Rich Thug, Poor Thug
The final bell rings at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High in West Miami-Dade. Kids wearing jeans and backpacks stream out, the majority headed home to neighborhoods that spread to the Everglades' edge. Dozens of parents wait outside to chauffeur their children back to sylvan housing tracts with names like Lakes of the Meadow, Pickfair, and Tennis View. The marching band assembles in an adjacent field, tubas and trumpets glinting in the afternoon sun. In the main courtyard, planted with palm and banana trees, students sell tickets to a spaghetti dinner to raise money for the school's athletic teams. The air is clean, the streets quiet. With no high-rise building in sight, nor a hint of urban decay, this seems to be the land of middle America's dreams.
On October 15 at the White House, President Clinton cited Braddock as one of ten schools in the nation that has successfully battled crime on campus. Given its location on SW 147th Avenue just off Bird Road, the biggest danger at Braddock might seem to be a stray alligator wandering from the Glades. How, then, did a suburban secondary school end up on a list of institutions once noted for serious mayhem?
"There used to be tremendous tension in that school courtyard," says principal Jeffrey Miller. "Braddock had a reputation for being full of gangs and drugs. Gang members knew where to come looking for their rivals. Right here. We had fights. We had students killed off campus. Many others have gone to jail for serious crimes: manslaughter and attempted murder. It didn't matter what the neighborhood looked like, we had trouble."
Other educators, students, and police agree that Braddock has been fertile recruiting ground for inner-city gangs. As developers built sprawling middle-class and upper-middle-class houses farther west, first- and second-generation Latin American immigrants purchased them and sent their children to the school. With an 88-percent Hispanic student body, it was a magnet for inner-city criminal organizations such as the International Posse, the Imperial Gangsters, the Latin Kings, the TNS (Take No Shit) gang, and others that are overwhelmingly Hispanic.
With more than 5200 students enrolled this year, Braddock is the largest secondary school in the nation, according to Miller. "We are the size of a town and we have had the problems that modern society brings to towns," he says.
When Miller became principal in 1994, Miami-Dade school officials gave him a mandate to clean up Braddock. He had just ended a three-year stint in Tallahassee with the Florida Department of Education's Prevention Center, where he spearheaded a program to cut crime on campus. Braddock became his laboratory.
The experiment has had some success. Between 1994 and 1997 crime and disorder at the school plummeted from 899 instances of disruptive conduct to 559; from 48 cases of narcotics possession to 33; from 1204 examples of defiance of school authority to 938; and from 165 fights to 113. These declines occurred while the school was growing by more than 500 students.
But Miller insists the struggle isn't over. Gangs still recruit at Braddock. Miller and his staff continue trying to stop vulnerable students from choosing lives of organized crime and violence. In the process school officials are learning why some suburban kids opt for gang life, but their main task is more basic: to take turf from hoodlums and return it to teachers and students.
Gilbert Zepeda controlled part of that turf. As a local leader of the International Posse from 1994 to 1996, he directed about ten gang members who attended Braddock. (Zepeda, a Braddock senior, refused to identify IP as his gang, but other sources verified his affiliation.) They hung together, wore the blue and white gang colors, and sported the gang tattoo, IN/P. These markings were most often stenciled on their chests or backs, not their arms where they could be too easily detected by school officials and police. They flashed hand signals, gestures unique to their gangs, to menace enemies. They were very bad boys. "We got in fights all the time, mostly with other gangs over in the Grove, South Beach, Cutler Ridge, Homestead," says Zepeda. "Sometimes we got into it with gangs from around here. If I'm going down the street and throw my (hand) sign you better look at your shoes. This is my territory. When we fought here, it was behind shopping malls or in school fields at night. We stole cars, sold drugs, did burglaries. I had a gun." He was fifteen years old.
They did what gangs do. But Zepeda and his homies weren't hanging out on some blighted street corner or alley in a ghetto. "A lot of times we would be at somebody's house right here or in Kendall, a really nice house, maybe with a pool," he says. "Sometimes we'd go swimming. Some days we'd clean out the refrigerator of all the food and the next it would be full again. The parents had money."
Other times IP members would buy malt liquor and marijuana, then sit around a pond in the upscale Hammocks area, where homes run in the $200,000 range. "The Hammocks is where you found more gang people hanging out than anywhere in this area," says Zepeda.
The gang members traveled in style. "At least two of the guys, their parents had these brand new Lexuses," says Zepeda. "Some of the parents would give the kids twenty or thirty dollars to spend when we went out."
