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."

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John Lantigua