Gangs and Politicians in Chicago: An Unholy Alliance

LAWBREAKERS, LAWMAKERS: In some parts of Chicago, violent street gangs and pols quietly trade money and favors for mutual gain. The thugs flourish, the elected officials thrive—and you lose. A special report.

Photos: (left) Airedale Brothers/Getty Images; (right) alfiegiles/istockphoto

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No account of city politics and gangs would be complete without mentioning the federal case against the former 20th Ward alderman Arenda Troutman. When Troutman pleaded guilty in 2008 to tax fraud and taking payoffs from developers, the case made for lurid headlines. It wasn’t necessarily because of her crimes—bribe-taking and tax-cheating aldermen have been a dime a dozen in the City Council. Rather, it was because of Troutman’s romantic relationship with Donnell Jehan, a leader of the Black Disciples, one of the city’s most ruthless and feared gangs, which ran a $300,000-a-day drug operation on the South Side.

Troutman’s case serves as a vivid example of how gangs and public officials can be a toxic mix. The six-year federal investigation unearthed evidence that Troutman had helped Jehan and the reputed king of the Black Disciples, Marvel Thompson, acquire properties and allowed them to rehab buildings without permits. She had also helped them get jobs for young gang members, either through city-run programs or by threatening builders to hire gang crews on job sites. Authorities further suspected that Troutman, or others in her office, may have alerted the gang to police operations. Thompson and Jehan, meanwhile, mobilized their members to do political work for Troutman. Records show that they had also given her thousands in cash, from drug profits and the gang’s street tax.

Through it all, Troutman insisted that she thought she was dealing with legitimate businessmen. “They talked like businessmen,” she told reporters. “They were dressed like businessmen. They had business to discuss.” (Chicago’s request for comment from Troutman, who is still incarcerated, went unanswered.)

Troutman was not the only politician to get into bed with the Black Disciples. Calvin Omar Johnson, a former gang leader and a friend of Thompson’s, who testified on Thompson’s behalf at his sentencing hearing, says every politician on the South and Near West Sides—from the aldermen up to the congressmen—tried to woo Thompson. “Everybody in that area, everybody in that neighborhood, every elected official in that community asked Marvel for help,” says Johnson. “And Marvel helped them.”

Further, three law enforcement sources involved in the federal probe of the gang confirm that two other local politicians besides Troutman—a sitting alderman and an unsuccessful aldermanic candidate—became ensnared in the government’s investigation. The two were interviewed by federal investigators but were never charged.

* * *

“Bienvenidos a Little Village” reads the sign on the large Spanish-tiled arch at the eastern end of 26th Street, the entranceway to the neighborhood. On this evening, Raul Montes Jr., a community activist there, is in a car giving a tour of the bustling 26th Street commercial corridor—one of the city’s busiest. Montes, 37, points out taquerías, bakeries, and small shops lining the street, as well as the carts that offer an assortment of Mexican street food.

To Montes, the scene is a source of pride. “But some people are scared to come here now,” he says. Driving along this 29-block stretch, from Sacramento to Kostner Avenues, the western edge of the commercial district, one can’t miss the clusters of hoodie-wearing teenagers flashing gang signs. The 2-6ers, whose turf is along the western portion of this stretch, wear tan caps; the Latin Kings, in the east, don gold ones. Everywhere in between, Montes notes, are the miqueros, street-corner hawkers who openly sell counterfeit IDs and fraudulent Social Security cards. Vice is all around—and in plain sight.

Indeed, crime in the heart of Little Village is higher than in much of the rest of the city. Statistics show that the police district that covers 26th Street and nearby parts of the 22nd Ward had the ninth-highest number of reported violent crimes and the fifth-highest number of homicides citywide in 2011.

But, as Montes points out, there are no surveillance cameras posted anywhere along 26th Street. He blames Ricardo Muñoz, the alderman for Little Village. Muñoz, an admitted ex–gang member, has served on the City Council since 1993. Critics cite the alderman’s well-established ties to the Latino gangs in Little Village and also note that Muñoz’s father and his nephew were, on separate occasions, arrested for trafficking fake IDs.

Montes, a gadfly who frequently holds protests to focus attention on the lack of police blue-light cameras in his ward, suspects that Muñoz has intentionally kept cameras out to help protect the gangs—a position shared by several law enforcement sources and Muñoz’s various political opponents. (The installation of surveillance cameras at high-crime corners, according to police figures, has cut drug-related crime by 76 percent and so-called quality-of-life crime by 46 percent. Aldermen can pay for the cameras out of the more than $1 million in discretionary funds they receive every year. Muñoz, however, hasn’t bought one.)

