1869, Ep. 120 with R. V. Gundur, author of Trying to Make It
5:49PM Aug 3, 2022
R. V. Gundur
Welcome to 1869, The Cornell University Press Podcast. I'm Jonathan Hall. This episode we speak with R. V. Gundur, author of Trying to Make It: The Enterprises, Gangs, and People of the American Drug Trade. R. V. Gundur is a criminologist based in Australia. He studies illicit enterprise, gangs, and cybercrime and holds a PhD in Criminology from Cardiff University, a Master's Degree in Criminology Research Methods from the University of Oxford, an MA in International Relations from the Australian National University, and a BA in Spanish and Latin American Studies from Tulane. We spoke to R. V. about both the physical and personal journeys he took in the research and writing of his new book, why it is essential that we all start humanizing, rather than demonizing, the ordinary people involved in the drug trade, and why policymakers need to put an end to their never-ending war on drugs, which has tragically wreaked havoc on our society for decades. Hello, R. V. Welcome to the podcast.
Thanks so much for having me, Jonathan.
Well, thank you for the new book that we are just publishing that you've written: Trying to Make It: The Enterprises, Gangs, and People of the American Drug Trade. Now, your book is unusual in many ways in that it reads at times like a travelogue. Why is that?
Yeah, I took a lot of journeys. And so I wanted to express that when writing this book. When I started out doing this project as a student over a decade ago, I actually didn't know what I wanted to study. So I called one of my professors. And he said, Why don't you look at the drug cartels in Mexico. And at the time, I was a politics student. So I was interested in the way that drug cartels changed the way that politics as usual worked. Fast-forward many years, I ended up being coming a criminologist. And so I went to the border lands, thinking I'm gonna learn something about drug cartels. And I had no idea how to even start asking these questions. And what ended up happening is that I put an ad up on Craigslist, and I had folks who had been involved with the drug trade in some capacity, come and see me in an office. And then I learned that I needed to start thinking about different kinds of people, different kinds of organizations. And so I had this physical journey to where I went from where I grew up in the Midwest, which has its own drug problems to the US Mexico border, and El Paso and Juarez. And I talked to people along the way, and the various stops that I made starting at the border. And then I continued to Phoenix that had a whole history of kidnappings that made the news. And then I ended up in Chicago, which is the largest city close to where I grew up in, that has its own long history with the drug trade. So I wanted to convey this physical journey, as well as the journey from the border to the heartland of how drugs move, and how people change in terms of their efforts to sell or even sometimes buy drugs.
That's amazing. Yeah, starting off with Craigslist, and kind of just figuring it out as you go along. That's half the journey in and of itself. But it was also you know, a personal journey, as well, where you reflected on your life experiences through this time. And that's reflected in the book. And you got to know people who had been involved in the drug trade and other illicit enterprises. Tell us more about that.
For sure, you know, the drug trade is something that touches a lot of Americans. And I think this is something that America is shy about talking about. And I think about my own childhood with my father, my father was a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction, but he also abused alcohol. And that's a substance which is commonly abused in America is a leading cause of death in America. And substance misuse is something that affects a tremendous number of people in the United States and around the world. And when setting out to write this book, I wanted to humanize the people who are part of all of this because, you know, as a society, we tend to humanize people who use alcohol, but also people who produce and sell alcohol, right? We there's no stigma to producing or selling alcohol. And yet, it's still a very damaging product. And by focusing on the business of the drug trade, I wanted to think about the reasons why people get involved, you know, and I wanted folks who are reading my book to be able to connect with the people who I talked to at a human level, because I think that if we fail to connect with others at a human level, we start engaging in really bad behavior. This is where we start locking people up for tremendous amounts of time, not caring about their well being. And when we start doing that, we start damaging our own society by destroying human beings and making them damaged, and not attempting to reintegrate folks into society, we have serious problems. So one of the missions, maybe an implicit mission of this book is to humanize everybody who's involved in the drug trade. And I think that by telling the story of my dad at various points, and then telling the story of many people who could just be the girl next door, right, I tell the story in the first chapter of a young woman who overdosed at my undergraduate college, and I tell stories throughout the book of very ordinary working class, people who had choices, and they didn't necessarily make the pro social choice then went into the drug trade, but are very ordinary human beings. And I think that by looking at their lives, we can start to see how damaging things like the punitive turn in the criminal justice system that we've experienced for more than 30 years now have been on American society.
