(MCT) — A decade and some 4,500 Chicago homicides separate the shooting deaths of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton and 12-year-old Rene Guillen, two tragedies that in many ways bookend the city's up-and-down struggle to contain gun violence.
President Barack Obama returns to his hometown Friday to put Hadiya's slaying center stage in a growing national debate over firearms and senseless bloodshed, a connection he also stressed earlier this week in his annual State of the Union address.
But the brutal killing of Rene back in April 2003 also helped galvanize public outrage, providing a significant catalyst for a city crackdown on violent crime that — while no panacea — still helped for years to tamp down the level of mayhem.
For more than a year now, however, the body count on Chicago's streets has climbed, even as it has dropped in other large cities like New York and Los Angeles. It is a sorrowful and politically charged development that led Hadiya to her grave and the president to publicly mourn her and demand action.
The spike in violence may have something to do with the easy availability of lethal firepower in Chicago despite strict gun laws. But that's only part of a very complicated problem, one with no simple solution that's arousing both soul-searching and blame-shifting.
Under pressure to do something about the violence in 2003, city leaders, as well as federal authorities, put new strategies in place to reduce the number of shootings in Chicago. To a degree, it worked. But in subsequent years, the pressure to address entrenched violence eased, a series of police scandals weakened support for aggressive street tactics and the city's budget woes ate away at resources.
With at least 1,000 fewer police officers in the department than just a few years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel sought innovations that relied on doing more with less. Over the past year, the results have put pressure on the mayor and his police superintendent. Homicides and shootings both registered double-digit percentage increases in 2012.
At a recent news conference, Emanuel seemingly called out federal prosecutors for not doing enough to fight crime in Chicago. Meanwhile, critics of the mayor argue that the surge in violence tracks closely with his decision to do away with some aggressive but controversial policing strategies implemented in the wake of Rene's death years ago.
Even in what is considered a "good" year, Chicago is a city awash in homicide: 435 in 2011 and 506 in 2012. This January alone saw 42 deaths, the most recorded for that month since 2002. Occasionally, however, some attacks are so brazen that they sear the public consciousness.
Such was the case with Hadiya, a drum majorette gunned down in a North Kenwood neighborhood park last month, days after returning from Washington, where she took part in Obama's inauguration festivities.
And such was also the case with Rene, a happy-go-lucky kid struck as he left a city-sponsored school cleanup. Gang members wrongly thought the friends he was walking with were members of a rival gang they blamed for stealing a bicycle from them.
For Herlinda Guillen, Rene's mother, what happened to Hadiya is an all-too-chilling reminder of the past.
"I feel bad about it," Guillen said in Spanish, tears welling in her eyes as she stood in the kitchen of her family's apartment in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. "Seeing it on the news, it hurts."
Gang graffiti litters her block, the same one her family lived on when Rene died. It is two blocks from the spot where he was killed, a painful daily reminder.
Guillen said she hopes the reaction to Hadiya's murder, including Obama's visit, will help prevent future killings, especially of children. But she is not optimistic.
"Hopefully there will be a change," she said, "but I don't know how."
Her son's death appeared to accomplish just that, at least for a time. "Enough is enough," declared then-Mayor Richard Daley just days after Rene was shot. Not long after, the Police Department began sending large units of uniformed officers to swarm neighborhoods when violence erupted.
The presence and visibility of so many cops, night after night, was credited with quelling the mayhem. In 2004, the first full year of implementation of the units and Chicago's adaptation of a computerized crime analysis system borrowed from New York, the homicide rate in the city dropped nearly 25 percent.
Police argued that criminals were more wary of being stopped and caught carrying a firearm. But the creation of the so-called Targeted Response Unit was accomplished by borrowing officers from districts across the city and detailing them to the new saturation patrols — an approach that Emanuel and his police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, did not think was the most effective way to patrol the city.
McCarthy, hired by Emanuel soon after the mayor took office in May 2011, argued that putting more officers into district-based patrols would, over time, lead to safer streets. The superintendent refers to "geographic accountability," meaning police personnel will be more invested in, and responsible for, their particular slice of the city.
McCarthy also believed that his approach to policing could help repair an often tense relationship between a majority-white police force and minority communities in Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, where crime rates have been stubbornly high.
Over the last year, however, as the homicide rate outpaced that of 2011, McCarthy faced increasing pressure to relent. Critics with many more years of experience in Chicago's most violent communities — cops from within the department, community leaders and some aldermen — called for a return of the swarming police presence to let people know who was in charge.
As furor built after Hadiya's death, McCarthy and Emanuel announced they were shifting 200 officers back into saturation teams, though they portrayed the move as a fine-tuning of police strategy rather than a return to the past.
At the same announcement, Emanuel sought to nudge the U.S. attorney's office, which under former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald began a significant role in cracking down on Chicago gangs and violence.
That effort, known as Project Safe Neighborhoods, began in 2002 and was aimed at better coordinating federal resources and local intelligence on crime. The program, still ongoing, includes monthly meetings between assistant U.S. attorneys and their Cook County counterparts in which they discuss gun cases that could warrant federal prosecution.
Fitzgerald stepped down last year and a permanent replacement has yet to be picked. Emanuel took the opening to suggest that federal help had eased up in the battle against Chicago street crime.
"I expect when we get a new U.S. attorney, that the U.S. attorney's office would turn their attention to gun activity, gun violence and gang activity," Emanuel told reporters last month, urging the office to "put their oar in the water."
That refrain was then picked up by Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, who sent a letter to acting U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro "requesting that greater personnel and resources be expended toward federal prosecution of qualifying cases in Chicago and Cook County."
But Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, said the federal effort has been steady.
"Our office continues to tackle gangs, guns and drugs through prosecution, prisoner re-entry and crime prevention avenues, and our commitment to these efforts has never been greater," Samborn said in an email. "Through (Project Safe Neighborhoods), we adopt certain illegal gun possession cases from the state and prosecute the defendants in federal court."
While it is true that federal prosecutors have recently pursued fewer such cases, Samborn said, it is because federal and local authorities have agreed that more defendants belong in state court, where they face higher penalties. A spokeswoman for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez agreed.
"We have an exceptional working relationship" with the U.S. attorney's office, Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly said.
While authorities and politicians debate solutions to the violence, others on the front lines are left to deal with the grieving and loss that never seem to end.
The Rev. Brendan Curran, pastor of St. Pius V parish in the Pilsen neighborhood, led the funeral Mass for Rene. He estimates he has presided over at least 25 funerals of youngsters whose lives were cut short by gun violence, including Ana Mateo, a 7-year-old girl who was playing on the sidewalk with her best friend.
"A block away there was a drive-by shooting and a stray bullet hit her in the head," Curran said. "To be in the morgue with mom and dad to have to identify their daughter, you just don't forget that stuff."
She was killed just four months after Rene.
Tribune reporter John Chase contributed.