Chicago Vice


In this week's New York Times Magazine, Patrick Radden Keefe has a fascinating article about Mexico's Sinaloa cartel—where it came from, how it works, how the drug trade is evolving. One part jumped out at me; what made Chicago an international city for licit business has also made it one for illicit markets as well:

What Sinaloa does do inside this country is ferry drugs along highways to regional distribution hubs, where they are turned over to trusted wholesalers, like the Flores twins of Chicago. Pedro and Margarito Flores grew up in a Mexican-American enclave of the city during the 1990s. Their father and an older brother had moved drugs for Sinaloa, and by the time the twins were in their 20s, they had gone into business as distributors, purchasing cocaine and heroin directly from Mexican cartels, then selling to dealers throughout the United States. Chicago, home of the Mercantile Exchange, has always been a hub from which legitimate goods fan out across the country, and it’s no different for black-market commodities. Chapo has used the city as a clearinghouse since the early 1990s; he once described it as his “home port.”

It sounds like William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis, only with drugs instead of timber:

Several years ago, a hunter was trekking through the remote North Woods of Wisconsin when he stumbled upon a vast irrigated grow site, tended by a dozen Mexican farmers armed with AK-47’s. According to the D.E.A., it was a Sinaloa pot farm, established on U.S. National Forest land to supply the market in Chicago.

As the city developed, all roads led to it. Drugs followed those roads:

The region has a highly developed transportation infrastructure that facilitates the continuous movement of licit and illicit goods to and from the area. Chicago is one of the nation’s largest trucking centers, principally because of its proximity to Interstates 55, 57, 80, 88, 90, and 94, which pass through the metropolitan area. These major highways are frequently used by traffickers to transport illicit drugs to Chicago from Mexico and locations along the Southwest Border. Two major international airports, O’Hare and Midway, which are located within the HIDTA region, processed approximately 81 million passengers and 1.2 million tons of cargo in 2009 and are frequently used by traffickers to smuggle illicit drugs into the Chicago area.

Keefe's article led me down a Google hole, in which I found a fascinating article: "The making of an underground market: drug selling in Chicago, 1900-1940." The city essentially went through four phases of drug markets. In the first, the city was just completely tolerant of it: a "private concern." But then the demographics changed:

After 1890, two trends came together in Chicago (and elsewhere) to redefine drug use as a public issue. First, the use of opiates and cocaine expanded among the residents of working-class, immigrant neighborhoods. Where drug use had once appeared to be a problem among the "respectable" classes, it now appeared to be prevalent among the socially and economically marginal. Second, Chicago's drug users were increasingly likely to be consuming for non-medical reasons, without much pretense of therapeutic necessity. Thus, the concerns over the characteristics of the city's drug-using population were joined by an equally strong distaste for their self-consciously pleasure-seeking behavior.

This happened around the time the Progressive movement was ascendent, and it clashed with their ideals. The first major public/non-profit partnership to combat drug sales and use in the city emerged out of Hull House, and featured not just Jane Addams but the social reformer Julia Lathrop, namesake of the Lathrop Homes. At that point, the drug trade functioned something like the oxycontin trade does today—through semi-legal, if not reputable channels, both wholesalers and pharmacists making money from prescribing to addicts.

Addams, Lathrop, and the drug reformers ran up against barriers that should sound quite familiar:

[A]s Lizabeth Cohen and others have observed, residents of Chicago's working-class immigrant neighborhoods could be deeply suspicious of state intervention in private life. The retail druggists charged with selling cocaine and opiates could be viewed sympathetically as honest businessmen engaged in legitimate trade…. Jane Addams remembered neighborhood reaction in a similar fashion: "I recall an Italian druggist living on the edge of the neighborhood, who finally came with a committee of his fellow countrymen to see what Hull-House wanted on him, thoroughly convinced that no such efforts could be disinterested….

Despite the sentiment against them, Addams's efforts cleaned up the illicit pharmaceutical market. But in doing so, it forced the market into more illicit channels. Those were concentrated in the city's legendary vice district, the Levee and Madison Street, which thrived in the second decade of the 20th century amidst the city's corrupt local government. The Levee District's many channels of vice gave the drug market existing paths to follow:

Another defining feature of the underground drug marketplace was the extent to which it was connected to the other institutions of the neighborhood. Messenger boys delivered drugs, hotel employees arranged purchases for customers, and bartenders acted as part-time distributors…. Inevitably, these extensive distribution networks strengthened the connections between the drug market and other levee institutions, including the abundant cheap hotels, saloons, brothels, pool halls, drugstores, cigar stores, and clubs.

If you've seen The Wire, you'll remember Hamsterdam, the under-the-table experiment in concentrating the drug markets in a neighborhood DMZ. That's what the Levee functioned as.

Chief of Police Shippy posed a series of pointed rhetorical questions to the city's residents in 1908: "we can drive out every occupant of the 22nd Street district in forty-eight hours. But do you want us to drive them into the lake, as has been suggested? Do you want them driven to the resident districts? What do you want done with them? Isn't it better to keep them corralled in one spot with their names and histories tabulated?"

Eventually the city did crack down, and drove the drug trade south into the Black Belt. That became another Hamsterdam, though the fact was looked down upon by locals, including the operators of the more accepted policy games, and as a result the nature of the market changed again. In the Levee, the trade had been illicit, but it functioned with the aid of the licit market structures. When the drug market reached the Black Belt, it fell another rung down the chain of acceptance.

[A]lthough fixed locations were still important to the business, they appear to have been less permanent than before, and were more likely to be rooms in apartment buildings or cheap hotels. Second, street selling became more central to retail activities…. [L]egal prohibitions on opiates and cocaine probably drove buyers and sellers into greater proximity than ever before. Although drug selling became an underground trade well before the federal Harrison Narcotic Act ushered in national drug prohibition, tighter legal controls meant that many users found it easier to simply stay close to their source of supply.

And forcing the semi-licit suppliers out of the trade—the wholesalers and pharmacists who had been supplying the illegal trade through legal channels—created a vacuum that the Syndicate filled. From there the geography of the Chicago drug trade that we now recognize began to take form in street-corner deals among the crumbling housing stock of the south and west sides:

Former Levee operators moving south toward Thirty-First Street found new properties in the Black Belt where they could renew operations, and "they could afford to pay high rents…. numbers of real estate owners profited greatly by dealing with them." The dilapidated housing nearby attracted many of the worst drug addicts, who could afford little better for their residences. One such building on Wabash Avenue housed twenty-one drug users.

Over the years, the Syndicate fell apart, reduced to elaborate robberies in their old age because, as Arthur Rachel told a judge, "we got nothing better to do." The mobsters started to die off, but the demand didn't, wrapping back around to the men Radden Keefe vividly writes about: following the path to "the insatiable North American nose" along the white lines laid down over a century of history.


Photograph: Via Wheaton College