Friday, August 26, 2016

Book Review on Gangs

Book Looks at Attempt to Build Hispanic Mafia
By Jim Vail
Special to

The Insane Chicago Way is the untold story of a plan to create a Hispanic mafia in the 1990s and why it failed.

The book is written by criminologist and UIC professor John Hagedorn who has been studying gangs in this city for more than twenty years and what he reports is an eye opener for anyone interested in how the city’s black market economy operates.

Hagedorn focuses on a white working-class gang called the C-Note$ who were interested in working with the Hispanic gangs to create an organized crime operation in order to limit violence and increase profits. Hot tempers and burning Latino emotions eventually doomed the attempt to mirror the Italians and Al Capone who consolidated the gangs in the 1920s and worked with the police and government to insure a multi-billion dollar organized criminal operation that would continue for the next 100 years.

The book centers on the secret history of Spanish Growth & Development (SGD) – an organization of Latino gangs founded in 1989 and modeled on the Mafia’s nationwide Commission. The C-Note$, considered a minor league team of the Chicago mafia (called the Outfit), influenced the direction of SGD. 

Hagedorn’s tale is based on three years of interviews with an Outfit soldier as well as access to SGD’s constitution and other secret documents, which he supplements with interviews of key SGD leaders, court records and newspaper accounts.

As you get into the book your head will start spinning with the number of gangs and affiliations and families that divide the city from Northside to Southside, People and Folks and neighborhoods. The history of gangs includes the Puerto Ricans who were pushed all around the Northside who formed them to protect themselves from the whites, and the blacks who some called themselves Vice Lords to take control of the drug market from their white overlords, so that now they are lords of vice.

The one problem Hagedorn has is his entire tale about SGD is based upon an insider who for obvious reasons does not want to give his name. As journalists we are loath to quote sources off the record, but at times it is necessary. There would be no story otherwise. However, this has been used by government and others to plant suspect stories in the media to fight rivals. But what “Sal” tells in this story to the author crosschecks with a lot of Hagedorn’s contacts and research, and certainly fact is a lot more fun than fiction. This is the real nasty world of gangs, drug money, dirty cops and government officials who all work together to ensure the profits continue despite the violence.

Hagedorn said one problem with traditional gang researchers is that they do not make the connection that Chicago gangs built complex, secret structures to regulate violence, organize crime, and buy off police and politicians. The professor attended a conference on gangs and not one “gang expert” mentioned the role the cops and corruption play with gangs. I wrote a previous article in this paper how the gangs help elect aldermen today. To ignore this is to ignore reality.

The beginning of the book explains how SGD was formed by seventeen “Latin Folks” gangs in 1989 and was dedicated to curtailing violence and organizing the drug trade. To begin, one has to understand that the gang life here in this city is central to our history and who we are. Former Mayor Richard Daley the First who ruled this city for over 25 years and some said had more power than President Kennedy was an Irish gang banger. Now you follow me?

“Well, it started out as turf gangs,” Sal tells the author. “You know, where you had the Irish on one side, the Italians on one side, Germans and the Puerto Ricans and the Mexicans and the blacks. And they basically fought, you know; you stay on your side of the street and we stay on our side of the street. And that was for years through the tumultuous sixties, through the seventies. But once the late seventies, early eighties came, uh, the game changed when narcotics were introduced at a high rate. And some of these organizations went from turf gangs and they evolved into more structured criminal enterprises.”

The key here is gangs who run criminal operations and want to be successful have to do what the Kennedys and others have done, assimilate into conventional society and become respectable. I myself as a journalist saw the transformation of the mafia in Russia in the 1990s where thick necked thugs in track suits transformed into Armani suits carrying briefcases mixing in luxury hotels to today’s businessmen and parliamentarians. Sal says: “And the Hispanics are doing that. They’re opening restaurants; they’re opening up grocery stores. They’re taking their money and turning it over. So sooner or later, they no longer have to do the illegal stuff and the legit stuff is taking them over.”

It was gangbangers seeking safety behind prison bars that led to forming the SGD. “Spanish Growth and Development was an attempt to try to get everybody on the same page. To try to get power and become a part of the Machine.”

