Baghdad West

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

Wright snaps his fingers and has an officer take down every name, address, and complaint. He then hands out a flyer (in English, Spanish, and Kreyol) featuring his smiling glamour shot and personal cell number, urging them to call about trouble. The flyers are supplemented by a sheet informing residents that anonymous phone tips may lead to $1000 rewards.

Wright calls it "regaining the trust of the community." But it looks more like grassroots campaigning — as though he and the dope boys are competing for the same office.

Opa-locka needs Wright's political savvy. Nimbly wielding his political influence, so far he has enlisted eight county and federal agencies to supplement the force, at no expense to the town. He's trying to install cameras and an acoustic gunshot tracking system that's been battle-tested in Iraq. The half-million dollars in various grants he's seeking have yet to come through, but Wright will travel to Tallahassee in May to implore everyone from the governor to the state drug czar for the necessary funds.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue at the scene of Major Johnson's shooting
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue at the scene of Major Johnson's shooting
Tony Lacks of the Opa-locka police department was the first to arrive at the scene of Johnson's shooting
Tony Lacks of the Opa-locka police department was the first to arrive at the scene of Johnson's shooting

He has raised officers' starting salary twice, from $27,000 to more than $34,000, and has waged something of an aesthetic campaign, redesigning the force's patch and badge and purchasing a brand-new fleet of take-home black and white Dodge Chargers.

Wright's aim is to build the department back up to more than 50 officers. Thirteen people have left the department since he became chief; only three have been hired.

One Wednesday morning in March, after thirteen years in Opa-locka, Rojas didn't show up to work. By midafternoon word got around that he had quit.

A week later he handed in a letter to the city manager demanding the water tower be razed. A fire erupted there early this month. The city installed a new chainlink fence, but it was hack-sawed down hours later.

Bidding has begun to consider proposals for the tower's rehabilitation or demolition. "We just voted to revitalize it," said Vice Mayor Dottie Johnson. "I hope we don't tear it down."

With Rojas gone the number of police officers in the city has dropped to 26, including the chief and his deputy: fewer than half the number policing the city when Rojas started in 1994.

Rojas now patrols South Miami, where the murder rate is one every ten years, and the pay is better. But he still hasn't gotten used to it. "It's weird," he said by phone, "patrolling a place without so much violence."

Shortly after Rojas left, Pee Wee was arrested and released, twice. According to one arresting officer, the boy admitted to being in the Grand Prix during the murder of Major Johnson, but denied pulling the trigger. Today he can be found wandering the Triangle.

Johnson's murder is still under investigation, one of more than a dozen open murder cases in Opa-locka. Dre remains in police custody, charged with lewd and lascivious assault on a minor.

In the week following Rojas's departure, three people were shot in Opa-locka; one incident took place in an apartment building less than two blocks west of the police station. Late on the evening of April 5, Guy Shapiro, a prominent North Miami Beach chiropractor, was found in the Triangle, shot to death in his Escalade. This past Sunday night, two men were shot to death outside an apartment in the 1300 block of Ali Baba Avenue. No arrests have been made.

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