Chicago’s Gang Wars Have Become Battles of Attrition
'Depolicing' theory helps to explain the spike in violence
The video began with three members of the Two Feet faction of the Four Corner Hustlers gang standing in a gas station lobby alongside a security guard. They are trapped. Unarmed and locked out of the gas station, they are being hunted by members of a Mafia Insane Vice Lords faction.
The war between the gangs began two years earlier in 2014, when a Mafia Insane set posted a video to social media featuring some members smoking a blunt on the grave of a deceased member of the Two Feet gang.
This is how many, if not most, of the current gang wars begin in Chicago. These wars almost never end in truces, and typically feature periodic assassinations, according to two member of a specialized gang unit in the Chicago Police Department.
The Two Feet members trapped in the gas station lobby initially looked like soldiers in a war, each keeping a lookout for their enemies. However, once they realized they were spotted, their ages became apparent.
The teenagers scurried to the floor, all piled up on one another against the door to the gas station, violently kicking as if they might be able to scurry away from the shooter. The door opened and the barrel of a gun entered the frame. A few shots are fired into the flailing bodies, then the gun disappears and the door closes.
The video ends there, but the war is not over.
According to the CPD officer from the gang unit that showed me the video, the war between the Two Feet and the Mafia Insane faction is likely to continue to rage until enough members are killed or arrested.
But not every gang war in Chicago is the same. Another CPD officer from a gang unit told me of a conversation he listened to between two leaders from the Conservative Vice Lords, or CVL, and the Traveling Vice Lords in 2013.
The war had been going on for about a week when one leader called the other and brokered a truce. According to the officer, the leaders called the truce because the violence was decreasing their drug revenue.
This type of truce and the short duration of the battle, is atypical of Chicago’s current gang wars. But during the height of Chicago’s crack epidemic in the early 1990s, most gang wars were relatively short and violent and ended in either a truce or the destruction of one or both gangs.
This leaves us with a vexing question — what explains the variation in gang wars in Chicago? To my surprise, no academic, policy institute or even law enforcement agency, have attempted to answer this question.
To be clear, I try to identify patterns explaining why some gang wars are extremely long, and only end in attrition — i.e., arrests and killings — while others are relatively short and end in truces or attrition. To do so I gathered stories of gang wars from those directly involved, either as gang members, mediators or police. I also gathered stories of gang wars from newspapers and books and academics who have worked directly with Chicago’s gangs for decades.
It seems that the strongest explanation for variation in duration of gang wars and how the conflict ends is the main function if the gang itself. At the most general level I identified two types of gangs in Chicago.
“Corporate gangs” are those whose main goal is to increase revenue primarily through drug dealing. Many of the wars fought by this type of gang begin with the intent to increase drug revenue by conquering a rival’s territory or gaining direct access to drug suppliers.
Still, some wars do begin due to personal disputes. In either case, however, the duration of the war is likely to be determined by whether the “investment” corporate gangs make by fighting will produce positive returns in terms of drug revenue.
It may seem odd that a war fought over a personal dispute could be seen as an “investment.” However, as I and other researchers have found when talking to current and former gang members, fighting a war that begins over a personal dispute can increase the security of a gang by revealing the extent of their power to potential enemies.
“Gangbanging gangs,” on the other hand, are usually relatively small gang sets—most members being in their teens—and the main goal is to gain “clout,” meaning credibility within their immediate social networks and among the larger community, by killing rival gang members.
These types of gangs do not make very much money from drug dealing—mostly because they lack the necessary skills—so they rarely go to war for economic reasons. Relatedly, since the goal of their wars is to gain “clout,” drops in drug revenue during the war should have little effect on the decision to continue fighting.
Wars fought by “gangbanging gangs” are often described as purely personal conflicts between individuals that just so happen to be in a gang. While some of these wars do start out as purely personal, the cycle of mocking one another on social media or in person, and subsequent shootings and killings often stays between warring gang dyads. It is these types of reciprocal killings that I define as “gangbanging wars.”
In both types of wars, increased police pressure through arrests and investigatory stops seems to decrease violence and help shorten the duration of the wars. However, the “gangbanging gangs” are much harder to arrest in large numbers because of their decentralized structure, thus causing these wars to go on for much longer than “corporate gang” wars.
There are studies on insurgency that provide some insight into why gangbanging wars go on for longer. It seems that the organizational structure of these gangs is affected in a similar manner by police pressure as insurgents do to military repression — larger, more organized insurgents fall much quicker once penetrated, while fragmented insurgents are more elusive because of their weak structure.
