A few months before last February’s citywide elections, Hal Baskin’s phone started ringing. And ringing. Most of the callers were candidates for Chicago City Council, seeking the kind of help Baskin was uniquely qualified to provide.
Baskin isn’t a slick campaign strategist. He’s a former gang leader and, for several decades, a community activist who now operates a neighborhood center that aims to keep kids off the streets. Baskin has deep contacts inside the South Side’s complex network of politicians, community organizations, and street gangs. as he recalls, the inquiring candidates wanted to know: “Who do I need to be talking to so I can get the gangs on board?”
Baskin—who was himself a candidate in the 16th Ward aldermanic race, which he would lose—was happy to oblige. In all, he says, he helped broker meetings between roughly 30 politicians (ten sitting aldermen and 20 candidates for City Council) and at least six gang representatives. That claim is backed up by two other community activists, Harold Davis Jr. and Kublai K. M. Toure, who worked with Baskin to arrange the meetings, and a third participant, also a community activist, who requested anonymity. The gang representatives were former chiefs who had walked away from day-to-day thug life, but they were still respected on the streets and wielded enough influence to mobilize active gang members.
The first meeting, according to Baskin, occurred in early November 2010, right before the statewide general election; more gatherings followed in the run-up to the February 2011 municipal elections. The venues included office buildings, restaurants, and law offices. (By all accounts, similar meetings took place across the city before last year’s elections and in elections past, including after hours at the Garfield Center, a taxpayer-financed facility on the West Side that is used by the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.)
At some of the meetings, the politicians arrived with campaign materials and occasionally with aides. The sessions were organized much like corporate-style job fairs. The gang representatives conducted hourlong interviews, one after the other, talking to as many as five candidates in a single evening. Like supplicants, the politicians came into the room alone and sat before the gang representatives, who sat behind a long table. “One candidate said, ‘I feel like I’m in the hot seat,’” recalls Baskin. “And they were.”
The former chieftains, several of them ex-convicts, represented some of the most notorious gangs on the South and West Sides, including the Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, Black Disciples, Cobras, Black P Stones, and Black Gangsters. Before the election, the gangs agreed to set aside decades-old rivalries and bloody vendettas to operate as a unified political force, which they called Black United Voters of Chicago. “They realized that if they came together, they could get the politicians to come to them,” explains Baskin.
The gang representatives were interested in electing aldermen sympathetic to their interests and those of their impoverished wards. As for the politicians, says Baskin, their interests essentially boiled down to getting elected or reelected. “All of [the political hopefuls] were aware of who they were meeting with,” he says. “They didn’t care. All they wanted to do was get the support.”
Baskin declined to name names, but Chicago has learned, through other sources at the meetings, the identities of some of the participants. They include: Aldermen Howard Brookins Jr. (21st Ward), Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), Willie Cochran (20th), and Freddrenna Lyle (6th). Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd) attended a meeting; upon realizing that the participants had close gang ties, she objected but stayed. Also attending were candidates who would go on to win their races, including Michael Chandler (24th) and Roderick Sawyer (6th). Darcel Beavers, the former 7th Ward alderman who would wind up losing her race, and Patricia Horton, a commissioner with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District who lost her bid for city clerk, also met with the group.
Chandler, Brookins, and Burnett told Chicago they did not attend such a meeting. Sawyer and Horton did not return several calls seeking comment. A spokesman for Dowell confirmed that she attended the meeting after she objected. Beavers, Cochran, and Lyle, who was recently appointed as a Cook County judge, said they attended but were not told beforehand that former gang chiefs would be there, nor that the purpose involved gang-backed political support. “It, basically, was no different than sitting in front of any other panel that asks you questions relative to constituent issues,” said Cochran.
During the meetings, the politicians were allotted a few minutes to make their pitches. The former gang chiefs then peppered them with questions: What would they do about jobs? School safety? Police harassment? Help for ex-cons? But in the end, as with most things political in Chicago, it all came down to one question, says Davis, the community activist who helped Baskin with some of the meetings. He recalls that the gang representatives asked, “What can you give me?” The politicians, most eager to please, replied, “What do you want?”