Yeah, I like that. I like that a lot. You use the word humanize many times. And the opposite of that is demonize. And that's currently what our society does, particularly when we have a war on something. And that's what you do to the enemy, you demonize them and turn them into the other. That's what we've been doing for who knows how long, this war on drugs...
totally. And we have this war, which is trying to make people as a scapegoat, right. And it's when we have this war on drugs, we have made a decision that we're not going to confront the struggles that human beings have. And the truth of the matter is, is that when we struggle, we are able to deal with those struggles based on the resources that we have available, right? You know, so if you come up with money, or you have a lot of access to cultural capital in your community, then you may have different outcomes to somebody who grows up in poverty and has diminished cultural capital. And that's something that's really important to understand. And when reading about the drug trade, I think I wanted to have a departure from television shows and things of that nature, where we think that these folks are unusual, right? The bottom line is they're human beings making decisions, and trying to make it with the resources that they have available to them.
Yeah, that makes sense. That makes sense. So yeah, you have stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things. It just happens to be in the drug trade. Some of them are difficult stories, and even tragic, you have a chapter up on your website, rave Judge run.com. That's an amazing story, but it is tragic. Tell us more about this.
In this story I tell about a woman who I met called at Adelita. And she's a woman who spent a tremendous amount of time in prison, she got locked up the first time as a teenager, on a drug trafficking charge. And she was taking the rap for a boyfriend at the time who was facing much longer sentence than her. Now already at a teenager, she had begun to use heroin and she had a heroin problem. And for the next 20 years, she would be in this cycle where she would be released. And then she would go back to her community and start using again, which was a violation of the terms of her release. So she got put back into prison repeatedly for the next 20 years. So I met her in her 40s. And she was doing really well she got out of prison, she had finally kicked heroin. She was out there trying to find jobs and navigating this new technological world. You know, it was something that a lot of people don't think about, you have this situation where time moves so differently in prison compared to the outside world. So she was just trying to soak it all in, it was fascinating. She was like a child in a candy shop, you know, I took her out for a meal wants. And she was just so fascinated at the whole process of being able to go and sit down at the diner, and then to choose whatever she wanted. And it was just one of those things that you could see the magic in her eyes just in terms of being able to be free and to be able to make her own choices. And I stayed in touch with her, I would drop her a line occasionally. And one time I went to go wish her a happy birthday. And I saw all of these posts on her Facebook page and she had been killed. And what had happened was she lived by a code in her life that nobody who was not part of the drug trade, the gang life or anything like that should be bothered by by violence by people who are engaging in bad behavior. And she saw a person on the sidewalk in her community in Arizona, being robbed at gunpoint and so she went and she interfered and she wouldn't have known this but the assailants had killed somebody earlier in the day over backpack. And so they assailants did shoot her and she was wounded at the scene and you You know, at the time of writing of my book, The Press said that a woman had been shot, but they didn't go back and, and talk about her, you know, she was no hero, she her name wasn't spread across the press in terms of this extremely brave act, you know, like, if you saw somebody pull a gun on someone else, most likely, if you're not a trained person with a gun, you're going to run away or call the police. But she knew that she didn't have time for that, for that solution. So she did the most human thing that she could possibly do the most heroic thing that she could possibly do, and just put herself between the violence and that individual saving that person's life. And, you know, she unfortunately died from the wounds that she sustained by doing that act. But the story is one that is part of the ongoing tragedies that we see in the United States. You know, gun violence is something that we live with. So many Americans have been touched by gun violence, my own family has been touched by gun violence. And the respondents in my book, I wish that at Alito was the only one who ended up killed by gun violence. But that's not true. I know, for a fact at least another man was shot to death. So, you know, there's a tremendous amount of really tragic policy choices that lead to bad situations that impact good people in ways that put them in, in these situations that makes it very difficult for them to reintegrate into society and to do positive good. But at least the story shows us that there is this inherent good in human beings, and we shouldn't sleep on that.
Yeah, it's I mean, I don't have to say anything about what this year has been, or the past few years, when it comes to gun violence. It's very depressing. And you meant you mentioned policy, and it just seems 70% of the American public is saying we need to do something and nothing happens. So that's tragic in and of itself. But this is this is great that you're able to capture Adelita's story, because she's one of thousands of people that, as you said, is just mentioned, as a woman or a man in the newspaper and no one knows their true story. And that's great. You were able to provide her story in your book. And she, she was gang involved. And you write a lot about gangs. What was their role in all of this?
