RICO runs in the Blakey family.
G. Robert Blakey wrote the original Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that targets ongoing criminal organizations. The law, part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 pushed through by President Nixon, changed how federal officials hunt and prosecute criminal organizations.
Blakey’s son, Jack, helped Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez draft Illinois’ Street Gang RICO Act, a law passed in 2012 to empower local and state officials to pursue – and hopefully weaken – Chicago’s violent street gangs by rounding up suspected members en masse.
“I don’t know of another state RICO or gang RICO that has the kind of sophisticated cooperation between federal and local officials, with a good statute and prosecution,” said the senior Blakey, both a proud father and the foremost authority on RICO. “No other state has a statute as effective as Illinois.”
By coordinating federal and local law enforcement efforts, the Illinois RICO measures are arguably the strictest state law in the country aimed at gang violence. Officials like Alvarez hope the law will help Chicago emerge from its plague of gang violence.
But in the face of the city’s complex gang issues, the question remains how much Street Gang RICO could clean up its South and West sides before the law is set to expire in 2017.
When Illinois enacted the law, it was another public declaration that what’s happening isn’t your father’s – or grandfather’s – brand of Chicago violence. Street Gang RICO is focused solely on gang violence. To hand down harsher sentences to convicted gang members, prosecutors and officials have to prove the gang exists, gang activity (recruitment, for example) is occurring and the gang is involved in at least three kinds of crime.
Last year, the city led the nation with more than 500 homicides. As correspondent Christof Putzel has pointed out in his ongoing series on Chicago’s gang violence, that’s almost 100 more than New York, a city with three times the population.
Chicago still has more than 250 homicides so far this year, even with a homicide rate that has declined compared to 2012. But the declining homicide rate doesn’t necessarily mean that the Street Gang RICO law is having an effect or the city’s problems with violence are getting better. Over the Fourth of July weekend, 72 people were shot, 12 of whom were killed. According to a Chicago Tribune analysis, 10 children ages 7 and under have been shot in the city in the last two months.
The senior Blakey likens the idea behind the Street Gang Rico law to a merry-go-round: If you have to try gang members one-by-one, the activity will remain the same as the faces change.
“If you can dismantle the merry-go-round at one time, you leave a vacuum,” he said. “You take all these people off the street at one time.”
Critics have asked why a state RICO law wasn’t passed before. (Illinois was 32nd to implement state RICO laws of some kind, and at least two more states have followed suit.) State Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, helped sponsor the bill, which took more than 16 months to pass. While the federal RICO law took aim at the mafia and white-collar crime, the Illinois law focuses on street gang violence.
“That was missing in Illinois, as [that activity] is so prevalent in the gang structure in Chicago,” Zalewski told America Tonight. “We have ever-evolving criminal enterprises and we needed ever-evolving laws. In this respect, Illinois was slow to adapt to the gang structure. You no longer have Al Capone-style gangs.”
In June, Street Gang RICO passed its first test when more than 40 members of Chicago’s Black Souls gang were arrested in Operation .40 Cal, named after the kind of gun used to kill a man who repeatedly called the police on the gang. The investigation linked top gang leaders to the Black Souls' criminal enterprise, alleging murder, witness intimidation, drug trafficking, kidnapping, armed robbery and illegal weapons offenses. Alvarez called the investigation “a game-changer.” (The gang members’ cases are working their way through the court system.)
Even after Street Gang RICO’s success Operation .40 Cal, more is being done at the local and state level to combat gang violence. After Chicago’s violent Independence Day weekend, Gov. Pat Quinn signed two more bills targeting gang-related crime. Vowing to “not have silence about violence,” Quinn approved a witness-protection program for people who help prosecute gang members and another measure requiring school officials to immediately report gang activity and illegal weapons to the police.
Some officials have also been outspoken about whether Street Gang RICO gives too much power to the 100-plus county state attorneys across Illinois
“The fear is that politically elected people can use it politically,” State Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, told The Associated Press last year.
Chicago lawyer Tinos Diamantatos is hopeful that Street Gang RICO will be a success. In April 2011, before the new law was in place, Diamantatos helped local law enforcement officials and lawyers build a case that led to more than 40 arrests of Latin Kings gang members in connection with drug rings, including 18 on federal RICO charges. The investigation targeted Augustin Zambrano, identified as the “corona,” or highest-ranking leader of the Latin Kings in the country. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Zambrano, along with three of his highest-ranking associates, “were found guilty of running a criminal enterprise to enrich themselves and others through drug-trafficking and preserving and protecting their power, territory and revenue through acts of murder, attempted murder, assault with a dangerous weapon, extortion, and other acts of violence.” (The case is being appealed.)
Diamantatos said that it will take time to see any harsh sentencing to take place under Street Gang RICO. He added that if younger gang members begin to understand that the significant sentencing powers that local and state officials now have leaves convicted members little wiggle room to plead ignorance of a gang’s criminal activities, then the culture could begin to change.
“[Police] want to punish people for the crimes they committed, but they also want to deter kids from joining gangs,” Diamantatos said. “That general fear is a strong deterrent, but again, it takes time for word to get out there and for people to understand that this law has teeth and serious jail time.”