Longform

Baghdad West

Page 3 of 7

"Cornbread!" hollers Rojas.

The man looks up and wanders over to the window of his cruiser, bashfully. It's Ronnie Brownlee, the only one of the six Brownlee brothers not currently serving time. (Most recently DeLeon Brownlee, 33, a felon on probation, was charged with murder in last month's shooting of nineteen-year-old Leonard Mells.) Ronnie did his time for drugs and racketeering in the late Nineties, but now makes a living painting houses.

He's straightened himself out, Rojas whispers. "I got kids to feed," Ronnie explains dutifully. Though pleasant and soft-spoken, Ronnie loses his cool at the mention of his brother's name.

"Rick showed love," he says. "He did everything he could. Rick looked out for this place for real. He helped people from inside prison; he'd bury your mamma and your daddy. Our father and mother passed away — they didn't even let him come to the funeral."

Things have gotten safer, he says, but worse.

"It's going crazy," he says. "When I grew up they want a real fight; they ain't even fight no more, they just grab a gun. It's safer in a sense, but it gets bad. One day it's good, one day it's bad; the next day, it's really, really bad."

Police pressure on the Triangle has pushed drug commerce into a HUD apartment complex known as "the Back Blues," one of several such buildings staked out by rival drug gangs in neighborhoods southwest of the Triangle. The buildings have all been slapped with fresh coats of dull brown paint, but they continue to be known by their original colors: "the Pinks," "the Browns," "the Front Blues."

The "Back Blues," officially the Alexandria Garden Apartments, achieved notoriety this past October when a shootout erupted between local dealers and police. Opa-locka's only narcotics detective, Miguel Galvez, and Miami-Dade Det. Raymond Robertson had received a tip that a vacant apartment there had been stockpiled with guns and drugs. One of the dealers approached their cop car holding a pistol. All hell broke loose. Robertson was shot seven times by three different suspects. He returned fire with gunshot wounds in both arms. The pair took refuge in a Kwik Stop one block north — the same place where Opa-locka Police officer Ephraim Brown was gunned down in 1986.

Since then County Tactical Narcotics teams have been hopping out of pickup trucks in bulletproof vests, tackling suspects in broad daylight, searching cars, and setting up radio lookouts throughout the besieged projects.

But pressure on the Blues will inevitably push activity back into the Triangle. "It's like rats and roaches," said one officer, wishing to remain anonymous. "You burn out one nest and they just scurry into another."

Kevin, a 33-year-old drug dealer working the Back Blues, regards Rickey Brownlee's incarceration without sentimentality. "More spots opened up," he says, "and prices went down."

He doubts that the local police will ever be able to root their operations out of the federally funded apartments. "We never go to jail," he said, while a trio of visiting Opa-locka cops conducted interviews just out of earshot. "To put us away they'd need informants and stuff. And that's never gonna happen." Kevin and his colleagues provide every child in the building with subsidies of up to $7000 per year, he said, a strong incentive in a town where 42 percent of children under 18 live in poverty.


n his thirteen years as a cop, Pete Rojas has been everything from a dispatcher to a domestic violence detective. He's received 25 commendations (including six so far this year), primarily for drug arrests. An ex-partner nicknamed him "K-9."

He is, by all accounts, a good cop who enjoys a kind of celebrity status in town. Last year he was featured in the lyrics and video for "Get Yo Money," a thug ode sung by up-and-coming Opa-locka rappers Brisco and Henessi:

Rojas got me calculatin' every move

Ask about the Bris they'll say that boy is hella smooth

In the video, the camera quickly cuts to Rojas leaning against his cruiser, arms folded sternly over his expansive chest, his eyes shielded by a pair of wrap-around sunglasses.

He appears to be having the time of his life.

Well-known around town, Rojas leaves his body armor in the trunk most days. You get the feeling he doesn't need it.

He is swarthy and oversexed, cool and clever. After a few hours on patrol with him, he seems the only kind of person who could possibly stomach the Herculean task of being an Opa-locka cop.

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Calvin Godfrey