CHICAGO — At 13, Greg obediently stood "security" watch over Gangster Disciple drug turf on Chicago's North Side for $50 a day. At 14, he went to jail for shooting a rival Vice Lord in the back to protect his gang.
Today, with a beeper on his waistband and a revolver in his hand, the 16-year-old shows up on schedule to sell drugs for the GD at one of its hundreds of Chicago venues. Being late will bring a fine or "violation," a brutal beating by gang enforcers.
"Are you searching, brother?" Greg asks a passerby. "I got it. I got the rock [crack cocaine]. I got the boy [heroin]."
Customers, nicknamed "geezers" and "hypes," saunter through the ripped out doorway of the high-rise tenement where Greg works. Inside, other gang members search the buyers before sending them up dark stairways to be "served."
After a few hours on the job, Greg has sold drugs worth $500. The gang takes $350 and gives Greg $150, based on a standard 70-30 split. Gang narcotics revenues total $5,000 on an average day at the building, one of many in the GD's citywide domain.
The lucrative business operating out of this Chicago tenement provides a look at the illicit inner-working of perhaps the nation's largest gang-run narcotics network.
Mafia-like in structure, military-like in discipline, it is a $100-million-a-year enterprise that stretches into 35 states.
The business is propelled by profit-hungry drug dealers and craving addicts, ready supply and insatiable appetite.
Yet the backbone of the GD's retail operation - and the key to its status as perhaps America's most powerful supergang - is the top-down organization that commands drug turf and dealers like Greg with an iron fist.
"The Gangster Disciples are one of if not the largest and most successful gang in the history of the United States," says James Morgan, special agent in charge of the US Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago.
"They are incredibly well-disciplined and trained," he says of the 30,000-strong gang. In contrast, he says, other big gangs such as the California-based Crips and Bloods are "like posses, like roaming bands of drug dealers with no leaders."
The GD has "a very sophisticated battle plan and a very sophisticated organization," Chicago-based US Attorney James Burns told President Clinton during a May briefing on the gang. "When you look at the structure ... it's absolutely incredible."
Dismantling this huge, militaristic hierarchy is the goal of a joint US and local law-enforcement investigation aimed at bringing down the GD. Last year, federal authorities indicted 39 high-ranking gangsters and collaborators on drug-conspiracy charges. Ten were convicted in March, three are fugitives, and 26 others, including GD chief Larry (King) Hoover, await trial in October.
The federal crackdown on the Gangster Disciples' leadership is fueling internal strife within the gang. A rash of more than a dozen murders and scores of shootings have rocked the gang since January as top-level members struggle for power, falling-outs occur with gang branches in other cities, and rank-and-file disputes go unchecked.
Meanwhile, the gang is attempting to ruthlessly close ranks. For instance, GD board member Darryl (Pops) Johnson and four other gang members were indicted June 20 for allegedly murdering two fellow GDs suspected of breaking a code of secrecy and aiding US investigators. One of those murdered, Charles "Jello" Banks, was a cooperating federal witness when he was killed.
Police in GD territory also report a spate of people shot in the leg or abdomen, a typical punishment for insubordination.
Despite evidence of discord at the top, the GD's drug trade so far remains remarkably efficient and intact, with 24-hour sales ongoing in much of Chicago, police say.
Whether US law-enforcement agencies can permanently put the wealthy and well-armed Gangster Disciples out of business is a crucial test for the government as gangs proliferate across the country.
"Gang violence has spread to every corner of America," US Attorney General Janet Reno said last month. Ms. Reno announced the results of the first national survey of gang activity, which showed an estimated 650,000 gang members and 25,000 gangs nationwide. Gang problems are worsening in 48 percent of the communities surveyed and improving in only 10 percent, she said.
The magnitude of the government's challenge is clear from an inside look at the GD and its rise from a renegade prison gang of a few dozen men in the 1970s to a mature criminal enterprise that dominates large areas of Chicago's inner city and suburbs.
"Over the last quarter century, one gang in particular has ... evolved better than the rest," says US Attorney Burns, "and that's the Gangster Disciples."
From the beginning, discipline has been central to the GD's mystique and culture.
Tommy, a veteran GD with a crossed pitchfork tattoo on his right arm, recalls joining the gang soon after Mr. Hoover formed it in prison in 1974 from a splinter group of the original Black Disciples. (Hoover is currently serving a 150- to 200-year state prison term for a gang-related murder.)
"It was very strict. You had to have total respect," says Tommy. He was "blessed" into the gang by a committee of six members after memorizing the 16-rule gang code written by Hoover. "The main man [Hoover] made the laws. You gotta know the laws," he says. (Tommy's real name and the names of the other gang members interviewed have been withheld.)
