Irregular Conflict and Cartel Dynamics in The Wire

5 Mar

The Wire, praised as the best TV series of all time, has inspired its fair share of academic analysis.  Multiple universities have devoted entire classes to exploring themes such as poverty and drug policy through the medium of David Simon’s creation.  The journal darkmatter even published an entire issue devoted to analysis of The Wire.  Recently, Joseph Young rightly nominated The Wire as one of the three best TV series in its portrayal of political violence.  However, I have not come across any blog posts or articles that analyze the show’s depiction of the dynamics of violence.  The show is chalk-full of useful examples, but because a complete study of violence in the Wire would require an entire book, I’ll limit myself to four examples that speak to broader themes of irregular conflict and cartel dynamics.

The first example comes from Season 3.  Stringer Bell, the archetypal illicit businessman, realizes that competition for corners among various gangs is driving down drug quality and decreasing overall income.  He proposes a drug co-op, with the goal of providing access to the best quality drugs for multiple gangs.[1]  Income levels are then high enough that gangs no longer need to fight over corners, and disputes are encouraged to be aired before the groups, lest violence ruin the money-making enterprise.  Mexican drug cartels often  pursue a similar strategy.  Especially when it’s unclear who would win a violent encounter, it makes perfect business sense to work together.  The need to resolve disputes peacefully and internally occurs in other contexts.  For civilians living through insurgencies, if they are to escape large-scale violence, they must prevent internal disputes from leading to a divided community siding with different armed actors.  For Kaplan, dispute resolution leads to civilian protection.  For Stringer, it’s all about business.

The problem for Stringer is that the motives of others, and mostly importantly his boss Avon Barksdale, do not correspond simply to business.[2]  In a revealing exchange, Avon says to Stringer, “I ain’t no suit-man business-man like you.  You know I’m just a gangster, I suppose.  And I want my corners.”  Barksdale is less driven by a desire to simply make money than a personal code that dictates how the leader of a drug organization should act.  A co-op might make economic sense, but for Barksdale, it’s uncharted territory he doesn’t fully understand.  Cartels often face this dilemma.  While they are ostensibly business entities, they recruit individuals for their violent ability.  These individuals often choose to pursue violence for its own sake rather than using violence to achieve specific economic objectives.  Secondly, the co-op causes its own problem.  Stringer does his best to create a veneer of legitimacy through money laundering, real estate development, and political connections, but this forces him into conflict with a whole new set of characters.  When corrupt State Senator Clay Davis fails to come through for Stringer, Stringer orders Slim Charles to kill him.  Slim Charles and Avon Barksdale successfully object because of the chaos killing a senator would cause, leading to serious friction within the gang.  Bell describes himself as a businessman, but he fails to recognize the potential consequences of his actions when his ambitions are stymied.

One of the series’ most terrifying characters is Snoop, a young hitwoman for the Stanfield organization (which largely replaces the Barksdale organization as the dominant drug-dealing force at the end of the third season).  Her proclivity for violence is sometimes as asset for Stanfield’s crew, but it also occasionally gets her into trouble.[3]  Following the demise of the Barksdale organization, some drug dealers from New York move down the coast and take up residence in Baltimore.  Snoop, and her partner in crime Chris, are directed to violently eliminate the New York dealers, partly out of an economic logic and partly because of a “tribal” desire to keep outsiders from making money in Baltimore.  However, because Snoop and Chris do not personally know every street-level dealer they devise a strategy to tell Baltimore and New York corner boys apart.  Chris proposes they ask unknown dealers questions about Baltimore-specific music to figure out their origin.  They first time they try this tactic, the dealer in question answers Snoop’s query about a particular DJ, but doesn’t give the answer Chris had earlier stated.  Snoop quickly puts the gun to his head and is about to pull the trigger when Chris stops her.  The named DJ is another Baltimore DJ that Snoop herself had never heard of.

While Chris’ and Snoop’s tactic is certainly fraught with problems, it also demonstrates the identification problem perfectly, the central dilemma for insurgents and counterinsurgents.  Soldiers fighting irregular wars face a chronic lack of information, and are therefore usually unable to figure out with certainty who is collaborating with whom.  Combatants rarely even have the ability to tell if the denunciations they receive are truthful.  Kalyvas writes that the majority of collaborators during civil wars escape denunciation, while the majority of those punished for collaboration are innocent.  Even though Snoop and Chris are able to tell drug-dealers (combatants) and non-drug-dealers (noncombatants) apart, they are nonetheless unable to correctly evaluate intelligence (see footnoote three) or differentiate between allies and enemies.

