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St. Louis, Memphis, Oakland, and Detroit; all four of these stand out to many Americans as the "Ghetto Cities." Why? Besides having populations of over three hundred and fifty thousand, these four cities top the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reports statistics in total violent crime. Most of said violence occurs within a city not in a spontaneous manner, but deliberately and with an ultimate goal. This said 'goal' is the work of gangs, defined as "a group of persons associated for some criminal or other antisocial purpose". Through the development of over two hundred years, gangs have become a major concern for citizens nationwide due to their increased levels of violence and fear in a community. Law enforcement and social scientists have consistently worked towards solving the puzzle of gangs and their impetus. Within the last thirty years, researchers have argued the theory of the drug trade and its impact on gang life. With the use of crack cocaine and marijuana becoming prevalent in the inner cities, the hypothesis presented is that not only are these drugs heavily used among gang members, but also are they becoming a major staple for members who sell the products to other gangs and citizens alike. The balance between the illegal trade of drugs and gang violence is a delicate one, and is offset on numerous occasions. From there scientists infer the possibility that, should one factor become eliminated, the other should in turn be impacted as well. In light of the old adage killing two birds with one stone, perhaps the United States, too, can remedy one of the major struggles present today by shifting its stance on certain policies.
Since the 1800s, America has experienced a rich variety in gang life. Famous groups like the James gang, as well as Billy the Kid and other bandits enthralled the nation and ran what many called the Wild West. As the 19th century drew to a close, a new form of gangs sprung up, this time on the east coast. Immigrants from Ireland and other deprived countries, gangs like the Whyos and the Dead Rabbits came to the U.S. and terrorized the streets of New York City. These gave way to the era of Capone and the Italian gangs, which were succeeded by the introduction of African-American, Asian, and Hispanic gangs in the 1930s through the 1970s. By the end of the 1980s, the racial profiling of gangs was relatively diverse across the country and the focus of the gangs turned towards the expanding drug market. Regions like Southeast Asia and Columbia were at maximized production rates, and the United States, now recognized as the number one drug consumer in the world, was at an all time high importation level. Once known as street gangs, the shift from what was once general delinquency and misconduct to an underground operation of the biggest drug trade in the world formed what is now known as drug gangs. The newfound gravity of the situation made violence standard operating procedure for gang life. Gangs like the Crips and the Bloods established territories for drug trafficking and fiercely defended it from rivals. Though law enforcement had brought gang violence down from what it was like in Los Angeles in the 70s, the membership has continued to increase steadily. In 2007, the US Department of Justice estimated over 800,000 members in at least 30,000 gangs, impacting a near 2,500 communities nationwide.
To make matters worse, the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment, conducted by investigators from the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Association (NAGIA) found several trends that make the future of gang enforcement troublesome. It was assessed that within the past decade gangs have found ways to thwart much of what the law is capable of preventing. For instance, the introduction of the mass production and relative ease of usage in technology has allowed gangs to use devices such as cell phones and the Internet to carry out business and thus makes it harder for officials to keep track of. The recent downturn in the economy and the heavy blows to the job market has caused much of America to migrate to other places on the nation. Gangs too have migrated, either introducing a terror that was previously unheard of in the community or hybridizing with the local gang to form an even harder target to track. These hybrid gangs, according to NAGIA, "may use the name of one traditional gang, use the colors of another, and align themselves with rivals for financial gain. This haphazard organizational structure hampers law enforcement's ability to categorize, monitor, and reduce gang activity." (COPS) As it currently stands, nowhere in any legal document are gangs, gang activities, or gang members clearly defined, making jurisdiction difficult for gang management practices in the community. This lack of definition has put legislation and prosecution at a standstill as well; if gangs cannot be labeled, there is no way of making any sort of progression. Lastly, and probably the most unsettling of all, is the denial by the communities that such problems even exist. A little less than a third of those who composed the study were found to have not responded, not cared, or denied the issue of gangs in the community. NAGIA proposed that many communities do not want to accept the idea of gang involvement in the community because of the negative connotations associated with it, while others are too fearful to admit it.
