Credit: Mike McQuade

Antonio Johnson called Ray Longstreet to talk business.

Longstreet, a veteran leader of the Four Corner Hustlers gang, controlled the drug trade on 36 city blocks around Hamlin and Iowa in West Humboldt Park. But the potential to make money trumped old-time gang labels, and he had rented out some of his corners to Johnson, a member of the New Breeds, in return for supplies of heroin and cocaine—and proceeds of up to $10,000 a week. Together they collected tens of thousands of dollars a day, a revenue stream matched by few legal businesses on the west side.

The two considered themselves like-minded professionals who faced threats to their heroin and cocaine business: interference from police, rising costs from wholesale Mexican suppliers, and the rapid turnover of laborers willing to hit the street hard and keep sales brisk.

Johnson noted that he kept himself insulated from street dealing—”All them little cats that be out there, they ain’t nowhere close to me, man”—while also setting high standards for his employees. “I fire people off the first mistake, dawg,” he told Longstreet, according to court records. “The second one might cost a motherfucker if the first one don’t.”

Longstreet complained that some of his own street sellers were partying, making noise, and disturbing neighbors while on the job. He said he’d told some of his employees, “If I was an older person and I owned a house over here I’d call the police on you niggas too.”

Johnson agreed. And he said he didn’t tolerate disrespect for clients, either. His employees needed to remember that the customer is always right. “Whatever he is, whatever [he] do, he still a man,” Johnson said of the consumer of his product. “And that’s who feeding us.”

But it wasn’t customer service or an inept workforce that killed Johnson and Longstreet’s business. A few weeks after the call, in late May 2005, authorities who’d had Longstreet and Johnson under wiretap surveillance moved in and began making arrests, indicting 34 managers and workers and charging them with participating in a drug conspiracy. Johnson and Longstreet are now in federal prison.

But business is still booming in the west-side drug trade. Chicago police and federal agents have made thousands of subsequent arrests in the area, including those resulting from a series of federal investigations centered within a short walk of Hamlin and Iowa. New operations, most specializing in heroin, have adopted tactics that allow managers to continue meeting demand and raking in profits, making the drug trade one of the most resilient and successful industries in the city.

“It’s not just a bunch of idiots out there,” Aaron Clayton, a former street manager for the operation around Iowa and Hamlin, said in a recent interview from Elkton federal prison in Ohio. “It is like any other business. The only thing is that our business was illegal.”

The west side of Chicago has been known for decades as home to some of the largest and most vibrant drug markets in the country, where customers from around the midwest travel to find street dealers offering “blow” or “rocks” just minutes off the Eisenhower Expressway or the CTA’s Blue and Green lines. The steady stream of buyers, combined with a long decline in job opportunities, has made the drug trade one of the area’s largest employers.

Over the last 50 years, on commercial corridors like Arthington, Lake, Madison, Pulaski, and Cicero, most of the jobs that once lured residents to the area have disappeared, as attested to by abandoned candy, lumber, and plastics factories and empty lots that used to be movie theaters and hotels. Between 2002 and 2011, the area lost 10,000 jobs, according to the census.

In contrast, the drug business has moved from discreet sales in hotels and homes to open-air transactions on the street. Law enforcement busts offer an indication of the scale. In 1964, Chicago police made a total of 2,232 arrests for drug violations citywide. In 2012, they made 35,088, including 6,824 for heroin alone, the largest category after marijuana. Sixty-one percent of the heroin busts occurred on the west side, mostly in West Humboldt, East and West Garfield Park, and Austin.

More than 9,000 people were charged with felony drug offenses last year in Cook County, including about 4,100 for manufacture or delivery of a controlled substance—the charge usually assigned to those accused of selling heroin or cocaine—according to an analysis by Loyola University professor Don Stemen. Another 3,800 people were charged with possession. While many of the defendants charged with possessing cocaine or heroin were merely users looking to get high, a portion of the cases involved drug sellers.

