Concerns over Mexican drug cartels' growing connections to suburban heroin and marijuana sales are driving law-enforcement officials to form a Lake County regional gang task force, officials said Friday.
Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim said the goal is to launch the task force in the spring. He said he has support from police chiefs across Lake County, where many small- and mid-sized departments do not have enough officers to investigate street gangs suspected in drug sales.
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Nerheim told the Daily Herald the regional gang unit would be patterned after the Lake County Major Crime Task Force. The task force has elite investigators assembled from several agencies who most often are summoned to help towns when homicides occur.
"You would, at the push of a button, have the ability to call in 40 to 60 gang investigators," Nerheim said Friday during a break at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's and Chicago Crime Commission's inaugural Tri-State Regional Gang Summit in Oak Brook. It included discussion about the Mexican cartels.
While support from 15 police chiefs is significant, Nerheim said, formal agreements regarding personnel and funding will be needed before the gang task force can begin. He said Lake County has been working on the plan with federal law enforcement officials.
Nerheim said authorities would participate in efforts to deter future street gang members through associations with community and outreach programs.
"We can't put all of these people in jail," he said.
Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko said an escalating number of heroin and marijuana sales -- from the North Shore to western Lake County -- have been linked to the Mexican drug cartels.
"Chicago is a hub for national narcotics sales by the Mexican drug cartels," said Filenko, who commands the Lake County Major Crime Task Force. "It's now in the collar counties."
In a most recent example of the problem, Filenko said, admitted gang member Gabriel Tellez Jr., 18, of the 700 block of Bernice Court in Round Lake, was charged with unlawful use of weapon, unlawful possession of cannabis with intent to deliver and unlawful possession of cannabis.
Filenko said authorities executed a search warrant at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Tellez's home and seized about 60 grams of marijuana, a sawed-off Remington 12-gauge shotgun, paraphernalia consistent with drug sales and a video surveillance system. He said Tellez immediately surrendered.
Weapon use as a part of drug sales is a sign of organized street gang involvement, officials said. Filenko said gangs fight for areas where they want to conduct illegal drug business.
"One of the ways you eliminate your competition is how? You kill them," he said.
Nerheim said intelligence shows some rival gangs are combining resources to sell pot and heroin in the suburbs. He said Lake County prosecutors intend to crack down on the problem by using the state's relatively new Street Gang and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, known as RICO.
DEA officials say the Mexican drug cartels provide 80 percent to 90 percent of the heroin trafficked throughout the Midwest.
Nerheim and Filenko said gangs are selling drugs across Lake County. They said the regional task force would complement current efforts by gang units in Lake County's larger cities, the FBI and other agencies.
"The public needs to be aware we have thousands of active (gang) members in Lake County," Filenko said.