As Chicago struggles with its highest homicide rate in years, the role of a single street gang stands out: more than a quarter of the city’s nearly 400 slaying victims through Sept. 25 were affiliated with the Gangster Disciples, according to Chicago police statistics obtained by the Tribune.Long the city’s largest gang, the Gangster Disciples have dominated significant swaths of the South Side for decades. But now authorities say the gang is eating itself from within, riven by feuding factions with names like the Killa Ward and The Hit Squad that engage in bloody conflicts over turf they once shared.
The spike in slayings this year in Chicago has drawn national attention and proven a knotty problem for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Gang violence has played a major role in the mounting toll, and police say their job is complicated by a new generation of gangbangers more willing to strike out on their own without respect for traditional hierarchies.
Police records, using preliminary assessments from investigators, show 100 of the 392 homicide victims through late September were connected to the Gangster Disciples. No other gang was close, with the next highest being the 22 victims linked to the Black P Stones, the police statistics show. Even given the Gangster Disciples’ greater size, the disparity is notable.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy has cited the growth of factions within traditional gangs as one reason for the higher homicide rate.
“Back in March, we hit the high point as far as shootings are concerned, and that was a direct result of the splintering of the gangs into smaller factions, which, in essence, doubled the number of gangs in the city,” McCarthy said in May.
As part of a gang audit conducted earlier this year, the department said there were more than 600 gang factions in the city. According to the Chicago Crime Commission, the department has identified 250 factions of the Gangster Disciples in the city.
“They’re splintering off into smaller gang factions, and that’s getting more difficult for us to track and predict what’s going to happen next,” McCarthy said earlier this year.
Police typically use several methods to determine gang affiliation, including arrests and admissions of gang membership, tattoos and intelligence gathered on the streets and in jails. Investigators also scour social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Former gang members don’t always agree with police conclusions. One ex-Gangster Disciple said the factions within the gang have created their own identities and shouldn’t be linked to a single gang.
“I think that it’s actually unfair to call these young group subcultures of the Gangster Disciples, because they really are not,” said the man, who said he was active in the gang in the early 1990s and asked that his name not be used. “They’re the product of the residue of what the Gangster Disciples used to be in the communities.”
There are estimates of as many as 30,000 Gangster Disciples in the city, according to the Chicago Crime Commission — by comparison, the Black P Stones membership is about 20,000, the Latin Kings about 10,000 and the Black Disciples 4,000.
The origins of the Gangster Disciples go back to the 1960s, and it became a major criminal force under the leadership of Larry Hoover in the 1970s. Hoover, who authorities say ran the gang even while in state prison for murder, built an operation that was as sophisticated as a legitimate corporation. The leadership established a strict code of conduct for members, reprimanding them for unacceptable behaviour including violence.
Hoover transformed the Gangster Disciples into a multistate drug distribution network by the mid-1990s, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration told the Tribune in 2004. He shifted the gang away from traditional street market competition to impose a franchise system on drug sales.
“They had armies of lawyers and accountants. They had their own clothing line, music promotion company, political action committee. They had a structure that helped them insulate the leaders from the drugs and the guns,” said Ron Safer, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Hoover in the 1990s.
After Hoover and other gang leaders were taken down in a federal drug-trafficking, extortion and criminal enterprise case in 1997 — Hoover is now in the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo. — a steady splintering of the Gangster Disciples began that has increased in the last decade, experts said.
Younger gang members have not adhered to the organised leadership structure set up by predecessors. That has led to a fresh spasm of violence as the lines marking gang turf are blurred and former members of the same umbrella gang became rivals.
“You’re more likely, just by general sociological laws, to come into conflict with people who are next to you,” said Andrew Papachristos, a sociologist at Yale University who is working on a book about the Gangster Disciples.
“So if you’re around four other (gang) sects and you’re no longer partying with them on a daily basis,” he said, “those conflicts will be more likely to erupt because you don’t have that grand poobah telling you what to do anymore.”
Nobody in the GDs wanted to take the reins once its initial generation of leaders were out of the picture, according to Michael Cronin, a former Chicago police commander who once headed the department’s gang intelligence unit.
Smaller, less profitable drug operations were taken over by “shorties,” or teenagers, who would not have had such power when Hoover was in charge, Cronin said. At the same time, Cronin believes the younger generation’s lack of discipline made them more dangerous.
“I knew a lot of kids,” said Cronin, who retired in 2006. “And I knew their fathers. The majority of the time, the kid was much more violent than the father.”
Violent crime was actually much worse in Chicago in the early 1990s, when about 900 people were killed each year, compared with homicide tallies in the 400s in recent years. But after years of decline, this year has seen a rise in violence. Through Sept. 25, there was a 27 per cent increase in homicides over the same period a year ago, while shootings were up 10 per cent.
