In places like the bowels of an Aurora police barracks, ATF agents keep some of their most effective tools of gang fighting in a locked filing cabinet—audio and video recorders, hidden cameras, bugs, and other electronic gadgetry used not only to spy on gangs but to convict them in court.
The feds have far greater surveillance authority than local police and are also able to bring stiff charges that send criminals away to distant federal pens. "When the federales are involved, gang bangers start coughing up information, because they are going away for a long time in a prison far away from their mothers and girlfriends," says an ATF special agent in Aurora, who requested anonymity because he still works undercover.
The same tactics are also at work in larger cities, though it's far more difficult for a few agents to make enough arrests to shift the momentum against the gangs, as they can in smaller cities. In Los Angeles, one of the national epicenters of gang culture, ATF agents spent months gathering evidence against members of the Bloods, Crips, and Black P-Stone Nation gangs this summer. Using phone taps and undercover drug and gun buys by agents, they targeted the Baldwin Village neighborhood of L.A., the setting for the movie Training Day and long a gang hotspot.
"Guns off the street." Just hours before the ATF and the L.A. Police Department are set to raid a key gang hideout, the nightly news carries the all-too-familiar story of an 8-year-old girl playing with friends in the courtyard of a South Los Angeles apartment building when she was hit in the chest and killed by a stray bullet from a drive-by. "We're the violent crime police, and that means taking guns off the street and away from gangs however we can," says John Torres, who runs the ATF office in L.A.
It is still dark outside when members of the SWAT team gear up in a parking garage, strapping on stun grenades, giving their assault rifles a final once-over, and adjusting their body armor. They look more like a military unit preparing for battle, but the extra firepower is warranted. By the end of the operation, the ATF and the L.A. Police Department will capture 38 gang members and 119 guns, including AK-47 assault rifles and Uzi machine guns.
But this particular raid does not go well. The team arrives at the suspect's home and bangs on the door. Tossing in a stun grenade, the team batters down the door only to find a middle-aged woman—the suspect's mother—asleep on the couch. The grenade delivers a terrific noise, giving the startled woman chest pains. The team quickly calls for an ambulance.
"Too familiar."Outside in the dawn light, neighbors peek out of their windows, but no one comes out. "It's all too familiar," says Donald Wilson, 52, a preacher at a local church who just the day before helped his neighbors scrape the bark off trees after gang members marked their territory on the palms with spray paint. Wilson was out walking his dog when the SWAT team drove by. "Sure, that house is a gang house—good riddance," he says. "But I understand that to survive around here, you have to side with someone."
A common refrain, even in middle-class towns like Aurora, is that the gang replaces the family by protecting and providing for young men who see few other options. Chris Blitch, 25, is typical of many young men with difficult childhoods who fall in with the wrong crowd. His mother is a social worker who serves battered women at an office that happens to be in the same building where an ATF task force targets gangs. It was several of those agents in 2006 who caught her son on tape planning to knock over a drug stash house. He boasted to undercover officers that he'd use a machine gun to cut people in half if they got in his way, according to a criminal complaint.