Small Wars Journal

Is Chicago on the Road to Becoming an American Ciudad Juárez?

Tue, 11/20/2012 - 5:30am

“Chicago shootings leave 9 dead, 28 wounded over the weekend.” This was one very stark CBS News headline the morning of August 27, 2012.[1] During a late October 2012 weekend, six people were killed and 14 wounded from gunfire in the city.[2] “Seven shot on South, West sides,” read a Chicago Tribune headline on November 10, 2012, describing a series of unrelated attacks that occurred within a 13-hour time frame.[3] They happened in different parts of Chicago, most commonly in the south and west parts of the city. Shockingly, the statistics and incident details were reminiscent of grisly headlines emerging daily from a foreign city 1,500 miles away: Ciudad Juárez, Mexico—arguably one of the deadliest places in the Western Hemisphere.

Juárez has been the epicenter of violence in Mexico’s drug war since 2007, when leaders of two major transnational criminal organizations (TCOs)—the Sinaloa Federation’s Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán and the Juárez cartel’s Vicente Carrillo Fuentes—failed to see eye-to-eye on a few things and went to war. The annual murder rate skyrocketed, hitting the plateau of 3,622 people killed in 2010 before dropping precipitously to 2,086 in 2011. The downward trend seems to be continuing through 2012, with only 625 murders through September 3.[4]

Chicago, however, is following a different trend. A 2011 report by the Chicago Police Department shows the murder rate held relatively steady between 2004-2011, with a “low” of 433 in 2011 to a high of 513 in 2008. However, this occurred after over a decade of annual murder totals topping 900 during three years in the 1990s. And it looks like 2012 is taking a turn for the worse again. Between the first of the year and November 4, 446 shooting deaths occurred in the city, with 57 in August, 42 in September, and 39 in October.[5]

The proportion of murders committed indoors compared to those committed outdoors has steadily grown wider since 1991, with considerably more people being killed on the street or in alleyways than in their homes or a place of business. Of all murders in Chicago in 2011, 84 percent were committed with a firearm, and at least half were gang-related. However, the Chicago Police Department only classified 26 out of the 433 homicides that occurred in 2011 as “gangland/narcotics.” Most victims were between 17 and 25 years old, 90 percent were male, 75 percent were black, and 19 percent were Hispanic. Of the offenders, 88 percent were male, 70 percent were black, and 24 percent were Hispanic.[6]

The comparison to homicides in Ciudad Juárez this year is stunning—38 were killed there in August, 49 in September, and 30 in October. However, attempting to break down the victims, offenders, and motives for the homicides gets extremely complicated—and is almost impossible—in a place like Juárez.

While most of Ciudad Juárez’s violence has been attributed to the war between big TCOs, the truth is more subtle. There are roughly 460 gangs operating throughout the city’s hundreds of colonias, or slum neighborhoods. And the gangs are all doing the same thing—fighting for turf and drug profits.[7] In April 2010, then-Ciudad Juárez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz told a crowd of more than 100 people at the University of Texas at Austin that street gangs, not TCOs, were responsible for most of the killings in his city—a claim that was received by many with surprise and disbelief, thinking the TCO war was responsible for the bloodshed. Ferriz explained that the Juárez cartel-linked Aztecas and their rivals, the Federation-linked Mexicles and Artistas Asesinos, were fighting for control of the rapidly expanding local drug market.[8]

It should come as no surprise that Chicago also has a serious gang problem, possibly even more extensive than that of Ciudad Juárez. As part of a gang audit conducted in early 2012, the Chicago police department said there were more than 600 gang factions in the city. About one quarter of the city’s gang-related murders this year—about 400 through September—were committed by one gang: the Gangster Disciples. Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy told The Chicago Tribune that gangs were breaking up and splintering off, resulting in a greater number of gang factions fighting over turf and profits from criminal activities. According to the Chicago Crime Commission, there are estimates of as many as 30,000 Gangster Disciples in Chicago. By comparison, the Black P Stones membership is about 20,000, the Latin Kings about 10,000 and the Black Disciples 4,000.[9]

Of course, there are several ways in which Chicago and Ciudad Juárez differ that make the similar numbers sit on unequal footing. Chicago has a population of roughly 2.7 million people, which is more than twice that of Ciudad Juárez at 1.3 million residents. The geography, industries, and average income levels are very different. Culturally, Chicago is extremely diverse, with residents from almost every imaginable nationality and gangs comprising members from different races. Ciudad Juárez is considerably more homogenous with an almost completely Hispanic population, although residents and gang members are often of other Latin American nationalities.

