The Fast Life and Near Death of Nica

He was raised to be a soldier by the contras in Nicaragua. When he came to South Florida, he found his calling as a gang warlord.

Wilbert "Nica" Cuadra sat in his Chevy Caprice with four of his boys. It was a typical Friday night; Nica was drunk on Mad Dog 20/20 and infused with a familiar rage. Across University Drive he could see the enemy -- members of a West Broward gang called La Familia. Five months earlier a member of La Familia had run Nica down in a car, striking him in the back, knocking him to the ground, and cutting his head. Now Nica was out for revenge.

Street fighting was Nica's specialty. As a leader of the Midnight Crips, he'd been responsible for dozens of melees: in nightclubs, at fairs, in parks, anywhere. He'd even drive down to Miami for a fight -- to South Beach or to Calle Ocho to battle the Latin Kings. On this night, as always, he would be the first to charge into battle, even though, at five foot nine and 135 pounds, he was the skinniest gangbanger in that Caprice. Now, five years later, Nica says he still can recall the anger surging through him. He wanted to hear the wet smack of his fists on his rivals' faces, wanted to feel all that anger drain from him as they fell.

Clad in his gang uniform -- blue Dickies work shorts and a white T-shirt -- Nica dashed across University, his boys following behind. He was so intent on his target that he never saw the black sedan tearing up University. The vehicle hit him at an estimated 45 miles per hour. Nica was smashed into the windshield, then flung to the pavement.

A life in pictures (clockwise from top left): Wilbert as a boy in Nicaragua, before the war ripped through his town; as snapped by the gang task force not long before the hit-and-run (note the scar over right eye caused by a rival slamming him with a car); near death after the hit-and-run; Nica with his new face, and a new life
A life in pictures (clockwise from top left): Wilbert as a boy in Nicaragua, before the war ripped through his town; as snapped by the gang task force not long before the hit-and-run (note the scar over right eye caused by a rival slamming him with a car); near death after the hit-and-run; Nica with his new face, and a new life
Wilbert as a boy in Nicaragua, before the war ripped through his town (top), and as snapped by the gang task force not long before the hit-and-run (note the scar over right eye caused by a rival slamming him with a car);
Wilbert as a boy in Nicaragua, before the war ripped through his town (top), and as snapped by the gang task force not long before the hit-and-run (note the scar over right eye caused by a rival slamming him with a car);

The hit-and-run broke Nica's jaw and crushed his right shoulder. His skull was so smashed that pieces of bone pushed into his brain. His lung was punctured and filling with blood. Medics airlifted him to Broward General Medical Center. The surgeons who tried to put him back together again were doubtful he would survive. Relatives kept a deathwatch at the hospital while Nica, looking tiny and gruesome, lay for two weeks in a coma.

Perhaps there was nothing but darkness in Nica's mind during those days. He doesn't remember a thing. But if, as the cliché goes, his life had flashed before his eyes, Nica would surely have seen his native country, Nicaragua, where he first witnessed the horrors of war: the padded percussion of mortars, the nervous rattle of machine guns, the sight of corpses strewn about his town. He would have revisited the Honduran hills, where, as a child of the contras, he watched his relatives train to kill. And he would have gazed again upon the South Florida streets where, as a refugee, he joined a ragtag army of teens who called themselves the Crips.

For years the police wanted Nica in a prison cell. His rivals, meanwhile, wanted him in a cemetery plot. To that end they sprayed gunfire at Nica, shot up his home, firebombed his car, and held guns to his head. His disregard for danger and uncanny knack for survival inspired gang detectives to dub him El Gato, the cat, the boy with nine lives.

As astonishing as his exploits were, they should come as no great surprise. As a boy in Nicaragua, after all, Nica had been caught in an ongoing turf war between the two biggest gangs in the world at the time: the United States and the Soviet Union. Nica grew up in war -- was all but orphaned by war -- and once here, war erupted from him.

It was only the mysterious black sedan that changed his course. In nearly killing Nica, it saved his life.


Agachense!

At his grandmother's command, four-year-old Nica -- then known as Wilbert -- ducked under the slab of wood that served as the family's dining room table. Outside, gunfire from the AK-47s and M-16s exploded. He crouched for hours with his cousins, praying the stray bullets wouldn't kill them. When the fighting stopped, they could get up, maybe go to the bathroom in the other room, where a deep hole in the ground served as a toilet. Then the explosions started up again. Agachense! his grandmother would yell. Duck down!

The year was 1979, and civil war finally had come to Nica's town of Chinendega, courtesy of heavily armed Sandinistas flooding into the country from their outposts in the Honduran mountains. The leftist Sandinistas, supported by the Soviet Union and armed by Fidel Castro, were overtaking the right-wing dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whose family was installed by the United States more than 40 years before. Thanks to the world's two superpowers, Nicaragua had become the hottest spot in the Cold War, dominated by the trained killers now fighting outside Nica's door.

When the shooting was over, the boy stepped outside. The sun hadn't gone down, but the town was dark from the hanging black smoke of battle. He could hear people crying, screaming, wailing, some wounded, others hysterical in mourning.

"Nobody knew what was going on," recalls Nica, who speaks English in a lilting, almost melodious way. "There were a lot of dead people all over the place. They were people we didn't know before. There were a lot of soldiers and people that didn't have uniforms. I was so scared, I didn't know what to think. There were bullets in their heads. Bullets were everywhere, laying near their bodies. There was people with no legs; they had their legs blown off. On the river there were lots of dead bodies. A lot of people said that the river was haunted after that."

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