- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

February 2, 2014

The (Alton) Telegraph

Combating the gang problem

They have names like Bomb Squad and Maniac Latin Disciples: Tightly knit gangs that law enforcement officials say are responsible for the proliferation of drugs and violence.

Once considered a big-city problem, the influence of such groups is spreading across the state.

Illinois now leads the nation in the number of gang members per-capita. U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says the gangs are also responsible for creating one of the largest distribution hubs for methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin here at home.

The grasp of gangs reaches throughout Illinois, luring teenagers and young adults with otherwise-promising lives into a dead-end street of crime, drugs and, for many, death.

Peoria has been especially hard-hit. Police estimate 10 street gangs have more than 400 members in that city alone.

Kirk and Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis and law enforcement officials including Peoria County State’s Attorney Jerry Brady and Peoria Police Chief Steven Settingsgaard gathered Sunday to say “no more.”

The difficulties fighting gangs are numerous. They often out-number and out-gun local law enforcement authorities and are willing to kill to maintain a lucrative lifestyle drugs provide.

The clandestine nature of gangs has allowed many of them to move around, recruit and relocate before police can attack the problem.

That’s why it’s encouraging to see the anti-gang initiative in which Kirk is taking part ensures a strong partnership between local police and federal agents in the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Drug Enforcement Agency. It also provides $18.5 million to target gangs of national significance.

As important is the inclusion of community in the mix.

Peoria is leading initiatives such as “Don’t Shoot,” which educates the community about gangs and offers warning signs. There are also focused deterrence sessions to reach out to at-risk neighborhoods, an anti-gun-violence program for schools and other outreach programs to empower residents.

Gangs prey on neighborhoods through fear and intimidation. They are weapons almost as dangerous as guns and knives because they destroy the soul of a community.

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