That means well over 4,000 people in Cook County have worked at least part-time in the drug trade, most of them on the west side of Chicago.

While the drug business doesn’t employ as many people locally as such leading fields as health care (160,000 jobs in 2011, according to the census bureau) and professional services (137,000), it’s on par with fields like utilities, which employed 4,600.

On the west side the drug trade is an even more potent economic force, employing a far larger share of people than anywhere else in the city. Businesses in the three zip codes that make up the heart of the west side employed about 24,000 people, according to 2011 figures. Most west-side residents commute to jobs elsewhere. Even so, the drug business still would have employed almost as many west-siders as manufacturing (3,600), accommodations and food service (4,100), education (4,200), and retail (5,300).

Heroin sales have been a growth sector for the industry as the popularity of cocaine has waned over the last decade. The supply of heroin is so plentiful in Chicago that street prices are among the lowest in the country, trailing only Detroit, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration concluded in a study released in March. And demand appears to remain high as well. Roosevelt University researchers have found that the Chicago area ranks first in the rate and number of hospitalizations for heroin overdoses.

Court records and interviews with former street-level dealers show that the success of the drug trade is based on the basic principles of all profitable businesses. In addition, it’s been able to capitalize on a cheap and plentiful supply of labor—poor young men who are introduced to the enterprise early and who believe they have few other options.

“It creates opportunity for people,” says Derek Thomas, who’s serving a federal sentence for participating in a heroin conspiracy in West Garfield Park. “I understand the negative aspect of it, but it creates a way where there wasn’t a way.”

The business plan

Federal and local law enforcement officials say the structure of businesses such as Longstreet and Johnson’s tends to be similar. At the top are veteran executives with connections to wholesale distributors who get product from Mexico. The execs have the capital to buy large supplies up front, and the security apparatus—often armed members of their gang—to protect their revenue, sales territory, and street workers.

Last June authorities charged Cornel Dawson and his associates in the Black Souls gang with running such an operation—and with a number of murders, including the shooting of a government cooperator and the beating of a street salesman who was accused of stealing money and drugs.

The case has not gone to trial yet, but in court documents authorities describe the Black Souls enterprise as highly profitable and structured, as well as vicious. Dawson, 38, had led the heroin operation around Monroe and Pulaski for ten years, sources told police, and by the time it was broken up it was making $11 million a year. Dawson had invested some of his money in legal businesses, including a west-side barbershop.

Dawson and other leaders bought heroin from wholesalers and mixed and packaged it indoors, sometimes at an apartment in another neighborhood, authorities charged. One of their managers would deliver it to street supervisors, known as pack runners. The street supervisors would provide the sellers with “jabs” or packs, which are made up of 13 small bags of heroin, each of which retails for $10. Workers were required to return $100 from each jab to their supervisors, meaning their commission was $30 in cash or three bags of heroin for every ten they sold.

A confidential source told authorities that workers could typically sell eight or nine jabs per shift, which added up to earnings of $240 to $270 for eight hours on the street. Pack runners were paid a $10 commission for each jab sold, and if business was good that week, they might receive a $1,500 to $2,000 bonus on Friday.

Marketing was important. After the organization sold a batch of heroin that wasn’t popular, they tried to win back customer loyalty by handing out free samples of their new product, an event known as a “pass out.” The Black Souls’ heroin was also known to come in distinctive blue bags. But when a competitor started selling better stuff in purple bags, the Black Souls switched to purple to capitalize.

Managing employees was often a headache. Dawson tried to keep underlings in line with brutal discipline, so that “everyone who works for him knows that if they steal or do something wrong . . . something bad will happen,” an associate told authorities. But Dawson couldn’t control the unreliable nature of his employees. He was recorded telling an associate that while he was making money, all of his workers were “on paper”—that is, on probation or bond, meaning they were always in danger of being locked up.

As one of Dawson’s associates told authorities: “The Black Souls are always looking for additional workers.”

