Randol Contreras came of age in the South Bronx during the 1980s, a time when the community was devastated by cuts in social services, a rise in arson and abandonment, and the rise of crack-cocaine. For this riveting book, he returns to the South Bronx with a sociological eye and provides an unprecedented insider’s look at the workings of a group of Dominican drug robbers. Known on the streets as “Stickup Kids,” these men raided and brutally tortured drug dealers storing large amounts of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and cash.
As a participant observer, Randol Contreras offers both a personal and theoretical account for the rise of the Stickup Kids and their violence. He mainly focuses on the lives of neighborhood friends, who went from being crack dealers to drug robbers once their lucrative crack market opportunities disappeared. The result is a stunning, vivid, on-the-ground ethnographic description of a drug robbery’s violence, the drug market high life, the criminal life course, and the eventual pain and suffering experienced by the casualties of the Crack Era.
Provocative and eye-opening, The Stickup Kids urges us to explore the ravages of the drug trade through weaving history, biography, social structure, and drug market forces. It offers a revelatory explanation for drug market violence by masterfully uncovering the hidden social forces that produce violent and self-destructive individuals. Part memoir, part penetrating analysis, this book is engaging, personal, deeply informed, and entirely absorbing.
The Stickup Kids Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream
The Rise of the South Bronx and Crack
The Bronx is a land of steep hills, green parks, and elegant architecture. The borough is slightly smaller in square mileage than Boston, but with over 1.3 million residents, it has almost two and half times its population. Still, it is only New York City's fourth most populated borough, coming ahead of just Staten Island.1 The Bronx is also the only borough attached to the mainland; Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island-water separates them all. The land borders Long Island Sound to the east, the East River to the southeast, the Harlem River to the west, and the county of Westchester, a wealthy neighbor, to the north.
The natural landscape is beautiful, with parkland covering nearly a quarter of the borough.2 These parks offer shady trees, green grass, athletic fields, and colorful playgrounds, all for pleasant mornings, evenings, and afternoons. On streets outside the parks stand butter-colored art deco buildings, a signature of curves and arches that soften the Bronx sky. These elegant buildings have housed residents from all over the world; in their early years, from Europe, and later, from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America.3
But a close inspection reveals severity. Sidewalks wrinkle with cracks, roads crater with potholes. Building facades crumble, litter adorns the street. Every bright color is dimmed by soot, a thick coat of gray. Though reviving, the Bronx is still the Bronx. Next to most New York City boroughs, it is crime ridden, poverty ridden, and uneducated.4
It is here that the lives of the Dominican drug robbers have unfolded. Not so long ago, the South Bronx was an urban inferno, with thieves, drug pushers, and vandals roaming its abandoned streets. This was not always so. The Bronx was once a glorious city. But some political, economic, and social woes reversed the borough's forward momentum. Then it was the Hopeless Bronx. The Shameful Bronx. The City on Fire. Under Siege. These Dominican men came of age then, during the time when the South Bronx was falling apart.
More important to their lives was the crack era. This period coincided with the South Bronx demise and influenced them first to become crack dealers, then drug robbers. Thus, they evolved within a social context in which political, global, and social forces transformed the drug market, forces that would later affect other urban areas.
And I must describe those historical factors in some detail. My own readings of ethnographies suggest that a superficial "background" section-one or two pages-is like a speck of dust, large enough to notice, but small enough to forget after flicking off. This then leads to a limited analysis that dismisses historical and structural factors. For example, in explaining why Black men are overrepresented as robbers, Katz argues that poverty is irrelevant since other poor ethnic groups do fewer robberies. He then links this crime statistic to Black culture, claiming that it glorifies the criminal "hardman."5
I am unsure how Katz discovered this Black cultural trait from just looking at arrest data, police files, or robber autobiographies. Also, "hardmen" can be found in other ethnic cultures, like the bandido in Mexican culture or the mafia heist man in the Italian American community. In the end, I wish Katz had considered how history-its social forces and criminal opportunities-matters just as much. Because perhaps African American robbers have less access to crimes controlled by certain ethnic groups. Perhaps the actions of public, business, and political leaders, and a fleeing White (and Black) middle class, drain the community's economic pond, which in turn creates a concentration of poor African Americans, which in turn increases their risks of doing street crime.6
Perhaps it is a combination of all.7
I pay attention to these historical and structural matters. Though these Dominican men did not create the South Bronx, it set the stage for their lives. In the South Bronx, their criminal opportunities rose and fell, and the effects of the crack era lingered long after the demand for crack had peaked and declined. The South Bronx was where they first became dealers, then drug robbers, then self-destructive human beings. Thus, these Dominican men were situated in a historical and social context.8 Race, class, history, community, and drug market swings all shaped the motion picture of their lives.9
For real, bro? Nah, that's bullshit, man. I don't remember the Bronx being like that. This shit was always fucked up, at least far as I could remember. Shit was on fire back then. Fuck, shit's still on fire now, ha-ha. Nah, I can't believe that, bro. You must got your facts wrong or somethin'.
Like Pablo, I could not believe that our South Bronx was once called the "Wonder Borough."10 Yet during the nineteenth century, the area was an Eden, a tranquil, hilly, and leafy wilderness parceled into large estates. It would attract prosperous Manhattan residents who were sold on the idea of country and morality, who wanted to escape the mostly German and Irish slum neighborhoods that were filled with street gangs, drunkards, disease, and crime.
