Monday, March 23, 2009

Gangs: New Target in the War on Drugs?

Government Reports Link US Gangs to Mexican Drug War, But Fail to Address Causes of Gang Violence

Mexico's record-breaking year of violence in 2008 put the drug war in the headlines in the US. In June, former President Bush signed the Merida Initiative into law, officially supporting (morally, financially, and logistically) Mexican President Felipe Calderon's military-heavy strategy in combatting organized crime. In July, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it would draw up plans for a DHS "surge" on the Mexico-US border to prepare for the possibility that Mexico's drug war would "spill over" into the US. Phoenix has since been ranked "second in the world" in kidnappings behind Mexico City (thanks to fuzzy math), and Phoenix officials blame their kidnapping problems on Mexican criminal organizations that participate in human smuggling.

The Americas Program's Laura Carlsen separated the truth from the hype in her recent article "Drug War Doublespeak." Even without the hype, the truth is scary enough: with over 5,000 drug-related murders in Mexico in 2008, the drug war has become deadlier than the drugs themselves.

With the drug war in the news weekly, if not daily, government officials have faced increasing pressure to resolve the problem. Despite increasing public support for drug decriminalization, officials have refused opportunities to analyze drug decriminalization as a possible way to reduce (but not eliminate completely) drug-related death and violence. El Paso's City Council passed a resolution urging the US and Mexican governments to study and debate the possibility of decriminalizing drugs, but El Paso's mayor vetoed the resolution. This past week, Congress held a series of hearings on violence in Mexico and on the border. All of the hearings were in some way related to drug trafficking, but none of them included a single witness to discuss drug policy reform.

Rather than stepping back and carrying out serious analysis and debate over the drug policies that have driven Mexico into a crisis, US officials are playing the blame game. Since the US is the world's biggest drug market and Mexican drug trafficking organizations' primary source of weapons, US officials can't blame Latin America for all of its drug woes. So they're turning to gangs.

The US government recently released three major drug-related reports: the National Drug Threat Assessment, the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, and the National Gang Threat Assessment. In all reports, gangs figure prominently in drug trafficking. The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report is broken down by country, and gangs feature prominently in almost every country report.

The National Gang Threat Assessment alleges "close associations" between US street gangs and Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). According to the report, "gang members provide Mexican DTOs with support, such as smuggling, transportation, and security." In addition to smuggling drugs and migrants into the US, the report argues that "gangs are increasingly smuggling weapons from the United States into Mexico as payment for drugs or to sell for a significant profit."

The National Drug Threat Assessment places the most emphasis on US street and prison gangs' alleged relationships with Mexican DTOs. While Mexico's increasing violence places increasing pressure on government officials, the National Drug Threat Assessment has found that US "gangs are becoming increasingly involved in wholesale-level drug trafficking, aided by their connections with drug trafficking organizations, particularly Mexican and Asian ones." Some highlights from the report:

  • Gangs are active in drug distribution, particularly at the retail level, throughout the United States, and their involvement in drug distribution at the wholesale level is increasing.
  • Gangs have developed or strengthened relationships with transnational criminal organizations and DTOs, gaining access to international sources of supply for larger shipments of illicit drugs that they then distribute.
  • Mexican drug traffickers affiliated with the Sinaloa, Gulf, Juárez, and Tijuana Cartels maintain working relationships with at least 20 street gangs, prison gangs, and OMGs [outlaw motorcycle gangs].
  • These affiliations have significantly increased the availability of illicit drugs in many of these areas.
  • Gangs smuggle drugs, firearms, and aliens across the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders.
  • Some of these gangs have established associate gangs or chapters in border cities in Mexico, according to law enforcement reporting.

And, in the ultimate passing of the buck, the National Drug Threat Assessment states: "Gangs promote drug use through street-level trafficking."

It's important to note that while the National Drug Threat Assessment focuses almost exclusively on Latino, Black, and Asian-American gangs, the Department of Justice acknowledges that white gangs, even white supremacist ones like the Aryan Brotherhood, have "business relationships" with Mexican DTOs.

As government officials and the media look to more law enforcement-heavy solutions to drug-related violence, sooner or later their wrath is bound to fall on US gangs. But a law enforcement response to gangs will only exacerbate the situation because, as Jose Luis Pavon of the San Francisco-based organization HOMEY explains in the interview below, "prisons create gang members." As with drug violence, law enforcement responses to gang violence fail because they do not address the root causes of the problem.

Narco News: Please explain the work that HOMEY (Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth) does.

