It’s 1985. Law enforcement is closing in on the last remnants of the South Philadelphia fiefdom of mob boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo.
A group of eight young African American men, led by Aaron Jones, a brash 23-year-old drug dealer, gathers in the Germantown section of Northwest Philadelphia to hatch a bold plan.
With the noose slowly tightening around one of the nation’s most powerful Mafia families, Jones and his cohorts sense an unprecedented opportunity. Adopting the motto “Get Down, or Lay Down,” their newly formed “Junior Black Mafia” (JBM) prepares to exploit the looming power vacuum.
The group’s goal is nothing short of complete control over every crack corner in Philly. Even if it means muscling out, or in some cases murdering, every rival drug dealer in the city.
As the trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán continues in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn, America would do well to reflect on the story of JBM.
Why? Because the gang’s rapid rise and fall is a reminder that disrupting well-organized crime syndicates—even those led by ruthless killers like “Little Nicky” Scarfo—generally leaves multiple groups of initially less capable, frequently more desperate opportunists to fight over the scraps. In other words, it’s a great way to create more violence.
We can call this pattern the “Freelancer Effect.”
Contrary to time-worn mythology about the Mafia’s disdain for the drug trade, La Cosa Nostra held a lock on drug trafficking across much of Philadelphia for decades.
They extorted from dealers and distributors; engaged in international heroin trafficking along with members of New York and New Jersey crime families; and monopolized local methamphetamine production in collaboration with the “K&A Gang”—a group of Irish and Polish gangsters based out of the Kensington section of North Philadelphia.
“It’s just raining a hail of bullets out there.”
The police crackdown unleashed a reign of violence in Philly that lasted six years and left dozens of bodies. “The reduced involvement of La Cosa Nostra created considerable market flux and opportunities for established and emerging entrepreneurs in the drug marketplace,” the Pennsylvania Crime Commission noted in 1990, in an assessment of organized crime in the state during the previous decade.
The commission added that cocaine, in particular, was a catalyst for “non-traditional crime groups and freelance drug entrepreneurs.” Reasons for its suitability included the drug’s abundance and the low barrier to market entry—by the mid-1980s, cocaine was flooding the US to support wars in Latin America; almost anyone could get their hands on weigh—plus the ease with which powder cocaine could be cooked into cheap doses of crack.
Scarfo and most of his lieutenants were in jail by 1986. JBM eventually suffered the same fate; Jones and his top associates are currently serving life sentences.
But the impact of JBM’s short, bloody lifespan, was profound. The number of killings in the city rose by more than 20 percent during the gang’s peak. In 1990—the year before a federal indictment brought down 26 JBM members, including its senior leadership—Philadelphia’s homicide rate hit its highest level on record.
“Our homicide rate is going through the roof,” said Ronald D. Castille, then-Philadelphia district attorney. “It’s just raining a hail of bullets out there on the streets.”
Violence isn’t the only manifestation of the Freelancer Effect. Let’s take another look at Philadelphia’s drug history—but this time much more recent.
In August 2017, a massive geographic displacement of drug users took place, following the police closure of “El Campamento”—an outdoor drug market and injection site hidden behind a mass of foliage alongside railroad tracks in the city’s West Kensington section.
Dozens of amateur drug entrepreneurs took advantage of the crackdown. There have since been two main outcomes: a breakdown in the stability of communities that surrounded El Campamento (including, but not limited to, more violence); and two large outbreaks of tainted heroin that sickened nearly 400 people. The affected areas were largely clustered outside Philadelphia’s traditional heroin market, and in several cases were linked to free “sample” bags given out by upstart drug-dealing “sets” (as the crews are known here).
“One crew moved three times in just a week after the owner was nearly shot.”
“There are new corners and new samples being given out every day,” Mike, a homeless IV heroin user in Kensington, tells me. “Sometimes a corner will pop up for a couple days and then disappear, or the same stamp will turn up somewhere else. One crew moved three times in just a week after the owner was nearly shot for encroaching too close to another drug dealing set.”
Research on the impact of disruptive enforcement strategies on illicit drug economies is scarce. But a paper published in 2010 in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that disrupting drug markets can increase violence by creating a power vacuum.
“The association between increased drug law enforcement funding and increased drug market violence may seem paradoxical,” the authors wrote. “However, in many of the studies reviewed here, experts delineated certain causative mechanisms that may explain this association. Specifically, research has shown that by removing key players from the lucrative illegal drug market, drug law enforcement has the perverse effect of creating new financial opportunities for other individuals to fill this vacuum by entering the market.”
Market disruption is also responsible for upending long-held, if informal, conventions that protect customers and sellers alike.
“There always been knuckleheads out here, but now these young boys don’t got no rules.”
