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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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.

There are still major gangs operating in the city—the Latin Kings, the Vice Lords, and the Insane Deuces—along with many smaller gang factions. They don't control territory like inner-city gangs. Instead, they usually run drugs out of ordinary-looking homes and businesses. Unlike inner-city gangs who frequently dabble in protection rackets, the gangs here generally leave local businesses alone. Part of the reason for that, law enforcement officers say, is that Aurora's retail scene consists mostly of big-box stores and national franchises rather than mom and pop establishments, which are more susceptible to extortion.

Nationwide, gauging the true scope of the gang problem is difficult, chiefly because law enforcement lacks a common definition of a gangster or what makes a particular crime gang-related. The FBI estimates that there are about 785,000 gang members in the country belonging to some 26,500 different gangs in 3,400 communities. That estimate excludes outlaw motorcycle and prison gangs. Even more troubling, a third of all communities say they have no gang problem when they actually do. It's a denial bred from either fear or stigma, according to the FBI.

The thousands of active gangs around the country each have their own signs, lingo, and culture. Drug dealing and gun violence are common denominators, but each behaves differently depending on its location. In the Northeast, for instance, there's been a rise in the number of neighborhood and hybrid gangs composed of members of several different organizations. Around Washington, D.C., and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, meanwhile, the Latin American gang MS-13, best known for attacking its rivals with machetes, has become a particularly tough problem. There, cocaine and marijuana are the main drugs moved through gang networks.

In the Midwest, the amount of gang activity around college campuses and schools is on the rise. Hispanic gangs are using Native American surrogates to move drugs onto Indian reservations, where gang activity is also on the rise. And out West, street gangs are diversifying their criminal portfolios to include identity theft while continuing to supply narcotics, mostly methamphetamines and marijuana. Gangs in the West are also most likely to partner with organized crime, particularly the Mexican drug cartels and the Asian mafia.

Wherever they operate, gangs are increasingly turning to computers and the Internet. Often behind password-protected sites, they post photo-graphs of their own gang signs, colors, and tattoos. Police even report that some gangs are using their websites to take positions on local political issues. In fact, sites like MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube have become quite useful to police gathering intelligence or investigating specific crimes. "Some gang members in Maryland are not too bright, and they will often post pictures of themselves and their gangs online or shoot videos of themselves defacing property or committing other crimes," says Charles Rapp, director of the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, which helps scour open-source information for law enforcement agencies. For their part, the gangs sometimes post misleading information to fool police or rival gangs about potential meetings or activities.