I think that politicians like to use gangs as this bogeyman, right? They talk about gangs, as if they go around, and they do all of this horrible stuff all the time. And one of the things that people just need to understand at a basic level is that folks who break the law, don't break the law all the time, it's actually very hard to be breaking the law all the time. And just because somebody is gang affiliated does not mean that they are out there, doing horrible things all the time. You know, many folks who are parts of gangs have bit roles do very minor things, they're looking for acceptance, camaraderie, so on. And there is a subset of gang members who engage in violent activities. And this varies quite a lot depending on the gang. Now, one of the things that I learned a lot about were prison gangs, and some of them have really surprising roles. Right. So prison gangs sometimes function as the regulators of the illicit drug trade on the street. And by that, I mean, they don't allow violence to occur, because violence is bad for business. Now, when we think about the drug trade, we need to be thinking about it, like a business. And this is something that when I spoke to the folks at HIDTA, and various law enforcement agencies, that was emphasized all the time, right, good business, people don't make decisions that are going to increase their cost of operation or the risks of failure. So good business, people are going to be looking at violence in the drug trade context, as something that brings a lot of negative attention, okay. And negative attention is going to increase their operational costs and increase their chances of failure. So when you have individuals in street gangs, and the places that I visited, engaging in violence, and they eventually would get picked up, and somebody would punish them in the prison gang when they hit the tank at the county jail, or the prison, and so we could see this regulation happening over and over again. Now, interestingly, when I got to Chicago, prison gangs are extremely weak, they don't have that same kind of ability to exert power. And it was one of the reasons in my view, that you have a lot more violence on the streets conducted by these very small gangs that are vying over little scraps of territory.
Wow, that's amazing. So the stronger the gang, the more stable the situation is.
The stronger the prison gang, the more stable the streets that you wishing can be in the prison gang doesn't necessarily have to have this presence on the street as such, right? There's a lot of management that's happening in prison, because folks who are gang involved, at least the ones that I spoke to, kind of talked about this aid of eventually ending up in prison, like there's this understanding that if you stay in the game long enough, you're eventually going to get caught and have to do some time. And there was a certain acceptance behind that for some people, folks who left looked at that process and this, I don't want to be involved in that kind of process, I don't want to go to prison, I don't want to run those risks. And that would be one of the push factors to come out of offending. But yeah, prison gangs in the American Southwest are quite effective, they do try to ensure that the little street gangs have some sort of fealty to them, in a sense, and so they're behaving in the accordance of their wishes. And you know, you have to understand that the way that the drug trade works is that there's generally just a very small number of people who have the connections to the wholesale drugs that are then broken down, adulterated and sold at the street level. And you don't actually need to use violence in order to keep people in line when their livelihood is based on the drug trade. All you have to do is threaten not to hook them up and then to blackball them from the marketplace. So you know, there's a lot of worries about violence that spill over on the border. But that's all fantasy, right? That's stuff that politicians like to talk about, because it scares people. It's a visual that, you know, accords with these narratives of disaster, and so on that they like to peg on human beings who are crossing the border. But it's a bunch of malarkey, to be honest with you, right? There was a funny story that happened. When I was in El Paso, there was a graffiti artists from Las Vegas, who came in and put some tags up on on the billboards. And everybody wanted to know what was going on. Right. And it was, there was something like, take a bullet or take the bribe in Spanish, right? Plata o plomo, if I remember correctly. And, and so the news media was just like, oh, what's happening are the gangs coming? And obviously, they weren't coming, right. Because if they, if they did do that kind of violence, the border would shut down. And, you know, these are the types of fantasies that I think get reinforced with different narratives that we see on television, you take, for instance, the adaptation, the bridge, you know, that takes place in El Paso, and Juarez, which is shot in LA, incidentally. But it would never happen that way. If you had a dead body on the bridge, and there was that kind of technological failure, the border would shut down. And there would be a massive law enforcement military presence on both sides. So you know, making sure that there is relatively low violence, especially on the American side of the border is extremely important. The Mexican side of the border is a slightly different story. And there is still a lot of violence on that side of the border, but it manifests in changing ways over time.
That's interesting. Yeah, I mean, it makes sense. It's, it's, I don't I don't have any experience with a drug trade. And what I, what I experienced is this, what I see on the news, or read the newspaper or see on TV or movies, and a lot of that's sensationalized, and part of it is entertainment, you know, if you show the actual average life of a drug dealer, it's not that exciting, you know, and so to have something made more exciting by violence or intrigue and things like this, it's just, that's what they're gonna push, because it's they're trying to get audience to view the show. So there's this kind of sinister, sensationalized view of drug users in the drug trade. But you would you spend a lot of time talking about the everyday lives of small players in the drug trade. You talk about the Flores twins, which are some of the biggest drug pushers in American history. And they kind of feed into this sensationalized view. But tell us what you actually found when you interviewed drug users. And you interviewed gang members and wholesalers, and even law enforcement officials, when you were in the US Mexico border all the way to Chicago.