Former Philadelphia drug dealers tell Filter, for example, that prior to highly publicized enforcement efforts, such as “Operation Sunrise”—a massive investment of resources launched in 1998, involving around-the-clock police presences in certain drug neighborhoods—active heroin users were prohibited from dealing the drug on many of the city’s corners. Corner managers, known as “caseworkers” in Philly, took pains to enforce protective zones around their businesses and ensure product consistency.
“Back then there were limits on what you could put in the dope. We never cut that shit with these crazy chemicals, you could never get away with that,” says Luis, a retired caseworker who now works as a mechanic. “If a customer got beat, we made it right. I mean, there always been knuckleheads out here, but now these young boys don’t got no rules.”
Operation Sunrise reduced open-air drug dealing in one small geographic cluster of North Philadelphia and led to a surge in low-level drug arrests. It had no impact on overall rates of addiction, however. It just moved business elsewhere.
A spike in violence was another unintended consequence, as opportunists took advantage of the instability to rip off dealers and users alike. User-on-user violence increased—since in many cases it was easier to rob someone else who had drugs than risk trying to buy them. The high level of arrests also led to an increase in fugitive defendants.
According to criminologist George F. Rengert, this same theory extends to so-called kingpins who supply wholesale quantities of drugs.
“It is questionable from a theoretical perspective whether breaking up a monopolistic drug distributing cartel is beneficial to society,” he observed in his 1996 book, The Geography of Illegal Drugs. “Monopolies tend to create higher prices and supply smaller quantities. Smaller quantities are desirable in regard to illegal drugs. There is no empirical evidence that removing a wholesaler will make drugs less available at the retail level over the long run because the service that wholesalers provide to the retailers could be supplied just as well by someone else.”
“If high level enforcement is to benefit society,” he added, “we must assume that no new organization will develop to continue the operation of the previous organization.”
Events in Mexico suggest that Rengert was right.
As head of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán oversaw an army that helped move massive quantities of drugs, including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, across America’s Southwest border.
The election of tough-on-crime candidate Felipe Calderón to the Mexican presidency in 2006 unleashed a major federal crackdown on the drugs trade. This helped foment a bloody six-year war for supremacy among splintering factions of numerous drug-trafficking groups; all were seeking to take advantage of the weakening of the powerful Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, following its leader’s arrest in 2008.
But by 2011, a newly emboldened Sinaloa Cartel emerged as the winner. A so-called “Pax Sinaloa” descended on Mexico. Murder rates began dropping, and for a time, as President Enrique Peña Nieto replaced Calderón, El Chapo’s hold on power kept relative stability.
According to Justice for Mexico, the number of homicides nationwide plateaued at the lowest level in years from early 2013 through early 2015—just about the period when the Sinaloa Cartel’s dominance was at its height.
Credit: Justice for Mexico
Guzmán’s removal has done nothing to stem the flow of drugs across the US border. As of August, seizures of heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl had already surpassed 2017 numbers. It has, however, led to a massive surge in violence that has left little of Mexico untouched.
“The breakup of the big cartels led to a criminal insurgency, because once these gangs were left without leaders and without the money they made from the sale of drugs, they turned to attacking society in general,” said Juan Alberto Cedillo, author of Las Guerras Ocultas del Narco (“The Hidden Drug Wars”), in a recent interview.
We should probably be grateful that the cartel was not more damaged by the capture of its one-time leader.
According to the US Treasury, the Sinaloa Cartel is nonetheless still one of the world’s most powerful drug trafficking organizations, with a presence in more than half of Mexico’s 31 states, and control of at least eight trafficking hubs (Plazas) along the nearly 375 miles of the US border. Its business connections are well established as far away as Asia.
And—counterintuitively to some—we should probably be grateful that the cartel was not more damaged by the capture of its one-time leader.
Scott Stewart, a former special agent with the US State Department who now analyzes Mexican cartels and other drug trafficking groups for the firm Stratfor, has written extensively on the so-called “balkanization” of Mexico’s drug trafficking groups, as well as their expansion into other criminal ventures, such as extortion and the theft of fuel. Most recently, offshoots of Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) have been implicated in colluding with a tobacco firm to establish a monopoly in at least eight Mexican states.
Stewart says the fragmentation that has occurred is responsible for wreaking havoc on regional Mexican economies. “Just look at Guerrero State [a poppy growing region where several smaller cartels are town-by-town for territory]; you talk about freelancing and balkanization, the increased number of splinter groups there has forced businesses to pull out, so that’s why Pepsi and Coke pulled their business out of there,” he says. “You have one group extorting you one day and another the next. You don’t know who to pay.”
If stability in drug markets cuts violence, government regulatory regimes like the one just established for marijuana in Canada are probably the closest thing we have to a solution. Until they arrive, large-scale illegal organizations are our best hope.
“The ideal black market situation is one that is tranquil,” says Stewart. “When you have this level of competition that creeps in, it creates more and more friction points.”