NOTES FROM THE DRUG WARS
by Ernest Drucker
These days U.S. drug czar William Bennett huffs and puffs his way across America and its T.V. talk-show circuit. Recruiting unarmed citizens to stand tall before cold killers with Uzis. As the drug wars enter a new phase of deadly delusion it is presented as plausible that frustrated citizens, fed up with watching their streets turn into violent drug stores, will band together to purge their neighborhood of this booming trade. So, from Brooklyn to Bogota, it's the slaughter of the innocents.
Never mind that the experience with more professional enforcement efforts such as New Yorks' Tactical Narcotics Team (TNT) has already demonstrated that drug dealers and their customers, when pressed, will just move to the next block or react with great violence. Perhaps we are dazed by "a thousand points of light", George Bush's volunteer approach which places all responsibility squarely with those most victimized by America's deepest social problems.
New York City has already spent over $160,000,000 on the TNT approach which has produced about 10,000 drug arrests - that's about $16,000 per bust. Add another $25,000 for trial costs and $30-$40,000 (per year) for imprisonment and, soon, we are talking real money - half a billion dollars a year or so. All for l 0,000 street level user/dealers who will spend an average of about 6 months in jail. For most, this will be a brief post-graduate course in serious criminal habits and associations - enough to last a short, brutish lifetime. By way of comparison, New York State last year spent about $360 million on all of its 35,000 drug treatment slots and prevention services.
Given the likelihood that there are a couple of hundred thousand more user/dealers on the street, this police effort will make no serious dent in the problem. Nor would doubling or tripling its numbers. Since police can't accomplish much with specially trained, heavily armed SWAT teams, local citizens full of outrage and armed with righteous indignation can enter the breach. And if a few people get killed in the process? Well, with 'la thousand points of light" glowing in this dark world full of automatic weapons, it is inevitable that some will get shot out now and then. War, after all, is hell.
Nevertheless, this summer, Carlos and Maria Hernandez, full of this new spirit that is upon our land, took on the dealers of Starr Street "to rid their neighborhood of drugs". Starr Street is a block in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and is typical of many of the run-down immigrant neighborhoods of New York. This one is mostly Latino - Puerto Rican, Equadorian, Argentine, Colombian. Cultures in which family ties and local community life are important. Neighborhoods like this are composed of attached apartment houses where people sit outside and watch the passers-by on warm summer days and only slightly cooler nights. Streets where everyone knows everyone else, helps out with each other's kids when someone has to attend to the all-too-frequent crises that inevitably arise in the lives of poor immigrant families in New York.
Carlos Hernandez, age 42, is a large-framed strong man - a building contractor who has worked hard to buy the small apartment house where he lives with Maria, his 34 year old wife, and their three children. Maria is a book-keeper for a hospital investment and management corporation all the way out in New Jersey. She leaves home very early in the morning to get back soon enough to spend some time with their three year old son Carlos and two other teenage children, Andrea 15 and Shawn 19. The Hernandezes were not yet cynical or sceptical enough to distrust the message of the drug warriors or to recognise it as political rhetoric. Perhaps they had a vision of America as a place of frontier justice where heroism and self sacrifice are rewarded - backed up by strong willed men of power in Washington. For over three years they had confronted the local dealers and, to a small extent, interfered with their brisk business. But not without paying a price. Carlos had already been shot twice, and had his arm slashed in a recent fight with a drug dealing couple next door. He had been threatened by a local dealer with an Uzi. A police patrol car cruised by the Starr Street house regularly to check on their safety.
Still, at 4.30 am, on a hot summer morning, as she dressed for work behind closed curtains (too naive to realize her silhouette would be visible from the darkened street) Maria was hit in the temple and killed by one of five bullets fired through her window from a passing car. The police patrol had passed by one hour earlier. Two weeks later Willie 'Bundles' Figueroa was arrested and charged with the murder along with his associate Hector (Harry) Santiago. Willie Bundles was a local dealer/user who delivered packets of 1,000 glassine envelopes of "La Bamba" and "Dead on Arrival" heroin to Starr Street. Brand loyalty is built by local dealers. Santiago was a "street manager" in charge of the local distribution network and both Figueroa and Santiago lived nearby. This is typical of the scene in Bushwick. The local police precinct reports that, of the 286 people arrested in the neighborhood in a four month period this spring and summer, over 68% were residents of the same street on which they were arrested and dealt drugs.
The Hernandez family had a high profile in the war on drugs. Chief Frances X. Smith, of the Brooklyn homicide squad, disclosed that Hernandez had been providing information about drug trafficking to the police for several years. "He was very vocal against drugs (and has) aggravated quite a few people on the block". Efrain Cruz, Hernandez' brother-in-law, understood the problem very well. &'Everyone out here had Carlos as a squealer, as a rat. He was the only one who wanted to keep this block clean". Why were the Hernandezes so alone? Perhaps it is because they had become part of a campaign to prosecute and imprison their neighbors.
The intense media attention that followed Maria Hernandez' murder on Star Street brought out some important and interesting facts about that world. The vast majority of people on Starr Street have a "live and let live" attitude about the drug trade - part fear and part complicity. This immigrant neighborhood lives with the drug trade as it lives with other depredations run-down housing, dead-end low paid jobs, and deteriorated schools. The important pleasures of daily life are family and friends, getting a kid through to first communion, or having a beer after a long day at work. The American dream, for most of Starr Street, is to get the hell out to a better neighborhood as soon as possible or to get enough money to go back to Ecuador or Puerto Rico with a nest egg for early retirement.
