Many Americans live their lives thinking of organized crime as a distant threat, far separated from their lives. After all, mob movies are fun and gangsters have long held a certain cultural chic.
However, the horrifying truth of what underlies the world’s black markets should make everyone reconsider how they see these groups — particularly, just how widespread their influence really is. Organized crime networks are worth almost $5 trillion worldwide, and they represent an estimated 7% of global GDP. For comparison, Japan — the third-largest economy in the world — makes up just just under 6%.
Unfortunately, that should make it clear that no matter how far you might think you are from organized criminals and their hideous crimes, their tentacles have reached so far into the legitimate economy that you’re probably helping them make money without even being aware of it. Make sure you know how it works so you can avoid being involved.
Last updated: Oct. 12, 2020
1. Buying Drugs
This one is pretty obvious, but it’s worth noting very clearly. While the decision you might make to get a little cocaine with friends at a party might feel pretty innocuous — especially if none of you has a habit that has gotten out of control — you’re also providing direct financial support to the butchers who have turned Mexico into a war zone.
The numbers are stark — over 150,000 Mexicans have lost their lives in the drug war since 2006. A drug war that simply wouldn’t be possible if not for the flow of money generated by the sale of drugs. Even if your dealer isn’t a part of the cartels, the person supplying them is. Or, the person supplying that person is. Regardless, there’s simply no way that the money you might spend on a little weekend fun isn’t ultimately going to wind up in the hands of a brutal murderer, so don’t kid yourself about the stakes.
What Can Be Done?
It’s a drastic and controversial step, but legalizing drugs might be one of the only ways to actually counter organized crime. If there’s one lesson learned from Prohibition, it should be that making something illegal doesn’t always do anything to keep people from getting their hands on it.
2. Having a Bank Account
One fact that governments across the globe simply don’t want to confront is that the legitimate banking industry is engaged in a considerable level of money laundering. In many cases, it’s a matter of just being willing to look the other way with transactions that are pretty obviously efforts to launder money. It’s an issue made all the more tricky by the fact that the same methods used by drug lords to clean their cash are used by the super wealthy to skip out on their tax bill. That means that efforts to reform the financial system are generally met with resistance from people with a lot of political influence. It’s a vicious cycle that allows generation after generation of gangsters to continue taking their ill-gotten cash and turning it into legitimate assets.
What Can Be Done?
This is one issue that simply needs more attention from the average American voter. However, since the release of the Panama Papers in 2016, there does seem to be a little more attention being paid to the network of offshore bank accounts and shell corporations used by the most successful businesspeople to launder money — whether their success came legally or not. And the recent revelations about the president’s tax returns have only added fuel to the fire.
Writing to your representatives in Congress to emphasize that you’re watching how they vote on this issue is one way you can help bring the issue into the light. And the next time you’re shopping for a new bank account, try doing research into how aggressively they’re fighting to root out the issue and go with the institution that’s showing the most commitment to a clean financial system.
3. Buying High-End Fashion
Not just counterfeits, organized crime is embedded in the basic structure of high fashion. In his 2006 book “Gomorrah,” Italian journalist Roberto Saviano detailed how the Camorra — the Neopolitan mafia — is deeply embedded in the workshops that make the beautiful purses or dresses that sell for thousands on 5th Avenue and in Milan. The independent workshops that bid for contracts to make these goods often rely on the Camorra for the loans they need to stay in business. What’s more, those connections allow the Camorra to dominate the market for counterfeits by using some of the same people making the real thing.
And if you think spending exorbitantly to get the real thing separates you from the black market, you’re also probably wrong. Saviano emphasizes how the high-end brands willingly turn a blind eye because they understand the counterfeits sold by organized crime actually spur broader interest in their brands by making them accessible to a larger section of the population, allowing them to keep supply of the “real” product low so they can charge outrageous prices.
What Can Be Done?
Not spending more than a few hundred dollars on a purse seems like pretty obvious advice to some, but there it is. You might see your purchase as being an important form of self-expression, but whether you’re buying counterfeit or not, the thousands of dollars you might spend on one of the top brands in Milan could be indirectly supporting drug dealers and murderers in Naples.
4. Buying Literally Anything Made Outside of the US
The United States’ shift to a service economy has increasingly meant that most goods Americans buy are made in another country and shipped in. And, on a very basic level, all of that shipping is what allows drugs to enter the U.S. If stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. was truly the main priority, checking a higher percentage of containers coming into the country for contraband would be the thing to do.
However, the tighter controls are with customs, the slower the flow of goods to markets in the United States. Prices would increase at places like Walmart, Americans would have less money to spend elsewhere, and the economy would slow to a crawl, likely creating problems many Americans would consider more severe than drugs. So, as long as you’re buying plenty of imported goods — and pretty much everyone is — you’re contributing to the legal flow of goods that ends up providing so much cover for the illegal flow of goods. And until something is done to actually sever the connection between legitimate global supply chains and drug smugglers, you’re likely helping big cartels sneak drugs into the country with every visit to the store, whether you like it or not.
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What Can Be Done?
