Scars from 13 bullet wounds pepper Brandon's body -- brutal reminders of his life as a Gangster Disciple.

The East Chicago native thought he'd be dead by now.

Instead, after spending five years in federal prison for dealing drugs, Brandon returned to East Chicago to find his friends dead and the integrity of his brotherhood decimated.

Violence and greed had eroded the old gang structure, he said.

"I don't want to say it was better (under the old structure)," Brandon said. "But if something happened, you know who did it. You never did anything on your own."

A new era of gang activity has ascended in Northwest Indiana -- one law enforcement officials believe is even more dangerous than gangs of the past.

Region youth proclaim gang affiliations without knowing the principles those gangs stand on. Their only loyalty lies with themselves and their own greed, police officials said.

"It is more loosely organized today, which makes them more dangerous because they're not being held accountable (by gang leadership) for what they do," said Hammond police Cpl. James Onohan, who works on the department's gang unit.

Region gangs also are combining efforts to boost profits in drug sales, police said.

During the past year, The Times examined the changing face of region gang activity through the eyes of gang members and the police who try to keep them at bay.

That examination revealed how elementary school students are lured into the gang fold, why Chicago-based gangs are moving to the south suburbs and Northwest Indiana, why Mexican-based gangs are toughest for law enforcement to infiltrate and how police and community leaders are combating the gang problem.

'I never expected to be this age'

Ray said he joined the Imperial Gangsters at 15.

By then, the East Chicago native already knew the effects of gang violence. Ray said his father was murdered in Gary because of involvement in a Puerto Rican gang.

But Ray said he wasn't dissuaded by his father's death. He said the Imperial Gangsters offered a family structure he was missing at home.

"It's not to go out shooting people," he claimed of his reason for joining the gang. "It's to try to protect your neighborhood and keep others from destroying property."

Joe Guzik, criminal justice lecturer at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, said Ray's story is typical in the region. Guzik is a former police officer who teaches a class about understanding gangs.

He said several factors lure youth into gang activity: racism, broken family structures, a family history of gang membership and social or economic pressures.

Guzik said money is the biggest temptation. Kids see gang leaders and drug dealers throwing money around, sporting the latest clothes and driving hot cars. The youth want those things too, Guzik said.

For a time, Brandon was a symbol of the high life.

He said he joined the Gangster Disciples in elementary school and that gang members became his family while his parents worked multiple jobs, leaving him home with his grandmother.

Brandon bounced in and out of boys' school, then dropped out of high school and became a ward of the state at 16 years old.

A year later, investigators arrested him for selling cocaine and marijuana. He was convicted in federal court of conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to five years in prison.

"I had money for the house but no way to get it," Brandon said, explaining he couldn't claim his drug income on a mortgage application or tax form. "Fast lane, fast money. That's too fast."

He said prison kept him alive.

"I never expected to be this age," Brandon said. "Everyone I came up with died by 21."

But the hazards of a gang member's life haven't stopped people from joining, according to a recent survey of law enforcement agencies by the National Youth Gang Center.

Crossing the state line

The number of gangs increased nationally by 28 percent between 2002 and 2008, according to the 2008 National Youth Gang Survey. Gang membership increased 6 percent during that same time period.

There are about 774,000 gang members belonging to more than 27,900 gangs nationwide, according to the survey.

Those statistics do not include the numbers of people involved in motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs or adult-only gangs.

While regional gang statistics were not available, law enforcement officials said local gang participation is rising. Members' greed is superseding gang loyalty and obedience, they said.

Neighborhood-based gangs -- those without a national gang affiliation -- pose the top threat to safety in Northwest Indiana, said Bob Ramsey, FBI supervisory special agent in charge of the region's Gang Response Investigative Team. GRIT investigators identify violent criminal street gangs and work to disrupt, dismantle and jail them and take their resources, Ramsey said.

Ramsey said neighborhood gangs with a propensity for violence often are overlooked for their lack of national name recognition.

Communities in Northwest Indiana and Illinois' south suburbs also must contend with an influx of Chicago-area gang members, he said.

Ramsey said Latin Kings, Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, Two-Sixers, Imperial Gangsters and Black P Stones dominate Northwest Indiana and Illinois' south suburban gang landscape.

