What is the RICO law?

September 2, 2010 (CHICAGO)

After his surprise meeting earlier this month with a small group of so-called gang leaders, Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis said he wanted them to get familiar with the term 'RICO.'

RICO is the acronym for Racketeer-influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It is a complicated, and sometimes controversial federal law initially constructed to assist law enforcement's fight against organized crime. It's also used in public corruption cases - Governors Ryan and Blagojevich know this. It is used to combat street gangs, but for its complexities, RICO is not a panacea.

A lot of elements go into a RICO case. It may be drug deals over a period of time. It may be may be gun trafficking. Quite often it involves murder, but the critical element is proving up that the elements are connected and park of a criminal enterprise at work. That can open the door to prosecutors going after a gang hierarchy.

"RICO's not the easiest concept for jurors to understand, so the more you have - the more meat you have - the better your case," said Jeff Cramer, former assistant U.S. attorney, Kroll Investigations.

Eleven months ago, the U.S Attorney's Office announced one of its biggest anti-gang RICO efforts to date with the indictment of 18 members of the Latin Kings street gang.

Some had been charged in earlier drug cases, but the new indictment charged that gang members were involved in murders, extortion and other acts of violence to control their turf for drug money, and from a street tax.

Non gang members who were selling phony ID documents were told to pony up, or else.

A government undercover tape - played in a previous trial - shows the highest ranking Latin King arrested, Augustin Zambrano, the so-called Gang Corona. He and others are due to stand trial in late January. Others have already entered guilty pleas.

There are, however, many cases that don't fit the RICO framework. The government's Project Safe Neighborhoods, which started over a decade ago, for instance has been used to focus on felons caught with a gun. They can face a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence.

"If it's taken federally, the sentences are much longer. They send you to prisons far away from Illinois, and you're going to serve 85 percent of your time," said Cramer.

Cramer was a co-coordinator of Safe Neighborhoods when he was with the U.S Attorney's Office. RICO, Safe Neighborhoods, he and others say, are tools and so too is the occasional face-to-face with gang members.

"But the message - communicating with gang members - violent felons - that communication has been going on for years, sometimes with more success than others," said Cramer.

But it is, police and prosecutors insist, a message, not a negotiation. The more violent, the more brazen a gang becomes, the more attention it attracts from the law - state and federal - with a variety of tools to turn to.

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