Baghdad West

In Opa-locka, gang warfare, drug dealing, and decay are a way of life

Though there has been a relative dip in the city crime in recent years, there were eleven homicides in 2006, compared with a record fourteen in 1988. As of the 2000 census the city's per capita income was less than $10,000 a year, and more than a third of its 15,000 residents lived below the poverty line. Seventeen percent of the population was unemployed, and 72 percent had incomes below $35,000.

City Clerk Deborah Sheffield Irby says Opa-locka's unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, compared to a regional average of 3.1 percent; the U.S. Labor Department, which tracks unemployment nationally, does not keep data at the level of small cities like Opa-locka. (Asked where Opa-locka ranks among Florida cities in terms of citizens living below the poverty line, Irby is flabbergasted. "Who says we're living in poverty?" she asked. "I don't know anyone in poverty here.")

When quitting time rolls around for the city's employed, the streets flood with ATVs, dirt bikes, and go-carts. They're illegal, but the police can't do a thing about them. The likelihood of instigating a deadly accident, in pursuit, is simply too high. Rojas nearly wrecked his cruiser in 1999 when a pack of ten ATVs swarmed him at high speed.

Ofcr. Pete Rojas indicates a recently burned-out crack house on Superior Street; sometimes fire is the only method of resolving such nuisances in the town
Ofcr. Pete Rojas indicates a recently burned-out crack house on Superior Street; sometimes fire is the only method of resolving such nuisances in the town
One of several spray-painted signs along Aswan Road guiding potential buyers to the "Back Blues"
One of several spray-painted signs along Aswan Road guiding potential buyers to the "Back Blues"

"This is Iraq in America," he mutters as he makes his way into "the Triangle": nine infamous blocks that make up the town's northwest corner.

It's a neighborhood where piles of rotting furniture and garbage are left to mount; where apartments are rented with shot-out windows; where the only tenable form of commerce appears to be trade in drugs, cheap alcohol, and fried food. Aside from four bunkerlike convenience stores and four restaurants, the Triangle is little more than vacant lots, churches, and sub-standard housing.

All of Opa-locka's high-crime areas have the look and feel of occupied zones, but the Triangle looks more like a blast site. Two clusters of multi-unit public housing have been shut down entirely — bricked up, only to be burrowed into by crack heads.

"I always get nervous right here," says Rojas, turning up Duval Street and into the bullet-pocked intersection known as 21 Jump Street. "You never know when you'll come up on a shooting. I'm telling you — it's Baghdad."

Since 1986, low wood and metal barricades (similar to guardrails situated along freeways) have restricted traffic into the Triangle. Last year three entrances along 22nd Avenue were opened up. The barricades limited escapes, but they also trapped crime inside the neighborhood. Like bandages applied to a dirty wound, drugs and violence seem merely to have festered behind the low metal structures. And the busts keep coming.

In February Opa-locka teamed up with the DEA to haul a drug-trafficking ring of 45 people out of the Triangle. Fourteen of them face ten-to-fifteen-year sentences on federal drug charges, if convicted. If released, they will likely wage war on those who have taken up business in their absence.

The commerce along the Triangle's exposed western edge offers the last vestige of the economy wrought by Rickey Brownlee's notorious narcotics operation. The kingpin attained a kind of Robin Hood status, opening a pair of restaurants and a grocery store, paying rents and comping food for the needy. In 1989 the DEA noted his operation was worth about $26 million annually, shortly before they sent him to prison. He is now serving a life sentence.

But Brownlee's incarceration seems to be something of a dubious achievement, like the toppling of Saddam. There is no longer a central authority in the Triangle; instead, warring factions vie for control.

Seven Cent Hole (the nickname for a bar and motel functioning as a known heroin and prostitution locale) forms the filthy southwestern tip of the Triangle. On his way out of the neighborhood, Rojas notices a weathered, middle-age man whose teeth are missing along one side of his mouth. He wears a blue baseball cap, a plaid shirt, and pants flecked with paint. In his right hand he holds a bag of chips; tucked under his other arm is a copy of the New York Times.

"Cornbread!" hollers Rojas.

The man looks up and wanders over to the window of his cruiser, bashfully. It's Ronnie Brownlee, the only one of the six Brownlee brothers not currently serving time. (Most recently DeLeon Brownlee, 33, a felon on probation, was charged with murder in last month's shooting of nineteen-year-old Leonard Mells.) Ronnie did his time for drugs and racketeering in the late Nineties, but now makes a living painting houses.

He's straightened himself out, Rojas whispers. "I got kids to feed," Ronnie explains dutifully. Though pleasant and soft-spoken, Ronnie loses his cool at the mention of his brother's name.

"Rick showed love," he says. "He did everything he could. Rick looked out for this place for real. He helped people from inside prison; he'd bury your mamma and your daddy. Our father and mother passed away — they didn't even let him come to the funeral."

Things have gotten safer, he says, but worse.

"It's going crazy," he says. "When I grew up they want a real fight; they ain't even fight no more, they just grab a gun. It's safer in a sense, but it gets bad. One day it's good, one day it's bad; the next day, it's really, really bad."

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