Jose Luis Pavon: HOMEY is an organization that works primarily with Latino youth and recently immigrated youth in San Francisco, California. We work to prevent gang violence in the community here. We offer a number of different services--we do case management, counseling, street outreach, we have a social enterprise, a silkscreening business. We sell shirts which helps fund our work, we also have a youth organizing group called Kalpulli ["council" in the Nahuatl language], where young people work on political campaigns to fight for the rights of youth and they receive political education and skills training.

Narco News: US government reports are presenting gangs as the foot soldiers of Mexican drug trafficking organizations. Are gangs principally drug trafficking organizations, or they driven by other factors?

Jose Luis Pavon: Gangs aren't an isolated phenomenon. They are the result of not only a systemic failure in terms of society's or government's failure to meet the basic needs of its people and of its youth, but I also believe that it is a result of racist and very oppressive institutions that create the conditions and lead to the development of gang violence both within the United States as well as outside the United States.

The major contributing factor is poverty. There's really no justification for why, in a first world country like the United States of America, the richest country in the world, should have people in poverty. It's definitely not the same sort of poverty that people in third world countries live through, but there is a large portion of the population that doesn't make enough money to cover their basic needs in terms of food, rent, clothing, etc. First and foremost, the conditions of poverty drive people to join gangs or mafias.

So we have to talk about what contributes to poverty. In the United States, we have a failed public school system. We have a below base-line education within American public schools. What that means is that young people, particularly a large percentage of Black and Latino youth, are not graduating high school. 50% of youth drop out of high school before finishing.[1]

Secondly, kids are graduating school without having learned basic skills. We have a huge illiteracy problem. Kids don't know how to do math when they're done with school. These kids are not being prepared to enter the workforce. They're being pushed into low-wage jobs or into joining the military, or, again, creating the economic pressure for young people to join gangs or to engage in illegal activities in the drug trade.

Another contributing factor is that the jobs that are out there in the private sector discriminate against young people of color.

The other big driving factor is the huge concentration of jails. The state of California has one of the largest prison populations in the world. It is a huge industry. This combination of factors, the economic, the lack of education, and hundreds of thousands of people going in and out of prisons is what I believe is creating the gang violence within the United States.

Narco News: Government reports say that gangs, including those with connections to Mexican DTOs, use prisons to recruit members, and that they often run their distribution operations from US prisons.

Jose Luis Pavon: It's not necessarily that the Mexican cartels are using prisons to recruit gangs, it's the prisons create gang members. Prisons teach people to become murderers and criminals.[2] We have a gross over-investment in prisons in the United States, particularly in California, New York, and Texas. Prisons are extremely hostile. You don't go there to get rehabilitated, to receive therapy or job training in order to go through some sort of healing process. When you go there, bring imprisoned is like being in a constant state of warfare. People come out heavily emotionally traumatized when they're incarcerated. Many people come out of prison suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, similar to what war veterans suffer. So what's happening is folks are coming out of prison more violent than when they went in to prison. So it's the other way around, the prisons are creating the conditions for people to participate in the drug trade.

Narco News: How are government spending priorities contributing to the gang problem?

Jose Luis Pavon: The state of California has been cutting money for schools. At this point some areas of the state, including San Francisco, are shutting down schools because they don't have enough money to operate. Well, let me rephrase that. The state isn't spending enough money to continue to operate the number of schools we have.[3]

Since the Reagan administration, there has been a consistent slashing of workforce development dollars, which used to be used for job training such as in the construction trade, or mechanics--giving youth access to different industries where they can find employment. That money has been cut. If these were the government systems in place to prepare the population to enter the workforce, they have been consistently cutting it and concurrently increasing the amount of money that goes into prisons and law enforcement and the military.

One of the strongest lobbying forces in Sacramento and Washington DC is the prison guards' union. They purposely lobby the government to create policies that shift more young people into jail. They don't go to Sacramento or Washington to advocate for more after-school funding. They go to advocate for increases in law enforcement funding and policies that make it easier to incarcerate more youth. They ultimately go to advocate for their job security. So they prefer to lock young people up to maintain job security for prison guards and police officers than to actually work towards a solution.

HOMEY recently lost more than half of the city funding that we used to receive, and city funding made up the majority of our budget. So we've been laying off staff.

Organizations like HOMEY all across the US right now are [experiencing budget] cuts. We are the front line in terms of a proactive solution to the violence. We do have a considerable impact in being able to slow down the violence. If we didn't exist, a lot of the kids that we work with now would be directly engaged in the violence. So we feel like these cuts are both the result of the economy--they're not talking about bailing us out--but they're also a form of political retaliation against our organization because of the positions we've taken. We've been a very vocal organization. We've mobilized campaigns against public officials around issues involving the criminalization of youth and racial profiling and demanding that they address the root causes of violence.

