In murders, the United States ranks 91st among countries, with a rate of 4.7 per 100,000 people. However, Japan has 0.3 homicides per 100,000; South Korea has 0.9; Britain has 1.0; France has 1.0; and Belgium has 1.6.[1] Saying, “well, at least were not Venezuela” isn’t much consolation if you’re trying to think of yourself as living in a civilized country.

What is the death toll from guns? In 2012, about 11,000 people were murdered with guns.[2] This is pretty much our current “normal.”

Who are the killers and who are the killed? From 1980 to 2008, young men (18 to 24 years old) have provided most of the killers. Better than a third (34 percent) of victims and almost half (49 percent) of the killers were under age 25. In cases of gun homicide, 59.7 percent of the killed were between 18 and 34, and 65.9 percent of the killers were between 18 and 34. In cases of drug-related homicides, 70.9 percent of the killed were between 18 and 34, and 76.4 percent of the killers were between 18 and 34.

Males represented 76.8 percent of the killed and 89.5 percent of killers. In gun-related homicides, 82.6 percent of the killed were males, and 92.1 percent of the killers were male. In drug-related homicides, 90.5 percent of the killed were males, and 95.5 percent of the killers were male.[3]

Blacks were and disproportionately represented among both the killed and the killers. According to the Census, 12.2 percent of Americans are black.[4] For all homicides, 47.4 percent of the killed were black; 52.5 percent of the killers were black. In gun homicides, 55.4 percent of the killed and 56.9 percent of the killers were black. In drug related homicides, 62.1 percent of the killed were black and 65.6 percent of the killers were black. In sum one of the biggest drivers in American murders is the illegal drug trade. The killings result from the “war for corners.” See:

Since 2000, young (18-24) white males have accounted for about 6 percent of the population, about 10 percent of the killed, and about 16 percent of the killers. While young (18-24) black males have accounted for about 1percent of the population, 16 percent of the killed, 27 percent of the killers. That is, 1 percent of the population accounts for 27 percent of the killers. If you put the two groups together, then 7 percent of the population accounts for 26 percent of the killed and 43 percent of the killers.

In 2008, of the murders committed by killers 14 to 17 years-old, 37.5 percent involved multiple killers; and of the murders committed by killers aged 18 to 24 years-old, 27.5 percent involved multiple killers; while of the murders committed by killers aged 25 or older only 13.7 percent involved multiple killers. Is murder the price of admission to a gang?

From 1980 to 2008, 57.7 percent of homicides occurred in cities with a population of 100,000 or more; more than a third of all homicides in large cities occurred in the biggest cities (those with a population of 1 million or more); and two-thirds of all drug-related (67.4 percent) and gang-related (69.6 percent) killings took place in large cities.

The “war on drugs” is driving the killings in big cities and, thus, in the nation.

[1] See:

[2] “Noted,” The Week, 26 September 2014, p. 16.

[3] Apparently, drug-dealing is not subject to Title IX.

[4] See:

Digging deeper.

Sometimes, the investigation of one thing turns up evidence on something else. That’s one of the hazards—or pleasures—of historical research, journalism, and policing. That’s the case with the follow-on to a couple of recent traumatic events.

First, since the indictment of six Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Gray on 1 May 2015, Baltimore has suffered 55 murders.[1] That is twice the “normal” rate and the highest levels seen in the city since the very violent 1970s. Why the surge in homicides? African-American community leaders blame what amounts to a police strike since the indictment of the officers. The arrest rate dropped sharply. This alleged stand-down by the street cops “gave criminals space to operate.” This isn’t very credible as an explanation. Murder rates vary across months of the year, while the police presence remains basically stable. One kid living near a drug market told the New York Times that “Summertime: that’s when they do all the killing.” A more compelling explanation is the one offered by Baltimore police officials. During the riot in April 2015, 27 pharmacies were looted. Officials estimate that 175,000 doses of Oxycontin disappeared.[2] Oxycontin moves on the street for $30 a dose, so that’s $5.25 million of drugs that landed in the hands of dealers.[3] Because it was cost-free, it all represents pure profit after the distribution costs to the dealers. They key to profit, then, appears to be control of marketing outlets, rather than control over supply. That means a war for the corners and increased murders.

