CHICAGO (MCT) — As Chicago struggles with its highest murder rate in years, the role of a single street gang stands out: more than a quarter of the city’s nearly 400 homicide victims through Sept. 25 were affiliated with the Gangster Disciples, according to police statistics obtained by the Chicago 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 up 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 murders so far this year in Chicago has drawn national attention and proved 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 gang members more willing to strike out on their own without respect for traditional hierarchies.
Chicago Police Department 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 murder victims linked to the Black P Stones, the CPD statistics show. Even given the Gangster Disciples greater size, the disparity is notable.
Police Supt. Garry McCarthy has cited the growth of factions within Chicago’s traditional gangs as one reason for the higher murder 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 over 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 an individual’s gang affiliation, including past arrests and admissions to gang membership, tattoos and intelligence gathered on the streets and in jails. Investigators also scour social media web sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Former gang members don’t always agree with police conclusions. One former Gangster Disciple member 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 sub-cultures 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 an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 Gangster Disciples in Chicago, 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 prison on murder charges, built an operation that was as sophisticated as a legitimate corporation. The leadership established a strict code of conduct for its members, reprimanding them for unacceptable behavior including violence.
Hoover transformed the Gangster Disciples into a multi-state 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 organized leadership structure set up by their 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 gang.
“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 Gangster Disciples wanted to take over 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 have not had such power when Hoover was in charge, Cronin said. At the same time, Cronin believes the lack of discipline of that younger generation 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 around 900 people were killed in the city each year, compared to murder 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 percent increase in homicides over the same period a year ago, while shootings were up 10 percent.
Much of the increase can be attributed to the first 3 ½ months of the year, when homicides were up 66 percent from the same period a year earlier and shootings 36 percent.
So far this year, the police districts with the highest increases in violent crime encompass South and Southwest Side neighborhoods that are notorious Gangster Disciple strongholds.
Police have employed several strategies in an effort to stem the growing 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 federal authorities went after the major gangs when he was with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the 1990s.
“There are organizations of moderate size that can be attacked with the same effectiveness and easier than the larger (organizations). It’s just a matter of doing it. Not only doing it, but getting the message out,” he said
The goal in mind for prosecutors on the state and federal levels in these cases is conveying a message of deterrence, Safer says.
“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 organizations and your members shoot people or commit violence, we will prosecute you, and put you in jail for the rest of your life.’ ”