ARCHIVED Skip navigation.To Contents     To Next Page     To Publication Page     To Home Page

This is an NDIC product. National Drug Intelligence Center
Illinois Drug Threat Assessment
January 2001


Illinois is the fifth largest state in the nation, with a population of 12.4 million people. Chicago is the third largest city in the United States with a population of nearly 3 million. Two-thirds of the population of Illinois is concentrated in Cook County (the Chicago metropolitan area) and the surrounding six "collar" counties, which have an ethnically diverse population of over 8 million.Chicago is a transportation hub and distribution center for both licit and illicit commodities in the Great Lakes Region and the Midwest, due in part to its geographic location and multifaceted transportation infrastructure.

 Chicago is the nation's largest trucking center with over 200 truck terminals. Annually, nearly $800 billion worth of goods shipped by truck are either destined for, or pass through, Illinois, ranking it first in the nation.

Fast Facts

Population (2000)

12.4 million

U.S. ranking


Median income (1998) $41,238
Unemployment rate 4.3%
Land area 56,400 sq mi (146,076 sq km)
Shoreline 63 miles (101 km)
Capital Springfield
Principal cities Chicago, Rockford, Peoria, Springfield, Aurora, Naperville
Number of counties 102
Principal industries Services, manufacturing, agricultural, chemicals, printing

Map of Illinois showing Attorney district divisions and the interstate highways throughout the state.

To Top     To Contents

Commercial trucks, passenger vehicles, package delivery services, air packages or couriers, and railways are the most common means traffickers use to transport drugs into Chicago. Drugs concealed in shipments of legitimate goods, transported by private vehicle, or shipped via mail or package services have an excellent chance of reaching their destination because of the sheer volume of trucks, railcars, private vehicles, ships, and parcels that transit the state on a daily basis. In 1997, over $42 billion worth of freight was destined for Illinois from the major drug arrival zone states of Texas, California, Florida, New York, and New Jersey.

Chicago is also home to the world's busiest rail yards and serves as the principal transshipment point for commodities shipped from Mexico to Canada and between the East and West Coasts. The combined interstate and state highway system in Illinois is a very efficient network for the movement of vehicular traffic within the state and to other parts of the country. O'Hare International Airport is among the busiest airports in the world, offering connections to over 60 international cities for both passengers and cargo. In 1997, O'Hare International Airport handled over $36 billion worth of foreign airfreight. The St. Louis Lambert International Airport serves downstate areas of Illinois with passenger and air cargo service. Chicago, a major Great Lakes port with connections to the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence Seaway, has four general cargo harbors that handle almost 30 million metric tons of cargo annually. However, the truck, rail, and air shipments into Illinois dwarf the volume of maritime freight transiting the state. Chicago is home to the busiest postal facility in the world, and private parcel services also handle millions of packages each year.

To Top     To Contents


Chicago's status as a major financial center presents opportunities for laundering the vast sums of money that are generated from the trafficking of drugs. Chicago is recognized as an important regional, national, and international financial center. Significant financial institutions located in Chicago include the Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board Options Exchange, Federal Reserve Bank, as well as 300 U.S. banks and 40 foreign branch banks. Chicago is also the world headquarters for 39 of the Fortune 500 companies.

Reports from the Chicago High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) and other federal law enforcement agencies indicate that Chicago is a hub for money laundering activity by major drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Traditionally, money laundering in Chicago was accomplished by investing profits from illegal drug sales into legal, mostly cash, businesses such as nightclubs and grocery stores. Today, new and increasingly sophisticated money laundering techniques are being used. The Chicago HIDTA reports that some foreign banks operating in Chicago may not be as compliant with U.S. regulations as domestic banks. Many foreign banks with offices in Chicago are licensed in countries with lax banking laws and greater adherence to bank secrecy principles, both of which support money laundering activities. Money exchange houses and businesses that wire money are also used to transfer and conceal drug profits through wire transfers, money orders, and traveler's checks. U.S. Customs Service (USCS) intelligence confirms that illegal currency is also physically transported out of the Chicago area and ultimately smuggled out of the United States via cargo, passenger or private aircraft, or vessel.

