The city of Chicago has seen an almost 25 percent increase in homicides in 2012, leading to the highest homicide rate there in years.
The increase in homicides prompted the city's mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to lecture the gangs, who many blame for the increase in violence.
In June, Chicago police announced a $1 million partnership with CeaseFire, an organization that relies on ex-gang members to mediate conflicts and prevent violence. The controversial deal will put 40 "interrupters," as the group calls them, on the streets in two of the city's most violent neighborhoods.
Four gang members shared their stories of what it's like inside a gang and how difficult it can be to get out.
|Jessica (Jussi Pooh)|
When Jessica joined the Chicago gang, Black Disciples, she was looking for someone to love her. All she wants now is to get out.
"You need to find something else better to do to occupy your time because the streets don't love you, they just take you away from the people who do," said Jessica, 21. "I joined a gang to be loved and I had to find out the hard way that the streets don't love you."
Known to her friends as Jussi Pooh, Jessica has spent her life trying to get "fast money" on the streets of Chicago by stealing cars and selling drugs. She has experienced so much pain during her time in the gang that nothing can hurt her anymore, she said.
"Only things the streets got to offer is money, death or incarceration -- because they [gang members] don't want to end up in jail, so they going to give you the gun and tell you to go out and shoot somebody," she said.
"Second, when it comes to the money, trying to make a fast dollar, you going to be out here doing some of everything."
Jessica is now trying to turn her life around. She is a sophomore at Olive Harvey Community College, studying criminal justice and hopes one day to be a probation officer. She is looking for a job and working to control her anger.
"When I get angry from now on, I just write," she said. "I use this stuff that goes on around me and turn it into stories and maybe I'm going to write a book some day.
"I think I could be a motivation to stop all this violence and stuff," Jessica said. "I used to be a complete hothead in the streets. I used to steal cars, all type of stuff. I'm just trying to better myself."
Jessica also tries to go to church every Sunday. She attends to Pleasant Grove Baptist Church where she sings in the choir.
"Feel loved when I'm at church, a different kind of love, real love," she said, "a different kind of love than you get in the streets."
Jessica lives with her great-grandmother but she always wonders what her life would be like if she had a better relationship with her own mother. Jessica lived with her briefly but they argued often, creating a toxic relationship.Her father is a member of a different gang, the Four Corner Hustlers.
"I feel like if me and my momma would have had a better relationship, then maybe I wouldn't be the way that I am," she said.
In Jessica's perfect world, no one in Chicago would have guns, not even police officers. She dreams of a Chicago without any gangs and she believes that the dream starts with her peers.
"We got to be the solution. We got to want this for ourselves," she said. "If only some of us want it, then it's not going to ever stop. People say we're a generation of no tomorrows, so they're basically saying, like: What have we got to live for? The only thing we're doing, we're killing each other. Like, you don't hear about stuff like this happening in no other city, all this stuff, we're killing people. People are dying young, 7 and 6 year olds. That hurt my heart."
For now, however, Jessica' main goal is to continue working on herself.
"I used to be a hothead," she said. "I still am a little bit but I'm trying to change for the better because I'm getting old. I'm 21 now.
"It's time for me to bring out the lady in me so people can see a positive change."
With stitches, staples, screws and a metal rod in his leg, 28-year-old Damien is lucky to be alive.
Since he was just 9 years old, Damien has been involved with the Chicago Two-Six gang. He knows all too well the motto, "Live by the gun, die by the gun," after being short six times four weeks ago after leaving a party in a rival gang neighborhood.
"He thought I was flashing gang signs, you know, with the signs that I have [tattoos on his face], that he started pointing a gun at me with a red beam," he said, recalling the shooting. "All hell broke loose. He started shooting us. I got shot six times, in the stomach, in the thigh, the sides."
Damien, known to his friends as Pacman, has been arrested more than 50 times. His most serious offenses occurred in 2001, for battery with a weapon, in 2002, for aggravated assault with a weapon and possession of a firearm, and in 2005, for receipt of a stolen possession.
"If you ain't got no job, you ain't got nowhere to go," he said. "After that, well, you're going to turn to the streets. The streets is calling you."
Damien currently lives with his wife and their two sons, age six and 16 months. Damien never graduated high school and hopes his sons don't follow in his footsteps.
"I'm going to have to watch every move they make," he said.
"I had nothing to do, I had no guidance," he said. "So I was raised to be knocked on the streets, running around, looking at the older guys, what they had that I didn't have, and I wanted that."
He tells his kids not to join a gang but instead, "go to school, try to be a president or something. Make something out of himself."
In five years, he sees himself away from the gang lifestyle. He wants to be taking care of his wife and kids, perhaps working as a mechanic.
