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The untold history of local Latino gangs

In The Insane Chicago Way, criminologist John Hagedorn discovers an intricate tale of violence, mafia influence, and police corruption.



"You wanna be a punk gang member or do you wanna be a gangster? This guy there has his pants hanging off his ass—the gang member standing on the street corner. This guy there has got tunnel vision, only sees so far. . . . This guy here—the gangster . . . is going to all the fine restaurants and nightclubs and going to political fundraisers, getting things done."

These are the words of Sal Martino, or at least the man called "Sal Martino" in criminologist and author John Hagedorn's most recent book, The Insane Chicago Way (University of Chicago). Concealing Sal's identity was paramount.

"We had to be careful not to be seen together by anyone from the world of organized crime, gangs, the media, or law enforcement," Hagedorn explained earlier this month in a musty Lakeview home lined with books and potted plants, where academics, students, activists, and onetime major gang chiefs gathered together to celebrate the publication of The Insane Chicago Way.

Sal and Hagedorn met in seedy hotels and dingy restaurants with few customers in places far from the west-side neighborhood known as the Patch, where members of the local Mafia are known to reside. "We also met in private locked cubicles in libraries across the city. I registered under my name and almost always gave the reason for the meeting 'Law Enforcement.'"

In the privacy of those locked cubicles, Sal told Hagedorn stories he had never heard before. "Now, I'd been doing gang research for almost 30 years," Hagedorn told me. "I doubted that anything some guy I'd never heard of could say was something I hadn't heard many times before. I was wrong." Hagedorn later corroborated the facts with his own gang contacts. What began to take shape was the daring plan of gang leaders incarcerated in Statesville—Fernando "Prince Fernie" Zayas from the Maniac Latin Disciples, Anibal "Tuffy C" Santiago from the Insane Spanish Cobras, and David Ayala from the Two Sixers—to create a local Latino Mafia.

In 1989 they established one of the most structured gang organizations in Chicago: the Spanish Growth and Development (SGD). With a strict set of rules, dispute-mediating mechanisms, and exclusively Latino membership, SGD was driven by the urgent need to control bloodshed on the streets.

By 1990, murders had hit dizzying heights, with more than 40 shot in Humboldt Park alone. "Killing people and doing drive-by shootings is bad for business," Sal said. "All it does is bring the attention of law enforcement. When law enforcement has all eyes on you, no one can make any money. And there is billions and billions of dollars out there to be made."

In an effort to overcome deadly rivalries between Hispanic gangs, SGD created an intergang structure modeled after the Chicago Mafia. "The agenda was power," Sal explained. The Insane Chicago Way posits that the Mafia exerts a larger influence on contemporary gangs than law enforcement believes, mostly through a complex network of "associates" who act as middlemen between the two criminal organizations.

SGD members also infiltrated and corrupted the police, either by paying "bones," a percentage of drug profits, to cops, or by entering the CPD as double agents. "Gang researchers have largely avoided investigating police misconduct and official corruption," Hagedorn contends in his book. His detailed account of the guisos ("robbery of drug dealers") carried out by crooked police officer Joseph Miedzianowski and later by the CPD Special Operations Section is merely a glimpse of police corruption and its profound impact on gangs. "Without the cops, none of this stuff could happen," cracks the Don, a Mafia elder.

Hagedorn confesses that the book is partly an attempt to understand why SGD could not stop the rampant violence on the west side. "Police, the press, and the public all saw the carnage as irrational and basically about turf, revenge, or drugs," he writes in The Insane Chicago Way. The collapse of the SGD left in its wake fractured gangs and a breakdown in gang leadership. "I'm doing these juvenile life-without-parole cases," Hagedorn told me. "I got 100 kids coming back to Cook County Jail waiting for resentencing. And they can't believe the disorganization of gang members today. It is all up in the air. The structure has been broken."

I asked Hagedorn how his book was received by the gangs. "It has been making the rounds," he laughed. "Word on the street is I got it right."  v

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