Wilbert "Nica" Cuadra sat in his Chevy Caprice with four of his boys. It was a typical Friday night; Nica was drunk on Mad Dog 20/20 and infused with a familiar rage. Across University Drive he could see the enemy -- members of a West Broward gang called La Familia. Five months earlier a member of La Familia had run Nica down in a car, striking him in the back, knocking him to the ground, and cutting his head. Now Nica was out for revenge.
Street fighting was Nica's specialty. As a leader of the Midnight Crips, he'd been responsible for dozens of melees: in nightclubs, at fairs, in parks, anywhere. He'd even drive down to Miami for a fight -- to South Beach or to Calle Ocho to battle the Latin Kings. On this night, as always, he would be the first to charge into battle, even though, at five foot nine and 135 pounds, he was the skinniest gangbanger in that Caprice. Now, five years later, Nica says he still can recall the anger surging through him. He wanted to hear the wet smack of his fists on his rivals' faces, wanted to feel all that anger drain from him as they fell.
Clad in his gang uniform -- blue Dickies work shorts and a white T-shirt -- Nica dashed across University, his boys following behind. He was so intent on his target that he never saw the black sedan tearing up University. The vehicle hit him at an estimated 45 miles per hour. Nica was smashed into the windshield, then flung to the pavement.
The hit-and-run broke Nica's jaw and crushed his right shoulder. His skull was so smashed that pieces of bone pushed into his brain. His lung was punctured and filling with blood. Medics airlifted him to Broward General Medical Center. The surgeons who tried to put him back together again were doubtful he would survive. Relatives kept a deathwatch at the hospital while Nica, looking tiny and gruesome, lay for two weeks in a coma.
Perhaps there was nothing but darkness in Nica's mind during those days. He doesn't remember a thing. But if, as the cliché goes, his life had flashed before his eyes, Nica would surely have seen his native country, Nicaragua, where he first witnessed the horrors of war: the padded percussion of mortars, the nervous rattle of machine guns, the sight of corpses strewn about his town. He would have revisited the Honduran hills, where, as a child of the contras, he watched his relatives train to kill. And he would have gazed again upon the South Florida streets where, as a refugee, he joined a ragtag army of teens who called themselves the Crips.
For years the police wanted Nica in a prison cell. His rivals, meanwhile, wanted him in a cemetery plot. To that end they sprayed gunfire at Nica, shot up his home, firebombed his car, and held guns to his head. His disregard for danger and uncanny knack for survival inspired gang detectives to dub him El Gato, the cat, the boy with nine lives.
As astonishing as his exploits were, they should come as no great surprise. As a boy in Nicaragua, after all, Nica had been caught in an ongoing turf war between the two biggest gangs in the world at the time: the United States and the Soviet Union. Nica grew up in war -- was all but orphaned by war -- and once here, war erupted from him.
It was only the mysterious black sedan that changed his course. In nearly killing Nica, it saved his life.
At his grandmother's command, four-year-old Nica -- then known as Wilbert -- ducked under the slab of wood that served as the family's dining room table. Outside, gunfire from the AK-47s and M-16s exploded. He crouched for hours with his cousins, praying the stray bullets wouldn't kill them. When the fighting stopped, they could get up, maybe go to the bathroom in the other room, where a deep hole in the ground served as a toilet. Then the explosions started up again. Agachense! his grandmother would yell. Duck down!
The year was 1979, and civil war finally had come to Nica's town of Chinendega, courtesy of heavily armed Sandinistas flooding into the country from their outposts in the Honduran mountains. The leftist Sandinistas, supported by the Soviet Union and armed by Fidel Castro, were overtaking the right-wing dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whose family was installed by the United States more than 40 years before. Thanks to the world's two superpowers, Nicaragua had become the hottest spot in the Cold War, dominated by the trained killers now fighting outside Nica's door.
When the shooting was over, the boy stepped outside. The sun hadn't gone down, but the town was dark from the hanging black smoke of battle. He could hear people crying, screaming, wailing, some wounded, others hysterical in mourning.
