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Tiffany Walden/MEDILL

CeaseFire combats gang violence through intervention and deciphering graffiti.

Comes with the territory: Gangs market just like businesses

by Tiffany Walden
March 01, 2012



CeaseFire Rogers Park workers meet after an intervention at a nearby church.

To the untrained eye, the graffiti scrawled on the garages of one Jefferson Park block may look like gibberish.

But it’s actually a billboard, advertising for one particular Northwest Side faction of the Latin Kings, announcing their expansion into a new neighborhood.

Chicago gangs function like successful businesses. The business model includes supplying the neighborhood with the demand for illegal drugs while protecting the territory from impending competition.

“[A business] will not want to pick a place that’s highly concentrated with their competition,” said Michele Dorvil Agebejule, executive director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Chicago is home to the largest gang population in the country, Fox Chicago reported in January. The Chicago Crime Commission reports 73 active gangs with 68,000 to 150,000 gang members in the city.

Territory issues are bound to happen with such large numbers of gangs chasing after the same profit. Uptown’s Wilson and Broadway cross section exemplifies this competition

“You look at the [Latin] Kings that tried to move into the area here,” said Pat Gordon, supervisor of the Uptown neighborhood branch of ONE/CeaseFire. “It didn’t come to fruition because there were too many gangs already in the area.”

Gordon said that the intersection is a war zone between the Black P. Stones on the West and the Vice Lords on the East – two gangs that take the profitability of that corner very seriously.

The unusual alliance between the Stones and another Chicago super gang would incite tension with the Kings, who are a cousin gang of the Stones under the Peoples Nation, according to Gordon.

ONE/CeaseFire intervened before conflict escalated. The Kings returned to their turf on Lawrence and Ashland.

“Just like a business, if you can’t bring in a profit to make ends meet at the end of the day, then it’s going to fall through,” he continued.

Setting up shop

“First, you’re going to need somewhere to be able to hang out,” said Felix Jusino, outreach specialist for ONE/CeaseFire in Rogers Park.

Gangs do not occupy brick storefronts like a neighborhood business would. They live like their neighbors, in apartments or homes, but use these places to house their daily routines.

“A lot of times, it don’t necessarily have to be that you have someone move in there,” said Jusino, a former gang member who spent 10 years in prison for a gang-related crime.

Sometimes, male gang members use their girlfriend’s home to set up shop in the targeted neighborhood, Jusino said.

“If she can hold your toys … and I mean toys, you know,” he said while positioning his hands as if he were toting two handguns. “You can have her hold your toys. That’s your security.”

But that’s not all for the gang to start conducting business in their new spot. They need to recruit a large number of employees to hold down the fort.

And, with that said, they have to make their presence known to other neighboring gangs through mandatory hangout sessions.

“Mandatory, on the block, being visible, showing people that it’s people out there,” said Joshua Jones, outreach worker for CeaseFire Rogers Park. “This isn’t just no empty block [that] y’all can come through.”

With more and more members, the gang grows into a powerhouse in the neighborhood. Drugs are not the only profit anymore. Taxes become a source of income for gangs too, said Jusino, who used to run a small area for his gang before exiting from the gang lifestyle for his son.

“[In Little Village], you got the Two Six on one side and the Kings [on the other] … you working the strip, you got to pay your taxes,” Jusino said. “Over here on the North Side, I don’t think they do that as often as they used to.”

Threat of international gangs

MS-13 – short for Mara Salvatrucha and the 13 founding lords – is one of the fastest-growing gangs in the country and considered a national threat. The LA-originated, Central American gang is estimated to have up to 10,000 members in the U.S., according to authorities.

Sureno 13 and Norteno 14 are two other large Mexican gangs that have expanded into America and now compete with older gangs.

Is there room for these international gangs in Chicago?

Both Jusino and Jones said it’s not likely that they can grow in Chicago’s deeply rooted gang culture, which has beginnings in the Black Panther movement in the 1960s.

“If a gang is coming over here, they’re going to try to grow,” Jusino said. “[The Chicago gangs are] going to try to chop their legs off so they don’t grow.”

Cities that have a noticeable population of these three gangs did not have a large network of gangs previously, according to Jusino, who met a Sureno gang member two years ago in Cook County Jail.
“They’re over there in Mexico, but them motherfuckers [are] coming,” he said. “They’re in the suburbs.”
He said that he met a couple of Surenos in Des Plaines, a West Chicago suburb, about a year and a half ago. He tried to intervene between Surenos and Latin Kings but was not successful in his attempt. When he turned his back, the two gangs started fighting.

“You can try to lead the horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink it,” he said.