"The first time I was back since the storm ... drugs were everywhere"

With much of New Orleans still uninhabitable, drug dealers are deluging neighborhoods. Violent crime is surging -- and so is anxiety about the city's recovery.

Published March 6, 2007 12:29PM (EST)

In midwinter in New Orleans' Hollygrove neighborhood, the weeds in some yards along Olive Street are 6 feet tall. A few blocks from the golf links of the New Orleans Country Club, abandoned buildings with open doors and windows face the street like blank skulls. Much of this 17th Ward neighborhood still looks as it did 18 months ago after Hurricane Katrina struck and it was submerged in 9 feet of water.

Ronald Jones, 34, who grew up in Hollygrove, comes by several times a week to visit his mother, who is living in a FEMA trailer while her home is being gutted and repaired. But as the 17th Ward and other areas devastated by the flood struggle to come back to life, an almost daily litany of violence and death has become the city's latest crisis. Jones has seen four friends from Hollygrove buried in the past year, all young black men between the ages of 22 and 26, all of whom he says were killed in drug-related murders.

New Orleans has long been plagued by drugs and violence, but many who returned after Katrina hoped for a new start for the city -- for about six months after the disaster, crime had declined dramatically. In the past year, however, with the rebuilding process still sluggish in many ways, a sharp upturn in violent crime has shaken confidence in many neighborhoods and emerged as a major obstacle to the city's recovery.

According to federal law enforcement officials and government-funded researchers, a resurgent drug trade -- in some ways more diverse, chaotic and violent than what existed before the storm -- is largely responsible. It has found fertile ground in once flooded neighborhoods that just a year ago were mostly vacant, and has spread to what used to be relatively safe and well-policed neighborhoods and parishes.

"What's different now is that more people have drugs, people you wouldn't expect to be into it," says Jones, an Army veteran and rap musician who goes by the name "J Dawg." "I see a lot of little cats that didn't mess with it before the storm but they're out there now. They came back with connections they made out of town. They aren't playing by the rules and don't know what they're doing, and people are getting killed."

High-profile crimes, including the killing in early January of a young filmmaker during a home invasion, a murder for which police have still not identified a suspect or a motive, turned national attention briefly on the city. But the killings didn't let up with the end of that news cycle. Amid the relatively small population of approximately 200,000 -- about half the size it was prior to Katrina -- at least 34 murders have already been recorded since the beginning of this year, putting the city on track to outpace the 161 homicides recorded in 2006. Turf battles have exploded, as displaced dealers return to town to resume business, outsiders attempt to stake out new territory, and higher-quality drugs at cheaper prices flood the streets.

The related wave of murders, and the youth of its perpetrators, has taken aback even some of the brashest chroniclers of the city's well-known "drug/thug" subculture. "We didn't start out that young, we didn't start shooting each other until we were 21," says New Orleans gangsta rapper Skip, a native of Hollygrove who has shared stages with Juvenile, the platinum-selling hip-hop star who grew up in the Magnolia projects and is credited with popularizing the city's "bounce" style of rap. "The kids I saw growing up, now they're murderers. You don't want to play with those kids. It's known in New Orleans that you don't hit your horn at a kid standing in the street, cause someone's going to jump out with an AK-47. Ain't no reverse that quick, you gonna die."

Last June, five teenagers were shot and killed in a single drug feud, and police arrested a 19-year-old suspect. The incident prompted Gov. Kathleen Blanco to send the Louisiana National Guard back into the city, where they continue to patrol some of the still half-empty wards that were decimated by Katrina.

"In a lot of neighborhoods the drug market has gotten itself back together before anything else," says Eloise Dunlap, a sociologist with the National Development and Research Institutes in New York who has studied the behavior of drug dealers and users for 25 years. Dunlap is conducting a four-year study funded by the National Institute of Health on the emergent drug trade in post-Katrina New Orleans. She says the scale of it is comparable to the crack cocaine crisis that ravaged New York City during the 1980s. However, she said, "in New Orleans you have a completely unique situation, in which a city was completely emptied out and then the drug dealers returned. It's extremely dangerous at this time. You have people who go back and forth to [other cities], and we really don't have a handle on who they are or where they're from."

