So what the heck is happening in Chicago? Shootings and violent incidents are spiking, gang conflicts are intensifying, yet all the while political figures claim that the economy is growing across Chicagoland. Simple answers for the worsening environment abound: deteriorating economic opportunities in specific neighbourhoods, the lack of housing and public assistance, and even, parents supposedly not parenting their wayward youth. But, as is the way with such things, the answer to this rising tide of misery appears much more complex. In this article, PanAmerican Crime will delve into and explore the tenebrous re-emerging issue to see what can be found to hopefully illuminate why yet another generation of inner city Illinois youth may be lost to the macabre and byzantine labyrinth of Chicago street gangs.
Any understanding of Chicago’s underworld and the causes of its violence must be based on the knowledge that underlying all of this recent tragedy is the operation of a disturbing gang culture on the streets and within the homes of the city. This culture has permeated almost every neighbourhood and borough as well as the city’s vast hinterland, and certainly has a long and storied tradition. In fact, in many ways the prohibition-era syndicates of Al “Scarface” Capone, Dean O’Bannion as well as the continued operation of the inter-generational Italian-American Outfit all contributed to the foundation of a culture in Chicago that facilitated the unprecedented development and growth of the street gang conglomerates the Folk Nation and People’s Nation in the 1970s. These large alliances would eventually disintegrate and be reborn as diminished factions of the Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, Black P. Stones and later Hispanic gangs such as the Latin Kings, with each now having subsets across the United States (US). Many contemporary offshoots, crews and sets of these gangs currently crowd the streets of Chicago and their development provides yet another important milestone along the timeline of organized crime in Chicago, contributing in many ways to the current violence. Ultimately, when comparing population size and histories of violence, Chicago’s gangland tradition eclipses that of any other urban area in America. However, despite their roots deep in the marrow of the city, there is something more at play in this community-crushing descent into violence than these historical and cultural factors alone.
While violence in Chicago has received a significant amount of media coverage and popular speculation over the past five years, in truth, during the early part of the current decade the city watched its murder rate fall to half of what was seen during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 90s, when the annual rate of unlawful deaths hit well over 900 per year. In 2010, the homicide rate had fallen to 436, and would average 459 murders annually over the next five years until the start of January, 2016. While a positive pattern of improvement had seemingly formed, in truth, it was not as if Chicago’s battle with violent crime had been won, as ever-present gangland conflicts continued to simmer across the City’s rust belt neighbourhoods on the South and Westside. But, hope and positivity had somewhat replaced despair and acceptance of violence as the social norm in these communities, and perhaps this is one of the many lessons to be gleaned from the current state of affairs. Violence in communities can be reduced and improved if even moderate social developments are achieved, with residents coming to believe that better times are coming. However, if social conditions are left to fester because no discernable betterment is experienced, these ills can return with a vengeance, allowing the concept of brutality as a viable means of conflict resolution to infect yet another generation.
Beginning in January, 2016 the festering cracks in the improving façade would expand into fissures of tragedy and over the next twelve months the homicide rate would spike to 762 homicides, heralding back to the dark days of the crack epidemic and the societal vicissitudes brought on by neoliberalism, urban decay and the white flight phenomenon. Analysts, community activists and politicians struggled to understand the regression, while conservative politicians and pundits attempted to explain the growing predicament by comparing it positively to the previous crisis of the 1980s and 90s. Yet, statements such as: “bad as 2016 is, the total number of murders will still be well below the over 900 annual murders in the early 1990s” (Newsweek) naturally failed to allay public and private concerns. Nor did these same observers offer an explanation, beyond describing the situation as an “outlier,” as to why it was occurring or what could be done to reverse the troubling trend – perhaps a less than sensitive or complete analysis.
First Stab at the Why
Many rationales were put forward to explain the rise in violence, with excuses coming in fast and furious involving everything from technology to macro social issues. The first of such causes that were trumpeted as significant were budgetary cutbacks relating to the Chicago Police Department and social services for specific communities. David Skarbek posits clearly why such cuts in policing numbers matter in his revealing book, The Social Order of the Underworld, stating that increasing police deployment in certain crime plagued areas can often pose as major obstacles to the operation of criminal enterprises, thereby reducing violent crime. Yet, conversely, such increased deployment can also inflate the crime rate when police are seen to be part of the problem by the public, which is certainly the case in the black and Hispanic communities across Chicagoland. Such a situation is evident in the aftermath of the 2015 police shooting of Laquan McDonald in his back. While this event led to the firing of the Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, the subsequent reverberations caused by this incident continue to be felt in communities across the city. Such developments were also exacerbated by the clear bitterness felt in certain segments of the community by the dismantlement or reduction of public programs that attempt to reach out to gang elements and other vulnerable youth. These initiatives were credited by many, including former gang members, with having a tremendously positive effect and leading many to reject the violent, recidivist lifestyles demanded by street gangs.
