Drug arrests drop in Chicago but still snare thousands in black neighborhoods

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It's not exactly the same old war on drugs.

As law enforcement officials focus their efforts on violent, big-time drug operations, Chicago police made fewer street-level drug arrests in 2012 than at any point in two decades.

Yet thousands of low-level dealers and users were still swept up, and the busts included nearly 18,000 arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession despite a new law allowing cops to issue tickets instead.

What's not news: the vast majority of the arrests—for every type of drug—were made in predominantly African-American communities where drug markets moved in years ago as legal jobs and businesses moved out.

Last week officials sent the latest message that their chief targets are major drug operators—and not the guys on the corner—when the Chicago Crime Commission and DEA named Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera "public enemy number one." Nicknamed El Chapo, or Shorty, Guzman leads the Sinaloa cartel, which the DEA believes is responsible for 80 percent of the heroin and cocaine in Chicago.

As intended, the declaration made international news. But the situation it highlights is a little more complex than the headlines suggested.

Guzman and Sinaloa don't actually peddle drugs on Chicago's streets. Officials say low-level cartel affiliates, or groups who buy from them, smuggle their products to the city or nearby suburbs. From there the goods are sold to street gangs.

Such was the case with the heroin distributed on the west side by the New Breeds gang for much of the last decade. Police and federal agents determined their supplier was a northwest side native named Erik Guevara who acquired heroin and cocaine from a relative in Mexico.

"Guevara was kind of a subcontractor" for Sinaloa, says Jack Riley, the special agent in charge of the DEA's Chicago division.

Law enforcement officials estimate that 100,000 Chicago residents are affiliated with gangs, which rely on drug sales to stay in business.

Most gang members probably have no idea they're helping the cartels make money, Riley says. "But it's essentially like Chapo Guzman has 100,000 Amway salesmen working for him."

No one is eager to see the cartels extend their reach except the cartels. Riley and Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy say disrupting their networks—on down to the street level—is critical in preventing violence.

Residents weary of navigating the dealers just want them off their block.

But it's not that easy. Nearly every time a street operation is cleared out, another one appears to take its place. Such was the case at the corner of Springfield and Thomas in West Humboldt Park. Last year McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared a "ground war" on drug operations there. It was quiet for awhile, but in recent weeks different factions have fought to take back the corner.

Meanwhile, thousands of street-level salesmen and users have been cuffed and hauled to the station:

* Chicago police last year made about 35,000 arrests for drug offenses. That's down almost 9 percent from 2011 and the lowest total since 1992, when police made about 34,400 drug arrests. But it's still far and away the leading category of arrest in Chicago.

* The majority of drug busts were for misdemeanor marijuana possession. While the number of these arrests dropped 12 percent from 2011 to 2012, there were still nearly 18,000 of them, even though a new city ordinance gave police the option of issuing tickets instead. Police made about 2,000 more arrests for dealing or possessing larger amounts of pot. By comparison, police only wrote 380 tickets for marijuana possession.

* Most of the drug arrests occurred in just ten of the city's 50 wards; all of the top-hit wards are African-American. In fact, the top 17 wards for drug arrests are all predominantly black.

* The west side remains the center of open-air drug selling and enforcement, as it has been for decades. Fourteen of the 15 police beats with the most drug arrests were on the west side. Almost all of them are along the expressway, which provides ready access for customers from the suburbs and across the Midwest.

* The hard drug of choice for these consumers is heroin. Arrests for heroin went up 9 percent in 2012.

* On the upside, arrests for crack and powder cocaine continued a decade-long decline, reflecting decreased popularity of the drugs. Arrests for crack—thought to be at the center of the gang wars of the 1990s—are down more than 75 percent since 2002.

* You can see a year-by-year breakdown of specific offenses here. To see where your police beat ranks, click here.

Speaking in Chicago last week, President Obama made welcome news by announcing plans to promote investment and create jobs in distressed areas. Mayor Emanuel then said he's going to launch his own violence prevention programs by leveraging businesses for funding. Neither mentioned the drug policies pulling so many young people into the criminal justice system.

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