drug wars

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interview: 'paul'


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"Paul" did not have direct contact with the narco networks of Colombia and Mexico. He dealt at the local level in New York City where he would buy large quantities of cocaine, cook it into crack and sell it in the streets. He became addicted to the drug and served time in prison and drug rehabilitation. He is now clean of drugs and working in the computer field. He asked FRONTLINE to conceal his identity. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in 2000.
How were things changed since the 1980s with the police?

Today, they're stricter. They don't let you walk away from anything. They want to know what's going on and if there's a possible arrest to make, they will make it, based on what they see. If they don't see a crime, they still arrest you, they still take you in sometimes, just for the arrest, I guess. Drugs, if you an addict, or you're a bum or you're homeless or something like that--rather than help you, take you to where you supposed to go--they arrest you.

So it was easier back in the days when you could hang out, talk to people on the street. People said hello back in the days. They don't say that to you today. Today, they look at you, uh-huh, and keep going. It's not only the police, the kind of people you have today. There's a lot of Judases around now. People tell on you, even when you're not doing anything, they call the police. . . . And if you're on parole, probation, stuff like that and people know it and they want you out of the way, they do spiteful things. Then they tell on you that you're doing something when you're not. People today--and they're hard, too. Some people you just can't talk to today.

What does it mean when people say, "back in the days?"

Oh, here we go again. Back in the days. I'll go to a different perspective here. Back in the days things were easier. People communicated with other people, people helped people out. I remember when I was in a gang up in Bronx called the Royal Javelins. I don't mind naming them by name. But they had the neighborhood, so that it was drug free. You couldn't sell drugs on the corner anywhere. If you involved yourself in that type of behavior, what happened was that they chased you off, and not so nicely sometimes. Sometimes people were reluctant to leave. But today, it's not like that. Saying back in the days. Back in the days, there was parties, what we called gigs or sets like that where we played hooky and went to somebody's house and danced, smoked a little reefer, a little wine or beer, whatever. We had fun. But also back in the days, like I'm saying, things on the street was a lot different than they are now because of the police and the way that people are today. People are very hard. They treat you with a cold shoulder.

Describe for me the mid-1980s when crack hit New York.

I was a part of that in a big way, up in the Bronx. I used to travel into Manhattan. There were different people, Latino people who felt that when crack addicts or what they called baseheads first started using base, instead of making the base, buying the cocaine and making the base, and they coming back and buying more cocaine like that, they weren't making that much money from it. So they started making the crack cocaine themselves like that and started distributing it that way and since there were, I would say, more baseheads at that time than there were cocaine guys that just sniffed cocaine or guys that shot cocaine, they started making money faster, started moving faster, more people using like that.

It was very addictive, not only the drug, but the lifestyle. Walk around with a gun.  Police dont bother me.  They knew who I was So, there was a lot of drugs, a lot of cocaine. I was in the midst of that because I did a lot of stuff myself that helped them along, also. I cooked a lot of cocaine. I was doing that for a while. But people, once they get into a drug or something like that that's fascinating or really draws their attention or takes them away from everything like that, into another zone or another dimension, they like to beam up Scotty and so, it caught on. It caught on a lot. And that began like in 1983, 1982, around there. But like everybody knows, base that been around forever, but back then it was a high-class drug. Only people like movie stars and sports, they used stuff like that. But when it got past that state and into the street, people was like, wow, overwhelmed. Wow, this is base.

When did you first start being involved with crack?

I used to buy the cocaine and then cook it and make crack out of it. See, this is how I learned how to do it myself. And I got hooked up with some people and started doing it for them on a large scale. That's when I really got into it, into cooking base and stuff like that. It wasn't no little half a gram. It wasn't no half an ounce. You talking about kilos, cooking whole kilos because I don't know what it is, but when you cook more of it in one batch, it becomes more potent, stronger, more powerful, concentrated, like concentrated orange juice--pour it in a quart bottle and add water. Well, this is almost the same thing except in reverse. You take all that cocaine and you come out with a little rock or a little boulder and that become concentrated, it become more pure. A lot of the cocaine that I cooked into crack became somewhere between 98.2 percent pure cocaine. When it hit your system, it hit your system hard. So, people began getting addicted to it and I got addicted to it myself.

When did you get addicted to it?

Around 1983, around there.

How much were you using, and what was it like?

It took me into space, into a big wide space where there was nobody there but me. I was the central figure there. Nobody to bother me, I would say, okay? It took me way out of myself, so I was able to function without having anybody around, or if people were around, I'd just completely phase them out. So I got hooked because of that. I wasn't the kind of guy that got a hit and then started peeking around or here's the police or scared or paranoid or anything like that. I got philosophical. I got talkative. I came out of myself, so I caught onto it like that. That's what started me off on it.