And by the early 1900s, the Bronx had gone from an idyllic country escape to a posh city, full of style. To make a mark, Bronx boosters built impressive, large apartment houses. These apartments, which the study participants and I now called "home," were designed according to the period's French art deco movement.11 Resembling French flats, they had all the modern amenities-hot water, separate living and sleeping quarters, electric lights, telephones, steam heat, separate kitchens, and private bathrooms. The grand buildings also featured elevators, large hallways, and marbled lobbies, and sometimes had entrance courtyards with water fountains, statuary, and shrub-filled gardens.
Bronx boosters also lavished funds on one grand public amenity: parks. They wanted a remarkable but tranquil experience in wide-open areas with grass and trees, where people could forget, if for a day, urban life. Like Manhattan's Central Park, Bronx parks would stimulate modern residential construction, raise property values, and ultimately increase tax revenues. Potentially, the Bronx could rival the grandest cities in the world: London, Paris, Rome. Indeed, the construction of Crotona Park, Claremont Park, Van Cortland Park, and Pelham Bay Park made the borough's reputation sparkle.12
True to plan, by the 1920s, the Bronx was a smash, with modern buildings, large parks, and spectacular public works:13
It had the Grand Boulevard and Concourse, a broad, four-mile curving boulevard that was modeled on the Champs-╔lysΘes of Paris and that showcased three roadways, one for pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, and two for automobiles.
It had Yankee Stadium, which was made famous after "Babe" Ruth, one of the greatest hitters of all time, awed baseball fans with spectacular home runs and led the Yankees to a string of World Championships.
It had the Bronx Zoo and the Bronx Botanical Gardens, which featured exotic animals and plant life, and attracted visitors from all over the world.
It had respectable institutions of higher education, housing the campuses of Fordham and New York Universities, two intellectual sites that attracted the city's brightest.
It had the Concourse Plaza Hotel, a luxury establishment that catered to a high-end clientele, hosted extravagant events, and was home to athletic superstars.
And it had a powerful Democratic presence-led by "You're in like Flynn" Boss Flynn-which played a crucial role in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidential victory.
The Bronx had it all.
The successful borough also attracted a middle class wanting modern living and a working class wanting upgraded housing. In addition, it drew in a mix of immigrants, mostly Americanized German Jews and Irish wanting to escape Manhattan's congestion. Later, oppressed Russian and Eastern European Jews, as well as Italian peasants, would make the Bronx their home. The Bronx became a symbol of accomplishment, a move up on the status ladder.14
The Bronx Slides Downhill
Then, like a mudslide during a torrential rainfall, the Bronx went downhill after the Second World War. Many White, middle-class residents fled from newly arrived poor Puerto Ricans (who themselves had fled from a sad island economy)15 and from newly arrived poor Blacks (who themselves had fled from a tyrannical Jim Crow South). Through the G.I. Bill, which sponsored low-interest loans, they settled in suburban homes.
Poverty in the Bronx would also expand because of a one-man social force, Robert Moses.16 As a public official, he purposely designed bridges and parkways as cages to contain minorities; and he demolished 113 streets, dispersing tens of thousands of Jewish residents in East Tremont, all for a seven-mile stretch of highway to ease travel for outsiders-the Cross Bronx Expressway.17 He also cleared Manhattan slum neighborhoods for public housing, which uprooted poor Blacks and Puerto Ricans to South Bronx neighborhoods. The influx of poor residents would allow some Bronx landlords to lower building maintenance, which lowered their expenses while increasing their profit.18
The Bronx slid further because of the demise of New York City's manufacturing economy. For generations, manufacturing had provided unionized security for European immigrants and their children.19 However, between 1947 and 1976, New York City lost about five hundred thousand factory jobs, many to non-unionized regions of the country.20
In an intriguing account, sociologist Robert Fitch argues that New York City could have saved hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs.21 However, city officials sided with the real estate elites, who wanted to develop more office buildings for higher profits and land values. Specifically, the elite persuaded the city to give Title I status to much of the land where the remaining manufacturing sat. Thus, the plants and factories where hundreds of thousands of people had worked were knocked down for the promise of "urban renewal."
Worse, the city whole-heartedly subsidized office building construction by offering developers serious tax abatements and relief. Banks also granted them mortgages in staggering amounts. But after the towering office buildings went up, the projected white-collar economy never took off. And for the next several decades, vast amounts of office space went unused. The city continued to subsidize the empty spaces despite losing the tax revenue. The banks also lost millions of dollars in unpaid mortgages. The winners were the elite; they played with city and bank money, not their own.
Those who lost the most were blue-collar and low-wage New Yorkers. Hundreds of thousands of them lost traditionally secure jobs, all because their presence was a profit blocker to the powerful.22 And they knew very little about how the city and real estate world had ruined their lives. Instead, they blamed the minority poor, echoing the distortions created by public officials. As a spokesman for New York City's municipal association argued decades later, "It's the fucking blacks and Puerto Ricans. They use too many city services and they don't pay any taxes. New York's in trouble because it's got too many fucking blacks and Puerto Ricans."23
For Bronx residents, then, the mighty manufacturing industries were no longer the first-generational step toward the realization of the American Dream. And the borough's postwar newcomers, who were mostly minority, uneducated, and unskilled, would need a higher education to succeed-one that, like the new office buildings, was skyscraper high.
Beware of the Bronx: Las Gangas y los Tecatos
The 1960s was the decade when the South Bronx gained a sinister reputation. The borough's new inhabitants were thought to embrace drugs, welfare, and crime.24 True, Blacks and Puerto Ricans committed most of the borough's violence and experienced most of its poverty. Critics, though, generally blamed their supposed wayward cultures. The loss of manufacturing jobs, the language barriers, the need for education and training, all were lost in the public's explanation of the Bronx decline.
Worse, during this period Bronx residents witnessed the rise of los tecatos.25 Filthy and worn out, los tecatos were well known to us as they roamed the streets day and night chasing manteca, ora heroin blast. After copping some manteca, los tecatos sought sanctuary in dark alleys, stairwells, abandoned buildings, or lonely rooftops. They wanted privacy to experience heroin's sudden euphoric flush, which, for some, was more pleasurable than passionate sex, more nourishing than a plateful of mami's home-cooked food. Pura tranquilidad.
The tranquility, however, was short-lived. Often, the more users used, the more tolerance they gained-and the more manteca they needed for the same high. If not, they got "sick," or experienced withdrawal. To support frequent use, los tecatos would soon swell the ranks of joloperos and ladrones, who robbed, burglarized, and mugged residents for that quick dope cash.
Then the gangs began to make their mark on the South Bronx scene. Wearing denim jeans and jackets, thick belts and big boots, all adorned with war regalia and violent emblems, these youths paraded as the new aristocracy of the streets. Like feudal lords, they commanded neighborhoods, setting the rules and meting out the punishments. They claimed to do the good that the police wouldn't do: they beat up tecatos, ran drug pushers off the streets, and put up signs that warned, No Junkies Allowed. The gangs declared that they were about street justice, about cleaning up the community, about doing what the city had yet to do.26
However, gangs like the Savage Nomads, whom I often saw milling about, fought bloody turf wars with rivals. Worse, many gangs terrified neighborhoods rather than protecting them: they mugged, robbed, and burglarized people, while doing heavy drugs too.
South Bronx residents were in trouble. Now they feared both the tecatos and the gangas lurking in the shadows, eyeing the scene for that pendejo walking down a lonely street. Cuφdate ... que valla con Dios, said fearful Bronx residents as they bid a safe farewell in the most literal way.
A cold, misty underworld took over the streets. In 1960, there were close to a thousand reported assaults; in 1969, over four thousand. In the same period, burglaries increased from just under two thousand to over twenty-nine thousand.27 To outsiders, the mere mention of the South Bronx brought the shakes and the shivers, the body moves that showed how it was best not to go there. Go to the Bronx? You must be crazy.
Fuego in the Bronx
Yeah, I remember that shit. People just used to put shit on fire back then, B. Fuckin' landlords be like, "Don't wanna pay no more taxes, B." Ha-ha. "Twenty families still in there? Fuck it, they gonna [burn] too, B." Ha-ha. "Time to put you out your misery. Go get Fulano, the fuckin' pyromaniac motherfucka. He's gonna get shit started now." Ha-ha.
Then it got hot. Real hot. The South Bronx was on fire. With the start of rent control laws, many landlords lost money as building maintenance costs rose. Historian Evelyn Gonzalez notes that landlords also lost money because many South Bronx apartments lay empty. Residents that could secure enough resources moved to better neighborhoods, but often had no one replacing them. Landlords lost profits fast.
To keep profits up, landlords simply stopped maintaining their properties.28 Then buildings crumbled. Then tenants complained: no heat, no hot water, garbage and rats everywhere. Slumlords. Hearing the cries of poor tenants and community activists, lawmakers tried to strong-arm landlords: they passed legislation that penalized neglectful owners; they empowered tenants to withhold rents in buildings with code violations.
Landlords fumed, disinvesting in their properties altogether. Buildings then broke down faster. Residents and neighborhood merchants packed up and left. Eventually entire city blocks of crumbling buildings were uninhabited. Only imaginative kids and desperate junkies used the empty space. They created playgrounds and clubhouses, drug dens and homes.
Yet landlords were left with the idle structures, which lost value and cash flow-a capitalist no-no. Then it hit them. They realized that their properties were "worth more dead than alive."29 It was better to burn them, claim them, and collect money from them than to keep them profitless.
Insurance brokers were also in on the scam. In a complicated scheme, they insured buildings up to twenty times their real values and then resold the insurance on the market. Property owners then hired "torches," who set the buildings ablaze. Afterward, owners collected on insurance claims, with brokers getting a nice cut too.
This fraud was so smooth and so slick that buyers began purchasing abandoned and run-down properties to burn for profit. Derelict buildings bought for a couple of thousand dollars could sometimes be insured for a couple of hundred grand. The South Bronx buildings flamed in a hurry.
It wasn't a victimless crime, however:
Fuego! Fuego! cried South Bronx tenants as they fled buildings just set on fire.
Llamen lo' bombero'! cried their neighbors as they called for firefighters to put out the blaze.
