By Mark Guarino
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A rash of murders has City Hall on the defensive just as Mardi Gras season is getting under way, a time when the talk of the town is usually focused on king cakes, beads and debutante balls.
The new year started bloody, with 12 people murdered and 47 wounded by gunfire in the first 12 days of January. Murders in New Orleans jumped 14 percent in 2011 to 199, making the city's homicide rate the highest in the nation at nearly 58 murders per 100,000 residents, or 12 times the national rate.
For a city still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the killing spree has divided community leaders and drawn unwelcome attention just before an estimated 1 million tourists are expected for the Mardi Gras celebration in late February.
The New Orleans violence has largely engulfed black youths in petty squabbles, not gang wars, one study found.
Among Mayor Mitch Landrieu's strategies: conflict resolution. In February, New Orleans will launch a pilot version of Chicago's CeaseFire, an anti-violence campaign celebrated for slashing that city's murder rate through street negotiations before conflicts spiral out of control.
In addition, New Orleans has increased the number of homicide detectives to 30 from 22 and changed the curfew for minors in the touristy French Quarter to 8 p.m. from 11 p.m. on Friday on Saturday nights, matching the other days of the week.
"The number of deaths between African-American kids is unnatural and unacceptable and my administration is very passionate about doing something we can to stop this from occurring," Landrieu told Reuters. "I believe it is a national problem but also recognize in New Orleans we have a lot of it."
The homicide rate in New Orleans is going up while the national rate is in decline. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the nation's homicide rate fell to 4.8 homicides per 100,000 people, the lowest level in decades. Last year also marked the first since 1965 that homicides did not make the nation's top 15 list of ways to die, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
While murder numbers are higher in cities with larger populations - last year there were 600 in New York City and 419 in Chicago - per-capita rates were significantly lower than in New Orleans.
In the years following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' murder rate fell, but last year, homicides started ticking back up, and officials are unsure why.
A report last March from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance profiled the killers as young, largely jobless black men with little or no gang involvement. Unlike Chicago and other cities, where gangland battles over turf boundaries or the drug market are largely blamed for driving up murder counts, data peg New Orleans' violence to petty squabbles.
Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf argues the homicides result from "policy failures" that prevent the city from truly acknowledging it has a viscous drug turf war on its hands.
"You have to deal with the vibrant dope economy and culture around these guys," Scharf said. "CeaseFire is fine, but that doesn't replace the need for a plan."
The roadblocks are significant. Decades of police corruption and abuse are coupled with poverty and joblessness. Police recently began publishing the names and arrest records of all homicide victims "to let people know these are not random acts of violence," department spokesperson Frank Robertson said. Critics say the measure is counterproductive.
"The police don't want any critiquing from the media or the community or the citizen organizations because they are policing themselves," said Tamara Jackson, executive director of Silence is Violence, a community group pushing for police reform.
Besides being hurtful to victim families, the policy is only serving to deepen the breach in trust with the police felt by the poorest residents of the city, Jackson said.
"The community doesn't trust the police department, which is a major issue," she said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Daniel Trotta)