You know, people ask me all the time, did I ever feel unsafe talking to folks who are involved in the drug trade? And the answer, emphatically was no. Right? I was having conversations with ordinary Americans. Right. And that's something that I think folks need to understand is that the people who are involved in the drug trade are ordinary Americans. And they forked from pro social behavior in a minority, right? The the number of people who are involved in the drug trade, compared to the overall population in the US is tiny, but they are just trying to adapt to a situation where they see opportunity. And many times we're looking at folks who are on unable to generate the kind of revenue that's going to change their station in life. It's a minority of people who are able to generate the receipts that allow them to invest in something else a different business. Now, occasionally, you would find folks like this, they would earn enough money in the drug trade, because they've been savvy in their lives, right, they learned how to engage in the activities of the drug trade, which were low visibility, and therefore low risk, right, low risk in terms of being arrested by the police, and also low risk in terms of getting into conflict with potential rivals. And the really smart business people in the drug trade are finding those kinds of opportunities. And it makes sense, right? You know, like, if we think about everyday life, and the decisions that workers make, right, nobody wants to be the grunt on the factory floor. Only a handful of people actually want to be the big boss, right? Because the big boss has so much to worry about. If things go wrong, then that's his problem or her problem, right? But what's a great place to be middle management, right. And you have all sorts of people who aspire to be middle managers. And I know middle management gets a bad rap. But it's a really good place, you optimize the income that you have you optimize your job security, you optimize the ability that you have to manage other people and to push risk down onto them. Right. And that's one of the reasons why so little people really don't like management that much, right. So it's the same kind of thing that we see in the drug trade. So you know, if you see an everyday person aspiring to become middle management, you don't think anything of it outside of maybe you're a jerk, and I don't like you anymore. But the folks who are engaged in the drug trade in a very entrepreneurial way, inherently understand that just the way that you were, I would, and our jobs. And when I talk to them, they're just trying to live their lives, right. They're not trying to go to prison, they're not trying to get shot, they might have certain vices or certain bad habits that they have. And many folks I talked to, they talked to me because they had left the drug trade, and they realized that it wasn't paying rents for them, it wasn't turning opportunity to their favor. And they would leave for many reasons. But oftentimes, it was because they had a child and they wanted a different life for their child, I talked to so many people who had ended up in prison at some point in their life. And their one goal moving forward was to be a better role model for their kids. And to ensure that they did not continue to go down the same path that that mom or dad had done. Right, that was a really important message that I heard time and again for people who had been incarcerated in their lives. And I think that when we think about the love of parenthood, and the love that drives a parent to want to see their child succeed, we start to see the connections between the very ordinariness of the folks that I talked to and ourselves. And I think that's the heart of a lot of what I'm talking about. The Flores twins were a little bit different, you mentioned them. And these guys were like unicorns, there are the types of people that will have Netflix shows about them in the future. And that story is one that I was able to unpack. And it's a it's a fascinating story, because their wives actually wrote a book that has a lot of code names, but I unpacked all of the names and the actors and how those things fit together. But you know, at the end of the day, one of the things that I found fascinating about researching the florist twins and their business, was just how simple that business was, right? Like it was very effective. But the principles that they used were ordinary business principles, by and large, and their downfall was a violation of some of those ordinary business principles, namely, the separation of duties.
Yeah, I think it's fascinating that you brought this up a couple of times, just you know, business acumen, doing basic business, having basic business skills, and then also wanting the safety of middle management. I was curious, you know, you talked about the big bosses eventually ending up in jail and how many of the folks in middle management, how many ended up in jail, or how many, as you said, Maybe once they have a family decide, you know, what, this is too much, and they try to go more legit, into, you know, regular steady job that's not drug related.
