Friday, August 13, 2010

A Bottomless Pit of Death

A Bottomless Pit of Death

“Bottomless Pit of Death” headlined a recent Houston Chronicle article about finding many bodies in an abandoned Mexican silver mine”. That headline could serve as a perfect title for the American War on Drugs, or for that matter, any form of prohibition.

The Volstead Act, instituting national alcohol prohibition, went into effect in January, 1920. Less than a week later, unidentified gunmen fired multiple shots at one of the new bootleggers on a crowded street. All of the shots missed him, and luckily missed all of the by-standers as well. Two days later gunmen killed him on another crowded street, and one of the most violent decades in American history began.

Chicago was the Juarez of its day. Mobsters introduced the Thompson submachine gun – a weapon not then used by either the army or the police. Speeding black automobiles with a Tommy chattering from the window as they drove down the street were a weekly occurrence. Bomb blasts and grenades were even more common. Mass killings with six or eight victims were frequent; and many victims were either by-standers or misidentified innocents.

Virtually all of this violence disappeared overnight in 1933 when Prohibition was repealed. Al Capone and Bugs Moran were replaced by Budweiser and Millers beers, and they have not used guns or bombs in any of their marketing disputes in the intervening seventy-five years.

But the street-corner heroin markets of the inner cities showed the same violence on a smaller scale. It returned in a big way with the flood of Colombian cocaine through Miami and later in the crack gangs of the mid-eighties.

What about these markets is so conducive to violence? First, the amounts of money involved are almost beyond imagination. The daily profit from Chicago’s alcohol was probably close to a million dollars a day, not corrected for later inflation. Current estimates have the Mexican drug traffickers grossing over $30 Billion a year.

And a very large part of that money is profit. Heroin, when legal, sold for the same price as aspirin. Now it sells for $100,000 a kilogram on the street. Marijuana is a simple annual herb that should cost no more than parsley or broccoli, yet it sells for more than $200 an ounce. If these drugs were legalized and sold through normal, regulated markets, at least ninety per cent of the traffickers’ money would disappear, and with it would go the reason for the violence and the money to buy the weapons and hire the assassins.

The other problem that illegal traffickers face is that they have no police or courts to protect them. The Chicago bootleggers discovered they did not have to brew their own beer: they could simply hijack the other bootleggers’ trucks, which in turn had to be armed to fight off the hijackers. The seller of a bad batch of hooch or a purchaser who didn’t pay could not be sued, only shot. Marketing wars were not fought with advertising campaigns and discount coupons, but with machine guns and bombs. The same processes are seen in Mexico today.

Illegal, but popular, markets with lots of money lead to crooked cops. One of the latest stories from Juarez is about actual fighting between police units on different sides of the struggle to market drugs. With both sellers and buyers willing participants, traditional police measures are ineffective against black market transactions, and police are led to cooperate with criminals to develop informants and stings. The large amounts of money – and the normally low wages for police – make it a question of whether the police are buying informants or the marketeers are buying protection.

The police also become more violent, substituting direct physical punishment for that which they know the courts will not provide. In one of the most notorious examples, two of the killers in Chicago’s Valentine’s Day Massacre were wearing police uniforms. This crime, in which eight members of the Bugs Moran gang were machine-gunned, was never solved: no killers were identified and no one was ever arrested. Even today when the crime is discussed, experts are divided about whether police were actually among the killers. They all do agree that, in Chicago at that time, a policeman-murderer would not have been unusual. The common saying, with slight, understandable exaggeration, was that Capone had the entire Chicago police force on his payroll.

Conviction of police for crimes of violence have continued non-stop throughout the era of drug prohibition. In 1999, the keynote speaker at the National Association of Police Chiefs said that corruption was the major problem then facing police administration. Convictions in Texas have included police officers caught providing armed escorts to large drug shipments.

Police are also recipients of prohibition violence. In Houston, a major drug transshipment point, a shoot-out involving an undercover operation gone wrong is an almost weekly occurrence. Usually the smugglers are shot, but in a large number of these cases, either the police or bystanders are injured.

One of the major reasons for repealing drug prohibition is to eliminate this resulting violence. Now is the time to replace these modern-day Capones with a pharmaceutical version of Budweiser and Coors. Dispute settlement by gun should be replaced by resolution by the judge’s gavel.