By Chris Joyner
TUTWILER, Miss. — Michael James sits at the edge of an abandoned railroad track in this cotton town of 1,300 and trades sips of cheap vodka with friends.
Nearby, a six-point star spray-painted on the side of the closest building illustrates the threat this impoverished Mississippi Delta hamlet is facing. The star — surrounded by a code of words, pictures and numbers — is the calling card of the Gangster Disciples, Chicago's largest youth street gang.
James, 51, says the Disciples and the Vice Lords, a rival gang, are vying for control of Tutwiler's narrow streets. When they clash, there is nowhere to go, he says.
"It's worse here in these small places," James says. "The whole town ain't but a block long. If you are going to fight for turf, where are you going to do it?"
Chicago-based youth street gangs have been a problem in the Mississippi Delta since the 1980s, thanks to family connections between the regions dating back to the Great Migration of the 1940s and 1950s. Recently federal authorities have cracked down on gangs in an attempt to shut down a pipeline that sends guns to the North and drugs back South, says Randall Samborn, an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.
Gang activity in the Delta is significant because the area — known as the Birthplace of the Blues and one of the most agriculturally abundant regions of the nation — is rural and poor.
Youth street gangs mostly are associated with larger urban areas. So it came as some surprise when, earlier this year, authorities arrested 13 people on gun-trafficking charges from the crossroads community of Jonestown, north of Tutwiler. The Jonestown arrests were the latest in a string of indictments over the past four years as federal officials in Chicago and Mississippi have worked to shut an enterprise that they say takes advantage of Mississippi's liberal gun-purchasing laws.
"We are trying to send a message that we don't want guns from Mississippi in Chicago," says Samborn.
In Mississippi, authorities are trying to get a grip on their end of the problem by targeting the big-city violence the gangs have brought to the region.
In 2001, Clarksdale, a city of about 19,000 people, had 131 violent gun crimes. U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee says most of the violence was connected to gangs battling over turf. In 2006, a combination of federal and state law enforcement efforts had cut that down to 83 crimes, he says.
Even with stepped-up law enforcement, the gangs are enough of a presence that Coahoma County Sheriff Andrew Thompson can tick off names and territory of the gangs in his jurisdiction, even down to the tiniest town.
"Louisville is Gangsters. Friars Point, I think, is Vice Lords," he says.
Authorities say gang violence played out this summer inside the walls of Mississippi's state prison in the Delta town of Parchman. Two homicides in the maximum security wing were chalked up to warring gang factions. Four corrections officers were fired over suspected gang ties, according to Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps.
Two years ago, Greenville police took a gang census and found 30 distinct street gangs with a combined membership of more than 1,000 there.
"We found out that we really did have a gang problem," says Greenville police officer Marcus Turner, a member of the city's anti-gang unit. He says the gangs use abandoned houses — known as "trap houses" — for illegal gambling, drugs and prostitution.
A big reason the gangs seem to flourish in this area is that the Delta is fertile ground. Andrew Papachristos, a sociologist at University of Massachusetts Amherst who has studied gangs for 15 years, says street gangs evolve over time and become institutionalized in communities, particularly in areas where young men have few other opportunities.
Coahoma County, for instance, has an unemployment rate twice the national average. And one-third of the households in the county are headed by a single parent with a median income of $14,400 a year, Census figures show.
While other areas of the state have lured large employers such as auto plants, Thompson says the Delta is job-starved. He has locked up some of the "smartest people in the state of Mississippi," he says, who don't have enough local opportunities for legitimate work.
"We need a Nissan or Toyota or Kia or something in the Delta," Thompson says.
Authorities do appear to be having some success in curbing gang violence. Clarksdale and Greenville have seen gun crime cut dramatically since the towns joined a federal law enforcement initiative called Project Safe Neighborhood. In 2006, Greenville had 88 reported violent gun crimes, down from 261 three years earlier, according to figures provided by Greenlee's office.
Greenlee says residents in the towns used to complain they could not sleep in their own beds out of fear of random gunfire.
"That doesn't happen anymore," he says.
Despite the progress, police intelligence indicates street gangs remain deeply involved in the drug trade across the Delta. Papachristos said that makes some sense.
"When drugs are involved, the gangs do get smarter. Violence is bad for business," he says.
Both Greenville and Clarksdale also are involved in a federal gang-prevention program called Gang Resistance Education and Training. Officials in the towns say the program is working. But Turner says the program requires him to constantly be in the lives of at-risk kids.
"You have to play every role and you have to be good at every role. If you aren't, they will pick you out," he says. "We can't just be their friends from 8 to 5."
Greenville Police Lt. Xavier Redmond says it is hard to compete when popular culture glorifies the gang lifestyle.
"On Nov. 2, see how many people come out for American Gangster," he says, referring to the upcoming movie starring Denzel Washington. "Society has to come to grips with what they created."
Joyner reports for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.
Copyright USA Today
Law cracks down on Chi.-Miss. Delta pipeline of crime