Officer Mark Harms slides out his wallet and passes a couple of $20s to
the hooded man in the backseat. Harms’ car for the night is a two-door Monte
Carlo, and it’s damn cramped for the furtive, long-legged man grabbing the
money, but he’s not complaining.
Harms has driven to an alley on Milwaukee’s North Side, near Metcalfe Park,
by arrangement. The guy in the backseat is a gang member, a Gangster Disciple,
but he’s also a paid snitch, one of some 30 confidential informants who report
to Harms but can’t afford to be seen with him.
A sloppy March snow has been falling steadily, and it blankets the car in
darkness. The only illumination for the business at hand comes from the display
on the car’s gaudy custom stereo – all bouncing digital EQ levels and neon
buttons. This was a drug dealer’s car until the cops seized it. Now it’s part of
Harms and the other man are dressed almost alike: jeans, sneakers, a hooded
sweatshirt beneath a dark winter coat. The informant – Moses, we’ll call him –
claims he’s shot 20 to 30 people and has robbed more people than he can
remember. He still carries a bullet in his leg from when a rival gang member, a
Vice Lord, tried to take him out. The Vice Lords have come at him many times,
and he’s quick to display the scars to prove it. Even in the unreadable dark of
a snow-buried car.
Harms, 38, is a cop with nine years of experience: articulate, intensely
politically aware and well-read. But his entire life is immersed in the world of
drug gangs. He relates to Moses with a cold, street-hard perspective. Harms
needs Moses more than Moses needs him.
Moses joined his neighborhood chapter of the Gangster Disciples, the East
Side Gangsters, at age 12. He’s lucky to have made it into his late 20s. He’ll
be luckier to see 30. He’s left behind crack dealing and robbing people for a
far more dangerous hustle – the life of an informant, a turncoat on his friends.
Moses and Harms are just two members of a violent underworld unknown to the
average citizen. There are tens of thousands of gang members in the city –
black, white, Latino and Asian gangs – all involved in some way in the drug
trade and almost all riddled with rats – hundreds of informants reporting back
to the cops in the Milwaukee Police Department’s Gang Unit. At times it suggests
a hall of mirrors, with cops, informants and lawbreakers all resembling and
reflecting each other in a perpetual dance of violence, drugs, money and prison.
Many of the gun shot wounds and murders in Milwaukee are connected to this
The snow keeps falling as the two men exchange confidences. If word gets out
on the street that Moses has turned, “it’ll be war,” he says. His life is much
cheaper than what he knows.
But just as cheap for both his fellow gang members and the cops.
October 10, 2006. Four men kick in the backdoor to a house near North
28th and West Clarke streets. They’ve come to steal drugs. Once inside, they
force residents Betty D. Jones, 51, and her sons, Christopher B. Durant, 35, and
Dexter P. Durant, 33, face down on the floor. All three deny having the dope the
intruders are certain they’re hiding.
Dexter is shot point-blank in the back of the head, his brother gets it in
the chest, and their mother – hysterical after watching her sons murdered and
begging for her own life – is the last executed, the bullet arriving almost as
an afterthought. The gunman, referred to as Twan in the criminal complaint,
starts to walk away, then turns, puts the gun to her head, as if to let her know
what’s coming, and pulls the trigger.
“Remember,” Twan tells his cronies as they leave the scene, “cat’s got your
The following afternoon, Jones’ 12-year-old grandson stops by to see his
uncle Dexter. He knocks on the door. There’s no answer. Peeking through the mail
slot, the boy sees his uncle face down on the floor, hands bound behind his
back, soaked in blood.
Homicide detectives and uniformed police officers investigate the scene but
turn up nothing solid. As usual, no one in the neighborhood saw anything. But
Gang Unit officers, knowing the players in the area, have a hunch. This is Murda
Mobb territory, an ultra-violent Gangster Disciples clique, and the crime has
their MO written all over it. The Murda Mobb has built a fearsome reputation
ripping off dope dealers while living up to their violent name.
A few days later, the suspicious gang officers decide to drop by a known drug
house linked to the Murda Mobb. As one of the cops approaches the front door, a
man jumps from a window in an attempt to flee. He is quickly apprehended.
The jumper, Marlon Brisco, then 21, spills his guts under interrogation about
the killing of Betty Jones and her two sons. He claims he was inside the house
and is quick to finger his cohorts, apparently trying to gain leniency through
cooperation, but it turns out he sang too easily.