The canons prohibit members from using addictive drugs, gambling on credit, engaging in homosexual rape, being a bad sport, and stealing from or showing disrespect to other members. Personal cleanliness and exercise are also required.
Every morning at 5 a.m., Tommy remembers, he gathered in the field of his public-housing project with a group of young black GD members to do jumping jacks and jog.
Hoover, a self-proclaimed student of Al Capone, modeled the GD organization to a degree after Chicago's Italian Mafia. At the top is the "chairman" (Hoover) and two boards of directors, one operating in prison and the other on the street. Below them, governors control up to 1,500 members each in specific territories, which are further subdivided among regents and coordinators.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the GD used its manpower mainly to guard and expand its turf against rival gangs. Tommy rose to become a coordinator. Bloody gang wars were common, and the main payback for Tommy's loyalty was a promise of status and protection.
But when crack cocaine began flooding Chicago in the late 1980s, the lucrative drug trade emerged as the gang's priority. The GD refined its organization to run a citywide network of dope-dealing franchises. The gang now buys drugs from Colombian cartels in 100- to 200-kilo shipments and distributes them down the ranks, while profits and dues called "street taxes" flow back up.
Today, the gang lures young recruits, many of them poor and jobless, with the promise of ready cash. These youths shoulder much of the risk for the gang's business, but profit far less than the top executives, who prosecutors say generally don't handle drugs or weapons.
Jeff, 14, and Mike, 13, are two recent recruits, or "shorties." Both grew up in Chicago's Cabrini-Green public-housing project, which is dominated by the GD and known here as "the killing fields." Gang members say about 40 percent of young men at Cabrini belong to the GD.
Childhood memories for these teens include annual barbecues put on by the GD at Cabrini and treats of popcorn or potato chips handed out on the litter-strewn playground - all paid for with drug money, gang members say.
Now Mike and Jeff have bigger responsibilities. Every day, for $75, they work three-hour "security" shifts around Cabrini-Green. First they pick up guns - powerful handguns like TEC 9s, .357 Magnum semiautomatic revolvers, and Uzi machine guns - from a car that cruises the area. Standing on corners or outside buildings, they look out for police or rival gang members.
"It's a job. You're protecting your community," says Mike, sitting astride his 10-speed bike at Cabrini one morning. "I'm not gonna let them [rivals] kick down my door and kill my family. I'm gonna shoot them," he says, pointing to a building a block away controlled by the rival Cobra Stones.
Despite their bravado, both Mike and Jeff admit they are scared of going to jail. "I don't want to get beat up and raped," says Jeff, a soft-spoken seventh grader wearing the GD colors of black and blue. Jeff joined the gang only a few months ago after failing to find another job. The money, he says, comes in handy for buying clothes and food.
Greg, the 16-year-old drug dealer, is one step higher up the chain of command. He reports to the GD coordinator for his building. The coordinator distributes drugs, collects the "street tax" all dealers must pay, sets the schedule, and runs the security force. Many dealers, like Greg, work to save enough money to start selling drugs for themselves in addition to selling for the gang.
"I see the people comin' up. I feel I can do it too, gettin' money and stuff," Greg says.
Hardened by jail and struggling in school, Greg's ambitions and sense of security now seem inseparable from the GD. "I never go anywhere alone. I plan on staying in the gang forever," says the second-generation gang member. "I want to be a board member, like the second man to the 'King' [Hoover]," he smiles, touching a gold earring worn in GD fashion in his right ear.
Still, Greg's cocky optimism is tempered by the disillusionment of more experienced GD members like Sammy. Sammy remains loyal to Hoover, but he says drug money and greed have corrupted the GD and compromised its written ideals of unity and self-determination as "Brothers of the Struggle."
Jailed himself for drug dealing, the father of three is now trying to gain distance from the gang, but at a high cost. A few months ago, after Sammy refused to stand security, gang enforcers beat him so viciously that he was hospitalized with a head injury.
"I feel boxed in," Sammy says one summer evening outside his apartment. "There are a lot of guys with potential, but we tend to let it slip away by being on the street."
While incarcerated in a state-run prison, Hoover continues to run his narcotics ring. But federal prosecutors hope that if Hoover and his top lieutenants are convicted and sent to a higher-security federal prison, they would be effectively cut off from the street organization. They also expect that GD middle-managers and foot soldiers like Sammy to defect.
"I see an escalating fleeing from the front lines," says Assistant US Attorney Ron Safer, the lead prosecutor in the GD trials.
Sammy agrees, but his vision of the future is more apocalyptic. "If Larry Hoover went to [federal] jail, I think the organization would crumble. There would be constant shooting. Everyone would want to control the city," he says. "It would be a dangerous sight to see."
*Previous articles in the series appeared on Feb. 27, March 28, and April 8.