And then, the glamour, the grandiosity, being able to tell people, you want some crack, you want some crack? I got some, I got some. Having it in abundance and giving people out, because I had it like that at that time. So it was very addictive, not only the drug, but the lifestyle. It was tremendously addictive. Four cars parked outside. Walk around with a gun. Police don't bother me. They knew who I was. A lot of police seen me in that neighborhood many, many times, but they never suspected anything and then when they did, they didn't have enough--I've never been arrested for sale or possession of a drug, so I was very, like, acoustic. I bounce off the walls.

What does it mean, "cooking crack?"

When I was in school, right, lot of years ago, science class--they taught you how to make crystals out of certain hydrogen and other molecules and stuff like that. Then you'd heat up, it'd turn into a fluid, then you could turn it into a crystal again. So what you do is, to process the raw cocaine that you get into crack, you re-cook it, melt it down into a fluid or a liquid type where it changes into an oil, more like a thick grease, use a little water, baking soda, you mix it in there real good, then you cook it.

Then at the bottom it gets a residual, like a grease, like an oil, very thick, almost brownish yellow paste. And that's the crack. You take it off the stove--sometimes you know you have to make sure you cook everything, so you had to cook for a couple seconds more, then pour the water out, pour a little cold water in, new water out, little cold water in. This filters out all the impurities. So you're left with this little mass of grease. And that little mass of grease turns into crystals, or like a solid rock, like you hear a lot of people say, "You got any rock?" Meaning rock cocaine, like that, or crack, why? Because it cracks, it sizzles when you smoke it. They call it crack because of that, too.

. . . Crack was a mom-and-pop business?

Maybe more than that, too. It was sister and brother. Well, I don't think the Colombians ever envisioned, or ever had it in their minds, they never fascinated over it, they never thought about it, crack coming from their cocaine. They don't even do that now. They don't cook crack in South America and send it here, even though it would be to their profit. They send the pure cocaine here, and they're going to continue to do that. They are not going to change a good thing. Once they got started with the cocaine, you say, oh, this is a good thing. We don't want to change any of this. It would be very devious if they did, because that would cut out a lot of middle people right here on the streets of New York. It could start a war.

But I don't think they ever envisioned crack. That's America, that's the United States. They don't know. Colombians didn't know. I don't want to call them naive, but in that they were naive. They didn't know that Americans would take something that they had, that was profitable to them, and make it even more profitable to us here.

Who started doing it here?

Well, there were a few guys doing it on their own. It started with a few guys. It didn't start just overnight--everybody was just selling it. It has to catch on first. But the way it caught on, it spread like fire in a dry bush, whoosh, it was just all over the place, and not only here in New York, but it spread out all over, Connecticut, New Jersey, it went everywhere from here. I believe it went everywhere from here. It didn't start in Los Angeles or California. For me it started right here and spread out, like a fire, in a lot of dry kindling. People were like . . . one hit and they were addicts. I've seen them fight over it. Guys deal around the corner, he only got one bottle left. "That one's mine. " "No, it ain't." "We'll fight for it." I've seen that.

The Dominicans were the first?

They were the first to monopolize on it, I'm pretty sure of it, in their naive way. I say naive because they have no happiness. They come from another country with no drug habits, no alcohol habits, and how would you say it, their national plight was money. They have no money. And the easiest way to make money back then was to distribute crack. So a lot of them monopolized whole neighborhoods--if you went from one neighborhood to another, whoever controlled that neighborhood came back, retaliated. It moved into all the communities. Not at once, though. It just slowly spread out. I would say that it hit the Latino and the black community hardest, because it was right there. I wouldn't go into your community and say, "Hey, white guy, hey, white guy, you want to try this?" You know what I'm saying? But the people that live right next door to me, you say, "Yo, what you getting high on? Oh, this is what I'm getting high on. Want to try it?" "Sure, why not."

There's a lot of money to be made?

Millions. Millions. Zillions. Trillions. There was a lot of money to be made. Lot of money. I've seen this personally, I've done this myself, go to work, with the $500 that I earned, working the hours that I worked, to come home that Friday night and spend all of it on crack. Going to get me a welfare check, nowadays they only give you $68 every two weeks, you end up paying all of it to go on crack cocaine, my food stamps, to go on crack cocaine. People will spend anything, sell anything, to get crack cocaine.

Who was making the money?

