KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Jamaicans were easy to spot. When the police here started arresting men in dreadlocks, they knew something was up. Trouble is, they had no idea what.
The Jamaicans talked differently, dressed differently and acted differently from Americans. "They stuck out like a sore thumb," said police Sgt. Marcus Harris. But nobody knew why they were here.
It wasn't until the bodies started piling up in crack houses across the city that the realization dawned: Kansas City was being invaded by violent Jamaican drug gangs.
Volatile and ambitious, the gangs--called posses, after the gunslinging peacekeepers in movie Westerns--were in large part responsible for the rapid spread of the drug crack into the nation's heartland in the mid-1980s.
The growth of the Jamaican gangs is also evidence--along with the rise of Colombian, Asian, Russian and other ethnic crime organizations--of the changing face of organized crime in America, authorities say.
Kansas City once was home to powerful Mafia families, whose ranks have been weakened in recent years by a series of successful prosecutions. Although law enforcement officers invoke the memory of Al Capone and Frank Nitti to describe the viciousness and vaunting ambition of the new gangsters, since the mid-1980s Kansas City's most fearsome crime family has spoken with a Jamaican accent.
"The Jamaicans introduced crack to Kansas City," Capt. Dave Barton of the city police department said.
Took Crack to Other Cities
According to federal authorities, they also introduced the highly addictive cocaine derivative or facilitated its spread to Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, rural West Virginia and elsewhere.
After first setting up operations in Miami and New York in the early 1980s, the Jamaican posses soon branched out to other East Coast cities and to the South and Midwest, spreading crack and death as they went. Nationally, the violent gangs have been blamed by the FBI for 1,400 deaths since 1985, the year they first came to the government's attention.
The posses won grudging respect from authorities for their business acumen, if nothing else.
"They do market research," Barton said. "They determine where the money can be made. And, if there's an opening, they move in."
"I just think they're good marketing folk," said Alvin Brooks, founder of a citizens' group that fights crime in Kansas City's black neighborhoods by operating a 24-hour hot line for tips and giving cash rewards for information leading to arrests. "Not that they follow the Dow-Jones averages, but they figure out where . . . the demand can be developed for their product."
The posses targeted Kansas City early.
On the face of it, this Midwestern city seemed a peculiar choice. There long has been a Jamaican community here, but it was tiny--fewer than 1,000 hard-working, law-abiding, decent people, the police stress.
Some police officers were concerned about the growing presence of Jamaican criminals here as early as 1983. But, by the time the department higher-ups began to take notice--in 1986, about the time that the federal government began a national crackdown--the posses had moved 450 gang members into town, set up business in 50 crack houses and created a demand for the drug that shows no sign of abating.
It was a slow, wet Friday night in Kansas City. Sgt. Marcus Harris was cruising rain-slick streets.
Despite the weather, the crack houses were busy. After slowing down in front of one that the police had closed and boarded up the week before, Harris turned his spotlight on the open door. There were furtive glances from the people inside. The squad car kept moving.
"You shut them down and they're back open the next week, sometimes the next day," Harris said.
A few minutes later, driving through a sprawling north side housing project--a "supermarket of crack," Barton calls it--Harris called out to a group of young men standing outside in the drizzle. "What's up fellows? What's going on?"
Fear etched their faces briefly, until they saw that it was not a bust.
Harris knows many of the small-time drug dealers--the "local entrepreneurs," as Barton calls them, who are helping to satisfy the high demand for crack created by the Jamaicans. Sometimes he takes it on himself to talk to them, to try to help them straighten out their young lives.
"My thing is, I don't want them to feel like I'm a threat to them," he said as he drove the city's meanest streets. "I tell them I'm a police officer--'If you do something wrong, I'm going to bust you.' " But, even though it angers him that they are selling drugs, "I don't antagonize them. I don't roughhouse them.
"This generation that we got coming up right now, they're definitely in jeopardy--an endangered species."
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