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In Chicago, heat and homicide stoke fear and frustration

Chicago's surging murder rate is now four times that of New York. With drug cartels battling for turf and gang warfare turning chaotic, how can the Windy City get a handle on its homicides?

By Staff writer / July 18, 2012

Tavares Harrington signs a condolence card for his cousin, 7-year-old Heaven Sutton, who was shot and killed while selling candy outside her Chicago apartment.

Paul Beaty/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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Chicago

It's the weekend, but the streets are mostly empty in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago's impoverished far West Side.

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"It's summertime! You don't see any kids out here," says Darrell Turner, grilling spits of meat as soul music blares from a radio. "They're too scared to come out." A squeeze of lighter fluid stokes the flames higher. He shakes his head: "different times."

Street violence has beset Chicago's poorest neighborhoods for years, but a spike in homicides since January – many of them shootings on public streets – has adults in neighborhoods like this one corralling their kids at home. That's doubly true since June 27 when, two blocks from where Mr. Turner works his grill, a spray of bullets ended the life of 7-year-old Heaven Sutton, the city's 251st homicide victim this year.

Year-to-date homicides are down in New York City and Los Angeles, but they are up 39 percent in Chicago, with 263 killings by the end of June.

Outrage is building as young children are increasingly caught in the line of fire. The number of public school students shot during the past school year jumped almost 22 percent from the year before, according to police figures. In June and July, more than one-fifth of the killings in each month were of people age 20 or younger.

Says Kaleiah Spencer, a 16-year-old who lives a block from where Heaven was shot: "You can barely walk the streets because you don't know what'll happen, who's going to shoot.

"Here, you hear gunshots, and you can't sleep," she says.

Murder rates need to be analyzed over a much longer period than a few months to track trends, criminologists say. Indeed, Chicago homicides are low compared with decades past – 928 in 1991 versus 433 in 2011, for example.

However, that hasn't blunted the perception that something is terribly wrong in Chicago, posing a serious test for the new administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Adding to the alarm are statistics like this one: January-to-June murders here were 58 percent higher than the number of US troops killed in Afghanistan during the same period.

The police and city officials say street gangs are responsible for 80 percent of all shootings this year. Chicago recently surpassed Los Angeles – the longtime gang capital of America – in total gang membership and activity, say crime experts.

Just how many gangs operate in the Chicago area is debatable – sources say between 59 and 70, with as many as 150,000 members. But the big street gangs that dominated here in the early 1990s have splintered into as many as 600 factions, according to police. These splinter groups identify with the heritage of the long-established gangs – borrowing their name mainly as a brand – but they tend not to be bound by their rules.

Whereas the historic gang warfare was between monolithic crime organizations that controlled thousands of members each, today's street violence more often stems from personal squabbles and retaliatory conflicts among smaller hybrid groups whose control extends only a few blocks.

"Instead of fighting old enemies, when it was the Hatfields and the McCoys, now it's the McCoys and the McCoys," says Andrew Papachristos, a sociology professor at Yale University who has studied gangs in Chicago. "Gangs are no longer hierarchical. They are now much more elusive and complex."

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