Half of the 21 main drug dealers and gang leaders in Chicago live in the suburbs of the Windy City and in Northwest Indiana, investigators from the Cook County Sheriff's Department told The Times.

"The Chicago Police Department's goal is to chase every gang member out of Chicago," said Thomas Kinsella, executive director of the Cook County Sheriff's Office of Criminal Intelligence. "Where do they go? They go into Cook County. We run them out of Cook County."

The violence spills into Northwest Indiana, where gang members find it easier to live in relative anonymity.

A suburban shift

In the past, police said it was easy for gang members to slip across the state line and distance themselves from their misdeeds.

Suburban communities didn't recognize the problem and were ill-equipped to handle it. Most never had experienced gang problems before, Kinsella said.

By the time many suburban municipalities realized what was happening, they already had a significant gang presence, police said.

About 45 percent of law enforcement agencies nationwide reported their communities' gang problems as "getting worse," according to the 2008 National Youth Gang Survey. That number was even higher for suburban and rural counties.

"There's not a community without a gang problem," Griffith police Detective Greg Mance said. "A failure to acknowledge it is only going to cause more problems."

Departments on both sides of the state line created an Illiana Gang Task Force in 2007 to combat gang activity, but it later fizzled and disbanded amid legal questions about officers' jurisdiction, police officials said.

South suburban municipalities in Illinois later banded together to create a Cook County Gang Task Force. Members of the task force share information and coordinate efforts to curb gang activity.

Lansing Police Chief Dennis Murrin said sharing information is important because there is no blueprint for membership. Members of the Latin Kings may be black and members of the traditionally black Gangster Disciples may be Latino or white, Murrin said.

"Some even cross over our (municipal borders) and are not affiliated with any one gang," Murrin said. "It leads to very unpredictable behavior because they're trying to make a name for themselves."

While Illinois-based police departments lend officers to the Cook County Gang Task Force, many Indiana police departments are forced to go it alone.

Law enforcement limitations

Griffith Detective Mance said Northwest Indiana's gang resistance operations are "fragmented." Local departments share information but don't work together, he said.

Northwest Indiana's GRIT is similar to Cook County's task force but without the mass participation of area departments.

Supervisory Special Agent Ramsey, who runs GRIT, said some police departments decline to join because they either already participate in other task forces or can't afford to take an officer off their streets to contribute to the federal program.

Five agencies -- the FBI, Gary, Portage, Highland and Indiana State Police -- participate in GRIT. Its investigators have made 260 arrests, and their efforts have resulted in 231 federal indictments since January 2008, FBI records show.

Portage Police Chief Mark Becker said he provides a police officer to GRIT even though there are no organized gangs in the city. In return, Becker said Portage receives information about what is happening in the region and has easier access to federal assistance if the city needs it.

Becker was in charge of GRIT before he retired from the FBI in 2008.

"We have to join forces, or we're going to get beat and we're going to get embarrassed," he said.

While Portage police don't have the resources or manpower to go after gangs alone, other departments can afford dedicated gang units, Becker said.

Climbing the ladder

Hammond police Cpl. Onohan and Sgt. Bill Hedgepath said they "nickel and dime" gang members by enforcing city ordinances governing loitering, jaywalking and intimidation.

"We try to make them feel uneasy," Onohan said. "We're constantly invading their space."

Hedgepath compared their technique to climbing a ladder: One small violation can lead to larger ones, until officers find grounds for an arrest.

Onohan and Hedgepath carefully document which violations lead to a stop or search.

Hammond police also keep a database of known gang members and associates. Their information is fed into the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force's regionwide gang database.

Hierarchy charts of dozens of region gangs cover walls and cabinets in the Cook County Sheriff Department's Office of Criminal Intelligence. The charts are accompanied by mug shots of members, gang colors, symbols and examples of graffiti.

Franco Domma, a Cook County investigator, said he pulls information from gang members held in the Cook County Jail.

Domma said he offers jailed gang members and associates care packs with shampoo, deodorant and soap in exchange for information. Others request extra blankets or T-shirts.

He said there is little he can do for someone charged with murder, but he can put in a word for those charged with minor offenses if they cooperate with police.

