An Inside Look at Violence in Camden

Papa, left, using only his street name, and Reinaldo Colon are ex-convicts trying to remake their lives.
Credit...Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

CAMDEN, N.J. — With cocaine for the city’s addicts and bullets for his rivals, a young drug lord named Raymond Morales rose to power here in the 1990s, terrorizing the city as he wrung it for profit.

By 2003, when Mr. Morales was arrested as he received 66 pounds of cocaine — a two-week supply, he told investigators — Camden had earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous places in America, where drug corners were far easier to find than supermarkets and where the bloody fight to control them, in some neighborhoods, kept terrified residents in their homes after dark.

A jury in federal court here is now hearing the details of those violent times. Mr. Morales, 35, who is cooperating with the authorities in the hopes of reducing the seven life sentences he faces, testified last month against three men accused of playing parts in Camden’s drug trade. Two of them are accused of murder.

Wearing his beige prison uniform and glasses, Mr. Morales talked about the men he knew by their nicknames, the cocaine he smuggled in secret car compartments and the ends met by his rivals or by people who owed him money.

In other cities, such trials have become anachronisms, reminders of the years before gentrification and falling murder rates. Men like Mr. Morales are regarded with a nervous fascination that only distance allows.

In Camden, though, nostalgia is still a long way off. Forty-five people were killed here last year, up from 32 in 2006. This year looks worse: Eleven people have been killed so far. In January, the Police Department, ever in crisis, changed leaders for the fifth time in six years.

While New York and Los Angeles have reduced their murder rates over the past decade, violence continues to plague a smattering of other cities, including Detroit, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Like Camden, nearby Trenton and other small cities like Gary, Ind., have also been vexed by recent surges in the murder rate.

Credit...Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

Mr. Morales’s story is as much a rendering of the current, violent order as it is a glimpse at Camden’s past. The corners here are still crowded with young men who talk about the city in commercial terms: a neighborhood in the north is Dope City, where heroin is sold. Crack City is in south Camden.

“I lost six friends here last year,” said a 30-year-old man who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his street name, Papa. Released from prison a few months ago after serving a term for dealing drugs, Papa wears a tattoo on his neck that reads, “Adversity.”

“That means suffering,” he explained. “It’s the stuff we go through out here. This city is full of addicts. Everyone fights over these corners.”

Joshua M. Ottenberg, the acting Camden County prosecutor, said he hoped that the spike in the number of homicides was an anomaly, but that the city’s failing schools, lack of jobs and badly overtaxed court system did not bode well for efforts to reduce crime.

“The drug economy is the economy,” Mr. Ottenberg said, estimating that as many as half of the drug buyers in Camden visit from the suburbs. “That’s been the truth for a long, long time.”

One recent evening, there were no drug dealers on Mr. Morales’s old corner, at Atlantic Avenue and Norris Street, but they were not far away. They wander the blocks around the house where Gary Blevins has lived for 15 years in the Whitman Park neighborhood.

“You used to see the Polish ladies out here, sweeping their stoops — it was a working class neighborhood,” Mr. Blevins said. “Now, at 3 a.m., you get the gunshots.”

Mr. Blevins, 45, said there were plenty of families like his still living in Camden, working people with no connections to the drug trade. But even his family has been touched by the violence: In July, his granddaughter’s aunt was shot and killed outside a Camden bar.

Credit...Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

“She was No. 12,” said the granddaughter, Da’Ja Cooksey, 8, as she finished her homework at the dining room table. Da’Ja’s mother, Joya Kilcrest, corrected her: In fact, it was the 14th murder of that year.

“I’ve steered plenty of kids away from drugs,” said Mr. Blevins, who has pulmonary fibrosis and often stays home, wired to an oxygen tank. “And I’ve gone to a lot of funerals.”

Mr. Blevins is one of many people in the city following the trial of Mr. Morales, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to ordering six killings, running a drug operation and tampering with witnesses. In court, he spoke of the magnitude of his decision to cooperate with the authorities, which led to scores of other arrests.

“I broke the code I lived and breathed,” he said.

