- Chicago is seeing an increase in shootings involving assault rifles in 2017
- Some 140 people have been shot by rifles in the past 18 months, 50 have died
- Gangs are making allies outside territories in order to get rifles, say police
By Sara Malm for MailOnline
Published: 11:05 EST, 28 December 2017 | Updated: 11:14 EST, 28 December 2017
Chicago's gangs are arming themselves with assault rifle to a much greater extent than ever - with deadly consequences.
More than 140 people have been shot by military assault rifles in Chicago, 50 of them fatally, in the past 18 months, local news reports.
Police have also found evidence that the two gangs at the centre of the conflict - the Saints and La Razas - are moving further outside their normal territories, and linking up with other gangs in the city, in the hunt for more powerful firearms.
Police guard a crime scene in Chicago's Southside area in September where four people were shot and one person died, as officials warn of increased use of rifle in gang wars in the city
A Chicago Tribune investigation shows that the use of rifles have spread rapidly across the South and Southwest sides of the city since mid-2016.
They report that as the gangs have moved on to rifles, street fights have been replaced by car-chase shootouts, and police officers patrolling certain areas have been warned of approaching gang members as rifles can pierce body armor.
In 2016 the Saints and the La Razas were reported to be using rifles. Since then the Saints have reportedly become friendly with the Ambrose gang and the La Razas with their rivals the Satan Disciples - all operating in Chicago's Southwest Side.
The use of rifles is making the streets of Chicago increasingly lethal, not only because of the danger of the weapons in themselves, but also because they are being wielded by inexperienced young men.
Incapable of handling such a powerful assault weapon, there is a higher risk of injuring or killing bystanders.
Shootings: A victim is taken to an ambulance after two men were shot, one fatally, near a liquor store in the West Garfield Park neighborhood in July
Busted: Chicago police recovered a Remington AR-15-style and a Norinco AK-47-style made in China, after tracking down alleged gang members in a car chase
One of 77 rifle shell casings recovered from a shooting that killed two and wounded one in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood on December 16
The sheer number of guns is also a problem, officials say.
Police seized more than 8,600 illegal guns in Chicago this year, more than any other city in the country. In some neighborhoods, having a gun can be viewed as necessary for self-preservation.
And while violence actually declined in Chicago in 2017, the figures remain alarmingly high.
As of mid-December, there had been 635 murders in Chicago - a 15 percent drop from the previous year, according to the Chicago Police Department.
The total number of shootings incidents was down 21 percent to 2,719, but murders remain at levels unseen since the 1990s, when the crack cocaine epidemic ravaged communities across the United States and fueled a spike in crime.
City officials have credited the reduction in murders and shootings this year to a push to hire 1,100 additional police officers and a focus on new crime-fighting technologies.
A member of the Chicago Police Department works the scene of a fatal shooting
Victims: Several people hug a man who was traveling in car with a 24-year-old woman when she was shot near the corner of 53rd Street and Blackstone Avenue in July
'Communities that were once under a cloud of gun violence are beginning to see signs of optimism and hope,' police chief Eddie Johnson said this month.
The city has relied on more data crunching to help predict violence and deployed more high-tech devices that help detect gunshots and alert police even before residents can make an emergency call.
Police also are becoming increasingly adept at finding criminals through social media.
In December, they infiltrated an invitation-only Facebook group where drugs and guns were being sold - netting dozens of arrests.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said Facebook representatives will meet city officials in January to 'better collaborate to stop illegal activity online before it leads to violence on our streets.'
Chicago police investigate the scene where they recovered two rifles in an alley after a chase in the Back of the Yards neighborhood
Still, in pure numbers, Chicago remains the source of the most shootings and murders in the nation.
As the third most populous US city, its crime numbers would naturally be higher. In fact, cities such as St Louis, Baltimore and Detroit have a higher murder rate (the number of people killed per 100,000 residents).
But Chicago's problems cannot be explained away by its size alone.
If you were to add up the murders in both of America's largest cities - Los Angeles and New York - the total still would be about half the number in Chicago.
Officials and academics say they cannot point to any one factor as a definitive cause of the rise in murders.
While officials have emphasized policing, residents in ravaged neighborhoods of Chicago, the adopted home of former US president Barack Obama, point to a need for economic revitalization.
'That's the work that's happening on the ground,' Chicago south-side resident Asiaha Butler told AFP. 'More entrepreneurs. More opportunities for businesses coming into the community.'
Butler heads a resident association in one of the city's most violence-plagued communities - where she has seen improvement in 2017.
'My block had a number of shootings in the beginning of summer, and it decreased to zero,' Butler said.
Now, she wants the kinds of opportunities that can keep young people toward a prosperous path, and away from drugs and gangs.
'Opportunities to work, opportunities to higher education, opportunities to home ownership,' she said.