Attorney David Capp listens as East Chicago Police Chief Mark Becker taked about the role of local law enforcement in the Indictment of four members of the Two Six gang and thanked federal agencies for support.| Shane Cleminson/For Sun-Times Media ORG XMIT: CST1311211611256083
Updated: July 24, 2014 6:14AM
Thanks to two racketeering cases, dozens of local street gang members are locked up, many for decades to come.
But four years after the first indictment, officials have mixed views on just how much these two cases — against the Latin Kings and the Imperial Gangsters — have actually changed crime on the streets of East Chicago and Hammond.
East Chicago Police Chief Mark Becker, citing information from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, noted that both the Latin Kings and Imperial Gangsters now have a reduced presence in the area.
The local Latin Kings have cut ties with those in Chicago, Becker said, but other Latin Kings groups are trying to rebuild.
“There’s always a threat gangs could come back,” he said.
And although the Imperial Gangsters have shown a drop in activity, other gangs, including the Two Six street gang, are showing signs of taking their territory, Becker said.
That matches what FBI Supervisory Agent Robert Ramsey said. He noted that criminal activity by the Imperial Gangsters has dropped, although the FBI is seeing more of a presence by the Two Six gang in their place.
The Latin Kings case is trickier. Many of the defendants charged in that case actually lived in Chicago, and most of the criminal acts happened across the state border. The Latin Kings are also one of the largest and most well-established street gangs in the country, he said, something that makes it harder to root them out entirely. Pulling more than 20 off the streets affects the gangs only for a short time.
“There’s enough young ones that move up quickly to replenish,” Ramsey said.
Becker, a former police chief in Portage, also added that High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area data show gangs have spread across Lake County into Porter County and that the Imperial Gangsters are now considered a problem in Portage as well as East Chicago, Hammond and Gary. South Haven is also seeing problems with gangs.
“It’s everyone’s problem,” he said.
The problem will also likely continue as more gangsters in Chicago opt to move to Northwest Indiana in an attempt to gain safety for themselves and distance between them and their crimes, Vince Balbo, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Chicago division, said.
That’s similar to what one Latin Kings leader, Alexander Vargas, said was his reason for moving from Chicago to Highland. During testimony at one of his co-defendant’s trial, Vargas told the jury he wanted to be able to “sleep well because no one knew where I lived.”
That doesn’t always happen, Balbo said, as other drug dealers will then target their new homes in an effort to steal drugs and other supplies, bringing more violence to the area.
Crime, all three said, doesn’t stop at state borders.
Actual crime rates for Hammond and East Chicago show increases and decreases since 2010.
According to data submitted to the FBI, East Chicago’s murder rate dropped from 12 in 2010 to three last year.
Although 2013 numbers weren’t available for Hammond, that city also saw its murder rate drop, from 10 in 2010 to six in 2012.
Hammond’s violent crime has fluctuated, however. The city saw a drop of about 100 from 2010 to 2011, but then it shot back up to 665 reported incidences — two more than in 2010 — in 2012. Hammond’s total property crimes have decreased, from 3,881 in 2010 to 3,448 in 2012. East Chicago has also seen drops in its property crime rates, from 1,959 reported cases in 2010 to 1,731 last year.
Officials debate how much of that can be attributed to getting gang members off the street, however.
Ramsey pointed out that it isn’t surprising to see Hammond’s crime stay steadier than East Chicago’s, considering that many of the Latin Kings who were part of the racketeering case were more active in Chicago than in Hammond.
Becker did give credit to the racketeering cases, saying they get the attention of other gang members, but added they aren’t the only reason for the drop in crime. He argues that several initiatives his department has started, including increasing traffic stops and working with other local police departments, have helped.
“Our theory was increased street presence will reduce crime,” he said.
He also argued that by having other local officers patrol the areas, gangsters are more likely to be afraid of that police presence. The department is also trying to start a new push in fighting truancy at the local schools, including possibly fining parents of continually truant students, as another effort to keep kids from joining gangs.
Ramsey expressed skepticism about how much traffic stops have helped, however, saying that the city’s drop in crime happened as the racketeering case took most of those gangsters to jail.
“You get the bad guys off the streets, crime is going to drop,” Ramsey said.
One local man says he has seen a change on the streets. Patrick Sabaitis used to be a member of the Latin Kings in the 1990s before getting out. He has since created Reclaim Our Kids, a nonprofit group that uses former gang members like himself to try and intervene with current members in the hopes of keeping them away from a life of crime.
Sabaitis said he has seen a drop from the racketeering cases in local gang activity.
“They kind of get sporadic and scatter,” he said of the remaining gang members.
Neighbors in the areas once dominated — 149th and 139th streets in East Chicago and 149th Street in Hammond — are starting to feel better, he added.
“(Kids) will now play in their yards,” he said.
But it’s normal for the gangs, especially the Latin Kings, to start trying to rebuild those weakened chapters, he said, so officials need to keep applying pressure.
Sabaitis said he would actually prefer to see even tougher federal laws targeting the organized crime.
“You’ve got to stay on it, because if you don’t stay on it, they do regroup,” he said.
The former gang member said he doesn’t know if the region would ever be able to entirely root out gangs but that continued efforts to fight them should help to slow them down.
Becker is also realistic about the realities of fighting gangs. They’ll likely always be there, especially as long as the social ills that cause them remain, he said, but by working together instead of apart, local, state and federal agencies can try to cut down the damage.
“We’re not sitting back and waiting,” he said.