“He probably thought we already knew he was involved [in the murders],” says
Aaron Raap, lieutenant of detectives of the Intelligence Division. “We didn’t
know anything specific about anyone. Our gang guys had a pretty good idea where
to start. Turns out they were right on the money.”
In 2001, five years prior to this investigation, then Police Chief
Arthur Jones publicly dismissed the Murda Mobb as merely an aspiring rap group
with no ties to gangs. This was after several Mobb members were arrested on
charges related to a murder spree of rival gangsters, the Brothers of the
Jones’ declaration was a glaring example of his refusal to deal with the gang
problem. Throughout his tenure, he espoused the “Broken Windows” approach to
crime, whereby small crimes, such as vandalism, are pursued as a way to combat
more serious offenses. Aggressive police units like the Gang Squad didn’t jibe
with his thinking, so Jones terminated its operations in 1998.
Cops point to this as a key reason gangs that had been severely weakened by
the unit were able to regenerate since the late ’90s. A major example is the
Latin Kings, who were essentially decapitated by a 33-member indictment in 1998
(just before the Gang Squad was disbanded).
“We were worried after the indictment that younger guys were going to be much
more violent to establish themselves. That’s exactly what happened,” says Gary
Graika, an anti-gang program director at the Latino Community Center. By 2000,
without suppression from a dedicated gang unit, the Kings were perhaps more
powerful than ever, involved in major drug trafficking, violence and murder.
Current Milwaukee Police Chief Nannette Hegerty has a completely different
view on gangs than Jones. “When you look at violent crime, it’s related to
gangs, drugs and guns, and these three things all run together,” she says.
Shortly after being sworn into office, Hegerty created a new gang unit
operating under MPD’s Intelligence Division. It set up shop in May 2004. “Some
people worried we were going to be this band of thugs,” says Harms. “There were
even comments that a new Internal Affairs division would have to be created just
to deal with us.”
After all, a 2000 scandal caused by an internal investigation of the Los
Angeles Police Department’s gang unit, CRASH, found unjustified arrests, witness
intimidation, illegal shootings, planting of evidence and perjury committed by
CRASH members. The Los Angeles Times called CRASH “an organized criminal
subculture” where gang officers and supervisors “committed crimes and celebrated
Typically, officers attracted to these types of specialty units “want to get
things done at all costs,” says Hegerty. “The LAPD officers crossed the line,
believing the ends justified the means. I have zero tolerance for this type of
behavior,” she says.
The job of a MPD Gang Unit officer is to “come close to the line without
crossing it,” says Lieutenant Raap. Raap, 35, didn’t become one of the youngest
lieutenants (at age 29) in MPD history by bending the rules. It’s his job, along
with other unit leaders, to “make sure the officers don’t go too far,” adds
But gang cops work in moral and legal grayness, which is what makes them so
effective or can lead them astray. Getting the information needed to prosecute
gang leaders means dealing with low-level criminals and snap judgments on
life-and-death situations. The “ends justifying the means,” question is wrestled
with constantly. But so far so good. “No gang officer has been officially
disciplined for any reason,” says Raap.
In three years of operation, the Gang Unit has outperformed all expectations,
generating some 4,000 charges against criminals in 2006 alone. Unit members have
quickly learned the dynamics of the city’s gangs and have patiently and
stealthily turned countless criminals into weapons aimed at their own gangs.
Sometimes the first time a gang member meets these cops is in the interrogation
room – after being busted with perfect premonition before a planned crime.
In August 2006, a woman’s charred body was found smoldering in a
garbage dumpster near 84th Street and Mill Road. Police had few leads, no
suspects, and the victim, burned beyond all recognition, remained unidentified
for weeks. It looked like the case might dead-end.
Then, almost a month after the shocking crime first made headlines – and a
few days after the victim had finally been identified through DNA as 23-year-old
Lusheena Watts – Moses informed Harms that three Gangster Disciples were about
to commit a murder on the East Side. Moses knew where the gangsters were
heading, what kind of car they were driving and that they were sure to be
packing pistols, which is a major no-no for ex-cons. All the gang officers had
to do was make a routine traffic stop, find the guns and get the men talking.
“You never know where that will lead,” says Harms.
The car Moses described showed up exactly when and where he said. The waiting
“take-down car” pulled behind it near Ninth Street and North Avenue with its
lights flashing. The suspects took off. The fleeing car lost control and crashed
on Commerce Street, and the desperate driver fled from the vehicle and jumped
into the Milwaukee River.
Mekious D. Bullock Sr., 22, was fished from the dirty water and arrested.
