More Chicago gangs arming themselves with rifles

Rifles have changed not only how gangs engage each other, but how residents try to live with them and how police fight them


By Peter Nickeas
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — One late afternoon over Labor Day weekend in 2016, near the arches welcoming truck drivers into the old stockyards south of Bridgeport, a gunman in a red minivan leveled a rifle and fired at a motorcyclist.

The gunman hit the bike but not the driver. An officer found .223-caliber casings, the kind used in rifles modeled after the AR-15. The rounds leave large, jagged wounds. If used by someone trained to shoot, they can hit a target from 650 yards. A city block is 220 yards.

In the fight against Chicago's gang and drug problem Chicago Police patrol the streets 24/7. (AP Photo/Robert Ray)
In the fight against Chicago's gang and drug problem Chicago Police patrol the streets 24/7. (AP Photo/Robert Ray)

Two gangs — the Saints and La Razas — had been sporadically using rifles for six months. This was the fourth rifle shooting in seven days. It would get much worse in the months ahead, something an officer at the scene seemed to sense.

“We got a problem with the two gangs running around. Each one of ’em has a military assault weapon,” he radioed, asking for an evidence technician. “This is one of the rifles they used today. We need those rifles off the street for police safety and citizen safety.”

Within a month, six more people would be wounded by rifles, three of them fatally. By year’s end, the toll from rifles would rise to nearly 20 wounded and 10 killed — and would keep rising.

Nearly a year and a half later, more than 140 people have been shot — 50 of them fatally — by gang members wielding rifles as their use has spread across the South and Southwest sides.

Rifles have changed not only how gangs engage each other, but how residents try to live with them and how police fight them.

Fewer gang members stand outside traditional hangouts, throwing bottles, rocks and gang signs and harassing passing motorists. With fewer obvious targets, gangs have turned to cars and vans, often stolen, to chase down and shoot rivals.

Gangs have formed alliances and have gone outside their groups to acquire guns. One gang called on its members across the city to come to Back of the Yards and join the conflict.

Officers have been warned about the risks of approaching gang members in certain areas because rifle rounds can penetrate their body armor.

Veteran officers describe the rounds as “vicious” because of the damage they inflict. A man was so badly shot outside a church that a woman who lived next door covered him with a Dora the Explorer blanket before an ambulance arrived so no one would see him.

Two cops have been shot. Ten people were wounded at a memorial for an earlier rifle homicide. An elementary school recess was interrupted by gunfire. A pregnant woman and three men were killed in one attack. And in another, an elderly man pushing a grocery cart was hit by an errant round as two cars careened down a busy commercial street on a weekday afternoon, the young men inside firing rifles at each other.

In the last few weeks, authorities have recovered at least 11 rifles, both while on patrol and as part of search warrants and long-term investigations aimed at containing the conflict.

‘DON’T LOOK FOR TROUBLE’

Margarita Vega sometimes finds herself waiting for her sons Jaime and Leny to come home. They were shot to death just before Thanksgiving in 2016, minutes after leaving the house.

“No one could believe it was happening,” she said recently. “I wanted to think it wasn’t them.”

When Vega moved from Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1991 as a married 16-year-old, she settled near Davis Square Park in Back of the Yards. Vega had her first son that year and named him Edilberto.

Aunts and other relatives lived near her first apartment at 45th and Wood streets. That’s the corner where the Saints trace their origins in the 1960s as a mostly Polish gang. Their territory extends out about two blocks in each direction.

For decades, the Saints were “renegades,” not aligning with the People or Folk nations that most gangs belonged to. They fought with everyone, though their main rival has been the La Raza gang on 48th Street east of Ashland.

As the neighborhood became more Mexican, people began referring to them as Latin Saints. They pioneered the use of “rammers,” large and often barely legal SUVs kept hidden from police until they were brought out and used to crash into other gang members.

They were among the first to take up rifles in the current conflict.

Edilberto turned Saint when he was 15, something he now says he regrets. He never went to high school. The gang members he knew growing up all had money and coke, and that’s what he wanted. His mother didn’t know at first but had her suspicions.