In awe and horror, South Bronx residents crowded on sidewalks to witness the fiery spectacle: blaring fire trucks racing to the scene; firefighters hurriedly attaching the cobra of a water hose to the fire hydrant; the bomberos, with a thick lash of water, trying to tame the feral red and orange flames; the burned-out residents staring quietly at their smoldering homes, hoping that something was left among the ashes. Bendito.
But some residents joined in on the arson. To slide up the new public housing waiting list, desperate tenants set fire to their apartments.30 Sometimes they warned other residents in advance and called the fire department as soon as they were safely on the sidewalk. Still, the fire sometimes spread and burned out other tenants too. The South Bronx had gone up in smoke on every end.
Throughout the 1970s, South Bronx residents would experience blazing scenes about twelve thousand times a year.31 After awhile, the sound of sirens, the smell of smoke, the sight of smoldering buildings-the whole bombed-out scene-were familiar to the community. (When I was a child, my own family was almost burned out of two apartments; the smoky odor, brown and red rubble, and stretches of grayish, abandoned buildings became ordinary to me. So, till this day, whenever I breathe in the fumes of burning wood or visit decrepit, deserted inner cities, nostalgia stirs up fond childhood memories of "home.")
The nation at large, however, got its first glimpse of the burned-out Bronx during the Yankee-Dodger 1977 World Series. During Game Two, a night game, an ABC camera helicopter hovering above Yankee Stadium captured the image of an abandoned elementary school in flames. "There it is, ladies and gentlemen," commented sports broadcaster Howard Cosell, "the Bronx is burning."32 President Carter had visited a week earlier to observe the ruins. By now the South Bronx looked like it had been bombed out in a wartime air raid. Within a week, the South Bronx became known as the most awful place on earth.
It helped the Bronx little that New York City collapsed during the 1970s.33 For over a decade, the city had spent more money than it had coming in. This equation produced a growing budget deficit, with no letup in sight. Worried investors pulled their money, fearing a city bankruptcy. The city, which relied heavily on bond sales and banks, was in a trouble.34 Gotham would act swiftly. The little people, though, paid the price: thirty-eight thousand city workers laid off. Free tuition at public colleges, no longer free.
Turmoil ensued. Police officers picketed City Hall, stopping traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and cussing out nonprotesting brothers-in-blue. Sanitation workers went on strike, allowing rotting garbage to pile up and litter the streets. Desperate residents took over fire houses, forcing the city to keep them open, to help douse the insurance-fraud flames. The city was angry, out of control.
Like the crumbling, graffiti-scribbled walls that marked the city, Gotham was a mess-it was fear, crime, frustration, abandonment, fire, poverty, chaos, financial loss ... and the South Bronx would continue to suffer.
Resilience in the Bronx
Not that all was doom and gloom in the South Bronx. It had its own cultural innovation: hip-hop.35 As in disco, hip-hop DJs used two turntables to eliminate pauses between records, which kept the schoolyard and block party crowds dancing. However, they purposely scratched and mixed records to create new rhythms and beats. Also, they now spoke over the music, shouting out short, rhyming phrases that moved the crowd: Put your hands up in the air, and wave them like you just don't care ... Somebody scr-e-e-e-a-a-m! Over time, DJs and then rap groups rhymed in longer sequences, in self-congratulatory oratories or in vivid accounts of ghetto life.
Electric boogie and break dancing also made the South Bronx scene. Popular among the younger generation, these movements were performed to underground dance and hip-hop music. On crude cardboard slats, or even straight concrete and wood floors, break dancers creatively spun and twisted their bodies in a whiz of motions. The boogiers pretended to run electricity through their bodies, either in snaky waves or choppy staccato. Sometimes they seemed to move as if by magic; they seemed to glide and float on air.
The older generation of South Bronx residents, mainly Puerto Ricans, stuck to older cultural forms, like salsa. Amateur musicians set up in parks or on sidewalks and played conga drums, tambourines, cowbells, and guidas. Crowds gathered to listen and dance to the music, retaining a cultural tradition from a warm Caribbean island far away. For a balmy afternoon or a dazzling sunset, the congas beat out the rhythm of the South Bronx Latino soul:
Poom, Poom, Poom ... Pum-Poom
Poom, Poom, Poom ... Pum-Poom
Que viva Boriquen!
The South Bronx was alive.36
On the political side, South Bronx neighborhoods started to organize.37 Led by several church coalitions (mostly Catholic), residents learned to mobilize and force public officials into action. Often, they used the famed Alinsky method from Chicago. First, they agitated about easy, winnable issues, like putting up a stop sign or demolishing an abandoned building. Then, with rising momentum, they tackled more imposing ones, like demanding city-subsidized housing or cracking down on landlord insurance fraud.
It started to work.38 In small steps, Bronx neighborhood organizations picketed business institutions and government agencies. They took on the banks, protesting about how despite receiving the bulk of their money from neighborhood depositors, they rarely lent to them. They took on insurance companies, decrying how they refused to provide affordable insurance to South Bronx property owners, who would rather abandon properties than pay high premiums. They took on city agencies, which had monies to immediately rehabilitate buildings, yet took their sweet time. Often, South Bronx organizations won these tough battles. Sometimes they even formed working relationships with the targeted institution. The South Bronx was finally unclasping its hands and starting to applaud.