Turns out he could be behind the Watts murder. He confessed under questioning
and gave up enough information to bring charges of first-degree homicide and
mutilating a corpse on himself and Iven Lee Caldwell, 32. Another man, Thomas
Lee Wilder, 26, is also charged with mutilating a corpse in the Watts murder.
Bullock told police he promised Watts money and crack in exchange for sex.
According to the statement, Watts got into a van with Bullock and Caldwell, the
three drove to a secluded spot and the men strangled her. They did it, they
said, because Watts had a big mouth about their drug dealing. Her life, too, was
worth less than what she knew.
Without the tip from Moses, the Watts murder may never have been charged.
Almost every crime the Gang Unit solves or prevents involves the use of
confidential informants. The use of CIs not only provides direct intelligence
into the world of gangs but acts as a weapon of psychological warfare. CIs are
currently linked to almost every street gang in Milwaukee, and more are being
turned all the time. Gangs know they are infested with rats and are deeply
paranoid because of it.
Most CIs “are criminals themselves,” says Lieutenant Raap. When a gang
officer catches someone with gang ties, the officer, with the backing of the
District Attorney’s Office, may offer that person a way to work off the offense
without prosecution. The deal is only offered to perpetrators of “victimless”
offences such as drug distribution and firearms violations. Intel officers
arrested more than 2,000 suspects in 2006, and most will be used to gather
information in one way or another.
As part of the recruitment of CIs, the DA’s office may also draft a “proffer
letter,” granting suspects immunity for any past crimes (excluding sexual
assault and homicide) they are willing to discuss with investigators – a
proverbial stay-out-of-jail free card.
If the suspect agrees to play ball, he or she has now become a confidential
informant. The officer in charge becomes officially known as the CI’s “handler.”
“A lot of CIs are not very nice people,” notes detective David Baker, “and
often have self-serving motivations.” Officers know that CIs will try to use
cops as weapons against their enemies (often rival gangs) and will bend the
truth to do it. New CIs are required to prove they are trustworthy. Typically,
the CI will be given money to buy small amounts of dope from a drug house or
dealer and will be asked to bring it back to the officer for evidence. Once the
CI is established as reliable, he can start working off his case.
Officer Harms alone handles some 30 CIs. His phone rings constantly with news
from the street, and he answers his cell 24-7. In the Monte Carlo on that snowy
March night, Moses told his handler many things: the street name and vehicle of
a person who had knocked off a bank a few days prior, the identity of an
unidentified body found in an empty lot and described by the media and police as
a badly decomposed woman (according to Moses, she was actually a he, a
transvestite prostitute named Tippy) and when and where a convicted felon would
be later that night in possession of a firearm.
Harms arrested Moses about four years ago on a felon in possession of a
firearm rap. Moses was able to work off his case in about a year and a half,
feeding Harms big-yield tips that led to the capture and conviction of several
criminals guilty of offenses like murder and rape. As with all valuable CIs,
Harms offered Moses the chance to continue working for cash after his offense
was worked off. That was approximately three years ago, and Moses has been
informing for Harms ever since, earning $50 to $500 for each fruitful tip.
Other CIs can do much better. Some make the case they are used to making over
$1,000 a week as dealers and need to keep up appearances or people will get
suspicious. “They’re not cheap to have around, but they’re a necessary evil,”
says Gang Unit detective Gilbert Carrasco.
Moses’ deal with Harms is essentially an arrangement with Milwaukee
taxpayers, who fund all police operations. Moses, in turn, must keep up his
associations with gang members, in order to provide information. The prison
system, though highly ineffective, is intended to be “correctional,” to shepherd
convicts to a reformed life. The treatment of CIs has that almost backwards:
they’re required to be crime free but must stay involved in the criminal game.
On a Wednesday night last summer, Harms got a call from another one of his
CIs. The man, maybe late 30s, met him at a Citgo station and jumped in the
backseat of that night’s transportation, a seized Chevy SUV. His cigarette had
burned down to his fingers; its ashes fell on the seat as he talked.
Intoxicated, mumbling and failing to make much sense, he tried to tell Harms
something about arranging for a guy to come to his house with a gun. After he
left the car, another officer who was riding along commented: “At least he’s
Not being able to think clearly while trying to set up a gangsta with a
pistol can be bad for your health. CIs play a dangerous game. After all, what’s
the life of snitch to a thug who has already killed?
Harms will pull CIs from duty or have them work other parts of the city if he
feels things are getting too hot for them. But all it takes is a millisecond’s
realization and a bullet’s travel time for a gangster to take care of a CI.