The conclusions here are preliminary, but the evidence presented below offer an initial glimpse into what accounts for the duration and type of end to gang wars in Chicago.
Further, the lessons of these wars should help to explain why killings spiked in Chicago in 2015, and have risen to levels not seen since the 1990s. Just to put the amount of killing in perspective, the 786 homicides in Chicago last year would have made it deadlier that all but 12 of the 50 armed conflicts being fought globally in 2015, according to data from the UPPSALA Conflict Data Program.
Chicago’s West Side. Photo via Wikipedia
Corporate gang wars
Jedidiah Brown was not always an activist fighting to improve the black community in Chicago. In the late 1990s Brown was “blessed in” to his cousin “Black’s” set of the Black Disciples, or BDs. This meant that Brown wasn’t a formal member, but was allowed to hang out with his cousin’s gang, and even sometimes functioned as a lookout.
Brown remembers that as his cousin’s gang became wealthier, meetings were held where they “talked about figures; how much it would be if they got their own supply versus” continuing to be supplied though a gang set of Two-Six’s working as middle-men.
Black’s set likely feared that simply making a direct deal with the supplier would cause the Two-Sixs to attack Black’s set. So, Black’s set went to war—seemingly as a preemptive strike.
According to Brown the set bought weapons, practiced shooting, and even began to collect intelligence on the opposing gang. To do so, the set paid off street vendors and traveling preachers, and even recruited someone to take street surveys in their rival’s territory.
Such intelligence gathering was necessary because Black’s set was based in Morton Park, about a 20-minute drive from the mainly Hispanic neighborhood where the Two-Six set was based. According to Brown’s description, the main strategy of Black’s set was to drive into the rival gang’s neighborhood and either kill or severally beat members of the Two-Six gang.
Everyone had a role. Shooter, getaway driver, lookout. Not every raid was carefully planned. “Things were often fluid at times … sometimes [conflict with rivals] would happen right there,” according to Brown. “But [Black’s set] were very strategic.”
One of the most fascinating parts of Black’s war with the Two-Six gang, and many of the economic wars I’ve discovered, is how it began. Black’s set intentionally started the war by robbing one of the Hispanic gang’s members who was delivering drugs.
For observers that did not know Black’s set was intentionally using the robbery as an informal signal to declare war, the ensuing battles would seem to be explained as emanating from a “personal beef.” But according to Brown, the war was about business. Or as Brown put it, “They [Black’s set] were astute in the economics of the lifestyle.”
Brown said the war went on for several months, and is fairly certain it ended when one of the Two-Six’s leaders was killed. Brown said that the war worked, as he noticed a sharp increase in the profits of Black’s set.
A gang war that occurred in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood about 10 years earlier took a similar path. My source for this war was one of the main leaders of the Four Corner Hustlers — 4CH — in Austin at the time. The source requested anonymity because he still fears retribution from those involved.
In 1991, a leader of a 4CH set with the street name “Turbo” was assassinated as he approached an Unknown Vice Lords, or UVL, set to mediate a truce. According to the former 4CH leader “That’s when the war really kicked off, when they killed Turbo.”
The assassination sparked one of the first major gang wars in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood since the start of the crack epidemic. The ensuing violence was intense, and was even picked up by the The Chicago Tribune. According to the paper, 17 were killed by March 1992, and several homes had been firebombed.
In the weeks preceding Turbo’s assassination, a 4CH set and a UVL set, unbeknown to one another, moved into an untapped drug territory in Austin. The sets became aware of the other’s presence once customers began to mention the nearby competition. This led to both groups initially pursing economic competition, essentially by marketing to potential customers.
Turbo apparently knew that market competition would inevitably give way to violence. Knowing the conflict would hurt sales, Turbo took the chance on negotiations with the UVLs.
In the early 1990s drugs were mainly sold in “open-air markets,” so when a gang war began customers would fear for their lives and would often travel to another gang’s territory to buy drugs. Further, police pressure usually increased alongside the violence.
A CPD officer who served on a tactical unit in the 1990s recounted how he could often coerce gang leaders into cooperating on a slew of issues by threatening to reallocate pressure to certain drug selling spots.
In a fascinating paper, sociologists Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh were able to analyze years of financial records kept by one gang set in the 1990s, which shows that “drug revenues fall almost in half in war months.”
The former 4CH leader initially received assurances that the 4CH set would seek negotiations in order to end the war, but the assassinations and firebombing were simply too intense.
