Drug War-Related Homicides In The US Average At Least 1,100 a Year
However, Full Extent of Carnage Unknowable Because US Government Doesn’t Track Violent Crime Linked To The War On Drugs
The number of people murdered in the drug war inside the United States between 2006 and 2010 exceeds the US-troop death toll in the Iraq War since it was launched in 2003, according to a Narco News analysis of FBI crime statistics.
The US drug-war homicide tally also is nearly three times greater than the number of US soldiers killed in Afghanistan since the first shots were fired in that war in 2001, the Narco News analysis shows.
And that US drug-war murder total — nearly 5,700 people cut down on US soil over the 5-year period examined by Narco News — very likely undercounts significantly the extent of the bloodshed.
Vice President Joe Biden early this week while visiting Mexico made it clear, according to media reports, that “there is no possibility” that the United States would entertain the notion of ending drug prohibition, despite a growing call among Latin American leaders and citizens of those countries for a new course in the bloody drug war, one that includes a discussion of drug legalization.
This stubborn resistance against entertaining any other options beyond a fundamentalist adherence to prohibition for dealing with drug use in the United States is cloaked in an arrogant denial of the human costs of the drug war and the possibility that ending it would lead to less, not more, death.
The US, by some estimates now spends about $40 billion a year at home and abroad waging its war on drugs and has imprisoned currently up to 400,000 people on drug-related charges — the vast majority of them nonviolent offenders.
And Mexico, since late 2006, has seen more than 50,000 of its people slaughtered as part of this drug war — escalated by its current president, Felipe Calderon, who, with the assistance of the US government, has declared an all-out war on the “cartels.” The number of US citizens murdered in Mexico since Calderon declared his assault on the cartels has jumped from 35 in 2007 to 120 last year, according to the US State Department — and that count includes only murders reported to the US government.
But we are supposed to accept that the drug-war tragedy is playing out elsewhere, in the lawless lands of Mexico and Latin America at large, far outside the borderlines of the United States — the major magnet for illegal drugs because its citizens, by far, are the world’s leading consumers of that contraband. Or we are led to believe any misery spawned inside the United States by prohibition is locked up safely behind US prison walls because of this nation’s impressive dragnet system of law enforcement and justice.
That is the meme the status-quo wing of the drug-war debate, as it now exists, trumpets, syncopated only by dire warnings from a reactionary right wing of the danger of the “spillover” violence from that “other” land to the south, Mexico.
The United States, by contrast, if we are to believe the mainstream media, is playing the role of the mighty superhero of this drug war, working hard to fend off a potential invasion by barbarian cartels — who chop off heads and kill babies.
But neither the status quo nor reactionary elements of this debate, or the mainstream media for that matter, are correct, because the truth rests elsewhere, in this case with the uncounted dead.
The so-called liberal media contends they have examined crime rates along the border and in America overall, and they are down in recent years, evidence that there is no spillover effect from Mexico’s bloody drug war. The reactionary elements push back, though, claiming the liberal media is biased and twisting the statistics to protect the status quo, what they deem their liberal interests.
The focus on the actual effects of the drug war inside the United States, as a result, is lost and diverted to an endless game of political positioning and empty rhetoric devoid of verifiable evidence.
But here is the hard truth: The United States, despite its claims of openness and transparency when it comes to justice, does not track, in any systematic way, crimes related to the drug war. So we have no real way of knowing whether there is a “spillover” effect, what’s more the true extent of crime and death being caused inside the United States by our current policy of prohibition. In fact, it appears Mexico, despite all of its problems, has been far more honest in assessing that toll within its own nation because it at least publicizes, even if it massages, the actual number of homicides linked to the drug war.
A report released by the US Congressional Research Service in August of last year drives the point home:
Currently, no comprehensive, publicly available data exist that can definitively answer the question of whether there has been a significant spillover of drug trafficking-related violence into the United States.
… CRS analyzed violent crime data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report program. The data, however, do not allow analysts to determine what proportion of the violent crime rate is related to drug trafficking or, even more specifically, what proportion of drug trafficking-related violent crimes can be attributed to spillover violence. [Emphasis added.]
… In conclusion, because the trends in the overall violent crime rate may not be indicative of trends in drug trafficking-related violent crimes, CRS is unable to draw definitive claims about trends in drug trafficking-related violence spilling over from Mexico into the United States.
The hardened attitude exhibited by Vice President Biden with respect to the notion of ever considering drug legalization is a bit mind-boggling in light of the CRS report. How can he, or anyone in the pro drug-war camp, know whether adopting an alternative to prohibition would result in a better or worse fate for the country, if we as a nation don’t even measure the effects, in terms of crime and death, of the current, hugely expensive and bellicose approach?