Much of the increase can be attributed to the first 31/2 months of the year, when homicides were up 66 per cent from the same period a year earlier and shootings 36 per cent.
This year, the police districts with the highest increases in violent crime encompass South Side neighborhoods that are notorious Gangster Disciple strongholds.
The gang holds a tight grip on parts of the Chicago Lawn police district, where homicides through July were up 156 per cent over the same period a year ago. The increase was mainly attributed by police to conflicts between two Gangster Disciple factions, Rec City and the Hit Squad.
Neighborhoods like Chicago Lawn and Marquette Park might be populated by a few dozen factions, police said. Each probably has 15 to 20 followers, said Rafi Peterson, a community activist who works with gangs in the district.
“They’re not just geographically tied down. They might be in a car. They might go to a party over here. But then they’re representing this little clique over there,” Peterson said. “And what happens? They’re gunning each other wherever they catch each other.”
The Gangster Disciples also occupy a large chunk of the Auburn Gresham neighbourhood. That neighbourhood falls within the Gresham police district, which leads the city with 33 homicides through Sept. 21. Part of the reason is a conflict, police say, between two GD factions that do battle along a roughly 10-block stretch of the 79th Street corridor.
Ashland Avenue serves as a dividing line between two factions, with Killa Ward to the west and G-Ville to the east. According to city crime statistics, 14 shootings, six fatal, have occurred this year within police Beat 612, where G-Ville lies. Killa Ward falls in Beat 611, which has had 13 shootings and four homicides, the statistics show.
Among the four fatalities was Brian Nailer, a convicted felon who police say was part of the Killa Ward faction. Nailer was shot on the evening of Aug. 28 after leaving a birthday party near 78th Street and Marshfield Avenue. Jason Walker, who according to police is a member of G-Ville, faces first-degree murder charges in his death.
“I don’t know if he was in a gang or not. I couldn’t tell you. But he had a lot of friends,” said the victim’s mother, Velta Nailer, 54, as she choked back tears on the front porch of her Far South Side home.
Shawndell Harris, 22, also an alleged G-Ville member, was shot and killed at the Bishop Golden tobacco store at 79th and Bishop streets on March 29. Five other people were wounded in the shooting, one of them the nephew of NBA superstar Dwyane Wade. No arrests have been made in the shooting, a crime police believe is also part of the conflict between G-Ville and Killa Ward.
Less than a block away on Feb. 29, Quinton Davis, 21, known on the streets as “Gucci,” was fatally shot in the parking lot of a White Castle restaurant. Davis, who also had an extensive arrest record that included felony weapon and drug convictions, had been arrested a few days earlier on a misdemeanour gang loitering charge while outside Bishop Golden. Like Harris, police said Davis was with G-Ville.
Around the same time, the Rev. Michael Pfleger led an anti-violence march past the White Castle with a group of Auburn Gresham residents, and a wood cross marked “STOP SHOOTING’ was planted in a grassy area nearby.
Davis’ uncle, Bruce Osbey, acknowledges his nephew’s criminal past and said many of Davis’ friends have been killed over the years. Osbey doesn’t consider members of G-Ville and Killa Ward to be Gangster Disciples. He said things were far different when he was an active member of the Gangster Disciples in the 1990s.
“Back when I was coming up, it was about 100 (Black P. Stones) and 100 GDs fighting. … We was having fun,” Osbey said. “Now, ain’t no such thing as fighting. You try to put your hands on one of these young boys, or you try to do something that these young boys (think is disrespectful), you gone. It’s a shooting thing.”
Police have employed several strategies in an effort to stem the violence, including flooding two districts ravaged by gangs, Englewood on the South Side and Harrison on the West Side, with additional officers. Police are also using research from Papachristos to identify individuals at risk for gang violence.
McCarthy also has called for assistance from federal authorities who still conduct periodic takedowns of drug- and gun-trafficking operations with Chicago police. Safer, the former prosecutor, thinks law enforcement can go after the smaller gang factions with the same effectiveness that federal authorities went after the major gangs when he was with the U.S. attorney’s office in the 1990s.
“There are organisations of moderate size that can be attacked with the same effectiveness and easier than the larger (organisations). It’s just a matter of doing it. Not only doing it, but getting the message out,” he said.
The goal for state and federal prosecutors in these cases is conveying a message of deterrence, Safer said.
“No matter how many gangs or factions there are, you are only going to be prosecuting a tiny fraction of them,” he said. “You make an effort in the prosecutions that you undertake, and you say to the rest, ‘Let that be a lesson to you. If you assume leadership of these organisations and your members shoot people or commit violence, we will prosecute you, and put you in jail for the rest of your life.'”
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