Is a Mexican drug lord the cause of violence in Chicago?
Bloombergâ€™s magazine piece on the drug trade in Chicago is insightful and well reported as far as it goes. Hereâ€™s how far it goes: it more or less blames the cityâ€™s high murder rate on one man, the head of a Mexican cartel. A taste:
As far as the authorities can tell, 5-foot-6-inch (1.68-meter) [Joaquin] Guzman, a grade school dropout known as El Chapo (or Shorty), has never set foot in Chicago.
Yet during the past seven years, Guzman, whoâ€™s now in his late 50s, has seized control of the supply and wholesale distribution of drugs in Chicago and much of the Midwest.
This steady flow of dangerous substances is sparking pitched and often deadly turf wars between Chicagoâ€™s splintered, largely African-American and Latino gangs.
â€śMost of Chicagoâ€™s violent crime comes from gangs trying to maintain control of drug-selling territories,â€ť Riley says. â€śGuzman supplies a majority of the narcotics that fuel this violence.â€ť
Itâ€™s an important story. But itâ€™s just one story to tell about violence in Chicago. Thereâ€™s also the social media story, a story of petty juvenile disputes that quickly blow up into public provocations. And thereâ€™s the public health story, the evidence that violence spreads through communities like a disease. (The organization formerly known as Ceasefireâ€”which Bloomberg talked to for its articleâ€”changed itâ€™s name to Cure Violence in order to emphasize this perspective.)
And then there are the stories about the problems behind the problem. Bloomberg references Daniel Hertzâ€™s research on the growing â€śinequality of violence in Chicagoâ€ť: a safer north side (which is whiter and more affluent) coinciding with more dangerous pockets of the south and west sides. The article also name-checks the cityâ€™s issues with public housing, education and the loss of factory jobs.
But these are just side notes, hints at the deeper issues. The article is about Guzman, whom Bloomberg presents as a major root cause of the bloodshed. Thatâ€™s ultimately unhelpful, because violence isnâ€™t created out of whole cloth by the drug trade. As this (older) post at the Chicago Justice Projectâ€™s blog puts it, a fundamental question is â€śwhy kids and adults turn to selling drugs to make a livingâ€ť [emphasis mine]. CJP offers this as something â€śpolice are not the answer to.â€ť Yet â€śpolice are forced to be the answer to control the effects of total social neglect in communities of color in Chicago.â€ť
â€śTotal social neglect.â€ť The police arenâ€™t the ultimate answer to violent crime, because other forms of crime arenâ€™t the ultimate cause. People need jobs and education and opportunity. Poor communities need to be treated like they matter to the rest of us.
I get that a good article is typically about one thing, not everything. But even a pretty good article about the narcotics supply chain can serve to bolster a false narrative: Itâ€™s the gangs. The problem is people who choose to lead a life of crime. And those of us who donâ€™t live in those neighborhoods donâ€™t need any help believing this harmful, inadequate story.
Hereâ€™s the lowest point of the Bloomberg article:
The link between drugs and crime, including violent crime, would be hard to overstate in Chicago. Eighty-six percent of adult males arrested in Chicago last year tested positive for drug use.
Note that â€ścrime, including violent crimeâ€ť is a category that also includes small-time, nonviolent drug offensesâ€”which lead so often to incarceration and decimated communities. Note that â€śadult males arrested in Chicagoâ€ť is not the same thing as â€ścrime,â€ť much less serious crime.
And note especially that as big as the link between drugs and violent crime is, itâ€™s really pretty easy to overstate it. We overstate it every time we summarize urban violence as a problem caused by drug-dealing gangs. And itâ€™s all too easy to get from that oversimplification to the attitude that those lawbreakers deserve what they getâ€”that itâ€™s not our problem. But it is.