In his second run for alderman of the 15th ward that includes Back of the Yards and Brighton Park, Rafael Yañez says his police experience in the South Side gives him special insight into the ways gang violence plays out; he’s ready to push for reforms to the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and for City Council to designate more resources to build up neighborhoods of color.
Yañez was raised in Michoacán, Mexico and moved to Pilsen at 11. There, he struggled to find an identity for himself and came to understand the appeal of gangs, but instead formed an extracurricular student group at Juarez Academy that put him in touch with Latino youth from different neighborhoods.
After graduating, Yañez moved to Back of the Yards with an alcoholic father, where eventually he and his wife raised two college-bound teenagers.
The 39-year-old candidate describes his police work as “compassionate”. Since 2003, he has served as a beat officer and a Crime Prevention Specialist in West Englewood’s 7th police district, where he coordinated a mentoring program at Harper High School that ensured young residents had more positive exposure to law enforcement. “I did not have a positive relationship with the police when I was young. The police used to pull me over and demand that I hand over the drugs and the guns [which I didn’t have]. I did not feel protected by this institution,” he acknowledged.
Yañez has an undergraduate degree in Law Enforcement Management and a Doctorate in Public Safety Administration from Calumet College of St. Joseph in Indiana. He earned a Doctorate of Education in Organizational Leadership from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology, he said.
He’s the founder of the U.N.I.O.N. Impact Center, a nonprofit that has worked with more than 1,500 youth, providing the tools necessary for financial, physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth, he said.
Yañez will pressure the police department to reform officer evaluations and their approach in the community. He says cops are incentivized to increase the number of arrests and guns seized per day, while there is no measurable way to track how officers diffuse an incident, aid a resident, talk to youth, make referrals, or otherwise prevent violence.
A feud between Razas, the Satan Disciples and other gangs in the 15th ward has seen the proliferation of rifles in the South Side. Regular gang shootings and retaliations have left dozens dead and wounded, including injured CPD officers and ATF agents.
Through his police intelligence, Yañez knows that despite the city’s strict gun laws, there is a profitable “black market” of guns that flow in from Indiana, Mississippi, and surrounding states with lax gun laws.
“We have to declare a war on poverty, not a war on the youth,” says Yañez, unlike Ald. Lopez who talks tough to gang-affiliated youth and has walked around with a bodyguard, he said.
In the February 2015 election, Yañez received 22.9 percent of the votes in the six-person race that included Eddie Daniels, Adolfo Mondragon and Raul Reyes. Alderman Raymond Lopez (15th) got 47.1 percent. Because no one got 50-plus-one percent of the vote, Lopez and Yañez advanced to the runoff where Lopez defeated Yañez with 58 percent of the vote.
The 15th ward covers parts of Brighton Park, West Englewood, Back of the Yards, New City, and Gage Park.
“Lopez is disconnected,” claims Yañez. “He is creating division and frustration among the residents. He has humiliated our families and the youth,” he said.
Lopez has received financial support from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, supported putting 1,000 cops on the street, and invested $400,000 to install residential speed bumps and traffic circles to reduce gang shootings.
“Lopez is a puppet,” he insists
He finds it “hypocritical to use $100 million dollars to build a police academy when $10 million dollars and counting are being cut from our Chicago Public Schools,” and calls it institutional racism.
Lopez did not immediately respond to requests for comment
The aldermanic candidate says that he would have voted against the cop academy and currently supports Ald. Ricardo Muñoz’ (22nd) ordinance to guarantee due process in the flawed CPD gang database.
When Lopez dropped out of the race for Congressman earlier this year, he announced he would “focus on local issues and on getting re-elected in 2019 to a second City Council term,” the Tribune reported.
Other contenders include 24-year-old Berto Aguayo, who worked at the Resurrection Project until recently and the Obama Foundation. Aguayo’s story as a former member of a Back of the Yards’ gang on 48th and Honore St. has resonated with people who believe youth can be reformed.
“Berto is not my opponent, let me make that clear. I’m running against the mayor, I’m running against Donald Trump, I’m running against [Ed] Burke, and I’m running against Raymond Lopez,” Yañez announced August 23rd.
He criticized Lopez for accepting political donations from the GEO Group, the massive immigrant detention center contractor. Lopez responded by donating twice the amount to the immigration non-profit Centro Sin Fronteras.
“The voters in the 15th ward have an alderman that is not around. The first thing they’ll notice when they elect me is that I’ll be walking through the blocks, talking to people and engaging them,” Yañez said. “What the people want, that’s what we’ll take to City Council.”
Yañez supported Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s campaign for mayor and in the spring canvassed for the slate of young Southwest Side progressives Aaron Ortiz and Alma Anaya.
If elected, Yañez will leave his police job to be a full-time elected official.