And how can we consider with any credibility the claims of the reactionary right about a spillover effect along the border, and the resulting call to further militarize our border, when they, too, have little more than anecdotes, often hyperbole, to support their contention that violence in that region is increasing due to the influence of Mexican drug organizations?
The CRS report elucidates the basic quandary confronting anyone who seeks an honest discussion about prohibition. And that quandary exists because of the lack of available data on drug-war related crime. The CRS report states, in essence, that even if crime rates are going down along the border and across the nation (as they have been in recent years) that does not provide evidence for concluding that drug-trafficking-related crime is either going down or up.
From the report:
Even an indicator that conceptually could provide some value added to the central question (to choose an example popularly cited in the media — violent crimes excluding robberies) is difficult to evaluate. For example, in Tucson, the number of violent crimes excluding robberies from January to March of 2009 was 632; for the same period in 2008 the number was 651. So, there were fewer violent crimes in Tucson in the first three months of 2009 than in 2008
… If the premise — that the United States is experiencing spillover violence stemming from the drug trafficking activity in Mexico — is accurate, one would expect violent crimes to go up, and drug trafficking-related violent crimes would be included in the more general violent crime reporting. On the other hand, a significant drop in non-drug trafficking-related violence could obscure a rise in actual drug trafficking-related violent crime. However, the true driver of the change in drug trafficking-related violent crime cannot be ascertained from [the available] statistics.
The Narco News Analysis
There is one crime statistic, though, that is tracked, to a reasonably measurable degree, by the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, and that crime is murder. The UCR reports include a category for “narcotics”-related homicides. Even this measure is not pure [see Murder Methodology sidebar above] but it offers some insight into the US blowback from the drug war, as it is currently being waged.
During the first six months of 2011, the UCR data show that total murders were down 5.7 percent across the country. For 2010, the most recent period for which full-year data is available, the UCR data show murders nationwide declined by 3.85 percent — from 15,339 in 2009 to 14,748 in 2010.
However, Narco News examined news reports and also made calls to local police departments to obtain the full-year 2011 murder statistics for the major cities along the Mexican border-area stretch of Interstates 10 and 8 (extending east to west from New Orleans to San Diego and including Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Phoenix and Tucson.). And in every major city except Houston along that route, which is a major drug-trafficking corridor, murder rates were up last year — counter to the national trend. [See chart].
Now, is this evidence of a possible spillover effect? At least one former DEA agent who now does work as an expert court witness seems to think it may well be so.
“I think you may be right [about the spillover effect being along major drug-transit routes],” says Mike Levine, a former deep cover DEA agent who often testifies in court cases as an expert witness. “I had to testify in a home invasion case in Phoenix where part of the testimony was about the steep increase in Mexico drug-related violence.”
But again, as the CRS report points out, we can’t be sure, since though it seems like a coincidence beyond chance that murder rates would spike in the same year, against the national trend, in most of the major cities along a significant US drug-trafficking route, it can’t be ruled out that some other factor or factors besides drug-trafficking were behind the increases. In addition, why did Houston not follow the pattern?
Conversely, a flat or falling murder rate doesn’t prove the absence of drug-war related homicides in a community. In fact, one source who spoke with Narco News, an individual with an intelligence agency background, pointed out that the leaders of criminal organizations are not stupid, and if they are intent on killing someone in the United States, the professional assassins they employ would know enough to carry it out in an area, if possible, where there is likely to be an inexperienced law enforcement agency when it comes to homicide investigations.
A case in point is Chandler, Ariz., a city with a population of 241,000 located near Phoenix. The Arizona Republic reported in March of last year that a man was found beheaded in an apartment in Chandler, the suspected victim of a “Mexican drug trafficking organization” due to his error in misappropriating a load of marijuana. The police report on the murder, which was ignored by the national media, can be found at this link.
In 2010, UCR data show, Chandler had a total of six murders, up from five the year prior. By contrast, Phoenix, right next door, had 117 murders in 2010 — and consequently a much more experienced homicide investigation team.
How many other small communities around the nation might have hosted a drug war-related killing is simply not known, because, again, it is not something our nation cares to track.
But what is known from the FBI’s UCR data is that between 2007 and 2008, the murder rate in “non-metropolitan counties” was up 9.1 percent; between 2008 and 2009, it shot up 6.3 percent in non-suburban cities (with the largest spike, 12.5 percent, in non-suburban cities with a population between 25,000 and 49,999); and between 2009 and 2010, the murder rate in suburban cities with populations between 25,000 and 49,999 was up 4.9 percent. These spikes in smaller towns and cities were occurring even as the national murder rate between 2007 and 2010 declined each year, from 17,128 down to 14,748.
