Baltimore police, prosecutors and federal agents launched a massive strike against the Black Guerrilla Family gang this week, after indicting 48 suspects in an alleged eight-year campaign of drug dealing and violence that claimed 10 lives.
The breadth of the coordinated operation reflects the growing concern over the BGF's role on the streets of Baltimore. Authorities say the one-time prison gang is using force and intimidation to take control of neighborhoods drug corner by drug corner — one reason, they say, violent crime is on the rise.
Word of the indictments came Thursday as the city recorded its 200th homicide of the year.
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Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, dogged by questions about his crime strategy, said the BGF case shows how police and prosecutors are increasing pressure on violent offenders. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives assisted in the investigation.
"We've got to cut the heart out of these gangs, and we can't do it with small arrests," Batts said at a news conference in Mund Park off Greenmount Avenue. "We're going to start taking the vicious, most violent people down one at a time. That's where you'll see the [crime] numbers start coming down."
Thirty-eight of the people accused in the BGF case face charges under the state's rarely used gang statute, which carries a 20-year maximum sentence and has been used only three times in Baltimore.
Several of the people charged have a history of criminal arrests, including murder, drug and robbery charges that were dropped or resulted in short sentences.
State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said that in this case he hopes to use the gang law to try all suspects together and show a "full mosaic" of "terror."
Bernstein said the crew was involved in a "violent, years-long campaign" to avenge the killing or shooting of any BGF members. Witnesses believed to be talking to police were silenced. A man who opened a drug rehabilitation center near the BGF's drug-dealing corners was welcomed with bullets. Even fellow gang members were shot for internal code violations, Bernstein said.
Dale Hargrave, president of the community association in the New Greenmount West neighborhood, where the group was accused of operating, said residents have felt the gang's presence moving in.
"There were folks coming down and trying to take over," he said. "Taking these guys off the street [is] a good thing — especially if they're shooting."
The Black Guerrilla Family gang, founded on the West Coast, was relatively unknown in Baltimore until a sprawling case brought in 2009 by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The federal agency outlined a complex network built inside the state's prisons that dictated drug dealing and violence on city streets.
At that time, officials said the gang had broader goals of infiltrating government and schools and had been selling a handbook to spread propaganda.
The gang figured prominently this year in a corruption scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center, where 13 corrections officers have been charged in federal court with helping smuggle contraband into the facility and turning it into a gang "stronghold."
Batts called this week's indictments "only the beginning" of successful investigations into the BGF.
When he arrived in Baltimore after a career spent in California, Batts quickly — and frequently — began discussing how much of the city's crime grew from the gang's efforts to take over neighborhood crews and street corners.
This week's case alleges an example of such a gang takeover effort, involving a crew that officials said was operating of East Baltimore's Barclay neighborhood.
Police, who initially referred to the gang as the Young Gorilla Family, had long blamed members for violence in the area.
But around 2007, officials allege, a high-ranking member of the BGF named Naim King invited YGF leaders to a meeting and said he wanted to bring the strongest members into his organization.
Prosecutors said Young Guerrilla Family leaders demanded that all of their members be accepted into BGF — an all or nothing merger — and King accepted.