Currently, in Los Angeles, there are over 40,000 men and women in gangs; in the United States, close to a million.
“A house divided cannot stand,” observes Cornell Ward, Executive Director of the Unity One Foundation and former gang member. “When I first got into it, I had my brother with me; we grew up in the neighborhood together and then drugs came into the picture. Suddenly, he wants half the block to sell his drugs, and we’re against each other. Then, two others want part of the block; there are four of us. It spread in that way. Now there are over 9,500 gangs in L.A.”
When Ward turned 19, he became affiliated with Rick Ross, a.k.a. “Freeway Ricky Ross,” (drug lord not rapper), an L.A. narcotics trafficker who transformed the cocaine trade by mass -producing crack through Central America. Ross reportedly earned $2 million dollars in one day while also furthering his trade into other cities across the U.S.
Ward was Ross’ top lieutenant.
“I was the youngest kingpin in the area,” notes Ward. “I remember when I was ten years old. I walked in and saw my uncle smoking a pipe and I didn’t know what it was. Ten years later and he’s my first client. That’s how it works. We are conditioned to chase the root of evil.”
Some claim it’s a territorial matter or lack of good policing, but, according to Ward, the relationship between drugs and gangs is a marriage. One almost couldn’t exist without the other. He now works for the Unity One Foundation, creating programs that translate street skills into business tactics, as a way of reforming youth by redirecting their intellectual assets. What clever sales strategies they’ve developed through drug trading can effectively be applied in a corporate setting; where they used to “re-up” on drugs, they can instead do with stocks.
“There is not a gang problem, there is a substance problem,” adds Ward. “It leads to depression, lack of education and understanding. Even if you’re just producing crack, you get high off the slightest touch or inhalation, and it leads to a confused state of mind. You don’t go out and do a drive-by shooting in a right state of mind.”
Ward equates gang proliferation with a state of modern slavery, the role of slave and master defined by substance and abuser. He also points to the fact that the U.S. government negates the urgency of the problem, allowing it to exacerbate unnoticed. In fact, statistics show that over 50% of homicides in L.A. are attributed to gang violence, likely the result of mass drug funneling from the border.
“The government has satellites monitoring the moon in outer space, yet they can’t tell us how much dope is being shipped in,” comments Ward. “People don’t care because they think it doesn’t affect their families, but it’s a source of money that feeds into everything. Wall Street’s driven by it. Miami’s built on it. Everyone blames it on kids and poverty, but gangs wouldn’t survive without drugs.”
Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan are living proof of the prominence of cocaine within Hollywood’s elite, and a CNN report last year on Bernie Madoff’s notorious firm displays evidence of corruption with American business. As stated in the report, Madoff allegedly financed a “cocaine-fueled work environment,” diverting money abroad when “federal authorities were closing in at home.” Additional accusations assert employees were sent as runners so commonly that his office earned the nickname, “The North Pole.”
Where there’s demand, there must be supply, yet it is America’s unsung, impoverished neighborhoods which feel the greatest burden. Everyday children are born into homes where drugs are a way of life, and die because of competition to sell. The recurring stories of death in Mexico provide further testament to the necessity for U.S. officials to review both drug policy and prevention techniques.
“There are no success stories unless you can get out, and you can only get out when you reach a spiritual understanding that the dope game destroys everything you love,” comments Ward. “When my child was born, my wife had a heart attack and my baby had its bladder hanging out. I had to give blood so my wife could have a transfusion…Most people don’t get a chance to see it…Kids don’t even believe you can survive on the streets without going to jail.”
Subsequently, the trade proliferates in jail, as traffickers are able to increase cliental and many don’t make it out alive. Ward suggests the only solution is to “speak life” into youth.
“It can be like palm trees though, which take five years to sprout after you plant the seeds,” he adds. “By the first year, there’s nothing. The second year, still nothing. The third year, nothing again, and then people give up. Most people give up before anything can happen.”
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– Courtney Garcia