"Nobody knew what was going on," recalls Nica, who speaks English in a lilting, almost melodious way. "There were a lot of dead people all over the place. They were people we didn't know before. There were a lot of soldiers and people that didn't have uniforms. I was so scared, I didn't know what to think. There were bullets in their heads. Bullets were everywhere, laying near their bodies. There was people with no legs; they had their legs blown off. On the river there were lots of dead bodies. A lot of people said that the river was haunted after that."
Nica's parents weren't there. His father, Juan Cuadra, was a soldier in the Guardia Nacional, Somoza's army. While trying to flee the country after the Sandinistas took over, Juan Cuadra stepped on a land mine, mangling his leg. He was forced to go into hiding in Nicaragua, along with Nica's mother. For five years Nica never saw either parent, but he was used to that. Even before the insurrection, his father was rarely home, and when he was, he was hard and distant, Nica says. All the men in Nica's family were soldados, tough men who lived for war.
In 1985, at age ten, Nica fled with his grandparents to Honduras, where he was reunited with his parents, who'd finally escaped Nicaragua themselves. His father quickly joined forces with the U.S.-funded contras, who were dominated by ex-guardias and were hell-bent on retaking Nicaragua. Several of his uncles -- the ones who weren't killed during the Sandinista takeover -- also were contras.
Now Nica would find out what it was like to live with the contras.
Nica moved into a farmhouse outside Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, with his uncle, a contra comandante whose own nom de guerre was particularly apt. They called him Atila.
In the darkness of early mornings, long before school started, Nica would be roused from sleep by his uncle's barking: Get up! Stand up straight! Feed the dog! Clean the house!
"It was like I was a soldier or something," Nica says. "It was command shit all the time. The contras are like that. Even when they aren't in the war, they're still in the war. When they're drunk you don't even want to be around them. They still dream about it."
When Atila went on contra missions, he took Nica to the military base in the Honduran mountains, where the boy stayed for a couple of weeks at a time in the makeshift camp, made up primarily of strips of carpet and plastic tarp. While the contras exercised and trained with their U.S.-supplied munitions, he watched.
Nica sometimes visited his father, who worked at Radio 15 de Septiembre, outside Tegucigalpa. The station was the voice of the contras as well as the distribution center for the arms brought in by the United States. He never lived with his parents, though. Something always seemed to be in the way of it. The war, work, whatever.
Instead Nica was reared, in some sense, by the war itself. He grew up immersed in his family's war stories. He heard, on countless occasions, the story of the time Sandinistas ambushed Atila's unit, attacking the comandante from all sides, shooting him six times in the belly. Atila survived the ambush, but Nica saw the nasty scars left behind. He also heard horror stories about the Sandinistas. "If they catch you, they tie you up on a cross and cut you up," Nica says. "They say, 'Tell us what is going on,' and if you don't, they would throw gas on you and burn you up."
Somoza was no better, Nica notes. He created an upper class of rich people while keeping down the lower classes. And the contras were no heroes, either. "I'm not going to lie. Contras used to rape girls in the war, and so did the Sandinistas," he observes. "The contras and the Sandinistas were animals. It was kill or be killed." His own uncle, Atila, made headlines in the United States when he was accused of summarily executing eight captured Sandinistas during a contra mission. (Atila was exonerated by his contra higher-ups in an investigation criticized by some human-rights groups as a sham.)
Nica spent a couple of years in Atila's custody. When the comandante was given political asylum in Miami, Nica moved to a one-room apartment in the Honduran capital with his aunt. On Tegucigalpa's streets he got his first taste of alcohol, of sex, and of his own penchant for violence. He began running around with street kids, committing robberies, picking fights. School fell by the wayside.
Back in Nicaragua a semblance of peace was reached. The contras began disbanding, and many of them, including Nica's parents, sought political asylum in the United States. "When you come here, you think you are coming to Heaven," Nica says. "On TV and in the newspapers, you hear about America. It was supposed to be so wonderful, so nice. But when you get here, everything turns out different."
In Miami Nica moved in with his aunt and uncle. His parents, he says, were working and couldn't take him in. Nica enrolled in Miami Springs Middle School. The memory that stands out most to him is the day his younger cousin was jumped by a group of black kids. Fourteen-year-old Wilbert, soon to be dubbed Nica in honor of his native country, began planning retaliation. "I looked around and I saw that all the Cubans were together," he says. "All the blacks were together. All the whites were together. Everybody had their own groups, so I decided to get all the Nicaraguans together and show them what was up."
