The illegal drug market in the U.S. is one of the most profitable, and most violent, in the world. Street-corner drug sales are the financial backbone of the majority of gangs on a national level. As a gang investigator, you’ll have significant crossover into drug-related investigations.
When discussing gangs and drugs, it is important to understand that gang members are critical to the overall picture on a local, national and even international level. Without gangs, drugs from many foreign trafficking organizations wouldn’t reach the end user on the streets. Gang members make up the bulk of the street-level sales of drugs in population centers around the country.
The debate over the legalization of drugs (i.e., treat it as a public health issue) is beyond the scope of this article and should not dictate or alter our obligation as law enforcement officers to do what we can to remove drugs from our society. Foreign drug traffickers need American gang members to get their product to the end users on the street as much as the gang members need the traffickers to keep the supply (and subsequent profits) flowing. This is why drug enforcement of gang members is so critical to fighting the war on drugs and suppressing street gangs. If we stop local street distribution, we have an impact all the way up the chain. So, what can law enforcement do to suppress gangs involved in drugs?
Attacking the Supply
The U.S. government is obligated to protect citizens from the threats posed by illegal drugs crossing our borders and being purchased and sold in our communities. We must increase the risk for traffickers and force them to take less efficient, poorly established routes to increase the likelihood of being apprehended and to reduce the amounts of drugs from reaching the community. If successful, the street prices of controlled substances should rise because the cost to the traffickers in the form of arrests and lost loads would be increased.
Many factors contribute to the problems with drug traffickers, gang members, and the availability of controlled substances in California for four primary reasons: 1) traffickers have well-established smuggling routes with strong ethnic and family ties; 2) Mexico lacks effective importation laws and has no chemical control laws; 3) Mexico has no conspiracy laws and has little or no interest from Mexican authorities in pursuing long-term investigations; 4) The profits from drug trafficking are staggering and Mexican law enforcement salaries are extremely low, making bribery of public officials commonplace.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, our country has 88,633 miles of coastline and more than 7,500 miles of borders with Mexico and Canada, including over 300 ports of entry. The U.S./Mexico border is over 2,000 miles long. With such a large area and so many people and conveyances, as well as a limited number of resources, it’s no wonder why smuggling is so prevalent.
A major concern is that illegal drugs are one of the primary causes of violent crime in our society. Violence occurs in connection with drugs and gangs for three primary reasons:
Legal businesses and industries rely on the justice system to enforce contracts and punish those that violate terms of agreements. In the drug world, buyers and sellers rely on their own resources to enforce contracts. Violence is often the only effective preventative measure against “unfair trade practices,” and violence is considered a small price to pay for wealth and power in the gang world. As we know, most gang members will use violence at the slightest provocation in the course of conducting business.
Drug Dealers & Gangsters
Gang members have been found at all levels of drug organizations, including:
Intelligence can be useful at three operational levels of narcotics investigation: street-level transportation and distribution; midlevel distribution networks; and major drug trafficking organizations and cartels. Intelligence gathering in drug investigations is used to increase the quality of arrests, as well as the quantity of arrests. By undertaking well-planned drug operations quality arrests can be made. Such arrests typically have more of a long-term impact and also generate funds by way of asset forfeiture.
Levels of Gang Activity
Street-level: At this level, it is most important to get good intelligence on the patterns of systemic violence and on what gang controls which corners or streets. Violence is typically used to expand drug territory or to protect existing turf. Violence is either used to intimidate competitors or to retaliate against the competition in an effort to put them out of business. Understanding how violence is utilized by drug dealers at the street-level is an essential function of gang crime analysis. Being able to estimate fairly predictable responses can guide buy bust and buy walk operations, raids, sweeps, and other operations in a way that is timely and more productive.
Midlevel: At this level, police typically have surveillance in place and have exhausted as many lower-level informants as they can "flip.” One of the primary characteristics of a midlevel drug dealer is poly-drug distribution; that is, they can get various quantities of just about any drug.
Often these gang members will cross gang lines and deal with individuals who may be rivals on the street. Their supply is typically steady and their product is consistent. They may own several properties, they have skilled lawyers, and they draw from the gang to help sustain and grow their business (lookouts, runners, collectors). They seem to have an exclusive territory of operation, and they often use counter surveillance techniques and equipment.
Midlevel dealers usually have established connections to a major narcotics network, and their phone records will reveal calls made to other countries or to port cities in the United States. Intelligence analysis of midlevel or upper-level dealers will include telephone record analysis, association analysis, event flow analysis, and financial analysis.
Major: At this level, an individual has mapped out territories, nationally or internationally, where exclusive networks exist for the manufacture, smuggling, and distribution of large quantities of narcotics.
This syndicate can be a cartel, ring, gang or posse. Good organization, cross-referencing and link charts are necessary when investigating major gang drug dealing. Informants and undercover operations are especially hazardous at this level, and these gangs do not typically deal with people they do not know and trust. Most cases have international connections and require cooperation with law enforcement in other countries.
Major dealers will often use legitimate businesses as outlets to sell their wares, as a location away from the controlled substances to secrete their records, and as a means to launder the proceeds of their drug-dealing. This allows the large amounts of cash taken in from buyers to be funneled into legitimate business purchases, hidden within legitimate business deposits at banks, and/or used as a “front” or façade for making legitimate investments in other negotiable items.
Show Me the Money
Seize their money: Law enforcement needs to target the gang money and assets, as well as the industries that launder their illegal gains. Law enforcement can reduce the profitability of drug dealing for the street gangs and increase the cost of laundering money with enforcement. This will require a multidisciplinary approach, including cooperation between the financial institutions and law enforcement with strict money laundering regulations and laws. Gang members do not traditionally report their illegal income to the IRS. Some acquire legitimate businesses to make their illegal money appear legal so it can be spent however and whenever they want.
To target a gang member’s money, evaluate records and banking information, which typically requires a search warrant to obtain. You may want to consider some of the issues when drafting a warrant for a gang member’s bank account.
Drug dealers will often maintain records on computers. Also, those so engaged will frequently maintain books, business ledgers, lists, notations and other memoranda to assist them in their criminal enterprises. Such persons will frequently keep materials memorializing past transactions, the status of accounts, inventories and income and expense records. These materials are created and maintained in much the same way and for the same reasons as persons involved in legitimate business keep similar materials. Likewise, the status of accounts, inventories, income and expenses records and the like, are all pieces of relevant evidence which will tend to identify all those engaged in illicit trafficking of controlled substances.
Reduce the Demand
If crime is to be reduced permanently, addiction must be treated; simply punishing drug dependent criminals is not enough. We must implement effective rehabilitation programs at all stages of the criminal justice process, including jails, prisons, courts, and effective probation and parole, as well as rehabilitation and substance abuse centers.
We must break the cycle of drug abuse and crime in the United States. The National Association of Drug Court Professionals reports that drug courts have channeled hundreds of thousands non-violent drug law offenders into a tough; court supervised treatment programs instead of prison or jail. Participants who pass the court-mandated program have the charges against them dismissed; those who fail are referred to regular courts for prosecution and sentencing.
It is clear that gangs and drugs are a significant threat to the safety of any community; drugs destroy individuals, families, and entire communities and are the catalyst for a wide range of crimes committed. Whenever possible, target gangs involved in selling drugs and you will have an impact on the overall availability of drugs in your community.