“We’ve had a couple of CIs that got shot because they were stupid,” says Gang
Unit detective Todd Bohlen, who works on South Side gangs.
“First thing we tell CIs is ‘don’t fucking tell anybody.’ But they’ll tell
their girlfriend, and next time they get in a fight and he beats her up, she
tells everyone. Or they’ll tell their mom and mom will tell their aunt…and soon
everybody knows,” adds Bohlen’s partner, detective Carrasco.
Bernando Hernandez was one of the 33 Latin Kings indicted in 1998. He pleaded
an attempted murder charge down to a five-year prison stint and was back on the
streets in 2002. In December 2003, he walked up to two fellow Latin Kings in
Cielito Lindo restaurant and shot them both in the head. Witnesses heard
Hernandez call his victims “snitches.” Certain they’d cooperated with
investigators on his indictment, Hernandez was repeatedly bashing one of the
victim’s heads with a pistol when police arrived. “He hit him so hard the
trigger guard was bent,” says Bohlen.
The technique is simple: Knock on the door, talk your way inside and
have a look around. Officers Kathy Grobe and Matt Schulz are masters of the
“knock and talk,” as it’s called. Smooth, quick-witted and likeable, they almost
always get invited in. They’ve nabbed a lot of fugitives this way.
This time, the address is for the mother of a fugitive’s children. He’s
wanted for a shooting. Three kids, clad in dirty, ragged clothes, no older than
10 or younger than 5, peek through a screen partially attached to a beaten-up
storm door. A baby can be heard inside. The woman requires almost no coaxing,
and the officers are inside in seconds.
Grobe and Schulz don’t find their man in the house. But they do find several
weeks’ worth of garbage – rotting, maggot-infested and piled in the corner of
the kitchen – and a basement full of animal feces and rancid, boney food scraps.
“This is the situation a lot of the people we’re after come from,” says
Schulz. “Yeah, and we’ve seen worse,” adds Grobe. Many cops ritualistically
stomp their feet as they exit these houses to prevent tracking cockroach eggs
into their own homes.
Antoine Williams – known as “Tank” on the street – came from a similar home.
His mother was a crack addict. He grew up with her and five siblings in a
two-bedroom apartment near 24th and Vine.
“We were poor as hell,” he says.
Tank joined his neighborhood gang, the 2-6 Vice Lords, in the late 1980s and
spent the better part of a decade gang-banging before getting jailed on a drug
Like most of his friends, Tank had no relationship with his father. “Out of
100 homies, only two had dads around,” he says.
Abject poverty combined with high rates of pregnancy create conditions ripe
for gangs. A lot of the kids who join belong to what national gang expert Steve
Nawojczyk calls the “Five-H Club.” These kids are “helpless, hopeless, homeless,
hungry and hugless,” he says.
Countless impoverished preteens have looked through their broken storm door
to see the promise of a better life in the nice clothes, slick cars and high
social status of the gang-bangers in their neighborhood.
“You join a gang and suddenly you’re somebody,” says Tank. “I went from
barely eating to making $1,400 a week selling drugs with the 2-6 Vice Lords.”
But gangs can never offer the most important of the “5 Hs,” and that is hope.
“There is no hope for a future with gangs,” says Nawojczyk. Tank saw a friend
killed violently every year from 1989 to 1995.
Graika, at the Latino Community Center, says he is numbed by all of the
funerals for kids he’s attended. “You start to question yourself when you can’t
even shed a tear anymore,” he says. “The worst thing, and it’s happened over 10
times, is when I have relationships with both the shooter and the victim.”
But gang-life is irresistible for many 9- to 13-year-olds. “There’s never a
shortage of guys looking to join a gang,” Tank says.
As part of the initiation, some gangs require what’s known as a “beat in” –
getting beat up by several gang members. If you endure it like a man, you’re in.
Females may be “sexed” in, but girls who take the beating are granted more
“love,” a term used inter-changeably with “respect.”
Other gangs require pledges to do certain tasks for membership, says
detective Baker. Latin Kings may hand a gun to a 12-year-old “shorty,” as the
Kings refer to a junior member, and say “go shoot up that Mexican Posse [a rival
gang] drug house. Do it, and you’re one of us.”
Once initiated, young gang members begin with street-level drug sales. “We’ve
found kids that are 9 and 10, and they’re selling rocks of cocaine. They’re
locked into drug houses with big fire gates to keep cops and rival gangs out,”
Baker says. “They’ll have a gun to protect themselves, and their job is to sell
drugs all day long. They’re literally locked in.”