Bruce Johnson, co-investigator for the study, said that with much of their customer base still gone, dealers have turned some blocks in flooded-out neighborhoods into open-air drug markets for drive-through traffic. "A lot of the houses and bars and corner stores where transactions used to take place are gone now, so it's happening on street corners," he says. "There are blocks and blocks of abandoned houses where someone can hide a drug stash and run their business."

Exactly how great a quantity of illegal drugs is now washing through the city remains a matter of debate among law enforcement officials, who continue to struggle with an overwhelmed criminal justice system left crippled after Katrina. Michael Sanders, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency office in New Orleans, says the quantity appears to be "about the same" as it was prior to Katrina, but he acknowledges that with a population downsized by half, the drugs are now more concentrated and more widely available. He also says that comparisons are difficult, because his office engaged in no drug enforcement during the last three months of 2005 while assisting the New Orleans police after the flood. And many of the low-income neighborhoods that the agency usually targets had no significant returning population until well into 2006.

But Jim Bernazanni, director of the FBI office in New Orleans, said he has seen a sharp spike in the city's drug trade over the past year. His view is supported by new figures on arrests and seizures released to Salon by the New Orleans office of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federally funded anti-drug trafficking program. According to HIDTA regional director Tony Soto, the program's five local interagency task forces saw a 77 percent increase in drug arrests in the past year: 1,283 drug arrests in 2006, compared with 724 in 2005. HIDTA's cocaine seizures in New Orleans jumped by 189 percent in 2006, while marijuana seizures increased 134 percent last year.

Low-income areas have also seen an influx of new kinds of drugs associated with newly arrived dealers. Soto said Latino dealers have brought methamphetamine, a drug that, compared with other U.S. cities, had made few inroads in New Orleans before Katrina. And in January, the FBI busted a Vietnamese gang in New Orleans East that had smuggled 170,000 ecstasy tablets from Vancouver, British Columbia. Usually associated with affluent college students, ecstasy is now a common street drug in low-income neighborhoods here, officials say.

"Most of the dealers who were active before the storm went to Houston and made connections they didn't have before with Mexican and Colombian drug cartels," says Bernazanni. "Sixty percent of the city is still uninhabitable, so you've got [dealers] fighting over the 40 percent that's left, and spilling over into neighborhoods and surrounding parishes where it wasn't as much of a problem before."

Neighboring Jefferson Parish saw a 135 percent jump in its murder rate in 2006 over the previous year. And in late February, the once relatively quiet suburb of Metairie was besieged by a raging gun battle that took place at an apartment complex in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. Though some details of the incident remain unclear, at around 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 25, four gunmen armed with two AK-47 assault rifles, a shotgun and four large-caliber handguns unleashed a barrage of at least 71 rounds at a ground-floor apartment on Lausat Street. Three men inside were wounded, one critically, and one of the assailants was killed. Only one suspect has been arrested, and no witnesses have come forward. Jefferson Parish sheriff Harry Lee told reporters he believed that the shooting was drug-related.

For their study, Dunlap and Johnson are recruiting people on the streets in high-crime neighborhoods, collecting data from 50 drug dealers and users in New Orleans and from 50 displaced New Orleans residents in Houston. Emphasizing that her subjects are guaranteed anonymity, Dunlap says they are asked open-ended questions about their involvement in the drug trade, covering everything from the type and cost of drugs purchased, to how distribution networks function, to how much pressure dealers feel from law enforcement.

In September, Dunlap presented excerpts from her interviews at a meeting of the American Psychological Association held in New Orleans. "The first time I was back since the storm ... the drugs were everywhere," one subject said. "Dealers are willing to give credit." Another subject said that more experienced dealers who once ruled the neighborhoods had lost control: "[Outsiders] have come in and they're bringing their organized drug trafficking b

Interviews for the study are being managed by Edward Morse, a professor in public health at Tulane University who has studied drug subcultures in New Orleans for 30 years. "It wasn't hard to find them -- the dealers had no customers and had nothing to do," says Morse, who was back on the streets conducting interviews six weeks after Katrina. For a while after the storm, he says, "New Orleans was a paradise for drug users. There were lots of very good drugs and not many people to buy them."

