On the Level

Part thug, part street fighter, Rene Martinez flattens his opponents. Can his punch save him from himself?

Rene was severely beaten that night.Welts covered his head, and a large bruise ran the length of his back from a whack with a bat. "I was all banged up," he says. "My face was all discombobulated."

Rene also points to a surgical scar on his left elbow where doctors inserted pins. "I woke up in somebody's yard," he says. "An old man found me, and he took me to the hospital."

It didn't slow him down. "It just made me crazier," he says.

And his relationship with his mother had disintegrated. "He was very unmanageable by then," she says. A year later, when her son was 17, Vasquez remarried. Though still a minor, the boy moved in with a girlfriend in Leisure City, where he would transform into Level, Latin Syndicate's ferocious leader.

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Rene Martinez pulled a black Nissan Sentra into the parking lot of a South Miami apartment complex early one cool spring night in 1995. He parked the car, cut the ignition, and got out to greet a friend, a young, fair-skinned man whom he knew as A-Dog.

Nearby, a black crack dealer named Zellie "Picklehead Pete" Carter caught sight of Martinez, walked over, and insulted him. "He called me a pussy-ass Cuban," Martinez recalls. "So I threw my hands up and challenged him to a fight."

Instead, Carter drew a pistol, Martinez says. So the Latin Syndicate founder backed off, got in his car, and drove away. About two hours later, he returned. This time, Martinez got out of his Nissan holding a 9mm Ruger. "What's up now, nigga?" Martinez howled at Carter, who whipped out his gun.

"We started bucking at each other," Martinez continues. The sound of gunfire and the smell of hot lead filled the parking lot. Four residents who had been outside scrambled to find cover.

Martinez ducked behind a green dumpster. He counted to three, emerged from the hiding spot, and unloaded his clip. Carter retreated into the apartment building. Martinez ran in the opposite direction, leaving his car at the scene. "I didn't get into my car because I knew Picklehead and his people would have shot it up on my way out of the complex," Martinez says.

A day later, Carter reported the incident to South Miami cops. He claimed he was unarmed when Martinez began shooting at him. According to the police report of the incident, Carter "stated someone in the crowd threw him a firearm and that he shot back at [Martinez] in self-defense." Carter and four of his friends took the officers to the abandoned Nissan. They found Martinez's wallet, with his driver's license, in the glove compartment. Martinez soon surrendered to South Miami Police. Two months later, he was convicted for felony possession of a firearm and two misdemeanors. He served 73 days in jail. It wouldn't be his last stint behind bars.

The desire to hurt others — which would evolve into his fighting career — had begun years before. At 12 years old, he and his friends would make homemade boxing gloves out of old socks and duct tape. The loser would have to pay. "We'd go at it for five dollars," he recollects. "We did that a lot."

When he turned 16, Martinez and eight friends formed the Latin Syndicate. "The original leader was this dude named Hammer," Martinez remembers. "I used to chill with him in the Grove on the weekends. And we all used to have beef with the same cats, so one day Hammer was like, 'We are gonna start a new clique.'"

The Syndicate adopted black and gray as its colors. A year later, Hammer went to prison for murder, and Martinez took over leadership duties, he says. He estimates the gang had 30-plus members. A 1997 Miami Herald article about gang violence in Miami-Dade pegged the Syndicate's numbers at 100 and claimed the gang was involved in selling crack in Kendall and North Dade. Martinez declined to expound on his gang's alleged drug trafficking.

Indeed, the '90s were dominated by headlines of youth gangs terrorizing each other and anyone who crossed their path. In 1992, a Latin Syndicate gangster shot and killed a rival from South Beach Posse in a South Beach parking lot. A year later, undercover Miami Police officers were inadvertently caught in a shootout between two gangs — and then undercover ATF agents busted four gangbangers for selling illegal firearms and orchestrating drug rip-offs.

Luis Palomino, an olive-skinned Peruvian who lived on the same block as Martinez in Leisure City for ten years, recalls those dangerous days. "We grew up in some really bad times," Palomino says. "Rene was in it deeper than I was." Palomino was not affiliated with any gang. "I would have to fight people in Rene's gang and his rivals," he adds. "It wasn't easy, especially when you don't have 10, 20 guys backing you up."

The Syndicate boys would hang out at Robert King High Park in West Miami-Dade or chill at Martinez's house, lifting weights and practicing their technique on an old punching bag. "We used to call my back yard 'the House of Pain,'" Martinez says. "My boys were my brothers. We were ready for whatever. We thought we were the shit. If you messed with us, we would fuck you up."

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