Chicago gangs find new turf in rural south
Introduction by Scott Buhrmaster, PoliceOne Contributing Editor
Drugs, Violence Take Root In Mississippi Delta
By Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune
Greenville, Miss. -- As children, the Haynes brothers headed north every summer, abandoning the cotton fields of rural Mississippi for a taste of the city in their grandmother's two-flat on the West Side of Chicago.
Thomas Haynes, who thought Chicago was lacking in greenery and full of danger, grew up to become a police officer and youth worker in Greenville.
His younger brother, Alfred, was captivated by the fast pace, elevated trains and the gritty lifestyle of some of the neighborhood boys on the West Side. He dreamed of the day he could leave Greenville and move there for good.
In 1999, jobless and facing charges in Greenville of possession of crack cocaine, Alfred Haynes did indeed move to Chicago. During four years there, he said, he became a full-fledged gang member, completing his initiation into the Black Gangster Disciples.
Now he's 31 and somewhat of a celebrity to the young men in Greenville who have stood on the corner with him. They call him "the big homey," and like him, they have tattoos on their arms and wear gang colors. Much of what they know about the Gangster Disciples was learned from Haynes.
During the Great Migration, U.S. Highway 61 became the gateway of the Mississippi Delta, leading thousands of African-Americans north to industrial cities such as Chicago between the 1920s and 1960s to escape the poverty and racism of the Jim Crow South.
Today it is down Highway 61, a mostly two-lane rural road surrounded by cotton fields, that big-city problems of gangs and drugs have made their way to the Delta, infusing America's most economically distressed towns with social problems that neither law enforcement nor the communities are equipped to handle.
"In Greenville, people still have strong family ties in Chicago. Then you have people in the Delta who have been to Chicago, gotten into drugs and travel back and forth," said Charlie Brown, assistant agent in charge of Mississippi for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. "Because these are rural areas, they feel there is very limited enforcement or sophisticated police departments" compared with Chicago. "They feel there is less chance they will get caught. And in a lot of ways, it's true."
Chicago, along with Los Angeles, Detroit and Miami, is a major pipeline for drugs sold in Mississippi, according to federal officials. At the same time, officials said, the Delta has become a stopover point for drugs heading north, largely because of its proximity to the Florida, Mississippi and Texas coasts and because it is easy to recruit relatives to serve as runners and lookouts.
"We are investigating several cases right now involving the transport of drugs from Chicago to Mississippi," said agent Lynn Mead, head of the DEA office in Oxford. "These cases involve relatives, extended families and organized gangs. Drugs are smuggled across the Mexican border in 18-wheelers to distribution points such as Memphis, Chicago and Detroit, and are redistributed back this way."
Drugs exacerbating poverty
The influx of crack cocaine and marijuana into the Delta has exacerbated poverty in places such as Greenville, an agriculture-based city on the Mississippi River where 70 percent of the 42,000 residents are African-American. The city also is experiencing a surge in methamphetamine use among whites.
In the past three years, Greenville has had 44 homicides. Ninety percent of them, police said, were drug-related, and more than a dozen remain unsolved.
"We had a bad gang problem here about 10 years ago, but they got into some kind of gang war and killed each other off. And the rest of them went to prison. What we have now are a lot of wannabes, but they still cause problems," said Greenville Police Chief Lon Pepper, who heads an 81-member force.
"Sometimes people commit a crime down here and run and hide up north, or when someone gets in trouble in Chicago, they come down here until things cool off," said Pepper. "It's hard to get people to talk about the crimes because they are afraid or because some of these suspects are relatives or friends."
One of the most horrific murders occurred in July 2003 when a gunman fired his automatic weapon into a car in the drive-through line of a hamburger restaurant, killing one man and injuring another. No arrests have been made, but police said the crime was drug-related. They suspect the gunman had Chicago connections and might have fled there.
Lucrative business in Delta
Selling drugs in the Delta is a lucrative business. A kilo of cocaine, according to authorities, goes for $19,000 to $23,000, more than many people in the region earn a year. The unemployment rate in Washington County, where Greenville is the county seat, was 10.5 percent last year, more than double the statewide rate, so it is not hard to find young people willing to sell drugs on the corner.
"We have local Vice Lords and Black Gangster Disciples [two prominent Chicago-based gangs] combining forces to sell dope. People know that when you can't buy dope anywhere else, you can come to Greenville and get it any time, any day and on just about any street corner," said Stan Bagley, who heads the Central Delta Drug Task Force, which conducts undercover drug operations in Greenville and surrounding areas. "It's like a cat-and-mouse game. Catch me if you can, and with only three guys on our team, most of the time, we can't."
