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December 16, 2005 - Vancouver Sun (CN BC)

OPED: One Thing Is Missing In The Agonizing Over Gang Violence

By Dan Gardner, Ottawa Citizen columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

OTTAWA - Now that politicians and the public have finally started to discuss guns, gangs and murder, countless explanations have been offered.

It's about fatherless families, weak immigration rules and a soft-touch criminal justice system, one side says.

No, it's about racism and poverty, the other side counters, and too many guns.

All these points are important and worthy of discussion, but there's something missing.

Most gang-related murders have one thing in common, one motivation, and yet scarcely a word has been said about this missing piece. But it is the key. Take it out of the equation and most of the killing stops.

To see this missing element in all its bloody glory, take a look at recent events in Mexico, a country embroiled in a gang war that makes the violence in Toronto and Vancouver look like a high-school debate.

The gun battles erupted in March 2003 in Nuevo Laredo, a city on the border with the United States. The federal government flooded the city with officers but that only displaced the fighting. Now the bullets are flying all over Mexico. About 1,000 people have died so far.

The fight is over control of the mammoth trade in marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.

That the illicit drug trade is violent is no surprise to anyone, but what most people don't know is that violence in black markets tends to be cyclical. A mature market, with established networks and powerful figures in place, tends to minimize bloodshed. It's when the status quo is disrupted that all hell breaks loose.

That's exactly what happened in Mexico in March 2003 when Mexican authorities arrested the drug lord who controlled the Nuevo Laredo smuggling conduit. President Vicente Fox praised the arrest as a great victory and proof his country was making progress in the fight against the drug trade.

It doesn't look like such a triumph now. "Why are we in this situation?" Mexico's deputy attorney-general said in an interview with the New York Times. "Because the only leaders who can contain the violence are the ones in jail."

That's the thing about drug enforcement: Even when you win, you lose.

Yes, drugs are the missing piece in Canada's guns-and-gangs debate. Why are gangsters shooting up the streets of Toronto and Vancouver? It's true that gang culture, fatherless homes, poverty and other factors people are talking about may play a role. But in almost every case, the drug trade is the reason why the trigger is squeezed.

Homicide studies in many countries have repeatedly confirmed this fact. One review of murders in New York City in 1988 found 39 per cent of killings -- all killings, not just those involving gangs -- involved a drug-trade business dispute.

Now, one could say -- and many people do say -- that the answer is tough enforcement. Wipe out the drug trade and the violence goes with it.

But it is a mistake to think law enforcement can eliminate the drug trade and the violence swirling around it. As every economist knows, markets -- legal or not -- are self-correcting mechanisms. Even if the police took down every drug dealer in Toronto and Vancouver tomorrow, the unsatisfied demand for drugs would drive the price up and that higher price would entice new traders into the market. It's the law of supply and demand and it trumps any law passed by Parliament.

Of course, politicians don't like to admit they aren't omnipotent. And they really don't want to say unpopular things in public, particularly during an election. And so both the Liberals and the Conservatives have promised to deal with gang crime by, yet again, increasing law enforcement and boosting sentences.

This will fail. And worse.

Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Boston University, has studied the links between violence and prohibition -- of both alcohol and other drugs -- over the past century. His research found a strong correlation not only between violence and a drug's legal status -- the moment it's banned, violence goes up -- but also between violence and the amount of money spent trying to enforce the ban.

I'm sure Mexicans are starting to get Miron's point. And if politicians in this country ignore the evidence of almost a century of failure and greatly ratchet up law enforcement, Canadians will get it, too.

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