Her fear grew as her boys grew older. Gunfire seemed more frequent. Vega finally moved her family after a shooting just outside her home moments before one of her sons, Leny, left for school.

The new neighborhood, miles from Back of the Yards, was quiet. “We had three years here,” she said. “We were here three years and didn’t hear anything. Not on this block, not on the next block.”

By 2016, Edilberto had dropped his gang allegiance after growing tired of the lifestyle, lucky to have made it to his mid-20s. Now married and working as a cook, he had no interest in going back to the neighborhood.

But his two younger brothers, Jaime and Leny, went back often to visit friends. The two were inseparable.

Leny confided to Edilberto that he and Jaime had been beaten up by a group of Saints who were pressuring them to join. His brothers were curious about the life, Edilberto said. During an October visit, Saints forced Leny to lift his shirt so they could check for tattoos. They told him not to come back unless he was going to join.

Their mother overheard all this as Leny talked to Jaime outside their home. “Don’t go back to the neighborhood, don’t look for trouble because of what they said to you,” she told Leny.

“I’m not bothering anybody,” he told her. “I’m just going to visit my friends.”

Aside from the Saints’ warning, there was always the risk of being mistaken for a gang member because of his age.

Just after Thanksgiving, Leny and Jaime stopped at a corner store on 47th Street. A truck followed them up the street. Someone opened fire from the corner at 46th Street. Leny’s car crashed into a house. The brothers died in the car.

They hadn’t been gone from their home 10 minutes when their mother and two younger sisters started getting calls. “It was like a dream, we didn’t know what was happening to us,” Edilberto said.

He went to the scene but couldn’t see his brothers from where he stood. Police had draped a sheet over the car. It was cold and had started to rain.

An officer said the brothers had been “ripped apart” and described the scene as “surreal.” Investigators had the car towed on a flatbed truck to the medical examiner’s office with the brothers still inside. Police found rifle casings near Lara Elementary Academy.

Vega collapsed in the morgue the next morning when she was shown the boys’ faces on a computer screen. She hadn’t been able to see her sons at the scene, and this was the first time she was certain they were dead.

SCOUT CARS, ESCAPE ROUTES

Security footage showed a truck following the brothers. Leny, driving, didn’t appear aware of the impending attack. Police said someone fired from the street before fleeing in the truck.

The same tactic would be used dozens of times over the next year. A van cornered a car in an alley just west of Shields Elementary School in Brighton Park before its five occupants were shot, one fatally. Four people in an SUV were shot to death after getting chased on 47th Street. Police found the shooter’s SUV torched in a near west suburb.

Rifles are not easy to conceal, so gangs have used a car, or van or SUV — often stolen — in nearly every rifle shooting. They’ve used SUVs driven by a woman with the shooter lying down in the back seat. They’ve used scout cars to find targets. Police have found stolen cars parked with a gallon of gas stashed in the back seat so it’s easy to torch after being used in a shooting.

Three weeks after Leny and Jaime died, police stopped a black Chevy hatchback in La Raza territory with four Raza gang members inside. Police searched the car and found a shell casing inside a compartment under a seat.

Officers logged the casing, noting in their report that the car might have been tied to an October homicide. They let the occupants go.

Each gun leaves a signature on the ejected casing that police can compare with other casings from other shootings. One rifle has been linked to 13 shootings that left 21 people shot over three months. At least a dozen rifles have been linked to more than one shooting.

The shell casing from the Chevy hatchback was linked to the rifle that killed Leny and Jaime. Police had recovered the rifle during a raid of a gang member’s apartment on the Northwest Side in February. The man charged with having the gun said he was holding it for someone but wouldn’t give up a name. No one has been charged in the murder of the brothers.

Edilberto — who has Saints tattoos on his hands and the numbers 4 5 (for 45th Street) tattooed on his chest — said he yearned for revenge after his brothers died. His mom told him it wouldn’t bring his brothers back. If something happened to him, it would only cause her more pain.

One morning before the funeral, he got drunk and tore up his mother’s home. He threatened a cop with a kitchen knife. Officers used a Taser on him. He was taken to a hospital, then jail, then prison, where he prayed to see his brothers in a dream.