The fact is that the drug trade is the single largest industry in this and many other inner-city communities. Neglected by City, State and Federal programs, many residents of these blocks have developed (and become dependent upon) drug dealing, both to supply their own habits and to finance a life which, albeit ever so briefly, mimics the world they see on T.V. or in the better parts of town. They know all too well that the customized BMW's and Jeeps and Toyotas with blackened windows and gold chain steering wheels don't belong to local stockbrokers. When you take on the drug trade, you take on the hot dreams of local youth - dreams of beating the system. To deny these dreams, without an alternative to offer, is a dangerous exercise in futility.
So the "drug martyrs" are now legion.
Miami-area grocer Lee Arthur Lawrence, hit by over 30 bullets from automatic weapons, as he stood in the doorway of his grocery store last March after a long and visible campaign against local drugs dealers; or last June in Milwaukee, "anti-drug activist" Euclid Lewis, killed in the middle of a shoot-out between drugs dealers as he tried to protect his neighbors caught in the cross-fire; or 18 year old Michael Murphy of the Bronx, killed by a-meat cleaver in the chest as he tried to chase two crack smokers from the hallway of his tenement on Tiebout Avenue (a block from where I used to live when I attended City College in 1959). Now his mother, along with the Guardian Angels, walks in the block patrol staring down local drug users and dealers.
And around the corner from Starr Street, where Maria Hernandez was killed, the children at the Ridgewood Day Nursery practise "Gunfire Drills". Similar drills were recently instituted in Los Angeles and Washington public schools following several "drive-by" shootings and, in Sacramento, the slaughter of five children by a crazed Rambo-style gunman with an AK 47 assault rifle - the favorite weapon of the drug dealers and one which President Bush refuses to restrict because of his close ties with the politically powerful National Rifle Association. Back at the Ridgewood Nursery School they tell the kids when they take them out, "if you hear fire crackers (i.e. gunshots) and the teacher tells you to lay down, you get down as quick as you can. Whoever does it the quickest gets a lollipop".
Meanwhile in Lebanon, Pennsylvania-America's blue-collar heartland - police discovered a group of school children operating a "make believe drug ring" in which they offered bags of grass clippings and sugar. The kids kept books of mock drug transactions in a ledger and on slips of coloured note paper. One note read "cocaine small half baggie, 55 cents, small baggies $1" reported the Harrisburg newspaper - The Patriot. (Note the volume discount). "We just lost the war on drugs" said local police Captain Bernie Reilly" I don't care what Bush says, this is bad".
This summer throughout the U.S. and abroad, Maria Hernandez' death was transformed into a media event. It symbolized both the genuine frustration and anguish of this city and the political hype of its drug wars. Even Maria's funeral became another skirmish line drawn down the middle of Bushwick. Anonymous bomb threats were called into the funeral home where Maria's casket lay, "You have four and half minutes to get out - if you don't the place is going up in smoke". "GHOULS!" screamed the tabloid headlines; "Bomb Threat Routs Mourners At Wake For Drug Martyr: 'They killed my wife, now they won't let me bury her in peace' Her Husband Rages".
All the local politicians swarmed to Carlos Hernandez' side to associate themselves with Maria's "martyrdom". In a particularly bizarre twist, Conservative mayoral candidate and cosmetics millionaire Ronald Lauder, appeared with Carlos Hernandez and Gerald Prieser - founder and chairman of the Federation of New York State Rifle and Pistol Clubs. Lauder, a former U.S. Ambassador to Austria, who had spent thirteen million dollars of his own fortune on a failed election campaign, is a strong advocate of the death penalty for drug dealers and, according to Mr. Prieser, "the only Republican who stands foursquare for the right to bear arms." Lauder himself has a gun permit. The Federation had planned to give Mr. Hernandez its $500 Courageous Citizens Award but had now decided instead to pay for his gun permit application which includes a $135 filing fee and $29 for finger printing. It is unclear what would become of the other $336. Further, should Hernandez' application be rejected (New York State has one of the toughest gun control laws in the country), Lauder was prepared to pay the legal fees needed to appeal the case to the State Supreme Court since, according to one of Lauder's lawyers, "Mr Hernandez has put his life and his family's life on the line and there should be no question of his right to carry a gun".
At Maria Hernandez' burial service, which followed a three mile cortege cum anti-drug rally through Brooklyn's sweltering streets, New York Mayor Ed Koch, praised the couple. Praised their willingness "To stand up and endanger themselves and their children and say 'enough is enough"'. He said Mrs Herndandez' was just not "a simple death", but "extraordinary". Only David Dinkins, who would one month later beat Ed Koch in the Democratic primary election and go on to become New York's next and first black Mayor, got up at the funeral, right after Koch, to say " I have really a very simple message. It is sad that you have to do what organized society and government should have done". Bless David Dinkins for that simple truth- a truth which was echoed by Maria Hernandez' fifteen year old daughter Andrea "I am proud of what they have done. But for it to cost my mother's life - it's not worth it. I'm sorry, it's not worth it."
Ernest Drucker, Ph.D. is director of the Drug Treatment Program and Professor of Epidemiology and Social Medicine at Montefiore Medical Centre/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx