AURORA, ILL.—The second time a stray bullet from a gangster's gun hit one of her children, Mary Fultz had had enough. They were aiming for her nephew, she says, but when the bullets started flying on a Saturday this past March, an errant slug tore through the wall of the family's duplex and into her 21-year-old daughter's thigh. Fultz, 43, has seen enough gang violence to last a few lifetimes. Her son was also hit in the leg with a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting four years ago. At the time, the 15-year-old was playing the card game Uno on the front porch.
Seconds after the bullet hit her daughter, Fultz took matters into her own hands. The Aurora native and Wal-Mart greeter tore out the front door and down the street after the fleeing gunmen. She called the cops, who finally corralled and cuffed the suspected shooter in a nearby cemetery. At 15, he was barely old enough to shave.
Violent crime nationwide is hovering near its lowest levels in 30 years. But that's not the case in all of America's cities, where street gangs still account for an alarming share of death and destruction. After all, homicide—much of it gang-related—has been the leading cause of death for young black men ages 15 to 34 for more than a quarter of a century. Gangs are perpetuated by a cycle of despair that is nearly impossible to break, as they capitalize on the public's seemingly endless demand for drugs while protecting their business with brutal, often indiscriminate, violence.
Federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, are trying to make a lasting dent in the bloodshed by interrupting this cycle through dramatic intervention. It then falls to local police and social workers to seize on the resulting disruption in organized violence and attack the root causes of the gang problem. In cities from Baltimore to Los Angeles, the ATF and other agencies are focusing now on street gangs, in particular the groups' most violent enforcers, hit men, and toughs who rob drug stash houses, assassinate rival gangsters, and carry out home invasions. They're some of the deadliest gang activities, yet if they're committed against other criminals, they usually go unreported. "Violent crime is at historic lows, and much of that has to do with focused law enforcement attention to violence and gang violence in particular," says Michael Sullivan, acting director of the ATF.
But progress is slow and hard-won. Nationwide, law enforcement agencies are barely holding the line against street gangs—containing but not reducing their impact in major cities. In smaller cities, by contrast, one or two federal agents can make a significant dent in local gang problems, law enforcement officials say.
Take Aurora, where the ATF's strategy has produced some promising results. The mid-1990s was the height of gang violence, when police logged hundreds of shootings and around two dozen murders per year. Funeral parlors refused to hold services for slain teens, fearing, with good reason, that reprisal gang attacks would come at the gravesides. The local cops, meanwhile, were moving from shooting to shooting so quickly they could hardly keep up, much less close cases. There were so many shell casings at some crime scenes, the old-timers joke, that police started kicking them into the sewers to avoid the crime lab paperwork. "It became so routine," says Police Chief Greg Thomas. "It was shooting after shooting after shooting with no way to break the cycle."
Gunrunners. The strategy the ATF employed, in concert with local police and federal prosecutors, is one it is using increasingly. Federal agents spend their time on stakeouts, undercover busts, and working informants. They call on regional SWAT teams from the ATF to capture their most high-risk targets. The focus on major gunrunners has made it more difficult for gangs to regularly get their hands on dependable weaponry, experts say. As violence declines, local police and social workers can step in.
In the five years since Aurora began focusing on gangs, cleaning up graffiti and pulling dozens of the most violent gang enforcers off its leafy suburban streets, its homicide rate has plummeted. Credit some of that to agents from the ATF, the FBI, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency arresting an increasing number of gangsters on conspiracy and racketeering charges that have sent key kingpins off to jail on long sentences. "Federal agents can focus on developing good cases against the worst of the worst and give the police more room to do their jobs with these guys off the streets," says Thomas. This year, Aurora has recorded only two homicides—both drug rip-offs gone bad—and there have been fewer than 100 shootings, compared with the peak of 354 in 1996. Michael Nilles, an Aurora police officer, was even named the national police officer of the year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2008 for his antigang work with the ATF and the FBI.