Fights and school suspensions followed. His aunt and uncle soon moved to Fort Lauderdale, to a house off Davie Boulevard, and Nica enrolled in Stranahan High School. He says he learned quickly and took pride in his quick mastery of English. He still boasts that he once "passed" the SAT test. His version of the American dream, predictably, was to become an American soldier, a Marine. And he fully intended to finish high school as well.
But his descent into gang life made that impossible. Not long after his move from Miami to Broward, he joined the Midnight Crips. The gang borrowed the name from the more famous Los Angeles-based Crips, but there the relationship ended. Broward's Crips, made up mostly of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, dealt crack cocaine on the streets, burglarized homes, committed robberies, and fought in their Fort Lauderdale 'hood. The Crips were a model of integration, split fairly evenly among blacks, whites, and Hispanics. But there wasn't much else good about them. "They terrorized the area," says Fort Lauderdale Police Det. David Nickerson, who tracked Nica for years.
It was the hand-to-hand combat that hooked Nica on gang life. He remembers an early, defining moment when one evening he saw an older man hassling some Crips on the street. Nica clocked the man. "I couldn't believe how hard I hit him; I didn't know I could hit that hard. He went down and he didn't get back up, and everybody was like, 'Shit.'
"I had all this anger in me and all this stress, and I felt good after a fight," he adds. "I felt like a soldier, like I was high. I was angry because I felt like a nobody. I didn't get any attention from my family. I felt worthless. Nobody wanted me."
The rush and emotional release of fighting became a vicious habit. When night came he'd fill up on beer, which bolstered his courage and fueled his rage. Then he'd assemble some of his boys and head out in search of enemies, gangs such as Zulu 6 of Hollywood, the International Posse (IN/P), the Evil Nation, and later La Familia.
Nica's idol was the lightweight boxing champion Alexis Arguello, a Nicaraguan. Nica was the same height and weight as Arguello, and like the boxer, he relied on lightning-quick hands. "I would have liked to have had a career like Arguello," he says almost wistfully. "But nobody ever asked me. Nobody ever wanted me in something like that."
Except the Crips. Wearing his gang color, blue, Nica fought bare-fisted all over South Florida, from teenage nightclubs to parks to amusement centers. He still revels in recounting his deeds of violence. But he insists he was no animal; he had rules, many of them inspired by the stories he heard as a child: Go at the enemy from all sides. When you attack, always have an escape route in mind. Never fight civilians, unless they disrespect you. And Nica always led the charge into battle.
"What's up?" he'd say to his rivals. Often that was all it took. The police picked up Nica on numerous occasions. But they had no evidence against him, and after snapping a Polaroid, they inevitably let him go.
Ironically, even as he was rising in the Crip ranks, Nica still worked every day, usually as a "lot boy" at used-car lots. It was a point of pride that he always had his own cars, purchased with his earnings. He dreamed of someday owning a used-car dealership.
Nica could have been a successful businessman too, says Tony Pineda, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent and head of the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force. "Nica is not dumb, okay? He's a pretty smart guy," Pineda says. "He probably could have opened a business and made it work. He could have made a good living. But he did it the other way around. He used what he had for the wrong things, and that made him a problem. He was dangerous."
Indeed Nica channeled his considerable energies into gang life. He set out to bring as many people into the Crips as he possibly could, and he was remarkably successful. The "worthless" kids out there were easy to recruit, he says. And the gang gave them a sense of belonging. Members openly expressed love for one another and had their own special, elaborate handshake that ended with a knot of the intermingling fingers forming a heart.
By 1993, after four years in America, the child of war had built himself a little street empire. In addition to his standing in the Midnight Crips, he also helped create the Outlaw Gangster Crips and the Deuce Crips. While each of these gangs had its own head, all the leaders came to Nica for guidance, and he presided over their meetings. He insists he was never the official leader of any gang, just the "right-hand man" who joined the factions together and led the street fights.
Girls and younger kids weren't out of Nica's reach, either. One of his more diabolical accomplishments was creating the "Baby Crips," also called the Mini-Monsters, made up primarily of middle-school kids. He helped form the Crips' sister gang, the Bitches in Effect, and dictated the rules for membership. "They either had to fuck three of us or fight three of us," he says. "Only a few of them fought us. The rest fucked the whole crew."
