Webster, known on the street as “Baby Folks,” returned to the corner he had once controlled to reassert his authority. But the 34-year-old did not last long. Last month, in the middle of the afternoon, Webster happened upon a friend who was having his minivan fixed by a curbside mechanic. As the men chatted and shared a marijuana blunt, a gunman emerged from a vacant lot and began firing, police sources said. In a hail of gunfire, the friend scrambled away as Webster spun and dropped to the pavement.
When Chicago police arrived, they found Webster sprawled on the sidewalk, dying of a gunshot wound to the chest. Gunned down on the turf he once controlled, Webster was another casualty of the gang violence spinning out of control in the city this year.
Street gangs, once compared with Fortune 500 companies for their organizational skills and ruthless pursuit of profits, are now mostly made up of small, leaderless sets of members bound together by personal relationships rather than geographic or narcotics-trade ties. Personal insults and petty conflicts, often inflamed by social media posts, are just as likely to lead to a shooting as is competition for drug turf. Taken together, these changes have created an anything-goes atmosphere on the streets.
The causes of violence in Chicago are complex and defy simple explanation. But police and other experts identify the fracturing of Chicago’s gangs as one apparent contributor to a surge in violence that includes more than 2,300 people shot so far this year.
It is no secret that the nature of Chicago’s street gangs has changed, resulting in less centralized and less hierarchical organizations. Chicago’s top police officials have spoken frequently about how the splintering of the city’s gangs has fueled the city’s nonstop violence. Stature of the kind that Webster once enjoyed now means nothing, and gang members on the street have no bosses giving orders. The violent results have become increasingly unpredictable.
As the gang affiliations and conflicts have become more chaotic, the criminal justice system has become less effective in dealing with the violence, according to interviews with five investigators who together have decades of experience in local and federal law enforcement agencies dealing with gangs. All spoke on the condition that they remain anonymous, either because of security concerns or because they were not authorized by their agencies to speak publicly.
The investigators say that, at a time of dwindling resources and increased scrutiny of their credibility, law enforcement is struggling to keep up with the fast-changing identities of the gangs and their rivalries. Indeed, since May, the Cook County sheriff’s office has begun weekly security meetings inside Cook County Jail to talk about the shifting landscape of gang alliances and conflicts. Much of the information they share comes from interviews with the young inmates; those interviews have yielded a picture of chaos on the street.
“It’s really confusing. Every day we learn something new,” said a gang expert at the County Jail. “It’s constantly changing.”
For the most part, the gangs are leaderless inside the jail, the source said. The Latin Kings still appoint a leader, known as an “Inca,” to supervise members behind bars. That gang, like many other Hispanic gangs, largely continues to operate under more traditional hierarchy, which law enforcement continues to pursue. Just this past week, federal authorities announced sweeping indictments that rounded up dozens of Latin King leaders and members in the suburbs and Far South Side.
But other gangs, and especially black gangs such as the Gangster Disciples, or GDs, are rudderless, mirroring the situation outside the jail, he said.
“Every GD they interviewed,” according to the source, “said they didn’t answer to anybody.”
Not too many years ago, the organization of Chicago’s gangs was very different. From the 1970s into the early 2000s, street gangs in Chicago were sprawling, hierarchical organizations built to reap the profits of the drug trade. Often the highest-ranking leaders wielded power and influence beyond street crime. Even from prison, kingpins such as Jeff Fort, Larry Hoover and Willie Lloyd controlled multimillion-dollar drug operations and armies with thousands of soldiers. Fort and Hoover even dabbled in politics, and Fort eventually went to prison for trying to negotiate a terrorism-for-hire deal with the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
When federal authorities prosecuted the hierarchy of the Black Disciples in 2004, the investigation revealed that one of the gang’s top leaders, Donnell Jehan, had the use of then-Ald. Arenda Troutman’s SUV. Troutman denied she had a personal relationship with the gang leader, known as “Scandalous.” But Jehan was part of an organization that laundered its money by investing in apartment buildings and businesses, and Troutman was later convicted of corruption charges.
The prosecution of the Black Disciples was one of the last large takedowns by the federal authorities of a gang hierarchy in Chicago. Leadership of other big gangs had been dismantled and imprisoned earlier, and with them went the centralized control of gang members.