But the two cities might just have more in common than not. Ciudad Juárez is notorious for its corrupt politicians and police officers, with an entire enforcement arm of the Juárez cartel, known as “La Línea,” being comprised almost completely of dirty local cops. In August 2010, hundreds of police officers from two opposing groups rioted over allegations of corruption within the ranks of each group. According to, the altercation was triggered by corruption allegations against federal police Commander Salomon Alarcon Romero. His critics said Romero participated in kidnappings, killings and extortion in Ciudad Juárez. In 2008, then-Mayor Ferriz dismissed over 800 municipal police officers for failing “confidence tests.”[10]

Chicago doesn’t exactly have a squeaky clean record in this department, either. In February 2012, University of Illinois at Chicago professor Dick Simpson, who served as alderman of the 44th Ward in Lakeview from 1971 to 1979, found that Chicago is the most corrupt city in the United States by using US Department of Justice statistics. Some of the corruption factoids Simpson discovered: In the Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago, there have been a total of 1,531 public corruption convictions since 1976; since the 1970s, four of Illinois’ seven governors have been convicted of corruption; about a third of sitting alderman since 1973 have been corrupt.[11]

In November 2012, two undercover Chicago police officers discovered that “colleagues on the police force were shaking down drug dealers and framing innocent people,” according to a The Chicago Tribune report. They decided to inform their supervisors, and when they were told to disregard the activity, they went to the FBI with the information. Afterwards, the two officers claimed they were labeled as “rats” and retaliated against by high-ranking police officials by being placed in menial positions in the department.[12] In November 2011, a crackdown on the Latin Kings identified two Chicago Police officers accused of using their position to rob people in northwest Indiana and Illinois.[13] In September 2009, four officers in the department’s Special Operations Section pled guilty to making false arrests, committing robberies and home invasions for several years, acting under the guise of busting street gangs and rounding up guns.[14]

Residents—specifically witnesses—in both cities don’t exactly have a great relationship with the local police. City statistics show that 80 percent of nonfatal shooting cases in Chicago are going unsolved. Local police officers believe that a major reason for that is because witnesses have little to no interest in reporting what they saw to authorities—mostly because they’re afraid of retaliation by gang members. Victims aren’t very cooperative either, usually because they know who shot them and plan to take retaliatory action later on.[15] The same situation is in effect not only in Ciudad Juárez, but across Mexico—a country where not only witnesses are killed for observing criminal activity, but journalists are murdered for reporting too many details of a crime after one is committed.

But Chicago and Mexico have a connection that runs much deeper than comparable statistics. The Herrera Organization was one of the most dangerous Mexican crime syndicates in the US Midwest in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it was based in Durango, Mexico, the family created distribution networks all across America, with Chicago being their primary US hub. The US Drug Enforcement Administration estimated over 1,000 field representatives of the Herrera family were at one time heroin and cocaine dealers in the United States.[16] Before the group became involved in heroin trafficking, the Herreras were distributing Colombian cocaine into the United States for both the Medellin and Cali cartels.[17] They supplied the American drug market by creating their own so-called “Mexican mud,” also known as black tar heroin, which established the Herreras as the primary heroin traffickers in the United States.[18] Their “farm to the arm” operation that connected Durango to Chicago was dubbed “The Heroin Highway” in the 1970s.