This is happening to social programs across the board--everything from childcare centers to recreation, sports, and arts programs, violence prevention, academic programs--everything is getting cut--the schools, the universities, the junior colleges. It's going to increase poverty and it's going to increase violence, so eventually we have to spend the money anyways on the jails and the police. It's a reallocation of funding for militarization of these poor and working class communities. That's generally what happens during economic downturns--law enforcement gets an increase in funding.[4]

The economic downturn is having a direct impact on increasing the violence. Young people that we had success with, young people that we had convinced to leave the gang life, that had secured good jobs and were trying to go to school, they're going right back to the streets because they're unemployed now. Young people are coming to us saying, "If I can't find a job then I'm going to have to go back to selling drugs."

Narco News: How could government policy be more effective in reducing gang violence?

Jose Luis Pavon:
The models for the solution exist. If you look at the wealthy areas of the United States, like Manhattan or Beverly Hills, the children of wealthy people aren't shooting each other. They have access to quality education, their basic needs in terms of housing and healthcare are secured. They have access to the resources necessary for developing into an adult.

When you look at other countries such as Britain or France or Spain or even Cuba, these are countries that have invested and prioritized spending in education. They've also created programs to secure access to higher education as well as universal healthcare and stronger labor regulations to secure access to living wage jobs and quality employment. These countries don't have a gang violence problem like you see in the United States or in other countries around the world.

It's simple cause and effect: if you invest in young people's development, they become healthy productive citizens and members of society. If you fail to invest in young people, and instead of investing them you process them and institutionalize them through dysfunctional and racist and oppressive institutions, what you will get is dysfunctional adults.

The solution is out there, but ultimately the big resistance to it is that it requires a reallocation of wealth. If you're going to fund education, the money has to come from somewhere. If you're going to increase wages, the money has to come from somewhere. Ultimately it means increasing taxes for the middle class and the rich. Within the United States, that's something that the powers that be are extremely resistant to. But in Europe they pay really heavy taxes. All of the western European countries have much stronger policies in terms of securing the development of youth. And it works there, so I think it could work in other places, too.

Narco News: You mention Cuba as an example of a country that prioritizes education. Since Cuba is so close to countries with serious gang problems and because it's such a poor country, can you elaborate on the Cuba example?

Jose Luis Pavon: What's really interesting about Cuba is that Cuba has a tiny economy, is a very poor country, and even with the small amount of financing it has, it has some of the best education and some of the highest literacy rates in the world--it has a higher literacy rate than the United States.[5] It has universal healthcare, it has affordable housing, and Cuba does not have a gang violence problem. It does not have a massive amount of youth (or adults) killing each other like we've seen in neighboring countries like Haiti, Puerto Rico, Mexico, or Central American countries. Again, it's cause and effect. If you invest in young people, they grow up healthy. If you don't invest in them, they don't grow up healthy and you have problems.


[1] Approximately 50% of Black, American Indian, and Hispanic youth complete high school with a diploma. Approximately one-third of all US youth drop out of high school. The drop-out rate in southern states is higher: about 50%. For more statistics on youth graduation rates, see Silent Crisis: Large Numbers of Youth Are Not Completing High School.

[2] Most prisoners aren't murderers or violent criminals when they enter prison. In 2004, the last time the Department of Justice analyzed non-violent offenders in the state prisons, 75% of incarcerated individuals were non-violent offenders. According to the Justice Department, "The single largest offense category of nonviolent offenders discharged from prisons was drug trafficking, accounting for nearly 1 in 5 nonviolent releasees." The Justice Department's statistics also confirm Pavon's assertion that failings in the US education system also play a role in driving youth to criminal activities: 40% of non-violent offenders had less than a high school education, and an additional 25% had received a GED. This means that 65% of non-violent offenders did not complete high school with a diploma. For more information, see Profile of Nonviolent Offenders Exiting State Prisons (PDF file).

[3] The LA Times reports that California spends "far less than the national average for each of its students.... Even before the budget cuts, the state planned to spend $5,900 a student in California's higher-education system this year (including community college students) but almost 10 times that amount ($58,000) per inmate in our bloated prison system, which absorbs as much money from the state budget as Cal State and UC combined."

[4] The President's stimulus package includes $2 billion for law enforcement agencies across the country.

[5] Cuba's literacy rate is 99.8%. The United States' literacy rate is 99.0%

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