Street gangs have been a part of Chicago politics at least since the days of the notorious First Ward bosses “Bathhouse John” Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, who a century ago ran their vice-ridden Levee district using gangs of toughs armed with bats and pistols to bully voters and stuff ballot boxes. “Gangs and politics have always gone together in this city,” says John Hagedorn, a gang expert and professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s a shadowy alliance, he adds, that is deeply ingrained in Chicago’s political culture: “You take care of them; they’ll take care of us.”
To what extent do street gangs influence—and corrupt—Chicago politics today? And what are the consequences for ordinary citizens? To find out, Chicago conducted more than 100 interviews with current and former elected officials and candidates, gang leaders, senior police officials, rank-and-file cops, investigators, and prosecutors. We also talked to community activists, campaign operatives, and criminologists. We limited our scope to the city (though alliances certainly exist in some gang-infested suburbs) and focused exclusively on Democrats, since they are the dominant governing party in Chicago and in the statehouse. Moreover, we looked at the political influence of street gangs only, not of traditional organized crime—a worthy subject for another day.
- While they typically deny it, many public officials—mostly, but not limited to, aldermen, state legislators, and elected judges—routinely seek political support from influential street gangs. Meetings like the ones Baskin organized, for instance, are hardly an anomaly. Gangs can provide a decisive advantage at election time by performing the kinds of chores patronage armies once did.
- In some cases, the partnerships extend beyond the elections in troubling—and possibly criminal—ways, greased by the steady and largely secret flow of money from gang leaders to certain politicians and vice versa. The gangs funnel their largess through opaque businesses, or front companies, and through under-the-table payments. In turn, grateful politicians use their payrolls or campaign funds to hire gang members, pull strings for them to get jobs or contracts, or offer other favors (see “Gangs and Politicians: Prisoner Shuffle”).
- Most alarming, both law enforcement and gang sources say, is that some politicians ignore the gangs’ criminal activities. Some go so far as to protect gangs from the police, tipping them off to impending raids or to surveillance activities—in effect, creating safe havens in their political districts. And often they chafe at backing tough measures to stem gang activities, advocating instead for superficial solutions that may garner good press but have little impact.
The paradox is that Chicago’s struggle to combat street gangs is being undermined by its own elected officials. And the alliances between lawmakers and lawbreakers raise a troubling question: Who actually rules the neighborhoods—our public servants or the gangs?
The police officers were in a squad car in October 2007, patrolling a section of Uptown some call a walking pharmacy, where drugs are sold openly. When they saw a silver Chevy Cavalier roll through a stop sign, they ran a check on the plates and discovered that there was a warrant for the arrest of the owner. They approached the car. One passenger turned out to be Rahiem Ali, a 29-year-old Gangster Disciple with a criminal record dating back to 1995 and a rap sheet with nearly 40 arrests. Ali and his twin brother, Rahmon, were well known to police. The two ran a lucrative Uptown drug spot and were notorious for being among the biggest, baddest gangbangers in the neighborhood. According to the officers’ report, they saw Ali shove a hand into his pants pocket and pop something into his mouth.
When they ordered him out of the car, Ali shoved the police aside and ran. It took four officers to subdue him. One suffered a cracked tooth when Ali hit him with his elbow. Two officers doused Ali with pepper spray before he coughed out two plastic bags filled with 23 smaller bags containing what was suspected to be crack cocaine.
Later, at the police station, two lawyers arrived to see Ali. In any other neighborhood, the officers might not have noticed them. But not in Uptown, not when one of the lawyers was Brendan Shiller, the son of Helen Shiller, the 46th Ward alderman.
The 46th Ward is one of Chicago’s most diverse communities, home to the well-heeled and the downtrodden. Throughout her career, from 1987 until she stepped down last year, Helen Shiller was known as a fierce advocate for the latter. Few aldermen on the City Council have been more resistant to gentrification or more likely to embrace social welfare programs. In Uptown, large public housing complexes were a source of pride for Shiller, who trumpeted how they added diversity to the ward and provided a rare commodity on the North Side’s lakefront: affordable housing.
