California gangs moving into Chicago area pose an elusive, dangerous challenge
By John Dobberstein, Daily Southtown
Riding a wave of migration from Mexico and Central America, a handful of California street gangs have arrived in many Chicago suburbs.
Four gangs in particular - 18th Street, Surenos 13's, Nortenos 14's and Mara Salvatrucha - can now be found in nearly two dozen Chicago-area communities, large and small.
In the past two years, California gang members have been fingered in shootings or stabbings in Elgin, Joliet, West Chicago, Addison, Franklin Park and Bensenville.
Some gang experts worry they eventually may make a push into Chicago, particularly on the Southwest Side, in the neighborhoods around Midway Airport.
Already, 68,000 gang members have staked out turf here. Blending in among the Chicago area's established street gangs now, these California newcomers are a curiosity of sorts.
They're not organized, but their members keep popping up throughout the region.
"We're seeing them everywhere," said Paul Marchese, supervisor of DuPage County's gang prosecution unit. "They've come to do more of the things traditional street gangs do, shootings and violent crimes in general."
Police differ on the significance of their presence here, but the potential for conflict may rise as their numbers grow.
Joe Sparks, a recently retired gang investigator for Chicago police, said he believes the California gangs are waiting for an opportunity.
He sees their arrival in the city as inevitable.
"They're blending in with our gangs," said Sparks, who's been consulting with the Chicago Police Academy about the issue. "The (Surenos) 13's, once they get enough numbers, they could make a move."
The Surenos 13's are allied with the Mexican Mafia, California's largest prison gang. They have a decades-long, violent rivalry with the Nortenos 14's.
With roots in Mexico and ties to Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, 18th Street is considered the largest street gang in Los Angeles, numbering between 15,000 and 20,000, authorities said.
And Mara Salvatrucha could be especially dangerous for police, gang experts say. Most hard-core members are former guerrilla soldiers from Central America with extensive training in weapons and warfare tactics.
"They're a force to be reckoned with," said West Chicago police Cmdr. Bruce Malkin, who's been studying California gangs for several years and doing yearly presentations about them at police conferences.
A rivalry has raged between the Surenos 13's and Nortenos 14's for decades, dating back to their fight to control the prisons in Michoacan, Mexico.
Through migration to the United States, these gangs brought their violent battles and involvement in drug trafficking to California and the Midwest.Norteno 14's have been found in North Chicago, West Chicago, Aurora, Cary, Crystal Lake, Elgin, Palatine, Schaumburg, Streamwood and Woodstock, police said.
Surenos 13's have been found in 14 suburbs, police said, ranging from Joliet to Carol Stream to Round Lake Beach and Waukegan.
18th Street factions have been found in West Chicago, Aurora, Woodridge, Downers Grove and Naperville.In the early 1990s, a massive recruitment effort helped 18th Street expand into 15 states, said the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations, a cooperative network of police officials that helps communities with emerging gang problems.
The gang's primary business is national and international drug trafficking, and high-ranking members have close ties to Mexican and Colombian drug cartels, the NAGIA said.
Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, formed in Los Angeles during the 1980s as Central Americans fled a bloody civil war in El Salvador.
Facing crackdowns today in their base countries of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Ecuador, MS-13 members have spread into Mexico and the United States.
At last estimate, MS-13 had more than 8,000 members in 27 states and the District of Columbia.
MS-13 members generally show no fear of law enforcement, the NAGIA warns. The gang's members are known to booby-trap their stash houses with grenades, and MS-13 has been implicated in the execution of three federal agents and the shootings of several other police officers throughout the country.
A bitter rivalry exists between MS-13 and 18th Street members.
"The Mexicans and El Salvadorans don't get along," said Lina Presley, a member of the National Major Gang Task Force. "You're talking about oil and water here."
Neither city or suburban police have reported a widespread presence of MS-13 members, although the NAGIA said they are present in Illinois.
New challenge for Chicago police
A foray by California gangs into Chicago could present the Chicago police department's new gang intelligence unit with a significant challenge.
Chicago police said they're aware of the California gangs, but they do not believe they pose a problem ? yet.
"Our sense is that they're not making serious efforts to enter into Chicago," police spokesman David Bayless said. "Our gang intelligence unit and deployment operations center keeps an eye on them, as they do all gangs."
In 2003, about 42 percent of the city's murders were gang-related.
Bayless said police are focusing on gangs currently operating in Chicago.
"We're beefing up our information-gathering efforts," he said, "and if information becomes available that (California gangs) are operating in Chicago, we'll take the necessary steps."
Some police officials doubt the California gangs can challenge Chicago gangs for supremacy.
But other experts note the gangs have already become a force in Boston; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; and New York.
"Chicago's not immune. A lot of officers underestimate these groups," said Gabe Morales, executive director of Gang Prevention Services in Seattle and president of the International Latino Gang Investigators Association.
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"They're not going to do it out in the open and start a war. They'll go in areas where the Latin Kings or Gangster Disciples aren't strong, bring in their soldiers, then intrude on areas where they think they are weak."