Within the gangs themselves certain changes in behavior were also seen to be responsible for the renewed rise in violence. Beginning during the aforementioned epidemic of crack usage across America in the 1980s and 90s, law enforcement adopted aggressive policing styles that were utilized to great efficacy when dismantling sophisticated organized crime groups. Designed to attack the leadership structures of the traditional mafia and large-scale drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), federal, state and even local police forces began adopting the use of these specific strategies to devastating effect. However, this new legislation and corresponding investigative powers were also found to be effective when applied to the large and centralized street gangs that plagued Chicago’s streets. With the arrest and incarceration of the major gangs’ leadership these organizations quickly shattered into smaller groups and sets that proved unmanageable for the incarcerated leaders that once held sway over large swathes of the City’s urban neighbourhoods. While the newly independent groups often retained their labels, such as Gangster Disciples or Vice Lords, in actuality they held on to little of the focus and attention to revenue generation that the conglomerate gang forces once employed. Monetary priorities and the inherent discipline this behavior produced were replaced by a perceived need to protect local neighbourhoods from the encroachment of regional rivals, as well as gaining respect and a certain reputation on the street. Small-time drug trafficking became utilized to support these efforts and consequent competition soon developed between rival sets, crews and gangs to an extent that had never existed in the earlier Chicago gang structures. Backing up these claims to local control over rivals was a transformation in the modus operandi of these groups, which began to include taunting and insulting one another using online rap battles on social media. While such incidents may seem petty and the corresponding violence pointless, when considering that many of those involved have had friends and relatives become victims of violence and often at the hands of those issuing the online jibes the entire exercise becomes much more personal.
Beyond the changes wrought by law enforcement pressure, the structure of gangs in the post-conglomerate environment was furthered exacerbated by the altering housing situation in the city. Moderately priced and livable housing, employment assistance, community outreach programs – all were scrapped or reduced in scale by successive city, state and federal administrations over the previous decade. Further to the cuts in social services that were discussed earlier, the City of Chicago commenced a program whereby all of its worst public housing projects were taken over and managed by the federal government’s housing authority. Many of the most dilapidated and aged high rise buildings were destroyed, including the Cabrini Green project – made famous by the ongoing gunfire between snipers perched in adjacent buildings and the annual firing of guns into the air on New Years Eve – due to the horrific social and living conditions found there. While this action was long overdue, there was no ready replacement to house the evacuated refugees of these blighted areas, causing poor families and gang members to scatter across the city and its suburbs, often implanting themselves into territories already claimed by gangs thereby causing further social unrest and often leading to violence. Such developments were of course worsened by the economic conditions in these same neighbourhoods, with many experiencing a poverty rate of close to 50% and little access to transit, jobs or even reliable sources of food beyond fast-food restaurants.
However, while each of these factors has undoubtedly influenced the fresh round of gun violence, all of these factors existed in the community before the recent spike in homicides. While certain observers will note, and accurately, that social pressures can sometimes take months, even years to build before they are manifested by discernable statistics, PanAmerican Crime believes the story in Chicago’s spiking murder rate runs a little deeper.
Opioids and the “Heroin Highway”
In this case, the analysis of specific data may hold a pivotal clue to what is occurring and why. According to the American Center for Disease Control (CDC), overdoses in Illinois increased by 8.3% from 2013 to 2014. From 2014 to 2015 this number rose by another 7.6%. While the data for 2015 to 2016 has yet to be officially tallied, the sheer number of individual overdoses once again spiked in 2016, leading, it can be safely assumed, to another rise in the overdose rate for Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. As many media outlets and healthcare providers have stated, this rapid increase in overdose incidents is related to the decreasing availability of prescription painkillers such as oxycontin – due, primarily, to a major awareness push by public policy makers and law enforcement efforts. This lack of supply has forced opioid addicts to move from formerly available prescription painkillers to heroin as well as the incredibly powerful substance fentanyl, which has recently emerged with a vengeance, wreaking havoc on addicts and communities. The story has been the same in the suburbs surrounding Chicago, with DuPage County seeing a 53% increase in heroin-induced overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016. From 2013-2015 Illinois experienced 2,113 overdose deaths related to heroin, with 1,425 of these occurring in Chicago. Strikingly, almost 1 in 4 deaths in the United States related to heroin overdoses occurred on the City’s south and west sides, in neighbourhoods where the drug of choice has become synonymous with the large road that runs adjacent to them: Highway 290, the infamous “Heroin Highway.”