Alfred Haynes returned to Greenville in January 2003 after a run-in with rival gang members in Chicago, but all he spoke about was going back. His family said Monday that he recently left Greenville; they weren't sure of his destination but said he wasn't in Chicago.
Haynes, however, had left no doubt about where he hoped to go. "I was blessed into the GDs on Dec. 7, 2000, and that means the only way you can get out is by death," he said. "I'm going back as soon as I get a car, and it will be another 10 years before I come back."
His brother Thomas, 37, learned early that Chicago could mean trouble for country boys like himself and his brother. After high school, he went to college, worked as a Greenville police officer until last year, when he began running a court-affiliated mentoring program for at-risk youth, fighting to keep them from taking the same road as his brother.
The Haynes' working-class, churchgoing family can't figure why the brothers turned out so differently.
Whenever Alfred Haynes got into trouble, he would head to Chicago, and he would return more street-savvy and end up in trouble again, his brother said.
"When he came back this time, he turned himself in on an outstanding drug warrant and promised he was going to clean himself up," Thomas Haynes said. "But he's still hanging with the same people on the same corner, and we are afraid he's going to fall into the same trap." The case stemming from the drug warrant is pending.
Their sister, Christine Shannon, left Greenville in 1995, and lived on Chicago's West Side, then moved to Calumet City, Ill. She and her husband, Dennis, a truck driver, returned to Greenville in June 2002 because of his job, but they dream of the day they can go back because they liked it there.
She found work in Chicago as a nursing assistant, but Alfred, with no skills, found it hard to land a job there. In Greenville, life has been more difficult for Shannon, who is raising her four young children as well as Alfred's 9-year-old daughter.
"The younger generation has come in and destroyed this neighborhood," Shannon, 38, said. "We have to drive a different route every day just to avoid being held up. Sometimes you walk outside and people are shooting. You never know what to expect. We never had to worry about that in Calumet City."
`The life he wants to lead'
Alfred Haynes' mother, Mary Redmond, 55, a home health nurse, and his father, George Redmond, 56, a disabled former factory worker, pray for him, but as a precaution, they keep his life insurance paid up.
"We are beginning to realize that's just the life he wants to lead. I guess it makes him feel like he is something big," said George Redmond.
While still in Greenville, Alfred Haynes said the gangs up north are more organized.
"The hustle is the same, but people live better up there. Down here, people get killed, but it's for money and drugs and you are still poor," said Haynes. "It's more of a spur-of-the-moment thing here. Anything can trigger it off. . . . People won't talk about it because nobody likes snitches."
A decade ago, Haynes' Greenville neighborhood was Gangster Disciples territo ry, and Vice Lords who crossed into it would likely be killed. Now, members of the two gangs share the same street corners selling drugs, police say, and they join together to keep outside dealers off their turf.
A reverse migration
In the 1970s, thousands of African-Americans began returning to the South in what has been called a reverse migration. For decades, young people fled Greenville as soon as they were able to get a bus ticket, and those who went away to college never came back. But in recent years, new faces have been transforming the city.
In November, Greenville elected its first black mayor, Heather McTeer Hudson, 28, who grew up in Greenville but left the state to become a lawyer before returning home. African-Americans also flexed their voting muscle to elect Greenville's first black sheriff and its first black district attorney.
It is a sign, many said, that the climate is changing in this town where blacks far outnumber whites but whites have held the power.
"We are hoping that others will see the changes here and come back home," said McTeer Hudson. "We can't survive if our best and brightest are stolen away."
But McTeer Hudson and others realize that a lot of work has to be done in Greenville, where about 40 percent of the families with young children live below the poverty level.
In the last two years, Greenville has lost 800 jobs as factories closed. But this year, Textron Fastening Systems is building a factory in Greenville, providing at least 500 jobs. Later in the year, a third casino is scheduled to open in Greenville, boosting the economy with jobs and tax revenue.
Following integration in the 1970s, whites pulled their children out of the public schools and effectively started a dual education system in Greenville, with blacks going to public schools and whites attending the half-dozen private or parochial schools. Since then, public schools have operated on meager budgets while private schools flourished.
Brighter future for schools
But the public education system is looking brighter. In 1999, the high school graduation rate in Greenville Public Schools was 55 percent. Last year, it rose to 83 percent, largely due to initiatives by Supt. Arthur Cartlidge, an African-American who took over in 1999.
"We are bombarded with social issues and those are our greatest challenges," Cartlidge said. "We have teenage pregnancy, drugs in our community and high unemployment, and they filter into our schools.
"We believe the key to turning this community around is giving young people a quality education so that they have options," he said. "We are trying to give them a bright future to look forward to."