Trying to Make It: The Enterprises, Gangs, and People of the American Drug Trade

Author: R.V. Gundur
Publisher: Cornell University Press, 2022. 330 pages.
Reviewer: Russell Crandall | December 2022

“At the heart of the drug trade are people: those who demand illicit substance and, for the focus of this book, those who meet those demands.” (p. 235)

A resilient and spirited resident of one of Chicago’s notorious violence-ravaged neighborhoods, mom Alyssa worried herself sick about her son, Michael, whose father had been gunned down when the Michael was not yet a teen. Despite Alyssa’s steady guidance and infinite love, Michael remained rattled, if not despondent, about his dad’s departure; it was not long before the wayward youth fell under the sway of his extended family, who were mostly, if not all, gang members, some hardened felons. These men—and they were all men—had their own version of an American dream—just not the one that most of us envision. Theirs was to get rich quickly on the street by pushing dope, and Michael wanted everything to do with it. Alyssa described their almost pathological Chi-town provincialism, “They don’t think life is bigger than the block. It’s like a neighborhood full of people with PTSD. They’re shell-shocked. They don’t think they can go anywhere. They don’t think they can do anything. I mean, other than a little nickel-and-dime job, scratching and surviving for every single dollar. They’re not comfortable when it’s not a constant state of struggle. If they guy next to you has ambitions to be something bigger and better, on the surface you say, ‘Oh, wow! That’s good!’ But crabs in a barrel: ‘I don’t really want you to go further than I can go.’” (p. 204).

After considerable toil, Alyssa got Michael examined by a doctor who promptly diagnosed bipolar disorder. And yet despite her own clean living, street smarts, and steady income, she subsequently failed to prevent her boy from becoming a drug dealer. He too loved the ‘hood and home boy comradery and easy cash, briskly selling whatever to whomever. The other shoe dropped when a police squad broke into a trap house where they found drugs, weapons…and Michael. Still a teen, he was sentenced to serve time.

Alyssa and Michael’s Chicagoland account is one of the myriad wrenching personal stories—tragedies, in so many—depicted in criminologist R.V Gundur’s original and unorthodox book, Trying to Make It. In what he labels a fit of “gonzo” (e.g. first-person narrative; sans claims of objectivity) research, Professor Gundur conducts a free-flowing, ultimately highly illuminating odyssey encompassing three fascinating metropolitan regions, all highly salient to the American drug trade: Ciudad Juárez, Mexico /El Paso, Texas (the so-called Paso del Norte borderlands); Phoenix; and Chicago (p. 12).

So why did Gundur take this seemingly wacky, even dangerous, field trip to these distinct but interlocking and overlapping cities? His longstanding frustration and incredulity with all the ridiculousness in the breathless news accounts from mainstream sources: demonization 24/7, if you will. “I mean, what does the public actually know about how it all works?” he asked someone seated next to him on an Illinois train (p. 249). Getting to the bottom of this trope required unmasking and questioning the dominant narrative – that of “out-of-control users and evil dealers juxtaposed against the brave souls who fight against the scourge of drugs to protect the innocent” (p. 6-7). While Gundur does not appear to fully substantiate this in the book, his chilling conclusion is that policymakers cynically exploit such “reporting” to justify their domestic policies that have “contributed to the burgeoning incarceration rate in the United States, particularly people of color” (p. 6-7).

Gundur’s protracted, but certainly not exhaustive (as the author would certainly concede), urban and suburban field research led him to spend hours, days, and weeks at flea bag motels, bars and brothels, strip malls, prisons, and everything-in-between. Before he wrapped up his study in the American heartland, Gundur had met, interviewed, and lived with a remarkable range of individuals: immigration court judges, prisoners (and their guards!), current drug dealers, users, even former addicts out of jail but, this time, trying to help their forlorn denizens get to rehab. More boldly and unconventionally, he even sat in on the murder trial of an infamous (American) prison gang, Barrio Azteca, as well as ran ads on Craigslist to find users who were willing to candidly discuss their lives.

The author reckons that his pedagogy opened him up to the worlds and insight of this motley assortment of the drug trade-linked marginalized and forgotten – who were vital social players in the global drug economy.

A constant presence in the cities’ barrios and street corners, Gundur was convinced he had built trust with these often-forlorn counterparts. To his considerable credit, his (admittedly self-described) portrayals of his overwhelmingly extemporaneous give-and-takes reinforce how he quickly established a climate of trust, even solidarity. “Many of my respondents,” the author exhorts, “wanted me to know what was true and what was not” (p. 9). His interactions with locals were at times almost surreal, such as his stint teaching an assemblage of former gangsters about life skills when one of his student’s reported that his brother had been murdered. Gundur is certain that his subsequent involvement in running a “funeral car wash” to raise funds for the despondent family earned him street cred amongst the gang. [This reviewer, a scholar of international politics and Latin American Studies, will leave it to anthropologists to whether the book’s gonzo pedagogy raises any ethical questions.]

One of the book’s many strengths is that, before addressing the enthralling “micro” tales gleaned from his field trials in each city, Gundur offers a thorough, multi-faceted urban history – warts and all. For example, readers learn that, in all three cities, gang violence was considerably more acute and destructive in the ‘80s and ‘90s than it was today. In fact, even placid old El Paso—often lauded for having one of the lowest per capita murder rates, at least for American metropolises—was haunted from all sorts of virulent gangland elements. And just because a city does not have a high homicide rate does not necessarily mean that gangs and crime are absent. On the other hand, Juárez and Chicago, in recent times, manifested both violence and gangsterism.