Second, the death of Eric Garner while being arrested in July 2014 reveals something about police-community interactions beyond the standard “broken relationship” trope.[4] In their longer-term context, police-community relations deteriorate when the community feels that it has been abandoned by the police to the criminals. Rebuilding that relationship requires the police to act effectively and to be seen to be acting effectively against crime. When William Bratton headed the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the 1990s, he introduced the “broken windows” strategy. This involved addressing the many small signs of social decay to clear away the underbrush that both shielded and could grow into serious crime. The NYPD also adopted a more analytical, statistics-based approach to targeting resources. Those approaches have remained in effect to this day. Crime rates have dropped dramatically, although people often contest claims that “broken windows” policing is responsible for the drop.

Tomkinsville Park on Staten Island had emerged as one area of statistical concern to police leaders. A little over half way through 2014, there had already been 696 calls to 911 about the area. There had also been 11 posts to the city’s hotline for complaints, called 311. Between March and June 2014, these reports had reached senior police commanders and the local commanders on Staten Island had been instructed to address the issue.

One of the 311 complaints came from Gjafer Gjeshbritaj, who owned an apartment building in the area. He complained of drug dealers hanging out in front of his building. His earlier efforts to disperse them had led to a physical confrontation. Moreover, Gjeshbitraj complained, the dealers used the people selling “loose” (illegal untaxed) cigarettes as cover for their own business.

This converged with the “broken windows” strategy and Mr. Gjeshbitraj belonged to the community of law-abiding citizens with whom the police were trying to build ties. Police visits to Tomkinsville Park increased and so did arrests, summonses, and warnings.

On 17 July 2014, a police lieutenant passing by noticed the crowd of cigarette sellers and others on the sidewalk near the park. He called the local precinct to tell them to send some men. All the rest followed.

[1] Richard Oppel, Jr., “Looking for Gains in Policing, Baltimore Finds Fewer Police,” NYT, 13 June 2015. Forty-two murders in May and 13 so far in June.

[2] I conjecture that large amounts of Sudafed disappeared as well. Following cultural stereotyping, I further conjecture that this all was unloaded to wholesalers in West Virginia and on the Eastern Shore.

[3] To get a sense of proportion, the Federal Government’s Small Business Administration announced a program to grant $1 million in small business loans in Baltimore following the riot. See:

[4] Al Baker, J. David Goodman, and Benjamin Mueller, “Beyond the Chokehold: The Unexplored Path to Eric Garner’s Death,” NYT, 14 June 2015.

Origins of the War on Drugs

You used to be able to get cocaine eye-drops off the shelf in a drug-store and the Sears and Roebuck catalogue offered cocaine and a syringe for $1.50. Doctors regularly recommended opium to patients suffering from “female complaints.” Cramps? Get your head up.

Then domestic and international influences came together to launch a “war on drugs.” On the one hand, opium was legal in Asia. Chinese immigrants brought opium-smoking to America and the United States conquered the Philippines, where opium was legal. In 1901, Charles Brent, an American missionary in the Philippines, began to campaign for the international control of addictive drugs. President Theodore Roosevelt helped create an International Opium Commission (1906), then appointed Dr. Hamilton Wright as the first U.S. Opium Commissioner. The International Opium Convention (1912) tried to regulate the trade.

On the other hand, Americans began to associate drugs with both crime and race. African-Americans and Chinese immigrants became centers of concern, as did the white women who supposedly fell prey to non-white men as a result of drug use. A 1914 law limited the sale of narcotics and cocaine to those with a doctor’s prescription. A 1922 law regulated the import of narcotics. A 1924 law outlawed heroin. A 1935 law assigned enforcement responsibility to the states.   A 1937 law banned marijuana. Between 1914 and 1945 the number of addicts in the United States reportedly fell from 1 in 400 people to 1 in 4,000. Things cooked along quietly for the next two decades. Charlie Parker and Robert Mitchum, people like that, used drugs.

Then recreational drug use began to spread as part of the counter-cultural strife of the Sixties and Seventies, along with long hair, peasant dresses, pre-marital sex, draft-dodging, and really great music. The “Up With People” crowd pushed back hard. President Nixon seized on the issue of drugs in 1969. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (1970) created the current system of classes of drugs. President Nixon announced a “war on drugs” (1971). A National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Policy (1972) reported that marijuana was not addictive and did not pose any serious threat to society or its users, and recommended de-criminalization. “Shut up” President Nixon explained. A presidential order (1973) created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to co-ordinate and lead efforts to halt drug smuggling into the United States and to suppress the illegal black-market for drugs within the United States.

