Drug War Chronicle Book Review Essay: "Righteous Dopefiend" and "This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang"

Drug War Chronicle Review Essay: "This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang," by Samuel Logan (2009, Hyperion Press, 245 pp., $24.99 HB) and "Righteous Dopefiend," by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg (2009, University of California Press, 392 pp., $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

These two books have little in common except that they focus on two deviant subcultures of interest to people curious about various facets of drug policy: Central American immigrant gang-bangers in the former and, less obviously, middle-aged, homeless San Francisco heroin addicts in the latter. Neither group has much to do with the other, except that perhaps some of the gang members could have peddled some of the heroin that went into those addicts' arms. What makes both groups -- and both books -- of interest to the Chronicle is that neither group would exist as presently constituted absent the regime of drug prohibition.

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"This is for the Mara Salvatrucha" is described as journalist Samuel Logan's effort to peek behind the curtain of one of America's largest street gangs, but with the exception of a few passages scattered through its pages, the book concentrates almost exclusively on the fate of Brenda Paz, a Honduran teenager who got caught up in the gang in Dallas and was quickly brought into local inner circles because she was the girlfriend of a local leader. When Paz's gang-leader boyfriend killed another Dallas area teenager in Paz's presence to steal his car, Paz fled to northern Virginia to avoid prosecution. There, she hooked up with another murderous local Mara leader, got arrested, and turned informant.

Thanks to Paz's extensive interviews with local, state, and federal law enforcement officials, police got their best insights yet into the group's murky inner workings, its origins, and its breadth. Unfortunately, Logan devotes little attention to such things, preferring instead to craft a police procedural, which, while a page-turner in its own right, leaves this reader at least hungry for more solid information.

While Logan asserts that the Mara Salvatrucha is into extortion, dope dealing, and human smuggling, he doesn't really demonstrate it, nor does he demonstrate that the Mara is indeed "America's most violent gang." Logan shows us localized incidents of thuggery, some of them truly mindless and savage, but doesn't describe how the gang actually works, nor compare it in size and scope to other criminal gangs. Nor is there much material about Mara's presence in Central America -- it is particularly strong in El Salvador and Honduras -- a strange omission given Logan's acknowledgement of the gang's origin among Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

"This is for the Mara Salvatrucha" is an entrancing read in its own right, it does open some windows on the much feared organization -- although not nearly enough -- and it makes the reader develop an interest in Brenda Paz and her trip from innocent if troubled teenager to hardened gang-banger to the federal witness protection program. And that's sort of a shame, given how she ends up. I'll say no more; I don't want to spoil it for you.

Logan left me wishing that anthropologists Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg had written "This is for the Mara Salvatrucha," but that is a bit unfair. The urban ethnographers were able to spend a decade with the subjects of "Righteous Dopefiend," and those subjects, while constantly engaged in petty criminality, were not hardened, violent tough guys. Instead, they were middle-aged long-term heroin addicts, most definitely nowhere near as scary as a face-tattooed Mara killer. Still, whether it was differences in approach -- journalistic vs. anthropological -- or access to subjects -- limited and fraught with danger vs. long-term and fraught with being asked for spare change -- "Righteous Dopefiend" left me much more fulfilled.

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Bourgois and Schonberg came to be on intimate terms with a group of homeless heroin addicts camped in obscure spaces under freeway exchanges in San Francisco. Some were black, some white, a few Hispanic, a few were women. Good anthropologists that they are, there is plenty of theory mainly of interest to grad students, but it is nicely mixed in with real world observation, field notes, striking photographs (and the theory of the photographic gaze), and numerous transcripts of interviews with the aging junkies. (Before some reader jumps up to object to the term, let me just say I prefer the self-selecting "junkie" to the therapeutically-imposed and disempowering "addict.")

The junkie/addict distinction has a parallel in one of the distinctions Bourgois and Schonberg discovered among their homeless chronic heroin users. The white guys were much more likely to be alienated from their families than the black ones. The white guys sometimes didn't even know where their parents lived anymore, but the black guys would go home for birthdays, weddings, funerals, and other important occasions. They were more likely to be accepted as errant but still loved family members, while their white counterparts were more likely to be shunned. The junkies' own self-images reflected these contrasting familial responses, with the white ones adopting a hang-dog "outcast" persona compared to the black guys' graying Superfly "outlaw" persona.

The world of the "Righteous Dopefiend" isn't pretty. There are ugly abcesses and necrotizing fasciitis, there is the violence among the users and directed at them, they live in filth and squalor (although some try harder than others to rise above it), they are constantly driven by the need for the next fix and the fear of getting dopesick if they can't come up with the money to buy it.

