New Chicago drug-fighting HQ aims to end agency rivalries
BY KIM JANSSEN email@example.com February 4, 2013 12:58PM
In this Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012 photo, Jack Riley, center, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago, points out local Mexican drug cartel problem areas on a map in the new interagency Strike Force office accompanied by DEA agent Vince Balbo, in Chicago. The first-of-its-kind drug enforcement headquarters has opened in Chicago where 70 federal agents, local police and prosecutors work side-by-side, all year round to fight drug trafficking - a set-up meant to end inter-agency rivalry and miscommunication that can plague investigations. The opening of the Chicago Strike Force office comes as Mexican traffickers have taken control of more than 90 percent of the drugs market in Chicago, which the syndicates also use as a hub for distribution across the Midwest, the DEA says. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Updated: March 8, 2013 6:42AM
An unassuming, three-story brick building in Chicago is now home to a new crime-fighting team with a name that sounds like it could be a prime-time TV show: the Chicago Strike Force.
Seventy federal agents, police officers and prosecutors recently started working there in what authorities say is a first-of-its-kind drug-fighting headquarters. It brings together the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service, Chicago and suburban police and federal and state prosecutors.
Working together around the clock, the aim is to end rivalries and miscommunications that can hurt investigations, Chicago DEA boss Jack Riley says.
“We’re going after the ‘choke points,’ ” Riley said. “The point where the cartels and the street gangs intersect. Whether you’re the Latin Kings or the Gangster Disciples, you’ve got to deal with the cartels — as far as we’re concerned, it’s all one big organization.”
The effort is part of a prolonged, Department of Justice-funded assault on the Mexican cartels that supply an estimated 90 percent of Chicago area’s drugs and the 100,000 street gang members who peddle the drugs and drive the city’s soaring murder rate.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said he expects the strike force will help reduce the number of killings on the city’s West Side because “violence revolves around the narcotics trade” in his department’s Austin and Harrison districts more than it does on the South Side, where he said more-complex gang rivalries are to blame for the surge in violence.
Riley, McCarthy and other law enforcement bosses have long played up inter-agency cooperation on limited or shorter-term investigations. Creating a permanent strike force, with everyone working together in the same building, is a new approach designed to break down divisions between competing agencies.
“Law enforcement can be a bit parochial at times, but having everybody together with a spirit of cooperation is good thing,” McCarthy said.
Riley said he hopes the approach will allow the strike force to work up from street-level dealers, typically investigated by the police, to the cartels, usually targeted by federal authorities. By arresting lower-level dealers and offering them deals to testify against higher-ups, authorities hope to progress up the hierarchy to leaders of the Mexican cartels.
Last year, DEA agents worked in large numbers alongside police officers in two police districts — Englewood and Harrison — that saw significant declines in homicides even as the number of killings citywide rose.
“Before, if a (police officer) found a phone number in a gang member’s car, it might not mean anything to them, and it might be lost in a pile of evidence,” Riley said. “But to us, it might be incredibly significant in identifying that connection to a Mexican cartel.”
The strike force had a low-key launch last year. Authorities hope major prosecutions will follow.
Law enforcement in the Chicago area already had notched some notable cartel busts even before the formation of the task force. Several reputed high-ranking members of the Sinaloa cartel are to stand trial later this year on federal charges, although the cartel’s leader, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, remains at large in Mexico.
The combined anti-trafficking effort “sounds great on paper,” said Fred Burton, a security analyst for the global intelligence firm Stratfor. “But getting federal agencies to act in unison can be like herding cats.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.