By Will Cooley
How did Baltimore earn the unfortunate nickname “Bulletmore”? Though many factors converged to produce high homicide rates, observers frequently overlook the law enforcement strategy of destabilizing drug trafficking organizations. In the United States as well as Central and South America, policymakers have directed agents to decapitate the “kingpins” of narcotics businesses through arrests. As proponents frequently claim, if they can cut off the head of the snake the body will wither. The strategy is popular with the press, politicians, and the public, who want to see these so-called pushers punished. The results in Baltimore and across the hemisphere have been a disaster, however, and criminal justice reformers general unwillingness to speak out about the catastrophic costs of high-level prosecutions have hindered their ability to reduce the harms not only of drug abuse, but of the drug war.
By the mid-1970s, handful of kingpins with syndicates made up of family members and trusted associates controlled the lion’s share of narcotics distribution in Baltimore. Many owned small businesses and garnered community tolerance through donations, loans, and gifts. They enjoyed prized connections with wholesalers and sometimes pooled their buy money to get better rates. Among the most sophisticated was Maurice “Peanut” King. King aggressively marketed heroin and, after adult dealers were imprisoned for longer terms, brought on juveniles to hawk on the streets. King and his peers dished out force when necessary but were also businessmen with long-term outlooks. He laundered his proceeds through Atlantic City casinos and reinvested them in stocks and real estate. Peanut also boldly flashed his largesse by driving a DeLorean and indulging in luxury goods. For many black Baltimoreans expected the stay in their “place,” men like King were outlaw heroes.
During the early 1980s, law enforcement waged an energetic, expensive effort to pursue these chiefs. One after another they fell: Ancel Holland, Peanut King, Melvin Stanford, Clarence Meredith, Melvin Williams. Narcotics agents and prosecutors gloated, noting that Baltimore was a trailblazer in utilizing the federal “kingpin” law to dismantle narcotics rings. Police Commissioner Frank Battaglia boasted that the million dollars spent annually on enforcement was absolutely paying off, as the police department had apprehended forty-one high-ranking suppliers while seizing over a million in cash, a million more in property, ninety-nine automobiles, and 1,110 guns. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, these prosecutions were money-making operations.
Even as the busts were hailed by the media, reservations about the overall effect of this strategy crept in. The takedowns did not put a dent in Baltimore’s $900 million heroin market, an amount three times what city spent on its schools. After Peanut King’s territory in East Baltimore opened it descended into competitive chaos, while West Baltimore remained relatively placid under the thumb of structured operations. In honest moments, police officers expressed frustrations that touted breakthroughs did not slow the trade and violence continued to rise. The kingpins were undoubtedly ruthless, but they also enforced discipline. An undercover narcotics agent noted that neither he nor his targets carried guns, and as for business underlings, “you better not get caught carrying a gun if you weren’t authorized to carry a gun.” The national offensive increased the incarceration rate for drug offenses by a factor of ten between 1980 and 1996, and veteran sellers were replaced by inexperienced, trigger-happy youths.
To make matters worse, in the mid-1980s New York City dealers flooded into Baltimore with deeply discounted products in what felt like an invasion. A DEA official acknowledged that the influx filled the void created by locking up men like King and Meredith. In the past, these gangsters would have “executed” outsiders horning in on the valuable commerce. Where prosecutors had once claimed that putting away narcotics bosses had dealt “knockout” blows to large organizations, by the end of the 1980s they merely pledged to keep plugging away. All this enforcement rewarded Baltimore with the nation’s highest rates of drug addiction throughout the 1990s.
Further destabilizing any semblance of order, the dissolution of narcotics hierarchies coincided with the introduction of crack cocaine. Heroin produced strung-out, track-marked junkies, but crack maintained its glamorous image even as the price plummeted. Street traffic was already getting younger because of the clampdown on adults. Turning cheap and plentiful cocaine into smokable rock was something nearly anyone kid could do. Running a heroin operation was akin to managing a department store, but crack spots were more like pop-up shops. Baltimore had a proud history of black entrepreneurship – licit and illicit – and training programs tried to assist low-income people starting small businesses. To the chagrin of policymakers, though, narco-capitalism was the best microenterprise opportunity available. “We simply have to do more for ourselves,” Mayor Kurt Schmoke noted at his second inauguration. “The economy leaves us no choice.” Many dealers could not have agreed more.