Zepeda says families in the suburbs tend to live insular lives. "If you're not messing with their stuff, they don't care what you're doing," he asserts. "You smoke marijuana, get drunk. They see it, but they don't really care."
While the adults went about their business, Zepeda and his friends made money selling drugs and committing burglaries. They often used their profits to rent hotel rooms on Miami Beach, where they threw parties that lasted all weekend. "Some of the parents didn't ask where their kids were," Zepeda recalls. "They just said, 'As long as you don't get in trouble, it's all right.' They didn't know what the kids were doing."
Zepeda, now nineteen years old, lives more modestly than some of his friends from the gang. He shares an apartment not far from Braddock with his mother, a travel agent, and his two younger brothers. A hulking, muscular figure with a shaved head, he was born in El Salvador and comes from a long line of gang members. "Lots of my uncles and cousins belonged to MS," he says, referring to the notorious Salvadoran gang, Mara Salvatrucha, which has a bloody history both in Central America and California.
Those family members were most often recruited in rough neighborhoods. But Zepeda's road to gang involvement was different. The International Posse enlisted him while he attended South Miami Middle School, about eight miles southeast of Braddock, near upscale Coral Gables. "I was in a magnet program for kids who were interested in broadcasting," he says. "I had it good. I had no real reason to do what I did."
But his parents were breaking up. "My father worked in maintenance and he was gone from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. I hardly ever saw him," says Zepeda. "My mother worked a lot, too." His father finally left their home when Zepeda was fourteen years old. "I was an angry kid and the gang leaders saw that," he says today. "They are smart, psychological people. They know what they're looking for -- not kids who sit at the front of the class, but those who sit in the back and don't take part. The kids who have troubles. The kids who aren't getting the attention they need. That's who they go after. And it doesn't matter if they are from poor or rich families."
Zepeda won't specify the crimes he committed, but alleges that he began participating in criminal activities when he was thirteen years old. By age fifteen, he was second in command of the local IP chapter. "Some of the guys were older than me, but I was the one who decided some things, like when we would fight," he says. The brawls were often fought with baseball bats. Along the way Zepeda acquired his first gun. He says he never fired it at anyone, though he carried it into street battles.
But the gang became his life. "You will be protected and you will make money. That's what you are told. It is a very grown-up world for a fifteen-year-old. But the whole gang thing was getting more and more violent, man. People were getting killed."
That violence caused Zepeda to reassess his life. In January 1997 his closest friend, a boy he had known since seventh grade, was gunned down. Guillermo Bolanos, age seventeen and a member of IP, died in front of a Coral Gables apartment building. Police later charged Boris Aldrin Rosas-Sanchez, also seventeen years old, and allegedly a member of another gang, the Vicious Latin Boys. After Bolanos's death Zepeda decided to leave the IP. "I had to think of my mother and my little brothers," he said. "And the people here at the school had already been talking to me for a long time, making me think about what I was doing. I mean, without them talking to me, making me change the way I was thinking, I'd probably be dead now."
Among those who must deal with gang members like Zepeda is Sheree DiBernardo, a Miami-Dade gang unit detective assigned to the Hammocks barracks and Braddock High. She insists the area's appearance is deceiving."It looks like Wayne's World out here," DiBernardo says, referring to a Saturday Night Live skit about nerdy suburban kids. "But once you're out on the street, you bump into some people and you say, 'Watch out! Who's this?' There has been more violent crime here than you would think."
Statistics back her up. Police recorded seven murders in the district during the first six months of this year, while the Kendall district, with about two-thirds as many people, had only one. Last year seventeen people were homicide victims in the Hammocks district. Arrest figures for the first half of this year reveal 167 aggravated assaults, 132 burglaries, 492 cases of larceny, 50 stolen vehicles, 505 narcotics offenses, and 57 weapons violations.
The Hammocks police barracks covers the territory from SW 8th Street to SW 200th Street; from the Florida Turnpike Extension to the Collier County line. In the 1990 census the average family income in the area was listed as $32,171, well above the poverty line. And with many new homes being built as the county expands westward, the neighborhoods have become richer. Of the eight county police districts, only Miami Lakes and Kendall are more affluent.
Although the area includes pockets of poverty and some federal housing, the image is still much closer to Pleasantville than inner-city Miami. Neighborhoods of single-family homes are grouped around shopping centers and minimalls. On weekends the parks are filled with noise from little league baseball and Optimist Club soccer games. High school cheerleaders sponsor car washes.
