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Editorial: A good day in Chicago when the feds sweep down on gang

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon speaks about two federal indictments charging members of the Latin Kings street gang with participating in a criminal organization during a press conference at the Dirksen Federal Building. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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The first thing you notice is their ages. Thirty-three. Thirty-nine. Thirty-five. Forty-five.

The suspects arrested Tuesday in the massive federal crackdown on alleged gang members were not wayward teenagers. According to the indictments, they were hardened criminals who ran a large organization whose business in part was murder, beatings, assault, extortion, arson and even the attempted murder of a suburban cop. Their organizational complexity, as outlined by U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon, was thorough: “officers,” incas,” “enforcers” and others who ran separate regions and controlled foot soldiers through rules that gang members had to follow, at the risk of beatings or shootings.

More than 60 alleged members of the Latin Kings street gang were arrested in the crackdown in Illinois and Indiana. It was a welcomed big step in Chicago’s long battle to restore a measure of safety to all our streets. It can’t happen enough in a city so tired of bloody violence.

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We know that sending high-ranking gang members — grown adults — to prison is only a part of what must be done to check the violence. Also included in any secret sauce for less crime are more jobs, better schools and sounder family structures. Exactly where are all the fathers? But reducing urban violence begins, in the most basic way, with taking dangerous people off the street.

There is a risk to the FBI’s sweeping approach, though hardly sufficient reason to ease up. Several other once-large gangs in Chicago were splintered over the years by similar federal and local crackdowns that put scores of leaders in prison. An unanticipated result, police say, was that random violence actually grew among gang members still on the streets, often over petty affronts, because there were no strong leaders. It’s much harder for the cops to keep tabs on 300 factions than a handful of major organizations.

But there are strong advantages, as well, to fighting gangs on the federal level. Convicted gang leaders are sent to federal prisons far from family and old associates. Once they arrive, they find the prisons are less likely to be run by gangs, including their own. Penalties for racketeering charges, which were brought in this crackdown, bring longer prison sentences.

Both the feds and local authorities have operated earlier sweeping stings, yet new gangs and gang members have stepped in to fill the vacuum. Fardon was the first to say Tuesday that even a series of big crackdowns on gang crime is “not by itself” enough to stop the violence.

We know that. You know that. Everybody knows that. But it’s still a good day when 60 alleged leaders of one of Chicago’s most chillingly organized and dangerous gangs are taken off the street.

If you are a kid just trying to walk to school without getting shot, these are the people you don’t want to see.

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