their own hands to settle it.”

McFarlin said gangs provide society’s most disadvantaged people with a sense of community, even if it is a criminal one.

Poor social conditions are at the root of gangs, McFarlin said, explaining that inadequate education, lack of jobs and broken families all lead young people to join. He said people living in such conditions feel ostracized from mainstream society, so they resort to crime to support themselves.

Lack of infrastructure also fuels gang activity, Wright said, contending that many neighborhoods, especially on the South Side, are burdened with neglected areas that cause gang members to act our of frustration with their surroundings. “If you got a desert zone in the neighborhood and there ain’t nothin’ but rats, roaches, Negros and a–holes, what you expect is gonna happen?” Wright said.

Wright, whose gang operated out of Robert Taylor Homes—a Chicago Housing Authority project on State Street between 39th and 54th streets that the city vacated in 2005 and demolished in 2007—said local politicians have historically ignored the South Side and other blighted areas, instead directing funding to more affluent neighborhoods.

The destruction of CHA housing projects illustrates the way the city views low-income residents, Wright said, asserting that institutionalized racism is at the root of such actions.

“As long ass you have racism, white supremacy and extreme poverty in black communities, that feeds gangs,” McFarlin said. “As long as society feeds those words—gangs, gangbanger, drug dealer—they’ll continue to internalize it and glamorize it and glorify it and engage in that behavior.”

McFarlin said although society looks down on gangs, members engage in illicit endeavors, such as selling drugs and killing, because it gives them a sense of validation.

“Some of these killings really aren’t gang-related, they’re personal,” McFarlin said. “A major part of it is [defending their] masculinity. They can say, ‘I’m a man because I’ve killed somebody. People know I’m a shooter and that means a lot to me.'”

Shootings and violence have become standard with the influx of factions because the current generation is more reckless than the previous one, trading traditional structure for their own definition of gangs, said Edward Robinson, 32, a leader of the Conservative Vice Lords.

Division has scattered branches of major gangs throughout the city, weakening them through decentralization, Robinson said. 

Despite the similarities in their names to parent gangs—Vice Lords factions, for example, include the Renegade Vice Lords, Cicero Insane Vice Lords and Undertakes Vice Lords—factions are loosely connected, Robinson said.

“We used to have nationwide meetings and every Vice Lord in the city would be present at this meeting,” Robinson said. “That hasn’t taken place in about three years [because] we branched off into cliques.”

The Vice Lords are native to North Lawndale, but its estimated 240 factions extend into the South and West sides, according to the Chicago Crime Commission’s 2012 Gang Book.

Now with so many divisions, controlling an entire neighborhood is impossible; gangs are lucky if they are able to claim more than a few blocks, said Larry Burns, 33, a former member of the Black P Stones with existing gang ties. his name has been changed for this article.

Because each faction controls such a tiny area and is surrounded by so many other gangs, historic rivalries have fallen to the wayside, Burns said. Even basic distinctions such as People Nation and Folk Nation—two rival alliances that have divided Chicago’s street gangs since the late 1970s—are lost on the cur- rent generation, Burns said.

Loyalties have shifted dramatically, Robinson said, describing how members of opposing gangs sometimes partner to commit crimes. Setting aside their differences for profits would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

“How could you rub shoulders with an opp and get money with this opp and break bread with this opp when your fellow brother is f–ked up somewhere? Where’s the loyalty? Where’s the unity?” Robinson said.

As gang members become increasingly focused on individual pursuits, tension among factions continues to escalate, resulting in violent conflicts over superficial matters like who is allowed to sell drugs on a certain street corner, Lombardo said.

Petty conflicts stem from personal clashes, Lombardo said, so police have a limited role in resolving them because the disputes often transcend the issue of gangs.

“The solution to the gangs, and [Police Superintendent Garry] McCarthy has said it in the media, is not police,” Lombardo said. “We can control it as best we can, but it’s really social problems that create gangs. Social workers and the mayor and society have to solve social problems, and police are the ones who have to sweep up all the problems that fall through the cracks.”

Lombardo said there has been a drop-off in small crimes like robberies and thefts, but more serious crimes like drug traffick- ing and homicides have been on the rise in the last decade—a shift that requires different types of policing, he said. For ex- ample, there were once 70 officers working in the narcotics unit compared to 400 today, Lombardo said, which demonstrates the need for a strong police presence at the ground level.

In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and McCarthy announced the CPD’s Gang Violence Reduction Strategy, which includes tearing down abandoned buildings where gangs congregate and assigning more beat cops to patrol the streets in lieu of deploying specialized gang units to periodically drop in on crime-ridden areas.

The revised strategy also requires all district commanders to oversee an annual gang audit of their police district that logs territorial borders, gang names, faction names, faction sizes, alliances, conflicts, organizational levels and propensity for violence.

“If a shooting occurs at 13th [Street] and Central Park [Av- enue], police know right away that that’s a Black Disciples cor- ner and hopefully they’ll have a list of all the members there,” Lombardo said. “Right away they’ll have pictures that go to names of people who are potential suspects or persons of interest because they are part of that faction.”

In some ways, the advent of factions simplifies things for police because the officers who patrol a certain area regularly encounter the same gang members, so they are able to more easily identify gang-related activity within their district, Lombardo said. However, the number of factions coupled with their lack of centralized leadership often makes it difficult for police to pinpoint who is at the source of the crimes, he added.

“Before, if [the police] targeted the Vice Lords and they worked on the leadership, that’s where all the drugs came through and then were filtered down to the members,” Lombardo said. “Now you’ve got a hundred different groups opposed to just a handful of major gang leaders and you have to figure out where the drugs are coming from.”

With the nation’s largest gang membership—an estimated 68,000–150,000, according to the CPD’s CLEAR data system—Chicago’s gang population does not appear to be shrinking despite its rocky organization.

In the past, Lombardo said, gang members have typically moved on after realizing the risks of imprisonment or death are simply not worth it. However, he said today’s lack of factory and construction jobs has led gang members to remain in the cycle of crime well into adulthood.

“As groups get assimilated into society, history has shown young people move out of gangs,” Lombardo said. “As soon as one group every three generations works its way up to social mobility, there’s another group that kind of falls in behind them and takes over those gang jobs.”

As long as society perpetuates the social conditions that compel people to devote their lives to crime, gangs will subsist, Lombardo said.

“What you see now with the major gangs is really the residue,” he said, “those people who are the most disadvantaged that haven’t been able to move on.”