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Drugs and the DC way of death: Gang warfare and the use of ever more lethal guns ensure that Washington remains one of the world's most dangerous cities

LAST MONTH the death squads in the Haitian capital, Port-au- Prince, achieved a curious record by killing more people - 64 - than were murdered in Washington DC over the same month. Otherwise the record of the US capital as one of the most dangerous cities in the world looks secure. Out of a population of 650,000, no fewer than 445 people were murdered last year, a rate more than twice as high as cities with more violent reputations such as Miami and Los Angeles.

Of the 374 people murdered so far this year, 81 per cent were black men and 12 per cent black women. Only nine white men and three white women have been killed.

In 1960, when Washington had a larger population, there were just 81 murders. It is not, says Prof Willian Chambliss, a criminologist at George Washington University, that the overall level of violent crime is rising very fast but that it has become far more deadly. 'Guns are more efficient,' he says. 'The spread of semi-automatic handguns in the Eighties means that you are likely to be hit 12 or 13 times.' The increase in the number of rounds fired also means that bystanders are more likely to be hit.

Two deaths last month in the schoolyard of Weatherless Elementary School in south-east Washington are typical of the killings which are devastating the black community. As a group of adults and children were watching a game of touch football, four young black men carrying pistols came out of the woods surrounding the school and ran towards Kervin Brown, 26.

Brown was wounded as he tried to run. When he fell, one of his pursuers stood on him, firing into the body. In the spray of bullets Jaunice Smith, 4, was hit in the head and died in hospital.

The shooting was the result of a feud between two local drug gangs, or 'crews'. The alleged killers were almost immediately arrested and there were ritual calls for sending in the National Guard. The police said they had made 60,000 arrests in Washington over the last year and no less than 4.5 per cent of the capital's population are in jail.

Prof Chambliss says that mandatory sentences for drug offences have driven up the number of murders. He says: 'The increase in the penalty for drugs means that it always makes sense for a drugs dealer to kill a rival or an informant and the two are often the same. A life sentence for homicide means that you get an average of 16 to 18 years in prison. A mandatory sentence for selling drugs may put you inside for 40 years. For a professional criminal, killing makes sense.'

But drugs and mandatory sentences for dealing are present in other US cities with fewer homicides than Washington. An explanation for this may be paradoxically that the Washington police force is relatively incorrupt. In cities like Seattle and parts of New York City, the police take money from some drug dealers who are unofficially licensed to sell drugs in a certain area.

When an interloper arrives from the outside the reaction of a local drugs trader paying off the police is to ring them up and have his rival arrested. This does not really happen in Washington. Instead, local 'crews' respond to anybody else trying to compete by shooting him.

The Washington Post has started putting killings on the front page and not in the metro section, to which reports of the carnage were previously confined. But, until a senator or a congressman is caught in the crossfire, Washington's murder rate will continue to compete successfully with Port-au-Prince.