Against Odds, They Take On Drugs In Badlands On Every Corner, Dealers Sell. With Small Numbers, A Task Force Presses On Despite Risks.

Posted: March 20, 1997

Angel Hernandez turned the '87 Plymouth Gran Fury into the 2700 block of Darien Street and immediately found his way blocked.

An older man had double-parked, the motor running, while he waited for a woman to hand him his drugs out of the front door of a rowhouse. Hernandez, the leader of the North Philadelphia Task Force, East Division, leaned on his horn. The man held up his hand, asking for patience.

As Hernandez and his partner waited, a group of young men surrounded the car and began taunting them. ``Looks like the policia,'' they yelled, laughing loudly. It was a typical moment on a tour of Philadelphia's drug supermarket, also known as the Badlands.

Hernandez and his partner, Frankie Hernandez (no relation), are not police officers. They are among 15 active members of a town watch group that persists in the face of insurmountable odds in one of the most dangerous, most drug-drenched neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

Every night, sometimes all night, members of the group cruise the streets of the Badlands, a dark labyrinth of boarded-up rowhouses, illegal dumps, derelict cars, chop shops, bars, Chinese takeout joints and grocery stores, a few even stocked.

Theirs is a cause both hopeless and weirdly inspiring. By watching, witnessing and summoning police when they see trouble, they hope to make a difference, even by the most minute degrees.

It's a risky business. Angel Hernandez says he's been shot at and had letters sent to him threatening to bomb his house. Other members of the town watch say they have had their tires slashed, their cars vandalized, their lives threatened.

For all that, the drugs keep flowing. The users keep coming. The problems only grow.

And the group presses on.

``A lot of people tell us to stop risking our life,'' said Angel Hernandez, 30, an out-of-work truck driver and father of two who has been involved in the group since it was formed about 10 years ago. ``We don't care. We want to try to get this neighborhood straight.''

``I don't know why they do it,'' said Roe Colon, a neighborhood resident who doesn't belong to the group but is grateful its members are out there every night.

``They don't get paid,'' said Colon, 35, a mother of two who has lived in the 3200 block of North Reese Street for 15 years. ``They're risking their lives, their families' lives, their property, and they continue to do it.''

They do it, they say, because they have children and they want to make the neighborhood streets safer for their kids.

Nydia Cruz, one of five women in the group, seemed startled when she was asked why she patrols the streets at night.

Then she shrugged. ``I have four kids.''

``We keep at it because it's basically what we believe in,'' said William Cepeda, 33, the group's treasurer.

A few have thought about becoming police officers, but most are past the age of starting a career in law enforcement. They patrol the Badlands because that's where they live, they want the place to be better, and they think they can help.

``If you get one guy off the street that had a gun and was not supposed to have a gun, or help prevent one robbery, then you've done something for the community,'' said group member Jeff Myers, 29, a motorcycle technician.

When they go out at night, they see a dealer on almost every corner. Sometimes, they get to the next dealer before they reach the next intersection.

At 7:30 on a recent Thursday night, it was impossible to turn off Fifth Street onto Willard without winding up among cars lined up for drug buys near a corner bar.

The immaculate rowhouse of Eva and Frankie Hernandez is just around the corner, on the 3200 block of North Reese. That was where the group gathered before hitting the streets.

``That corner has been going on like that for five, six years,'' said Angel Hernandez. ``It's been raided one time, and they closed down the bar. They keep on reopening it under different names.

``When the cops come, it clears out. They run inside the bar.''

In about three hours' time, he drove past corner after corner where drugs were being dealt brazenly in the open: Sixth and Seventh and Pike, Sixth and Seventh and Clearfield, Franklin and Clearfield, Hancock and Cambria, Hancock and Somerset, Hope and Cambria, Eighth and Ninth and Darien, and on and on.

Dealing is a consumer-driven operation, like drive-through fast food. Cars slow down at intersections or turn into small streets, dousing their lights. The occupants are tended to by the street dealers. A young man runs up to the passenger window, takes an order. Then, another worker takes the money. Finally, the customer is given his order by a third worker. The car pulls off and another takes its place.