Her critics, meanwhile, argued that the complexes bred and fostered a criminal population, and they accused her of not doing enough to stop the drug and gang violence that dominated specific buildings. During meetings with the police department’s command staff, says a high-ranking police source, Shiller “never [made] a big push to go after any kind of organized narcotic operation.”
Officers working in the 23rd District say Shiller and her chief of staff, Denice Davis, frequently came into the station after certain Uptown residents were arrested to try to defuse things. Police say Davis’s interference on behalf of gangbangers and the Alis—whose mother, Aqueela, was part of the alderman’s political organization—had a chilling effect on their policing efforts. What was the point of making an arrest when it brought trouble from the alderman’s office? “Certain officers would get the message: ‘Maybe I shouldn’t make this stop’ or ‘Maybe I shouldn’t investigate this,’” says Joe Cox, a veteran officer from the district who retired in 2010.
Shiller says she “didn’t have a relationship” with either of the Ali twins, nor did she offer any assistance to them. “My relationship was with their mom. I knew she had sons that had difficulties. I didn’t interact with them. I didn’t know them.”
As the Ali brothers collected thousands a week running the drug spot around Lawrence Avenue and Sheridan Road, word spread among the police to treat the two with kid gloves. A police source says that during arrests, the twins would say, “I’ll have your job. Do you know who my lawyer is? Do you know who his mama is?” The source adds, “They would mention the alderman by name. They would mention Brendan Shiller by name.”
Police and Shiller’s political opponents suspected that the alderman deliberately turned a blind eye to gang activity in order to bring the gang element into the fold and build up her voting base. “It’s what I like to call the exchange game,” says Sandra Reed, who twice lost elections to Shiller, in 1999 and 2003. “She protects the kids, even when they are doing wrong. She helps the parents. They think she is going to protect them, so they all work for her.”
Some speculate that Shiller helped Aqueela Ali fend off multiple attempts to have her and her sons evicted from their apartment at 920 West Lakeside Place, where rules prohibit criminal behavior by residents. (Shiller acknowledges she helped Ali with “housing issues.”) While it’s not entirely clear what her role was in Shiller’s political organization, Ali served as a poll watcher, an election judge, and a Shiller campaign worker since at least 2002, campaign records show. Records also show that she gathered petition signatures to get Shiller on the ballot in 2003 and 2007.
But it may have been Ali’s choice of residence that provided her with the most political firepower. Her building is one of the largest Section 8 facilities in Uptown, home to between 800 and 1,000 residents. Ali had clout and the ability to sway public opinion. She was the leader of the building’s tenants’ association board and, perhaps most important, the mother of Rahiem and Rahmon. “You’re talking about the mother of the most well-known gangbangers in the neighborhood,” one officer says. “When she knocks on someone’s door, do you think those people are going to say no?” (Ali did not respond to requests for comment.)
In a ward where the difference between winning and losing can be a few hundred votes, an election can turn on a campaign’s ability to win particular blocks or buildings. For example, when Shiller was first elected alderman in 1987, she won by just 498 votes. In 2007, her last election, she beat the challenger, James Cappleman, by a mere 700 votes, fewer than the number of residents living at 920 West Lakeside.
Rahiem Ali died on March 23, 2010, after ingesting a plastic bag of narcotics during an arrest and falling into a coma. (As he lay in the hospital, Brendan Shiller represented him in court on charges of aggravated battery to a police officer and resisting arrest.) Ali’s death was ruled an accident by the Cook County medical examiner. Helen Shiller, still the alderman of the 46th Ward, reached out to the family, giving $200 to his mother the day before services were held at a West Side funeral home. The official record categorizes the expenditure as “community outreach–funeral expenses” from Citizens for Shiller, her campaign fund.