A cocaine retailer and wholesaler, Mr. Morales explained how he took a great deal of care to maintain his empire.

He met associates in person, always changing the location, and kept his phone conversations short. Twice, cameras that the authorities had trained on Mr. Morales and his associates were disabled, the wires feeding them cut.

He made millions selling cocaine delivered by couriers from Arizona and New York. He could make $1,000 profit on a kilogram of cocaine, he testified, and his corner operation, run by a manager, could gross up to $7,500 a day. All this went to his operating costs: houses for his wife and girlfriends, prostitutes and other, grimmer expenses.

Mr. Morales has admitted to ordering the killing of six people and supplying the gun used to kill two more. He also asked one of his hit men to kill a possible witness to an earlier killing.

He testified that he paid for one hit with half a kilogram of cocaine. He told an underling to beat a debtor, James Fattare Dixon, in front of many people, to send a message to other dealers about paying drug debts.

Credit...Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

“I ordered a beating, and he got killed,” Mr. Morales said.

In court last month, Mr. Morales testified about another killing in vivid detail. Miguel Batista had started to move in on Mr. Morales’s turf, so on Sept. 26, 1996, Mr. Morales and an associate, Juan Rivera-Velez, who was known as “Two-Face” because of a disfiguring accident, took a ride with Mr. Batista. Mr. Velez, the shooter, sat in the back seat, and Mr. Batista sat in the driver’s seat.

“We got in the car, and he wound up being dead,” Mr. Morales told the jury. “It was a head shot.”

After Mr. Batista was killed and Mr. Morales had changed his bloodied clothes, he and Mr. Velez sneaked back into a bar where they had been drinking earlier, and made sure everyone noticed that they were there. “I needed an alibi,” Mr. Morales explained.

With Mr. Morales off the streets and providing information about Camden’s drug trade, the authorities talked more confidently about their chances of reducing the city’s violence.

In 2006, the United States attorney for New Jersey, Christopher J. Christie, announced more than 50 drug-related arrests in what he called a “very good day” for Camden. When Mr. Morales’s plea agreement was announced last year, Mr. Christie said the investigation seemed to have brought the crime rate down.

Now the authorities are scrambling to explain what set their efforts back. Camden’s newest police chief, Edward G. Hargis, said it was possible that the arrest of Mr. Morales had started a war for control of his former turf. But it was also true, he said, that the violence here had simply reached new levels.

“We’re finding more people are carrying guns, and they’re more willing to pull the trigger,” he said. His department is making changes, to keep officers on the same shift, day after day, so they better understand the neighborhoods they patrol.

Chief Hargis, a police officer for almost 22 years, including 18 on Camden’s police force, spoke of the despair caused by the lack of jobs here. “It would be great to get a manufacturing plant,” he said.

In recent years in Camden — where 44 percent of residents live in poverty, according to 2006 census figures — outsiders have been sent in to help the schools, the Police Department and a badly needed revitalization effort.

Credit...Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times

Luis Lara, a lifelong Camden resident who remembers Mr. Morales from the old days, opened a cafe downtown a year ago to show that “it’s possible to rehabilitate yourself.” But things have not gone as he had hoped.

“It’s not safe, and there’s no business,” he said, noting that he expected to close the restaurant within weeks. “People are afraid to come to Camden.”

North of Mr. Lara’s restaurant, in the shadow of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, the despair is apparent, with rows of houses sitting charred or abandoned and empty lots wandered by drug addicts.

Papa, the man who was recently released from prison, stood on one corner, a thick sweatshirt keeping out the bitter evening cold. His friend Reinaldo Colon, another ex-convict, who had found a job assembling refrigerators for $190 a week, stopped to say hello.

Papa said that there was a time, before he was imprisoned, when he could make $2,000 a day selling drugs. But he admitted that his work had exacted a higher toll.

After he returned home from his prison stint, he found that most of his friends were gone, dead or in jail. Now, most mornings, he said, he wakes up thinking about suicide.

“I found myself by myself,” he said, as a young man stopped his car to ask where he could buy drugs.

Papa sent the man away. “I got no future,” he said. “I got no goals in life.”