Remember Juan Amaya, convicted killer and more? When a younger Latin King flouted a gang rule, Amaya ordered other Kings to pound the 17-year-old’s hands with hammers, the way butchers tenderize beefsteak with meat mallets. Last Monday a federal judge dispatched Amaya to 35 years with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for racketeering (including murder conspiracy), drug and gun crimes.
Also on Monday, the Chicago Police Department said the city’s homicide toll of 171 for six months of 2014 is the lowest in 51 years. Six of 10 victims had gang ties.
Correlation doesn’t equal causation. And improving murder counts, a metric where one killing is too many, doesn’t equal success. But we suspect the forces that consign Juan Amaya to the gray-bar hotel, maybe until death, also have helped lower Chicago’s murder pace to a level last witnessed in 1963.
Appreciating that lower pace during another summer killing season, each weekend a fresh bloodbath, is difficult but crucial: Chicago has proven it can cut its homicide rate. That’s why for 10 years we’ve invoked a strategy called “the wave machine.” More on that lives-saver below.
The slaughter of innocents such as 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, shot to death early in 2013, rip at our hearts and commit us anew to stopping the savagery. But the big numbers of killings flow from gangs such as the Kings. In seeking a long sentence for Amaya, prosecutor Andrew Porter wrote that the “regional Inca” led “over 1,000 soldiers — many of whom were simply boys sent off to kill or be killed.”
Chicago’s gangs — some splintered into factions, some monolithic — remain vicious and pernicious. But law enforcement is exploiting an internal treachery that has been eating away at the Kings and, we’re told, some other groups:
To be a corona, Inca or other Kings leader today is to know beyond doubt that some members of your gang are snitching on the sly. More now than ever, high-ranking gangbangers see that if they’re arrested for any serious crimes, betrayal of the gang is their one way to shorten the decades-long prison sentences that today’s stiff federal guidelines impose.
The Kings’ stated “SOS” dictum, to “shoot on sight” or “smash on sight” any members who cooperate with the law, just isn’t the iron deterrent it once was.
Thanks to the traitors, cascading investigations that began in 2003 have put away more than 100 Kings, many of them stripped from the pinnacle of the organization chart. Our favorite sabotage:
At one meeting of two dozen leaders, a King of 14 years’ seniority physically searched each attendee for recording devices. Unbeknown to the leaders, the “Nation Enforcer” patting them down was ... wearing a wire for the FBI and Chicago Police.
We write today not to declare current or impending victory over street violence: Breaking a cycle that annually devours young Chicagoans by the hundreds, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said in May, could take 10 years. Or 20. Or 50. No, we write today to praise the wave machine.
We encountered the Latin Kings 20 years ago this summer in their homeland, Little Village on the Southwest Side. They had brazenly slashed streetlight wiring, blackening two long blocks of 21st Street to clandestinely prepare for combat with rivals. The Kings had battled one gang since the 1970s. Local lore had it that their warfare began as a dispute over a foul ball during a softball game. But details were long lost in the mists of gunsmoke.
Today the feds put the Kings’ Illinois membership at 10,000, plus chapters in several other states. Leaders have monitored police radio bands to be sure their troops execute shootings as ordered; if neighbors near a planned hit site don’t dial 911, maybe the troops failed. Violence dictates economics: The gang has imposed surtaxes on drug sales to pay for firearms, funerals and defense lawyers.
After he became U.S. attorney here in 2001, Patrick Fitzgerald sidestepped advice from some Chicago pols that he focus on smaller gun cases — and produce big numbers of them. He renewed an earlier federal commitment here to attacking gangs whose routine killings amount to industrial deaths on a massive scale.
That’s one of the ever-evolving local and federal strategies that have cut Chicago’s murder rate by one-third since the early 2000s. David Hoffman, then a federal prosecutor co-heading a Fitzgerald anti-violence initiative, argued in 2004 for institutionalizing practices that would continue as individual prosecutors and investigators inevitably moved on. “This should be what law enforcement does in Chicago,” Hoffman said. “Not a short-term effort, but a wave machine.”
Amen. We’re pleased that several strategies from that era — such as deploying many cops to interrupt cycles of retaliation, and constantly evaluating gun cases to see whether state or federal prosecutors have the statutes best suited to convict a defendant — survive intact.
The twist we didn’t expect: the degree to which stiffer sentences nudge gangbangers to talk. Police Commander Maria Pena, whose 10th District spans Little Village, says her violent crime numbers are declining, and Kings leaders “are not as bold as they used to be.” They’ve watched all these convictions that, as the feds don’t mind advertising, gang turncoats have enabled.
New leaders always step up. Hence prosecutor Fardon’s talk of a decades-long war. Already, Juan Amaya is one of its defeated warriors. He had to be furious June 23 when a judge rewarded with a 17-year sentence an Inca who helped put away four top Kings. Under his plea deal the informant, 37, could walk in six years. He’ll have a life with his children.
Amaya, though, is 38 and must serve 85 percent of his 35 years. Inmate 45110-424 joins Jeff Fort, Larry Hoover, Gino Colon, Augustin Zambrano — leaders who ruled gang nations but may never see Chicago again. If Amaya does, he’ll be pushing 70. Young men won’t care that he used to be Juan Amaya, Inca. Like Fort et al., he will die all but forgotten, in or out of prison.
Who knows what happens then, Juan. Maybe some Kings’ victims await you.