Occupy Miami descends into drugs and chaos in an Overtown apartment building

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Interviewing Paz is like dropping acid with Socrates. "Where am I from?" he repeats a reporter's question. "I am from here. But what is this place?"

In fact, Paz was born Rodrigo León Duque on April 12, 1979, in the bustling Colombian city of Santiago de Cali. He grew up in a spacious condo with its own swimming pool in a posh neighborhood called Chipichape, centered around a swank shopping center. His family owned most of the shops as well as a private Catholic school called Colegio León de Greiff, which he attended for seven years.

"Rodrigo always seemed different," says his mother, Alba Acosta, a lawyer in Cali. "He was always extremely developed intellectually. Even then he was a very tranquil person... He seemed to belong to the spiritual world."

Rodrigo's father, Orlando Duque, was a shrewd businessman and a conservative member of the Colombian House of Representatives. "He was very militant," Acosta says of her husband. "What he said, went. But Rodrigo wasn't like that. He wanted to do what he wanted to do."

Alba watched as her son grew odder with age. By the time he was a teenager, he had withdrawn from most of his friends. When he went off to college in Bogotá, his parents bought him an apartment in the capital. It was the height of the Colombian drug war, and kidnappings were rampant. But Rodrigo spent his nights walking around the city with homeless car washers, talking about spirituality. He began skipping his classes. Soon he dropped out of school altogether.

Orlando was furious. "My husband suffered a lot," Acosta says, "always thinking that he was a failure because his son hadn't finished his degree."

Their relationship only got worse when Rodrigo left Colombia to backpack around the world. The 20-year-old bounced from Colombia to Ecuador, Mexico to Cuba, and then jumped the Atlantic and toured Europe, crashing on strangers' couches. Finally, Rodrigo landed in New York City in 2000. He found work in construction.

But a year after he arrived in NYC, Rodrigo's mother called him with terrifying news: His father had been leaving a business meeting in Cali when masked men with machine guns grabbed him. Eight days later, members of the FARC guerrilla group demanded $250,000.

"It was horrible, horrible, horrible," Acosta remembers. She wired the money, but the FARC didn't release Orlando. After she paid a second time, her husband was dumped on the outskirts of Cali. Alive.

Orlando's near-death experience changed him. He was quieter and prayed more. At first, the experience also brought father and son closer. But immigration issues prevented Rodrigo from returning home to see his shaken father. Soon, Orlando was his brash, business-minded self again, and the rift between Rodrigo and him grew wider than ever.

"My husband fought and worked his whole life for his businesses, but Rodrigo thought that was wrong," Acosta says. "He thought people shouldn't have private property because the Earth belonged to God."

In a last-ditch attempt to make something of his son, Orlando began buying properties in Miami, where Rodrigo had married a pretty young Colombian named Juanita Pelaez. In 2005, the elder Duque bought a rundown, 52-unit apartment building on NW Seventh Street in Overtown for $1.6 million. He signed the deed over to his son and Pelaez as a wedding gift.

A few years later, Orlando suddenly developed a lung condition. He died during surgery in 2008. It deeply affected Rodrigo, who couldn't attend the funeral. Instead, he said goodbye to Juanita and their 2-year-old daughter Cielo. Wearing a white tunic, he set off on foot from Miami Beach up the coast of Florida.

For nearly two months, he slept on the street, next to gas station toilets, under semi trucks, and in drainage canals. "A snake or gator could have come out any time," he says. "God says, 'Trust me.' So I did."

The journey finally ended in Jesup, Georgia, where Rodrigo befriended an elderly blind woman. With his last $6, he took her out to eat Chinese food. "She hadn't eaten at a restaurant in six years," he says. Three days later, his wife bought him a train ticket back to Miami.

That's where he was on September 17 of last year when thousands of protesters began assembling in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park. It was the moment Rodrigo had been waiting for: a peaceful gathering of people to talk about and fight against greed and materialism.

But Juanita was pregnant with twins. She refused to let Rodrigo travel to New York. So a few weeks later, when several hundred local protesters convened on Government Center downtown, it was like a sign from above. Occupy Miami was born. Rodrigo immediately set up a tent of his own, sleeping most nights in the chaotic camp and driving home each morning.

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.