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Fights and school suspensions followed. His aunt and uncle soon moved to Fort Lauderdale, to a house off Davie Boulevard, and Nica enrolled in Stranahan High School. He says he learned quickly and took pride in his quick mastery of English. He still boasts that he once "passed" the SAT test. His version of the American dream, predictably, was to become an American soldier, a Marine. And he fully intended to finish high school as well.
But his descent into gang life made that impossible. Not long after his move from Miami to Broward, he joined the Midnight Crips. The gang borrowed the name from the more famous Los Angeles-based Crips, but there the relationship ended. Broward's Crips, made up mostly of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, dealt crack cocaine on the streets, burglarized homes, committed robberies, and fought in their Fort Lauderdale 'hood. The Crips were a model of integration, split fairly evenly among blacks, whites, and Hispanics. But there wasn't much else good about them. "They terrorized the area," says Fort Lauderdale Police Det. David Nickerson, who tracked Nica for years.
It was the hand-to-hand combat that hooked Nica on gang life. He remembers an early, defining moment when one evening he saw an older man hassling some Crips on the street. Nica clocked the man. "I couldn't believe how hard I hit him; I didn't know I could hit that hard. He went down and he didn't get back up, and everybody was like, 'Shit.'
"I had all this anger in me and all this stress, and I felt good after a fight," he adds. "I felt like a soldier, like I was high. I was angry because I felt like a nobody. I didn't get any attention from my family. I felt worthless. Nobody wanted me."
The rush and emotional release of fighting became a vicious habit. When night came he'd fill up on beer, which bolstered his courage and fueled his rage. Then he'd assemble some of his boys and head out in search of enemies, gangs such as Zulu 6 of Hollywood, the International Posse (IN/P), the Evil Nation, and later La Familia.
Nica's idol was the lightweight boxing champion Alexis Arguello, a Nicaraguan. Nica was the same height and weight as Arguello, and like the boxer, he relied on lightning-quick hands. "I would have liked to have had a career like Arguello," he says almost wistfully. "But nobody ever asked me. Nobody ever wanted me in something like that."
Except the Crips. Wearing his gang color, blue, Nica fought bare-fisted all over South Florida, from teenage nightclubs to parks to amusement centers. He still revels in recounting his deeds of violence. But he insists he was no animal; he had rules, many of them inspired by the stories he heard as a child: Go at the enemy from all sides. When you attack, always have an escape route in mind. Never fight civilians, unless they disrespect you. And Nica always led the charge into battle.
"What's up?" he'd say to his rivals. Often that was all it took. The police picked up Nica on numerous occasions. But they had no evidence against him, and after snapping a Polaroid, they inevitably let him go.
Ironically, even as he was rising in the Crip ranks, Nica still worked every day, usually as a "lot boy" at used-car lots. It was a point of pride that he always had his own cars, purchased with his earnings. He dreamed of someday owning a used-car dealership.
Nica could have been a successful businessman too, says Tony Pineda, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent and head of the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force. "Nica is not dumb, okay? He's a pretty smart guy," Pineda says. "He probably could have opened a business and made it work. He could have made a good living. But he did it the other way around. He used what he had for the wrong things, and that made him a problem. He was dangerous."
Indeed Nica channeled his considerable energies into gang life. He set out to bring as many people into the Crips as he possibly could, and he was remarkably successful. The "worthless" kids out there were easy to recruit, he says. And the gang gave them a sense of belonging. Members openly expressed love for one another and had their own special, elaborate handshake that ended with a knot of the intermingling fingers forming a heart.
By 1993, after four years in America, the child of war had built himself a little street empire. In addition to his standing in the Midnight Crips, he also helped create the Outlaw Gangster Crips and the Deuce Crips. While each of these gangs had its own head, all the leaders came to Nica for guidance, and he presided over their meetings. He insists he was never the official leader of any gang, just the "right-hand man" who joined the factions together and led the street fights.
Girls and younger kids weren't out of Nica's reach, either. One of his more diabolical accomplishments was creating the "Baby Crips," also called the Mini-Monsters, made up primarily of middle-school kids. He helped form the Crips' sister gang, the Bitches in Effect, and dictated the rules for membership. "They either had to fuck three of us or fight three of us," he says. "Only a few of them fought us. The rest fucked the whole crew."