Nica's activities did not go unnoticed. In 1993 the State Attorney's Office launched a grand jury investigation into the gang problem in Broward County, while police authorities formed the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force. "Every week in Broward from '93 on, we had three to five drive-by shootings every single week," Pineda says. "They were going rabid." Pineda homed in on what he believed to be the three worst gangs in the county at the time: the Crips, the IN/P, and La Familia. It was Pineda, in fact, who first branded Nica the "godfather" of the Crips.
"Like I was John Gotti or something," Nica scoffs. "I wasn't wearing no suits."
By his own accounting, Nica's crimes were strictly street-level. He didn't steal cars, he says, because he always had his own. He does admit to dealing crack cocaine for several months. He says he used the crack profits -- usually about $150 per night -- to buy powder cocaine. Then he'd go to clubs and play the role of big shot, which he loved. Nica also burglarized houses, shoplifted, and robbed a few stores with a kid who had a knack for sneaking into back offices and grabbing whatever cash was in the safe.
Nica says he never carried a gun, a claim police back. But his fellow Crips did. In May 1993 two Crips, out peddling crack in a stolen Blazer, gunned down an eighteen-year-old named Michael Bush. Demond Ruise, who fired the shot that killed Bush, is serving a life term in prison.
Nica admits he used to run the streets with Ruise but says he knows nothing about the crime: "They were soldiers just like me, and they did that on their own."
A month later a Crip named Eric Reyes, a Salvadoran immigrant nicknamed Cholo, committed the next slaying. Reyes, age nineteen, was a troubled kid who was living with Nica when the murder occurred. "He was crazy," Nica says. "I mean insane. But he would listen to me. He had respect for me and only me."
One day while Nica was at work, Reyes and three other Crips went on a spree of drunken violence that culminated in the slaying of 25-year-old Mario Rivera, who made the mistake of telling the Crips to get off his lawn. The four returned with a Street Sweeper -- an illegal, semiautomatic shotgun -- and Reyes shot Rivera in the face from a distance of four feet. They fled in Nica's car to Maryland. Reyes is still at large. "I wish I would have been there," Nica says, "because I would have stopped those fuckers."
But Nica the godfather didn't really have much control of his own soldiers, let alone rival gang members. By the time he was seventeen years old, he was forced to move out of his uncle's home, because his enemies had sprayed it with bullets, narrowly missing an elderly relative, and had firebombed his car. "Wilbert kind of pissed off the world out there," Pineda says dryly.
To understand the scope of Nica's ambition, consider his master plan: He wanted the Crips to join forces with the IN/P. Together they would destroy the Zulu 6 and the Evil Nation. Then Nica would turn the Crips against the IN/P. Nica wanted to conquer the streets. He even managed to broker a meeting between Crips and the IN/P.
But Pineda's task force got wind of the plot and crashed the meeting, where an estimated 70 gang members had gathered.
Nica's next scheme was a little more focused. He decided to go after reputed IN/P leader Lionel Gonzalez. Gonzalez got under Nica's skin, especially because he lived in the heart of the Crips' 'hood. But Gonzalez was nobody to be messing with. In a gang fight in Miami three years earlier, Gonzalez, then sixteen years old, shot and killed somebody. As a "youthful offender," he served less than a year in prison.
This didn't deter Nica. He challenged Gonzalez, who was six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, to a fight on the street near Gonzalez's house. "He tried to kick me, but I broke his kick. Then he got me to the ground. You know, he was bigger than me. And he held me down and he hit me in the face," Nica recalls. "Then I got up and I hit him and his lip was bleeding. Then it was over. I just told him, 'I'll see you on the rebound. I'll see you again.'"
Nica got the worst of it -- his lip was cut and he had a black eye -- and he wasn't about to let it go. He began stalking Gonzalez, challenging him to a rematch every time he saw him. "They were bound to hit each other sooner or later," Pineda says of the two. "I don't know which one was more crazy."
Gonzalez, now 25 years old and recently out of prison following a gun conviction, says he never wanted to fight Nica. He says he respected the Crips' leader until Nica set out to destroy him. "He wanted to bang me," says Gonzalez, who claims he was never in a gang at all. "But I wouldn't let him bang me."