But, like any of the rest of us, they are capable of acts of kindness and generosity. In the group Bourgois and Schonberg hung with, there was always at least a heroin-soaked bit of cotton for the person going without. There was romance, too, and a friendship and intimacy among "running partners" probably as genuine as any best friendship among non-homeless non-junkies.

By the way, that kindness and generosity often means sharing needles and cooking equipment. If three of you are going in on a $20 bag of Mexican tar, there is going to be some bodily fluid-swapping going on. Bourgois and Schonberg devote some attention to harm reduction practices, and amid all the talk about knowledge/power relations, one gets the general message that some harm reductionists need to do a better job of listening to their clients. Encouraging them moralistically to not share needles or cooking equipment when their circumstances make it inevitable that they will may not be the best approach, they suggest. Still, despite the critique, it is clear the author and the junkies appreciate the efforts at public health and harm reduction interventions. They are certainly preferable to interventions by police or Caltrans, which result in arrest or the trashing of the homeless camps and the loss of all possessions, and certainly more well-intentioned than the city's public hospitals, which insist that the junkies be literally on death's door before they admit them or the doctors who operate on abscesses without anesthetics and needlessly remove large chunks of flesh, leaving gaping wounds before pushing them back out onto the streets.

"Righteous Dopefiend" is most excellent. Even the theorizing is intelligible to the interested layperson (and will doubtless be grist for many a graduate seminar), and the theorizing is the basis for a well-informed critique of the social forces that create and impact the lives of their subjects. I feel like I got to know these people and gained some insight to how they live and think, and I deepened my understanding of why they live the way they do. What more can you ask of anthropology?

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Funny sideline about the word "DOPE'.

Funny sideline about the word "DOPE'.

Tried to have a reasoned debate with some prohibitionists & fundamentalist christians about all aspects of Marijuana Prohibition including responsible recreational use by responsible adults the other day and, not surprisingly, they went 'reefer madness' on me invoking the 'de-facto monkey' and 'dopers will only do evil' theory that the prohibitionists find so simple and flawless.

FYI: According to my dictionary the word 'DOPE' comes from the Dutch and means 'SAUCE'. Sounds to me like this is where the word 'SAUCED' comes from which obviously and historically refers to drunks not potheads?

I can only imagine how dopey this made my antagonists feel - perhaps that's why i was thrown out of the forum for daring to disagree & having the nerve to offer an alternate viewpoint that challenged their biases. Whenever, I begged them for a legal bases for prohibition the counter was always 'god this and god that' as if that explained anything except how they choose to pursue happiness.

When asked what right(s) 'Joe Six-Pack' or 'Black-out Bob' has that 'Tony the Toker' doesn't have they must have been deep in prayer because the silence that followed was thunderous!

End Prohibition or Perish!

superdad's picture

A great big THANX

I'm sure I am not the only person who has been attacked by the local bible thumping society and felt a deep desire to watch the jaws drop, so from one who wanted it to someone who's done it THANX! Some people have to remember that the right of judgment is His alone, hypocritical followers! Viva La Pot Big Brother!

Man's Inhumanity to Man

It's incredible that here, in the first world, in the twent first century, law enforcement and medical professionals STILL have the nineteenth century knee jerk response (read:social worker) of the 19th century social reformer to the addict and/or the gangster. Hell, it didn't work then and it doesn't work now; what's needed is new age thinking, a modern age of Reason.

Malkavian's picture

Unfortunately we have one Hell of an evolutionary heritage

Don't take it wrong: I'm a fan of man. Not the least because I know we have - as they say in the sci-fi series - "great potential", and I really feel I've personally been able to get a long way in my quest to be a modern Renaissance Man.

However, as long as we have blind ideologies and blind faith, we have a problem.

Author Ben Goldacre, "Bad Science", nailed it when he said that the reason he uses science so much is because he's so afraid he'll inadvertedly commit intellectual errors due to his imperfectly evolved brain. Christopher Hitchens says something to that effect as well, his favorite phrase being something like: we're evolved with too small a cortex and too large adrenal glands.

Just as we have the many well-known optical illustions, so does our intellectual apparatus have its own strange illusions.

Unaware of this a person will fall into one intellectual trap after the other, and they don't even know their heinous crime.

We shouldn't be too hard on our ancestors. They literally knew nothing compared to what we know today. In fact, for most of humanity's existence we've had to survive knowing almost nothing about how the real world works. Even the knowledge of bacteria is very new, but we tend to forget that.

