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Understanding the Structure of a Large Heroin Distribution Network: A Quantitative Analysis of Qualitative Data

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Abstract

An analysis is reported of 2,408 wiretap conversations gathered in the course of prosecuting a heroin dealing organization in New York City in the 1990s. The five-step analysis, which included a social network analysis of phone contacts, revealed a large, loosely structured group of 294 individuals, most of whom had very limited contacts with others in the group. The group’s active core comprised 38 individuals with extended contacts, little status differentiation and some task specialization. A smaller more tightly connected group of 22 individuals was somewhat independent of the remainder of the core and appeared to constitute a “communal business”. The existence was not confirmed of the large criminal conspiracy described by the prosecution that operated at all levels of trafficking and dealing, from wholesale distribution to street sales. Rather, it appeared that the 294 individuals comprised one segment of the heroin market in the city. However, the discrepancy could be due to the fact that the prosecution drew upon a wider set of information about the individuals concerned than provided by the wiretap data. The study supports recent analyses that see organized crimes, such as drug trafficking, as mostly the work of small groups of loosely linked entrepreneurs rather than large, highly structured criminal syndicates.

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Notes

  1. Their review omitted Fuentes (1998) and subsequent to their review two further studies have been published Browne et al. (2003) and Pearson and Hobbs (2003).

  2. Members of traditional criminal organizations might sometimes participate in deals, but again this would often be on a personal basis.

  3. An “enterprise” includes any individual, partnership, corporation, association, or other legal entity and any union or group of individuals formed to create and deliver products to customers (Marcus 1995).

  4. Infobase is a freeform collection of information (both text and graphics) with a comprehensive index. Text in an infobase may be searched, grouped by topic, linked, and edited.

  5. A total of 39 applications for wiretap orders were made during the case, but many of these were for extension orders or for pager devices. Three of the 21 phones tapped were mobile phones which were then in use.

  6. Though this case is closed and the case data are publicly available, IRB required keeping the identity of phones or individuals as anonymous. Nine conversations from three phones were non-usable and were eliminated from the analyses.

  7. The 39 wiretap applications made in the case account for a sizeable proportion of all wiretap authorizations in New York State during the period covered by the investigation; for example, in 1992, 117 such applications were authorized in New York State.

  8. These suppliers are found among the 208 individuals with only one contact. They were often contacted in hotels in other states such as New Jersey and Florida, but the content of the conversations showed they had connections with South America.

  9. Systematic random sampling procedure was used to select the 45 conversations of 45 dyads i.e. every 6th conversation of each dyad was used for analysis.

  10. To check whether this was an artifact of the selection of conversations, the entire database was searched for the word “sir”. Inspection of the 41 hits revealed that the word was most commonly used by higher status individuals when addressing each other.

  11. The taped calls were both outgoing and incoming and for the purposes of the network analysis (which was based on only a sample of all calls intercepted) the contacts were assumed to be directional, mutual and dichotomous (Wasserman and Faust 1994).

  12. The divisions into which cut-points divide a graph are called blocks.

  13. A few phone calls were made to Cali, in Colombia, and there was some evidence that women couriers were bringing in small quantities from Colombia. Some conversations related to travel to Greece and Europe to seek supplies. Some other places called from the tapped phones included Boston, Washington DC, Tampa, Miami, Jamaica, Mexico and Taiwan.

  14. Apart from measuring status differentials, the content of the wiretap conversations was not subjected to detailed analysis, but some useful information emerged from informal reading of the transcripts about the daily lives of those involved in the organization. For example, many members of the core group appeared to have legitimate jobs besides drug dealing. They participated in many ordinary activities, such as going to birthday parties, ball games and family celebrations and visiting friends and relatives in the hospitals. Informal reading of the content of the wiretap conversations also suggested that, at the wholesale level, ethnic and family ties provide the backcloth of trust for the drug-dealing transactions. This may be why violence was rarely mentioned and seems to have been rarely used. In fact, the transactions were conducted like those of any other cooperative businesses with the price and quality of drugs appearing to be the factors weighing most heavily in the deals.

  15. Sparsely-knit, fragmentary, loosely bounded networks make it possible to reach many people through short chains of “friends of friends” (Boissevain 1974).

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Acknowledgments

This research was primarily supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (1K21DA00242). Viewpoints in this paper do not necessarily represent the official positions of the U.S. Government, National Institute on Drug Abuse or John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Earlier versions of the paper were presented at a NIDA Drug Abuse Workshop, October 2004, Bethesda, MD and the 11th Environmental Criminology and Crime Analysis Seminar held at University of Cincinnati in June 2003. The author acknowledges the assistance of Ms. Haley Kobilinsky with coding and wishes to thank Prof. Ronald V. Clarke of Rutgers University and Dr. Bruce Johnson of National Development Research Institutes, Inc, New York City for their advice and support. She also thanks Zachary Weiss, Assistant District Attorney, White Plains NY, for facilitating this analysis of court data. Finally, the author wishes to acknowledge the insightful comments made by the anonymous reviewers.

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Natarajan, M. Understanding the Structure of a Large Heroin Distribution Network: A Quantitative Analysis of Qualitative Data. J Quant Criminol 22, 171–192 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-006-9007-x

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