Nica got his next chance on the night of October 21, 1994, in the parking lot of a Miami Subs restaurant on Davie Boulevard. When Nica challenged Gonzalez to a fight, Gonzalez pulled a blue steel revolver from his waistband, according to police reports. With the gun aimed at his head, Nica just looked at Gonzalez and said, "I ain't going nowhere." Then Gonzalez handed the gun to another reputed IN/P member, Daniel Sions, but he didn't shoot either, and they left. Gonzalez wouldn't discuss the incident.
Nica says he wasn't frightened of the gun. He says he wouldn't allow himself to be afraid, because he thought the entire gang relied on him to be fearless. "I was trying to show everybody in the gang how bad you could be," he says. "I wanted to take it high. I wanted to be an example so we could show everybody who we really were. I said to them, 'Y'all should be like me. See how I don't care? You shouldn't care either.' That was the way we had to be, but a lot of them were soft."
Det. David Nickerson has known hundreds of gang members, but Nica, he says, was far and away the most impervious to danger. "There was no doubt in my mind that he was willing to die for the cause. I told him, 'You're going to get killed someday.' And he basically agreed with me. But he just seemed to be locked in that persona where he was showing the world he was invincible." Some of his exploits are documented in police reports, some aren't. But Nickerson says he believes all of them.
A week after the Miami Subs incident, the Crips held a meeting at Little Yankee Park in Fort Lauderdale. It was a full moon -- all the Crips' meetings were held during the full moon. A carload of IN/P members drove into the park. Nica stormed after them. Out of the car came Sions, who pulled a 9mm pistol and pointed it at Nica's head. "He said, 'I'm gonna kill you,'" Nica recalls. "I said, 'Shoot me, motherfucker.' And then he pulled the trigger, but the gun didn't fire."
A fellow Crip managed to coldcock Sions, and the Crips wound up with the gun. "I thought it must have been a toy gun or something. But it was real. It was on safety. I don't know why, but God saved my life that night."
A month later gunfire exploded at the apartment house where Nica lived. Bullets shattered the back window of Nica's Cadillac and hit an apartment, missing a mother and her three children inside. This near disaster prompted police to park a mobile police unit right outside Nica's door. For weeks police were stationed there, documenting everyone who came to see him.
Nica simply went elsewhere for trouble. But he still refused to carry a gun. "That's the exception to most gang members," Nickerson says. "Most of them would have started shooting people in the back."
Two weeks after the shooting, he was on University Drive, where he found members of La Familia. He and five other Crips got out of his car to fight. A reputed La Familia member named Cesar Guzman stayed in his car, slammed the gas, and made a wild run at the Crips, jumping the median and bashing Nica in the back before smashing into Nica's car. Guzman served a two-year prison sentence for the incident.
Nica suffered a bad gash over his right eye and was taken to the hospital, where he was stitched up. But the injury didn't slow him down. Instead he gathered some Crips and went looking for Sions, found him, and took him to the ground. He says he slapped Sions' face and threatened to kill him if he didn't talk about the apartment shooting. The terrified Sions admitted he was involved in the shooting. Then Nica went to Nickerson, who was in the mobile unit outside his apartment. "He came in and said, 'Here's who did it. Either you handle it or I will,'" Nickerson recalls. The information helped Nickerson make a criminal case against the IN/P members who allegedly plotted Nica's murder. Sions, who later was identified by police as the gunman in the apartment shooting, is in prison today as a result.
Nica continued to run the streets. On the night of February 19, 1995, gang members opened fire on Nica at a vacant gas station on Oakland Park Boulevard, according to police reports. Again Nica escaped harm. Some of the bullets hit a nearby car, though the car's owner wasn't injured. Police later determined that the gunman was a member of Zulu 6, but Nica declined to press charges.
The end of Nica's gangland career came just two months later while he looked for revenge on La Familia. Sunrise police still haven't determined who was driving the black car that struck Nica as he dashed across University. Some, like Nickerson, suspect it was a gang member, waiting for revenge. Others, like Pineda, believe it was a random, likely drunk, driver. Nica figures police didn't really want to find the culprit. "The police probably thought it was a community service," he says with a laugh.
