DETROIT - A murder hit list posted on Instagram was the final straw for local law enforcement looking to put a stop to violence in one of the country's most dangerous neighborhoods.
Detroit's Ninth Precinct on the east side has been home to a gang war that has taken the lives of numerous young gang members and innocent bystanders.
A dream team of investigators and prosecutors was put together to go after the danger with a message to change these ways or pay the price. The strategy seems to be working.
People use social media to keep up on family and friends, but a federal investigation found local gangs using Instagram to put out a public hit list that has led to several murders.
The Detroit zip code 48205 is known by gangs as the "red zone," referring to the color of blood.
A war is going on between the Seven Mile Bloods gang and the 6 Mile Chedda Boys. The warring gangs use social media to post pictures of rival gang members they want killed.
"Posting pictures on Instagram of people on the hit list, you know, shoot to kill on site," U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said.
McQuade said an investigation found that of 10 people posted on one of the Instagram hit lists, only three escaped violent attacks.
"Seven of them got shot, four of them fatally," McQuade said. "So there's a real gang war going on."
Residents in the neighborhood said they know all about the gang war.
"When I say deserted, I mean on one side of the street, even though there are houses, 12 to 15 of them are empty," a resident said.
Abandoned homes turn into drug dens, which lead to shootings and drive-by shootings.
"It's getting out of control," a resident said. "Too many people (are) getting killed left and right. All you see on the news is kids getting killed because gang violence -- people getting into it over stupid stuff."
Police know the gang wars are driving up crime numbers, so a team of the best of the best has been assembled.
"We bring together the Detroit police, who have the best kind of street-level intelligence with ATF, which is the best with tracing guns, with DEA, who is the best at understanding drug-trafficking laws nationally and internationally, with FBI, which is the best with connecting the dots with all of their intelligence apparatus and the ability to exploit social media," McQuade said.
The Instagram hit lists led to multiple deaths and shootings, but they leave a digital trail for police to follow. More clues can be found on YouTube videos produced in the red zone, providing evidence that has led to dozens of arrests from both gangs.
"But it also makes good evidence for us," McQuade said. "In our trials, we've shown pictures of gang members holding guns and drugs with their gang colors, schemes on shirts."
Officials are charging drug-dealing gang members the way the mafia used to be charged, with racketeering.
"These gangs are just as organized as organized crime families," McQuade said. "They have a hierarchy. They're organized, and they're involved in a whole multitude of things that constitute racketeering."
In some cases, officials are asking for sentences of over 100 years behind bars. The strategy appears to be working, as crime in the area is down.
"We've seen a 40 percent drop in gun violence in the Ninth Precinct, where we've been working," McQuade said. "So we think we're doing something right."
Police are actively telling gang members in other zip codes and other precincts the tale of the fall of the red zone. They offer resources to get out of gangs.
"Drug treatment, money for child support, transportation needs, housing, all kinds of help," McQuade said.
It's a chance for residents to stay out of prison or a grave.
"We also offer them some alternatives," McQuade said. "We give them a phone number they can call if they want help, and at the other end of that phone is someone who can help them with finding a legitimate job."
A message of hope was given to parents in poor neighborhoods.
"Being a concerned mom, I don't want my son being in it," a Detroit woman said. "He is 15, pretty much new to Detroit, so I don't want him to be in the gang at all."
McQuade said officials will go neighborhood to neighborhood until the violence ends, first offering to help people get out of gangs and back into school or careers. If they refuse, she said they will throw the book at them with charges designed to put people away for decades, not years.
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