Drugs & gangs in Little Village: View from the ground

What are the social justice implications of the war on drugs and the drug trade across borders in impoverished neighborhoods? In this article, Jackie Serrato, SJNN Fellow, gives the view from the ground in Little Village, a community widely portrayed as a hub for Mexican drug cartels. This interview with Ceasefire Outreach Supervisor Jesus Salazar is part of a larger story that will be published at the end of the summer. Originally printed in The Gate Newspaper.

By Jackie Serrato

Little Village has made national headlines as a hub for Mexican cartel drug trafficking activity, most notably regarding associates of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman who allegedly operated in Little Village. Little Village also is plagued by much gang violence. Many people assume that the drug trade is a major factor driving the gang violence. But the reality is more complicated, in the eyes of many Little Village residents. I spoke with Jesus Salazar, outreach supervisor for the anti-violence group CeaseFire in Little Village, about the relationship between drugs, gangs and violence in the neighborhood. Salazar lives in Little Village and as a muralist, he’s also created youth programs including using murals to take back gang-disputed areas covered with graffiti. Here is a lightly edited excerpt of our conversation.

Q: You mention two groups, can you tell me more about them and maybe a little gang history?

A: The Latin Kings and the Two Six are the two major groups that are in Little Village. We have about five groups in Little Village, on the outskirts, that work their way into Pilsen, but the predominant two gangs are the Two Six and Latin Kings. Both started as social athletic clubs and evolved into what we know as your average street gang. Both started in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. The Latin Kings started a little earlier as Young Lords. The Two Six were a softball group that turned into a gang over the years.

Q: When you talk to these young people, what is their mentality when they decide to go and shoot someone?

A: The motivating factor in Little Village…is hate. Violence is a learned behavior, right? 26th Street has been divided and these two factions basically rule their sections. I remember growing up I had uncles and cousins and a brother who were involved, and I would learn everything from them. I learned the signs, I learned the tagging, I learned the literature. So they were teaching me how to become a gang member. While you’re being taught to be a gang member, you’re also being taught to hate the other side. So [to] all these young kids, their motivating factor is: I don’t hate you because you owe me money, I don’t hate you because you looked at me wrong, I don’t hate you because you stepped on my shoe; I hate you just because I hate you and I was taught to hate you.

Q: Where do you think that hate comes from?

A: It comes from back in the day. We grew up losing our brothers, sisters and cousins because either a TS shot and killed them or a LK shot and killed them. Your mentality is, ‘Since I’m being targeted, I might as well hate them and do to them like they do to me.’ You start hating someone so much just for the colors they wear, for the side of the neighborhood they’re on.

 Q: You mentioned that when it all started there were people kind of seeking an identity within these gangs. What exactly were they looking for?

A: It’s what everybody looks for, like a personality, an image. You wanna be cool, you wanna be known, you wanna be respected. You wanna be that guy that everybody comes to, that everybody talks to, that everybody looks up to. It works the same way with getting women. A lot of these women in Little Village look up to the guy that got a little bit of money, that got the car.

Q: Do you think that being Mexican or Mexican American has anything to do with this seeking an identity?

A: There [aren’t] too many gangs in Mexico that I know of. There might be cartels now, but street gangs, I don’t think there’s too many. But you gotta understand the history of Chicago. Before the minorities started moving in, the majority were white people and when you would go into their neighborhood or move into their neighborhood, they basically acted violent towards you. There was a whole bunch of hate crimes that we don’t recognize that happened in Chicago. In Little Village we had like Lithuanians and Bohemians that lived here back the ‘40s and ‘30s and when the Mexicans started moving here, they were racist towards us.

The first people to start social athletic clubs were white people. There was this gang called the Gay Lords, it’s an acronym for Great American Youth Leading Our Rights Demanding Something, a lot of people called it “Destroying Spics” or something like that. Social athletic clubs were clubs to protect your neighborhood from outsiders. So I guess we picked that up from them. We moved into the neighborhood, it was a bunch of Mexicans and then you had Blacks moving in and you had Whites being racist towards you. And you wanted to protect your neighborhood. And that just evolved into a street gang. We picked it up here!

Q: Jack Riley from the Chicago Drug Enforcement Agency says that most of Chicago’s violent crime comes from gangs trying to maintain control of drug-selling territory. Do you think that applies to Little Village?

A: Definitely not. It might apply to Black neighborhoods – a lot of the shootings and homicides that happen in black neighborhoods are between the same clique, like GDs killing GDs – they’re fighting over that corner, they’re fighting over that dope spot. Say I get locked up, you take my dope spot, I’m out of jail now, I’ve got my guys behind me…we take you out. In Little Village, we don’t have dope spots. The most severe drug guys probably do in Little Village is PCP. From what I know, the street gangs in Little Village don’t sell PCP because it’s against rules and regulations.

A lot of people in Little Village don’t smoke crack. That’s one of the drugs that makes a lot of money. There are no dope spots to fight over…the west side of Little Village is controlled by the Two Six, the east side of Little Village is controlled by the Latin Kings. That’s plentiful land to sell drugs over if you want to. [Drugs] are definitely not the reason guys kill each other in Little Village. It goes back to the hate – you’re a Latin King, you’re a Two Six, I hate you.

Q: So gang lines do not move or depend on drug activity?

A: Not at all. In Little Village we got young guys wanting to prove themselves, like ‘My block is better than yours.’ On the border we have an imaginary dividing line that divides the two organizations. The guys that are on the border are trying to prove that their gang is better than the other gang. Like ‘I’m from such and such block. We’re the craziest, we’re the baddest, we got better guns than you, we’ll shoot you, we’ll kill you.’

Q: When “El Chapo” got caught, people wondered whether violence in Little Village was going to be affected. What do you say to that?

A: See, people think he has a direct connection with gangbangers in 26th Street. That’s not the case. I don’t think Chapo was stupid enough to talk to your average gangbanger about drugs, what does the average gang member have to offer El Chapo? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Yeah we had the situation with the Flores twins. That was something special. Them guys met somebody, the right somebody, or had family members who were plugged and that was their situation. If they were supplying somebody, it wasn’t your average gang member. If you go up and down the streets of Little Village, you don’t got people telling you ‘Hey, you gotta buy weed? Hey, you wanna buy coke?’ We can do a survey today and I’m pretty sure we won’t come up with anything like that. It isn’t like the west side of Chicago where everybody’s like ‘Hey, rocks and blows! Loudpack, loudpack!’ That’s their signature saying right there: ‘Rocks, blows! Park.’ In Little Village it ain’t like that.

Q: There’s not an open-air drug market?

A: Nah, there’s not an open-air drug market at all in Little Village. If anything all this drug stuff is way behind doors or nobody really knows about it. I don’t know if you ever read a newspaper and you’ll see like ‘drug dealer caught in Little Village’ and it would be like some paisa nobody knows. You got guys who come from Mexico and set up shop. And they got their people they distribute to and it isn’t directly tied to gang members. And that’s not what drives the murders in Little Village, definitely not.

Q: Another comment that Jack Riley made was that law enforcement has to operate in Little Village as if it was the border. He probably means more law enforcement officers, probably more militarized tactics. Do you think that’s the kind of policing that we need here?

A: It doesn’t make sense to me. If he’s trying to use the same tactics and he’s trying to target the same people…I don’t think it makes sense. We’re nothing like ‘the border.’ There, there is a lot of space, a lot of open land. We’re a Chicago neighborhood. We look nothing like the border. Wow, that term sounds derogatory towards a certain people. That’s what it sounds like to me.

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