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VALLEY OF THE SHADOW: The Badlands

deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY Last week’s daylight shooting of multiply convicted drug gang leader Jose “Mostro” Ortiz and the wave of retaliatory carnage unleashed in the Badlands provides an opportunity to share some knowledge I’ve gained about that neighborhood’s inner workings.  I learned a little bit about the Badlands both during the time I spent working there in social services (most recently as a school based behavioral health worker in an elementary school not far from the original murder scene) and through conversations with former and active addicts who have recently been involved in the area’s drug culture.  Hopefully my contribution can add a street-level perspective to the coverage of what has become a major violent crime outbreak that just yesterday saw another body dropped on Indiana Avenue.

For those who know relatively little about the Badlands I should start by noting that it’s a barrio made up largely of Puerto Rican and Dominican families. There are blocks in the Badlands that skew black or white, but the bulk of the population here is Latin, a fact that is reflected in, among other things, the many corner mom and pop restaurants that serve up heaps of red beans and rice, piles of roast pork, plantains and thick slabs of heavily salted fried pork skin. TheBoricua flavor extends beyond the food; the facades of many row homes are hung with Puerto Rican flags and painted in bright Caribbean colors.  Reggeaton and Spanish language rap throbs from the sound systems of hooped up imports that zip along tight streets turned into tricky slalom courses by perennially double-parked cars.

The Badlands extends from roughly B Street and Lehigh Avenue over to 8th Street and up to Erie Avenue.  It encompasses the neighborhoods of Fairhill and most of West Kensington. Of course, the area has been forever infamous for its heroin trafficking and related violence — another Badlands peculiarity is the thick, curving wrought iron bars and heavy doors that entirely enclose the porches of many of those festively colored row homes, lending the structures an imposing, fortress-like appearance.

I’ve been told by numerous addicts that have spent years copping dope here that the Badlands, while seeming chaotic and dangerous to outsiders, is actually a highly organized drug distribution network that addicts prefer to drug markets in other parts of the city. Addicts prefer the Badlands dope corners because they usually pose a relatively low violence risk to consumers. These corners operate in an orderly fashion and have a command structure based on hierarchical family ties that resemble Italian mob syndicates.  By contrast, addicts report that drug corners in the surrounding black neighborhoods are often run by rag-tag crews of gun strapped teenagers who heed no authority and will sometimes start blasting at each other or even their own customers just for kicks.

The hierarchy and inner workings of Badlands drug corners was explained to me in great detail a while back by someone intimately familiar with the neighborhood, who knows exactly how these corners work. I’ll let the source speak for himself, reproducing his written correspondence in its entirety below.

“Street level dealers don’t typically carry guns, at least not in West Kensington/Fairhill, which is what I’m most familiar with. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t have access to them, or that they won’t use them. I’ve known quite a few people that got shot or shot at. Most of the incidents were about territory. They weren’t gang related or anything like that.

As you might know, most blocks/corners are ‘owned’ by the people that live there or around there. At least that’s always been the case in my experience. Now, these people that ‘own’ the corners don’t normally sell themselves. They’re the ones that buy wholesale and supply ‘caseworkers’ and street level dealers with pre-stamped bundles of heroin. A street level dealer will typically get a 13-14 bag bundle for anywhere between $70-90, and he has the right to sell it anywhere, but will usually sell at the corners/blocks that the owner has. Conflict surfaces when you have other dealers trying to sell on an owned corner, when someone is trying to sell counterfeit stamps (either copycat stamps or fake dope), when someone is constantly ripping off customers, when a dealer tries to steal established customers, etc.”

The same source, a longtime addict who grew up near the Badlands and now spends his days there hanging with the drug crews, provided a bullet pointed breakdown of the Badlands drug corner operational hierarchy:

“Wholesalers: Distribute dope to owners. May also distribute pre-cut and pre-stamped bundles that are part of one larger organization. Typically know or work for people who receive the dope as soon as it enters our market.

Owners: They buy ‘uncut’ dope from a wholesaler. They then cut the dope themselves (thiamine, lactose usually), bag it up, and stamp it with whatever they want. They’ll then give it to caseworkers or street level dealers.

Caseworkers: Complete re-ups, keep track of the street level dealers. Collect money in exchange for drugs. Usually the link between street level dealers and owners. Not all owners use caseworkers, some deal directly with the street level dealers.

Street Level dealers: People you see on the corner making hand to hands.”

The street level dealers in the Badlands tend to be young; some are children as young as 12.   Many of these children are related by blood to the Caseworkers and Owners who run their block. Other addicts I’ve known have testified to this organized, pyramidal nature of Badlands drug corners that typically puts young kids on the streets making sales.  One ex-addict recently explained to me that he rarely bought off kids older than the age of 15, and many of the young street level dealers had created distribution networks of their own.  They used cell phones to build up a veritable Rolodex of reliable white customers from downtown that they provided delivery services to.

“I hardly ever bought off kids older than 12 or 13,” the ex-addict told me. “My guy would hop on the El for an extra twenty bucks; I would meet him at the Gallery and get a bundle off him.”

The newspapers printed the seemingly ironic misspelling of the victim’s street name, “Monstro,” that appears spray painted on the garage behind his memorial (pictured above). The correct spelling, “Mostro,” is written on the forehead of a white teddy bear that is a part of the memorial; it appears this way on Myspace pages belonging to his immediate family members.  It’s worth noting that while Mostro had a well documented lifelong history of drug dealing and was a known Badlands drug corner owner, his family still grieves his loss.  Many, including his young nieces and two daughters, are doing so online.  OnMyspace his 18 year old daughter posted a blog entry that starts, “It hurts so much writing ‘RIP Daddy,’ I never thought the day would come.” She goes on to detail her struggle to come to grips with the loss of her frequently absent father, whom she couldn’t locate in the weeks preceding his death.

“Do you know I’m here going crazy, knowing I’m not going to see your bald head, or hear your voice,” she continues before summing up her feelings succinctly, powerfully:

“It hurts, it hurts a lot.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as social workers in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods.

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