But when the sun goes down the area can turn dangerous. "There are some 'hoods around here that would amaze you," blurts Juancito (not his real name), a former gang member who also attends Braddock. "They look real nice and Bam! in one moment it explodes. I've been in gunfights right in the middle of Kendall."
Juancito, age eighteen, is the son of Colombian parents who own a house near Braddock. He is thin and pale, with close-cropped dark hair. When speaking about his former gang involvement, he sounds shell-shocked and still amazed he survived.
Juancito says he began his gang activities at age thirteen. (School counselors won't let him identify what gang he ran with, although he acknowledges that Guillermo Bolanos, the IP member murdered in Coral Gables, was his good friend.) "I had a cousin who belonged and he started inviting me to everything. Soon I was doing what they were doing: drug dealing, drive-by shootings, attempted murder." He describes firing pistols out the window of crowded cars at figures on street corners. "I don't know if I hit anybody or not," he says.
His neighborhood near Kendall Drive and 152nd Avenue turned violent. "I would be walking around there with a gun under my shirt and I was like sixteen," he says. He maintains he carried the weapon to defend himself. "About two years ago, I was walking home one night with a friend, just blocks from where we lived, and about twenty guys came after us." Juancito describes cars racing up to them, doors opening in unison, and opposing gang members swarming out. Carrying baseball bats and knives, the enemy came at him. Juancito says he escaped serious injury. He claims his friend, whom he won't name, was stabbed in the back, but survived.
The rising level of violence frightened Juancito just as it had Zepeda. He started listening to Braddock counselors, he says. He broke away from the gang about a year ago, will graduate in June, and plans to enter the Marines. "That shit was too crazy, man," he says of his past life.
Juancito is speaking to a reporter in Braddock counselor Carlos Zaragoza's cramped office. The walls are plastered with posters warning kids of the dangers they face today: drugs, drunk driving, physically abusive relationships. Zaragoza's business card identifies him as the school's "trust specialist."
"Students can come to me and tell me about any problems they are having at home or with other students here on campus, and within reason I will keep it confidential," he says. "Sometimes they tell me about tensions between groups. We try to head off any trouble before it erupts."
Zaragoza, age 44, has worked at the school since it opened in 1990. In December of that year the school lost its first student to violence. Michelle Cabrera, age fifteen, was shot to death by fourteen-year-old Angel Batallon. The pair cut school with six other Braddock students and were at a home in the Hammocks. Batallon had a revolver loaded with only one bullet. He pointed it at Cabrera, who dared him to pull the trigger, according to police. Batallon later said that he thought the gun wouldn't fire. It did and Cabrera died instantly from a shot to the head. Batallon was tried as an adult and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. What was a 14-year-old doing with a gun? "He had been hanging out with gang types," says detective DiBernardo.
The next year gun violence struck again. Zaragoza points at chairs positioned in front of his desk. "One day I brought some kids in here because I heard there was trouble between two groups," he recalls. "But that next week one of the kids shot another one to death in a gang fight. Both were students here. We knew and we tried, but it happened when they were out of school and there was nothing we could do."
That death wasn't the last. "I've lost eight or nine kids to violence since I've been here," says Zaragoza, who previously worked as a gang intervention counselor in Miami Beach. "I can't go to the funerals anymore. I went to one and it was heartbreaking."
He asserts Braddock quickly developed a very bad reputation. "There were about eight gangs active here in the first years," says Zaragoza. "We had some seriously violent kids."
Detective DiBernardo agrees. "I'd say about 200 kids were active in the gangs back then," she states. Some of them came from affluent families. "They dressed like preppies, but some of them were monsters."
Both school and police officials describe a culture of violence. "You saw kids at the school and they looked concerned, uncomfortable," recalls DiBernardo. "They didn't really act like kids. It was bad and the whole thing was getting worse."
Braddock serves an area that is one of the most affluent Hispanic suburbs in the United States. "I don't think there can be another area like this in the whole country," says DiBernardo.
Thomas Boswell, professor of geography at the University of Miami, has studied the area's demographics. "There are many Cuban families, both first and second generation, who have worked their way out from neighborhoods like Little Havana and Hialeah," he says. "But there are lots of Puerto Ricans, too. There is a myth here about Puerto Ricans, that they are all low on the socioeconomic scale. That isn't so. Many are doing quite well and moving out that way. Some of them have come up from Puerto Rico, where advanced education is relatively cheap, much cheaper than on the U.S. mainland, and they find good jobs here. Others are coming down from the Northeast because they can live better here."
