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Why is Chicago a murder capital? Clues from a bloody month

30 September 2016, 11:35

Chicago - Fourteen-year-old Malik Causey loved the way gangs took what they wanted from people on the street, the way members fought for each other, the way they could turn drugs into cash and cash into $400 jeans.

His mother tried to stop him. She yanked him out of houses where he didn't belong. She cooked up a story about Malik punching her so the police would lock him up to keep him safe for a while.

Then on August 21, Monique Causey woke to discover that her son had sneaked out of the house. Before she could find him, someone ended his life with a bullet to the back of his head a few blocks away.

"I went to him and cried and told him he wouldn't make it," Causey said. "But this fighting, jumping on people ... this is all fun for them. This is what they like to do, you know, so how can you stop them?"

Malik Causey was one of 91 homicide victims in Chicago in August, the deadliest month in the city in two decades and the latest milestone for a metropolis becoming known for its murder rate. Already, killings here have jumped 46% over the same period last year, climbing past the 500 mark - a total larger than Los Angeles and New York combined.

An analysis of the August toll shows more clearly than ever who's dying in the Chicago slaughter and what's behind it: surging violence in a handful of the city's most impoverished neighbourhoods, which are riven by loosely organised street gangs.

Young African American men are the chief victims. In a city that's one-third black, the overwhelming majority of those murdered in August - 71 - were, like Malik, African American. Another 11 had Hispanic surnames. Almost half were in their teens or early 20s.

Likely targets 

And more than 70% of those shot to death appeared on the Chicago police's "Strategic Subject List", which includes 1 400 people considered likely targets of violence based on gang involvement or criminal record.

To those outside Chicago, the rising murder toll might suggest a city wracked by widespread violence, but August portrays a much narrower picture of constant tit-for-tat attacks among gang members, with bystanders sometimes caught in the crossfire.

"People are arguing on Facebook over the colour of some girl's hair, real simple things ... and they carry guns and when they finally catch each other, that's how it be," said Derrick House, 51, a former gang member and ex-convict who now works trying to prevent violence. "When they see the person they looking for, they don't care who else is out there, old people and kids, they just start shooting."

Ronnie Hutchen, 28, was one of the month's first victims. An acknowledged member of the Traveling Vice Lords, he was a veteran of the gang scene in the Austin neighbourhood on the city's west fringe, which is dotted by boarded-up houses and of knots of men and teens standing around in the middle of the day. Most of those with jobs or options have fled.

Police don't know why someone thrust a knife into Hutchen's chest. But he had been in many scraps with rival gangs, and had 56 arrests over the years, mostly in drug and weapons cases. Also, according to his court file, he'd told a judge that he'd worn a wire so federal agents could listen in on a cocaine buy.

171% increase in homicides

The Englewood neighbourhood on the south side was a particular hotspot for August murders. It's one of the city's poorest areas, with more than 40% of the residents living below the poverty level. This year, homicides there are up 171% over the same time last year.

Englewood is among four out of Chicago's 22 police districts that accounted for about a third of August's murders.

One Englewood victim was Denzell Mickiel, 24, who was shot in the face on August 8 over what police suspect was a gang dispute. At the time he died, Mickiel was awaiting trial for allegedly firing shots at a group of people in 2014.

Tuesday, August 23, provided a particular glimpse of how the city's murder toll steadily grew.

On that day, Victor Mata, 22, a member of a faction of the Satan Disciples, was found dead in the front yard of a house. It was the fourth time he had been shot in recent years.

Christopher Hibbler, 42, who belonged to the Black P Stones, a leading black street gang, died when people in a car sprayed gunfire at the corner where he was standing.

Tykina Ali, 20, was shot when someone opened fire on her boyfriend's car.

Johnell Johnson, a 37-year-old member of the Black Gangsters on the city's West Side, was found dead in the street, shot in the face.

Drug turf

According to community activists, the eagerness to kill wasn't as great years ago when these neighbourhoods were dominated by larger, more organised gangs that concentrated on carving out and defending drug turf.

Now, "I don't hear much about Gangster Disciples against the Vice Lords," said Marshall Hatch, a minister in the East Garfield Park neighbourhood where Causey lived. "I hear block against block."

Abner Garcia was born into the gang-dominated Back of the Yards neighbourhood and knew what could happen to him. He joined the Army after high school, then upon his discharge volunteered at a YMCA programme to help young men steer clear of gangs.

On August 13, he was driving down the street when someone inside a van flashed gang signs at him, according to police. Words were exchanged before someone in the van shot Garcia in the head.

In Chicago's deadliest neighbourhoods, a young man can be assumed to be in a rival gang just by being there.

Arshell Dennis III, 19, the son of a Chicago police officer, came home from college in New York to visit his family and was sitting on their porch when a man walked up and killed him with a bullet to the chest on August 14.

Mistaken identity

"We think it was a case of mistaken identity and he was killed by someone who thought he was in a gang," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi.

Today, Monique Causey, who works for a company that makes pizzas, thinks her son might still be alive if only she'd been able to move him someplace safer.

After he died, she discovered, still in the package, a pair of $400 jeans in her son's bedroom. She knows where the money came from - the same place that killed her son.

"The streets," she said.

- AP


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