This led my 4CH source to end attempts at negotiations. According to the former 4CH leader, it was possible to try and broker a truce with UVL leaders, but “you always had somebody that was hotheaded that wanted to take stuff into their own hands.” He stressed that it was the unprecedented level of violence that made committing to this truce so difficult.
The war ended after about six months. According to the former 4CH leader, the war only ended because both sides had numerous members arrested or killed.
Both Black’s war from the late 1990s, and the 4CH-versus-UVL war of the early 1990s are notable in that they were essentially ended through attrition, and not a truce. In Black’s case, they were able to essentially defeat the Two-Six set, while the 4CH and UVL sets destroyed one another.
What explains this outcome?
It seems that during the 4CH-UVL war, a truce was not sought because the unprecedented intensity of the violence erased all trust between the sets. However, in theory, the larger 4CH and UVL leadership should have been incentivized by drops in revenue to broker a truce between their respective sets.
Indeed, while the drug territory the sets were fighting over had to be abandoned, because, as he put it, “they were shooting every day,” the former leader noted that drug revenue for other 4CH sets—including his own—were unaffected by the violence. Apparently, the localized nature of the violence negated any economic incentive to seek a truce by the larger 4CH or UVL organizations.
In Black’s war, on the other hand, his set was clearly winning, and the police were not putting significant pressure on the gang, so a truce would have made little sense. This would be like pulling an investment that was assured to eventually make a large profit. But not all corporate gangs end their wars through attrition.
In 1991 in Robert Taylor Homes, which was the largest high-rise housing project in the country before being was taken down over ten-years ago, had one of its largest wars. According to The Chicago Tribune, more than 90 people were killed during this war. I spoke with a foot soldier from the Black Disciples who fought in the war.
The source said that the war began when a BD set leader’s brother was killed by a member of their rival, the Gangster Disciples, or GD. He was uncertain whether the killing of the leader’s brother was a pretext to seek control of drug turf, or simply a personal dispute, but indicated that it was likely a mix of both.
Either way, the war spread throughout the projects and, according to the source, became the most intense war he ever fought in Robert Taylor. He recalls that the war essentially consisted of increased defensive patrols of drug territory and reciprocal assassinations—mainly consisting of sniping with high-powered rifles and face-to-face assassinations.
The former BD described acting as a sniper. “Once we could see you through the scope of the rifle. Okay, bam, he fair game.”
The source said the war lasted six or seven months.
The former BD said he wasn’t exactly sure why the war ended, but noted that the drug revenue in his set declined during the war “because drug addicts be afraid to come into the area because of all the gunfire.”
“That’s probably the main reason why they had to have ‘the Board’ come in anyway, because it’s hurting the money.”
“The Board” was a group of leaders of the GD and BD that mostly resided in Statesville Correctional Center in Illinois, where they often struck the terms of the truces. The former BD remembers that once the Board “sent up word to the street and said, ya’ll gotta put an end to that bullshit,” the war ended and the truce was enforced by threat of violence against foot soldiers by their own set leaders.
Like many gang wars, the exact chronology is difficult to gather, but it seems that unlike the 4CH-UVL war in Austin, the size of the war in Taylor likely made winning through attrition too costly.
Depicted in the chart below are other corporate gang wars I was able to gain enough evidence on to note the date, location, combatants, duration, onset reason, numbers killed and wounded and why it ended. I found many other stories of gang wars, but much of the information was missing.
Patrick Burke table
Gangbanging gang wars
Corporate gangs still exist in Chicago, as the story of the gang war between the UVL and the CVL from 2013 shows. However, they are much smaller than those in the 1990s—due to a number of factors—and are now outnumbered by small gang sets consisting mostly of teenagers.
Although gangs have always been broken into sets, they usually took orders from a larger organization. The “gangbanging gangs” of today, however, mainly act autonomously.
The shrinking of these corporate gangs meant that many potential “employees” had to create their own gangs. Thus, these “gangbanging gangs” have not learned the necessary skills to gain large revenue from the drug trade, according to a long-time veteran of a specialized CPD gang unit.
He added that these gangs usually make just enough money to buy things like household items and food, but make sure to keep room in their budgets for guns. Again, the main goal of these gangs, according to many CPD officers, residents, and former gang members I spoke with, is to gain “clout” through killing.
The CPD veteran, and a less senior member of a gang unit both said in separate interviews that these small gang sets account for most of the current shootings and homicides in Chicago.
