Miami's vice

Crack cocaine is almost dead in many cities, but immigrants, suburbanites and teenagers have kept it alive in South Florida.


Art Levine
May 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Remember crack? The highly addictive rocks of cocaine laid waste to cities across the nation throughout the 1980s, spurring violent turf wars, ruining lives and destroying families. Now, roughly 10 years after the epidemic was at its worst, news headlines across the country are proclaiming the death of crack.

"Crack is going away and probably isn't coming back," proclaimed Richard Rosenfield, a professor of criminology at the University of St. Louis, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last November. Recent features in the New York Times and elsewhere have also heralded society's victory over the scourge of the 1980s.

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The good news, unfortunately, has not reached several big cities where the problem has not gone away. One of them is Miami, the nation's fourth-poorest city, where crack is spreading into new suburban communities, among immigrants, and is taking hold with a new, younger generation of drug users.

In fact, crack is again on the rise among some teenage drug users nationwide, according to recent federal reports. The positive testing rate for cocaine among juvenile arrestees has increased by about 40 percent or more in such cities as Phoenix, San Antonio and Miami, and, according to the latest National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, there's been an upswing in first-time users of cocaine, largely teens. In San Antonio, for instance, the percentage of teen arrestees who test positive for cocaine use jumped 70 percent between 1995 and 1998 -- to 28.9 percent. In Miami, 26 percent of arrested youths ages 15 to 20 (and charged as adults) test positive for cocaine, a jump of nearly 40 percent since 1995. And, for about two-thirds of the criminal suspects, the cocaine in their systems is crack.

It seems as though the biggest shift has not been in the statistics, but in the media spin about those numbers. In analyzing crack's legacy, for instance, the New York Times reported in February "the number of crack users began falling not long after surveys began counting them." Later in the same article, it pointed to the 1997 National Household Survey, which found that "600,000 had smoked cracked within a month, unchanged since 1988." So which is it -- down sharply or unchanged? The confusion most likely is the fault of the study, which depends on voluntary admissions of illegal drug use to total strangers, not to mention finding a valid sample of crack addicts to interview. Good luck: It's a sampling technique that might have some reliability in American suburbs, but hardly in the inner cities.

The real picture, experts contend, is more nuanced than the media's trend stories indicate. The casual use of cocaine has declined and there's a downturn in total crack and cocaine use in many cities, but a hardcore group of crack addicts remain. And in several cities, use among young offenders -- and others -- is rising. One of the main reasons for the death-of-crack stories is doubtless plummeting crime rates in America's largest cities. In New York, the plunging crime rate is a much-touted success story. Even in Miami, the number of murders last year fell below 100 for the first time in 20 years, and the violent crime rates have generally been falling since 1991, about the time total crack use began a gradual decline from its late 1980s peak. Indeed, a 1997 National Institute of Justice report found a strong link between homicide and crack cocaine usage rates.

But just because crime rates are down doesn't mean crack has gone away. Forty-five percent of all males arrested in Miami have cocaine in their systems, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program (ADAM), with, again, roughly two-thirds of them crack users. The Greater Miami area's cocaine-based emergency room admissions are three times the national average, and more than half of all of Miami-Dade County's rehab patients are seeking treatment for cocaine addiction.

Clearly, in Miami, the rumors of crack's death have been greatly exaggerated.

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Part of Miami's problem stems from a growing popularity of crack among the area's teenagers. In most cities, crack is a problem for a dwindling group of older, long-term users. But in Miami and surrounding towns, a small but increasing number of youngsters are trying such novelties as "geek joints" -- a mix of marijuana and crack.

Crack and youth are a particularly volatile combination. The typical user's notion that he won't become hooked is only exacerbated by the youthful illusion of invincibility. Joseph, now 17, began dealing drugs in his early teens, and he saw crack's effects.

"I've seen the people starting out looking nice, then they're out on the streets begging for it," he says. Joseph himself realized he was hooked after he faced a one-year prison term for auto theft. Suddenly, treatment looked like a good option.

He's been clean for six months, and has been offered a full scholarship to a local cooking school. "I still have urges," he confides, "but I stay away from the people I used to hang out with."

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Josh, 16, is another caught up in the city's crack reemergence. He was only 4 years old at the worst of the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and as a budding juvenile delinquent in the 1990s, "never paid attention to crack." That changed when a friend's uncle, straight out of prison, introduced him to the drug when Josh was 13.

Josh was primed for a new high. Fueled by crack, his petty crimes turned into a crime spree that included stealing cars and breaking into houses. "I was stealing for the drugs," he says. It wasn't until he faced a stiff prison sentence for 25 separate crimes that he took the last-chance option of drug treatment.

That was six months ago, and now Josh is clean for the first time in years. He's even allowed a few visits to his father's home in the Keys, where he carefully avoids old hangouts and habits. "I'm tired of the same thing, always getting into trouble," he says.

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Jim Hall, director of the Up Front drug information center in Miami, estimates that anywhere from 3 to 5 percent of all adolescents in Miami-Dade now use crack, up three-fold in the past five years. Most striking, it is spreading out of the inner city and taking hold among young white and Hispanic suburbanites.

In short, while crack may have vanished from the media's radar, the problem has not gone away. "Local cocaine abuse still outranks other illicit drug problems," Hall wrote in a recent report co-authored by Dr. Michael Whitman.

The reasons for the persistence of the crack problem in Miami continue to confound local experts, but there's little doubt about its harsh effects. In East Little Havana, a 2.5-square-mile area populated mainly by low income Hispanic immigrants, Officer Fred D'Agostino and his partner, the lanky and hyper-alert Jose DeHombre, are driving their blue and white patrol car past the run-down homes and little knots of people watching them warily from the street corners. The officers are part of a neighborhood policing program that responds to ongoing citizen complaints about drug dealing. They don't limit themselves to making arrests. D'Agostino and DeHombre also seek to involve local kids in police-sponsored athletic activities to keep them out of trouble.