Moving up the gang hierarchy can be achieved in a number of ways. Guys
willing to pull the trigger for their gang are held in high regard but typically
end up in prison or dead before long. Prison time is also a way to earn stripes,
and subordinate members will often dutifully take a rap and serve time for
senior members. “Incarceration is a rite of passage in some neighborhoods,”
notes Chief Hegerty.
Rising up the ladder, a gang member may move from working in a drug house to
delivering the drugs to the house to working in, and then managing, the
warehouse end of distribution. Finally, when gang members reach a certain level,
“they don’t touch the drugs or pull the trigger, they just control the money,”
Huge amounts of cash, sometimes millions, are involved at top levels of the
dope game, and this affords gang leaders a high level of control and protection.
“Gang leaders will walk into a defense attorney’s office in January, drop a
bag of cash onto the desk and say, ‘Take care of me for the year,’” says Harms.
The gang member isn’t just retaining counsel. He’s ensuring control over his
subordinates. If any get busted, his attorney rushes to their aid. That
underling, in turn, knows that if he tries negotiating a plea deal involving
cooperation, the attorney will inform the gang leader. “The same attorneys show
up defending gang members time after time,” says Harms. These lawyers are paid
in blood money, and they know it.
A young member of a South Side Milwaukee gang called the 2-1s moved so far up
the drug chain that he became connected to one of Mexico’s largest and most
violent drug operations, the Gulf Cartel. Police serving search warrants
recovered $1.1 million stuffed in duffel bags at two houses connected to the
gangster. He was 21 at the time.
Drug dealers who feel like they’ve become a Scarface (a popular icon in the
gang world) can get very bold. During a raid of a major drug dealer, officers
found a copy of a contract on Gang Unit detective Brett Huston’s life. The
kingpin had heard that Huston was on his case and put a hit out on him. “Someone
may still be after me, I don’t know,” says Huston. According to the drug
dealer’s associates that have been arrested recently, the contract is still
Johnny’s 7, on 60th and Burnham, is a small hot dog stand that
happened to be a favorite place to eat for two drug dealers. One August day, the
two men pulled into the parking lot in a black, late ’90s Chevy Tahoe, entered
the joint through a side door and ordered lunch. Their customer, the one
expecting a delivery of two ounces of “Soft” (powder cocaine), would have to
The men were still placing their orders when an unmarked squad screeched to a
halt in front of the restaurant. The men were cuffed and the two ounces of
cocaine were recovered in seconds.
The bust was fairly routine, save for one detail: One of the handcuffed men
was a member of the South Side-based Latin Kings, while the other was a Gangster
Disciple North Sider. They’re supposed to be mortal enemies.
Most Milwaukee gang members are strictly divided and fall under either the
Folk Nation or the People Nation. Chicago gang leaders created these “nations”
in prisons in the 1980s to provide protection to incarcerated members and
encourage criminal cooperation on the streets. The division into two nations is
sort of like baseball’s American League and National League, detective Baker
Added enmity comes from ethnicity. North Side gangs are predominantly African
American, South Side gangs are mostly Latino, and Hmong and Laotian gangs are
beginning to pop up around the city.
The gangsters at Johnny’s 7 should have been sharing hot lead instead of hot
dogs. Latin Kings are aligned with the People Nation, while Gangster Disciples
are black members of the Folk Nation. But business concerns can make all of the
gang creeds and pledges in the world meaningless.
“There’ll always be bad blood between GDs and Vice Lords, but it’s all about
hustling now, making money,” says Moses. It’s not unheard of to find a Vice Lord
and a GD selling rocks out of the same dope bag.
Most of the gang violence on the North Side is a battle for market share.
When a gang sells out of dope or is low on supplies for whatever reason, members
may rip off a rival dealer or drug house. One such robbery was the cause of the
triple murder by the Murda Mobb. Latin Kings are known for invading drug houses
and torturing, sometimes killing, the people inside. One of the Kings’ favorite
tortures is called a “pumpkin head” – beating someone with a blunt object until
his head swells like a pumpkin.
When business is good, drug dealing GDs may turn a blind eye to the Vice Lord
swinging crack down the street. There’s enough demand for every seller. But that
can change overnight. After cops arrest a drug dealer or close a drug house,
there may be a rush to serve the newly vacant market. A good drug house can be a
huge profit center. One Vice Lord drug house was affectionately named the
“million-dollar house” because of the cash it quickly generated. One way or
another, good drug markets never stay vacant long. “We’ll hit a house in the
morning, and it’ll be back up and running by the afternoon,” says Raap.
