Blurred Boundaries, Drifting, and Pathways to Crime

Blurred boundaries between mainstream and deviant behaviour, between sociogeographic and cultural domains, and between the formal and informal economies are critical ingredients of the socially bulimic condition. The participants in our study were constantly negotiating within and across such boundaries as they made their way transnationally through risk-filled environments in a risk-based, highly policed society. Many of the deportees were raised in New York’s most socially and economically underserved neighbourhoods. These are the urban spaces where the immigrant proletariats and precariats (Standing 2011) attempted to settle, reminiscent of what the Chicago School would call ‘interstitial areas’.

The community of Washington Heights, where a substantial number of the interviewees had previously resided, experienced some of the highest rates of poverty and crime throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.[1] It is also one of the geographic centres of the New York drugs trade, occupying a prime location abutting the George Washington Bridge, a major transit hub that linked the area to the white middle classes of New Jersey who made up a significant proportion of the illicit drug market’s customer base. The Dominican Republic itself was and is a major conduit for Colombian drug cartels and was considered by the US Drug Enforcement Agency to be one of the leading sites of money laundering for the drugs trade in the world (Brotherton and Martin 2009).

This is not to say that such structural, spatial, and cultural conditions predetermined involvement in crime but rather that the opportunities to do crime, the social networks that lead to it, the subcultures that seduce people into crime, as well as the legal and social definitions that make crime and/or transgression normative made such a pathway difficult to avoid. Rarely did anyone refer to the guiding hand of a parent (socially and emotionally some parents were there but none of them possessed the cultural capital to enable their upward ascent). No one mentioned an intervention in prison steering them to a different path if and when they returned to civil society. School was often disappointing and nobody spoke of mentors in the community from their family or elsewhere.

Among our respondents, instead, we heard different versions of an inexorable drift into the life worlds of low-level crime. Not the well-organized worlds of the mafia or even mid-level drug dealers (with a few exceptions), but rather the loose, peripheral edges of the local informal economy that included drug dealing, smalltime burglaries, other relatively minor felonies, and ‘off the books’ work. Men often committed crime in a bid for economic niches, social spheres of belonging, and the chance to create and add meaning and edge to their early adult barrio lives. Some were simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time with inadequate legal representation due to their immigrant status. Women, in contrast, were mostly led into crime by their male partners or criminalized by their undocumented working status. The social and cultural context for most was from the mid-1970s to the mid- 1990s—a subculturally effervescent period that spawned hip-hop amid the bankruptcy of New York (see Chang 2005) followed by an era encompassing the ‘crack attack’ (Reinarman and Levine 1997). In such contexts it is important to bear in mind that in certain city locales the deviants outnumbered the straights.

But what can we say about the process and progression of these pathways? We found that they were not sudden and are not easily compartmentalized into neat life course stages. Rather they transpired as a layered if somewhat predictable process of multiple marginalization (Vigil 1988), occurring in neighbourhoods that were the site of increased policing and surveillance, ‘geographies of exclusion’ (Sibley 1995), and sustained disinvestment by local and central governments. Boundaries were porous, with multiple links to local and global surroundings not least of which were those workers recruited to support the lifestyles of the adjacent middle classes:

Quisqueya: A friend of mine got me this job. They know I’m undocumented and that I have been deported ... They are a lovely family with a daughter and a son. It’s been two years that I’ve worked with them and when I started the girl was three years old and the boy one year old. I speak a little English but they always told me to only speak Spanish to the children. I don’t know how the hell they learned Spanish in such a short time and I keep trying with this f ***ing English that I sometimes know and sometimes don’t know what the hell I am saying!

For legal permanent residents (LPRs) the process of social maginalization often started in their teens. It was usually a gradual progression, moving from experimenting with soft drugs such as marijuana to small-time, peripheral roles in the drugs trade, until they eventually become more independent market players buying and selling a range of ‘product’ including marijuana, powdered cocaine, crack cocaine, and heroin, sometimes accompanied by sustained using. For others, the drugs trade was complemented by robberies and burglaries, but these were a small minority and such practices were not self-initiated but were strongly influenced by their peers and older acquaintances. In most cases, the deportees drifted into crime and often drifted out again (Matza, 1964). Some, however, took a more focused entrepreneurial path, building delinquent and criminal careers, lured and encouraged by lucrative drug profits and the felt need to sustain a conspicuous lifestyle, a barrio version of the American Dream (Bourgois 1991; Nightingale 1993). A similar number (eight) participated in the illicit economy for what they claimed were altruistic reasons, doing it for their parents, usually their mothers, helping to get them out of poverty and make the financial contributions their fathers were incapable or unwilling to do.

Among those who were living in the United States during the height of the ‘crack epidemic’ there was a great deal of positioning, what might be called a situated ambivalence, between the street and the mainstream. Chino, for a time, at least, appears to handle the two worlds:

DB: Did you go back to Washington Heights?

Chino: Yeah.

DB: Same neighborhood?

Chino: Same neighborhood. And then, you know what was waiting for me over there? The boom of the crack, everybody was going nuts, what the fucking thing is this! Everybody going up and down the building, roaching here, roaching there. I said, ‘What’s this man?’ And then I said, ‘Everybody’s making money!’ Bam, bam, bam, like that. And then I went to take a course, like I told you, as a bank teller. I wanna get a job, bam, bam, and then I went to the streets. I use both of them the streets and the bank.

But the rule enforcers were not so hermetically sealed off from the deviants. Again the blurred boundaries between the in and out group, the decent and the corrupt were highlighted as subjects testified to the hypocrisies and ironies they have witnessed. To those involved in the drugs economy everybody is potentially seduced by the cash nexus. Since so much of this political economy depends on bribery and corruption the following forms of informal social control should not surprise us.

DB: And how many guys did you have working for you?

Luis 3: About 30.

DB: Did you manage to put any money away, save anything?

Luis 3: They took a lot of money from me, the cops. When they first arrested me, they took $250,000 and jewelry and they kept the drugs, they kept everything. They did a stick up and said go away. About 6 months later they came back again and took another $270,000, cars, jewelry, everything but never put me in jail. It was like they were robbing me! (10 June 2003)

  • [1] By the mid-1990s almost 46% of Dominicans were living in households below the poverty lineand were the only ethnic group to experience a rise in poverty (by 10%) during the early 1990s(Hernandez and Rivera-Batiz 1997).
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