By Dr Robert McLean, Lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland

IN recent weeks there has been considerable media attention given to the apparent re-emergence of gang violence in Glasgow. But the groups involved are not the gangs of the 1990s/2000s which were characterised by territorial behaviour, recreational violence and knife crime.

Rather, these gangs have since evolved and as such are more akin to those gangs found in North America and on the streets of Chicago, where profit is the name of the game, drugs are the currency, and guns the bargaining chips. These gangs are increasingly violent, ever more sophisticated, and can operate from behind prison walls. According to recent reports by Police Scotland, while the overall number of Serious Organised Crime Groups (SOCGs) have fallen in the past two years, the danger that remaining active groups now pose to the public is greater than ever.

Some suggest that conventional wisdom predicts that the continued targeting of such groups through police enforcement will eventually result in their downfall and eradication. But as an experienced researcher, and having carried out countless interviews and informal discussions with ex- and active offenders as well as practitioners in the field, I would suggest that we err on the side of caution when making such assumptions. Short-term interventionist policies aimed at addressing the superficial consequences, as opposed to the root causes, without properly contemplating unintended results is a dangerous move to say the least.

The Scottish Government’s Serious Organised Crime Strategy adopts a “divert/deter/detect/disrupt” policy discourse. But when considering a sole focus on enforcement, perhaps we should reflect a little on history, and in particular on Nixon’s 1960s War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs did not lead to the eradication of drug supply; but rather it stimulated a greater volume of drug distribution on a global scale. Research has illustrated that continued and intense targeting of cannabis suppliers (at the time) led to many dealers swapping trades by moving to the cocaine trade. This is because it carried less risk of apprehension, a lighter custodial sentence, greater profit, and new cooking methods resulted in it becoming more readily available to the working-class populations.

The targeting of suppliers also meant that individual dealers turned to one another and operated in gangs. While lesser groups were apprehended, the more sophisticated groups learned from this and moved into the new voids left behind by those captured. Consequently, linchpin countries like Colombia and Mexico had fewer criminal groups but rather a few supergroups that operated with impunity throughout the country. I suggest that we are potentially seeing the same process taking place in Scotland. One needs only to look at reports last year touting the arrest of Scotland’s most sophisticated criminal gang ever.

Thus, I propose that it would be much more effective to target the root causes of drug supply. The equality gap in Scotland continues to widen, with the richest one per cent now possessing more wealth than the bottom 50 per cent combined. Glasgow and the central belt more generally is a region plagued by the effects of deindustrialisation, local populations face increased austerity, continual welfare retrenchment and benefit cuts. Such conditions merely create the environments necessary for criminal groups to thrive.

Less effort wasted in addressing the consequences, and more time tackling the causes, would prove substantially more beneficial. If not, we may be asking ourselves how long before Scotland has a mafia or cartel in its own right, which seeks to not only operate within the illegal but also the legal domain?