I could give countles examples here, but I'll just suggest a couple of books:

Ben Goldacre: "Bad Science"

Robert B. Cialdini: "Influence: science and practice."

Stuart Sutherland: "Irrationality"

Robyn M Dawes: "Everyday Irrationality"

Sam Harris: "The End of Faith"

Christopher Hitchens: "God is not Great"

As long as having an opinion based on nothing but faith is considered a good thing to be taken seriously, we won't get anywhere.

"As long as having an

"As long as having an opinion based on nothing but faith is considered a good thing to be taken seriously, we won't get anywhere."

The way i think of faith, i disagree with this. There are topics where we don't have absolutely conclusive scientific evidence. To me faith is what (emotionally) makes most sense to you under those circumstances. Under this definition, faith is necessary and also very valuable.

All tyrannical governments are gangs:

All tyrannical gangs are governments. All behaving like narcissistic religious cults with megalomaniacle expectations of absolute loyalty to the cult leaders. Pain infliction is as pain infliction does.

more about "Dope"

1. The first poster made a good point about the vested interests which defame cannabis with this word. (The Dutch origin sounds analogous to engl."dip".) Anyway, the glaring obvious rhyme is with "opiate" so the above-cited book title is probably righteous enough.

2. "Anonymous" doubtless knows the Limbaugh epithet "maggot-infested dope-smoking hippies", the bad news being that so many million ignorance-infested listeners agree with cigar-waving Limbaugh, whose Big 2Wackgo constituents are eager to see him perpetuate the confusion between cannabis and opiates which has medically been disproved since the 50's. (Also, for those who care about another issue, "maggot" is probably a side-swipe at those who are tagged with the epithet "faggot".)

Drug superiority over other drug/ this drug better than drug

Is the key that opens the door to tyranny. Stoner,tweeker,nodder,and such,are buzz words(pun intended) keeping the feeling of superiority for some over others. Then there is poly drug use which has many titles. When used harshly the words become fightin words. Fighting each other for the entertainment of bullies self appointed to impose profit by pain and death economy over prosperity and peaceful cooperation based life creates the ultimate distraction for the tyrants amusement. The distraction which keeps everyone divided so as to never be prepared for the biggest terror threat in the world.That being extreme weather conditions,volcanoes,earthquakes,asteroids,and much more. Apparently for some sick freaks,maintaining a type 0 civilization is just entertainment. A mass live action torture/snuff film for sick fun while laughing at forcing unpreparedness. Eh gad! Peace love and happiness to all ! P.S. Out of all the different titles and labels imposed on the human race the one that is being purposely ignored is... Human.

Let Nature Take it's Course

Thomas Jefferson chose the God of nature over the God of man; so do I. let the Tyrant self destruct without taking others with them.

The tree of Liberty periodically needs to be watered with the blood of Patriots and tyrants.
Thomas Jefferson

Never discuss religion

[email protected],Vancouver,B.C.CanadaAs an elder member of the junkie subculture I have been saddened by the decline in living conditions for heroin addicts that just can't quit.As the drug war has dragged on and the law has become more vicious,so too has the drug subculture.40 years ago you would never have seen an addict panhandling or collecting bottles and living under a bridge.As the gangster culture has been fed by prohibition,as it was in the alcohol era,the addict no longer has the option of selling a little dope to pay the rent and put food on the table.One of the members of LEAP once bemoaned the loss of the good old dopers of the past as the new breed on the scene tended to shoot first and not with the needle.I have seen acquaintances that are more worried about being beaten for being homeless than for their addiction.I have no longer the need to hustle for my drugs due to my medical condition.For the first time since I stopped a 35 year cycle of prison,dealing,prison etc.I can pay my bills without having to make excuses and having to stall one to pay another.It angers me that others whose need is as legitimate as mine have to live in horrid squalor just so they can maintain their habits.Right now they have a program in Vancouver that has as it's goal the weaning of addicts from heroin by using heroin.This has already been proven to be futile in other studies.I applaud the fact that they are willing to try something else but for crissakes first see what's already been tried.The NAOMI project had positive results,as has every maintenance program ever tried.The one thing that these programs have all said is that they don't lead to a drug free existence.People with a heroin addiction,who have been through the cycle of prison and treatment and forced abstinence and are still using will probably never quit.As a society we must decide what is the lesser evil.What we are doing currently is nothing less than torture.This is one problem in the drug war that has been studied to death,literally.If a society is judged by how it treats the least of it's people,we are to be judged harshly.

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