Interestingly, although the “gangbanging wars” are fought between small groups of teenagers, the annual death count is extraordinarily similar to the number of homicides produced by the large gang wars fought by corporate gangs of the 1990s. The average annual death count stood at 824 between 1990 and 1999, while 786 were killed in 2016.
This is astonishing, seeing as the gang wars of the 1990s, especially in the geographically dense housing projects, were so intense that sometimes nearly half of the students from nearby public schools did not attend class, healthcare workers and churches handing out food could not access residents, and people often had to sleep in their bathtubs to avoid stray bullets.
Residents in gang territory today are often aware of gang wars and take precautions, but the small size of the gang sets means that wars do not usually force entire communities to significantly change their daily routines.
The two CPD officers from the gang unit and Prof. Lance Williams, a criminologist that has worked directly with Chicago’s gangs for many years, agreed that the current wars last years, not months or days, which could help explain the high body count.
However, most of the current gang wars feature sporadic killings like the gas station video described earlier, and the individual warring dyads do not seem to produce many deaths relative to corporate gangs.
For instance, the less senior CPD officer from the gang unit said that an ongoing war between the 4CH factions M&A Boys and K-Unit, which began after a shooting at a party in 2015, has only resulted in five deaths so far. The low intensity of these wars compared to the corporate gang wars may also help explain why attrition brings about a quicker end to the latter’s wars.
What’s more puzzling is the fact that the homicides in Chicago spiked in 2015 and have continually risen ever since. Thus, the suddenness of the homicide rate can’t solely be explained by the fracturing of the gangs because this process began in the mid-1990s. In fact, by 2012 there were already an estimated 70,000 gang members spread out among 850 sets.
It seems that two factors explain the spike and sustainment of homicides in Chicago. First, with such a large number of gangs whose main goal is to gain “clout” through violence, even a small number of deaths between individual warring sets has always had the potential to produce a high body count, especially since most gang sets are fighting wars against multiple rivals, according to the veteran gang officer.
With no inherent economic incentive to avoid wars between one another, proactive policing seems to have been the only deterrent from conflicts erupting all over the South and West Side of Chicago.
Thus, the sudden decline in proactive policing following the release of the Laquan McDonald video in 2015 likely provides the most plausible explanation for the current homicide rate.
A recent NPR article notes that significant drops in arrests and investigatory stops by CPD officers in 2015 were some of the only variables related to crime rates that changed significantly—a phenomenon known as “depolicing.”
The article also notes that the suddenness of the homicide spike means that things like poverty, school closings, closing of mental-health clinics, police staffing cuts and access to guns, are unlikely to be the cause of the spike because none of these factors significantly changed in 2015.
Many of the CPD officers I spoke with were in agreement with the “depolicing theory.” They explained that police felt that they had a target on their backs every time they tried to stop a suspicious person or make an arrest.
Officers recounted being surrounded by hostile crowds while making an arrest, often fearing that one or more in the crowd may be armed. In addition, the officers often expressed concern that CPD leadership would not have their backs if they were captured on a “viral” video using force.
Making things even worse, according to officers, was the city’s settlement with the ACLU in 2014, which made it more difficult for officers to make investigatory stops of suspicious persons.
I’ve heard several officers describe the situation using a slight variation of the phase “a perfect storm for criminals.” Both the recently released Department of Justice report on the CPD, and a Chicago Tribune article show that many officers throughout the department feel the same way.
The “depolicing theory” tracks with a 2015 study commissioned by the Department of Justice on the national uptick in crime since 2014, and some, but not all, criminological studies that show proactive policing does reduce crime.
In addition, a previous article I wrote on gang violence in Baltimore—a city that has a similar gang problem to Chicago—provides both statistical and anecdotal evidence to back the “depolicing theory.”
The former 4CH leader provided a more in-depth explanation for how depolicing affects gang members. He said that gangs are now more likely to carry a weapon because they know they are less likely to be stopped and searched by police. I’ve been told a similar story by former criminals in Baltimore, though some current and former gang members push back on this theory.
However, if this “deterrence theory,” is true, then it would help explain why the death rate is so high. With more gang members carrying guns, shooting a rival becomes far easier and more likely. This gives rise to new gang wars, and ensures the sustainment of ongoing wars.
Although it is difficult to make any definitive claims about what caused the rise in violence in Chicago, the patterns of gang wars presented here provide some additional evidence for the “depolicing theory.”
Patrick Burke is an independent journalist from Chicago, but is now based in Washington, D.C. You can contact Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.