More than a year in, police war on gang having an impact
By FRANK MAIN, ART GOLAB and JOSH McGHEE Staff Reporters August 12, 2012 11:32PM
Carmen Cruz-Martinez talks about changes in her neighborhood. React story in neighborhoods where gang violence has taken it's toll, including the community around Potomac and Rockwell in Humboldt Park. Photographed on Wednesday, August 8, 2012 in Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
Updated: September 14, 2012 6:07AM
Hannah Hofseth’s apartment looks out on the intersection of Potomac and Rockwell — where the Maniac Latin Disciples were born in the 1960s.
The corner is notorious for mayhem, so much so that it was featured on an episode of the cable TV series “Gangland.”
That doesn’t bother Hofseth, a 21-year-old Minneapolis native. On a recent sunny afternoon, she walked her Old English sheepdog puppy on the block, stopping to say hello to neighbors.
Like others who live in neighborhoods that are Maniac Latin Disciples strongholds, Hofseth said things have gotten a lot quieter over the past year since the Chicago Police Department launched a celebrated effort to “eradicate” the gang.
“I’m not worried,” she said. “They call this corner the Twilight Zone. But I never have any problems.”
She does see people fighting on the corner, she said, but the police come quickly to arrest the troublemakers.
Hofseth said there’s a strong police presence in the neighborhood — maybe even too strong at times. One time, she said, officers harassed her after she handed a lighter to a stranger to fire up a cigarette.
“Sometimes, they’re cracking down on the wrong people,” Hofseth said.
The department’s war on the Maniac Latin Disciples began in June 2011 after a member of the gang allegedly wounded two young girls playing in Avondale Park while he was gunning for rival Latin Kings.
Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, disgusted by the shootings, vowed to “eradicate” the entire gang.
In February, one of the leaders of the gang told the Chicago Sun-Times the police pressure was taking a financial toll on the gang, that its members were having a harder time selling drugs.
Now, more than a year after the girls were shot, a Sun-Times analysis finds that crime in MLD territories dropped sharply after the initiative was launched in June but, by May, violent crime in the gang’s turf had edged back to 2011 levels.
The police say they don’t think the MLDs are responsible for the upswing the Sun-Times analysis found, though. Deputy Chief John Escalante said he thinks the anti-MLD initiative has worked in “just about every area we’ve targeted.”
Escalante said the shootings have been the work of other gangs that share the same turf.
Also, he said that in one area where the MLDs are dominant — designated by the police department as Beat No. 1411 — burglaries and robberies that aren’t linked to gang activity have driven up crime 11 percent this year.
Still, there was only one shooting in that beat area this year through the end of July, compared with six over the same period of 2011, Escalante said.
And gang-related calls to the police — for everything from people seeing gang members loitering to committing crimes — were down about 8 percent on that beat, which is south of Belmont, north of Diversey, east of Kimball and west of Elston.
The MLDs — whose symbols include a pitchfork, a devil’s head and a backward swastika — claim a patchwork of territory on the Northwest Side. They’re primarily in the Humboldt Park and Grand-Central police districts, as well as a sliver of the Albany Park district.
Every day, commanders of those districts continue to launch missions to combat the gang, said Escalante, the boss of those commanders. He controls separate teams of officers who also target the MLDs, along with gang and narcotics officers.
To date, the police have made more than 2,500 arrests of MLD members since the war was declared by McCarthy.
“We are arresting the same MLDs multiple times — six to a dozen times each,” Escalante said. “There is a gang faction of the MLDs from Grand and Springfield who were hit so hard last year that they literally shut down. They took themselves off the gang map. [But] we just developed information that they are thinking about starting up again.”
Escalante estimated that 90 percent of the 2,500 arrests have been for misdemeanors and the rest for felonies.
In April, he met with Cook County prosecutors to see “what more we can do in addition to this revolving door” of MLDs getting arrested for misdemeanors, being released on bail and returning to their turf.
When MLDs are sentenced to probation, prosecutors are asking judges to include a special condition: that they can’t associate with other MLDs or members of any other gang, Escalante said. If they violate that condition, they can be locked up to serve out the entire term of probation.
Escalante acknowledged that the war on the MLDs is “manpower-intensive” and can’t be deployed against every gang in the city.
“It would be too hard to apply it to every gang,” he said. “It has to be a case-by-case review.”
Indeed, other gangs have continued their violent conflicts in the areas where the police are hammering on the MLDs. Escalante pointed to Police Beat 1423 — which is north of Division, south of Armitage, east of California and west of Campbell near Humboldt Park. In that police beat, where Hofseth lives, there were five shootings this year through the end of July. Only one of those was tied to an MLD, though, and the police suspect it was over a girl, rather than gang issues.
Overall crime is down 6 percent on that beat compared with the same period of 2011. And “contact cards” — which officers fill out when they make a street stop that doesn’t result in an arrest — are up more than 80 percent. Arrests are up 15 percent.
“But we’re also up 20 percent in gang-related calls for service,” Escalante said. “We are attributing that to other conflicts involving other gangs in Beat 1423 — the Spanish Cobras and the Campbell Boys.”
Carmen Cruz-Martinez, 63, has lived in Beat 1423 most of her life.
“This was an all-Disciples area, very strong,” she said.
For years, people there felt trapped in their homes as gang violence raged. But over the past year, things have become more tranquil, she said.
“It’s been a long, long time since you could sit down in your front yard in peace,” she said as she tended to her garden.
Cops are more visible, driving through alleys and checking on whether people actually live in the neighborhood, Cruz-Martinez said. They’re asking residents to call when they see suspected
gang members congregating on corners.
“A lot of people around here are starting to step up, making calls,” she said.
John Folino, who lives near Avondale Park, where the two girls were shot last year, said he’s been in the neighborhood for more than 25 years. He sees gang members gathering on corners and in alleys at night, but they’re less bold than in the past.
“They’re escalating again, so the police are doing outdoor roll calls to show them they’re still around,” Folino said. “You have to harass them to the point they’re not visible anymore.”
Michael White, a 47-year-old Army veteran, agreed. The Avondale Park resident said the police have boosted their presence around the park near Kimball and Belmont since the girls were shot and haven’t let up.
“Last summer, we had a bunch of break-ins, but there’s been nothing big this year,” he said.
The neighborhood isn’t Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, but it’s grown friendlier as tensions have lifted over the last year, White said.
“People are starting to talk to each other,” he said. “Kids will say to me, ‘Hi, mister.’ People are waving. Things are changing.”