Masters of Cymbal Drive

Andre Ford stood there on the curb, a couple rocks of crack in his hand. It was September but still warm enough for a tank top and shorts, which was more or less his summer uniform. Come winter, he would pull on a pair of heavy blue coveralls, the kind a mechanic wears, and a baby blue stocking cap. Either way, he was wearing blue, Crip blue, representing his set.

To his Pleasant Grove neighbors, who sometimes watched him from their upstairs windows, he was a thug. They watched him smoking weed and drinking beer and shooting dice with his homeboys, and they made assumptions. About his gold-capped teeth and his chrome-plated pistol and the pager in his pocket. And they watched him on days like this, pacing back and forth, waiting for a car to come down Cymbal Drive, opening his palm to count how many rocks he had.

Some of their assumptions were right. Ford called himself an Original Gangster, and he fit the stereotype: He'd once taken a bullet to the chest, he'd been in and out of jail since he was 17, and he'd lost friends to prison and death--most recently his homeboys Fatso and Gangster, who were gunned down by Bloods in West Dallas just a year before.

But he wasn't lazy. Dealing drugs was hard work. Every day he was out on Cymbal, early in the morning and late at night, long after everyone else had gone off to girlfriends and gambling shacks. He knew dealing drugs was wrong, his parents had taught him as much, and why he did it he couldn't really explain. Greed maybe. He had tried stocking shelves at Tom Thumb, and he had tried telemarketing, but neither job paid well enough to keep him off the streets. He was 27 now, too old to start over. He just hoped his little boy wouldn't end up like him.

A car he recognized came around the corner. He stepped from the curb and lifted a bandanna over his nose, like a cowboy about to pull off a stagecoach robbery. The car stopped in front of him. Sometimes, especially if it was a new buyer, he'd jack him of his money or short him on the crack. Not today. He moved quickly, leaned in the window, took the guy's $40 and handed him two rocks. As the car drove off he lowered his bandanna and walked back to where they stashed their dope. The cops called it the pink house.

Lately, business had been good. Better than ever, in fact. Cars were coming down Cymbal like it was Wendy's drive-through, all hours of the day and night. He wondered if something was up, if the cops were sending in undercover officers or something.

Not that it mattered. They'd been dealing dope on Cymbal since 2000, almost two years now, and police had done nothing to stop them. It wasn't because they were careful. They were as brazen as anything the cops had ever seen. They sold their rock right in the open like flea-market merchants. Cymbal Drive belonged to the Underground Nigger Crips, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

"You think this street is yours," one of his homeboys had told a patrol officer some time before. "But you're wrong. This street is ours. And we'll be here long after you're gone."

In the summer of 2002, Special Agent Hector Tarango decided to check out Cymbal Drive, which by then had become one of the easiest places in Southeast Dallas to score crack. Tarango was with the ATF and had served stints in Los Angeles and along the U.S.-Mexico border. In his 14 years in law enforcement, he'd seen plenty of illegal drugs and plenty of the gangs that trafficked them, from wannabe Bloods and Crips to hard-core members of the Texas Syndicate. Heading toward Cymbal, he knew what he was in for.

Short and barrel-chested, with Popeye-like forearms, Tarango carried himself with a certain swagger. Sometimes he wore an earring or let his dark hair grow long to alter his identity. Suffice it to say that when he appeared in a courtroom to testify against a street-level hustler or a major cocaine distributor, he didn't look like the same man they'd seen on the street.

As usual, he rode in an unmarked vehicle. He drove down Masters, one of the main thoroughfares in Pleasant Grove, past a sun-bleached strip mall that looked half-abandoned. He rolled past a corner market covered in graffiti (UNC, 187, Crip 4 Life) and eased his car onto Cymbal. He glanced quickly around the street. There were about 15 houses crowded on each side--duplexes with chipping paint and ramshackle row houses two stories high, each of them surrounded by sagging chain-link fences. Trash littered some of the yards. Five or six of the houses were vacant--covered in gang graffiti and boarded up.