The epidemic of inner city murders in Chicago is well known. Less well known is the spread of heroin and other drugs to the rural counties of the Midwest. The link between these two pathologies is virtually unknown, but is crucial to an understanding of the Midwestern battlefield in the drug wars.
Oddly, the battlefield is getting more bloody partly because of social and police policies that can be seen as successes in themselves. These include the demolition of Chicago’s huge public housing projects, the flow of Mexican immigrants to Chicago, the city’s role as the nation’s transport hub, police successes in breaking up huge urban gangs, the spread of affordable housing in small towns, and state laws that have helped squelch local labs making methamphetamine, or meth.
One of the best descriptions of this recently is an article in the October issue of Bloomberg Markets Magazine that focuses on the billionaire Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman, and his success in taking over the Chicago market for heroin, cocaine, marijuana and meth.
The article tells how Guzman, from his hideout in the Sierra Madre of northern Mexico, directs the Sinaloa cartel, a multi-billion-dollar drug empire target that supplies 80 percent of the heroin, cocaine, marijuana and meth sold in the Chicago region – a $3 billion per year business. The result is a monopoly that has eliminated price competition between gangs and replaced it with a bloody competition for turf.
The drugs flow up from Mexico via the highways and rail lines that converge on Chicago, then fan out from here across the Midwest. Mostly, they pass through the criminal underground of Chicago’s vast Mexican community, with much of the action apparently in the Little Village neighborhood southeast of the Loop. If this Mexican immigration – nearly 1.5 million people in the city and suburbs – is a huge contribution to the city’s current prosperity, this criminal underground feeds the violence that scars its poorer neighborhoods.
As the article says, there are virtually “two Chicagos” these days – the glittering and safe swath along Lake Michigan, through the Loop and into the north side, and the murderous streets of the south and west sides, embracing the poorer African-American and Latino neighborhoods. This is where Guzman and his cartel do business.
It’s not that most of the victims are gang members, although many undoubtedly are: many of the victims, including children, are innocent targets caught in the gunfire. But most of the violence that kills them originates in turf battles between the drug gangs.
Many of the roads into this tragedy are paved with progress. It’s not only the transport hub and immigrant communities – two indisputable strengths for the city.
It’s also the destruction of the housing projects, which were high-rise poverty warehouses controlled by gangs: many police refused to go into them. They’re mostly gone now, but their gangbangers have scattered to previously peaceful black neighborhoods: an elderly woman I know in the middle class Chatham neighborhood says she now feels like a prisoner in her own home.
At the same time, police have broken up many of the huge gangs that used to dominate Chicago’s drug trade. There’s not much good to say about these gangs, but they did discipline their troops and focus the violence. In their place now are hundreds of mini-gangs, each heavily armed and fighting to establish control over their own street corner.
Another factor is Chicago’s success in turning itself from an old industrial city into a shiny new global city. About one-third of the city – that safe and prosperous core along the lake – is benefitting from this new economy. The rest, including much of the black and Latino populations, is still caught in the wreckage of the industrial economy that once provided their jobs. With those jobs gone, they’re locked in a poverty that offers neither income nor hope to young people who, too often, see a future only in drugs.
The same economic plight now seizes many of the smaller industrial and farms towns around the Midwest. Again, jobs and hopes have disappeared. The social impact – high dropout rates and drug use – is the same as in the city.
Into this fertile landscape are moving some of the gangbangers cast adrift when the housing projects went down. If some of them moved into other Chicago neighborhoods, others are arriving in smaller Midwestern cities, drawn by lower living costs and the promise of Section 8 (subsidized) housing.
These were towns already seized by the meth epidemic before the Chicagoans ever showed up. Author Nick Reding, described this vividly in his book, Methland, about Oelwein, a small town in northeastern Iowa. Since 2009, when the book came out, Iowa and other Midwestern states have moved to restrict the sale of cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in meth.
This crackdown has worked, in a fashion. It pretty well put local meth labs out of business. But it opened a market for Mexican meth, one of Guzman’s products. It also created demand for other drugs, including cocaine and heroin, which by all accounts are flooding into rural Midwestern counties.
A friend just back from Logan County, a mostly rural county in central Illinois, said there have been a number of heroin-related deaths there, caused by overdoses, not shootings. At least 17 people are in jail there on drug-selling charges.