The Crime That Pays: Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in Canada
Frederick J. Desroches
Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 2005
Subject, Methods, Database:
An exploratory study of higher-level drug trafficking in Canada based on interviews with 70 convicted drug traffickers, supplemented by interviews with investigators and the analysis of investigative files. The 70 interviewees included importers, manufacturers, and wholesalers of illicit drugs who served time in Canadian federal penitentiaries for drug-trafficking offences and were selected from police and correctional files and inmate referrals. Five subjects had recently been released on parole and were interviewed in the community. Offenders belonged to 62 "drug-dealing syndicates" that operated in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and British Columbia between 1990 and 2002.
The study focuses on a wide range of issues, including the social and personal characteristics of offenders; their criminal and employment history; the size and composition of drug-trafficking groups; the significance of underlying social relations for the development of criminal networks; as well as environmental factors, namely the legal framework and police strategies. The interviewed offenders tend to fall into one of two categories: "criminal" traffickers who have extensive criminal involvements and deviant lifestyles, and "businessmen" traffickers who live relatively law abiding lives apart from their involvement in the drug trade (44). The marijuana and hashish market in particular appears to attract a variety of middle-class dealers who are not part of the criminal world and who are typically non-violent (149).
Most respondents (50 out of 70) were "businessmen" traffickers. Correspondingly, most of the men in the sample were raised in loving and supportive families with conventional values and a strong work ethic. Strong family bonds were also characteristic of relationships with wives and children, and most of the money earned in drug trafficking was spent on wives, children, and parents, although family members were typically unaware of its origin (75-76).
Dealers appear to take one of three paths into higher-level trafficking: (a) moving from retail sales to wholesale in an attempt to increase profits, minimize the risk of violence and arrest, and to avoid the problems that users and addicts present; (b) direct entry by way of recruitment; or (c) direct entry through active solicitation (54, 71). Although money is the primary motive, few of the higher-level drug traffickers were financially desperate at the time they decided to engage in crime (58). On the other hand, the thrill, danger, excitement, power, and control that drug trafficking affords likely emerge only in the process of committing the crime and are not the reasons that propel many in the first place (59).
There is a strong connection between ethnic background and the types of narcotics handled. It is common for drug suppliers in source countries to actively solicit kinship and/or ethnic connections in Canada to expand their business. Among 34 interviewed men with non-European backgrounds, almost all chose partners, suppliers, and/or distributors primarily or exclusively from their own ethnic group (63). Involvement in legitimate business can also be a relevant factor. Eight subjects owned import and/or export companies through which they gained experience with the cross-border movement of goods. In these instances, subjects were approached by established dealers anxious to take advantage of their business expertise and cover (65).
Most traffickers in the study operated as independent wholesalers who received narcotics from suppliers above them in the drug chain and pass them on to individuals or small groups below them in the distribution network. Although some large criminal organizations exist, the evidence suggests that most enterprises are relatively small in size. The 62 crews in the study ranged in size from three to nine members, and most operated exclusively in one metropolitan area and made no attempt to expand beyond their city (123).
Higher-level drug dealers operate under the principle of treating people with respect. This requires keeping promises, paying debts, selling quality drugs, being generous and understanding and otherwise building goodwill with employees and associates. Having "people skills" is a major component of being a successful drug trafficker (133).
Violence is used on occasion - primarily by "criminal" traffickers and primarily to collect debts - but most emphasize that threats alone will usually convince clients to pay and that they prefer to do business without the use of violence. Violence is considered harmful to business since it gains significant media play, draws unwanted police attention, leads to retaliation, damages reputations and business relationships, and a violent inter-group conflict requires time and resources that are more profitably invested in dealing drugs (147-150).
Trust and kinship are much more important for reducing risks. Crews typically consist of people who grew up together and have known one another for many years (121).
There is no evidence of a Mafia-style monopoly, near-monopoly, or cartel in the Canadian drug market (47). Most dealers contend that quality determines market shares (113). Another important factor in securing and maintaining market share is the ability to deliver sufficient quantities of product on a regular basis (115). Many higher-level drug traffickers develop social and co-operative business relationships with other dealers on the same market level. Despite being competitors, it is common practice to borrow or purchase drugs from one another when supplies run out (117). According to the vast majority of respondents territoriality is uncommon at the wholesale level (160).
