Washington DC has one of the United States’ most inflated real-estate markets. So when my wife and I decided in 2003 to buy a home, we found our choices limited by our two non-profit salaries. We ended up in a neighborhood that is "transitioning," as they say in the real-estate business.
"Transitioning" means that even as houses get renovated and new condo buildings sprout up, there’s still quite a bit of crime, most of it drug-related. We have a crew of tough-looking kids (late teens-early twenties) who camp out on our corner every few weeks for several days at a time. Addicts from nearby neighborhoods, and lots of cars with Maryland and Virginia plates, come by to do furtive business. Calling the cops is almost useless, even if we do see a "transaction" take place – response times tend to be poor, the dealers are always on the lookout for a coming police vehicle, and they are usually careful to keep their drug stash hidden nearby, not on their persons.
For their part, the dealers leave the neighborhood’s residents alone, and some neighbors even argue that having them there makes us a bit safer because it keeps out other undesirables. (Just as many Colombians in dangerous zones profess gratitude for paramilitaries’ protection.) Some even seem angrier at the local liquor store that sells single cans of beer.
They’re wrong of course – nobody is safer, least of all the dealers themselves. Yesterday evening, as I was putting our one-year-old to bed, we heard a series of loud shots outside. Within a minute or two, the police were on the scene and a helicopter was overhead, its spotlight illuminating our back alley and nearby streets.
The view from our bedroom window last night.
As more cops arrived and began putting up yellow crime-scene tape, I went outside to find out what happened – as did almost all of our neighbors, some of whom I hadn’t seen in months. (A neighbor from around the corner has posted her account of the incident, which seems to have been a drive-by, to her excellent blog about the neighborhood.)
Across the intersection, which was full of police cars, I could see one of the corner guys doubled over in pain, being held upright by two companions. Word is he was hit in the groin, which is painful but not fatal. An ambulance quickly came and wheeled him away.
Police stayed in the area for a couple of hours, talking to us about what we heard, looking for stray bullet casings, and who knows what else. Safe in our house, we got on with our evening. The baby to sleep, we answered some e-mails, talked a bit and went to bed.
As the police vehicles’ lights flashed outside, I couldn’t help thinking about Colombia. After all, the shooting outside likely had something to do with drugs, and those drugs may have been produced in Colombia.
But it’s more than that. Between my job and my neighborhood, I regularly get to see both ends of the drug production and distribution chain. I see the coca plants in the fields in Colombia, and I see the dealers on the corners in the United States. And I’m really struck by the similarities between the poor Colombians who make a living growing or picking coca leaves, and the dead-end U.S. kids who spend their days selling the finished product to addicts.
Now, I’m not talking about the people in the middle of the chain, where the big money is. Most of the drug trade’s profits end up in the hands of the narco (or armed-group member) who buys the coca-growers’ crude paste, the criminal who distributes the finished product to street dealers, and everybody in betweeen.
On either extreme, though, the grower and the dealer are basically exploited. A coca-grower with a hectare of the plant, the UN has estimated (big PowerPoint file), ends up netting only about $199 per month, or just over $6 per day. As for the small-time dealers on the corner – the bestselling book Freakonomics, which has a chapter entitled "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?," accurately describes what a lousy deal they have. These kids spend all day in the heat or the cold, dealing with a rather unpleasant customer base, and end up with so little money that they don’t even have cars – they ride off on bicycles.
Not only do they see very little money, both the coca-grower and the street dealer are the most exposed to the violence that accompanies the drug trade. Colombia’s coca-growing regions are war zones in which extrajudicial executions are the order of the day. For their part, the foot soldiers on the corners of neighborhoods like mine never know when someone might drive by and shoot them in the groin.
At the same time, both the coca-grower and the street dealer are hit hardest by their governments’ horribly failed policies. In rural Colombia and urban America, chronic misgovernment – or a total lack of governance – has reduced opportunities in the legal economy. Residents of both areas live in poverty, with little or no access to education (Washington, for instance, is notorious for having one of the nation’s worst public-school systems), chronic insecurity and a weak social fabric. To many in both rural Colombia and urban America, the drug trade simply appears to be a rational way to make a living, despite the obvious risks.
But neither coca-growers nor small-time dealers are exactly ignored by their governments. In fact, both are by far the most likely to bear the brunt of law enforcement efforts. Coca growers are being fumigated on a massive scale, in the majority of cases with no offers of alternative development opportunities. In the United States, over 500,000 non-violent drug offenders are behind bars, about a quarter of the entire prison population.
In both Colombia and the United States, the small-timers – the growers and the dealers on the corner – have become the main target. And the result is an utter failure whose consequences are plainly visible not just in rural Colombia, but outside my bedroom window last night.