After the demise of the Herrera family in the mid-1980s, another family operation came to the drug trafficking forefront in Chicago. Pedro and Margarito Flores, two 28 year-old twins, ran one of the largest and most sophisticated drug distribution rings in Chicago in the 2000s. According to Chicago detectives, their father and older brother both distributed drugs for the Sinaloa Federation. Following in their family’s footsteps, the brothers decided to go to work for two factions of the Federation—one headed by the notorious Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, and the other led by Arturo Beltrán Leyva.[19] As a result, the Flores Brothers forged a $700 million drug distribution deal with the Federation. Guzmán and Beltrán Leyva used Boeing 747 jets, submarines, ships and vessels to transport enormous amounts of cocaine to the southwest border. They would then hire truck drivers to pick up the shipments and transport them to warehouses in Chicago.[20]

The presence of Mexican-origin drugs in Chicago is more prominent now than ever before. According to the US Department of Justice, Mexican TCOs dominate most trafficking of wholesale quantities of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana in the Chicago area. DEA Special Agent in Charge Jack Riley told CBS news that Mexican cartels have a significant influence on gang violence in Chicago, with three major TCOs operating in the city—including the Federation and ultra-violent Los Zetas—and “turning parts of this Midwest city into a Mexican border town.”[21] In October 2012, a high-ranking lieutenant in the Federation was extradited to the United States to face drug trafficking charges in Chicago.[22]

Selecting Chicago and Ciudad Juárez as cities for comparison with regards to crime characteristics isn’t arbitrary, and isn’t designed to be sensational. Ciudad Juárez has been notorious for the last five years as “Murder City” and one of the deadliest cities in the world. Fortunately, it appears that its ranking on that list is dropping. However, Chicago has been taking on many of Ciudad Juárez’s characteristics—specifically the gang-related nature of homicides and relatively high (for the United States) levels of corruption that have helped, to some extent, facilitate criminal activity.

The majority of Chicago residents aren’t experiencing the abject fear of everyday life under the specter of gang warfare, hundreds of businesses aren’t shuttering and tens of thousands of residents aren’t moving to neighboring states as a result; this has been the reality in Ciudad Juárez in recent years. But the increasing similarities between the two cities—and particularly the drug connection between Chicago and Mexico—can’t be disregarded as mere coincidence, and certainly should not be ignored. Chicago residents can only hope that city officials recognize the potential implications of that connection and address them before the murder rate and levels of gang activity soar even higher.

[1] Casey Glynn, “Report: Chicago shootings leave 9 dead, 28 wounded over the weekend,”, August 27, 2012.

[2] Allison Horton, Mitch Dudek and Jon Seidel, “Chicago surpasses last year’s homicide total with South Side shooting, Chicago Sun Times, October 28, 2012.

[3] Peter Nickeas, “Seven shot on South, West sides,” The Chicago Tribune, November 10, 2012.

[4] These statistics are maintained by New Mexico State University librarian and researcher Molly Molloy, who relies heavily on information gleaned from El Diario de Juárez,, El Norte de Ciudad, and INFOPRO.

[5] “CompStat: Report Covering the Week of 29-Oct-2012 Through 04-Nov-2012,” Chicago Police Department, November 4, 2012.

[6] 2011 Murder Analysis Report, Chicago Police Department, Research and Analysis Division, 2011.

[7] Dudley Althaus, “Juarez drug violence ignites fears of Mexico's collapse,” The Houston Chronicle, January 4, 2009.

[8] Zahira Torres, “Juárez violence: Street gangs responsible for killings, mayor says,” The El Paso Times, April 13, 2010.

[9] Jeremy Gorner, “Gang factions lead to spike in city violence,” The Chicago Tribune, October 3, 2012.

[10] Nick Valencia, “Groups of Mexican federal police clash over allegations,”, August 8, 2010.

[11] “Chicago Called Most Corrupt City In Nation,” CBS2 News, February 14, 2012.

[12] Annie Sweeney and Steve Mills, “2 Chicago cops say blowing whistle led to retaliation,” The Chicago Tribune, November 2, 2012.

[13] Teresa Auch Schultz, “Feds: Two Chicago cops took orders from Latin Kings,” The Chicago Sun-Times, November 18, 2011.

[14] David Heinzmann, Annie Sweeney and Matthew Walberg, “Chicago police corruption case: 4 former officers charged in Special Operations Section scandal,” The Chicago Tribune, September 18, 2009.

[15] David Schaper, “In Chicago, Violence Soars And Witnesses Go Silent,” Vermont Public Radio (, November 13, 2012.

[16] “Organized Crime and Terrorist Activity in Mexico,” Federal Research Division, Rep., at 53 (2003), accessed October 11, 2012.

[17] Hector A. Gonzalez, “The Herrera Family in Durango,” La Palabra, March 9, 2005.

