Mafiosos to narcos: What organized crime taught us about civil unrest
After weeks of constant ambulance sirens, increasing deaths and unemployment numbers, followed by widespread anger of the violent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and an 8 pm curfew imposed in a city that “should never sleep,” I walked through deserted SoHo streets looking at protective plywood covering stores, and wondered:
“Gotham, is that you?”
With possibly the worst economic recession recorded in history ahead, perhaps the biggest question is: Are we in fact looming towards an influx of organized crime and violent times?
Sure, desperate times call for desperate measures. However, there is no economic evidence that proves that economic recessions are the exclusive cause of civil unrest or organized crime.
Still, why does it feel like we are living in a crime thriller?
A walk down memory lane
Remember the roaring 20s?
The times of Flappers, jazz, short skirts, money, [Great Gatsby?]. How about The Chicago Outfit, does that ring a bell?
The decade of the 1920s is historically known for its drastic social change and so-called “prosperity.” It also gave birth to an affluent society that stimulated a culture of excess and exuberance.
Although it brought unprecedented freedoms; (white) women could vote, and express themselves as they pleased. It also sparked some anxiety.
During these times of “celebration”, the 18th Amendment had banned the sale of any “intoxicating beverages” above 0.5% alcohol. Later, the Volstead Act closed every tavern, bar, and saloon in the United States.
Many white, middle-class Americans, saw these as necessary efforts to assert control over immigration masses who began to crowd the nation’s cities. The Prohibition Era backed the contemporary anxieties of an impending anarchy fallout.
So, while young mostly white women danced to the sounds of jazz celebrating these new freedoms with bobbed hair and short skirts, others saw these curtailed freedoms as lucrative opportunities.
Welcome to Gangsterland
In 1925, Chicago alone had more than 1300 gangs. However, Alphonse Capone proved to be the most ferocious businessman.
Born to poor immigrant parents, Al Capone joined gangs from an early age. He earned the name of Scarface at only 21 years of age after being slashed by the brother of a young lady he had insulted at a bar.
Little did the attacker know who was he dealing with.
By the time he was 26 years old, Al Capone dominated the multi-million dollar operations of all crimes imaged; murder, gambling, prostitution, and — the all-time favorite – bootlegging.
Bootlegging was the term given to the ‘illegal sale of intoxicating substances’ or alcohol.
Al Capone was also the face behind the infamous St. Valentine’s massacre, where he ordered the deaths of seven of his enemies. A crime that gave him the official “public enemy” tittle, granted in 1929 by President Herbert Hoover himself.
(Not that he worried. He had 1,000 gunmen and half of Chicago’s police force on his payroll)
Spoiler Alert! He was never indicted for his racketeering, nor any of the murders.
Experts say he was responsible (directly or indirectly) for the deaths of between 300 to 700 people. And, according to a study from Chicago’s Crime Commission and Illinois Crime Survey of 1929, the homicide rate during Capone’s times was 12 murders per 100,000 residents!
Finally, in 1931 when Capone was 32 years old, the federal government was able to indict Capone for 22 counts of income-tax evasion.
In 1947, Chief of Chicago Gangland died of cardiac arrest in his home in Florida.
Talking about masters, let’s bring the conversation overseas and focus on arguably the biggest Drug Lord in history: Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, Lord of the Medellin cartel of the 1980s.
How did Escobar gain control?
In the 1960s, growing anxieties of communist ideologies began to spark in the United States. With the efforts to establish relations with Latin American countries and promote capitalist ideologies, President Kennedy initiated the Alliance for Progress Program.
Colombia became one of Alianza’s greatest examples. By the late 1960s the country’s economy began to grow by 6% annually after years of political instability and warfare.
Still, the popular class felt left out and betrayed.
Noticing the growing division between the rich and the poor, young Pablo took it as an opportunity to become a national hero and possibly the most powerful man in the Country.
Robin Hood kinda style
Don Pablo gained popularity within the popular class sponsoring charity projects, soccer clubs, recreational parks, and education. The true source of his power came from the Robin Hood Figure earned by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
But Escobar’s times were times of terror.
In 1975 he allegedly ordered the murder of Fabio Restrepo [top-ranking drug trafficker] in order to grab control over cocaine trade happening in Medellin. Restrepo’s death immediately gave Escobar an opportunity to expand his operations and become the King of Cocaine.
Pursuing his dreams of becoming President, in 1982, 33-year-old Pablo was elected as an alternate member of Colombia’s Congress, but knowing about the true reasons of his wealth, the then Justice Minister forced him to resign.
Not only has he unleashed The Drug Lord’s fury, but this also gave the birth of his famous “Plata o Plomo” or ” bribery or death” trademark.
He became so feared that he was able to intimidate top-ranking politicians. Claimed the lives of three Colombian Presidential candidates, an attorney general, a record of judges, and more than 1,000 policemen. Not to mention, the bombing of a Colombian Jetliner and the deaths of hundreds of people.
During his time, he has an estimated network of 30 billion USD. And, in 1986 he was ranked as one of the 10 wealthiest people in the world by Forbes Magazine, and continued to be featured six other times.
And, after gaining control of over 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the United States, Pablo Escobar started the biggest, most deathliest game of cops and robbers in history.
The true villain of the decade
Yes, the growing rates of unemployment and the impending economic recession caused by the Coronavirus are disturbing. Yet, most alarming are the political injustices and oppressive systems that the virus has revealed.
While over 40 million Americans file for unemployment, black and Hispanic workers continually report higher claims compared to white.
Reports have shown that minority groups die from COVID-19 at a triple of other races due to a lack of medical security. The long-standing racism in the United States has never been more evident.
So, perhaps the only, most dangerous, connection between reality and the not-so-fictitious city of Gotham is the fact that its infamous villains have done a better job shedding light on socio-political problems than any of its heroes.