Boswell has also found increased numbers of South Americans -- Colombians, Peruvians, Chileans, Venezuelans -- moving to the western edge of the county, including the area surrounding Braddock. According to the 1990 census, about six percent of county residents came from South America, but that figure is now much higher, mostly due to an influx of immigrants from Brazil. "Many of these people come from middle-class families in their countries and are relatively well educated," he says. "They leave their countries sometimes because of political upheaval, but more often for economic reasons. Their own countries go through economic turbulence and hyperinflation."
Police and school officials say gang members come from homes of every socioeconomic level: from poor housing projects, from apartment and condo complexes, and also from the most expensive addresses. Well-off parents know nothing about their kids' activities for the same reason that Zepeda's parents didn't: They work long hours to pay the bills.
"I had a kid whose parents run a very successful business, a lighting company in Coral Gables," says DiBernardo. "They said, 'It can't be. Our son can't be in a gang. He has everything.' I showed them a photograph of him with his group, throwing hand signs. They didn't have a clue."
Gang leaders welcome recruits who come from well-to-do families and exploit them, says Jesus (not his real name), a sixteen-year-old Braddock sophomore.
Jesus knows about exploitation. Of Puerto Rican and Colombian descent, he comes from the rough streets of Queens, New York, where members of the Lion Kings and Nietas gangs used him as a drug mule when he was nine years old. "They would load drugs into the knapsack I carried my school books in," he recalls. "I didn't even see what the drugs looked like because the bag was on my back. Then I would go to some corner store, some bodega, where I would give a phony name, somebody else would take the drugs out, put money in, and send me back." When he was ten years old two rival gang drug dealers tried to rob him. Gang leaders then gave Jesus a gun, a nine-millimeter semiautomatic, which he calls simply "a nine."
His family moved to Miami-Dade two years ago and he became involved with a gang. Like Zepeda, he is a large kid, more than 200 pounds, but he has a boyish face. Before he left Queens, one of his relatives, a Golden Gloves champion boxer, taught him to fight. He was invited to join a gang after beating up an older boy at a party, he says. That was when he first met affluent gang members.
"I've been in the houses of kids who had swimming pools and tennis courts," he marvels. "These are rich kids trying to be hard. They're desperate for friends and in a way they pay to belong. When we wanted, they would steal from their parents for us -- money, jewelry, you name it. It was crazy." Jesus is amazed at the phenomenon. "Why would anybody who has all that get involved in gangs?"
Many parents posed the same question to principal Miller soon after he arrived at Braddock. "I can't tell you how many parents I get in here who have lost control of their kids," he says. "I also spend a lot of time dealing with parents who are in denial. They say, 'We have a nice house, nice cars, good jobs. It can't be our kid.' But it is."
Principal Miller went after gang members immediately after he started at Braddock in fall 1994.
A native of Queens like Jesus, Miller is slim and youthful for a 50-year-old man. He has been an educator for 30 years and was previously principal at two schools, including nearby W.R. Thomas Middle School, where he gained parental support by enforcing discipline.
In 1994 he began the School Improvement Plan at Braddock. It included lessons about drugs and violence as part if the curriculum. He also increased the security staff from eight to twelve and installed 35 surveillance cameras around the campus. Many lockers were eliminated to minimize hiding places for weapons and drugs. Miller also stationed an armed police officer at the main entrance to keep students on campus. The guard also turned away unwanted guests. "Let me tell you, I wasn't too popular here with any of the students when I decided to do that, but it was necessary," he says.
DiBernardo agrees. "Before those kids used to be in and out of the school all day, spending hours at the mall and wherever. There was a tremendous amount of truancy. Truancy leads to bad performance in school and that leads to delinquency and gang trouble." (To offset the inconvenience to students who wanted to go out to lunch, Miller allowed McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Subway to open restaurants on campus.)
A student court now adjudicates some accusations of bad conduct, such as class-cutting, and disrespect to staff. Students who have repeated discipline problems are transferred to an off-campus program until their behavior improves.
Miller also outlawed gang uniforms and hand signals in the school. "We couldn't take the kids out of the gangs all at once, but we could take the gangs out of the school," says Zaragoza. "To tell you the truth, I think the gang members were glad. Without any of that stuff going on here, this was one place where they wouldn't have to guard their backs."
