LITTLE VILLAGE — Last month, the Little Village neighborhood was devastated by the death of 8-year-old Melissa Ortega, who was walking down 26th Street with her mom on a Saturday afternoon when she was shot and killed.
And in December, a quiet Pilsen block was rocked by the shooting of 28-year-old Michael Hernandez, who was sitting in his car outside his house when he was shot and killed. Hernandez was set to take a Police Department entrance exam the next day and was not thought to be the intended target.
The high-profile cases came as the Southwest Side neighborhoods experienced a surge in slayings in 2021. Murders and carjacking have risen citywide, but they increased by greater percentages on the Southwest Side.
The 10th Police District, which includes the western parts of Pilsen and Little Village, saw an 85 percent increase in murders from 2019, before the pandemic began, to 2021. This district recorded 33 murders in 2019 and 61 in 2021.
The 12th Police District, which includes east parts of Pilsen and parts of the West Loop, Near West Side and Wicker Park, saw a 138-percent increase in murders from 2019 to 2021, according to police data. There were 16 murders in 2019 and 38 in 2021.
There was also a substantial spike in carjackings in the districts. In the 10th District, there were 40 in 2019, 104 in 2020 and 123 in 2021, according to police data. In the 12th District, there were 47 in 2019, 112 in 2020 and 182 in 2021.
Though these areas have historically struggled with violent crime, the pandemic and civil unrest over the last two years hit the Southwest Side hard. It has left residents split on the path forward: Some want a closer relationship with the police to combat crime, while others want to focus on interrupting the social causes of crime by advocating for prevention and mental health programs.
Neighborhood aldermen have pledged to address neighbors’ concerns and opinions on safety, but acknowledge it’s no easy feat.
“I understand the need for immediate results,” Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said of residents who want more police action in the area. “I think that we need to make sure that when it comes to public safety we reconfigure, we reimagine what we do.”
‘We Have Got To Look At The Evidence‘
The killing of Melissa Ortega, 8, reignited calls for more resources to battle gang and gun violence in Little Village.
In the days after her slaying, community organizers gathered at the site where she died to ask elected officials for more mental health support to help a community overcome with trauma.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, for children in the neighborhood to grow up unscathed emotionally from having family or neighbors killed by gun violence, Baltazar Enriquez, president of the Little Village Community Council, said at the time.
“And where does the victim [of gun violence] run for therapy or counseling?” he asked. “There’s nowhere to run to. … We have to go to other neighborhoods for mental health clinics.”
Days after Melissa was killed, police said they found the person who shot her — a 16-year-old who’s now been charged as an adult with murder. Xavier Guzman, 27, who was driving, was also charged.
The 16-year-old pled guilty to two carjackings and was on probation at the time of the shooting, prosecutors said.
Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd), whose ward covers much of Little Village, said community safety is complicated and can’t be solved by simply funding one or the other — police or programs. The reality demands a more nuanced conversation, he said.
But there’s “a growing understanding” in the community that there needs to be much more investment in crime “intervention and prevention,” Rodriguez said.
“It’s clear our budgets have disproportionately gone towards policing over the years, that’s undebatable,” Rodriguez said. “We need our policing efforts to be more efficient and more effective.”
Estimates from community groups who do violence prevention work show that comprehensive services like mental health, mentorship and career readiness support reach “only about 10-20% of the individuals who are most likely to be the victims and perpetrators of violence,” he said.
Rodriguez said it’s important for community members to be able to hold police accountable for their actions, otherwise it’s hard to trust officers.
“They’re here, they’re part of our budget. We need them to do a good job,” he said.
In Pilsen, the December murder of Michael Hernandez sparked a similar conversation between residents over policing in the neighborhood and how to work with officers while funding necessary social programs.
Residents in the 25th Ward advocated for competing strategies during a community meeting shortly after Hernandez’s death and the brazen shooting of 71-year-old Woom Sing Tse, who was killed in an “execution”-style slaying on a Chinatown sidewalk.
Some neighbors said the area needs more police patrols, while others said the focus should be on keeping kids engaged and out of gangs.
At the December meeting, Armando Salgado, a police officer and Pilsen resident, directly addressed Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), asking for him to work with police.
“We need to be a team,” Salgado said. “I agree 100 percent there are root causes [to crime], but, at the end of the day, we also have to have accountability, and gangs are a problem.”
Sigcho-Lopez said residents have good intentions in asking for an increased police presence, but he believes more police isn’t an effective solution to Pilsen’s crime problems. Violent crime has risen despite increases in the Chicago Police Department’s budget, Sigcho-Lopez pointed out.
“We have got to look at the evidence, and the evidence shows very clearly that more police funding has not been translated into safer neighborhoods,” he said. “What we see is that investing in mental health, investing in after school programming, investing in violence interruption programs … that’s where we see much better results.”
Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who represents part of Little Village, did not return a request for comment Monday.
Chicago Police Department officials did not answer questions.
‘This Is A Direct Line Between Community Safety and Health‘
Tanya Lozano, CEO and founder of Pilsen nonprofit Healthy Hood, is just one of many community organizers working to address the social causes of violence in the Pilsen neighborhood.
Lozano said hardships in communities of color caused by the pandemic — health concerns and unemployment — can play a role in a rise of violence in the neighborhood. She added that crime is something Pilsen and the Southwest Side has been struggling with since before she was born, but the strategies to combat violence largely remain unchanged.
“There’s just been nothing really new and innovative on a mass scale that is really going to deal with the situation and really provide some kind of relief,” she said.
At Health Hood, Lozano and organizers are focused on bringing aid directly to people’s doors — whether that’s health screenings, political education, mental health help or free meals — and building relationships on a block-by-block basis to get neighbors engaged and looking out for one another.
”We want to make sure that people truly understand what’s going on, that way they continue to feel motivated to be a part of the solution,” she said.
Lozano said it’s still “a battle” getting the funds and attention necessary for people to support alternative solutions to crime prevention, including physical and mental health resources or other forms of mutual aid.
“All of these things exist,” Lozano said. “The one thing is that they’re not popular, they’re not being talked about, they’re not being supported. So they all exist, but it’s about where our priorities are right now.”
Sigcho-Lopez said social programs like Health Hood need more support.
“We have very effective programs in the city of Chicago that do not receive city funding,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “The city needs to be transparent in how it allocates [its] resources and that they’re based on the results that they provide.”
This year, Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd) said his biggest goal is getting the pandemic’s impact on Little Village under control.
“Crime needs to be seen as both a public health and economic issue,” he said. “We need to get people back to work, we need to decrease the number of incidences of the pandemic and increase people’s vaccination rates. This is a direct line between community safety and health.”
Read more of Block Club’s neighborhood-focused crime coverage:
Despite Increase In Shootings, Northwest Side Is Still A Safe Place To Live, Local Leaders Say — But Area Officers Need More Support
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.