Editorial: Chicago cops need to fight drug gangs

Chicago's mayor has said repeatedly that most of the city's violence is related to gangs and drugs

By Alejandro Escalona
The Chicago Sun-Times

CHICAGO — At a recent town hall meeting on drug use at Oak Park River Forest High School, an ex-student stunned a crowd of teachers, administrators, police and parents by claiming that she only needed 30 minutes and a cell phone to get any kind of drugs delivered to the school premises.

That should not have come as a surprise. The Chicago region is one of the nation's largest drug markets and a distribution center for cocaine, heroin and marijuana, according to a 2009 Department of Justice report. Nor should it be a revelation that gangs are the real force behind the city's booming narcotics business.

You only need to connect the dots to find that most homicides committed in Chicago are gang-related. When asked about the violence in Chicago, Mayor Daley has said repeatedly that most of it is about gangs, drugs and guns.

Police Supt. Jody Weis wants to counter the public perception that crime is up in Chicago. He has held several media briefings recently to explain that homicides have dropped over the last two decades and are about the same as last year.

Instead of the PR campaign, Weis should explain why the pattern of gang-related violence continues unabated. From 2007 to 2008, gang-related murders increased 36 percent, 168 murders to 229, according to police data.

Through June 30, there were 215 homicides in Chicago, of which 61 percent were gang-involved, meaning either the victim or the offender had a known gang association or the incident was gang-related.

This violence is often the result of disputes among rival gangs for drug distribution turf. These criminal groups have become our very own drug cartels.

Gangs are now more involved in wholesale of illicit drugs, helped primarily by Mexican and Asian drug-trafficking organizations, according to the Department of Justice 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment.

The feds know that gangs such as the Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords and Latin Kings maintain uncontested control over retail drug distribution in the region.

The report warns that Mexican drug cartels operating in Chicago have "drug distribution relationships with high-ranking local street gang members, supplying them with drugs for retail distribution."

"This is a relatively new development," retired Chicago Police officer and gang expert John Castaneda told me. "It is more lucrative for drug cartels to use gangs to distribute drugs in large cities."

According to Castaneda, there are about 70 gangs in Chicago with about 60,000 members. Gangs belong either to the People or the Folks factions and battle for control of street corners to sell drugs.

Gangs are entrenched in some city neighborhoods. That is why it is hard for the police to break the "code of silence" when seeking information to solve a crime.

The police must do a better job explaining to the public the nature of gangs and the violence they inflict upon the city.

These gang-bangers are not punks just hanging out. They mean business and their business is deadly.

Instead of fighting a war of perception about whether crime is up or down, Weis should explain what the Chicago Police are doing to fight gangs and drug-trafficking and how the department is cooperating with the feds, local governments and community organizations.

We are losing the war on drugs. The U.S. has the biggest appetite for illicit drugs in the world. More than 35 million individuals use illicit drugs or abuse prescription drugs in the country. As long as the demand persists, violent crime will follow drug-trafficking.

With less resources and fewer officers, Chicago Police will have their hands full fighting gangs that are shooting it out for a bigger piece of the Chicago region's drug market.

Remember, it only takes a cell phone and 30 minutes to have drugs delivered to any number of local high schools.

Copyright 2010 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.

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