The unfortunate reality is that anyone trying to exclusively buy American in today’s economy is going to have to put a whole lot of work into researching everything they use. You might feel like it’s worth the effort, but plenty of people simply aren’t ready to make that big of a sacrifice. Still, this is another area where applying your influence as a voter is likely your best bet for creating lasting change. Let your representative in Congress know that paying more for your goods is an acceptable compromise for putting a real dent in the illicit drug industry.
5. Protecting the Second Amendment
To be clear, many Americans see ownership of firearms as a personal right guaranteed in the Constitution. But regardless of how you feel about the subject, you should know that gun rights in the U.S. mean the death of tens of thousands of innocent people in Mexico being slaughtered by the cartels.
That’s right, while the largest criminal organizations in the world have plenty of sources for guns, their main one is the United States. Often, the firearms Mexican drug cartels are using to massacre dozens of innocent people at a time are being purchased legally in the United States. And while keeping gun laws wide open might be necessary in your mind to preserve constitutional rights, the simple fact is it’s also a loophole that is empowering some of the worst people in the world.
What Can Be Done?
Once again, where you stand on tightening gun control laws likely has a lot to do with how you feel about the importance of the Second Amendment. But even if you’re firmly in favor of a person’s right to bear arms, some basic legislation focused on stemming the illegal flow of weapons south could go a very long way toward reducing the horrible violence caused by the drug trade. Exploring solutions that can control sales without violating gun rights could be key to disarming Mexican cartels, so finding common ground for Americans on both sides of the gun control debate might be a necessity to stem the violence in Mexico.
6. Being American
The unfortunate truth is that, even if you’re not personally purchasing drugs or betting with a bookie, you’re a part of the economy that supports those things. Your dollars that get spent at the grocery store might have to pass through a few different entities before they land in the hands of someone who uses illicit drugs, but at least some of them are.
As long as a river of illicit money keeps flowing to the drug cartels, it’s unlikely much will ever change. And as long as the drug trade is attached to the American economy like a parasite, even the most basic economic activity is going to at least partially support the drug economy as well. And that’s without considering the way American foreign policy in Central and South America has repeatedly undermined the basic function of government, leaving countless countries with a corrupt system incapable of addressing these issues.
What Can Be Done?
There isn’t much to be done here. Moving to another country won’t undo what’s already happened, and it would mean you’re not here to fight for the important changes that could make a difference moving forward. Not to mention, most Americans are pretty happy with being American, even if that means facing the more shameful episodes in our past. Getting more involved in politics and in your local community is one way you can help begin moving the line in your area. There are likely plenty of volunteer opportunities or charities you could channel your energy into that can help unwind at least some of this country’s past crimes.
7. Relying on Low-Wage Workers
The perception that everyone who uses drugs is a junkie is a myth. There are clearly many users who have completely lost control, but there are also a great many people using stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine as a way to simply get through the day. For people working multiple different minimum-wage jobs just to make rent and put food on the table, the bump of energy they can get from illicit drugs is about getting through their day, not having a party.
And, if you’re among the lucky Americans who are on the right side of the service economy, you’re likely heavily reliant on any number of people who are really getting squeezed by the labor market.
What Can Be Done?
The next time a minimum-wage hike is up for debate, you should keep in mind how this factor plays into it. Raising the wage floor for every American could have a huge impact on their quality of life and the number of hours they need to work every week to get by. When many people are turning to drugs just to get through their day, it should be a sign that the labor market isn’t working the way it should.
8. Pushing ‘Law and Order’ Over Treatment
It’s safe to say at this point that the war on drugs has largely been a miserable failure. No matter how many headlines the DEA or FBI can create by taking down drug kingpins, it doesn’t seem to have made much impact on the actual flow of drugs into the country. There’s never been a shortage of new leaders ready to spring into the void left by a major arrest. What’s more, it’s now clear that the CIA was deeply involved in helping Nicaraguan Contras smuggle drugs into the United States as a way to fund paramilitary death squads in Central America — a truly vile example of one hand not knowing (or, more to the point, caring) what the other is doing.
As long as the demand for drugs exists, organized crime will find a way to provide a supply.
What Can Be Done?
There is by now a clear argument to be made that spending those same funds on reducing demand — widespread drug treatment for addicts, not to mention economic investment in inner cities — rather than choking off supply would likely produce far better results. So, while getting the bad guys might feel like the right way to go, the results seem to suggest that the more compassionate approach is also the most effective.
9. Going To the Strip Club
Depending on the club, you might not necessarily be a part of the problem. But the simple fact is that human traffickers use the strip club circuit as part of the way they exploit the young women they’re bringing into the country illegally. The girls you see dancing on the stage may be held against their will and forced into prostitution when they’re not at the club. So while a fun night out might seem mostly harmless, the simple fact is you could be funneling money to dangerous criminals engaged in one of the worst possible crimes.
What Can Be Done?
If you have a relationship with the ownership of a strip club, that means you can really feel confident that they’re taking care of their dancers, and the reasons for not visiting a strip club are reduced to the classic ones. But if not, you should put some serious thought into what businesses you’re patronizing and who they might be in bed with. And if you see anything suspicious taking place, report it to local authorities and follow up to ensure they’re taking all the necessary steps to protect these young women.
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