Rich Thug, Poor Thug

How gangs overran a school in an affluent neighborhood. And how administrators reclaimed it.

The gang members traveled in style. "At least two of the guys, their parents had these brand new Lexuses," says Zepeda. "Some of the parents would give the kids twenty or thirty dollars to spend when we went out."

Zepeda says families in the suburbs tend to live insular lives. "If you're not messing with their stuff, they don't care what you're doing," he asserts. "You smoke marijuana, get drunk. They see it, but they don't really care."

While the adults went about their business, Zepeda and his friends made money selling drugs and committing burglaries. They often used their profits to rent hotel rooms on Miami Beach, where they threw parties that lasted all weekend. "Some of the parents didn't ask where their kids were," Zepeda recalls. "They just said, 'As long as you don't get in trouble, it's all right.' They didn't know what the kids were doing."

Zepeda, now nineteen years old, lives more modestly than some of his friends from the gang. He shares an apartment not far from Braddock with his mother, a travel agent, and his two younger brothers. A hulking, muscular figure with a shaved head, he was born in El Salvador and comes from a long line of gang members. "Lots of my uncles and cousins belonged to MS," he says, referring to the notorious Salvadoran gang, Mara Salvatrucha, which has a bloody history both in Central America and California.

Those family members were most often recruited in rough neighborhoods. But Zepeda's road to gang involvement was different. The International Posse enlisted him while he attended South Miami Middle School, about eight miles southeast of Braddock, near upscale Coral Gables. "I was in a magnet program for kids who were interested in broadcasting," he says. "I had it good. I had no real reason to do what I did."

But his parents were breaking up. "My father worked in maintenance and he was gone from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. I hardly ever saw him," says Zepeda. "My mother worked a lot, too." His father finally left their home when Zepeda was fourteen years old. "I was an angry kid and the gang leaders saw that," he says today. "They are smart, psychological people. They know what they're looking for -- not kids who sit at the front of the class, but those who sit in the back and don't take part. The kids who have troubles. The kids who aren't getting the attention they need. That's who they go after. And it doesn't matter if they are from poor or rich families."

Zepeda won't specify the crimes he committed, but alleges that he began participating in criminal activities when he was thirteen years old. By age fifteen, he was second in command of the local IP chapter. "Some of the guys were older than me, but I was the one who decided some things, like when we would fight," he says. The brawls were often fought with baseball bats. Along the way Zepeda acquired his first gun. He says he never fired it at anyone, though he carried it into street battles.

But the gang became his life. "You will be protected and you will make money. That's what you are told. It is a very grown-up world for a fifteen-year-old. But the whole gang thing was getting more and more violent, man. People were getting killed."

That violence caused Zepeda to reassess his life. In January 1997 his closest friend, a boy he had known since seventh grade, was gunned down. Guillermo Bolanos, age seventeen and a member of IP, died in front of a Coral Gables apartment building. Police later charged Boris Aldrin Rosas-Sanchez, also seventeen years old, and allegedly a member of another gang, the Vicious Latin Boys. After Bolanos's death Zepeda decided to leave the IP. "I had to think of my mother and my little brothers," he said. "And the people here at the school had already been talking to me for a long time, making me think about what I was doing. I mean, without them talking to me, making me change the way I was thinking, I'd probably be dead now."

Among those who must deal with gang members like Zepeda is Sheree DiBernardo, a Miami-Dade gang unit detective assigned to the Hammocks barracks and Braddock High. She insists the area's appearance is deceiving."It looks like Wayne's World out here," DiBernardo says, referring to a Saturday Night Live skit about nerdy suburban kids. "But once you're out on the street, you bump into some people and you say, 'Watch out! Who's this?' There has been more violent crime here than you would think."

Statistics back her up. Police recorded seven murders in the district during the first six months of this year, while the Kendall district, with about two-thirds as many people, had only one. Last year seventeen people were homicide victims in the Hammocks district. Arrest figures for the first half of this year reveal 167 aggravated assaults, 132 burglaries, 492 cases of larceny, 50 stolen vehicles, 505 narcotics offenses, and 57 weapons violations.

The Hammocks police barracks covers the territory from SW 8th Street to SW 200th Street; from the Florida Turnpike Extension to the Collier County line. In the 1990 census the average family income in the area was listed as $32,171, well above the poverty line. And with many new homes being built as the county expands westward, the neighborhoods have become richer. Of the eight county police districts, only Miami Lakes and Kendall are more affluent.

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