Morse and his two trained ethnographers offer their subjects $25 and free pizza for two hours of conversation, conducting interviews in homes, bars, corner stores and inside cars. "We listen to them and they seem to enjoy having someone to talk with about their problems." From the dealers' point of view, he says, "these are businessmen who have gotten stuck with Katrina like everyone else. But the attitude is, if you don't do what you're supposed to do, I'll kill you."

Rev. John Raphael, minister of New Hope Baptist Church in Central City and a community activist, says that New Orleans needs not only more law enforcement and rebuilding aid for residents, but drug treatment centers, job training programs and, in particular, greater community outrage at a culture of casual, endemic violence. "We need to create an environment where it's not acceptable to take the life of another black youth," said Raphael, who during two weeks in January presided over the funerals of three young black men killed by drug violence. A former police officer, Raphael is often at murder scenes within minutes of police arriving. Since last fall he has organized several marches against crime in Central City, and for years has led a campaign against violence that posts "Thou Shalt Not Kill" posters and billboards in high-crime neighborhoods. He recently simplified his message to one word: "Enough!"

"The perception is that we don't care, that we don't care about the person who gets killed or the person doing the shooting," he said. "It's written off by the news media and the community at large to the drug trade and that makes us feel a little better about not doing anything. We're trying to change that perception."

Bernazanni, who stayed in his flooded FBI office building for three days after Hurricane Katrina, said efforts to stem the new tide of drug violence are hampered by, among other obstacles, a population that has little faith in the local court system and does not trust the police. "You have a generation of young people here who are the products of an education system that didn't educate, a judicial system of no consequences, and a culture of political corruption that has driven businesses away. What you have left is crack cocaine and an AK-47. They suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding of the social contract, of how to deal with people and how to resolve conflicts without using a gun."

In January the Department of Justice announced it was sending federal reinforcements, including six assistant U.S. attorneys, nine FBI agents, six Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents, and three U.S. marshals, while authorizing DEA agents to enforce all federal criminal laws as well as drug violations. In February, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced additional federal funding to help the New Orleans Police Department rebuild its crime lab, which was destroyed during Katrina, and funding for programs assisting crime victims and witnesses.

But the problem here goes deeper than law enforcement issues, says Dunlap. She says her research indicates that while drugs are a catalyst for violence, violent behavior is most often learned. "I'm sure that gangster rap plays some role, but from past experience I've seen how drug abuse and the violence associated with it are taught in families. You have to have a source that keeps feeding kids into this subculture."

One of the city's recent murders seems to bear out Dunlap's point. On Feb. 7, 17-year-old Clarence Johnson gunned down Robert Dawson, also 17, outside a po-boy shop on Clio Street in Central City. According to the Times-Picayune, a witness told police that Johnson's mother, Vanessa, 44, handed her son the gun he used and told him to "get them all." According to the report, Dawson's mother, Dorothy, said they had just returned to New Orleans that day after being exiled in Dallas following Hurricane Katrina. The boys were in a fistfight a few hours before the shooting. Inside Vanessa Johnson's apartment, police found cocaine and a photograph of her son holding a pistol and a wad of cash. Clarence Johnson has since been charged with second-degree murder, and his mother, Vanessa, who was convicted of possession of cocaine in 1999 and sentenced to probation, has been charged with accessory to second-degree murder.

Morse, the Tulane public health professor, believes the worst is yet to come. "I don't think we've seen it yet," he said. "Most of these kids realize at age 15 that they're screwed and the only way to do anything in New Orleans is with the drug trade. I think it's really going to hit the fan come this summer," he said, pointing to the time of year here when crime rates traditionally spike along with the sweltering weather. "It's very depressing to hear a 15-year-old say, 'This is it, this is life,'" Morse added. "And I ask them what they'll be doing at age 22, and they say, 'I'll be dead.'"

By Bill Sasser

Bill Sasser is a writer based in New Orleans.

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