(United Nations Gang funeral; image obtained from CBC News, April, 2013)
It has become a well-rehearsed trope within the often parochial world of criminal analysis that, like prohibition being figuratively yet actively responsible for creation of the Italian-American mafia, the War on Drugs has created the modern Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) and cartels that expand out from the drug-producing locales of the Globe in webs of money, corruption and power. While this idea generalizes the effects of many powerful social forces that also contributed to rise of the modern Italian-American Cosa Nostra, it is accurate in many respects. A related and perhaps more socially destructive consequence of the campaign to illegalize certain substances is the empowerment of the street gang organization. With governments effecting ever more rigid forms of illegalization or control over certain drugs local neighbourhood groups that previously fought for territory over dignitas began to fight over access to the illicit market and the ability to sell narcotics. The street gang therefore became the terminus at the end of the web of drug trafficking, controlling the physical environment (street corner, neighbourhood streets, etc) and thereby facilitating the actual provision of the respective narcotic.
In this article we will examine the development of the North American street gang as related to narcotics trafficking in an effort to understand where its newly-defined role at the centre of powerful economic relationships is heading and what can be done to assist or hinder the reliance of this ever-morphing social phenomenon on the trafficking of illegal drugs. While street gangs have always been the instruments of society’s powerful, they now, due to their role in the illegal drug trade, have assumed an economic and social power all of their own. However, as drug trafficking continues to manifest itself in alternative methods – due to the population’s appetite for certain narcotics, cultural values and the interdiction efforts of law enforcement – North American society may one day see the removal of the street gang from the role as the primary distribution point for narcotics in urban areas.
Beginning as manifestations of counterculture identity, street gangs have existed as long as there have been urban environments sophisticated enough to support and absorb large groups of the traditionally unempowered and unemployed. These groups often feel marginalized by the disparity of resources within their environment and have limited means in terms of obtaining the same levels of prosperity enjoyed by other social groups. Other forms of identity (ethnic, religious, familial, neighbourhood, etc.) contribute to the othering of surrounding groups and the creation of the counterculture, but street gangs have maintained their allure and existence without these accompanying identifying characteristics by their interaction and complicity in the political machinations of the local political power brokers. Such relationships have been documented from the Tong groups that existed in China as important tools of political power brokers since at least the 12th Century to the relationship between Five-Points gangsters and the debasement of Tammany Hall by the Democratic Party in New York City during the 1800s. The addition of illicit drugs catapulted the street gang from fringe roles of within society into economic nexus’ of supply for a growing demand market thus providing a modicum of economic power for these groups.
Traditional street gangs epitomize the symbiotic relationship between the criminal organization and the criminal network; waxing and waning together like the pumping of a great bellows, blowing discord and corruption over the communities they touch. The power of organized criminal groups is inherently based the individual organization’s ability to build and maintain a functioning network of criminal and licit contacts. This network – be it based on ethnicity, neighbourhood or family, among others – facilitates the actions of the group, allowing it obtain and sell its goods, launder its proceeds, recruit membership and avoid the scrutiny of law enforcement. In essence, it allows it entry into the broader community, where the organization can spread and flourish. Unlike legal businesses, which can market their goods through storefronts, well-travelled internet search engines, or physical signage, the illegal organization is wholly dependant upon its network for survival in every sense.
However, street gangs, by their nature, also require a literal street or neighbourhood on which to stand, and hence their network – which is also based on inter-personal, commercial and familial connections made within the local community – is open to obvious and frequent observation by the local surrounding neighbourhood. The more brazen the actions of the gang the more control they exert over their environment but, paradoxically, the more interference they can expect from law enforcement agencies and the greater the chances the group will be dismantled by police. Thus, while the street gang sells its drugs on the street within demarcated physical zones of control it is open to the counteractions of those same law enforcement agencies. But, what if the drug trafficking world had undergone a transformation, with large urban communities no longer dependent on the physical control of specific areas by street gangs to facilitate the purchasing of narcotics? What if the physical zones of control became more fluid and the points of interaction between the dealers and their customers removed from strict geographic considerations? Would or could policing make any difference if such a scenario came to exist? Indeed, it appears as if this transformation is in fact occurring throughout North America’s largest poleis.
The primary reason for this development is, simply, technology. However, the more nuanced answer lies in the formation of a delivery system, known colloquially as dial-a-dope. Dial-a-dope networks are established by trafficking organizations that have reached a level of sophistication which allows them to utilize significant resources for the purposes of achieving their aims. Far above the “high-school dealer” level, dial-a-dope networks often operate beyond the purview of even large and well-known street gang groups that remain entrenched in specific neighbourhoods throughout all major urban areas. While dial-a-dope operators will often not enter public housing blocks and other areas highly controlled by street gangs for fear of eliciting an immediate violent response, the dial-a-dope networks have succeeded in exercising market control over specific areas in order to achieve their sales. By setting up connections with users through social connections or in other points in the community where drug users can be found (such as nightclubs and bars) the dial-a-dope organizations create their own ever expanding networks of users and delivery suppliers, all communicating logistically through anonymous central dispatches. In Toronto, ON an example of this type of network involves the user submitting an order for an Uber delivery via text message to an anonymous and frequently changing cell phone number. The dispatch worker then sends a delivery operator, who arrives at the point of delivery by car; the order is then placed in person and the customer served. In such a way cell phones, cars and the fictional use of local travel applications for mobile devices have facilitated the rise of a new form of drug trafficking that is no longer outwardly visible to the community where the user and supplier reside.