I would say that there's a minority of people who can legitimately end up in middle management and same as enlisted enterprise, right? It's a really good spot to be in. And, you know, the reason why the poles are very dangerous in the drug trade is that they're very visible, right. So the big boss is somebody that if the police are law enforcement takes you down as a big boss, then they get kudos. Right. So they're going to invest all of this money in terms of hunting you. And the people on the street, are visible. And so we see adaptations to, you know, like bringing the drug trade off of the street delivery services, how services and so on. And in various places that I, I studied, we still see an open air drug trade to some extent in Chicago, because the way that violence and territory is used and negotiated and fought over is distinct in Chicago. But I think that the middle management people are a great unknown, right, they're hard to find. And because they're smart, you know, they don't want anybody to know that they're doing their job. I spoke to a lawyer who defended some of the Italian crime families in New York. And she made the comment that the best criminals are invisible, they don't want any notoriety. They they're not flashy, they don't drive expensive cars. They make good sound business decisions. They don't irritate other individuals, most people don't even know that they're part of the game. And that allows them to be able to live a life, which is quite safe, in a sense. And I would say that probably a lot of those folks, middle management, once they accrue a certain amount of capital, the very smart ones, they invest it in other types of businesses, restaurants, various kinds of stores, and so on that allow them to transition into pro social business person. And what's interesting is that there's very little oversight in terms of infusing dirty money to start up a business in the United States. So it's certainly a possibility. And I think that when we look at a lot of the legalization of marijuana, for instance, and some of the policies which seem very short sighted that bar, illicit entrepreneurs, people who have convictions from starting up those businesses, it just seems silly, because what I was seeing is that many people who were involved in the drug trade, were not interested in violence, they're not interested in harming people. They're just trying to run a business the same way that the beer man is trying to run his or her business, right. And when we start thinking of these decisions in that business sense, we can remove a lot of the anger and very punitive thinking, which ends up locking folks away for relatively long periods of time for behaviors that are harmful to society, but not any more harmful than alcohol has been.
Totally, totally agree with you. Yeah, it's it does seem there is with the legalization of marijuana, there has been somewhat of a sea change, it's taking time, but I see that happening. I'm just looking at the over the past 10 years looking at billboards on the highway and seeing all these marijuana dispensaries, but also the the ability for businesses to become legit and move forward. I think it's a positive step. But we're still we still have a ways to go for sure. And that's just marijuana. There's other obviously, drugs that aren't in that same boat. But that but that's policy. And so I guess my question is, after interviewing all these individuals, and having, you know, personal journey of, of experiencing the drug trade, firsthand, through through interviews, and seeing people's, you know, ups and downs and struggles, if you had one message that you could give someone in DC or give someone in the state legislature, or give to the media, or in the general public, what would you want them to know about the drug trade? And also what changes would you advocate in our current drug policy.
I would encourage policymakers and members of the public to think about the humanity. It's a phrase that I've raised a lot in our conversation. But we need to think about the humanity of the people who are involved and affected by the drug trade. It serves nobody to incarcerate drug users, and low level and even maybe mid level drug sellers for extended periods of time. Those processes are extremely expensive. We need to be thinking about how you change the negative impacts of substances. And to me this is inherently a public health matter. The folks who I met in researching trying to make it we're not stupid people. They represent a minority of people who did not have mainstream opportunities or did not see themselves as having those opportunities, whether they were there or not. They sought to advance their lives in a way that appeared reasonable for them. They were making rational choices based on the information that they had and their understandings of the world, which is something that we all to try to do if we continue to incarcerate, and otherwise exclude people from society, like the folks who I interviewed in my book, we're always going to have people who are at the margins of society, excluded from mainstream opportunities. And that is something that will only serve to do the exact opposite that those hardline policies seek to do, which is to sustain the drug trade viability by having a workforce that understands that that is their best opportunity to try to make their lives work.
That makes sense that makes sense. Well said, well said. Wow. Well, you've you've provided us with so much so many great stories, fascinating stories, heart-wrenching stories as as well. But also hope because, you know, you've ever it's a refreshing take, in that you're, you're bringing the humanity, you're humanizing these individuals who our society wants to push away or wants to demonize when we need more of that. So I encourage anyone who's listening to this, please take a look at your new book trying to make it the enterprises gangs and people of the American drug trade. Thank you so much for talking with us RV.
Thank you so much.
That was R. V. Gundur, author of Trying to Make It: The Enterprises, Gangs, and People of the American Drug Trade. Follow R. V. on Twitter @gr4d and visit his website at ravejudgerun.com. If you'd like to purchase R. V.'s new book, use the promo code 09POD to save 30% on our website at Cornell dot edu. If you live in the UK, use the promo code CSANNOUNCE and visit the website combined academic.co.uk Thank you for listening to 1869, The Cornell University Press podcast.