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Making a Killing

Measured by FBI homicide data, the United States is dramatically safer yet people feel less secure. Here’s why. Murder is an infamous crime from private crimes of passion between lovers to public world-rendering instants like “9/11”. In the United States, the blitzkrieg of homicide in the 1980s and relative Pax Americana in the 1990s left scattered killing fields with little explanation from criminology and less justice from courts. We do not know who did much of the killing in hundreds of thousands of cases. When national killing peaked in 1993, there were 7901 unsolved homicides in the United States that year; of those, 17% (1388) were unsolved in New York City. NYC’s Rudolph Giuliani attributed subsequent peace that yielded 2018’s 50-year murder low to local policing of disorder such as  “broken windows”: "obviously murder and graffiti are two vastly different crimes. But they are part of the same continuum, and a climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other," he said. A core problem for “broken windows” criminology is thus how to count, for example, broken windows. Take 9/11. Counting 9/11 broken windows isn’t merely a snide academic critique of quantitative criminology data sources and methods, the question was material to Larry Silverstein’s $7 billion insurance claim that the World Trade Center mass murder represented two distinct events at a single crime scene for which he began a 99 year lease 60 days prior in July 2001. 

If graffiti and murder are on the same criminal continuum, then so are insurance fraud, money laundering, and murder. With local NYC municipal security officials focused on local signals of disorder in the 90s, New York’s post-Cold War criminal class organized and globalized as NAFTA opened and the Iron Curtain collapsed. The 1980s East Coast drug distribution war pivoted from Atlantic and Caribbean ports to Pacific ports integrated with NAFTA truck and rail networks. When industrialized killing and mass graves exploded across Mexican plazas, frontline Mexican commanders faced trial in New York jurisdictions and $16 billion war chest seizures by Brooklyn prosecutors. Giuliani’s disorganized crime priority offered New York’s organized criminal class impunity to threaten shootings on Fifth Avenue beneath the reflective windows of penthouses and skyscrapers owned by webs of front names, transnational shell companies, and global blood money.

On federal trial in New York’s Eastern District in 2018 was the world’s most prolific drug distributor and alleged author at least 33 murders, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Forty years ago, Guzman lived through a 1978 federal police-military operation that killed his uncle and eight associates in his native Sinaloa, a western state on the Gulf of California. The confidential US Embassy telegram to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance with news of that southwest combat characterized Chapo’s uncle as “the second most significant narcotics violator not only in Mexico but worldwide”. In the Eighties, the White House got serious about regime changes in the hemisphere. A 1986 US National Security Decision Directive instructed US cabinet officials to prioritize drug war. The decision precipitated US foreign policy innovations such as the extraordinary rendition from Honduras of Guzman confederates attached to the 1985 torture-murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena and President Noriega’s 1989 capture in Panama that cost the lives of 26 United States Marines.

Guzman himself survived May 1993 ambush at the Guadalajara airport on Mexico’s Pacific Coast; mistaken identity left the wrong white Lincoln Town Car riddled with bullets and a popular Catholic bishop dead. Once captured in June 1993 by the Guatemalan army, and inside the safe confines of Mexican federal prison, Chapo converted trafficking with Colombia’s North Valley Cartel from planes to ships. When joint US-Colombian “Search Bloc” forces fatally shot Medellin’s Pablo Escobar months later on December 2, 1993, it coincided with the post-1975 homicide apex in United States. It also coincided with Chapo’s partner, and Escobar’s North Valley rival, nicknamed “Lollipop” with a face obliterated by plastic surgery, financing a Colombian hit team to execute Brooklyn-based “Vladimir Beigelman” on the streets of Mill Basin (about), December 2, 1993 (DOJ).

Chapo's NYPD Convoy on a Closed Brooklyn Bridge Between His Cell in Manhattan and Courtroom in Brooklyn, 2018.

Chapo Guzman first “escaped” Mexican prison the day before President Bush (Jan 19, 2001) was sworn-in and later extradited to the United States the same day President Trump was sworn-in (Jan 20, 2017). Hypothetically, those political coincidences, and the fact that Guzman is still alive, signal his transnational political relevance. Rather than looking at Giuliani’s local, corner-level continuum to explain the speed and magnitude of what happened to NYC homicide patterns after 1993, the transnational crime spectrum provides richer causal levers and more powerful actors.

The structural change to American geopolitics brought about by the Cold War’s ostensible “end” and the drug war’s rotation from the Atlantic to Pacific ports explains why, despite fewer homicides inside USA borders, perceptions of insecurity persist. Ports of entry to the United States are locations for military-paramilitary conflict between the federal governments of the United States and Mexico, and the bosses of a transnational organized criminal empire.  The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which sold the World Trade Center lease to the aforementioned Larry Silverstein, became toxic dust when Mohamed Atta murdered 84 Port Authority employees, smashing American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower just floors beneath Windows on the World restaurant. Lessee Silverstein survived his usual Windows on the World breakfast by virtue of a dermatology appointment the morning of September 11, 2001 (Observer, 2011). Despite replay on television over almost two decades, none of the 9/11 murders are counted in the definitive data set of New York and United States homicide, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Report. Criminology methods that do not measure broken windows, 3000 murders in downtown Manhattan, nor industrial violence in southwest borderplexes provide deceptive conclusions about American security in the new millennium.


Exhibit 1: FBI Supplementary Homicide Report Data 1976-2017 Where Metro Area = “New York-New Jersey’. Source: Murder Accountability Project


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