The sales force

Like all retail businesses, the drug trade relies on both a steady customer base and a supply of low-cost workers. In the heroin trade, many of the street dealers are essentially day laborers who work on commission to support their own addictions.

Michael Jones has seen the heroin business from multiple angles. In three decades of using, he’s bought and sold it all over the Chicago area. “Don’t nobody want to admit we have a drug epidemic,” says Jones, who’s now clean and on parole at St. Leonard’s Ministries, a halfway house on the west side. “And all of it is because there’s no hiring and no jobs.”

Jones, 52, grew up in Evanston, where his family had moved from Memphis in the early 60s. His mother died when he was a child, and Jones and his eight siblings were sent to different foster homes around the city and suburbs.

Jones says he joined gangs and learned how to fend for himself. To make money, he started selling heroin. Then he started using it.

To support his habit, he became a burglar and a thief, working mostly in the suburbs. He says he knew the barbershops and flea markets where he could ask people what sort of goods they were looking for, and then he could go steal them. In 1980 he was sentenced to three years in state prison for burglary. He’s returned eight times since, for residential burglary, home invasion, aggravated battery, and possession of heroin.

“When I came home I didn’t have no support groups, no jobs or nothing, so I end up back in the streets,” Jones says. “I could always hustle. And then to deal with the anger and the pain, I could always go back to drugs.”

“If you’re up at five in the morning and you’re out in one of those areas, there’s no problem finding work. It’s just like day labor.”—Mike Jones

Jones held legal jobs working construction and cooking. “But my background kept me from getting into a lot of jobs. So did my habit. I’d go back to the west side on my lunch break.”

There were always opportunities in the illegal economy. When he wasn’t selling stolen goods, Jones knew a number of spots in Lawndale or K-Town (the section of West Garfield Park where the north-south streets start with K) where he could make some cash or work for his fix. “If you’re up at five in the morning and you’re out in one of those areas, there’s no problem finding work. It’s just like day labor. You can get a couple jabs.”

Jones estimates that more than half of the street dealers he worked with were users like him, who showed up to sell only when they needed a fix. But they had to prove their worth or they wouldn’t keep the gig.

Jones had his own sales techniques. He wouldn’t wait for customers to roll up—he’d call his old connections and let them know he had a product they’d be interested in. The word would get around.

“If you’re a slow worker they’ll put somebody else in. By me being an addict, I know the needs. I knew who the money spenders was. It’s a network.”

Customer service

Through years of experience, Derek Thomas learned what it takes to be a successful street salesman: treating customers with respect and not taking their business for granted.

Thomas admits that he didn’t need to start selling heroin; it wasn’t a matter of survival. But it was so readily available—an option he could always turn to when he needed some cash—that eventually he came to rely on it.

“The first 15 years of my life, outside of my family, I didn’t know anybody who had a job,” he says from federal prison in West Virginia. “That was the way people made a living.”

Thomas, who’s 30, grew up in K-Town. His father was a dietary specialist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and his mother worked at a bank and volunteered at their neighborhood elementary school, Melody, where she served as PTA president.

Thomas and his twin brother were the youngest of five children; the older siblings started businesses, volunteered in the community, and went to church. Both twins were accepted at Von Steuben, a well-performing high school on the northwest side, but Derek struggled with the long commute from West Garfield Park, and ended up getting a GED.

By that time, he says he’d already begun to sell drugs. Friends had new shoes and clothes, and Thomas knew how they’d paid for them. “I wanted things my mother and my father couldn’t get me.”

Along with neighborhood friends, he also joined a gang, the New Breeds. “It seemed like this is the way it’s supposed to be. When you grow up over here, if I went out and said I was [not in a gang], the police wouldn’t even believe me. It was like, ‘This is who you are.'” His street nickname was Fatboo.