The “Heroin highway” is one of the primary conduits for the illicit substance to flow into the City of Chicago, leaving a streak of decay and public ruin in its wake as the product moves through the western suburbs, into and out of warehouses and on into the impoverished areas on the periphery of the central core. This fickle roadway begins in more tranquil suburbs, such as Schaumberg and Arlington Heights, before flowing inexorably south and then east into the heart of the City’s downtown. Its route takes it past iconic landmarks, such as the United Centre – home of Jordan and the Blackhawks – and old established neighbourhoods. The problems that literally surround the urban element of this highway cover the entire spectrum of issues discussed earlier: failed housing strategies; lack of public and social services; terrible police-public relations; and, of course, spiraling levels of violence that have dramatically increased since January, 2016. It should therefore not be considered a coincidence that the neighbourhoods that sit adjacent to this highway as it enters the city have become some of the most plagued by gang violence. The 2016 numbers reveal startling realities for the residents of these afflicted districts, with the communities of Austin and Garfield Park reporting the most gun-related homicides in the City in 2016, with 14 and 10 respectively. These neighbourhoods also totaled 117 shooting incidents where residents were either killed or wounded, making Chicago’s Westside resemble some form of sepulchral gun range. Other districts that lie close to the Heroin Highway, such as North Lawndale and the Near West Side, were also reporting homicides at levels near the top of the pack, with five murders each and 47 total shooting incidents. These areas have gun violence statistics that were only matched in 2016 by the other Westside neighbourhood of Brighton Park and the notorious Southside area of Englewood, each of which saw 8 murders last year.
What makes this highway so “special” is the access it provides suppliers, dealers, and customers to one another. It allows suburban dealers and users to drive from the western suburbs quickly into specific areas near the highway, such as the 12th street neighbourhood and those mentioned previously, including Austin and Garfield Park, obtain what they need and hop back onto the motorway within minutes. Beyond this immediate access to neighbourhoods with ready access to supplies of heroin, other logistical elements and the Highway’s location also add to its efficacy as a pipeline for facilitating both heroin supply and demand. Chicago, especially its west side rust belt, is home to vast amounts of warehouse space, totaling at least 1.3 million square feet. The City itself imports and exports over 1.5 million tons of merchandise out of O’Hare Airport alone and does the World’s 3rd largest volume in shipping containers. These statistics reveal the sheer amount of stuff that moves in and out of the city daily and the vast logistical apparatus and amount of real estate required to create this reality. All of these elements assist in creating conditions that enable the movement of drugs throughout the Chicago, and even country as a whole, helping to earn Highway 290 its depressing moniker.
The Primary Actors
But, can the answer to the question of “why Chicago?” only originate from a demand perspective? Where is the source of the illicit substance that has given its name to Highway 290? Is it simply a coincidence that the region has the highest rate of opioid consumption in the United States? Unfortunately, there are very real answers to all of these questions. The city, based on its historic and present role as the logistical hub of the Midwest, has become the unnatural nexus for a web of trafficking, deceit and violence, in many cases with the connections originating from the highlands of Sinaloa State, Mexico.
Beginning well before Sinaloa Cartel heavyweight Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera achieved the title of Public Enemy #1 in the City of Chicago in 2013, many of the more organized Hispanic gangs had become extensions to some degree of Mexican cartel groups. In the neighbourhoods of Pilsen and Little Village on the southwest side of the City – areas with a population that is as much as 82% Hispanic – Sinaloa gunmen moved in and co-opted the services of the major dealers and gangs in the district. These gangs traffic and wholesale large quantities of narcotics and exert pressure on recalcitrant debtors or provide other muscle work, as required. (It is unsurprising and should be noted that these neighbourhoods are also located adjacent to the Heroin Highway). Unlike the major Black gangs in Chicago, such as the Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords and Black P Stones, the Latin gangs, such as the Latin Kings and others, have retained a more structured organizational hierarchy, even in the face of the ongoing anti-leadership campaigns waged by law enforcement agencies against the groups. This reality has made them much more useful as tools of the Mexican cartels for which they work and greatly enhanced their ability to transport and sell large amounts of illicit narcotics.
