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In Chicago, heat and homicide stoke fear and frustration

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"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.

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