That a sitting alderman would help pay for the funeral of a notorious gangster shows how the interests of politicians and gangs can intertwine. For the Ali twins, the connection conferred an above-the-law aura. For their mother, it offered the opportunity to work in the community as part of the alderman’s inner circle. For Shiller, the relationship seems to have brought street cred and political muscle that helped her fend off tough challenges at the ballot box.
Because campaign disclosure rules are vague, such relationships aren’t usually reported, nor are they easy to track through the paperwork on campaign contributions and expenditures that candidates are required to file. Assessing how pervasive the alliances are, or how much back scratching actually takes place, is difficult. Oversight is virtually nonexistent. Thus, the relationships are usually hidden from public scrutiny.
Even so, there’s no rule prohibiting aldermen from forming such relationships. State lawmakers are similarly unconstrained. Compliance with Illinois’s ethics act, which contains the code of conduct for legislators, is voluntary. As it’s put in the law, the ethical principles “are intended only as guides to legislator conduct, and not as rules meant to be enforced with disciplinary action.” (Many elected officials in Chicago and Springfield have also been stalwart opponents of rules designed to shed more light on potentially questionable conduct or to make their offices and political operations more transparent.)
Allowed such free rein, our lawmakers operate in an ambiguous moral universe that seems as lawless as some of the street corners in their districts. “No wonder corrupt pols here fear only one person: U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald,” said a Chicago Tribune editorial a few years ago.
Many forms of political corruption—taking bribes, rigging elections, engaging in pay-to-play deals—are plainly unethical, if not illegal. But forming political alliances with gangs isn’t a clear matter of right or wrong, some say. In many Chicago neighborhoods, it’s virtually impossible for elected officials and candidates for public office not to have at least some connection, even family ties, to gang members. “People try to paint this picture of bad versus good—it’s not like that,” says a veteran political organizer based in Chicago who specializes in getting out the vote in minority areas. “Everybody lives with each other, grew up with each other. Just because somebody goes this way or that way, it doesn’t mean you’re just gonna write them off automatically.”
For better or worse, gang members are constituents, the same as businesspeople in the Gold Coast. Says Aaron Patterson, an imprisoned gang member: “It ain’t like gangs come from another planet.”
For some politicians, gang members can be a source of political strength—all the more so given that the once-formidable City Hall–Cook County patronage system, the lifeblood of the old Machine, is mostly gone. In the heyday of the Machine, recalls Wallace Davis Jr., a former 27th Ward alderman, political chieftains could simply snap their fingers and marshal a large cadre of city workers to go door-to-door with “a pint of wine and a chicken” to turn out the vote.
Few politicians nowadays have such armies at their beck and call. To win elections, many officeholders and candidates—especially those who represent parts of the city with high concentrations of street gangs—turn to those gangs as their de facto political organizations. “It went from wine and a chicken to hiring a gangbanger,” says Davis, who served from 1983 to 1987. “It’s unfortunate.”
Though estimates vary, most authorities and criminologists agree that there are 70,000 to 125,000 gang members in the city. In the numbers game of Chicago politics—in which, as the old joke goes, a one-vote victory constitutes a landslide—a constituency of that size gets noticed. (Keep in mind that in Illinois convicted felons can vote once they are released from prison.)
And though gangs are anything but a monolithic voting bloc, they can, and sometimes do, offer enormous numbers come election time, especially when you count their relatives, friends, and those they muscle at the polls. “An alderman ain’t nothing without the backing of the neighborhood,” says a top-level Gangster Disciple from the South Side. “Without the gangs, it’s hard [for politicians] to exist.”
A Latin King, interviewed at Cook County Jail, recalls how the top leader of his gang, the Corona, ordered every member in his area to vote for Ricardo Muñoz, the 22nd Ward alderman. “Every chapter had to vote for that guy, anyone who was eligible to vote,” says the Latin King. “That was a direct order. That means you can’t say no. If you do, you face a violation”—typically a beating, or worse.