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But their main weapon is enforcement. Last year, the pair made 70 crack-related arrests in just one month. One dealer was arrested three times in eight days. In February, their squad launched a three-month "Operation Hellraiser," targeted at drug dealing and prostitution. The team made 210 crack-related felony arrests, including 100 busts of small-time dealers. But that has barely put a dent in the city's continuing crack problem.

"I've been in this for 11 years, and in my view, it's never gone away," said D'Agostino, a compact man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. "Treatment has failed and jail has failed," he said, and he is still on the streets every day arresting people buying and selling rock cocaine.

"I wish the system would catch up with them. They're out [of jail] before we go back out in the streets."

It seems a paradox that while crack continues to rage, Miami's violent crime rate is the lowest it's been since 1984 -- with a few striking exceptions. In the black ghetto of Liberty City, a wave of shootings and 20 homicides linked to a drug war prompted a massive police crackdown in January. After a sophisticated, 15-month investigation by federal and local law enforcement, 26 members of the "John Doe" and "Cloud Nine" gangs were indicted on a string of charges that included murder, drug dealing and money laundering.

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Turf wars aren't nearly as major a problem in East Little Havana. "There's so many buyers and sellers, everyone's got a piece of the pie," DeHombre notes bleakly.

In fact, the settling of turf wars, with some notable exceptions like the Liberty City case, seems to be one of the driving forces in the decrease of crack-related crime. During the 1980s, bloody feuds over territory filled the nation's emergency rooms -- and morgues -- with victims. But now, in Miami, it appears the era of the "cocaine cowboys" and crack killers is over.

Miami was marked by bloody disputes and drug-related violence throughout the 1980s. In the first half of the decade, flamboyant drug traffickers -- the "cocaine cowboys" -- with a penchant for million-dollar homes and the murder of rivals carved up the area for the Colombian cocaine cartels. By the mid-1980s, the new, dangerously cheap smoked form of cocaine, crack, swept through the Miami ghettos, leading to crazed crimes by addicts and street gangs mowing down competitors. Murders -- often linked to drugs -- finally began declining in 1989.

Still, questions remain. Why do some cities seem to have crack problems under control while others do not? There is no simple answer -- only informed speculation -- on why some urban areas are faring better than others. One factor in Miami might be the city's stubbornly high unemployment and poverty rate -- almost one-third of the city's residents live below the poverty line. Some surprising places, such as Omaha, are finding themselves grappling with disturbing rates of crack use, rising to 25 percent among male suspects and 35 percent of females in the Nebraska city. To Jim Hall, one possible answer lies in business expansion. "The dealers learned it's a great, big wonderful country out there, and they're taking on new markets," he said.

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The sharpest declines are on the East Coast and in the bigger West Coast cities, where positive cocaine rates among arrestees once went as high as 80 percent or more. In Philadelphia, cocaine use has dropped to 44.5 percent among male arrestees from 60 percent in the early 1990s, though that figure is still disturbingly high. The youthful offender cocaine rate in 1997 was just 11 percent.

The main yardstick for measuring these changes is the Justice Department's ADAM program, and its director, Jack Riley, contends, "In the larger cities where the epidemic hit first, there's a generational learning effect," he said, adding that youngsters who see the impact of crack on their elders have usually avoided repeating their mistakes.

But that hasn't worked for one particular group of offenders. "There's a noticeable lack of decline in cocaine use among young Hispanics," Riley says. "What you could be seeing is that they weren't around in those communities when crack was first there." Indeed, some of the sharpest rises in teen crack use are in communities with a strong influx of Hispanics (although ADAM doesn't offer ethnic breakdowns for teen use in Miami and most cities). In Miami in 1995, 19 percent of arrested teens charged as adults tested positive for cocaine.

But Hispanics don't seem to be the primary users of cocaine, even in Miami, with a majority Hispanic population. Among arrestees who tested positive for cocaine, the biggest users in Miami have been blacks (52 percent), followed by Hispanics (29 percent) and whites (19 percent), a pattern that's roughly consistent with the ethnic make-up of all Miami arrestees. Some national studies have shown that most crack users are white, even if most of the arrests take place in black urban areas.

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In the case of Miami, another contributing factor to the city's sustained level of cocaine users is its proximity to cocaine-producing South American countries. "Our geography has made us still the key importation center for many of the organized trafficking groups," Hall said. In the last 10 years, there's been a growth of new Caribbean groups involved in cocaine traffic: Jamaicans, Haitians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Bahamians. Many have links to major Columbia drug operations -- most of the cocaine still originates there, Hall says -- but they blend into this community with its rich range of ethnic groups. "For many of these groups, Miami is still the U.S. base of operations. Cocaine is still headquartered in Miami."

These new smaller trafficking groups with close family and ethnic ties here are harder to infiltrate. "Crockett and Tubbs would find it harder today," he said, referring to the fictional heroes of "Miami Vice." "Cocaine remains a major industry, and we're affected by its fallout."

These groups, he points out, "aren't really stepping on each other. It's coordinated: There's money to be made by everyone."

Whatever the cause of crack's persistence, to Jim Gilliland, dealing with addicts every day for 16 years at the Village, a local drug treatment center, none of the high-minded demographic theories ring true. "Once you're addicted, you're looking for the ultimate high," he says. "You don't care what it's done to anybody else."

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Art Levine

Art Levine is a contributing editor at Washington Monthly.

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