The FBI's Ramsey said most arrested gang members are "standing in line to talk."

"With these local gangs, it's every man for himself," he said.

Mexican-based gangs are the only exception to that rule, Ramsey said. He said those local gang members operate with Mexican drug cartels and would rather go to prison than reveal the origins of the drugs. They fear for the lives of family members still in Mexico, he said.

While police combat the gang violence and drug activity, community activists are trying to shift gang members onto a new path.

Offering a new life

Darryl Gaines wants to see an end to the "revolving circle" of gang activity.

The Gary resident partners with the Lighthouse of Hope halfway house to offer convicted felons work after their release from prison. He hires them to work part-time in his Gary-based business, Darryl's Auto Tech, until they have the experience to move on to higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

Four of the five felons hired by his company have moved on to bigger shops making more money, he said. The fifth is back in prison.

Gaines believes felons deserve a chance to prove themselves.

"If you don't give them something to do when they come home, they'll go right back to the same old things," he said.

Gaines understands the challenges faced by those leaving prison because he has been there.

The 42-year-old spent 18 months in prison after a jury convicted him in 2005 of felony aggravated battery and resisting law enforcement. He said those convictions later were overturned and his record expunged.

Gaines said he also is a former Gangster Disciple whose twin brother, Gerald, was killed during an Illinois drug dispute. His older brother served 13 years in prison for drug-related charges.

"There are so many times I should've been dead," Gaines said.

Gaines pulled his life together with his family's help. He said he would like to do the same for other ex-offenders.

The Rev. Darnell Johnson, pastor of Mount Hermon Church in East Chicago, also wants to break the cycle of gang influence.

He said gang brotherhoods replace the traditional role of families and loving parents.

"They don't fear death, don't feel like they have anything to live for," Johnson said. "They don't have a dream and don't have anyone to tell them what to dream for."

Johnson is head of the Holistic Community Coalition, a nonprofit community outreach program that works with middle school-aged children. The group focuses on academic achievement, career choices, character development and filling the role of broken families.

It also works with various agencies to help ex-offenders become trained and employable once released from prison.

Johnson said he doesn't judge gang members' decisions, past or present. Instead, he offers them an alternative.

Beyond the efforts of Gaines and Johnson, some gang members choose to forge their own new paths, convinced by violence and friends' deaths that there must be a better way to live.

Moving on

Ray escaped from his life as an Imperial Gangster by enlisting in the Marine Corps.

Ray said one incident in which he "got in some trouble" convinced him it was time to move on. He declined to elaborate on the trouble, saying only his life and the lives of others were in jeopardy.

It has been 20 years since Ray was active in the Imperial Gangsters, but he said he still cares for his former compatriots.

"People think being a gang member means running around and shooting and craziness," Ray said. "But a good majority are very intelligent and respectable. They're just in a situation they can't get themselves out of."

Brandon, a Gangster Disciple, said the money he earned selling drugs wasn't worth the scars. Nor was it worth the gravestones he has stood in front of.

Brandon earned his diploma and learned seven trades in prison. He has worked in a warehouse since his 2005 release.

But Brandon admits the money isn't as good as when he sold drugs on the street.

"Twenty-four dollars an hour couldn't compare to 70 calls a day (for drugs)," he said.

Jeremy, who also is a Gangster Disciple, said he is tired of living on the edge. The 23-year-old said he has been stabbed seven times and has 10 staples in his head.

Jeremy has been on the wrong side of the law both as a juvenile and adult, but he never served more than six months in jail. He said that time was served after he violated probation.

He pleaded guilty last year to misdemeanor counts of invasion of privacy and criminal recklessness in return for Lake County prosecutors dropping the felony battery and felony invasion of privacy charges against him, Lake Criminal Court records show.

"I'm trying to do the best I can to get away from this situation," he said.

Jeremy said he is taking business management courses at Ivy Tech Community College to pick up a trade and start his own company. He plans to leave East Chicago and build a better life for his three children.

"This can't be your life forever," Jeremy said. "I feel like there's more. I believe there's more."

Reporting like this is brought to you by a staff of experienced local journalists committed to telling the stories of your community. Support from subscribers is vital to continue our mission.