Monday, February 23, 2009

Best bet for ending gang violence is to remove the profit

A UVic student I met last fall when I was teaching a journalism course let me read an interview he’d done with a Vancouver gang member - a childhood friend of his.
It was an extraordinary read. Everybody’s got an opinion on why gangs have become such a deadly problem in B.C. and how we’ll get a handle on things, but it was fascinating to get a take on the issue from the point of view of a former gang member.
Like a lot of the young people caught up in Vancouver’s gang scene right now, this kid had grown up as a generally happy and well-cared-for child in a financially comfortable family. Boys emerging from impoverished, troubled childhoods are still the primary recruits for a lot of Canadian gangs, but the rise of a new kind of gang culture in Vancouver points to more complicated risk factors that we’ve barely begun to understand.
This particular young man was drawn into gang life after meeting another teen a couple years older than him who had it all going on: Money; cars; girls; drugs; stature among his peers. The older teen asked the boy if he wanted to earn a little money selling marijuana to his secondary-school classmates.
Within months, he was making more money than he’d ever imagined. He’d also undergone a transformation among his peers: From the quiet kid at school who nobody noticed, to the one whom everybody wanted to hang out with.
He had a cool car, lots of girls interested in him, and access to the best drugs. Heady stuff when you’re an invincible 16-year-old.
Neither this boy nor anyone he worked with in the gang seemed to worry too much about running afoul of the law. So I’d counsel that we think twice before assuming that more policing and tougher jail sentences will solve Vancouver’s escalating problems. Things are always much more complex than that.
The boy was eventually invited to be a truck driver for the gang, moving drugs back and forth over the Canada-U.S. border. The older teen he’d first met continued to be a mentor of sorts, even inviting the boy to room with him for a while after he fought with his parents over the source of his lavish new lifestyle. The parties at the new place were non-stop.
In his eight years in the business, he never got caught. He made a ton of money. The only reason he even left gang life was because guys above him in the hierarchy started getting killed by rival gangs, and he knew his time would be coming soon if he didn’t get out. He’s back at university now, studying to be a pharmacist.
A word like “gang” has a great deal of emotional charge, but at its essence a gang is an organization that’s in the business of buying, selling or producing something that’s illegal.
The product can be just about anything; I remember reading a few years ago about U.S. gangs who specialized in hazardous waste, because there was a lucrative business at that time in illegal dumping. Here in B.C., it’s mostly drugs, the trade of which we are superbly placed to handle due to our long coastline, proximity to the U.S., and sophisticated network of marijuana operations.
Were the product anything but illegal drugs, the B.C. government would be bragging about the runaway success of a local industry. Like it or not, it’s an immensely successful industry, albeit one in which murder is an acceptable corporate strategy for resolving rivalries and personal slights.
Gangs exist because many, many people in the mainstream community want to do illegal things, and go looking for someone to provide it. So either we’re going to have to stop buying anything illegal, or we’re going have to make more things legal in hopes of cutting into gang profits.
We obviously don’t want to be legalizing every criminal activity. But it seems to me we could make significant progress by starting with drugs and sex. Decades of bad law haven’t done a thing to curb demand or supply of either of those products, so it’s not like we’d be abandoning a winning strategy.
It’s the buying habits of the mainstream community that fuels gang activity. Any real solution has to involve making gang life less profitable.
Yes, we also need enforcement, and meaningful tools for understanding the small segment of privileged, middle-class boys who end up attracted to the egocentric and anti-social world of gangs. But we’ll get to the root of the problem only by taking the money out of it.

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