The book starts with describing a hit, a drive by and who got killed. What the TV news people can never tell us is why did a 16-year-old get shot and killed. Drugs? Gangs? This book will tell you the details about why exactly young people shoot other young people on our streets almost every day. The hit involved a Latin gang called the Latin Lovers on the Maniac Latin Disciples (MLD), who had connections to Mexican drug cartels and saw its power on the streets grow considerably, allowing them to exact a street tax on smaller gangs buying their product, and attract young kids who flocked to the biggest and baddest gang in the hood. A violent power struggle erupted between MLD and the Spanish Cobras, who both were recruiting fellow gangs to join their factions, called “families.” They both joined SGD, whose top leaders were incarcerated in prison, or the “White House,” and that is where major decisions were made. “Killing people and doing drive-by shootings is bad for business. All it does is bring the attention of law enforcement. When law enforcement has all eyes on you, no one can make any money,” Sal says.

The major player behind SGD was the C-Note$, a mostly Italian group of working class guys who were successful because they were smarter, integrated into society working union jobs, and had family and friends on the police force or attorneys who would help them out. They started to integrate Latinos into the top leadership when they saw the explosive growth of the Hispanic population in this city who now almost outnumber the whites and blacks combined. One story I found almost unbelievable. Sal says the C-Note$ cleaned out Bill Daley’s house when the mayor’s brother was at his confirmation hearing to be commerce secretary in Washington after Obama was elected.

The history of gangs in the 1960s is a contested narrative, according to Hagedorn. “The increase in African American and Puerto Rican population in the 1960s shook Chicago politically. It has racialized gang identity, as whites defended their turf against nonwhites, as well as blacks, and Latinos affirmed their own racial and ethnic identity in the face of racist violence. This violence coincided with deindustrialization that in turn led to unprecedented  increases in concentrated poverty, particularly among African Americans. These desperate conditions led inevitably to the expansion of the illegal economy. Hypersegregated neighborhoods of the black poor, which had shaken loose of black politics by the white Daley machine, made it impossible for the Italian Outfit to keep control of retail drug sales and vice markets for the new street gangs.”

A mafia elder called the Don told the author, “Without the cops, none of this stuff could happen.”

Which leads to the next important step to understanding how the narcotics market continues to flourish in Chicago despite the so-called war on drugs. Enter the Chicago Police Department and their key role to keeping the drugs flowing, on the sly, or openly in some cases.

Latin Folks gangs learned from the Outfit (Mafia) the importance of police corruption to protect their business. “And cops didn’t come as cheap as politicians.” As stated earlier, traditional gang research almost has nothing to say about police corruption, who criminologists define as being on the side of social control, while corrupt cops, if they are mentioned at all, are “bad apples.” 

Those on the inside know the cops play a key role here, some referring to our men and women in blue who are here “To Serve and Collect.” Police corruption has always been strongly related to organized crime. The difference, Hagedorn writes, is the Italian Mafia focused on the highest levels of the Chicago police, while today’s street gangs work with the lower rung of the force. Race certainly plays a role.

The stories of top corrupt Chicago police officials are stunning. William Hanhardt, the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) chief of detectives and deputy superintendent in the 1980s, was convicted in 2001 of running a jewel ring for the Outfit that stole more than $5 million in diamonds and other gems. Hanhardt used CPD computers to get information on jewel traders to set up his burglary operations, protected and run by police.

Then there is Chicago’s police commissioner Matt Rodriguez, who was forced to resign in 1997 for his ties to Mafia figure Frank Milito, who happened to also be a deputy sheriff who owned gas stations and restaurants. The two vacationed together in Italy, Israel, California, NY and the Bahamas. Milito encouraged Rodriguez to protect Pierre Zonis, a Chicago police officer who was being investigated as a hit man for the mob in multiple murders. Those hits included killing oil company executive Charles Merriam whose uncle and grandfather were both famous anti-machine reformers. Merriam took away Milito’s gas station franchise after he was convicted of tax fraud, and Milito was suspected of paying Officer Zonis to do the hit. Rodriguez squashed the investigation of Zonis.

But more important than these high-profile cases is the fact that being a police officer and told to arrest anyone consuming or selling a product that is visible on almost every street corner and consumed by so many of us is impossible. 

“From the police officers’ point of view, it is impossible to do their jobs without making deals with one enemy in order to get another. There are so many drug transactions going on that arresting everyone is impossible. Good police work in the war on drugs means discretion, and discretion means police officers are always making decisions on who to arrest, who to make a deal with, and who to leave alone for a time. This means difficult decisions for honest officers and golden opportunities for corrupt ones.

This book takes such a fascinating look at the underworld that is connected to our legal cash economy that I have decided to make this book review the first part in a series. Look for my second part that will get into more of the specifics of which gangs are fighting on your streets.     

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