The last time anyone got a good job in Camden, NJ was during World War II, when the city, located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, was the location of the largest shipyard in the world, the New York Shipbuilding Yard, which turned out more than 500 naval vessels before it closed after the war. Camden is still the headquarters of the Campbell Soup Co., but the corporate executives stay in a gated building out of habit since nobody even remembers when the plant turned out its last can of soup. The irony is that Camden’s waterfront sits directly across from Philadelphia, where waterfront property values have skyrocketed because of an influx of luxury hotels, high-end restaurants and trendy boutiques.
In Camden, on the other hand, the word ‘blight,’ which is usually how poor neighborhoods are described, would probably apply to the entire town. And while Camden isn’t quite as dangerous as East St. Louis, the city recorded 57 homicides in 2013, which puts its murder rate up there with places like Cali and Medellin, the location of the world’s most active and vicious narcotics cartels. That should hardly come as a surprise, however, because the one industry which seems to be thriving in Camden is the drug business, whose chief gang, headed up by three brothers, – Omar, Edwin and Edgar Urbina – have been running an open-air drug market for years in Camden’s North End. The November raid that resulted in the arrests of the gang leaders and nearly 50 suppliers, deliverers, baggers and other gang associates, also brought about the seizure and requisite display of a stash of cash, six guns and five ounces of cocaine.
Even if a lot of drugs sold by the Urbinas and other Camden gangs go into the hands and veins of local residents, what has always made Camden a center for the drug trade is its location adjacent to many wealthy communities whose residents and police departments find it convenient to encourage drug purchases in another town. The drive-by nature of Camden’s drug business encouraged local law enforcement to begin stopping, searching and occasionally arresting non-residents who drove a little too slowly through the town. But when the Camden PD laid off half its officers following a budget standoff with Chris Christie, what had been a badly-managed effort to control the local drug market only got much worse.
What I find interesting in this situation is the fact that nobody seems to find it unusual or unsettling that the products sold by the drug gangs in Camden come from thousands of miles away. In fact, whenever a major dope dealer is arrested, there’s always some mention of a connection to a drug cartel in Mexico, Colombia or somewhere else. But the same law enforcement experts who tell you that it’s impossible to interdict the movement of drugs into and through the United States, will also tell you that if we extend NICS background checks to private transactions, we’ll be able to put a real dent in the movement of illegal guns.
When I was a teenager living in Staten Island, NY, we knew about Camden, and it was rumored that some of the drugs that came into my neighborhood had been purchased in drive-buys by some of my friends. That was fifty years ago and it’s clear that the situation hasn’t really changed. If anything, the growth of affluent suburbs around Philly has made Camden even a bigger and better hot-spot for illegal drugs. If the drug gangs have no trouble going to Mexico for cocaine, how difficult could it be to get their hands on a few guns?