The people who were selling it, you know, the distributors, basically, whether they are Dominican, black, Puerto Rican, Irish, whoever was distributing it--they were getting the money, ultimately, to buy more cocaine, to make more crack, and make more money.

Were the guys on the street making any money?

No, not really.

But he's taking the risk?

He's taking the risk. He's going to go to jail, and he's not going to get bailed out. He's going to do the time.

So why would someone do that?

Well, money, greed, luxury, grandiosity, social standing. Guy wants to get up in life, get to a point where he don't need no more money, and then just stop, and go on about life--but that never happens, or if it do, it is very rare. It's very rare that anybody gets anywhere in this business anyway. It's a hot dollar for a hot meal, and it's gone. It's here now, gone later. That's the way it is. I've had a lot of money pass through my hands. If I got $30 on me, I've got too much money.

But somebody has got to be making millions.

Zillions. Whoever is distributing, in Colombia, wherever the drug is coming from, they buy it cheap now, but they buy so much of it that it's a profit, it's at a profit, it goes right down the line. See, you got to understand, that when I get money, I spend it. Where is the money going? Money is going everywhere, everywhere at once: car, new tires, nice chromes, Pioneer radio, or a Tiac Pro amp, equalizers, a guy stomping around in the neighborhood with a car that you can hear five blocks away, that's where the money is coming from. . . . Guy taking trips to the Bahamas, that's where it's going. You don't see it, but it's there. Some people choose not to see it.

Part of going out there and dealing, pitching, cadging, or whatever, is that you know the odds. You are going to get busted sooner or later. There is nobody out here that ain't going to get busted sooner or later that is doing something illegal. You've got to know what's going on in your neighborhood. What I look for on the street is an ambulance. Not many people look for an ambulance on the street. I look for an ambulance. I'll circle the block three or four blocks around, or send somebody to look for an ambulance, the EMS, the emergency services, yeah, I look for them. Because wherever they are parked, they are on station, waiting to see if a bust goes down and a bust goes wrong. They have emergency services all over the place, police on this corner, police on that corner, police on that corner, and ambulances parked a block away or two blocks away, something like that.

And half the people, I'm telling you, more than half the people that get arrested on the street for drugs of one sort or the other are little tiny people; they're not the major people that they are supposed to be catching out here with 20 kilos, 50 kilos. Where is the logic? How are you going to arrest 30,000 people in a year, 40,000, 50,000, 100,000 people in a year, and none of them are the big guys? It's politics. We just want the drug dealers and the drug users off the street. Forget about the drug trafficante--the guy that comes around and says, "Yeah, I'll sell you 10, 15 kilos." Where's the logic in that?

Explain to me how it worked when you were in business.

Well, you buy a kilo of cocaine, right, from somebody who is considered a distributor here in New York. Back when I was buying, I spent 35 Gs, 30 Gs, it went down to 20 Gs, 25 Gs, that's regular, you know. Unless you're buying a mass, like 20 kilos, 50 kilos, like that, you get it even cheaper. The more you buy it in one bundle, the less that you have to pay for it. If I sold 10 lines on a gram, that's $10. Unless I mix it with something else and make more of it, you get less, six lines for $10, which is what happened today. The more you can mix stuff into it, the more you can make from it.

How long does it take you to sell it?

In this area? About two minutes. Maybe three. That's how quick it goes.

Even today?

Even today. So people know you when you're selling, people know who's on the street, they know who you are, even the police know who you are. Here's an officer walking around eight hours a day, watching you stand on the same corner for eight hours, all through his shift. You think he don't know you're doing something wrong?

Is crack still here? Is crack still the drug of choice?

Yeah, there's a lot of crack out here. There is more crack being sold in this neighborhood than there is anything else. That I can believe. I've seen it.

But a lot less than in the mid-1980s?

Yeah, I would say that. A lot less. It's like it's becoming an underground cult. You got to know one member to know where all the spots around. A guy that comes into this neighborhood and really don't know anything can't buy anything. If they don't know somebody, they can't buy from you.

What do you think of the war on drugs?

They go around waving all these flags, it's politics. They're waving this flag that says, I'm against drugs. We're going to bust everybody that's got drugs. See what I'm saying? But they're letting it in to the United States. They let it in. People on the street are going to use it. There is a demand for it. And that demand is being met. They got no trouble selling the drug to somebody. People got trouble when they can't buy it because they don't have any money to buy it. That's where the trouble comes from. That's where the politics come in too. Because now these people that are going around stealing to support their habit, they're the ones getting arrested. They are the ones that are taking responsibility for everybody that is selling it.

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