Over time, Montes has gathered more than 1,500 signatures of Little Village residents and business owners supporting the installation of cameras on 26th Street. “My question is: Why does [Muñoz] oppose cameras so much?” Montes says. “Why would you oppose these cameras when you have high crime in your area? You’re the alderman. You see crime going on. Why does he ignore it?”

Muñoz says 26th Street doesn’t need taxpayer-funded cameras: “The business strip should fend for themselves.” He adds that cameras should mostly go around schools and parks. As for the suspicions that he deliberately keeps cameras out to protect street gangs, he answers, “I grew up in the neighborhood, and these statements are coming from haters. They’re just rumors.”

Anti-gang activists, police, and political insiders say that elected officials show how serious they are about tackling the gang problems in their districts by the public safety actions they take or don’t take and by the services or favors they provide. For example, many politicians in high-crime districts regularly offer help to ex-offenders who want to get their criminal records expunged—treating such favors as a constituent service, like garbage pickup, rather than a legal process best left to practicing lawyers. Gang leaders we interviewed told stories of how aldermen put off installing or fixing streetlights to keep the streets dark for criminal activity and how gangs can hold picnics or block parties without the required permits.

Sympathetic lawmakers can also help gangs by doing little to stop their illicit activities or by accepting bribes to ignore them entirely. “We call it look-the-other-way pay,” says the Gangster Disciple. Indeed, several police sources say most aldermen rarely file complaints about the open drug markets that operate so freely in their wards—unless the action gets too close to their offices or homes. Then they want the police to move in immediately.

A brief survey of the City Council’s recent actions on gangs reveals mostly empty posturing and symbolic gestures, some worthy of a Second City sketch. Other than an anti-loitering law that’s been on the books for nearly two decades and various gun restrictions that apply to all city residents, the city’s efforts to combat gangs have gotten increasingly absurd. Over the years, the council has targeted pagers and telephone booths, which are the street offices of choice for drug dealers, and banned the sale of spray paint, which Alderman Edward Burke once called “weapons of terror,” to cut back on graffiti. In 1997, aldermen considered cracking down on residents who put up basketball hoops in their alleys, saying they were magnets for gang members. Soon afterward, Mayor Daley proposed an ordinance making it a crime simply to shout the words “rock,” “blow,” or “weed”—street slang for crack cocaine, heroin, and marijuana.

But the absurdity of the City Council’s efforts to deal with gangs reached a zenith in early 2008, when aldermen considered banning the tiny plastic bags commonly used in drug sales. As silly as this proposal was to many people—“Our elected officials are addicted to symbolism,” wrote Neil Steinberg in the Sun-Times—the reaction by opponents was equally ridiculous. Aldermen Freddrenna Lyle and Helen Shiller, for instance, argued that little girls or women who used the bags to carry small beads for their braids could be arrested. Ditto for someone caught with a bag holding spare buttons for clothing, said Alderman Walter Burnett.

 

Come March, Chicago’s powerful political bosses, the Democratic ward committeemen—more than half of whom are sitting aldermen—will be up for reelection. So too will a slate of state representatives, state senators, judges, Cook County officials, and members of Congress. The old rituals will start again, and you can bet that Hal Baskin’s phone will be buzzing. “The reality is, [candidates] are looking for any advantage they can get,” says Baskin. “If they don’t use gangs, someone else will.”

Baskin operates his neighborhood center in an old church in Englewood, one of the most violent, gang-filled communities in Chicago. The church, like the neighborhood, has seen better days. Recently, as a light rain dripped through the leaky roof, Baskin tended to a makeshift system of buckets and tarps to minimize the damage. The basketball court and a theatre stage on the top floor are nearly ruined. “There are parts of this city where there are no legal jobs and the drug dealer and the gang leader are the biggest employers in the community,” Baskin says. “The politicians know it; people in the community know it. That’s the social dynamic that plays out in these meetings.”

By the looks of this scene, it would seem as if Baskin’s efforts to get politicians to pay attention to the problems in his community haven’t worked. Baskin doesn’t disagree. “It don’t bother me,” he says, adding that it won’t stop him from taking politicians’ calls. “I still believe in the process.” Better to have a seat at the table than no seat at all.
 

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