Toward the end of his time downstate, he says he saw them in a dream and it gave him some measure of peace because they were in a better place. He apologized for exposing them to his lifestyle.

His mother has struggled to stay strong for her other children. The family’s front room was where they spent most of their time with Jaime and Leny, but her daughters, 13 and 17, often retreat to their own rooms. Vega has moved the furniture in the front room at least 10 times in the last year. The room doesn’t feel the same without them.

On the one-year anniversary of the boys’ death, Vega served pozole verde and tamales to relatives and classmates in her home. Edilberto took the night off work. The family set out folding tables and shared from bowls of diced onion, shredded cabbage and guacamole while kids wrestled, jumped on furniture and ate pan dulce. Vega kept busy.

The family held a memorial at St. Rita Church on 63rd Street that night. A shrine to the boys, in the dining room, was adorned with photos and signs relatives made for the anniversary.

CONFLICT ESCALATES

The Police Department’s understanding of how rifles are used evolved since the motorcycle shooting. Early on, police spoke of rifles in the singular: “The Saints have a rifle.” “The La Razas have a rifle.” “The Two-Sixes we think might have a rifle.” If they could just find that rifle.

Officers chased a stolen van from a murder and found an AK-47 that two young men tried to ditch in a clothing donation bin. They chased a car after a shooting as it wove through Back of the Yards and was abandoned in an alley in Saints territory and found two rifles in the back.

The shootings continued.

After the death of the brothers, a La Raza gang member shot and wounded two Chicago police officers who were mistaken for rivals. Police found the shooter’s van a few blocks away, near where the motorcyclist had been attacked months earlier. A police K-9 unit led officers to the rifle used in the shooting.

Police tactics have adapted since then. Deering District supervisors responding to a shooting often order officers to head off likely escape routes back to rival gang territories, or to patrol areas where they can expect retaliation.

Supervisors ask about the size of shell casings found at scenes. Rifles have become so common in some areas that officers are surprised when they find shells from handguns.

Department reporting has improved. Many early rifle shootings were mistakenly logged as “aggravated battery by handgun” instead of “aggravated battery by other firearm” because rifle shootings had been so rare.

By this past summer, police discovered warring gangs had formed alliances and had sought help from factions across the city. Ranking gang members were shot, sometimes within an hour of each other. A Satan Disciple was killed at 46th and Rockwell, then 10 people were shot at his vigil hours later, including a brother and sister from a Satan Disciple neighborhood in Little Village.

A gang intelligence officer learned Satan Disciples from the siblings’ neighborhood were planning to damage an alderman’s home or office because he had claimed “no innocent lives” were lost at the vigil shooting, according to a police report. Police assigned cops near his home and offices.

The department’s patrol division started posting extra officers at choke points between neighborhoods, areas the La Razas or Saints had to cross to reach rival territory. Not just main drags but side streets too.

Officers started finding rifles connected to this conflict, from search warrants and on patrol. Two dozen have been recovered in the Deering and Ogden districts alone this year, according to police.

The department set up a task force with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives within the Deering District, where most of this gang violence has radiated from. The department’s Organized Crime Division is making undercover purchases to find suppliers, police said.

In September police were warned, in an officer safety alert, that Satan Disciples in Brighton Park had asked for help from factions in the Marquette Park, Little Village, Pilsen and Heart of Chicago neighborhoods, and may have formed an alliance with Maniac Latin Disciples on the North Side.

Police started finding rifle casings in these neighborhoods. A Saint took credit for a Marquette Park shooting in August, uploading a video to Snapchat saying, “We got your boy.” Police found 90 rifle casings at a shooting scene on the corner in Pilsen where the Satan’s Disciples formed decades earlier.

The department warning also said investigators believe the Satan Disciples have grown friendly with the La Razas — two of the gangs active in the Back of the Yards. Both gangs trace their origins back to Pilsen and members of each gang were wounded in a single attack this fall.

The department also advised that there may also be a growing connection between the Saints and the Ambrose gang in Pilsen — a longtime rival of the Satan Disciples.