“It’s just like anything else in life: you work hard, you get more; you work less, you get less.”—Derek Thomas

Members of the New Breeds ran a lucrative heroin ring around Van Buren and Pulaski, though many of the workers in the operation weren’t part of the gang—they were users who needed to work for their heroin, or young guys who’d commute in to make a few bucks.

Once Thomas learned how to interact with customers, he found the job to be straightforward. He didn’t even have to search for buyers. “They trusted me. I don’t look down on people. They use drugs, they may be a bum, whatever, I don’t hold that against nobody. People would look for me because they knew that I would treat them like a human being.”

They kept coming, mostly driving in on I-290 or taking the Blue Line. “Most of them were from outside the area,” he says. “There isn’t that much money in that neighborhood.”

Thomas says he was able to set aside concerns about the dangers of heroin and see his sales as a business transaction. Most of his heroin customers were “functional,” he says. “When you see them you don’t see the struggle and the hurt—they’re going to be clean and they’re going to have cars. A crackhead, they may try to sell you their TV or their kids’ milk or something.”

He would usually quit after making a few hundred dollars a day in profit, though he emphasizes that the opportunities were almost limitless. “Some people say they want to make $2,000 a day and they don’t leave until they make it. It’s just like anything else in life: you work hard, you get more; you work less, you get less.”

Former street salesman Derek Thomas explains that the potential to make money in the drug trade is “endless,” though it requires a serious work ethic.

When he was working, Thomas had to remain vigilant about potential stickups or other threats. “I mean, you know what a shady character looks like, so you try to stay away from those type of people.”

He understood the risks of the business. He spent a year in prison on a drug charge, then moved to the south side to try getting away. He found other jobs—he worked at McDonald’s for a while, then at a tire factory. But he was laid off in late 2009 as he and his girlfriend were planning to move in together. Thomas went back to the street.

At a little after 7 AM on February 19, 2010, Thomas sold heroin to a customer who, unbeknownst to him, was an undercover officer. During the sale, Thomas offered his cell phone number to arrange future deals, according to court records. When the undercover officer called later, Thomas asked him if the heroin was good. The officer said yes.

By March, Thomas had quit selling again and enrolled in Putting Illinois to Work, a job training and placement program run by the state. After finishing it, in August, he landed an interview with the secretary of state’s office for a position aimed at ex-offenders.

He never made it. “The feds grabbed me,” he says. Though he hadn’t been selling for months, he was named as part of a drug conspiracy centered around the New Breeds in K-Town.

Prosecutors acknowledged that he had stopped selling before his arrest, but they stressed that he knew he was dealing dangerous drugs for an organization that was linked to shootings and murders. Thomas ended up pleading guilty to one count of the conspiracy charges and was sentenced to 162 months in prison.

Now that he’s away from Chicago, Thomas says he’s gained perspective about how dangerous it is for young people in neighborhoods like the one where he grew up. He says it’s not easy to break out of the environment of the drug trade, but he’d like to get the training to work as a youth counselor so he can share his story as a warning.

“When I’m around people on the streets, that facade I have to put forward, it’s like a character almost—like Fatboo is one person and Derek is somebody totally different. When all this happened with the feds, I wasn’t being Fatboo. I was trying to be productive in life. But when I tried to bring Derek to the forefront, nobody wanted to see him, because the things that Fatboo did just overshadowed it.”

The middle manager

The heroin trade, like all businesses, relies on skilled middle managers who know how to get the best out of their employees. When he worked as a supervisor for Longstreet’s organization in West Humboldt Park, Aaron Clayton drew on his past experience with street sales as well as his observations of what makes people tick.

“I was like a liaison for the higher guys and the lower guys,” says Clayton, 42, during a phone call from prison. “And that was my niche anywhere I went, because I started off on the street selling bags hand to hand.”

Clayton says he first started selling because his family was struggling and it seemed like the best opportunity for making money.

