The Explosive Growth of Hispanic Gangs in Chicago Fueled Political and Police Corruption
By Jim Vail
We know that we live in one of the most violent cities in this country. We constantly see people being shot on the nightly news or read about in the paper.
While we know there are gangs all around us where there are drive-by shootings and graffiti spray painted on walls and garages, who are these gangs and how much do we know about them and the violence that erupts in their tracks.
The book ‘The Insane Chicago Way’ focuses on the secret history of Spanish Growth & Development (SGD) – an organization of Latino gangs founded in 1989 to create an organized crime syndicate modeled on the Italian Mafia.
We looked at the history of black and white gangs in the first and second parts of our series on the book. This part will focus on the Hispanic gangs, a powerful force that represents the fastest-growing segment of our population.
According to author John Hagedorn, there are no good histories of Latino street gangs in Chicago. For the many Puerto Rican gangs of the sixties, the key issues were racism (manifested by lack of jobs, police violence and white gangs), power (expanding across neighborhoods), intergang violence, and growing interest in making money, following in the footsteps of the black gangs.
The Puerto Ricans began migrating to Chicago after World War II. Their history in Chicago is one of “displacement,” as they were pushed out of areas near UIC, to Lincoln Park (gentrified) to Humboldt Park where they stand today.
The Young Lords began as a Puerto Rican gang in the spirit of the 60s that tried to fashion themselves as revolutionaries modeled after the Black Panthers. They resisted gentrification, police brutality and racial hatred, and wanted to end poverty. The first riots in Chicago since 1919 took place on Division Street in 1966 when police shot a Puerto Rican youth. The Young Lords were tied to the Puerto Rican independence movement (FALN), which saw many active members go on to become prominent politicians. They eventually died out in the 1970s.
The Latin Kings, which is still the largest Latino gang in Chicago, formed its first section at Kedzie and Ohio, and became the first Latino gang to combine Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, North and South sides. They grew into having thousands of members in Chicago and later formed chapters across the country and even the world.
Their main rivals were the Latin Disciples and Spanish Cobras, who also expanded and absorbed smaller gangs. Out-of-control violence and the incarceration of nearly all of the most important gang leaders, along with the profit motive, became the principal factors in the eventual formation of Spanish Growth and Development (SGD).
The Spanish Cobras, according to Hagedorn, is the most important Latino gang in the formation of SGD, and like the C-Note$ white gang, the least is known about them. Like other gangs, they started out from several local gangs. One leader told the author that the Cobras hated the Young Lords and Kings because they were “sellouts” and “doing dirt for the white man.” “The Cobras always saw themselves as representing the salt of the earth, alienated and rejected, and resented the higher status of the Kings and the Young Lords.”
They studied how the Mafia did business and kept their organization relatively small and tight.
The 1970s became the most violent decade in Chicago’s history. The 1977 Puerto Rican Day Parade erupted into Latin King/Cobra violence. “Rather than targeting the police or the oppression of Puerto Ricans, the gangs were targeting one another.” Gang dynamics from the 1970s to the mid-1990s were controlled by incarcerated leadership, the book states.
While the Puerto Rican gangs made alliances on the North side, Mexican gangs made alliances on the Southside. The 2-6ers whose turf was on the west side of Little Village, had a bloody rivalry with the Latin Kings. The 2-6ers went from being a softball club to being a gang.
Since the 1960s the Maniac Latin Disciples (MLDs) have been the second-largest Latino street gang on the North Side after the Latin Kings. The broken home life story of Madeline Mendoza, who at sixteen shot and killed the Latin Kings Jimmy Cruz and Hector Reyes, is shocking. Montanez at age thirteen ran away from her Latin King stepfather, who had been raping and abusing her since she was eight. When she finally escaped, she joined the rival gang MLDs where her hatred of the Kings and her stepfather was stoked by the new gang. “She told me tearfully in Dwight Correctional Institution that when she pulled the trigger ‘it was her stepfather’ she wanted to kill, not Reyes or Cruz,” Hagedorn writes.
The MLDs had become the family for a young girl who knew only pain from her own. But this new “family” while encouraging her to kill, left her with no emotional or financial support, and as a juvenile she was sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole for the killings.
The MLDs also had ties to politicians, like former Alderman Billy Ocasio, who had grown up around them, and they worked closely with machine power broker Richard Mell. Ald. Mell’s daughter Deb now serves as alderwoman after a close race against Roosevelt High School teacher Tim Meegan in the 33rd ward.
According to the book, in July 1980 46 MLDs were arrested, which at the time was the largest federal drug bust, running a $20,000-a-day drug business on the corner of Rockwell and Potomac, among other Humboldt Park spots.
There were three family factions made up of multiple Latino gangs within SGD: Insane (Cobras, C-Note$), Maniac Family (MLD) and Almighty (Simon City Royals, Harrison Gents). It was the hatred between the Cobras and Maniac Disciples that led to the formation and eventual downfall of the Spanish Growth and Development plan to form a coalition and halt the violence.
“These dynamics of power were the prime motivation of Latin Folks gangs, although these processes were almost completely unknown to police, academics, and other outsiders. Without understanding the three families’ will to power, much of gang behavior on the streets, especially violence, is simply incomprehensible.”
