Baghdad West

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alking down the street after sundown in Opa-locka is widely regarded as either foolish or deviant; there are places in town where the same is true even in daylight.

Amid the decaying liquor stores in Middle Eastern-style buildings, illicit auto body joints, and cinder-block ant-farm apartments, a preponderance of idlers can make Opa-locka appear as though it's trapped in a kind of morbid summer vacation. People can be found, at all hours, hanging out in every nook and cranny, bored by the passage of each car and person.

Though there has been a relative dip in the city crime in recent years, there were eleven homicides in 2006, compared with a record fourteen in 1988. As of the 2000 census the city's per capita income was less than $10,000 a year, and more than a third of its 15,000 residents lived below the poverty line. Seventeen percent of the population was unemployed, and 72 percent had incomes below $35,000.

City Clerk Deborah Sheffield Irby says Opa-locka's unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, compared to a regional average of 3.1 percent; the U.S. Labor Department, which tracks unemployment nationally, does not keep data at the level of small cities like Opa-locka. (Asked where Opa-locka ranks among Florida cities in terms of citizens living below the poverty line, Irby is flabbergasted. "Who says we're living in poverty?" she asked. "I don't know anyone in poverty here.")

When quitting time rolls around for the city's employed, the streets flood with ATVs, dirt bikes, and go-carts. They're illegal, but the police can't do a thing about them. The likelihood of instigating a deadly accident, in pursuit, is simply too high. Rojas nearly wrecked his cruiser in 1999 when a pack of ten ATVs swarmed him at high speed.

"This is Iraq in America," he mutters as he makes his way into "the Triangle": nine infamous blocks that make up the town's northwest corner.

It's a neighborhood where piles of rotting furniture and garbage are left to mount; where apartments are rented with shot-out windows; where the only tenable form of commerce appears to be trade in drugs, cheap alcohol, and fried food. Aside from four bunkerlike convenience stores and four restaurants, the Triangle is little more than vacant lots, churches, and sub-standard housing.

All of Opa-locka's high-crime areas have the look and feel of occupied zones, but the Triangle looks more like a blast site. Two clusters of multi-unit public housing have been shut down entirely — bricked up, only to be burrowed into by crack heads.

"I always get nervous right here," says Rojas, turning up Duval Street and into the bullet-pocked intersection known as 21 Jump Street. "You never know when you'll come up on a shooting. I'm telling you — it's Baghdad."

Since 1986, low wood and metal barricades (similar to guardrails situated along freeways) have restricted traffic into the Triangle. Last year three entrances along 22nd Avenue were opened up. The barricades limited escapes, but they also trapped crime inside the neighborhood. Like bandages applied to a dirty wound, drugs and violence seem merely to have festered behind the low metal structures. And the busts keep coming.

In February Opa-locka teamed up with the DEA to haul a drug-trafficking ring of 45 people out of the Triangle. Fourteen of them face ten-to-fifteen-year sentences on federal drug charges, if convicted. If released, they will likely wage war on those who have taken up business in their absence.

The commerce along the Triangle's exposed western edge offers the last vestige of the economy wrought by Rickey Brownlee's notorious narcotics operation. The kingpin attained a kind of Robin Hood status, opening a pair of restaurants and a grocery store, paying rents and comping food for the needy. In 1989 the DEA noted his operation was worth about $26 million annually, shortly before they sent him to prison. He is now serving a life sentence.

But Brownlee's incarceration seems to be something of a dubious achievement, like the toppling of Saddam. There is no longer a central authority in the Triangle; instead, warring factions vie for control.

Seven Cent Hole (the nickname for a bar and motel functioning as a known heroin and prostitution locale) forms the filthy southwestern tip of the Triangle. On his way out of the neighborhood, Rojas notices a weathered, middle-age man whose teeth are missing along one side of his mouth. He wears a blue baseball cap, a plaid shirt, and pants flecked with paint. In his right hand he holds a bag of chips; tucked under his other arm is a copy of the New York Times.

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Calvin Godfrey