In the early 1960s Clayton’s maternal grandparents moved from rural Mississippi to West Garfield Park, where his grandfather found work in a copper factory and his grandmother as a switchboard operator in a hotel. Clayton’s mother graduated from Crane High School and had him when she was 18. To support Clayton and his three siblings, she worked at the Tootsie candy factory on Pulaski and then at a contact lens manufacturer.

But while their family struggled, others in the neighborhood had money—the cocaine and heroin dealers.

“It was easier for me to go and sell and make rent money and bill money and help my mom,” Clayton recalls. “I felt guilty being out selling, and my mom was like a police officer herself—she’d run me off the corner, ‘Get your ass in the house!’ But I’d come in and pay those goddamn bills, $125 for light bills, $100 for that. It became a way of life.”

He tried straight jobs. Clayton says he worked at a plastics company until he failed a drug test. His uncle taught him how to work with cars and he would fix his friends’ just to get extra practice, but he never found a mechanic’s job. He stocked groceries and did a stint at McDonald’s.

“A lot of people think these guys are just gangbangers and drug users. But each and every one of those guys, they’ve got to work well with others, take initiative to do things without being told.”—Aaron Clayton

“It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the jobs, but I was used to making that fast money,” he says—as much as $600 a day on the street.

Once he started getting picked up by police, it became even harder to turn to other work. In 1994 an officer reported seeing several people approach Clayton on West Iowa Street at 1:30 in the afternoon. When they handed him cash, he reached into his waistband and gave them plastic-wrapped tinfoil packets of heroin. Clayton was eventually convicted of heroin possession and, after a stint in jail, returned home on probation.

“You just can’t go into a factory and say, ‘I can do that forklift.’ Your experience from 16 to 25 is being out on the street and selling drugs. It’s kind of hard to all of a sudden turn that switch off and turn another switch on when you don’t have any skills and no education.”

On the other hand, Clayton had discovered that he was good at listening and communicating with people, and he understood how the drug business worked. “A lot of people think these guys are just gangbangers and drug users. But each and every one of those guys, they’ve got to work well with others, take initiative to do things without being told. Those are qualities that you look for out there in the streets.”

Performance and reliability mattered far more than gang affiliation. Clayton identified as a Gangster Disciple, because that’s what his friends were where he grew up. But he landed a job with the Four Corner Hustlers operation based on his experience and skill set.

Clayton’s managerial strategy was based on the simple premise that workers should be praised for dependability and output, and he tried to learn what motivated each of them. “I would reward them for coming early and staying late. It could be something as simple as getting them cigarettes or food, or if they did blow I got them blow. These guys were like day laborers. They didn’t sign a contract to stay with us, and I knew that.

“On the other hand, there was discipline involved too. I would curse their ass out or have to maybe put my hands on them, but that was the extent of it. I didn’t have to get a weapon and shoot nobody or nothing like that. I was nice but also had to be firm with them.”

Aaron Clayton, a former street supervisor, says he tried to build a rapport with his employees and rewarded them for productivity.

Clayton says many middle managers were paid based on commission, while others might earn a weekly salary in the range of $1,000 to $1,500. But he understood that it wouldn’t last. After being arrested as part of the federal investigation into Longstreet, he pleaded guilty to one count of participating in a drug conspiracy and was sentenced to 146 months in prison.

He worries about what kind of work he’ll be able to find when he’s released next year, and dreams of getting a tow truck or starting his own business. “I’ve blown 25 years of my life in the drug business, and I have nothing to show for it,” he says. “I’ve hurt and I’ve compromised a lot of people’s lives in the process. I’m ready to give something back.”

Though the open-air drug trade is visible and vibrant, Clayton stresses that most west-siders aren’t involved in it. “It’s a small number of people. But damn, when the kids come out they see the guys on the corner, they see the addicts walking around in the morning or at night, they see the strangers come in the neighborhood, all the different kinds of people, and of course it’s influencing them.”

Interns Jillian Sandler and Rachel Graf assisted in the researching of this story.