"Have a nice home, a nice area to live in and, hopefully, my son is going to be the president," he said.
Michael, known to his friends as Puppet, was initiated into the Two-Six gang when he was 13 years old.
For initiation, Michael was beaten up by his fellow gang members but, he said, afterward, "everybody gives you a hug and welcomes you to the family."
"You got to take a beat down by your homies just to show them you're tough," he said. "And either you're in or you're not. That's it."
Michael grew up with his older brother and sister and his mother. He said he "didn't have a father really," and his mother was always working. He chose to join the gang because all of his friends who he went to school with and played sports with in the neighborhood were getting involved. Michael's mother tried to get him involved with camps instead but, he said, he would always make his way back to his gang.
Sometimes, when he was afraid to walk home from a friend's house, his mother would pick him up and bring him home.
Michael's role model is his 31-year-old brother, Orlando, who he has looked up to his whole life. After the first time Michael was shot, he said Orlando stopped talking to him because he disapproved of his gang lifestyle.
"I was sad because I figured that you should love me no matter what," he said.
A few years ago, Michael called Orlando and told him how hurt he was. They have since rekindled their relationship. Today, Michael lives with his mother and sister but, he said, the gang is as much a part of his family as they are.
"I thought about leaving the gang before but I really can't because this is a part of my family, too," he said. "Even though I have a good, loving family at home, this is one of my families that I'm with all the time, too. I spent Christmas with them, Thanksgivings with them. This is my family, too. I'm not going to leave on my family."
Michael will soon have a son of his own. His ex-girlfriend, who now lives in Texas, is pregnant and due on Valentine's Day, so he is saving money so he can be a part of his child's life. If Michael gets custody, he said it will change his life. If his son chooses to join a gang one day, he said, he will be mad but will love his son no matter what.
Michael aspires to be a paramedic because he enjoys helping people. He also has a love of cooking, especially steak and chicken.
One thing that Michael likes about being in a gang is that it has introduced him to other people in his neighborhood. He also likes the fighting, seeing his friends every day and the rush it brings, which he plans to have for years to come.
"I enjoy the risk of being out here. I enjoy seeing all my friends every day. I enjoy drinking with them. I enjoy seeing different girls all the time," he said. "I enjoy making bonds with my friends. The longer you chill, the more stuff you do, the closer you get together. That's something I look forward to. I look forward to it for many more years."
Deandre, or "Dre," as he is known to his friends, is 20 years old. He was kicked out of high school during his junior year because of fighting. He has been a part of the Black P Stones gang since he was 14 years old.
He joined shortly after leaving his great-grandparents' home, where he had lived from age 11.
"I joined the gang to make my name well known and do something," he said. "Just make my name known somewhere."
Dre's role in the gang largely consisted of fighting rival gang members, which often brought him home bloody and bruised.
"There's a lot of things that go on being in a gang. If you ready to live that life, then you better prepare because it ain't easy. It ain't easy," he said. "You got to be wise out here. You got to have your eyes peeled out here -- because you will be gone off this earth, quick, in a hurry. Anybody can shoot me down today."
Although Dre still considers himself part of the gang, he has distanced himself somewhat, ceased fighting and is attempting to find a job and further his education.
"It wasn't really one event that made me change my mind," he said about his decision to get out of the gang lifestyle. "It was basically that I just decided all the things I did wasn't making no sense. So it was going to be me continue to do that and not go nowhere or me stepping up and trying to be a man, and trying to do something for my family, and trying to do something positive."
When it comes to doing something positive, Dre has no shortage of suggestions.
"I'm multitalented. I can do anything. I can draw. I can cook. I can fix things," he said. "I'm good with playing video games. I'm good just doing anything."
Dre has never been shot or arrested and has no criminal record.
"You just think that because I'm a gang-banger and from the 'hood I just want to shoot somebody," he said. "That's not the case. That's not the case. People care out here about their safety and about their lives."
Dre wants to "make money" and "open a business," possibly a restaurant. He loves to cook and his specialty is soul food, including chicken and macaroni and cheese. But his ambitions aren't purely personal.
"I want to help people," he said. "I want to show people that can come through the 'hood and do anything in the 'hood that you did, bad or good. You can make it."
For the gang violence to end, Dre said, all it comes down to is being given the chance to succeed.
"The crime will calm down if you all give my people opportunities," he said. "That's all I got to say. Give people some opportunities out here. Don't knock them because of who they are or how they dress or how they look. 'Cause there's people way worserer than I am out here.
"People don't even got nowhere to live, nobody to depend on," he added. "Hell, they don't even have nobody to even look out for them. There's people out there like that. But the people that's trying to do something, they's trying to do right, trying to change their life. Give them a chance."