Gundur discovers that his localities share some salient factors, such as wealth and poverty, that exist side-by-side; he illustrates the lottery of birth into one zip code, versus another, within the same city confines. Another author insight is that illegal drugs are an “unremarkable, everyday existence;” there is no such thing as a stereotypical drug seller, nor is there an average user or trafficker (p. 12). The best way to see the drug trade, Gundur holds, is as a banal archetype of mom and pop-style folks and outfits who buy and sell, usually just to get by.

Gundur cites poverty (especially when linked to a lack of economic mobility); fraught families and communities; mistrust in policing; and policymakers’ reflexive and self-serving scapegoating as the reasons why, despite their own best efforts and/or desires, so many from the “margins of society” wind up being sucked in by the tractor beam called drugs (p. 235). Exemplified by some of his subjects, valiant souls do find jobs and sustenance in the licit economy; others, of course, keep on using drugs, pulled by the sirenic tug of another hit or another street corner sale. Tragically, a couple of those who appear in Gundur’s tome were subsequently murdered in cold blood. Some admirably manage to get clean and then devote their lives to helping their still addicted brethren through, say, facilitating their access to rehab.

Gundur’s conclusions are almost entirely based on interviews and acquaintances—the essence of gonzo—which is, in and of itself, not an issue. His nonconformist approach does raise the question as to why he is offering his readers more related data on drugs, crime, and violence. Perhaps there are simply no reliable statistics on such subjects, but, if so, his audience might appreciate an explanation. Given how manifestly discontented Gundur is with the orthodox depiction of the drug trade, the author is unwittingly allowing his subjects to corroborate what he already thinks.

In a compelling personal vignette, Gundur, now a criminologist in Australia who grew up in the rural Midwest, learned from his teachers that the American dream was alive and well. No matter what your background or bank account balance, if you put in enough hard work, you could do or be anything. The boy did not witness the drug business in any regular manner. Yet, in a moving acknowledgement of his father, an adored psychiatrist and immigrant, Gundur describes how this foreigner-born doc worked herculean hours, as one might expect for an ambitious immigrant, trying to provide the American dream to his family. For decades, his healing vocation (his patients adoringly called him “Vish”) entailed treating people riddled with addiction and drug abuse, from meth to Oxycontin.

Vish was a medical healer, but also a patient and addict. His intense, high-stress clinical days were often finished off with a furtive fifth of Jim Beam or Jameson. And if it weren’t for the bad luck of a co-worker reporting his boozing, he very likely would not have lost his well-paying job and stellar reputation.

Gundur wisely reminds us that, as is the case for anything currently sold in, say, Juárez, his dad’s patients abused drugs made abroad or at home, “bought from pharmacists and pushers” (p. 2). One substance might be “licit,” while the other is not. Gundur indignantly expands on his firm sense that, “both pharmacist and pusher are sellers of mind-and-body altering products that travel along supply chains across the globe. Consumers buy from wherever they can access. The transaction is a simple, banal process that features in the lives of everyday people, including those who button up their starched shirts to go to the office, those who lace up their steel-capped boots to go to a building site, and those who tie the drawstrings on name-brand sweatpants to go to a college seminar room” (p. 2).

One of Gundur’s childhood pals, Ricky, endured the murder of his father, having just been let out of prison. This was the first in a wicked chain reaction in traumatized Ricky’s still very short life: juvenile hall before Gundur had his learner’s permit; in prison before Gundur graduated from high school, placing the wayward youth among the one in five of African Americans who are in prison before they turn thirty.

Writing in the book’s final pages, Gundur’s not unreasonable plea is that we need to imagine a “new narrative” that belatedly sheds light on the outcast and poor, while also having the courage to face our decades and billions spent on failed policies intended to stem the insatiable demand for psychoactive substances that ensure the drug trade’s permanence (p. 245). After reading Trying To Make It, a skeptic might wonder if the irrepressible scholar might have come to his cities with rose-colored (i.e., “the drug war is a cancer!”) lenses.

Another question might be whether, despite his compelling depictions of dealer and user street economics, he too easily dismisses the malevolent role of, say, multinational drug trafficking organizations, or DTOs as the U.S. government labels them. In other words, just because the many unfortunate souls he meets and chronicles had become marginalized and unwittingly part of the drug trade does not automatically mean that Pablo Escobar was not, in fact, exactly what his “demonizing” critics in the mainstream media made him out to be. There are many in Colombia who believe portrayals like the hit Netflix series Narcos are much too forgiving of their country’s cold blooded cocaine capo. Perhaps there is more than a kernel of truth in the negative portrayals of drug traffickers and dealers that emerge from the media. To stave off any criticism of anti-drugs strawman and given how much he uses this element as a backdrop to his analysis, the author might have also dedicated a chapter titled something like “Demonization and Scaremongering,” in which he unpacks the “who? what? why?” of the putatively orthodox negative and erroneous depictions of the drug business.

All these questions are linked to the risk that Trying to Make It winds up preaching to the choir in what the needlessly polarized topic of illegal drugs is already. It is not unreasonable to counter that – no matter how former president Donald Trump or Fox News incessantly distort and demonize the vulnerable and voiceless – there are also reasonable voices (and data!) underpinning the view that, in its totality, illicit drug smuggling, pushing, and using is bad for individuals and communities, including poor and forgotten ones. Be that as it may, the author deserves admiration for his intrepid research and empathy, which produced an important, deftly penned book. Policymakers, academics, and those in and around the day-to-day trenches of the American drug trade (e.g., journalists, lawyers, therapists, police officers) do not have to work and live in Juárez/El Paso, Phoenix, or Chicago to benefit greatly from this heartrending book.

Russell Crandall is a Professor of Latin American Studies at Davidson College.

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