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April 11, 2003
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38 Arrested as NYC Drug Ring is Broken Up

By Shaila K. Dewan, The New York Times

The way law enforcement officials described it, the operation was run like a small corporation, except that it had no name. The employees got salaries, per diems and meal allowances. They had manufacturing set-ups, inventory and profits.

And they ran their business - selling $10 bags of crack, the police said - as efficiently as bank tellers, out of apartment buildings on one block of West 146th Street, whose vestibules they commandeered each night.

On Tuesday night, the police shut down the operation, arresting 31 people, confiscating nearly $100,000 in cash, and stationing uniformed officers where the dealers once stood, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said at a news conference yesterday.

The brazen, front-door drug market seemed like a throwback to the crack epidemic years, when entire blocks were controlled by drug gangs, the police said. Commissioner Kelly called it an "aberration." But officials acknowledged that the block, on 146th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, has been home to an entrenched drug problem for years.

And, the commissioner said, 90 percent of the cocaine in New York City today still passes through drug organizations in northern Manhattan.

Before Tuesday night, when busloads of officers raided 545, 546, 550 and 552 West 146th Street, crack customers waited on the sidewalk, where members of the gang would allow a few at a time to cross the street and make their buys, the police said.

The 38 defendants (seven people were arrested earlier) face a total of 100 counts of sale and possession of narcotics and conspiracy to distribute narcotics. Several, including Miguel Hernandez, 41, who the police said was the leader of the group, would face a maximum sentence of 25 years to life if convicted.

In a surveillance video shown by the police yesterday, a man who they said was a 19-year-old dealer stood at the door to one of the tenement-style walk-ups, shuffling through a thick wad of money after each transaction.

As open as it was, the gang, as the police called it, went to great lengths to avoid police detection.

Its members stationed lookouts on corners and rooftops with walkie-talkies, which are more difficult to intercept than cellular phones, to warn of approaching patrol cars.

They had planned escape routes and safe haven apartments. When they suspected the police were closing in, they began to wear black ski masks and carry less money and crack.

"It's been clever," said Bridget Brennan, the special narcotics prosecutor for the city, whose office also worked on the yearlong investigation. "The police have moved, they've counter-moved."

On Tuesday night, the police sent uniformed officers onto the block, which they knew would cause the dealers to vanish into their appointed safe rooms. Then, as plainclothes officers grabbed the lookouts and other officers sealed off the predetermined escape routes, two city buses pulled up, said Deputy Inspector Steven Betts, commander of the Narcotics Division's Northern Manhattan Initiative.

The buses served two purposes: camouflage, and transportation for enough police for the raid. The officers found $90,000 in cash, about one kilogram of powdered cocaine and about one kilogram that had already been made into crack to be sold at $10 a quarter-gram, Commissioner Kelly said.

The group sold an estimated 90 kilograms of crack each year for profits of about $3 million, he said.

Dealers were given money to make change and were even allowed a specific margin of error, Ms. Brennan said.

The gang members either grew up together or were linked by marriage, Commissioner Kelly said. Several of them had apartments in the buildings. One father and son who were arrested had an apartment near the front of the building that the police say was used as a safe haven.

"These were buildings which house about 200 law-abiding citizens," Ms. Brennan said. "And they were really commandeered by masked men in the entryways who were dictating who could come in and out of those buildings from 10 p.m. at night until 10 a.m. in the morning."

Inspector Betts said that the local precinct had received a lot of complaints, and that it was difficult to reassure residents that something was being done without disclosing the investigation.






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