Many Milwaukee gangs can trace their roots to Chicago. That includes the
pre-eminent gangs on Milwaukee’s North Side, the Vice Lords and Gangster
Disciples, though they long ago severed ties with Windy City leaders.
Chicago gang members occasionally come to town and attempt to take over the
streets. In the ’90s, a Chicago gang called Brothers of the Struggle decided
that Milwaukee’s gangs were soft. The BOS opened some local drug houses and
killed a few Milwaukee gangsters as a warning to anyone who might oppose them.
But Milwaukee’s gangs didn’t roll over so easily, and a bloody war ensued. In
the end, it was the cops who purged the BOS from the city.
Another major Chicago invasion in the late-’90s came from a Chicago Gangster
Disciples group called the Bogus Boys. “There were no negotiations, just
shootings,” says detective Baker. The group went after the Columbia Park
neighborhood, near 11th and Burleigh, taking it violently from their own
brethren, the Milwaukee GDs. Thirty Bogus Boys were able to operate five drug
houses in Columbia Park until police took down their leadership and sent the
A Chicago Vice Lord named Ezra Martin was sent by Chicago generals to take
charge of Milwaukee’s Vice Lords in the late 1990s. He was a good talker and
powerful leader, Baker recalls. “He also had a lot of violent people around him,
so you were going to come along with him one way or another.” Martin was a
natural politician. He had young gang members pick up trash in neighborhoods
where they sold drugs to gain community support. He hosted a banquet for
Milwaukee gangsters as a display of power, with a wedding-style head table for
leaders. He made everyone attending sign in with their real names, which was a
gift to police. “We were lucky enough to get ahold of the log,” says Baker.
Doubtless the most memorable connection between Chicago and Milwaukee came
courtesy of gang kingpin Jeff Fort. Fort was able to unify 21 Chicago street
gangs under the banner of the Black P. Stone Nation in the late ’60s. At his
peak, Fort controlled an estimated 50,000 gangsters.
Posing as a do-gooder, Fort conned the federal government out of a million
dollars in anti-poverty funds, funneling the grant to his criminal enterprises.
Fort became so politically connected that he received an invitation to President
Richard Nixon’s inauguration – and coolly sent two subordinates in his stead.
Eventually, a grand jury uncovered the grant misappropriation and Fort was sent
Fort converted to Islam in prison and moved to Milwaukee after his release in
1976. He told his followers the P. Stones were finished and the group would
henceforth be known as the El Rukns. He demanded that El Rukn members follow
Islamic laws and customs – except, of course, for any laws that might impede his
criminal profits. It’s widely believed that Fort’s second-in-command was gunned
down because he objected to the religious reformation of the Stones.
Fort’s mix of religion and crime went international, as he was found guilty
of striking a deal with Libya’s Muammar Qadaffi to attack domestic targets,
including an airliner, in exchange for $2.5 million and political asylum in
Tripoli. Fort brokered the deal from prison, where he was serving a drug charge.
Fort is now in prison for life, but his legacy lives on in the Black P.
Stones that are still operating in Chicago and on Milwaukee’s North Side.
According to detective Baker, Fort’s family still resides in Milwaukee, and his
sons have tried, unsuccessfully, to unify Milwaukee gangs using their pop’s
name. By the mid-1980s, the Black P. Stone Nation (El Rukns) had morphed into
the People Nation.
Travel just a few miles from the North Side gangs, and everything
changes. “The South Side is a completely different playing field,” says
South Side gangs tend to be much more structured, with firmly established
hierarchies, complicated bylaws and huge importance placed on loyalty. “A lot of
cultural influences are at play with the Latino South Side gangs,” says
detective Carrasco. Just as Latino families tend to be very tightly knit, he
notes, so are the Latino gangs.
“The reputation of the gang, of their families is extremely important and
makes them very loyal. It can be very hard to get South Side gang members to
turn on their group, where it’s almost too easy on the North Side,” says Baker.
“The Asian gangs, forget about it. Almost impossible to turn them. Again, part
of their culture.”
The Mexican Posse, made up of Mexican-born males, is the largest gang
operating on the South Side, with approximately 250 members. But it’s their
archenemies, the Latin Kings, that are the oldest and most notorious of South
The Almighty Latin King Nation was founded in Chicago as far back as the
1940s. The group is governed by an idealistic manifesto full of prayers,
rituals, symbols, history and rules for living according to the principals of
“Kingism.” “We are a religion,” the manifesto states. “Once a King, always a
King” is the group’s motto, and death is seen as the only way out of the gang.
