New Insights Into Gang Violence Recalibrate Drug War Strategy

For decades, the American government has battled gang violence. Now, with an intensifying drug war along the Mexican-U.S. border, academics and think tanks are studying these deeply-rooted criminal entities and reshaping policy in the process. 

A landmark street gang study arrived in 2000 from economist Steven D. Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh. Their work from the University of Chicago, entitled “An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang’s Finances,” used an innovative data set to deconstruct the economics of Chicago drug gangs. Both academics wrote best-selling books based on their findings and Venkatesh spent considerable time inside a Chicago street gang for his 2008 book, “Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets.” The result was a sea change in how the country is addressing street gangs.


Even fake academics are studying the issue. In the groundbreaking HBO series the Wire, a local academic uses a government grant to study street and drug culture at a Baltimore-area middle school.

The first major involvement from government came in 2004 with a grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety. They contributed $200,000 for a two-year study of area gang activity by the Lowell Police Department and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

But this research isn’t just coming from academia. Washington think tanks have also become involved, particularly the Justice Policy Institute’s findings regarding the failed policies addressing gangs and how they cost American taxpayers. In 2007, even the FBI started studying gang culture, compiling 20 years worth of work to study the circumstances and mentality of gang members.

But the true watershed moment in gang study came last month, when the University of Houston Center for Drug and Social Policy Research announced it had been awarded a $2.4 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to study Mexican-American adolescent gang members. Could a complete shift in the drug war be far behind?

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