Upper-level dealers typically recruit others to act as distributors who are starting up their business and have not yet accumulated the capital to make purchases outright by offering to provide drugs at decent prices or on consignment. Fronting drugs is governed by several business practices and by a system of subcultural norms and values that are meant to protect the supplier (139-147).
The modus operandi of drug trafficking includes security measures against theft or robbery, bad loans, police seizures, and informants. Few dealers corrupt public officials. Only one group reported bribing a law-enforcement employee - a secretary who worked in a police department and provided information on car registrations (131). In addition, four dealers reported that police contacts based on pre-existing friendships occasionally informed them about ongoing investigations, informants, and possible raids (132).
Likewise, most higher-level traffickers do not read books, legal documents, or police manuals in their attempt to develop security systems. Information is gathered informally through observations, gossip, hearsay, and word-of-mouth, and most dealers have little or no idea what the police are up to (131).
Most traffickers in the study made plenty of money and planned to retire from drug dealing once they had accumulated sufficient wealth. For two main reasons drug traffickers continue: because of greed and because of their egos. Most see themselves as clever and cautious and think they can outsmart the police (107). In fact, many refused to consider the possibility of being caught, purposely ignored the risk, and underestimated police capabilities (109). A number of dealers who suspected or knew they were being followed or under electronic surveillance nonetheless continued to engage in drug trafficking. Offenders typically give several reasons for doing so: (a) a failure to understand conspiracy laws; (b) ambiguity, uncertainty, and complacency; (c) ego and overconfidence; (d) underestimating the police; and (e) greed (186).
The motivation of higher-level dealers is based on a subjective appraisal of risk versus reward and not on an objective assessment of the danger of apprehension. As the study suggests, dealers perceive the risk as moderate to low. Higher-level drug dealers are acutely aware of anti-money-laundering laws and take precautions against losing their assets, but it appears that these provisions are not significant deterrents since only 5 out of the 70 traffickers in the study were convicted under money-laundering legislation, and the money and property was seized from only 16 respondents and represented merely a small percentage of the accumulated wealth (208-209).
This study shows the willingness of serious offenders to talk to researchers: only 10 men who were asked refused to be interviewed, of which five were members of outlaw motorcycle gangs who allegedly do not have the authority as individuals to grant an interview (7). Most stated that the drug business was behind them and that they saw no threat in participating in the study (8).
As Desroches explains, he made a conscious choice to interview incarcerated offenders, arguing that it was unrealistic to interview traffickers who were currently engaged in this illegal enterprise (8). While this is not necessarily true as other studies have shown, his findings seem to come close to what one could expect from a study of non-incarcerated drug traffickers. The extensive direct quotes provided throughout the book give the impression that Desroches was able to establish a rapport with the interviewees and to elicit responses that were not tainted by the prison environment. Also, the concern that incarcerated offenders can only be representative of the unsuccessful and failed does not seem to fully apply here when one considers that, according to the author, for many respondents their arrest occurred only after the police undertook a sophisticated and proactive criminal investigation that took one or two years to complete (7).
If one wants to criticize the author it would have to be for the less than concise conceptualization of enterprise structures. In fact, there is something of a contradiction between the claim that most respondents operated as independent wholesalers, and the claim that they belonged to 62 "drug-dealing syndicates". The term "syndicates" in itself is not a good choice of words and should have been replaced by more precise concepts from network analysis and/or organization theory. What is also not fully convincing is the often schematic and at times trivial reference to criminological theories. But this does not affect the value of this book which is a must-read for students of organized crime in general and drug trafficking in particular.
"The Crime That Pays" is an insightful and illuminating empirical study which is highly relevant not only for understanding drug trafficking in Canada, but organized crime in general. Thank you Frederick Desroches for this fine book!
Dorn, Nicholas, Michael Levi, and Leslie King, Literature review on upper level drug trafficking, London: Home Office, 2005. (PDF from home-office website)
Pearson, Geoffrey, and Dick Hobbs, Middle market drug distribution, London: Home Office, 2001. (read review)
Reuter, Peter, and Peter Haaga, The Organization of High-Level Drug Markets: An Exploratory Study, Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 1989.
Ruggiero, Vincenzo, and Nigel South, Eurodrugs: drug use, markets and trafficking in Europe, London: UCL Press, 1995.
Zaitch, Damian, Trafficking Cocaine: Colombian Drug Entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2002. (read review)
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