The surge in gun violence in northern Lake County is the result of small, young, self-proclaimed gangs operating without structure, local officials said.
"You've got these young, upstart gangs now," Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said. "In the old days, you had the hierarchies in the El Rukns, the Latins, where the lieutenants were doing these things. Now you have these young start-ups claiming four or five square blocks as their turf and they're everywhere."
In larger, organized street gangs, lieutenants were older members who served as leaders for designated geographic areas. Teens and tweens served as runners for guns and drugs or as lookouts for police.
What's happening in the north part of the county, Buncich said, turns that structure upside down. Because the young start-ups take on small areas and are not well organized, gang activity is more widespread and harder to stop at top levels than in the past.
Former Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher last week recalled the homicides that plagued his city in the 1970s during the reign of the Family Street Gang. Those homicides were fueled by a turf war between the Gary-based gang and the Chicago mob over control of drug trafficking — mainly in heroin — in Northwest Indiana.
Hatcher called in the feds for help.
"They were pretty efficient and effective," Hatcher said. "Within six months of the time they began their work here, most of the gang members or leaders were in prison or deceased. The federal task force did a very good job."
Cutting the new gangs off at the head isn't as easy as it was in Hatcher's day, officials said, because there is no organized leadership or structure.
"They're certainly not as organized as some of them in Chicago," ATF Senior Special Agent David Coulson said. "Sometimes when there's structure, there's more discipline. ... When things are unorganized, and the hierarchy is not there, you have sometimes more rampant violence and other activities."
The new gangs are dealing drugs, mostly marijuana, like the larger ones, but their methods aren't the same, said Robert Byrd, NICTD police chief and spokesman for the Northwest Indiana Major Crimes Task Force.
"The new start-ups are actively involved in the drug trade, but unlike the larger gangs, they are very fragmented but are aspiring to play a bigger role," Byrd said.
"It's all about disrespecting people: 'You dissed me, you looked at me wrong, you crossed into my neighborhood, you're cutting in on my drug money,'" Byrd said.
The ages of the homicide victims reflect the shift toward younger start-up gangs as well. In Gary, which has been hit hard with homicides this year, the overwhelming majority of homicide victims to date — nearly 80 percent — are in their teens and 20s.
Gary Police Chief Wade Ingram said the majority of the victims have a violent crime history themselves and are well known to police.
Buncich and Ingram both said the shootings and homicides are overwhelmingly retaliatory in nature.
In response, Ingram instituted an anti-retaliation program, wherein officers reach out to gunshot victims and survivors of homicide victims and encourage them not to take justice into their own hands.
In the first week since outreach began July 16, Gary officers attempted to contact 14 people. Some victims provided phony contact information or moved, Ingram said.
Of the five people officers reached, at least two said they had no additional information and at least one did not want to cooperate.
"The code of silence in urban America is deafening and it has a stranglehold on neighborhoods, preventing families from keeping their kids alive or arresting the people responsible for their deaths," Byrd said.