Baghdad West

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

Police pressure on the Triangle has pushed drug commerce into a HUD apartment complex known as "the Back Blues," one of several such buildings staked out by rival drug gangs in neighborhoods southwest of the Triangle. The buildings have all been slapped with fresh coats of dull brown paint, but they continue to be known by their original colors: "the Pinks," "the Browns," "the Front Blues."

The "Back Blues," officially the Alexandria Garden Apartments, achieved notoriety this past October when a shootout erupted between local dealers and police. Opa-locka's only narcotics detective, Miguel Galvez, and Miami-Dade Det. Raymond Robertson had received a tip that a vacant apartment there had been stockpiled with guns and drugs. One of the dealers approached their cop car holding a pistol. All hell broke loose. Robertson was shot seven times by three different suspects. He returned fire with gunshot wounds in both arms. The pair took refuge in a Kwik Stop one block north — the same place where Opa-locka Police officer Ephraim Brown was gunned down in 1986.

Since then County Tactical Narcotics teams have been hopping out of pickup trucks in bulletproof vests, tackling suspects in broad daylight, searching cars, and setting up radio lookouts throughout the besieged projects.

The recently abandoned city hall
The recently abandoned city hall
Det. Steven Hadley at his business, the S&D Wash House
Det. Steven Hadley at his business, the S&D Wash House


But pressure on the Blues will inevitably push activity back into the Triangle. "It's like rats and roaches," said one officer, wishing to remain anonymous. "You burn out one nest and they just scurry into another."

Kevin, a 33-year-old drug dealer working the Back Blues, regards Rickey Brownlee's incarceration without sentimentality. "More spots opened up," he says, "and prices went down."

He doubts that the local police will ever be able to root their operations out of the federally funded apartments. "We never go to jail," he said, while a trio of visiting Opa-locka cops conducted interviews just out of earshot. "To put us away they'd need informants and stuff. And that's never gonna happen." Kevin and his colleagues provide every child in the building with subsidies of up to $7000 per year, he said, a strong incentive in a town where 42 percent of children under 18 live in poverty.

n his thirteen years as a cop, Pete Rojas has been everything from a dispatcher to a domestic violence detective. He's received 25 commendations (including six so far this year), primarily for drug arrests. An ex-partner nicknamed him "K-9."

He is, by all accounts, a good cop who enjoys a kind of celebrity status in town. Last year he was featured in the lyrics and video for "Get Yo Money," a thug ode sung by up-and-coming Opa-locka rappers Brisco and Henessi:

Rojas got me calculatin' every move

Ask about the Bris they'll say that boy is hella smooth

In the video, the camera quickly cuts to Rojas leaning against his cruiser, arms folded sternly over his expansive chest, his eyes shielded by a pair of wrap-around sunglasses.

He appears to be having the time of his life.

Well-known around town, Rojas leaves his body armor in the trunk most days. You get the feeling he doesn't need it.

He is swarthy and oversexed, cool and clever. After a few hours on patrol with him, he seems the only kind of person who could possibly stomach the Herculean task of being an Opa-locka cop.

In 1968, the year before he was born, Rojas's father took a job as a patrolman in Opa-locka. (He left in 1972 to work for the Broward County Sheriff's Office.)

Rojas Jr. didn't know much about the town as a child. When he enrolled at Hialeah/Miami Lakes Senior High, he came to know Opa-locka as the place people went to buy weed.

Since joining the department in 1994, he has witnessed the comings and goings of nine Opa-locka Police chiefs. He has been fired three times: once for taking a weekend in Cancun without leave; once without nominal cause (Rojas cites his testimony on behalf of two fellow officers during an arbitration); and again during a layoff.

He managed to get rehired every time, thanks to his impressive record and shrewd politicking. But like most cops in Opa-locka, Rojas seems more at ease amid the constant automatic weapon fire of the city's mean streets than within the police station walls.

In 2002 the Florida Department of Law Enforcement nearly shut the ailing department down for being noncompliant in 80 percent of FDLE's professional standards. State investigators found the department lacking in (among other things) basic equipment, manpower, and fundamental organization.

Most cops were working without body armor, sirens, or vehicle radios, according to the report. While per capita crime rates were nearing the highest in the United States, officers took home the lowest pay in the county.

Commendations and criminal investigations were equally scarce. Many cops nominally in charge of subdepartments (i.e. traffic) were not aware of their titles — to say nothing of their responsibilities.

A former indoor shooting range had been turned into the evidence depot and piled, willy-nilly, with aging drugs, guns, and weapons with no ostensible order or system for keeping track. In 2003 two senior cops were prosecuted for selling the stuff back to criminals.

At times, according to the report, as many as eight calls for service were put on hold due to a lack of officers: 34 patrolled a city of more than 15,000 people, down from 54 in 1996. The report cited one particularly troubling evening, May 18, 2002, when one cop and his supervisor were left to handle "a homicide and barricaded hostage situation" — alone.

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