However, as the Bronx entered the 1980s, it would struggle. The once powerful Bronx Democratic machine had become weak and corrupt. The Reagan administration drastically cut social services. Worker unions crumbled. Traditional manufacturing work continued its slide. If the South Bronx was dealt a deadly blow now, it could only absorb it, drop to its knees, and gasp.
Along came crack, the new contender for the heavyweight championship of the drug world.
The Rise of Crack
While poor South Bronx residents were weathering arson and abandonment, better off New Yorkers were snorting cocaine. The powder was all the rage at extravagant seventies parties; nightclub lavatories (a popular snorting spot) became as crowded as dance floors. For users, cocaine provided a powerful combination of stamina and euphoria, the catalysts for unending parties and unfettered sex. It was the caviar of drugs, the drug of choice for the well-to-do, for the doctors, lawyers, and other professionals with the capacity and audacity to snort it through thinly rolled hundred-dollar bills.
This decadent period would, in part, turn out to be the background for the drug-related crimes later committed by the Dominican men I write about. Cocaine would birth the drug dubbed "crack," which would first launch them into superstardom and then drop them as fallen stars. But like all social phenomena, crack and cocaine did not appear or vanish by magic. Social forces birthed and nurtured them, then dug their graves.
We must go global-deep into the jungles of South America, right into the belly of Colombia's economic and political beast. Then to the United States' raging upper-middle-class drug culture and its "tough," politically conservative men. Then a return to an emboldened Colombia; then a stop in the balmy Caribbean; and then back to regressive drug policies in the U.S. Back and forth we must go to understand what shaped the South Bronx drug market and eventually these Dominican men.39
Colombia's Cocaine Economy
In the late nineteenth century, cocaine appeared in the United States as a tonic for health and personality troubles. Doctors, quacks, and entrepreneurs-including Sigmund Freud-hailed the stimulant, claiming that it granted strength to the weak, voice to the timid, and vitality to the sick.40 Soon, popular drinks and medicines featured the drug; it promised to enhance spirits and cure ills.
In the early 1900s, though, the fear of rampant addiction and of the mythical "cocaine-crazed" Black man led to the criminalization of cocaine use outside of medical prescriptions.41 Even among show biz entertainers, jazz musicians, beatniks, and street hipsters and hustlers, heroin and marijuana would become the drugs of choice.42
In the 1960s, cocaine was back. According to drug researcher James Inciardi, its return occurred for two reasons.43 First, the U.S. government cut the legal production of amphetamines and sedatives, which had gained underground popularity. As a result, many drug consumers turned to cocaine, which had been making silent backstage rounds among rock musicians.44 Second, the U.S.-supported Pan American Highway provided the means for transporting cocaine. The Washington-based World Bank financed the mega-highway, which benefited corporations wanting better roads for business. From its southern end, the highway started in Buenos Aires, Argentina, then shot straight west into Chile, where it turned north along the western coast and then cut through the tough terrain of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, all the way into Mexico.45
For cocaine, the crucial part was in Peru. Before the highway, Peru (and Bolivia, its eastern neighbor) produced coca leaf locally as a stimulant. Its chewers and tea drinkers got a healthy burst of energy and stamina while curbing their appetite too. However, producers faced obstacles in selling to outside markets. Mules were the best transportation through the rugged and dangerous Andes. But with the Pan American Highway, coca sellers began moving huge amounts on newly paved roads. Chile, a long and narrow strip of a country, would be the first major destination.46
First, Peruvian and Bolivian farmers cultivated the coca leaves. Second, traffickers processed them into a coca paste, or pasta. Third, the traffickers transported the pasta to Chile via the Pan American Highway. Fourth, Chilean refiners turned the pasta into a coca base, and then into its powder form, cocaine. Finally, small-time Chilean traffickers shipped the cocaine to the United States.47 Simple, smooth, and manageable.
Short-lived. In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet, backed by the CIA, overthrew the existing Chilean government. He detained mom-and-pop drug traffickers, crushing the tiny cocaine industry.48 Frightened Chilean traffickers fled north, settling in Colombia, which was suffering from its own woes. Politically, it was coming off decades of civil war, which had normalized violence. Economically, it was undergoing postindustrial pains, with a declining manufacturing industry that had citizens teetering on an economic ledge.
Then it happened. Some enterprising Colombians-the seeds of the infamous cocaine cartels that would later run a hugely lucrative cocaine industry-learned the art of making cocaine from the Chilean outlaws. For impoverished Colombians, it was an economic godsend. According to journalist William Adler, cocaine soon surpassed coffee as the country's leading export. Its vibrant market also provided hundreds of thousands of jobs for "private armies to guard coca plants and the jungle processing laboratories, bankers to facilitate money laundering, lawyers, couriers, builders, accountants, bodyguards, assassins, smugglers, real estate agents, pilots, retailers, even zookeepers: one of the cartel founders maintained some two hundred exotic animals at his seven-thousand-acre ranch."49
Yet it was violent work. The next couple of decades would witness the tragic deaths of countless innocent civilians and the shocking murders of politicians, police officers, and judges.50 And many of the slain were, in a cruel joke, artistically mutilated. A relic from the bloody civil war, the "Colombian necktie" became cocaine's symbol of terror: the pulling of a victim's tongue through a slit throat so that it flopped down like a tie, or corbata.51
But still, it was the first time in years that money widely circulated among Colombians. And by the late 1970s, the Western world's rising cocaine demand had revved up the country's economic engine, producing a multi-billion-dollar cocaine industry.
