Yet despite all their bravado, at their essence the gangs remain fraternities of lawlessness, replenished with scores of young men from troubled neighborhoods in the name of belonging, enterprise, or necessity. "The pervasiveness of gangs throughout society is undeniable," the Justice Department concluded in its latest National Gang Threat Assessment in 2005. "As they migrate across the country, they bring with them drugs, weapons, and criminal activity."
Gangs are, however, also vulnerable because of their insatiable demand for guns, a weakness that federal officers are learning to exploit. Put simply, they are always looking for more guns to protect themselves and their illicit merchandise. Ammunition is also often in low supply for street gangs. Most gangsters use guns only once. They know that after a crime, the ATF enters the bullets or shell casings into databases to trace them. "Gangsters watch shows like CSI as homework and watch History Channel documentaries about gangs as research," says one veteran gang investigator. Guns are also lost, seized by the police, or broken during normal use. "Gangs will try to have enough guns for each full member to have access to one, though they also share between themselves," says Jared Lewis, a retired cop from the Modesto, Calif., antigang task force who now researches street gangs. Fortunately, that makes them easier targets for undercover operations. Add to that stricter laws under which those caught with guns and drugs face harsh sentences, and the effects are starting to be felt.
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.