The efficacy of this continuing relationship between Mexican cartel groups and Hispanic-American street gangs was demonstrated earlier by the statistics documenting the increasing amount of drugs and addicts currently found in Chicago; tellingly, as of 2016, 50% of all heroin consumed in the US originated in a poppy field within the highlands of western Mexico, a number that is expected by analysts to rise in the coming years. In Chicago, this symbiosis has reached heights greater than the national average, with as much as 80% of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, being transported into the city through illicit groups answering to the Sinaloa Cartel. The Sinaloa Federation, through various sub-networks and organizations, supplies as many as 150,000 American gang members with their operational currencies of cocaine, meth and heroin. While the Cartel leadership exerts typically very little, if any, direct control over the minor cliques who traffic their product, the drugs it transits provide income and, more importantly, sources of conflict between groups that are now actively seeking to sell their illicit wares in smaller and smaller geographic areas.* While the numbers related to opioid consumption have been exacerbated by the aforementioned societal vicissitudes related to the ongoing pain killer epidemic, they also demonstrate the extreme levels of harm that can be enacted against a community by a single determined and well-organized operation.
As this brief history of Chicago’s gangs, drug abuse and social policy reveals, the present increase in homicides throughout the city is not simply a one-off outlier or kink in the statistics. However, while lack of economic opportunity and social progress undoubtedly fuel the crucible that Chicago’s drug trafficking has become within America, certain factors have clearly come to play a penultimate role in the renewed levels of violence plaguing the city’s many neighbourhoods. The heroin epidemic has expanded in the wake of pain killer usage, and has been made worse by law enforcement’s efforts at curtailing the availability of the more serious opioids, including oxycontin. And, despite applying resources to the issue, policing agencies have struggled to keep up. Operation Derailed – launched jointly by the DEA, Amtrak and the US Internal Revenue Service in 2015 – involved the dismantlement of a DTO that moved opioids, including both heroin and fentanyl, as well as cocaine into the Chicago area for distribution amongst other mid-tier trafficking organizations.
Beyond the demand, supplies of the drugs of choice have never been more prevalent. Again, Chicago, by virtue of its role as a historic logistical hub for the US, provides the aspiring dealer with ample ways and means to both transit the illicit substances of choice and hide them until ready for sale. The Heroin Highway and the violence gripping the adjacent neighbourhoods provide a spectacular and equally disturbing example of this reality. As long as opioid usage remains at crisis level, heroin addiction will continue to spike, driving the desperate to further acts of desperation. Mexican cartels have contributed demonstrably in creating this supply and furthering demand, creating a tragic self-sustaining scenario of opioid dependence. On both the supply and demand side of the economics surrounding this issue Chicago has major problems with which to deal. This pattern of prevalent of drug abuse, coupled with the horrific violent consequences of this behaviour, will continue in Chicago as long as there exists a dysfunctional environment where such behaviour can flourish; but, more importantly, as long as organizations can supply human misery in such an easy and accessible manner violence in the long simmering gang neighbourhoods and the brutal corresponding personal feuds will continue for the foreseeable future.
By: Scott Paulseth
* While the cartels often exert only indirect control over the street gangs, this is not necessarily the rule, especially for those gang leaders that have risen to become wholesale sources of supply for dealers and networks lower down the chain of demand. An interesting demonstration of this relationship and the control Mexican groups enforce over their Chicago operations is the case of the Flores brothers. According to the indictment filed in the State of Illinois, the Flores twins, Pedro and Margarito Jr., were initially in business with different factions of the Sinaloa Federation Cartel. Beyond having access to eventual secessionist clan patriarch Arturo Beltran-Leyvaand the Beltran Leyvas’ senior lieutenant, Manuel Fernandez-Navarro, they also enjoyed unparalleled direct access to El Chapo himself, a demonstration of the importance of the business done in Chicago for the Sinaloa Cartel. Originally facing a trafficking indictment in Milwaukee in 2004 for their trafficking efforts, the Flores’ moved to Mexico where they based their operation while still serving their extensive network into Chicago.
Ultimately, when the Beltran Leyva brothers split from El Chapo’s faction and a bloody conflict ensued between the Sinaloa group and the newly independent Beltran-Leyva Cartel, the situation the Flores brothers found themselves in proved untenable. Failure to represent either cartel as each group expected would result in a death sentence for them and likely their entire extended family. This stark reality eventually forced the Flores’ to turn to the US government for protection. Sadly, after their defection to Team America in 2008 the twins were disowned by their father, Margarito Flores Sr. – a known trafficker, who had been convicted a few months before their birth for trafficking 11 pounds of heroin in Chicago in 1981. He was subsequently kidnapped and presumed murdered shortly after returning to Mexico following the twins’ turning State’s evidence.
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