Whoever it was, he or she put an end to Nica's exploits. But only by virtually stripping him of his entire identity.
When Nica awakened from the coma, he didn't know who he was, didn't even know he was in a gang. Oddly he could speak English but had forgotten Spanish, his native tongue. His face was a scarred mess. Three of his front teeth were knocked out, and his entire face looked lopsided. His right eye lay lifeless in its broken socket.
Two days after his hit-and-run, his ex-girlfriend gave birth. But Nica couldn't even hold his son. His arm was in a sling while his shoulder healed. Nica required special training to learn how to speak clearly and how to do menial tasks, such as counting money. Memories came back to him slowly.
His fellow Crips, who had revered him as a gang leader, disappeared from his life. All that talk about love between soldiers was bullshit, he decided. They hadn't cared about him; they'd cared about his power. And when he needed them most, they were gone. "Nobody wanted to take me out because of the way I looked," he says. "I felt like a monster."
The Broward Sheriff's Office recruited him for an educational video, in which he served as a grotesque example of the results of gang life. In the video Nica, with his infant son in his lap, says he's done with the gang forever and vows to see to it that his son grows up right.
But it wasn't easy. He hit rock bottom when, in a desperate attempt to win back the mother of his son, he was charged with domestic violence for pushing and hitting her. "I did hit her, but you know why? I thought it was right," he says. "I saw all my family beat their women. The men beat their women in Nicaragua, and they didn't get in any trouble. Then later on they were lovey-dovey again. But you don't hit women in America. It was always wrong, but I didn't know better. Now I do."
The first time he went back out with some Crips, the results were equally disastrous. That was in July 1995, nearly four months after he was hit by the car. Nica says he was just happy to get a chance to go out, to drink, to see girls, to feel less like a monster. But the other gang members had violence on their minds. They brutally beat a fellow Crip named Nick Harrison, who was a witness in a robbery case against another member. Nica maintains he was drunk and half passed out during the beating. Pineda interviewed Harrison in the hospital and, a full year later, in July 1996, arrested Nica and several other Crips for the Harrison beating.
The local media treated his arrest as big news -- the "godfather of the Crips" finally had been brought to justice. The truth was Nica had already covered his pitchfork Crip tattoo with a Tasmanian Devil and had officially quit the gang. Without his leadership the Crips had begun to fade into obscurity. "I didn't even care when the gang went down," he says. "I look at me now, and then I look at me then, and all I can think is how stupid I was."
Nica was sentenced to probation, which he successfully completed this past February. Amazingly he never spent a day in a Florida prison despite his gang activity.
Now, at age 25, he's engaged to a woman named Rebecca and lives in a tiny house with a big yard in central Broward. He doesn't want to reveal the exact location, fearing possible reprisals from old foes. "He's not Nica anymore," Rebecca says. "He's only Wilbert now."
He still hears about his old compadres. This one was jailed on a drug charge, that one has become an alcoholic. There's even one guy who's trying to revive the gang. Nica can only shake his head and laugh.
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Even if he wanted to go back to fighting, he knows he can't. With two metal plates holding his skull together, one good punch in the right place would kill him. He still gets horrible headaches and falls into dazes. Nica says he only hopes his son, whom he visits regularly, doesn't end up like him. The black-haired boy, who looks like his dad, just turned five, a little older than Nica was when civil war tore through his town. Nica also occasionally visits his parents and his uncle Atila, who now sells pool screens for a living in Miami.
He survives on $520 per month, his disability payment. But he's still hatching ambitious schemes. Now he dreams of starting a career working on auto electrical systems.
On a recent Friday night, he got cleaned up and went out in some bright-red pants. His face still bears scars, but time has been kind to it. He's managed to retain a certain rugged charisma. "You know, I couldn't wear red before," he says, smiling at the color of his former enemies, La Familia and the IN/P. "It looks good, man. I like red."
In moments like these, Nica sounds unabashedly hopeful. He says he's proud of all he's survived: the Sandinistas, the contras, the Midnight Crips, all the "ignorant motherfuckers" who haunt his past. "I'm still going up," he says, as if the possibilities of his new life were just occurring to him. "I've been through a lot but I'm not stopping. I still plan to go high."