But Miller went further. He instructed his staff of 300 full-time employees to identify all problem students. That strategy continues today. "I tell a kid to come see me and we'll talk," says Zaragoza. "If he doesn't come, then he can't stay in the school. I tell them I understand where they're coming from, but I don't condone it. I tell them they have to change, and we start working on them, assistant principals, teachers, too. We push the students to get involved in school activities and start luring them away from the gang. And we don't let up."
Zepeda, Juancito, and Jesus were repeatedly dragged into Zaragoza's office. "I talked to them and talked to them, trying to show them how they were wasting their lives." Still, the gang members have doubts about leaving that life behind. "Jesus, you see how big he is. One day he sat in this office and cried his eyes out. He was scared to leave the gang, the protection he thought it offered him. And he told me how alone he felt out on the street."
Zaragoza describes a moment when he thought he had Zepeda won over, only to see him backslide. "It's hard because you can't control what they do off campus," Zaragoza laments.
"I had this way of being, of thinking ... and I didn't want to give it up," Zepeda concedes. But the Braddock staff kept after him, stopping him in the halls, always watching and talking to him. "They wouldn't leave me alone," Zepeda exclaims. They eventually cajoled him into the football team and then into the debating club. His grades improved. Last summer, when Miami-Dade Community College President Eduardo Padron read about Zepeda in an El Nuevo Herald article, he offered him a scholarship. Zepeda will enroll there next fall.
Educators do not work alone. School and police officials now regularly share information. "If we hear there might be trouble off campus, we tell the police and they track the situation," says Zaragoza. "If the police hear of trouble on the street that could affect us, they call and we start getting between the ones we have to get between. Sometimes the kids even come to me and say, 'Tell these guys to back off or there will be trouble.'"
Miller says the school still experiences crises, especially when gangs have been fighting off campus: "If we've heard of a problem over the weekend, then on Monday morning we're on high alert. Several times during the year, the entire staff will be on that kind of alert."
The Miami-Dade police gang detail has cracked down on young criminals in the Braddock area. "We had three gangs that formed a union in order to do business, part of which was out there near Braddock," says Sgt. Carlos Vazquez. "The Imperial Gangsters, the Take No Shit gang and the Latin Syndicate formed a new group they called the Savage City Gangsters. We put a lot of their leaders in jail and that brought down the violence out there on the western side of the county." Vazquez won't name specific leaders. Police are still collecting evidence against them.
The cooperation between Braddock and the police has paid off. Zaragoza says only about twenty members of three gangs are operating at Braddock. "There may be another twenty who are wannabes," says DiBernardo.
"With their leaders in jail, that has made the gangs less organized," says Zaragoza. "Some other leaders got into crack and their organizations fell apart. At least for the moment, they aren't what they were. It isn't like the inner city where there is a tradition of gangs, where the gang really belongs to the neighborhood," says Zaragoza. "Here it has been easier to rip the kids out of gang life."
Braddock students confirm that the presence of gangs at their school has diminished.
"You don't see gang stuff on campus," says Jonathan Mosso, a fifteen-year-old freshman. He used to live in Hialeah and hung out with gang members there. "I moved with my mom out here last year. Nobody has come to me with that stuff. Back in Hialeah they would come looking for me and it would be hard to get out of it."
"Nobody wants to know about that stuff because it's too dangerous, man," insists Ricky Tejeda, age sixteen, a junior. "When I first got here, you saw some of it, but I don't know anybody doing that now. Sometimes you get a textbook that has gang stuff in it, a symbol or a nickname, or 'Latin Kings Forever.' Stuff like that. But that's from before."
The last bell sounds a few days after Miller has returned from Washington and his meeting with President Clinton. At the ceremony he spoke briefly with the President, the first lady, and Vice President Al Gore. He had a more extensive conversation with Attorney General Janet Reno. "She was aware of what we had accomplished at Braddock," Miller says. Braddock was cited for crime-fighting as a result of the First Annual Report on School Safety, which President Clinton requested in December 1997 after a series of shocking shooting incidents on school grounds. The Departments of Education and Justice compiled statistics on school violence and also identified campuses, such as Braddock, that had battled that tide.
The principal is standing outside the school to oversee dismissal. A storm is approaching from the west. You can see the curtain of rain falling over the Everglades. An egret stalks the swale a block away.
Miller is distracted from the nearby attractions of nature. He speaks into a walkie-talkie, communicating with his security staff. All is quiet. Dismissal is running smoothly. He speaks about what he and his staff have accomplished in four years. "What we set out to do was establish neutral turf here," he says of the school. "And that much we've done.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.