Each LK subgroup has an “Inca” at its head, a “Casinca” as second in command
and sometimes an “Enforcer” as third most powerful member. Chapters pay dues,
about $75 a month, called “Nation Funds,” to Chicago to support the national
“The Kings have been hit with indictments so many times, you’d have to be
crazy to have anything to do with that gang,” says detective Bohlen. Yet the
gang consistently finds new converts.
On top of the 33 Kings indicted in 1998, another 49 members were taken off
the streets on federal charges in October 2005. The charges included four
homicides, 38 attempted homicides, robbery, arson, kidnapping and witness
intimidation – the ugly flip side of “Kingism.”
Most South Side gangs have strict laws governing members. Infractions mean
punishments ranging from fines and beatings to death. A member of a mostly
Caucasian South Side gang called the Simon City Royals was caught using the
drugs he was supposed to be selling and was beaten at a gang meeting. He got
caught using gang drugs again and was taken to a wooded area on the East Side
A few years ago, black North Side gangsters started expanding their drug
sales to South Side street corners. Latin Kings leadership responded by issuing
a “shoot on sight” order for black drug dealers operating on the South Side.
“They were spraying them with shotguns,” says Carrasco.
But North and South Side gangs generally have little interaction, except for
an occasional drug trafficking partnership. The hot dog-loving Gangster Disciple
and Latin King at Johnny’s 7 had met in jail, became friends and developed a
criminal partnership. The 21-year-old South Side gang kingpin connected to the
Gulf Cartel was able to traffic hundreds of kilos of cocaine through this city
using a black Gangster Disciple distribution man on the North Side. The Vice
Lord’s “Million-Dollar House” was also connected to that partnership. It was an
intricate, lucrative joint venture – until they got pinched.
It’s a hot night in late August and there’s a giddy, summery
craziness, a heat-fueled unpredictability the cops sense as they drive the
streets of the North Side. A prostitute jumps into a john’s hatchback; they
drive around the corner, pick up some party favors from a drug dealer, then park
a few streets over and start the fun. Young males haunt the fronts of shoddy
houses wearing heavy coats, their faces hooded despite the heat. A boat of a
sedan screeches around a corner and jumps a curb. A belligerent man, shirtless
and stoned, shouts accusations at passersby. Crime and disorder seem everywhere.
Amid the chaos, two squad cars sit parked a block apart from one another. “We
don’t need more cops out here,” says Harms, viewing the scene from his now
parked unmarked car. “We need the cops who are out here to do more work.”
A report of shots fired near 20th and Center comes over the radio around 11
p.m. It’s one of many such reports tonight, but this shooting claimed a victim.
Several squads and an ambulance are already on the scene when Harms arrives at
the intersection. A boy, barely in his teens, a gunshot victim, lies in an
overgrown empty lot. His blood soaks fast-food wrappers and prickly weeds.
Paramedics hover over him attaching tubes and electrodes.
Nearby, 19th Street is decorated with scores of little yellow police signs.
Each marks an intended murder: bullet casings from shots fired at close range.
But the two teens that were with the victim when he got shot claim they didn’t
see who did it. “Typical,” says Harms.
Neighbors and the victim’s friends ice up under questioning from uniformed
officers and detectives in suits. Harms, in jeans and a black T-shirt, slips
into the crowd of onlookers and goes to work, pulling information from onlookers
until they realize they’re addressing a cop.
“We’ll probably never find out who the shooters were,” says Harms. “I’ve seen
this a hundred times. I’ve had people about to die who have one last opportunity
to tell who shot them and instead use their last breath to say ‘F--k you, pig.’”
Besides the general distrust of cops in these neighborhoods, talking to them can
earn you major problems with the gangs. Silence is golden.
Amidst all of the bullets spraying that night, a few blocks away an innocent
bystander, 13-year-old Candace Moss, was hit in the chest. She made it a few
steps, then dropped dead in a neighbor’s doorway. Her slaying spurs a few small
news stories. The boy’s shooting barely gets a mention.
The frequency of homicides in Milwaukee creates a sort of refrigerator-like
background hum to the city’s news. Even as the volume grows, it becomes more
ignorable, the incidents dulling with repetition. With homicides soaring near
the triple-digit mark again for 2006, the violence in the city is clearly
epidemic. But murder rates don’t even begin to tell the story. There were more
than 500 people shot in 2006 and who knows how many missed by bullets intended
for them. Many shootings are connected to the drug gangs; in the past, the
county medical examiner has estimated that half of all murder victims examined
had cocaine in their blood.
