Added to the mix – and no doubt raising the stakes – is the illicit drug trade. Chicago is the distribution hub for the Midwest, and its street gangs operate almost like corporate distributors for the Mexican cartels, say officials and criminologists. Four major cartels – Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Juarez, and Tijuana – have extended their networks into the Great Lakes region, according to the 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment from the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center.
Law enforcement officials say they are changing their drug-fighting strategies to focus more on the cartels than on neighborhood dealers – and they've netted some fairly big fish of late. Last year, José Gonzalez-Zavala, who headed the Chicago distribution network of La Familia Michoacana cartel, was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison for distributing more than $5.7 million in cocaine through Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Then, in November, the FBI arrested 12 Chicago men associated with the Zetas cartel and charged them with conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine, using safe houses on the West Side and in Berwyn, an adjoining suburb.
The greater cartel presence means "that almost the entire open-air drug market in Chicago is run by gangs" – a relatively recent trend, says Yale's Mr. Papachristos.