In my story, there is a city which has fallen from grace and is embroiled in gang wars, drug cartels, and other generally high crime rates. How can I plausibly explain this transition? What causes these conditions?

If my question is too broad, I am most interested in this: how can I explain the formation of large-scale drug cartels and wide-spread drug addiction? What causes these things to arise?

  • $\begingroup$ Greed, in almost every sense of the word. Money, power, control, dependance - you name it, motives are abundant. $\endgroup$ – Harry David Dec 11 '16 at 0:40
  • $\begingroup$ Take a look at the history of cities like Detroit, Baltimore and I am sure many others. $\endgroup$ – Mad Physicist Dec 11 '16 at 5:29

What cities have high crime rates?

Here is a list of US cities by crime rate. I can't find anythign specifically drug related; instead I'm going to focus at two statistics, overall violent crime rate, which is mostly robbery and assault, and murder.

There are four cities that are in the top 10 for both categories: Detroit, St. Louis, Memphis, and Baltimore.

What do those cities have in common?

(All stats from American Factfinder)

First is population decline. Since 1950, three out of the four cities have lost half their population...or more! Detroit dropped from 1,849,568 to 677,116; St. Louis from 856,796 to 315,685; Baltimore from 949,708 to 621,849. Memphis bucked this trend, but several other cities that score highly on the above list have lost a lot of population, as well: Buffalo (580,132->258,071), Cleveland (914,808->388,072), etc.

The second is poverty. Of those first four cities Detroit has 40.3% of its population below the poverty line; St. Louis 27.1%; Baltimore 23.7%; Memphis 27.1%. Those numbers are abnormally high. Compared to the states they are in, Michigan is 16.7%; Missouri is 15.6%;Maryland is 10%; and Tennessee is 17.6%. All those cities are 10% or more above the state average.

Third is concentrated poverty. Not all areas of those cities are super dangerous or decayed. Johns Hopkins in Baltimore is nice, as is CORTEX between Mid-town St. Louis and Forest Park. But, for example, Zip Code 63106 in St. Louis has a median income of \$13,000 with 60% below the poverty line. Zip code 38106 in Memphis has a median income of \$17,000 and poverty rate of 53%. In Baltimore, 21217 has an income of \$27,000 with 36% poverty; A mile away is the nice Roland Park district in zip code 21210 with income of $83,000 and a poverty rate of 9.6%.


Many of the most crime ridden cities in the US have followed a similar pattern.

First, automobiles became common and interstates were built connecting all these cities with their sparsely populated suburbs.

Second, industry in particular decamped from cramped and expensive cities to cheaper sites in the suburbs. Other industries just folded as a result of the gradual loss of manufacturing jobs in the US.

Third, the lower-middle class factory workers that packed these cities in 1950 started leaving. The ones who could afford it left for better pastures, leaving only the poorer behind. As customers left the city, small businesses went under; their owners left too stripping the middle classes of those cities.

Fourth, crime started ticking up in the worst neighborhoods. Therefore the rich isolated themselves in their rich people enclaves and left the rest of the city to rot.

Fifth, as the rest of the city rotted, there became basically no reason for the middle class to be there. The cities became divided between the richest people in the country, and the poorest. This dichotomy between rich and poor in the most successful cities in the US is obvious: Manhattan is the richest county in the country by per capita income; the Bronx is 2710th, around the 12th percentile.

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    $\begingroup$ Your $ signs enabled latex where you didn't want it. I don't have preview on mobile, so can't escape it for you. Please do so when you can. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 11 '16 at 15:45

In my limited experience of drug culture, I think it's a bit like a cult.

Once a person becomes involved with drugs, they become marginalized as drugs are illegal. They associate and empathize with other other marginalized people and find it harder to associate with people not involved with drugs.

When things go wrong with drugs, there is no means to seek justice via the police or justice system. This in turn means that people involved with drugs are more likely to take risks, to take the law into their own hands....

The good old war on drugs! It didn't work for alcohol and it certainly hasn't worked for narcotics.


The cartels and crime rates are caused by a government trying to eliminate the use of drugs. See the current news re the so-called "War on Drugs", or FTM the earlier experiment with Prohibition (US specific), alcohol & tobacco smuggling in places where they're highly taxed, &c. If you have ANY good that people want, and government tries to artifically restrict the supply (or raise the price greatly), criminal-by-definition cartels/gangs will spring up to supply the vacuum. And they will resort to violence to settle disputes: since they are criminals, they don't have access to courts.