“Without the gang unit, we’d really be in trouble,” says Chief Hegerty.
The police chief is convinced that the unit’s hefty arrest statistics are
having an impact. But she also knows police can only contain gangs and violence.
“We have a job to do and we do it, but it’s not a solution to the problem,” she
Gang researcher John Hagedorn, a professor at the University of Illinois at
Chicago, has argued in his books that gangs are an entrepreneurial reaction to
the poverty and dearth of jobs in the central city. Certainly, gangs thrive in
poor neighborhoods and adapt resourcefully to conditions there.
As W-2 ended the old welfare system, there was an explosion of day-care
centers for working mothers in Milwaukee who needed care for their children.
There are now some 1,500 daycares licensed in Milwaukee County, according to the
Department of Workforce Development. “Drug-dealing North Side gangsters like to
open day-care centers. They are cash businesses that don’t deal in goods, so
it’s a way to launder dope profits,” says detective Baker.
Social service programs in these neighborhoods have rescued young lives. Tank
says the main reason his brothers didn’t get involved in gangs is because a
Salvation Army center gave them a safe place to recreate and socialize.
But gangs have been known to infiltrate such organizations. Modesto Fontanez,
who founded the Latino Community Center in 1999, also created another important
entity: the Milwaukee Latin Kings. Last year, Fontanez, who professed to be
saving children from gangs and drugs, was pulled over with his school-age
daughter in Nevada. Officers discovered 49 kilos of cocaine in a secret
compartment in the Chevy Avalanche he was driving. That’s around $7 million
worth of blow.
A man named Michael Turner was working with children at a different community
center when he was nabbed in the 1998 Latin King indictments. He turned out to
be a gang leader. One community center in town is called the “Latin King
Community Center” by rival gang members, says a cop.
A woman connected to the Black P. Stones was able to infiltrate a North Side
community group. Courts were sending her juvenile delinquents she was supposed
to place in community service jobs. Instead, she recruited the kids into the P.
Stones and soon had them swinging crack. She was ultimately arrested for robbing
a bank in Brown Deer.
Schools are perhaps the gangs’ best recruitment centers. Gang members can
work on their peers in classrooms and hallways everyday. “MPS is the farm league
for gangs,” says Peter Pachowski, head of security for Milwaukee Public Schools.
“And prisons are the universities for gangs,” adds anti-gang counselor Gary
Graika. “It’s where criminals join a gang, learn more about their gang, and most
importantly, make their connections for dope and drugs.” The justice system, by
sending gangsters to prisons, reinforces gang structures and facilitates
Ezra Martin, the Chicago Vice Lord who was able to unify several sets of
Milwaukee Vice Lords, is suspected of directing gang operations from prison
while serving time on a drug-related charge. Seventeen fellow Vice Lords
indicted on a drug conspiracy on Halloween 2006 will probably be joining him
shortly. Investigators say Martin may yet be named in the indictment.
Gangs are well aware that the police department’s Gang Unit is back. In
reaction, many gang members have stopped wearing gang colors in public. “It made
it too easy for us,” says detective Carrasco. “I used to take their hats and
bandanas for evidence.”
Officers are perpetually surprised by the sophisticated techniques gangs use
to elude law enforcement. A South Side gang called La Familia ran a drug
operation near South Eighth and Madison streets. The gang had surveillance
cameras in trees and on buildings around the neighborhood. Gang members with
rifles and police scanners would take positions atop a nearby apartment complex
to protect dope shipments from police and rival gangs.
Some gangs have even started operating in the suburbs to avoid the Gang Unit
— much to the chagrin of suburban police. “The Northwest Corridor around
Menomonee Falls has become very popular for gangsters recently,” says detective
The strategies of both cops and gangs will continue to evolve, but the game
will never end as long as the cycle of poverty, drugs, violence and prison
As Tank was being released from prison, a corrections officer predicted she’d
see him behind bars again. Tank took it as a challenge. He left the Vice Lords
behind and put himself through college. He is currently in the process of
opening a business and is trying to make a documentary film about gang life.
But Tank is perhaps 1 in 100. Most gang members had to shed some of their
blood to get into a group. They may have to shed all of it to get out.
Mario Quadracci is an assistant editor of Milwaukee Magazine.
Photographed by Peter DiAntoni