The Irony of U.S. Anti-Marijuana Scares
Meanwhile, back in the United States, cocaine use was getting a lift from misguided U.S. anti-drug strategies. In the 1970s, the country's drug enforcers zoomed in on marijuana, a drug that scientific studies showed to be relatively harmless in moderation. According to journalist Michael Massing, the new focus was a political charade, meant to appease a rising conservative parent movement.52 With no scientific evidence, these organized parents asserted that marijuana was morally corrupting the nation's youth. Predictably, politicians caved in, fearing the parents' uncanny ability to instantly rally en masse. Marijuana-new drug enemy No. 1.
Through a crop-eradication strategy, the U.S. sprayed Mexican marijuana fields with paraquat, a highly toxic weed killer. The technique scared many U.S. marijuana users, who, as a health precaution, stopped smoking the plant's Mexican strain.53 Still, the government had targeted the wrong drug. It was U.S. cocaine use that was on the rise, not marijuana. Displaced marijuana dealers, though, would observe the new trend. With smuggling networks and distributors already in place, cocaine became their new line of business. Now, the planes that once flew bales of marijuana to the U.S. would transport tons of cocaine over the Mexican border into California and over the Caribbean Sea into Florida. Now, the U.S. dealers who once distributed pounds of marijuana would move kilos upon kilos of cocaine.54
Sociologist Patricia Adler observed how, in Southern California, "get tough" government interventions pushed upper-level marijuana smugglers into the world of cocaine. As a result, drug profits skyrocketed, and the smugglers' already lavish standard of living rose to even more dizzying heights.55 In Brooklyn, too, anthropologist Ansley Hamid observed how U.S. drug enforcement reduced marijuana distribution. But with smuggling networks in place, dealers immediately switched to selling cocaine, a more powerful-and more lucrative-drug.56
In all, U.S. anti-marijuana strategies helped to flood the country with cocaine. Cocaine consumption would climb higher and higher, and drug dealers would prosper more than ever.
The Glamour of Cocaine
In U.S. high society, cocaine became a symbol of glamour, like a sparkling ring or exotic fur coat. Costing about a thousand dollars an ounce, it was enjoyed only by the rich, who basked in its euphoria. To them, it was like a fine liqueur. A 1974 New York Times Magazine article touted cocaine as the "champagne of drugs."57 Another article reported that an "after-sniff of the fine white powder-either from a bejeweled coke spoon held to the nostril or through a tightly rolled banknote, the higher the denomination the better-is as common as a snifter of brandy."58
Its glow would spur a cocaine surge among affluent U.S. consumers. During the 1970s, cocaine use rose by about 300 percent. To keep up with the ravenous appetite, its overseas producers increased supply by 400 percent. As a result of high demand and high availability, purity would increase by close to 30 percent, and its kilo price would drop by about 60 percent.59 Yet it was still too expensive for poor drug consumers. Their turn would come later, through a chemical variation known as "crack."
The Cocaine Era: Dead
The early 1980s witnessed a sharp reversal in attitudes toward cocaine. Health-care providers started receiving thousands of help calls from addicted cocaine users. Shockingly, most callers were White-upper-middle-class Wall Street executives, doctors, lawyers, and other well-paid professionals, who, of all people, were thought to have their lives under control.60 Newspapers featured article titles such as "The Shackles of Cocaine" and "Cocaine: Pleasure Fades Fast, Problems Linger."61
The most shocking headlines announced the cocaine-related deaths of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias and Saturday Night Live comedian John Belushi. These deaths made the message clear. Cocaine was not a harmless party drug or a marker of high status. Instead, it was anxiety and depression, financial pain and ruin-it was death.
According to Michael Massing, the decline of cocaine would create a two-tier system in drug treatment.62 Easily costing three hundred and fifty dollars a day, treatment centers offered affluent users long-term rehabilitation, often in facilities with lush gardens and health spa amenities. Lower income users, however, could not pay for such privilege. Instead, they relied on government-based treatment, which featured short stays and outdated facilities-that is, if applicants could ever reach the top of its long waiting lists.
Widening the treatment gap was the Reagan administration's clear break from a public health model. Christian Parenti documents how, in a show of conservative "toughness," the new White House administration dramatically reduced funds for federal drug treatment while putting more money into repression: high-tech law enforcement, corrections, drug task forces, and drug user arrests.63 Carlton Turner, Reagan's drug advisor, best captured the White House mood: "If people can afford to go out and buy cocaine, why should the government pay for their treatment? The government is not responsible for their treatment-they are responsible. This country has a problem accepting the fact that there are really bad people in society. We've got the belief that nobody's bad-that we can rehabilitate everybody."64
Ultimately, the zero-tolerance approach paved the way for a major drug epidemic. For Michael Massing, the conservative turn against drug treatment "effectively destroyed the nation's first line of defense against a new drug outbreak.... Then, when the crisis finally hit, the administration-paralyzed by its zero tolerance philosophy-refused to take even the most basic countermeasures. The result was the worst drug epidemic in American history."65 Crack.