Initially, this new form of drug trafficking can be seen as an improvement from the dangerous world of street gangs; however, with closer inspection this reality quickly erodes. Firstly, it should be noted that while dial-a-dope operations may remove some of the economic power enjoyed by street gangs their creation will not remove the impetus to join such organizations. Social deprivation, pressure by familial and peer networks, racism, elitism, and a lack of economic opportunity will continue to provide the fuel for the creation of local gangs, as they have from at least the days of Clodius and Milo in ancient Rome. While these groups may not operate with the same amount of economic clout in the future, it would be wrong to assume their imminent disbandment. Secondly, as is the case with the Asian crime group that runs the aforementioned dial-a-dope service in Toronto, dial-a-dope networks in large urban centres are most often operated by large DTOs that were already behaving as mid-tier or international traffickers, wholesaling their narcotics to street gangs and other groups before expanding into the operation of dial-a-dope networks. Mid-level DTOs that once sold their wares to street gangs and smaller traffickers have emerged as street-level distributors in their own right, allowing them to streamline operations and control a larger share of the supply chain thereby increasing profits. The proceeds of this increased market share are often then directed to finance operational expansions as well as fund political and community corruption. Finally, while dial-a-dope networks can be seen as less violent because of their apparent removal of the need for physical competition for geographic space in order to sell illicit drugs, the vast amounts of money that can be generated and the limited amount of networks involved – due to the sophistication required to operate – will undoubtedly lead to points of conflict between major groups. This reality is already quite evident on the streets of British Columbia where the Red Scorpions, the UN (yes, United Nations) gang, Gisby Group and the Dhak-Durre organization – all of which operated dial-a-dope networks – have waged a campaign of tit-for-tat killings over the past decade in the cities throughout the Lower Mainland. (For PanAm’s story on the violence in BC see here). Although there are varying individual causes for the violence, the main variable is market control. While the lines of competition have become more fluid, that does not mean that they have proceeded to blur. Indeed, the grotesque profits created by these networks have merely incentivized those involved to commit greater acts of violence in defence of their livelihood.
This paradigm shift in drug-trafficking can be seen as a response to policing as well as a desire to streamline operations. If customers are developed or obtained through closed networks and the perpetrating trafficker is no longer dependent upon a specific location law enforcement can monitor, how can the average front line police officer be expected to interdict the trafficking or effectively influence the ability to sell the drugs at all? The answer is still being examined by law enforcement agencies across the continent but it undoubtedly poses a serious existential question for the philosophical underpinnings driving the continuation of the so called War on Drugs. The newly enacted dial-a-dope paradigm underscores the reality of policing – which is based on the premise of physical action (violence) that in turn provides the essence of its power and influence – as well as its inherent limitations; simply put, there cannot be a police officer on every corner, hence there will always be a safe place to conduct the dial-a-dope transaction. As Francis Fukuyama postulated in his famous lecture and later book – The End of History – perhaps there is simply a point where humanity has hit its economic zenith. While Fukuyama’s thesis has been deservedly critiqued over the past several decades, it could be theorized that the transition to the dial-a-dope period has initiated a new period in policing, where the enforcement campaign against illegal drugs has been effectively removed from the prerogatives of front-line police officers. While it can be assumed that detective units and other specialized squads will continue to hunt major trafficking groups and individuals, the ability of the beat cop to wage a street-level campaign against narcotics purveyors may well have been consigned to history with the advent of the dial-a-dope network.
An economic understanding of the underground market and a firm grasp of technologically sophisticated logistics by criminal groups as well as relatively effective policing measures against street gangs and static open-air drug markets have brought about the creation of the dial-a-dope phenomenon. Like street gangs before them, dial-a-dope operations are inherently based upon the effectiveness of the network operated by the DTO in question. In reality, this paradigm shift can be seen as simply a more potent manifestation of the importance of relationships and social connections to the criminal network. While the conclusions on the ultimate societal consequences of emerging dial-a-dope methodologies remain to be postulated, what can be concluded is that the criminal underworld, specifically the ubiquitous realm of illegal narcotics, has once again undergone a transformation that is sure to have serious and lasting affects on the North American population. Yet another consequence of the disastrous campaign to enforce against the reactive misery inherent in some aspects of humanity.
By: Scott Paulseth
Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 1992.
Jones, Peter and Keith Sidwell, The World of Rome, Cambridge University Press, 1997.