Rich Thug, Poor Thug

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

Braddock serves an area that is one of the most affluent Hispanic suburbs in the United States. "I don't think there can be another area like this in the whole country," says DiBernardo.

Thomas Boswell, professor of geography at the University of Miami, has studied the area's demographics. "There are many Cuban families, both first and second generation, who have worked their way out from neighborhoods like Little Havana and Hialeah," he says. "But there are lots of Puerto Ricans, too. There is a myth here about Puerto Ricans, that they are all low on the socioeconomic scale. That isn't so. Many are doing quite well and moving out that way. Some of them have come up from Puerto Rico, where advanced education is relatively cheap, much cheaper than on the U.S. mainland, and they find good jobs here. Others are coming down from the Northeast because they can live better here."

Boswell has also found increased numbers of South Americans -- Colombians, Peruvians, Chileans, Venezuelans -- moving to the western edge of the county, including the area surrounding Braddock. According to the 1990 census, about six percent of county residents came from South America, but that figure is now much higher, mostly due to an influx of immigrants from Brazil. "Many of these people come from middle-class families in their countries and are relatively well educated," he says. "They leave their countries sometimes because of political upheaval, but more often for economic reasons. Their own countries go through economic turbulence and hyperinflation."

Police and school officials say gang members come from homes of every socioeconomic level: from poor housing projects, from apartment and condo complexes, and also from the most expensive addresses. Well-off parents know nothing about their kids' activities for the same reason that Zepeda's parents didn't: They work long hours to pay the bills.

"I had a kid whose parents run a very successful business, a lighting company in Coral Gables," says DiBernardo. "They said, 'It can't be. Our son can't be in a gang. He has everything.' I showed them a photograph of him with his group, throwing hand signs. They didn't have a clue."

Gang leaders welcome recruits who come from well-to-do families and exploit them, says Jesus (not his real name), a sixteen-year-old Braddock sophomore.

Jesus knows about exploitation. Of Puerto Rican and Colombian descent, he comes from the rough streets of Queens, New York, where members of the Lion Kings and Nietas gangs used him as a drug mule when he was nine years old. "They would load drugs into the knapsack I carried my school books in," he recalls. "I didn't even see what the drugs looked like because the bag was on my back. Then I would go to some corner store, some bodega, where I would give a phony name, somebody else would take the drugs out, put money in, and send me back." When he was ten years old two rival gang drug dealers tried to rob him. Gang leaders then gave Jesus a gun, a nine-millimeter semiautomatic, which he calls simply "a nine."

His family moved to Miami-Dade two years ago and he became involved with a gang. Like Zepeda, he is a large kid, more than 200 pounds, but he has a boyish face. Before he left Queens, one of his relatives, a Golden Gloves champion boxer, taught him to fight. He was invited to join a gang after beating up an older boy at a party, he says. That was when he first met affluent gang members.

"I've been in the houses of kids who had swimming pools and tennis courts," he marvels. "These are rich kids trying to be hard. They're desperate for friends and in a way they pay to belong. When we wanted, they would steal from their parents for us -- money, jewelry, you name it. It was crazy." Jesus is amazed at the phenomenon. "Why would anybody who has all that get involved in gangs?"

Many parents posed the same question to principal Miller soon after he arrived at Braddock. "I can't tell you how many parents I get in here who have lost control of their kids," he says. "I also spend a lot of time dealing with parents who are in denial. They say, 'We have a nice house, nice cars, good jobs. It can't be our kid.' But it is."

Principal Miller went after gang members immediately after he started at Braddock in fall 1994.

A native of Queens like Jesus, Miller is slim and youthful for a 50-year-old man. He has been an educator for 30 years and was previously principal at two schools, including nearby W.R. Thomas Middle School, where he gained parental support by enforcing discipline.

In 1994 he began the School Improvement Plan at Braddock. It included lessons about drugs and violence as part if the curriculum. He also increased the security staff from eight to twelve and installed 35 surveillance cameras around the campus. Many lockers were eliminated to minimize hiding places for weapons and drugs. Miller also stationed an armed police officer at the main entrance to keep students on campus. The guard also turned away unwanted guests. "Let me tell you, I wasn't too popular here with any of the students when I decided to do that, but it was necessary," he says.

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