On the Level

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

The Syndicate's main rival gang was Kendall-based International Posse, although Martinez and his boys would battle with other bands of hoodlums from Miami Beach. The black-and-gray bangers stockpiled all kinds of firearms, from AK-47s to MAC-10s and AR-15s. In a self-made two-minute documentary-style video Martinez posted on YouTube, he included photos of himself and friends posing with their arsenal. "I used to love carrying guns all the time," Martinez says. "The 9mm Ruger and a .357 Magnum are just two of the guns I collected."

(Martinez provided cell phone numbers of two of his former Syndicate brothers for interviews. However, neither responded to repeated voicemail messages requesting comment.)

According to his criminal record, Martinez and fellow Syndicate members wreaked havoc from Leisure City to Miami Beach between 1990 and 1998. During that period, Martinez was arrested 21 times.

Rene Martinez
C. Stiles
Rene Martinez
Rene Martinez and his once-estranged mother, Ileana Vasquez, work together to achieve his dream of MMA glory.
C. Stiles
Rene Martinez and his once-estranged mother, Ileana Vasquez, work together to achieve his dream of MMA glory.

For instance, on August 8, 1992, Miami Beach Police officers descended on 15th Street and Ocean Drive to stop a gang fight. The cops found a then-19-year-old Martinez and 15-year-old Ludwig Barquim hurling rocks at members of the South Beach Posse. Martinez was arrested and subsequently convicted for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence misdemeanors. He received a 30-day jail sentence.

Two months later, on October 4 at 2:25 a.m., Martinez was again collared for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence. In the arrest affidavit, an officer reported seeing Martinez and friend David Donakan breaking beer bottles "in an attempt to cut other combatants." Martinez served another 30 days in lockup.

Soon after his release, on December 9, 1992, Martinez was driving a black 1984 Chevrolet Caprice when he got into a traffic dispute with two men in an old Chevy van at the intersection of SW 16th Street and Ludlam Road. The men in the van drove off. Martinez gave chase.

After catching up, he allegedly smashed one of the van windows with a stick and then challenged the occupants to a fight. They fled and flagged down a state trooper, who arrested Martinez. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office dropped the case after he spent two weeks in jail. Martinez could not recall the incident.

In 1993, he racked up arrests for trespassing, marijuana possession in a school zone, aggravated battery, throwing a deadly missile into an occupied moving vehicle, and loitering and prowling. The following year, on April 12, Martinez drove by a house near Red Road just north of Eighth Street and began arguing with two people. According to the arrest report, Martinez got out of his car and produced a blue handgun from his waistband. The report claims Martinez pointed the gun at the victims, who were not identified. He allegedly screamed, "I'm your fucking problem. I'm Level. Latin Syndicate. No one fucks with Level."

He was charged with two counts of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm while engaged in a criminal offense. He got probation. Martinez denies brandishing a gun and claims one of the victims was related to a detective in the Miami-Dade Police gang unit. "They did me dirty on that one," he says.

Through police spokesman Det. Alvaro Zabaleta, the lieutenant in charge of the gang unit would neither confirm nor deny their investigations into Martinez.

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The violence escalated in 1996, when members of the South Beach Posse conducted two drive-by shootings aimed at knocking off some of Martinez's Syndicate homeboys. In one incident, at 84th Street and Byron Avenue in Miami Beach, no one was hurt. On another night, on South Beach, the intended target was struck in the shoulder and wrist, but survived. That year, Martinez claims, he saw at least 25 of his friends go to prison, get seriously injured, or die. Five homies perished in one week. Two were shot to death. Another one was stabbed. A fourth pal overdosed on heroin.

"The last one committed suicide," he says. "He hung himself in front of a mirror and watched himself die. I heard he had been tripping on acid."

Martinez continued to find trouble. On July 21, 1999, he was arrested for falsely imprisoning a girlfriend. According to the arrest affidavit, he showed up at her house at 8:30 a.m., demanding sex. She refused. When she tried to call 911, Martinez forced her back into the apartment and kicked her in the back. Then he bit her on the arms and legs. He was convicted November 3, 2000, and put on probation for one year. Martinez's ex declined to comment and requested her name be left out of this story.

Four months later, Martinez began to slowly change his behavior, he says. That was when his daughter, Aliah, was borne by another woman he had been dating. (They broke up shortly thereafter.) In a rare moment of vulnerability, Martinez cried in the delivery room. "I was so happy," Martinez says. "That's when I discovered the meaning of life.

His mother noticed some subtle changes in her son in subsequent weeks. "He stopped wearing his gold teeth," she says. "He stopped going out with his friends. Instead, he would spend a lot of time with his daughter, which helped him build some self-esteem." Martinez shares a close bond with his daughter, who has some of her father's facial features, including his round brown eyes and pouty lips. He spends weekends with her at places such as Rapids Water Park in Palm Beach County. "I'm only soft around her," he says.

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