Ten dollars will bring a pinch of heroin, about three lines of cocaine, or enough marijuana for two blunts, or cigarettes.

``They have two and three drug locations in the same block,'' Angel Hernandez said. ``One has crack, one has pot, one has cocaine.''

Many customers come, judging by the tags seen recently, from New Jersey and Delaware. And they come in nice cars - Jeep Cherokees, Ford Broncos, Nissan Sentras, Toyota Camrys. They even come in cabs.

``If I stop 10 cars in one night at Hope and Cambria, nine would be kids from the suburbs,'' said a 26th Police District officer who did not want his name used. ``They risk life and limb and their parents' cars to come here and buy dope. . . .

``This area is not on the way to anywhere. Nobody who comes here is just passing by on their way to someplace else. You have to go out of your way to get to this little neighborhood.''

As Angel Hernandez and his partner continued their patrol, they passed vacant lots with enough derelict cars to open dealerships.

``They steal them, then bring them here to strip them,'' Hernandez said. ``They have police scanners, so if we see something and call it in, they torch the car and are gone by the time the cop gets here.''

The Task Force members drove past rundown bars packed with young men drinking malt liquor. They pointed out grocery stores with no stock in the windows or on the shelves.

They stopped at a sidewalk memorial at Fifth and Cambria made of cards and candles and stuffed animals for Omar Montanez, 19, who was shot to death a few days earlier. Neighbors say he was killed in a dispute over a girl. Police say they don't know who did it.

The Badlands is an area of North Philadelphia east of Broad and south of Hunting Park Avenue. Drug gangs took over the corners in the mid-1980s. Business boomed. It remains to this day an open-air market. Police say there are many reasons for that, including too few officers.

``When you have only so many officers,'' said the 26th District officer, ``they don't have the luxury of sitting a block away, taking out their binoculars, and identifying the guy who handles the money, the guy who carries the drugs, and the guy who watches the stash. They're run ragged on job after job.''

Said another officer: ``No matter how many cops we show on paper, there's not enough on the street to ensure the safety of the people.''

A cruiser in the neighborhood is easily spotted - ``They have lookouts,'' said the officer - and the dealers simply slip into one of those bars or Chinese takeout places until the car passes. And if the police do clear a corner, the dealers simply set up shop down the block.

Police say that they don't get much cooperation from residents, who fear reprisal from the dealers, and that dealers they do arrest are back on the street, free on bail, almost before they finish booking them.

``I've locked up the same guy four times in four years,'' said one officer. ``All he has to do is yell that I'm a dirty cop and planting drugs on him, and there goes my job.

``I have a family. Who wants to risk their job for that scum?''

Lt. John Gallo, a narcotics platoon commander in the East Division, says what goes on in the Badlands is a symptom of a larger problem.

``We do the best we can in an area of poverty where there is no hope,'' he said. ``The real reason for the Badlands is a general lawlessness in all society.

``We arrest thousands. We're doing what we're supposed to do. But somewhere along this pipeline, there's a lot of leaks.''

In such a place, the North Philadelphia Task Force tries to make an impact.

``In reality, we can't make a difference,'' said Cepeda, a security contractor. ``But it's going to be there every day, so you have to be there every day.

``If you give up, then it's over.''

The group aids the community in many ways, from helping with crowd control during rallies and neighborhood functions, to chasing away wall-writers, to sitting outside Edison High School as people leave after night courses.

Police on the street say the town-watch group helps them, too, even if the help is a little hard to see.

For one thing, members of the group sometimes serve as translators when police need someone who speaks Spanish.

Members of the group are given access to mug shots, and they help identify and locate suspects.

Recently, three members - Angel Hernandez, Modesto Sanchez and Frankie Hernandez - were nominated for Police Commissioner Awards for their help in capturing two armed robbery suspects last March.

``They're our eyes and ears,'' said one officer. ``They can sit and watch where we can't, and then provide accurate information. In that aspect, they're effective.

``A lot of small battles have been won due to people like the North Philadelphia Task Force.''

When the war is lost, as it seems to be in the Badlands, even small victories count.

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