[18] National Drug Intelligence Center, Illinois: Drug Threat Assessment,  Doc., at 62 (2001).

[19] Tessa Vinson, “The Sinaloa Cartel: A Study in the Dynamics of Power,” The Monitor (College of William & Mary), Spring 2009.

[20] Steve Fainaru and William Booth, “Flores Drug Indictment Gives Clues to Mexican Cartels’ Networks in the U.S.,” The Washington Post, December 31, 2009.

[21] Armen Keteylen, “Mexican drug cartels fight turf battles in Chicago,” CBS Evening News, August 23, 2012.

[22] “Mexican drug cartel figure extradited to Chicago,” Associated Press, October 7, 2012.


About the Author(s)

Sylvia Longmire is a former Air Force officer and Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, where she specialized in counterintelligence, counterespionage, and force protection analysis. After being medically retired in 2005, Ms. Longmire worked for four years as a Senior Intelligence Analyst for the California State Terrorism Threat Assessment Center, providing daily situational awareness to senior state government officials on southwest border violence and significant events related to the drug war in Mexico.  She received her Master’s degree from the University of South Florida in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, with a focus on the Cuban and Guatemalan revolutions. She is an award-winning correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine, and collaborates regularly with the producers of National Geographic Channel’s “Border Wars” series. Ms. Longmire is regularly interviewed by national, international, and local media outlets, including Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS, BBC News, CBC, and Al Jazeera-English for her knowledge and expertise on border violence issues. Her first book, Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars, was published in September 2011, and she has written for numerous peer-reviewed journals and online publications. Ms. Longmire is currently a consultant and freelance writer, and serves as an expert witness in US asylum cases involving Mexican nationals. 


an interesting comparison with the Juarez, Chicago. I haven't compared the United States with Mexico and looked at the white Amish way of life. The Amish are harmless at first glance – are a disguised form of protest. The gang, as criminal groups is also a form of protest. Both groups in conflict with the State

I enjoyed the article as well and it was interesting to see the opinion of a CPD officer on the matter. However, I feel that lately Ms. Longmire has been focusing on trying to make strained comparisons and that ends up taking away from what's important ("Is Chicago on the Road to Becoming an American Ciudad Juárez?" / "Is Mexico Becoming the New Iraq for American Agents?"). A bit sensationalist if you ask me, especially when the writer is a geopolitics expert. It's alarming to see what is happening in Chicago and there is certainly a cartel presence in the city. Nevertheless, in my humble opinion, Chicago does not have the characteristics to become an intra-cartel battleground as Juarez did (Chicago is not a key transit point and there are other hubs: Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver, St. Louis for starters). To make it a point to draw such comparisons in the article makes me want to argue about the comparisons more than wanting to talk about the actual problem.


Tue, 11/20/2012 - 1:04pm

Likely being the only Chicago Police officer here on SWJ, I'll just throw out a couple comments.

First, the gang problem is as real as this article indicates and as of yet we have not, nor has any other American city, discovered any real means to eliminate these criminal organizations. The problem for Chicago is especially dire considering that our gangs are so well established, so large in membership, and cover such widespread geographic areas.

Second, I would attribute much of enforcement issue to the result of two things: manpower and strategy. As this article makes clear, the gang problem in Chicago is huge. Like everywhere else, gang violence is not the only criminal activity we must deal with - include the overwhelming 911 requests for service, a policy that currently requires police response to every single one of those calls, and the regular criminal activity of an urban location (burglary, robbery, vehicle theft, vandalism, etc) and it becomes clear that a larger police force than the approximate 10k officers we have now is needed. As far as strategy - the best strategy in the owrld will ultimately fail if sufficient resources are not allowed for it's execution. We have had many strategies here - some good and some... not so good. But no strategy that targets such and entrenched problem will succeed if it's a 'part-time' endeavor. That is, officers cannot devote 10-20% of their time to the staregy, in between answering radio jobs and writing reports, and expect success. We as police are way outnumbered by the gang members, and while we devote 15% of our time to combating their criminal activity, they devote 100% of their time to engaging in it.

Finally, I do not believe the comparison between corruption in Juarez and the CPD to be accurate. The level of police corruption between Juarez and Chicago is not remotely comparable. Yes, I'm biased - but I'm also correct.

Excellent article.