‘THEY TOLD US TO GET DOWN IN THE SCHOOL HALLWAY’

Pilsen has seen intense gang conflicts but the violence had been subsiding in recent years. Then, over seven days this fall, there were two daytime rifle shootings there as the conflict in Back of the Yards spread to Pilsen, Marquette Park and other places where the gangs have factions.

The first attack was outside Irma C. Ruiz Elementary School as children played outside during recess. No one was hit. But the school set up a meeting in the gym so parents and residents could hear from school and police officials.

The day of the meeting, young men inside a white SUV and a red van traded rifle fire as they careened down Cermak Road west of Leavitt, about half a mile from the school. They crashed into other vehicles and their errant rounds hit a 67-year-old man and 48-year-old woman, wounding them.

The occupants of the red van fled, leaving it wrecked on Cermak. The SUV sped off, but it was linked to the Ruiz school shooting through police camera footage and 7.62 mm rifle rounds recovered at both scenes. A safety alert issued within the Police Department warned officers who approached the SUV they might encounter someone with an AK-47-style rifle.

Ruiz is a red-brick elementary school at 24th and Leavitt streets, named for an officer killed in 1988 trying to stop a school shooting. It sits two blocks south of Cermak Road in territory long claimed by Satan Disciples.

Residents say there may have been more violence at other times, but it has never felt as volatile as now. The meeting called by the principal drew about 200 people.

Freddie Lopez, a 63-year-old who’s lived here with his wife, Lois, since the 1960s, described his anger at learning of the school shooting from his 7-year-old granddaughter.

His wife had picked up their granddaughter that afternoon and asked how her day went. The girl didn’t want to talk about school. Lois Lopez assumed her granddaughter was upset by gym class, where she had been struggling to play soccer with the boys.

“I thought she had one of those days,” Lois Lopez said. “She says, ‘They were shooting all over, they were shooting, I heard ’em go pow pow pow pow pow. I was so afraid, they told us to get down in the school hallway.’ ”

The girl was inside the school but other students were outside. She was afraid to go back.

To keep students calm, teachers had told them it was just a drill, principal Dana Butler said. “We don’t want to spook the kids,” he explained. “So we told the kids we were just playing so they don’t get spooked.”

Parents and grandparents said they understood the teachers’ goal, but said their kids weren’t fooled. “Of course they were afraid,” Lois Lopez said. “They were afraid for a couple days.”

Maria Rodriguez has a 10-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy at Ruiz. She lived with her parents around the corner from Ruiz for years, then moved to her own place. She brought her children back to Ruiz after a daytime shooting outside the school there. That was the first time her kids heard gunfire.

“They don’t even need an explanation anymore,” she said. “ ‘There was a shooting, mom. We were inside. Now there’s no recess.’ It makes me so angry. Who stands a chance against a rifle?”

Ogden District Cmdr. James Sanchez pointed out that there have “always been conflicts between gangbangers” in the area. “Nothing’s any different than the past,” he told the crowd. “We all share the same gangs, we all share the same gang problems.”

He alluded to a meeting with other districts about the gangs, but didn’t mention that the rifle conflict had spread to Pilsen. He did not talk about rifles at all, and the subject didn’t come up until after he left.

Many at the meeting wanted police to stand guard during dismissal, but the commander said he had just one school sergeant and eight school officers for 20 schools and 60,000 students.

Rodriguez said her children want to move from Pilsen. She was hesitant in the weeks after the shooting, but at the end of November, she bought a house in a section of Back of the Yards not claimed by any gang.

“They do ask me, ‘Can we leave the neighborhood? Can we move? Can we buy another house?’ And then I’m like, ‘Where am I gonna go?’ ” she said. “It’s happening all over the city and then if I go to another neighborhood, how well do I know that neighborhood? There’s nowhere to run.”

‘WHERE ARE THESE RIFLES COMING FROM?’

The longest period between rifle shootings in this conflict was 26 days between a double homicide in Brighton Park and a rifle shooting in early December. It coincided with the recovery of at least 10 rifles by city and federal authorities.

