By Randol Contreras
One summer night, I was conducting field research on a group of Dominican men in a South Bronx neighborhood. It was just past midnight and some of us were high or inebriated from smoking weed and drinking hard liquor. Only the dim streetlights broke the darkness as we huddled against two beat up parked cars. We talked about familiar topics – women, sports, women, drugs, women – in loud, exaggerated tones. But we also talked about their new drug market activity: Stickups.
On the streets, these Dominican men were known as Joloperos in Spanish, or Stickup Kids in English. Their specialty, robbing upper-level drug dealers, involved unimaginable brutality, violence that mimicked state-sponsored torture from around the world.
Tukee: He told a story of a non-compliant drug dealer who would not talk, would not reveal the cash, the drugs, nothing, nada, leading him to chop off the dealer’s pinky with a kitchen knife.
David: He told a story of how his accomplices became angered when a stubborn dealer insisted that he did not have three kilos of cocaine (“Mierda! We knew he had them! The dealer’s own partner set him up!”). They found a clothes iron in the dealer’s closet and used it to burn his back.
Neno: He told several stories, ones where he and Gus pistol-whipped dealers; burned them with la plancha, or iron; threatened to sodomize them, sometimes following through on the threat as a last resort.
Aye mi madre! I thought to myself when I later transcribed the tape-recordings. On their face, these stories rendered these men as sociopathic monsters. They seemed heartless and irredeemable, as sadists pursuing violence for pleasure.
But I knew that there was more to drug robbery violence than individual pathologies. There was the social. It was C. Wright Mills’ classic book, The Sociological Imagination, that cemented this perspective in my sociological analysis. Mills eloquently argued that to understand “personal troubles,” we must look at historical moments and structural shifts in society. Also, we should rely on more than an individual’s perspective; most people only see the world through their “private orbits,” or within the scope of their immediate family, work, and neighborhood. Rarely do they see how larger social transformations alter or redirect the life course:
When a society is industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or becomes a businessman. When classes rise or fall, a man is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a man takes new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesman becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar man; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father. Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both. (Mills, p.3)
Therefore, rather than understand these Dominican men through individualistic or socio–pathological frameworks, I contextualized their drug robbery violence within shifts in the economy, criminal justice policy, and especially – especially – the drug market. Because not only were these Dominican men born in the midst of a burning South Bronx (which they did not create); shut out of a declining manufacturing sector (which they did not send abroad); suffer through a political law and order frenzy (which they did not conceive); they also came of age during the late-1980s crack era, a drug era that provided more illegal drug market opportunities than ever before. So when US material values and goals pressured them, the crack market was there. They became drug dealers. Had they come of age a generation later or before, there is a good chance that they would not have entered the drug market.
Yet the crack market’s decline during the mid-1990s is equally important. As crack dealers, these Dominican men tasted la riquezas, or riches, felt what it meant to have respect, women, jewelry, cars, and clothes. Once the crack market shrank (the new generation of youth preferred marijuana and malt liquor over crack), these men felt a renewed financial strain. This is when they created a drug market niche in drug robberies. This is when they committed more brutality than ever before. Managing drug operations – no mas. Learning and doing violence – much more. Violence became the main component their new job.
Again, had these Dominican men come of age a generation later or before, there is a good chance that they would not have become drug robbers. So through a C. Wright Mills framework, I saw that the ups and downs of illegal drug markets – along with other socio-historical transformations – mattered most in explaining their drug robbery violence.
Contreras, Randol. 2013. The Stick Up Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence and the American Dream. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.Randol Contreras is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. His book, The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream (University of California Press, 2013) was awarded the 2013 UC Press Exceptional First Book Award by PEN Center USA.