The state of Illinois, specifically the Chicago area, is the focal point for the flow of drugs into the Great Lakes Region. Chicago is the major hub for the delivery and transshipment of drugs throughout the Great Lakes Region and the Midwest. Three major types of trafficking groups are responsible for most of the drugs in Illinois. Mexican polydrug organizations, Colombian DTOs trafficking in cocaine and South American (SA) heroin, and Nigerian groups trafficking in Southeast Asian (SEA) heroin are the major transporters and wholesale distributors of drugs in Chicago. (See Table 1.)

Table 1. Primary Drug Traffickers, Chicago, 2000

Organization International Local Primary Drugs
Asians X X Heroin
Colombians  X    Powdered Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana 
Gangster Disciples      X Crack Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana
Hells Angels/Outlaws  X X Marijuana, ODD, Methamphetamine, Powdered Cocaine
Independents      X Powdered Cocaine, Marijuana, ODD
Jamaicans X X Marijuana, Powdered Cocaine
Latin Kings      X Crack Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana
Mexicans X X Powdered Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana, Methamphetamine
Nigerians X   Heroin
Vice Lords     X Crack Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana

Source: Chicago HIDTA, Threat Assessment FY2000.
To Top     To Contents

African-American and Hispanic street gangs have a virtual stranglehold on street-level distribution, which is their main source of income. Organized street gangs such as the Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords, and Latin Kings control the distribution and retail sales of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana throughout the state. Most federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in Illinois cite the violent crime associated with gang-related drug trafficking as the most serious criminal threat to the state. Violent crime associated with street gangs, while declining in some major urban areas, is increasing in suburban and rural areas as these gangs expand their drug markets. Even though violent crime is declining in Chicago, almost half of residents surveyed in 1998 were fearful of neighborhood crime. This was the highest level of fear measured in the 12 cities that were surveyed.

Gangster Disciples

The Gangster Disciples, the largest Chicago-based street gang, is affiliated with the Folk Nation. The makeup of the Gangster Disciples is primarily African American. It has been in existence since the early 1960s and functions with a structure similar to a corporation. It conducts illegal drug operations throughout the Chicago area, primarily in low-income areas on the South and West Sides of the city. It operates drug distribution networks throughout the state of Illinois and has been identified in over 40 states across the nation. The Gangster Disciples has been in a state of flux because law enforcement authorities have targeted it in recent years. These investigations resulted in indictments and convictions of almost 40 leaders, including Larry Hoover who served as "Chairman of the Board" since the early 1970s. The retail drug operations of the Gangster Disciples were reportedly worth over $100 million annually at their peak. 


Vice Lords

The Vice Lords, the oldest street gang in Chicago, is affiliated with the People Nation. Its members are predominantly African Americans. The Vice Lords is split among major factions such as the Conservative Vice Lords, Traveling Vice Lords, and Four Corner Hustlers. Each faction has distinct membership and organization that is not as structured as the Gangster Disciples. The Vice Lords operates its drug distribution networks in Chicago, in neighboring counties, and in surrounding states.


Latin Kings 

The Latin Kings, also known as the Almighty Latin King Nation, is a predominantly Hispanic street gang made up of over 70 factions affiliated with the People Nation. It operates drug distribution enterprises on the North and Southeast Sides of Chicago and has expanded throughout the state and nation.


To Top     To Contents

United States Attorney Districts

Map of Illinois showing the state broken up into Northern, Central, and Southern Attorney Districts.
The nature of the drug threat in Illinois varies by region.1 The primary drug threat in the Northern and Central U.S. Attorney Districts of Illinois and in the urban areas of the Southern District is the availability, distribution, and abuse of powdered and crack cocaine. The increasing availability of high purity heroin and the number of new users represent a secondary threat, particularly in the Chicago area. Marijuana remains the most readily available and most abused drug in Illinois. Methamphetamine

production and abuse are expanding from bordering states (Missouri, Iowa, and Indiana) into rural areas of parts of the Central and Southern U.S. Attorney Districts. Other dangerous drugs such as MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, also known as ecstasy), ketamine, and GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) are becoming increasingly popular, particularly among young people in urban areas and in college towns.

The availability of drugs in Illinois is at an all-time high. Drug seizures by law enforcement authorities have risen significantly since the early 1990s. The street value of drugs seized by the Chicago Police Department rose from $204 million to $348 million between 1998 and 1999. The Chicago Police Department Narcotics Division confiscated more drugs in the first 5 months of 1999 than in the previous 2 years combined. Cocaine and marijuana seizures by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have also increased dramatically since the early 1990s.

Drug arrests in Illinois, one of a number of indicators used to measure both the availability and abuse of drugs, have increased markedly over the past two decades. The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority correlates the dramatic increases in arrests and treatment admissions to numerous factors. These include increased focus on drug enforcement by local police departments, increased visibility of specific drug markets, increased reporting by citizens of illegal drug activity, increased frequency of court-ordered drug treatment for convicted offenders, and increased resources allocated for drug enforcement and substance abuse treatment programs throughout Illinois. Drug arrests reached an all-time high in 1999, more than three times the number recorded in 1985. (See Chart 1.) During the early to mid-1980s, approximately 10 percent of individuals arrested under the Illinois Controlled Substances Act were sentenced to prison. This proportion increased to 30 percent by the end of the 1990s.

Chart 1. Illinois State Drug Arrests

Chart showing Illinois state drug arrests for the years 1985 through 1999 broken down by total drug arrests, Cannabis Control Act arrests, and Controlled Substances Act arrests.

Total Drug Arrests    Cannabis Control Act   Controlled Substances Act
Source: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority    

To Top          To Contents


Federal criminal prosecutions also support the assertion that drug trafficking and abuse are a significant problem in Illinois. In fiscal year (FY) 1998, 50.7 percent (466) of federal sentences in Illinois were for primary drug offenses compared to 40.2 percent nationwide. Federal sentences for crack violations were well above the national average in all three Illinois districts.

Other measures of the increase in drug abuse in Illinois are confirmed through healthcare statistics and deaths attributed to drug abuse. Statewide treatment admissions for all drugs more than tripled in the past decade according to the Illinois Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse (OASA). According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the rate of Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) emergency department (ED) mentions per 100,000 in Chicago has risen steadily, nearly doubling over the past decade. In addition, there were 803 drug-related deaths in Chicago in 1998, an increase of 32 percent over 1995 statistics.

The abuse of drugs by Illinois high school students is occurring at an alarmingly high level. More than half of all students in the tenth through twelfth grades used drugs at least once in their lifetime, while nearly 25 percent used drugs in the past month.

In 1995, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) funded a long-term study of Cook County cocaine and heroin abusers to estimate the number of hardcore drug abusers in the United States. Results of the study estimated that there could be over 330,000 hardcore cocaine and heroin abusers in Cook County, approximately 6 percent of the county population. See Table 2 for a profile of these chronic drug users.

Table 2. Cocaine and Heroin Abusers, Cook County, 1995 

User Type Estimated Number Percent of Total
Male 242,906 73
Female 89,842 27
Black 246,234 74
Other 86,514 26
Age 18-30 103,152 31
Age 31-40 169,701 51
Age 41+ 56,567 17
Years of use 0-5 83,187 25
Years of use 5-10 116,462 35
Years of use 10-20 96,497 29
Years of use 20+ 39,930 12
Heroin 23,292 7
Cocaine or Crack 266,198 80
Cocaine or Crack and Heroin 39,930 12



Source: Abt Associates, Inc., Drug Policy Research Group, A Plan for Estimating the Number of Hardcore Drug Users in the United States: Preliminary Findings, 1997.

End Notes

1Analytical judgment determined the threat posed by each drug type or category, taking into account quantitative and qualitative information on availability, demand, production and cultivation, transportation, and distribution as well as the effects of a particular drug on abusers and on society as a whole

To Top     To Contents     To Next Page

To Publication Page     To Home Page

End of page.