And then there is another phenomena, the "disappeared," a term that shouldn’t be reserved solely for the drug war in Mexico. A former Mexican cartel member now in hiding in the United States, who spoke with Narco News recently, tells the following story:
One day they brought this guy from Chicago all way to Juarez…. I don’t know how they passed him [across the border]. But they brought him alive.… He didn’t pay and he told guys form Juarez … if you want me, come and get me, and he started laughing, and they went and got him [in Chicago].
They have their people over there [in the US] and say, "This is the guy’s address where he is living. Find the guy." It was like two or three days [later and the kidnappers] call back to Juarez and say they got the guy and took him all way to Juarez and killed him there.
Counting the Dead
Narco News’ examination of the FBI’s UCR murder data was limited to 2006-2010 because that is the period for which full-year data was available that, for the most part, coincides with Mexican President Calderon’s war on the drug organizations in Mexico, during which the death toll related to that war there exceeds 50,000. In no way is the carnage in Mexico due to the drug war comparable to the drug war-related murders in the United States, a nation with three times to population. At an estimated 5,668 homicides between 2006-2010, the US death toll related to the drug war may seem extremely low, even acceptable to some.
But when put in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in which some 4,500 and 1,900 US soldiers have been killed, respectively, and taking into account the extent of the media coverage of those wars, and the political upheaval it has caused the nation, it is hard to understand how there could be anything acceptable about the drug-war murder toll approaching 6,000 souls in the US over a five year period (and that excludes the decades of death preceding that time span, given the drug war has been ongoing since the Nixon administration.)
Narco News’ analysis also does not even consider how many of the more than 9,000 murders between 2006-2010 known to be linked to burglaries, robberies, vehicle theft and gang shootings also have a nexus to the drug war. Clearly, a large number of such crimes resulting in murders do involve the illegal narcotics trade.
But there may be one unacceptable reason this nation (beyond protecting the interests of those profiting from prohibition) chooses to not only ignore its own drug war-related murders, or to even count them: Most of this nation’s drug-war victims are minorities, the majority of them African American. The FBI’s UCR data points out that in 2010, 50.4 percent of the murder victims for whom race was known “were black.”
And, unfortunately, the US has a long history of ignoring the plight of its minority and poor populations, often painting their fates as deserved, as though all victims in their communities are criminals as well. Although for different reason, given the different history of Mexico, this same inclination to blame the victims has surfaced in that nation’s drug war as well, with President Calderon making the outrageous claim that “90 percent” of Mexico’s drug-war victims are “criminals.”
The deceit of that claim, however, has been exposed through a mass nonviolent movement that has sprung up in Mexico over the past year; it has risen up despite the daily drumbeat of drug-war propaganda, intolerance and indifference. The Movement is demanding that the government end the senseless carnage of the drug war while also assuring that the dead are counted, and named and remembered. Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity has been advanced by many talented organizers in that nation, but it also is inspired and spearheaded by one of its great writers and poets, Javier Sicilia, whose son and half a dozen other victims, none of them “criminals,” were ruthlessly murdered in Mexico last March by drug-gang members.
From a statement issued last August by Sicilia and the Movement:
In the name of this love that is peace, in the name of this peace that we owe to ourselves and that we always express through the sign of a kiss, in the name of the pain that we carry, we ask for a moment of silence for the dead to whom we never gave this love and peace we are demanding.
… We reiterate that we’ve not only had it up to here with the war, but also with the deception and the simulation that make it possible and accompany it.
... We reiterate our readiness for a true dialogue to deal with the substantive issues involving the ongoing war.
… We urge the executive and legislative branches to return to the dialogue by showing an authentic willingness to listen to the citizens so that together we can bring peace. We remind them of the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”
Why, in the United States, has there been no similar voice or movement against the drug war? True, the carnage here is far less than the death toll in Mexico as a result of that same war, but is it also true that every human life is unique and that it matters, that one life should have the same value as another life, and its loss not ignored because it does not command as big a headline?
And how do we know how many lives might be saved going forward if we, as a nation, actually did entertain an alternative to the current drug war? Might the murder rate actually go down if the stakes for those engaged in the now illegal drug business were not so high and if more money was invested in reducing the harm of drug use and addiction as an alternative to prohibition enforced by the gun?
How can we ever know the answers to those questions if we don’t even count our own dead, name them and assure they are not simply written off as worthless criminals?
Because, I ask you, what is so criminal about being a child, like the three young children (ages 5, 3 and 23 months) gunned down in Oakland, Calf., last year, victims of the stray bullets of our drug war; or the pregnant mother who met the same fate in Brooklyn last year; and the thousands of other innocent victims of our nation’s drug-war policies that we never count or remember, beyond the headline of the day?