In order to really understand our violent city and the gangs that permeate it, one has to take a closer look into the politics that surrounds it. I wrote an earlier story about how aldermen and gangs work together. One way is the gangs help get aldermen elected.
Gangs and politics here go back to the beginning of the last century. Al Capone was wiping out Irish gangs like the O’Banions with his use of extreme violence (if you have family roots in this city you’ve heard the stories, such as Capone ripping out the tongue of a singer who worked in a rival night club). This would consolidate Italian gangs across Chicago and create a monopoly on Prohibition-era beer sales, author John Hagedorn writes in his book. Capone’s close relationship with Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson and the Republican Party kept Capone protected. “The super profits gained in Prohibition helped the Outfit (Mafia) fill the envelopes for politicians and helped it survive for almost a hundred years and running. The Outfit still is far and away the most important gang in Chicago history.”
Hagedorn claims that his fellow gang researchers neglect to investigate whether the systematic corruption of politicians and police that allowed the Mafia to thrive for so long is now being put into practice by current gangs.
The C-Note$, a white mafia-connected gang that helped form the Spanish Growth and Development (SGD) coalition, paid off politicians and infiltrated the Chicago Police Department (CPD). “In Chicago it was Hispanic, not African American gangs, that made the most of their corrupt opportunities.”
The Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO), a political action committee founded after Mayor Richard Daley II was first elected, was set up to buy off the Hispanic votes. This group represented rising Latino political power and corrupt influences in the machine. They worked with the machine to defeat reform-minded Latino politicians, such as Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (who lost to Mayor Emanuel in the last election), an ally of Harold Washington-inspired progressive coalition of blacks, Hispanics and liberal whites. The “Hired Truck” scandal which steered city contracts to politically connected firms and employed gang members, eventually led to the demise of HDO.
A political giant in the gang/machine nexus was powerhouse Alderman Richard Mell, who also is father-in-law to former Governor Rod Blagojevich. Mell, according to the book, had built firm connections to Latin Folks gangs through one of his aides, Raymond Rolon, a principal leader of the Maniac Latin Disciples. Rolon helped get Mell elected by intimidating voters and pulling down opponents’ campaign signs. “This is indistinguishable from how the Irish gangs or ‘social athletic clubs’ had bullied their way into political power.”
The Spanish Cobras were heavily campaigning for former Alderman Ray Suarez in the 31st ward. Sal, the book’s inside source, says the Latin Kings have considerable political influence. “Whoever’s gonna run in their territory has to have their backing in order to get into office … Believe me, they’re very influential – I mean they got parents, their uncles, their friends.”
The new Daley/Emanuel machine differs from the old because it relies more on money from real estate and banks. Emanuel focused his election campaigns on mass advertising and social media. He did have paid volunteers to campaign, and I remember one telling me he didn’t believe in the neoliberal dream to privatize the city, he just wanted a job.
An important piece in the corruption between gangs and the politics is the police. While the Mafia bought off the top echelon of the police force, gangs today focus on the lower rung. The perfect case to illustrate this is police officer and gang specialist Joseph Miedzianowski.
As we mentioned in an earlier part of our series, gang and drug officers need to make deals with unsavory characters in order to get more unsavory guys. One officer told Hagedorn that “everyone is doing it,” playing one gang drug dealer against another.
Enter Joe Miedzianowski, the poster child of police corruption. While piling up commendations for his busts of rival drug dealers, he saw how profitable it could be by playing the game he policed. The commended gangs tactical officer was robbing drug dealers and asking for a cut.
He built an alliance with the Imperial Gangsters and other Latin Folks gangs. By 1995 he was demanding $10,000 per month in protection payments from the various gangs. Then he got greedy. Suddenly he upped the price for protection to $22,000 per month. He became a drug kingpin himself, and that led to his downfall when the gangs began to tip off law enforcement. While Miedzianowski’s drug business goes back to the 1980s, the cops and their ‘code of silence’ assert they had no information on him before 1997. He eventually got a life sentence.
Then there is the real case that inspired the Chicago crime book The Second Life of Nick Mason written by best-selling author Steve Hamilton and slated to be a Hollywood movie (you can read our review at mychinews.com/books/chicago-assassins-and-gangsters-battle-in-new-crime-thriller).
In 2006, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office indicted members of the CPD Special Operations Section (SOS) for aggravated kidnapping, theft, burglary, armed violence, home invasion and false arrest. All committed by our top gang detective unit, the “elite” who did whatever was necessary to get the bad guys off the street. “The bad guys didn’t play by the rules, why should we?”
SOS leaders were given awards by former Police Superintendent Phil Cline in 2004. They were later found to have split $600,000 in drug money they appropriated for their own uses. SOS regularly raided houses for the C-Note$ and the gang in turn paid “bones” or bribes. According to Sal, the star source in the book, the C-Note$ had three of their people in SOS.
Another Chicago cop named Glenn Lewellen paid a drug-dealing informant approximately $800,000 for five years while running his narcotics operation in order to turn in his competitors. Paying for information is how federal agencies get convictions. “The amount of money paid to snitches should call the entire drug war into question.”
“From the perspective of police officers, the war on drugs has created thousands of criminals selling illegal substances in an immense market. This gives police unprecedented discretion over whom they arrest, ignore or make deals with.”
Next week the last part in our series on Chicago gangs from The Insane Chicago Way book will take a look at the ecstasy market and how one gang profited immensely from it.