National Geographic : 1990 May
A dented blue police car pulled up, and two young officers, bareheaded, with their hair combed back, stared coldly at the corner. Business slowed, the dealers' voices dropping as one of the cops spoke into a walkie-talkie, then drove away. I went down another street and found an undercover officer frisking two young men against a brick wall. These sus pects looked about 14. "Kids support their parents by selling drugs now," explained a uniformed cop who had come with others to assist the undercover offi cer. You can buy crack, heroin, angel dust, and other illegal drugs in a hundred places in East Harlem. When the city police depart ment's tactical narcotics teams swept dealers out of the Lower East Side, West Harlem, Queens, and Washington Heights, the push ers moved to the barrio, renting apartments, working out of grocery stores, moving on. "We need a warrant to go in," the cop said. "By then it's too late. Our hands are tied." A woman dispatcher's voice crackled on his radio, calling out another address. The day would be long. "Drugs have become a major part of the economy," said the young officer, whose white bulletproof vest showed under his shirt. Neither the New York City Police Depart ment nor the federal Drug Enforcement Agency knows how much drug money changes hands in the barrio each day. But Capt. Joseph Lisi of the police department's narcotics divi sion was willing to guess: "It's millions of dol lars a year," an amount that would easily cover the rent on the Empire State Building. Not so long ago, it was different. "This was a nice community," recalls Pete Before innocent eyes, drugs and thousands of dollars change hands each day in el barrio East, or Spanish, Harlem. A line forms at night outside a school on 117th Street; look outs whistle and shout code words to screen passersby (far left). A recent 90-day police operation saw the arrest of 2,000 for sale or possession-many from outside the city-and the seizure of more than a hundred firearms. "I'mafraid of crack fiends," one dealer admit ted. "They're savages." Avoiding crack's intense but brief high and its subsequent jitters, some addicts prefer shooting speedball, cocaine and heroin, a practice that like all frequent needle use col lapses veins and causes swelling.