The impending crack-cocaine epidemic would harm poor users the most. The government and public were against treating them, only for incarcerating them, even if it meant destroying individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities. As Michael Tonry notes, the effect was an explosion in the number of convictions of minority individuals for nonviolent drug offenses.66 The prevailing conservative attitude-based on racist rhetoric and fear mongering67-was reshaping already impoverished urban lives.
Smoking cocaine-not new. During the 1970s, smoking basuco, coca paste in cigarettes laced with marijuana or tobacco, was common in South America. And the instant, powerful high outdid the euphoria that came from snorting cocaine. Basuco contained harmful chemicals like kerosene and sulfuric acid, which were used to process the coca leaf into paste form. But it was also cheap.68 At about fifty cents a cigarette, basuco became popular among poor users, especially street youth. In fact, an official Colombian count in 1983 revealed the existence of over six hundred thousand basuco users under the age of eighteen-a national crisis.69
Even in the United States, some 1970s cocaine aficionados smoked cocaine, or "freebased."70 An ingenious user (whose identity remains unknown) figured out how to free the hydrochloric acid from the powder cocaine, purifying it to its base form. Hence: freebase. Freebasing, though, involved flammable ether, a glass pipe, and a butane torch as lighter. Like comedian Richard Pryor in 1980, a user could go up in flames while performing the act. However, freebase contained no toxic chemicals and provided an instant rush. The downside: the fleeting rush caused smokers to binge for several days. For instance, in her observations of wealthy White dealers, Patricia Adler notes that "many individuals, once introduced to freebasing, found it increasingly difficult to moderate their drug use.... Some heavy users freebased for as long as seven or eight days straight without sleep. One person I knew went through $20,000 worth of cocaine in a week this way, while another used $60,000 worth in a month."71 The binging, then, made freebasing expensive and a practice found mostly among the well-to-do. And by the late seventies, of the estimated four million users of cocaine, about 10 percent freebased only.72
Crack emerged in the Caribbean during the early 1980s. Contributing to its rise was a dual effort by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Policφa Nacional de Colombia (Colombian National Police-CNP) to reduce cocaine trafficking. The DEA learned two vital pieces of information. One: 98 percent of Colombia's importation of the chemical ether was used to produce cocaine. Two: 90 percent of those importations were coming from Germany and the United States.73 Since ether was used to process coca paste into its powder form, no ether meant no cocaine.
Game on. The DEA and CNP restricted Colombia's importation of ether. Countering, the Colombian traffickers transported their coca paste to Caribbean islands and to the United States, where ether was available. In the midst of this duel, someone on a West Indian island discovered how to smoke coca paste by adding baking soda, water, and rum. This formulation was called "base rock" or "Roxanne."74 Later, the rum was left out, and the drug became known as "crack," named for the crackling sound it made when it was smoked.
To make crack, cocaine was heated with baking soda and water until its base was freed from the powder, in a large mound. Users then chipped off tiny pieces of the residue and smoked them, mostly through a glass pipe. As with freebasing, the high was intense and instant, and it left users in an unusually low mood. This after-effect produced binging that lasted for hours or days at a time.75 The binging led to increased demand, and crack use spread quickly throughout the Caribbean, its profits soon surpassing those for cocaine.
Another factor in the rise of crack was the decline of the cocaine market. During the 1970s, the high demand for cocaine led to its overproduction in Latin America.76 When users later reduced their intake, a cocaine surplus saturated the market. Caribbean dealers would feel the cocaine glut, the price drop, and the profit loss. Their savior was crack, a drug that, after preparation, yielded greater quantities than powder cocaine and invited binging.77 Earnings could explode.
And they did. In fact, the powerful drug soon made its way through the Caribbean and then into the United States. Almost in chorus, it rose among the Haitians in Miami, the African Americans in Los Angeles, and the Dominicans in New York. Later it spread to other cities, like Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit.78 The crack era was born.
In the coming years, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) documented crack's rise. DAWN monitored the country's drug-related emergencies and deaths in hospitals and treatment centers. In 1986, it counted close to 52,000 emergency room visits that "mentioned" cocaine. By 1989, the number had grown to about 110,000.79 The demand for crack was on the rise. And someone would meet those needs. That entrepreneur would get filthy rich. Rich, baby. Rico, papa.
The Crack Era and Its Riches
The inner-city poor were hungry to fill that economic niche. They were at high risk for unemployment. Unlike preceding generations of immigrants, they didn't have the manufacturing sector as the crucial first step up the economic ladder. The Reagan administration had also cut social services. And the 1980s was the decade of Greed is Good, when Wall Street executives and brokers were earning-fraudulently-staggering amounts of money.80 They spent it too. Jets. Yachts. Fast cars. The high life. Everyone saw it.
Since its inception, the U.S., like other capitalist-based nations, reframed greed and gluttony as worthy, as the building blocks of the nation's prosperity and well-being. It was an entrenched "tough luck" ideology that made it noble to contrive ways of making money, even if "losers" were hurt in the process. The quintessential American pursued wealth, punto. Regard for the economic, mental, and health consequences of fellow citizens-that was not part of the equation or plan.
