Cheap Heroin Fuels Uptick in Homicide, Violent Crime

Heroin was the deadliest drug in America in 2014. John Rensten / Getty Images

This article was first published on the American Enterprise site.

As we have shown, major cities are seeing a demonstrable increase in violent crime, especially homicide, since the first half of 2014. Furthermore, according to Gallup, the groups most likely to live in urban areas are personally aware of the uptick in violence.

This begs the question: Why is crime up substantially in many urban centers but unevenly so?

A number of theories have been floated including the so-called "Ferguson effect" whereby police and law-abiding residents cooperate less due to mutual distrust.

But another explanation may be in order that is more tangible and quantifiable: the rise and fragmentation of Mexican drug cartel power in the United States' major cities.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), "Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) remain the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States; no other group can challenge them in the near term."

In other words, Mexican cartels have surpassed other international criminal organizations including the Italian mafia, Asian drug rings and the previous preeminent drug importer, the Colombians, to become the No. 1 source of dangerous illegal drugs in the United States over the past decade.

The DEA explains how local gangs can become linked to the cartels:

[The Mexican drug cartels] are moving to expand their share of US illicit drug markets, particularly heroin markets… Many gangs [in the United States] rely on Mexican TCOs as their primary drug source of supply, and Mexican TCOs depend on street-level gangs, many of which already have a customer base, for drug distribution.

So there is a link between local street gangs and the Mexican cartels, but that doesn't explain why a long-term relationship would suddenly explode into violence starting in 2014 after decades of Mexican cartel involvement and falling violent crime rates.

So what's the relationship between the cartels and rising crime?

The answer is heroin.

According to The New York Times, a new, cheaper form of heroin from Mexico has allowed local gangs to attract a wider range of customers over the past few years. As the heroin market has expanded, gangs have fought territory battles over the new customers, resulting in terrible consequences for communities caught in the crossfire.

For St. Louis in particular, officials have directly linked cartel related turf wars to an increase in the city's homicide rate and at a recent Senate hearing, DEA head Chuck Rosenberg called increased drug trafficking a factor in the national rise of violent crime.

However, there is more to this story than meets the eye.

The largest provider of this new heroin is the Sinaloa Cartel. To get an idea of the scope of their operations, in Chicago alone the Sinaloa Cartel is estimated to make $3 billion per year off illegal drugs. A Chicago crime commission even named the cartel's leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the city's Public Enemy No. 1.

But something dramatically changed in February 2014 when Mexican authorities arrested El Chapo. His capture presaged a lengthy, ongoing struggle to fill the power vacuum.

Mexico's descent into chaos exacerbated an already fragmented system of cartel dominance in the United States. The fragmentation of the cartel scene is visible in the below map from the DEA based on summer 2015 intelligence:

Drug Enforcement Administration

By examining the top 25 cities depicted in the above map for which sufficient data was available, we noted that many urban centers have multiple cartels operating in competition with one another.

After identifying the cities in that cohort with more than one cartel present (presupposing a rivalry), we overlaid the cities' homicide rate change (2014-2016).

Our hypothesis was simple: More than one cartel in a city equals more murders over the past few years and only one cartel in a city equals fewer murders over that same span.

Our analysis found that there is indeed a troubling statistical association between increasing homicide rates and the presence of competing cartels. Out of the 25 cities analyzed, 21 fit this pattern.

Disturbingly, the cartel conflict that is fueling the crime spike may get worse before it gets better. Just a few days ago, rival cartels attacked the house of El Chapo's mother, signifying an intensification of the conflict.

Furthermore, the cartels have recently introduced another new drug into the market called fentanyl, a drug 40 times stronger than heroin, dangerous enough to kill law enforcement officers if they touch too much of it.

Bottom Line: There is reason to believe that recent crime spikes are associated with a growing heroin market and the capture of drug lord "El Chapo" Guzman, both of which have caused local cartel affiliates to battle for territory and kill Americans caught up in the crossfire.