Rich Thug, Poor Thug

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

Although the area includes pockets of poverty and some federal housing, the image is still much closer to Pleasantville than inner-city Miami. Neighborhoods of single-family homes are grouped around shopping centers and minimalls. On weekends the parks are filled with noise from little league baseball and Optimist Club soccer games. High school cheerleaders sponsor car washes.

But when the sun goes down the area can turn dangerous. "There are some 'hoods around here that would amaze you," blurts Juancito (not his real name), a former gang member who also attends Braddock. "They look real nice and Bam! in one moment it explodes. I've been in gunfights right in the middle of Kendall."

Juancito, age eighteen, is the son of Colombian parents who own a house near Braddock. He is thin and pale, with close-cropped dark hair. When speaking about his former gang involvement, he sounds shell-shocked and still amazed he survived.

Juancito says he began his gang activities at age thirteen. (School counselors won't let him identify what gang he ran with, although he acknowledges that Guillermo Bolanos, the IP member murdered in Coral Gables, was his good friend.) "I had a cousin who belonged and he started inviting me to everything. Soon I was doing what they were doing: drug dealing, drive-by shootings, attempted murder." He describes firing pistols out the window of crowded cars at figures on street corners. "I don't know if I hit anybody or not," he says.

His neighborhood near Kendall Drive and 152nd Avenue turned violent. "I would be walking around there with a gun under my shirt and I was like sixteen," he says. He maintains he carried the weapon to defend himself. "About two years ago, I was walking home one night with a friend, just blocks from where we lived, and about twenty guys came after us." Juancito describes cars racing up to them, doors opening in unison, and opposing gang members swarming out. Carrying baseball bats and knives, the enemy came at him. Juancito says he escaped serious injury. He claims his friend, whom he won't name, was stabbed in the back, but survived.

The rising level of violence frightened Juancito just as it had Zepeda. He started listening to Braddock counselors, he says. He broke away from the gang about a year ago, will graduate in June, and plans to enter the Marines. "That shit was too crazy, man," he says of his past life.

Juancito is speaking to a reporter in Braddock counselor Carlos Zaragoza's cramped office. The walls are plastered with posters warning kids of the dangers they face today: drugs, drunk driving, physically abusive relationships. Zaragoza's business card identifies him as the school's "trust specialist."

"Students can come to me and tell me about any problems they are having at home or with other students here on campus, and within reason I will keep it confidential," he says. "Sometimes they tell me about tensions between groups. We try to head off any trouble before it erupts."

Zaragoza, age 44, has worked at the school since it opened in 1990. In December of that year the school lost its first student to violence. Michelle Cabrera, age fifteen, was shot to death by fourteen-year-old Angel Batallon. The pair cut school with six other Braddock students and were at a home in the Hammocks. Batallon had a revolver loaded with only one bullet. He pointed it at Cabrera, who dared him to pull the trigger, according to police. Batallon later said that he thought the gun wouldn't fire. It did and Cabrera died instantly from a shot to the head. Batallon was tried as an adult and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. What was a 14-year-old doing with a gun? "He had been hanging out with gang types," says detective DiBernardo.

The next year gun violence struck again. Zaragoza points at chairs positioned in front of his desk. "One day I brought some kids in here because I heard there was trouble between two groups," he recalls. "But that next week one of the kids shot another one to death in a gang fight. Both were students here. We knew and we tried, but it happened when they were out of school and there was nothing we could do."

That death wasn't the last. "I've lost eight or nine kids to violence since I've been here," says Zaragoza, who previously worked as a gang intervention counselor in Miami Beach. "I can't go to the funerals anymore. I went to one and it was heartbreaking."

He asserts Braddock quickly developed a very bad reputation. "There were about eight gangs active here in the first years," says Zaragoza. "We had some seriously violent kids."

Detective DiBernardo agrees. "I'd say about 200 kids were active in the gangs back then," she states. Some of them came from affluent families. "They dressed like preppies, but some of them were monsters."

Both school and police officials describe a culture of violence. "You saw kids at the school and they looked concerned, uncomfortable," recalls DiBernardo. "They didn't really act like kids. It was bad and the whole thing was getting worse."

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