Meanwhile, the risk to the illegal suppliers means the cost of the goods will rise well above the cost of production/supply in an open market. Those who don't have sufficient legal income to afford them are likely to turn to to crime to supply their wants.

As for the why of drug use, you've got me. I found such as I've tried rather boring at best, though I suppose that without some fulfilling career or other outlet, life in a city could be so stultifying that any escape would be welcome.


Legal commerce occurs within an artificial environment which can be called "civilized life". In this environment, negative actions have consequences based on a mutually agreed upon set of laws and regulations. Police are employed to enforce these laws, and in a perfect setting, are provided with enough manpower, armor and armaments to incarcerate any law breaker or law breaking group. It is a system which provides opportunity for the vast majority of citizens who abide by those governing laws.

This system can break down in a number of ways...

  • Funding difficulties at the governing level can leave the police undermanned or underequipped. This mandates that sections of the city are left either underpoliced or entirely unpoliced.
  • Latent prejudices can lead to underpolicing of the minority enclaves and neighborhoods, in favor (and defense of) the wealthy neighborhoods where non-minority citizens live.
  • Active prejudices can lead to events which foster an understanding in which minority youth are not allowed to participate within civilized life. This can lead normally law-abiding minority and impoverished citizens to side with the criminal organizations, making policing more difficult or even impossible.
  • A sudden increase in available weapontry in the hands of citizens can change the entire dynamic of police work, making some areas too dangerous to adequately police, no matter how much funding is thrown at it.

The list is endless. Anything which leads to a proportional decrease in adequately equipped police on the streets in a neighborhood, will provide an environment in which criminal activity will grow. Without the active enforcement of laws, hunger and ambition will lead individuals to crime. Then seeking either strength in numbers or economies of scale, individual criminals will gather together into gangs; doing this for the same reason that individual workers gather into corporations on the other side of the legality line. The process is inevitable and proven across history; though for most of history, we called the resulting cartels "young nations".

Nobody ever built a new empire while obeying the rules prescribed by the current king.


economics, drugs are often expensive due to the high risk in manefacturing and selling, but if you have a relatively lawless slum, you can make drugs easily, which brings in your cartels

  • $\begingroup$ Just backwards. Most if not all currently illegal recreational drugs are quite cheap to produce. It's their illegality and the attendant risks that jack up the price. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 11 '16 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - You've missed the meaning. He's not saying production is intrinsically expensive, rather that if the drug is illegal, manufacture and distribution become risky, and therefor expensive - too expensive for most to risk it. Drug cartels are by definition willing to take the risks. They do fine financially, but they have a high mortality rate, as there is no legal protection for their activities. "You got to carry weapons, cause you always carry cash." - "Smuggler's Blues" $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Dec 11 '16 at 21:16
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast: My misunderstanding. It is rather confusingly worded, giving me the impression that recreational drugs are difficult to manufacture. That may be true of a lot of medical drugs, and even some of the more exotic recreational ones, but the common recreational ones are inherently pretty cheap. No reason heroin, cocaine, or marijuana should be more expensive than coffee or chocolate. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 12 '16 at 4:56

The #1 Cause of Addiction is Childhood Trauma(reference)

And this means trauma in relationships with carers - kids seem to bounce back from war, poverty, etc pretty well if they have good emotional support from their family.

So if you want a bunch of addicts, have the traditional extended family break down. Place ridiculous pressure on parents isolated in nuclear families to both work, and make childcare so poorly paid that the people who would do it best have to get work in other industries.

Keep adults stressed, busy, exhausted and burned out, so that there is nobody around to hang out with the kids, create emotional safety, and process their traumas with them.

Remember that rich addicts can maintain a facade of respectability, sometimes for life, but in truth, they are just as traumatised and addicted as the street junkies.

Gangs and Cartels

When the government goes bankrupt, organised crime will almost immediately take over the role of maintaining "law and order" (as, for example, in Russia in the 1990s). Of course, it will be for the benefit of the crime lords, not the community as a whole, but some order is better than anarchy in the minds of most people.


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