Gangs are known to infiltrate a community from the foundation up; that is to say, they work their way into society by means of the youth. Lening Zhang, John W. Welte and William F. Wieczorek in a study on youth gangs, drug use, and delinquency, they concluded that gangs attracted delinquent teenagers rather than the previously supposed idea that delinquency was spurred by gang membership. In the Buffalo Longitudinal Survey of Young Men, 625 males ages 16-19 in the Buffalo area were surveyed on their frequency of misconduct, drug use, and gang involvement. Race was a fair split between half white and half non-white. Over 75 percent of those interviewed were not living with a family on welfare. Results found that nearly three quarters of those polled had never been in a gang before, and only six percent of the entire collection was currently member of a gang. Yet nearly a quarter of the teens self-reported to have been delinquent once every two to three months and 18 percent were reported to be felonious two or three times a day. Wave two of the data, taken eighteen months later, showed a shift to favor those who did not commit misconduct, but the next two highest concentrations were in the ranges previously mentioned. Additionally, though almost half of the respondents said they did not use drugs (i.e. marijuana, hallucinogens, amphetamines, tranquilizers, barbiturates, codeine, narcotics, crack, cocaine, ice, inhalants, angel dust, etc.), a quarter admitted to using them two or three times a week. The second wave showed an even greater shift from the abstinence of drug use to a more frequented usage. Zhang, Welte, and Wieczorek concluded that although the data was slightly skewed due to only 6.4 percent of the interviewees were current gang members, the studies show that "once a youth joins a gang, gang membership may promote the youth to commit delinquency and induce him to start using drugs. For those who have already committed delinquency and used drugs before joining gangs, gang membership has less or little effect on their rates of delinquency and drug use." (Zhang)
The illegal drug trade in the US is the most expansive and profitable in the entire world. Thus, the United States attracts more drug traffickers than anywhere else. US Customs Service predicts that 60 million people a year come into the United States on air traffic alone. Another 6 million come by ways of water and 370 million enter into the US by land. This and the near 100,000 ships that dock in our ports, capable of containing up to 400 million tons of cargo, makes it easy for drug traffickers to import cocaine, heroin, marijuana, MDMA, and methamphetamine for the entire nation's needs. Coming from a variety of countries and routes, the drug trade is almost impossible to control and is only going to expand in years to come.
The trafficking of the drug cocaine is a consistent threat to American society. The abuse of the drug has delineated the use of both powder and crack cocaine to have become stable, though at alarming levels. Such distribution and usage of the drug has devolved from large urban areas to smaller and more suburban areas of the country, bringing with it a measurable increase in violence and criminal activity. Cocaine has become readily accessible drug to almost all major cities in the United States. Crack, the low-priced, smokeable form of cocaine, is commonly used and distributed. Though the overall usage has declined over the decade, the level at which it has become consistent is remarkably high. Street gangs such as the Crips and Bloods, along with other criminal groups from Central America have controlled the trade for crack nationwide. The extension of these gangs into less urban areas in order to increase trade has seen significant increases in homicides, armed robberies, and assaults, physical consequences of a gang that violently attempts to maintain its monopoly on drug trade in that area.
Cocaine prices have remained relatively stable due to the constant supply, yet still run anywhere from $12,000 to $35,000 per kilogram. From this most retailers will transform what is called cocaine HCl into crack cocaine or "rocks". These "rocks" are packaged in vials or film canisters and are sold at ten to twenty dollars for a tenth to a half a gram.
The Federal-Wide Drug Seizure System, or FDSS confiscated over one hundred metric tons of cocaine in 2001, a four metric ton increase from the year before. Much of this increase was due to two individual seizes of fishing vessels carrying 17 metric tons each. However, this increase was only moderate, as the street prices did not see a change one way or the other between the two years.
Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, the US drug market saw a massive demand for the high-purity Southeast Asia, of SEA, heroin. SEA heroin shipments intended for the US market usually transport through China, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, or South Korea. From there, ethnic Chinese-American traffickers control the distribution within the United States, mostly in the Northeast and along the East Coast. In the late 90s, Vancouver, British Colombia, became a major Chinese headquarters for criminal work. With the help of gangs of Asian-American descent, the two were able to ship SEA heroin into the US, especially the East Coast. The largest seizure of SEA heroin in years in January of 2001 A DEA New York Field Division apprehended 57 kilograms of SEA heroin from a ship anchored in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Southwest Asian (SWA) heroin also is supplied to US-based groups from Lebanese, Pakistani, Turkish, and Afghan groups. Many West African traffickers who used to chiefly smuggle SEA now bring in more SWA. Although law enforcement has cracked down on the trade of both SEA and SWA in addition to others such as Mexican heroin, the FDSS only seized a little less than one thousand kilograms more between 2000 and 2001.
Methamphetamine is produced and trafficked domestically in the western, southwestern and midwestern United States. The last twenty years has seen a dramatic change in the trafficking and abuse in the United States. Outlaw motorcycle gangs previously had control over meth production, and though they do not maintain such control today, their contribution to production is still significant. However, in 1994 Mexican-Americans began creating super labs capable of producing ten pounds of meth in a 24-hour period. These Mexican groups based out of northern Mexico and California now are responsible for providing high-purity, low cost methamphetamine to cities in the Midwest and West with large Mexican populations.
The costs invested into maintaining such strict regulations are taxing to the United States economy. In 2008, the Drug Enforcement Administration contained almost 11,000 employees with a budget of $2,494,000,000. Within one year, the staff increased ten employees and another $200 million, now 38 times larger that what it was less than forty years ago. In addition, the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force Division of the Department of Justice had a budget of $515 million. If you consider these as well as the other divisions, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Prison System, of which have at least some involvement in the gang and drug trade connections, the total financial involvement the United States has in the Department of Justice comes out to roughly $26.5 billion.
Perhaps the most burdensome aspect of gang life in the United States is that, according to USA Today, an estimated one million members nationwide in 2009 are responsible for 80% percent of all crimes in communities. Membership estimates have increased by 200,000 since 2007, and the crime rates are showing it. Burglary, robbery, larceny all have seen enormous jumps in the past few years. Homicide rates have doubled in some places across the country, tripled in others. While there is not exact numbers as to how many are killed every year due to gang violence, police can only assume it is there is a relationship between the rate of increase in membership and murder. But individual cases are evidence enough that the most devastating aspect of any crime is always the victim. "18-year-old killed in 'gang related' shooting in Tucson." (ABC15) Or "Man found guilty in gang-related double-murder at Ogden wedding party." (Salt Lake Tribune) Not only are young gang members lost every day to territorial claims and other things, but innocent bystanders are brought in as well. In a community with gang activity, it is safe to say no one is safe.
The driving force behind gang violence today is the drug trade; very few dispute that. In an economy that is on the downward spiral, many are trying to make ends meet the only way they know how while others do not know of any other alternative. Drugs, so long as the United States government continues to keep them illegal and strictly enforces the trade on them, will stay a profitable business venture for all daring enough to try it. Many die every year from gang violence, again as a result of maintaining territory and the monopoly on trade. The battle to maintain restriction on drugs while also keeping control of organized crime is never-ending, and will continue to ensue until a solution can be found.
It can be hypothesized that to legalize such drugs as cocaine, marijuana, and heroin would bring about change, even to a slight extant. Professional research has shown that teens will be delinquent with or without gangs, and that drug use is independent as well. However, in all instances, both delinquency and drug use increased once they joined a gang. Politicians and citizens need to decide if it is worth it to allow these teens a reason to join gangs to begin with. It is possible that by eliminating the demand for illegal substances, Americans will no longer resort to purchasing from street gangs. Additionally, gangs thus will no longer have an interest in selling a product that is legal and due to the significant decrease in demand, would no longer have a price that one could make a reasonable profit off. A central purpose for gangs would die down, and with hope begins to fade out. Violence would subside, and in general become minimal. Cities like Detroit, Memphis, St. Louis, and Oakland, would no longer stand out as "Ghetto Cities." It is possible that in eliminating a huge factor in the delicate balance of gangs and the drug trade, one could relieve the nation of one of its biggest problems.