The current “war on drugs” has both international and domestic fronts.

On the international front, the United States seeks to attack the foreign sources and supply lines that feed the American market. The principal growing sites for opium poppies (the source of heroin) are highland Burma (the “Golden Triangle”), Afghanistan, and Mexico. Of these, Afghanistan is by far the most important, with 93 percent of opiates now (well, 2007) coming from Afghanistan.[1] Interdiction of drug traffic can involve support for local police; aerial spraying of defoliants; interception of ground, sea, and air shipments; and discovery of drug factories where the raw materials are turned into a finished product for sale.

On the domestic front, the chief anti-drug measure has become sharply increasing arrest rates. During the 1970s drug arrests scarcely increased, in spite of Nixon’s call for a “war on drugs.” Only during the 1980s did policy change. While arrests for all crimes rose by 28 percent during that decade, arrests for drugs rose by 126 percent. Between 1980 and 2010 the share of Americans imprisoned quadrupled. Half a million people a year go to prison for drugs.

[1] Revenues from sales in Western countries provide Afghan traffickers with over $60 billion of “foreign aid” each year.   In comparison, the United States provided the Afghan government with over $50 billion of aid over ten years. Since much of the trade is controlled by the Taliban, we are paying more money to our enemy than to our ally.

Narcostate within a State.

The Clinton administration (1992-2000) made a great push against the Columbian drug cartels and this effort was continued by the Bush administration (2000-2008). American blocking of sea and air imports forced the Columbians to switch to overland shipments through Mexico. A Mexican gang—the Guadalajara cartel– then sank their talons into the flow of drugs. “If you want to move it through Mexico, then we’re the ones who are going to move it. Or else.” In 1989 the leader of the cartel got arrested. His former subordinates grabbed chunks of turf, creating the Sinaloa, Juarez, and Tijuana cartels. Then they started to fight with one another for larger shares of the flow.

Mexican drug gangs haul in an estimated $8 billion to $23 billion a year. This kind of money buys a lot in a poor country. It buys machine guns and rocket-launchers, policemen and judges, politicians and government officials, and lots and lots of gunmen. From 2006 to 2008 drug gangs killed 3,500 people; during 2008 they killed 6,000; and by April 2009 they killed a further 1,000. Often they did it in gruesome fashion. Possibly as many as 60,000 people have been killed. In a sense, every level of Mexican society has a stake in the trade. Almost half a million Mexicans are involved in the business in some way; songs celebrating the drug lords (”narcocorridos”) are wildly popular with poor Mexicans, and Raul Salinas, the brother of a former president, is sometimes alleged to be the ruler of the Mexican drug transportation business. (“The gang war that’s ravaging Mexico,” The Week, 21 March 2008, p. 11.)

Nevertheless Mexican president Felipe Calderone moved aggressively against the drug lords from early 2007 on. Why did he do so? The huge profits from the drug trade allowed the drug lords to begin buying chunks of the legitimate economy. In a sense they posed a grave threat to the ruling elite in Mexico by seizing both its economic and political power. War followed between the drug lords and the government. When the drug gangs savaged the police forces, Calderone called in the army. Forty-five thousand soldiers flooded into some of the most lawless towns of Mexico. Thousands of low level gun men and dealers have been arrested. However, it isn’t clear that the government is winning this fight. The army may prove just as vulnerable to corruption as have the police and the rest of the government. (“Mexico’s brutal drug war,” The Week, 10 April 2009, p. 11.)

What are the national security implications of this for the United States? The violence and corruption creates the danger that Mexico’s government will collapse or fall captive to the drug lords. This will put a narco-state on the porous border with the United States. If we can’t keep out the drugs or the illegal immigrants, how are we going to keep out the killers and corruptors? For a long time, we didn’t: they were just busy in Mexico. Now the Mexican drug gangs have invaded the United States. They operate in 230 American cities. (“Mexico’s brutal drug war,” The Week, 10 April 2009, p. 11.)

The Sinaloa cartel is the most powerful of these. It centers its American operations in Chicago because it is a major transportation hub in the center of America’s densest population distribution. Moreover, there is a suspicion that the Sinaloa cartel cooperates with the DEA to weed-out other cartels. Apparent victories in the “war on drugs” merely hide the growing power of the Sinaloa cartel. (“Mexico’s drug kings,” The Week, 31 January 2014, p. 9.)