The evolution of a West Baltimore youth gang showed how crack changed the urban landscape. A group of about twenty boys banded together as Def City for camaraderie, sports, neighborhood protection, and the typical juvenile delinquency. In the late 1980s, though, the boys began dealing rock. It was not done as a gang, a member noted, as distributors instructed them in the Reagan-era ethos of going “into business for yourself.” The gang progressed from car thefts to owning cars, from fistfights to firefights. They became family breadwinners, but dangers lurked behind every transaction. After four were shot, some decided the risks were not worth it. One dealer quit after a bandit held a gun to his mother’s head demanding his drugs and money. He took a job earning $4.25 an hour at an Inner Harbor hotel with dreams to “Be like Donald Trump.”
The treacherous stakes weeded out many youths, but there was always someone ready to step up. Experts had written off the urban underclass as “relatively permanent” and bereft of “avenues of escape.” Given the lack of opportunities, the African-American journalist and drug war critic William Reed noted, youths had “developed their own alterative occupations.” The bold seized these roles with gusto. Tommy Lee Canty became a boss in his early twenties, an age when dealers in the past would become lieutenants. He and other cocaine cowboys lacked the experience and savvy earned in organized crime apprenticeships, making mistakes like not securing stash houses, leaving a paper trail, and hiring indiscriminately violent employees. A judge complained that the city suffered under “the tyranny of the children” and neighbors instigated public marches to fight back.
As in other cities, homicide rates climbed sharply through the combination of extreme poverty and segregation, an unwieldy drug market, teenage immaturity, and abundant handguns. “Kids whose minds should have been on Teddy Ruxpin,” Ta-Nehisi Coates recalled, “now held in their hands the power to dissolve your world into white.” Baltimore, the city of neighborhoods, became the city of drug cliques, and if they controlled turf at all it only extended a few blocks. Homicides peaked at a city record of 353 in 1995.
Frustrated BPD officials claimed that in the mid-1990s perhaps three out of four murders had a narcotics connection, and prohibition’s side effects also contributed to the bedlam. Ordinary activities – bike rides, walks, a trip to the store – could turn into tragedies. Petty disagreements escalated into bloodshed as Baltimoreans became more and more convinced they needed guns. When Mayor Schmoke asked an audience at a community meeting to disarm, he was greeted by laughter and jeers. In a tumultuous environment, a weapon gave residents a feeling of control, especially for young men. “To be strapped was to grab the steering wheel of our careening lives,” Coates noted. “A gun was a time machine and an anchor – it dictated events. To be strapped was to master yourself, to become more than a man whose life and death could simply be seized and hurled about.” Residents and politicians often proposed shifting enforcement from drugs to weapons, but under prohibition players felt exposed without them. Addressing firearms without admitting that the lawless narcotics business caused gunplay was futile.
Schmoke was a drug war critic, but as mayor he instituted Drug Free Zones and Community Policing. Neighborhood groups cheered these efforts, and wanted officers permanently assigned to areas to prevent crimes, not just catch criminals and pick up bodies. The Baltimore Sun suggested that the police department engage in “a turf battle that will pit the police and law-abiding citizens on one side and the criminal element on the other.” Reporter David Simon thought that securing corners could restore police credibility and allow communities to function (Simon went on to create the HBO series The Wire). Veteran cops believed they could “plant the flag” while BPD executives pledged to “take back the drug corners and hold them.” The BPD had been making big busts for years but claimed that this scheme was different because it responded to citizen requests and improved local conditions. “This is not just your blanket kind of street sweep where you get a lot of low-level guys,” Schmoke claimed. “It’s different than what I’ve seen in the past. If this is what people want, they are going to see more of this.” The statement may have intended to boost city morale, but the rueful tone indicated that Schmoke knew that giving people what they desired would produce a fleeting victory at best. Some applauded the actions, but the weary dismissed such efforts as “publicity stunts.” “After a couple of days, it will all be the same again,” a 25-year-old sighed. “It really doesn’t do anything at all but let the police and politicians get on TV.”
The skepticism was justified, as “secure and hold” was impractical. Schmoke donned a bulletproof vest with community volunteers in a symbolic occupation of drug corners, urging citizens to work with the police. At one intersection, an addict explained the futility of the actions. Laid off two and a half years earlier from Bethlehem Steel where he earned $24.60 an hour, he turned to delivering $10 heroin packets, living off his cut. While drug warriors offered slogans and moralizing, the narcotics economy paid the bills and provided bursts of pleasure.