  • An undercover federal agent negotiated a purchase of four rifles that was completed in a suburban Planet Fitness. A search of a house in Melrose Park turned up two more.
  • Police found rifles modeled after AK-47s when they acted on search warrants in the Marquette Park and Brighton Park neighborhoods in early November. The target of the Brighton Park warrant, who lived near Shields Elementary School, was considered by police as a “member of influence.” When police walked into his bedroom, he motioned to his bed and said, “I have an AK.”
  • Two more rifles were recovered during a gun-running investigation a week later. Gang investigations officers in Pilsen watched an Ambrose gang member put two rifles in the back of a minivan after a Saint from Back of the Yards handed him cash. Officers curbed the van a few miles south on Ashland Avenue, just outside Saints territory, and found two rifles and a handgun inside. The Ambrose member was later arrested with more than $2,300.

Toward the end of the 26 days, more than 200 people gathered at 47th Street and Damen Avenue for the first of what Marina Alonso hoped would be an annual Christmas tree lighting in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

The escalating violence has pushed people indoors. This was an important event for her because it gave neighbors an opportunity to feel a sense of community.

“I know there was a lot of questions about where are these rifles coming from, even within the moms from here,” Alonso said. “Where can they buy them?”

When aldermen and police brass speak at community policing meetings about residents getting involved, they’re describing Alonso. She’s been a school community representative at Hedges Elementary School for more than 30 years.

She’s a jovial but stern advocate for her students and their parents. She needles the two aldermen who cover Back of the Yards in a playful-but-don’t-make-me-get-serious way. They listen.

Alonso calls police for parents afraid to speak. She encourages her “mothers,” as she calls them, to write down license plate numbers of unfamiliar cars so she can report them. She’s coordinated CAPS meetings and translates so Spanish-only speakers can understand. She leads a support group for mothers whose sons were victims of violence.

She helps lead a Girls on the Run program for third- and fourth-graders at her school, and she says many of the girls have witnessed rifle shootings. Most can tell the difference in sound between rifles and handguns.

A lot of her kids came to the tree lighting ceremony, many wearing school sweaters and posing for selfies in front of trees they had decorated. Jaime and Leny were killed about a block from here a year earlier.

Students from Hedges stood in front of a 6-foot tree with a sign that said, “El Arbol De La Esperanza,” the tree of hope. The students had adorned it with paper cutouts of hands, each with a word expressing their values: strength, loyalty, hope, trust, family, peace.

Hedges is in a part of the neighborhood called Damenville, named for a faction of the Two-Sixes gang that has been quiet lately. Young men from the neighborhood — they were students at Hedges before they were Two-Sixes — told Alonso they’re off the streets for now. Over the summer, a young gang member from their 38th Street faction was killed with a rifle outside the school.

One of Alonso’s girls was getting into the family’s van this summer when someone drove by, shooting. For a while afterward, getting into the van triggered a panic attack. One of her mothers also had a panic attack after making sure her kids were safe during a rifle shooting.

“With the rifles, I don’t know if they don’t know how to control them, they just kind of ... spray it,” she said. “They don’t target the one guy they want, it's just like whoever’s there, you’re gonna get it regardless.”

‘WEAPONS MEANT FOR THE BATTLEFIELD’

The idea that each gang had only one rifle proved to be untrue. There seems to be no end to the supply, and police don’t expect their use to slow down.

“Weapons meant for the battlefield have no place in our city, and the Chicago Police Department is working aggressively to get these guns off the streets, seizing nearly 250 rifles this year,” the department said in a statement.

Four days after the tree lighting, the 35-year-old brother of a ranking Saint was killed a block north of the birthplace of the Saints more than 50 years ago.

Rounds from two rifles were recovered. Officers had heard La Razas had two rifles. A district supervisor sent beat cars to their territory as Saints grew agitated at the shooting scene.

The Saints gathered on a sidewalk next to the street’s speed bump. As cars approached, a young man reached for something on the ground, kept his hand there and waited in a crouch until the car passed.

Those with him peered into the slowing cars.

©2017 the Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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