Iron John

In five years PBA boss John Rivera has transformed his police union into a major political force

The clash was so serious that officers worked without a contract for more than two years. Finally, this past December, differences about hiring and raises were worked out and a contract signed. But the problems reflected a deeper concern that traces to lucrative pension benefits that officers won in 1992 during the tenure of former mayor Julio Martinez, Bolanos says. The chief believes those concessions cost so much that badly needed equipment such as new cars couldn't be purchased. By the time the contract expired, Raul Martinez was back in office. Martinez and Bolanos held firm against substantial pay raises, then bought the equipment.

Rivera was perturbed by not only the lack of raises but by a host of other issues. For instance, beepers were collected from officers and a take-home-car program was dismantled. Bolanos installed an electronic tracking system in cruisers to catch napping cops, then fired offenders. Rivera accused Bolanos of sacking the officers for political reasons.

During the impasse, Rivera used trademark tactics. The PBA took out ads, then plastered posters on bus benches and billboards calling for Bolanos's ouster. He ridiculed Martinez in Heat and even published a cartoon in the newspaper that depicted Martinez walking Bolanos on a leash. He even framed a T-shirt that read: "Bote Bolanos," which translates as "Throw Bolanos Out."

But it was during Martinez's re-election bid last fall against challenger Herman Echevarria that Rivera saw his chance. PBA members sporting shirts emblazoned with Echevarria's name picketed city hall. They carried signs calling Martinez a coward. In a video of the demonstrations, Rivera shouts through a bullhorn: "Raul -- Acobarde! Vente para afuera! Ponte los Pampers. Todos los dictadores siempre se caen. (Raul -- coward! Come outside! Put on your Pampers. Dictators always fall)."

Then on November 4 workers at Conchita Transit Systems, a busline owned by Martinez supporter Rene Gil, found signs of sabotage. Sugar had been poured into the gas tanks of four vans and tires were slashed on two others. "Hialeah Needs a New Leader" said bumper stickers stuck on the vehicles. Hialeah police investigated, but no one was arrested. To Martinez the perpetrators' identities were obvious: "I can't prove it, but I am certain police officers were involved." He cites an intercepted police-radio transmission he was told about in which two PBA members' names were used in conjunction with the incident.

Rivera scoffs. Union members would not stoop so low, he says. "Without a doubt, it was [Martinez's] camp that did this. He couldn't have bought any better press coverage than he received after the Conchita thing," says Rivera. "I'll tell you, I give him kudos. In Hialeah, Martinez is king, by hook or by crook."

After Martinez beat Echevarria, turmoil continued in the police department. On the night of January 14, Bolanos's son Daniel, a Hialeah police officer, was transporting three prisoners to jail. When he switched on the air conditioner of his squad car, pepper spray shot from the vents. The chief's son was temporarily blinded. No one suffered permanent injuries and the prisoners were transferred to another cruiser. Chief Bolanos believes a police officer tampered with the car. So far there have been no arrests in the case.

Martinez says another example of trouble occurred as he drove to work on April 16. At 8:40 a.m. he spotted a man pasting a bumper sticker onto a lamppost at Palm Avenue and 49th Street. Martinez confronted him. "When I stopped him, I didn't know what the stickers were. I said 'Look, I just saw what you did and it's illegal. Now go back and take that sticker off.'" The lawbreaker was Gabriel Zamora, a 60-year-old maintenance worker for the PBA. And the stickers he was putting up read in Spanish: "Bolanos is corrupt and incompetent" and "Fidel and Bolanos will die this year." When Zamora refused to undo his work, Martinez called the cops. Zamora told arresting officers the PBA paid him to slap on the signs. Then a PBA lawyer helped plead Zamora's case, which has yet to come to trial.

Rivera denies PBA involvement in the incident. A PBA lawyer helped only because Zamora is an employee, he says.

"Bullshit," Martinez shoots back when told of Rivera's response. "If they didn't tell this man to do this, where did he get the money [to print anti-Bolanos materials]? And what motivated him to print up 200 bumper stickers and go pole by pole in the city?"

Where will it end? The union members who petitioned Rivera to tone down in January have an idea. Sgt. Eddie Del Toro told the Miami Herald that his union leader needed to "stick to the issue" of the contract. That month officers received an eleven percent pay raise to be phased in over three years. (Bolanos says the PBA's tactics backfired. Six months earlier the union was offered eleven percent over two years, but Rivera gambled that Echevarria would win the election).

Rivera contends he learned one thing from his experience with Martinez: guerrilla politics Hialeah-style. "I've learned from Mr. Martinez. He's a pro, politically."

If Rivera was stalemated in Hialeah, he may be checkmated in South Miami. Some union members in the small city off U.S. 1 accuse the union boss of not tolerating criticism from within. They recently won the right to hold a vote that could remove the PBA.

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