Drug arrests continued to make commerce more anarchic. The “Strong as Steel” gang ran a business of 30-40 employees based in a dilapidated area in the northwest part of the city. It flourished by peddling potent heroin wildly popular with users, who could dilute it, shoot half and sell the rest. Police pressure destabilized the arrangement, creating mayhem as enforcers tried to claim new turf without the necessary inventory. Members turned to robbery to secure a heroin supply, often by posing as narcotics agents, leading to the murders of two small-time dealers in front of dozens of witnesses. The authorities brought down “Strong as Steel” in 1994, but as soon as they were off the streets rivals filled the vacuum. The busts turned organized crime into disorganized crime. “Same activity – selling drugs – just done a different way, and it’s done with violence, and the most violent crew takes over,” narcotics agent Neill Franklin recalled. By the late 1990s, BPD Commissioner Thomas Frazier reported that the city’s distribution system was made up of approximately 100 small, nimble cliques with fewer than ten operatives. The lesson, however, was that the BPD “must become quicker and just as nimble in putting them behind bars.” For drug warriors, failures only led to declarations that the next tactic was the winner. Drug czar William Bennett coined the war’s motto: “Last year’s hopeless cause is this year’s revived opportunity for victory.”
Despite its horrific track record from Baltimore to Acapulco and points in between, the kingpin strategy soldiers on. While many liberals have come on board with criminal justice reform, a common refrain is that law enforcers should be focusing on the major traffickers instead of small-time dealers. This myopia only leads to more carnage as the players change and the game goes on.
Will Cooley is the author of Moving Up, Moving Out: The Rise of the Black Middle Class in Chicago (DeKalb, IL Northern Illinois Press, 2018). His current research focuses on a bottom-up examination of the war on drugs.
 Karen Warmkessel, “6 Convicted of Conspiracy, Drug Charges,” Baltimore Sun, March 13 1986, 4B.
 Vernon Guidry, Jr. “Baltimore is Among Best in Using Drug Kingpin Law,” Baltimore Sun, February 16 1983, A1; Ann LoLordo, “City Narcotics Squad Seeks ‘Containment’” Baltimore Sun, September 18 1983, 1; Baltimore Afro-American, “Drug Agents Claim Victories in Ongoing War Against Drugs,” January 10, 1987, 3.
 Neill Franklin Interview, April 5, 2017.
 Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman, “The Recent Rise and Fall of American Violence” in
Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman, eds., The Crime Drop in America, Revised Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 4-5.
 Karen Warmkessel, “7 in ‘N.Y. Boys’ Drug Probe Seized Here,” Baltimore Sun, April 11, 1987, 5A.
 Sandy Banisky, “Schmoke Begins Chapter 2,” Baltimore Sun, December 4, 1991.
 Scott Shane, “Drug Dealing Lures Flood of Teens,” Baltimore Sun, August 30 1992: 1A.
 President’s Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties, Urban America in the Eighties: Perspectives and Prospects (Washington, DC: GPO, 1980), 19; William Reed, “Blacks and America’s Drug Problem,” Homeland, Jan. 1, 1993.
 S.M. Khalid, “Risky Business: Major Drug Dealers Are Getting Younger,” Baltimore Sun, October 27 1991, 1G.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008), 29-30.
 Baltimore Sun, “Community Groups Gather to Plot War on Crime,” February 24, 1991, 3B.
 Coates, Beautiful Struggle, 35.
 David Simon, “Making the City Crime-Free, One Neighborhood at a Time,” Baltimore Sun, August 11, 1991, 1G.
 Peter Hermann, “Drug Sweep Targets East Baltimore,” Baltimore Sun, March 20, 1994.
 Baltimore Sun, “13 Arrested After Complaints of Drug Dealing Prompt Raids,” September 2, 1994.
 Paul Valentine, “Taking Back Baltimore’s Streets for a Day,” Washington Post, November 27, 1993.
 United States v. Corey Steven Johnson, 73 F.3d 359 (4th Cir. 1996).
 Neill Franklin interview, April 5, 2017.
 Thomas Frazier, “A Message to Citizens from the Baltimore Police Department,” n.d. but c. February 1997, box 14, Kurt Schmoke Papers, Baltimore City Archives.
 Pittsburgh Press, “Bush Claims Drug War Gains in a Year,” September 6, 1990.
Featured image (at top): Baltimore (Convention Center Construction), Marion S. Trikosko, December 2, 1977, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress