On Miami's meanest streets, you can watch children, some just 10 years old, stroll to the curb, hand something to a motorist and then return to another adult. What you've seen is a cocaine deal.
Jamaican crime gangs recruit teen-agers out of low-income housing projects in New York City to work as $400-a-week salesmen in "crack houses" in Philadelphia.
A 12-year-old boy, wearing an anti-drug T-shirt but anxious to join a street gang was recently arrested in Los Angeles and charged with selling cigarettes laced with the hallucinogenic PCP.
Police nationwide report that an increasing number of juveniles--many poor and street-tough, others naive and vulnerable--are being lured, used and abused in the fast, violent and big-money world of narcotics trafficking.
"More and more kids are selling drugs. They're looking for easy money. We arrested one kid, 8 years old, selling PCP," said Isaac Fulwood Jr., an assistant police chief in Washington, D.C.
In the last year, about 1,400 children, 38% under age 16, have been arrested in the nation's capital on drug-related charges, most involving sales. That's nearly a 500% jump from five years ago.
Other cities, particularly major drug markets like Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Dallas and San Diego, have experienced similar surges.
Drug dealers use children as delivery boys, messengers, lookouts and salesmen in an attempt to shield themselves from the law. Juveniles, children under age 18, generally get probation and no permanent criminal record.
"We're seeing a change in pattern by kids from experimental marijuana use to cocaine street sales for profit," said Lt. W. K. Harper of the Los Angeles Police Department's juvenile narcotics division.
In 1986, Los Angeles police arrested about 2,500 juveniles on charges of possession or sale of cocaine, compared to just 100 such cases in 1983. Many young dealers wore thousands of dollars in jewelry bought with drug money.
Last May, police in Philadelphia arrested a teen-age cocaine dealer. They found $10,000 in cash in his sock drawer--and 72 pairs of sneakers in his closet.
Miami police undercover agent Louis Ferraro has seen suspected teen-age dealers behind the wheels of BMWs, Volvos and Mercedes. He has also watched children, including one shirtless toddler, in cocaine transactions.
"The adults sell the drugs, but they have the children handle the drugs and the money" to distance themselves from the action, Ferraro said.
In these deals, the buyer is told to drive his car down the street and back. When he complies, a child, some only 10 to 12 years old, is waiting to hand over drugs and collect money. The dealer watches from a safe distance.
"This is going on. They (adult dealers) think they are going to get away with it. But they aren't," said Ferraro, who recently participated in an undercover operation that resulted in the arrest of an adult who had a young accomplice.
Miami police, like those in other cities, refer children used by their parents to sell drugs to city rehabilitative services. But often they return home, and ultimately to the streets.
"We're between a rock and a hard place," Ferraro said, noting that the courts often side with parents in custody battles. "Mothers say, 'Oh, I didn't know. Oh, I didn't know. It won't happen again.' "
Some young dealers don't get a second chance. They are gunned down. About 30% of murders are drug-related.
"We advise kids of the dangers," said Los Angeles Police Detective George Sumpter. "There was this 13-year-old arrested for selling cocaine. We told him he could be killed. We showed him pictures of shootings.
"But nothing affected him. He said a year ago, while selling cocaine, his friend was sent up to a car and was shot in the face. He said he thought the money was worth the risks. He didn't think anything would happen to him."
Last year, Congress tried to get children out of the drug market. It passed legislation that doubled jail time for adults convicted of dealing drugs with the aid of a minor. The measure followed a hearing at which a former dealer told a Senate subcommittee about recruiting children.
"Mostly the younger youth are not too much inclined to be smoking cocaine. They like to be dressed up in gold chains and nice outfits," the witness said.
"Most of them like to go to school dressed well, and the crack house means money in their pocket. . . . If they are poor and on welfare . . . helping a dealer is a good opportunity."
Police, prosecutors and judges support the new jail time as an effective tool to combat drug dealers. But thus far the measure has had a questionable impact.
Michael Cobb, a prosecutor in Washington, D.C., said children often refuse to "blow the whistle" on their bosses. "I'm not sure if the kids are loyal or are just scared."
Cobb said that in a few cases the child's drug boss has turned out to be his own parents. Other times, the boss is another juvenile who works for an adult. Many belong to street gangs.