He estimates that the gang delivered hundreds of votes, maybe even a thousand or more, in one of Muñoz’s elections in the 1990s. Moreover, he says, members were also directed—under the threat of punishment—to pass out campaign flyers for Muñoz and walk around carrying his signs. They were instructed to wear their Sunday best: ties, khakis, trench coats. “No thug clothes,” he recalls.
Muñoz says he does not seek out gang support: “There is no coordinated effort in any way, shape, or form.”
Many politicians who enlist gang members try to cloak the relationship in the rhetoric of political empowerment or social activism. They’ll say they want to get troubled youth involved in the political process in constructive ways: doing things like circulating nominating petitions, passing out campaign literature, or registering voters. They’ll say that for many of these men and boys, participating in politics is one of the few positive things they’ve done in their lives.
Some gang members seem to welcome the chance to leave the thug life, if only temporarily, and use the political system to better their lot. They say they have grown tired of gangbanging, realizing that it typically ends in one of two ways: death or prison. But honest jobs, they quickly point out, are few and far between where they live. “We don’t just all want to sell drugs,” says a Vice Lord leader from the West Side who is in Cook County Jail. “Some people [are] trying to do right.”
UIC’s Hagedorn and others who study gangs say that as long as the gangs don’t cross a line of illegal behavior, they should be political forces in their communities. “It’s a good idea to bring gangs into politics,” Hagedorn says. “Co-opt them, get them to go legit. It worked for the Irish, right?”
But law-and-order absolutists say today’s street gangs are much different from the Irish gangs of old: They are not just a bunch of toughs who brawl in the streets. “Gangs drive all of the crime in Chicago, and it’s shocking that some of these [public servants] want to align themselves with them simply for political gain,” says Jody Weis, the former Chicago police superintendent. “It’s kind of like selling your soul to the devil.”
Weis’s predecessor, Phil Cline, agrees: “If they think that they can use the gangs and the gangs aren’t going to want something in return, they are wrong. Once you start lying down with dogs, you are going to get fleas.”
The West Side Vice Lord at Cook County Jail speaks with a raspy voice about his own experiences with politicians. The leader of his gang, he says, had struck a deal with an alderman who was giving the Vice Lords extra money to buy heroin and high-grade marijuana. It was a win-win for everybody, by his account; the whole operation raked in $50,000 a day. Most of the money went to the gang, but the alderman took a nice cut, he says.
Before he was charged with shooting a rival gang member, the jailed Vice Lord says, he regularly met with the alderman in parking lots or at a Mexican restaurant to pick up and deliver envelopes of money. In time, the alderman—whom the Vice Lord refused to name but described as heavyset and middle-aged—grew more comfortable with these meetings and began asking to be introduced to young women who hung around the gang.
In return, the Vice Lord recalls, the alderman would sometimes give the gang a heads-up about what was discussed at CAPS meetings, where police and residents talked about neighborhood crime and other issues. The alderman, he says, would tell them which corners or gang members were receiving police attention. That way, the gang would “know how to move around” to avoid police, he explains. (Many aldermen wield considerable influence over the police commanders in their districts. In some respects, the commanders unofficially report to the aldermen.) He says that the alderman would also let them know about jobs at particular construction sites in the ward.
The Vice Lord and five other top gang members—all of whom requested anonymity out of concern for their safety—described how gangs and public officials use each other in ways legal and illegal. Though they are from different areas of the city, their stories are similar. Generally speaking, they say, the relationships grow out of activities related to Election Day, when politicians can offer dozens of temporary jobs to those willing to do the get-out-the-vote work or, if necessary, intimidate voters, tear down signs, or vandalize an opponent’s campaign office, among other misdeeds. From there, the relationships can, and do, get seedier.
A high-ranking Latin King claims that a Latino elected official, still in office, and a member of his staff routinely buy drugs from the gang. “They do PCP, coke, smoke weed, drink, everything,” he says. Several gang members call such actions common. “That shit that goes on behind closed doors is outrageous,” says a Latin King from another part of the city.