The urban poor, born and bred in the U.S., were just as willing to work and spend in their self-interest. And in the 1980s, they used crack as the vehicle for financial and material success. Unlike most businesses, legal or illegal, a crack operation was easy to start: cocaine was cheap, demand was strong, and monopolies were few. Mom-and-pop capitalists could open their doors to business with few obstacles. Crack businesses would hit the city streets, everywhere.
For instance, in Detroit, journalist William Adler traced the rise of the Chambers Brothers, a family-based African American crime organization whose founders had migrated north to escape from poverty in the rural South.81 After switching from selling marijuana to crack, they struck gold, eventually making about fifty-six million dollars per year. In highlife style, they draped gold on their necks, and draped women on their arms-and even hired a procession of limousines to drive them back to their Alabama hometown. We rich, Goddammit! a lieutenant was caught saying on videotape as he shook a laundry basket full of cash.
In New York City, a Dominican crack-selling organization, the Wild Cowboys, also made millions-over sixteen million dollars a year. In separate accounts, sociologist Robert Jackall and journalist Michael Stone note how the crew established crack businesses in parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and especially the Bronx. Some selling spots earned them over fifteen thousand a week; others, more than a million dollars per year. But protecting those earnings led to violence-the murder of both rival drug sellers and innocent bystanders caught in their line of fire.82
Not every crack organization was large, violent, or worth millions. Smaller operations made just enough for dealers to live large, in installments. For instance, in Washington Heights (upper Manhattan), Terry Williams documented the lives of the "Cocaine Kids," those cool, slick, lyrical young Dominicans that sold cocaine out of an apartment.83 After they added crack to their business, their staggering profit hurled them into the high life, into bedrooms overflowing with women, into expensive jewelry and clothes-into recognition in the after-hours club, where they mingled with the kings and queens of the drug world. Crack made them "somebody."
The first (brief) newspaper account of Bronx crack came in late 1985.84 By mid-1986, journalists were covering it as a serious problem.85 As in other U.S. cities, crack had outstripped the Bronx demand for powder cocaine. Bronx dealers soon prepackaged chipped rocks into small and large perfume vials. They used colored tops-Red, Blue, Yellow, Gold, and so forth-to market their brands. They priced crack from three dollars for a tiny vial, to five dollars for a regular one, to ten dollars for a "jumbo." Although most never became "filthy rich," some made lots of money and ascended to the pinnacle of the neighborhood hierarchy. For many youths, they became role models, the guys who were "getting paid."
In my neighborhood, the crack business owners and employees were marginalized urban youths and young adults, and they were everywhere: some sold on corners, some in building lobbies, some from apartments, and others in the public parks. Crack dealing, unfortunately, became a source of hope, a way out of poverty, a way into manhood, a way to be good at something when everywhere else we failed. Through crack, we saw the American Dream-with all of its material and hedonistic promises-within reach.
Bring It All Together
In sum, no one could have predicted this: that the building of a road through the tropics and mountains of South America would pave the way for cocaine. That cocaine would transform Colombia's gloom into riches, well beyond its deep valleys and rain forests-turning up as fluttering snow on balmy Caribbean islands, then as dewy, luscious raindrops running down the faces of enterprising but poor Black and Brown American men. No one could have predicted that this would partially give rise to not one, but two, drug epidemics-a blessing to some, a scourge to others.
No one would have tied these two epidemics to a rising conservative movement. Our nation's conservatives had stirred up fear, anger, and hate among White Americans, who were unsure of their place on the rungs of unsteady economic and racial ladders. The source of that uncertainty lay in the 1960s civil rights movements, in the open rebellion against injustice led by long-haired liberals, feminists, and people of color. The culmination-the fires, lootings, and shootings-would lock that conservative frame in place.
Yet someone should have known (and perhaps someone did) that this conservative frame would create a space where logic based on fear mongering triumphed, where reason, science, and dialogue were lost to irrationality, where a fear of marijuana use would result in greater cocaine use, where federal funds would push "law and order" to unprecedented heights while reducing critical drug treatment. Someone should have known (and perhaps someone did) that while their conservative words stirred voter fear and outrage, they would also ripen the conditions for a hardcore drug epidemic. Someone should have known-they must have known!-that inner cities and their poor would be ravaged the most.
Because by the time crack arrived in the South Bronx, there was no social barricade to block its entry. By then, the area was still recovering from a social knockout: from the massive White flight that had stripped it of political, social, and economic resources; from the power-hungry, intellectual monstrosity of a man-Robert Moses-who broke and then reconfigured it to feed his ego; and from the arson and abandonment that hollowed out neighborhoods and created a gigantic, rubble-strewn war zone. Crack just strolled right in.
And crack would wreak havoc in the South Bronx. It produced a world that pitted law-abiding residents against crack dealers and users, a world where neighborhoods suffered from violence while empty crack vials and worn condoms littered its streets. It also produced a world where Bronx families were torn-where crack-abusing loved ones tested the limits of trust and family, and where dilemmas arose as to the practical acceptance or moral rejection of much-needed crack earnings. Bronx communities were taken hostage, but its children were employed.
For the Dominican men that I studied, the deadly combination of South Bronx misery and a crack scourge would shape the rest of their lives. In fact, this combination would eventually lead to their self-destruction, to a state where they would live and die for the drug market's promise, would do anything, no matter how brutal, to keep its dream alive.
Crack was the central turning point of their lives.