In “Unconfirmed Reports”, the second episode of the fifth season, Snoop and the young hitman Michael have one of the most interesting exchanges in the series.  They are on a mission to kill June Bug, who has been spreading rumors about Marlo Stanfield being a homosexual.[4]  Michael, who has a gentle side, questions Snoop over why the killing is necessary if Marlo is not in fact gay.  Snoop replies that it’s not about whether Stanfield is actually gay, but whether people think he’s gay.  On one hand, Snoop grasps that need for reputational violence.  If Marlo Stanfield is perceived as weak, then rivals are more likely to cooperate to target him.  On the other hand, Snoop’s comment demonstrates the extremely violent and paranoid nature of the Stanfield organization.  Any backtalk or perceived disloyalty is lethally punished.  Stringer, for example, was more willing to tolerate small deviations from the Barksdale line if it didn’t result in a loss of revenue.  For the Stanfield organization, loyalty is a black and white issue, but ultimately this harms its business interests.  Some of its best dealers, like Bodie, are killed for (incorrectly) perceived collaboration with the police, while the co-op starts to fall apart because of Marlo’s inability to share power.

Eventually, the Stanfield organization falls apart as a direct consequence of its extremely violent nature.  Unlike Mexico’s Los Zetas, which have the ability to publicly demonstrate their brutality, the Stanfield organization is unable to successfully execute the same tactic.  Los Zetas’ tactical superiority over the Mexican armed forces and their extensive corruption network provide them protection not afforded to Marlo Stanfield.  Ultimately, brutal violence attracts the attention of law enforcement, and they don’t have the ability to fend off the police.

The last episode of the series centers around the demise of the Stanfield organization.  Marlo’s fall, however, opens up opportunities for personal promotion through violence.  We see Michael, now freed from his organizational shackles, violently rob another drug dealer, while Slim Charles murders Cheese Wagstaff as Baltimore’s drug dealers try to re-institute the co-op.  This is no accident.  Cartel fragmentation is a major cause of drug violence in Mexico, and the writers of The Wire get the dynamics of gang breakup spot-on.  Every viewer of the series was rooting for Detectives McNulty and Freamon in their seemingly impossible battle against the Stanfield organization, but ultimately, as the series unflinchingly shows, their efforts are entirely in vain.  Other dealers and organizations pop up to take their place, and significant violence occurs during the transition.  McNulty and Freamon, despite their heroic qualities, are agents of a counterproductive drug policy.  The irony of this is certainly not lost on David Simon.

The genius of the Wire is that it is able to compellingly demonstrate the corrosive organizational effects of violence and the many drivers of human behaviors.  No individual is completely free from cultural, normative, and institutional effects or is singularly good or evil.  The result is a cast of complex characters grappling with their often incredibly challenging circumstances.  Its portrayal of violence is an extension of its nuanced characters, and few TV shows or movies can plausibly claim to come close to its excellence.[5]  The dynamics of violence for the drug gangs is fascinating, but it would certainly take at least another 1700-word blog post to sufficiently examine the dynamics and politics of police action in the series.  For example, the portrayal of Colvin’s attempt to end the War on Drugs is brutally crushed by city politics which is unable to tolerate a sensible drug policy.[6]  Wish I had time to write that piece as well.

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[1] It’s fascinating that the co-op always meets in a fancy hotel’s conference room.  Though Stringer Bell angrily tears up meeting minutes taken by a younger drug dealer, they never seem to have serious security concerns.  In fact, they are probably more secure meeting outside of the neighborhoods they deal in because rivals will be less comfortable attacking them there (think Omar robbing Marlo Stanfield at a back-room poker game) and police can less feasibly arrest them on dubious charges.

[2] Much later in the series, a new incarnation of the co-op is imperiled when Slim Charles murders Cheese Wagstaff.   Again, a co-op makes economic sense, but a desire for revenge supersedes greed.

[3] It also gets her killed.  She and Chris assume that it must be Michael snitching on them, even though in reality information was obtained through a semi-legal wiretap.  Perhaps it was a reasonable assumption with imperfect information, but it also fits into a general pattern in which Snoop shot first and asked questions later.

[4] The politics of gender here are also really interesting, because while calling Marlo gay is a slur, Snoop is a lesbian.

[5] Personally, I’m undecided on whether The Wire or Friday Night Lights is better.

[6] Ellis Carver says of the War on Drugs, “You can’t even call this shit a war.  Wars end.”

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