Two police sources—a former gang investigator and a veteran detective—bluntly acknowledge that even if the police know of dubious dealings between an alderman and a gang leader or drug dealer, there is little, if anything, they can do, thanks to what they say is the department’s unofficial rule: Stay away from public officials. “We can’t arrest aldermen,” says the gang investigator, “unless they’re doing something obvious to endanger someone. We’re told to stand down.” The detective concurs: “It’s the unwritten rule. There’s a two-tier justice system here.”
Meanwhile, the city’s inspector general can’t—by design of the City Council—investigate council members. (In May 2010, the council, under pressure to curb its corruptible ways, created its own inspector general. The job went unfilled for more than 18 months, until last November, when the council picked a New York lawyer for the part-time position, which has a minuscule budget and no staff and which critics have decried as window-dressing.)
Beyond providing protection from police—the gangs’ number one request—public officials can help in other ways. Gang leaders, particularly the most powerful, are usually looking to build on the riches they already have. Knowing an alderman or a state legislator—or even a congressman—can help. Traditionally, aldermen have almost total say over what gets built and what sorts of businesses open in their wards. They also have considerable sway over city contracts, which can mean tens of thousands to millions of dollars for gang-owned businesses.
By many accounts, state legislators and, to a lesser extent, the lawmakers in Washington can, and do, steer state or federal contracts or grant money to gang-backed businesses and gang-friendly nonprofit fronts. This isn’t always as simple as a direct contract. Sometimes officials and other political insiders encourage gang leaders to form minority subcontractor companies and hook them up with reputable city contractors. It solves problems for everyone: Gang leaders who want to get on the straight and narrow, or perhaps launder their profits from their criminal enterprises, can form legitimate businesses that won’t draw scrutiny; contractors get a minority-owned company to work with (the city requires that 25 percent of all contract payments go to minority firms and 5 percent to female-owned firms); the political go-betweens get political support or just goodwill that they can draw on later—and maybe even a cut of the profits.
Consider the case of Radames DeJesus. A convicted cocaine dealer who was sentenced to seven years in prison for shooting and seriously wounding three rival gang members in 1989, DeJesus, 45, is currently active in the Latin Kings, according to three Chicago gang investigators and a well-placed Humboldt Park gang member. At his 1990 trial, a gang investigator testified that DeJesus was an enforcer in the gang. DeJesus admitted he was a gang member but not an enforcer, according to court documents.
Sometime around 2006, sources say, a political insider told DeJesus he could start up a minority-owned business and reap lucrative city contracts. He then opened SewerTech Services, a sewer maintenance company on the city’s West Side. SewerTech has received a total of $31.1 million in subcontracts from Kenny Construction, the politically connected firm that has won hundreds of millions of dollars in sewer lining and repair business under the Daley administration. DeJesus also hit the taxpayer trough in March and July 2010 for nearly $300,000 in grants from TIF Works, a program that awards tax increment financing to companies for job training in TIF districts. (City records show that SewerTech has been paid about $94,000 so far.)
The law enforcement sources, who closely monitor the Latin Kings in Chicago and beyond, say DeJesus has been “laying low” but maintains an “active connection to the organization”—an allegation confirmed by the Humboldt Park gang member.
In a statement to Chicago, DeJesus said: “I am not affiliated with any street gang. I left that destructive life behind two decades ago.” He added that he tries to help other former gang members, hiring them to work at SewerTech and offering them Bible study classes to support their efforts to turn their lives around. “I believe in second chances,” he said. In a separate statement, Kenny Construction said SewerTech was the lowest bidder on their two projects and added that the company has done a good job.
When Chicago asked a spokeswoman for the city for comment, she said the city had not been aware of DeJesus’s criminal background or his alleged current gang involvement. While all city contractors must disclose whether their businesses’ owners have felony convictions—they can be ineligible for contracts if they’ve been convicted of bribery, fraud, theft, or other so-called crimes of deceit—subcontractors aren’t required to file felony disclosures with the city.
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.