Inside the Feds' War on Gang Violence

Law enforcement agencies are trying to get the most dangerous hit men and enforcers off the streets.

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"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.

At his sentencing in September, Illinois District Judge Elaine Bucklo said she wasn't altogether happy with the undercover operation that caught Blitch and several others plotting to rob the stash house and kill those inside, implying that the operation verged on entrapment. But the tapes were damning, and Blitch was convicted by a jury. "The fact that you will be 50 years old and unlikely to continue this behavior is sufficient punishment," Bucklo told Blitch as he stood handcuffed before her in a bright-orange jumpsuit.

Breaking the cycle, however, is the hardest part. Some 70 percent of former felons will commit a crime upon release from prison. A recent report from the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations glumly concluded that "incarceration of gang members often does little to disrupt their activities." By the time they are released, many are even more deeply enmeshed in gang life because of their time behind bars. "We can't even help our confidential informants find jobs," says one law enforcement official in Aurora. "They do criminal background checks to work in fast food." Without a steady job and continued counseling, most ex-cons end up back among the same guys who got them in trouble in the first place, officers say.

The task of solidifying any gains after these high-profile raids falls to social workers, churches, and other community organizations. They're in a bind too, as evaporating state budgets often hit these groups first and hardest. Joanne Furnas, who serves as Aurora's director of crisis services, says that these nonprofits are critical to killing the roots that nourish gangs. "No one believes we can arrest our way out of this problem," says Furnas. "You have to educate communities to take on the gangs themselves." That's the long-term challenge for a community where gifts given at christenings were sometimes emblazoned with gang signs. Years ago, Furnas and other social workers tended to focus their antigang efforts on high schools, but it was often too late. They moved to middle schools but found the same problem. Now, they target elementary schoolers.

Furnas spends the rest of her days making sure victims of gang violence are listed under false names in regional hospitals, teaching young women that they are not the property of the gangs to which their pimps belong, and helping to organize community activists. "The only way that we've been able to make progress here is by joining together community resources, churches, and other groups," she says.

One of the community organizers who often go their own way is Mary Fultz, the mother of the two children injured by stray bullets. Some members of her own family have been connected to gangs, and the police are no strangers to her block. But she's challenging some local gangs anyway. Sometimes she chases them off street corners with a suitably authoritative, motherly voice. She has also worked to organize local parents and arrange neighborhood activities, like a block party cookout in a vacant lot. Even though she doesn't apply for city permits, social workers and some in law enforcement admit that her unorthodox work has shown some results. But that all stopped after her daughter was shot. Now, Fultz has moved temporarily out of town, fearing for her safety. "I'll do what I can," she says. "But I don't want this to be another one of those stories where the woman gets shot at the end." l