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Archive for July 2010


“The Horror of Horrorcore” Maxim July 2010


“Blown Away” Playboy March 2010


“Apocalypse 2012″ Playboy September 2009

According to ancient Mayan prophecies, the world will end three short years from now. Earthquakes, pestilence and revolution will bring humanity to its knees. Across the globe, thousands have already begun to prepare.“For me, being prepared for 2012 is a stress reliever. I spend an average of $200 to $300 per month on my supplies. I’ve been training myself in what I call frontier living—dehydrating, canning, preserving, cooking without modern appliances. Last weekend I started decorating our attic (almost 3,000 square feet) to store my reserve because people I know are getting suspicious of the amount of ‘hurricane’ supplies I keep. I’ll never be Martha Stewart, but I feel very good about the variety and quantity I have amassed. I believe in the three Gs of preparedness: God, guns and groceries.”—Susan Skains, Texas Gulf Coast
Dressed in blue jeans and a red short-sleeve shirt, Steve Pace stands guard atop a bucolic hill on the outskirts of Poplar Bluff in the Missouri bootheel. The scene is as rural as it gets; there’s nothing out here but rolling hills and big sky. A lonely sentinel

Retired Army sergeant Steve Pace has stockpiled canned food, gold and silver, a water filtration system, a radiation suit and a whole lot of guns and ammo.

with a shiny silver revolver strapped to his waist, the retired U.S. Army sergeant scans the wooded horizon with a pair of binoculars for signs of the coming cataclysm. He sees things others don’t—the apocalyptic omens that, he says, are everywhere if you know how to connect the dots.

Pace is a lean and leathery 55-year-old who looks a bit like Sean Connery but speaks in a thick, crusty rural accent. He gives me a tour of his solidly constructed 1950s bungalow on a quiet tree-lined cul-de-sac, where he lives with his ailing mom and his third wife, Martha, who works as a secretary at the local high school. Three years ago Pace moved here to Campbell—a town of fewer than 2,000 people that’s known as the peach capital of Missouri—from Fayetteville, Arkansas (population 70,000) because he thought it was getting too crowded. “I have this fear of becoming just a number, losing my identity, becoming just another face in the crowd,” he says.
Displayed on Pace’s dining room table is a collection of weapons: an assault rifle, a shotgun, numerous handguns, hunting knives and enough ammo to start a small war. Alongside the arms are gas masks, antiradiation pills and about $10,000 worth of gold and silver. The gold and silver will come in handy when paper money becomes worthless, which it already has, according to Pace. It’s just that people don’t know it yet. Don’t call him a survivalist, though: “To me a survivalist is some white supremacist living up in the mountains somewhere. I’m not a survivalist. I’m a preparer.”And there’s a lot to prepare for, according to Pace, who anticipates a world in the not too distant future where “you’ll need a wheelbarrow full of dollars to buy a loaf of bread, just like in Zimbabwe.” Catastrophic climate change will have swamped the coastal cities. (“You’ll want to be at least 300 feet above sea level.”) Law and order will have broken down. (“You’ll want to stay away from the population centers to avoid the mobs.”) And food will be scarce. (“If we have a major crop failure, millions of people will starve.”) But what Pace fears most is a terrorist nuke that could destroy America’s electrical grid: “If they really wanted to disrupt America, an airburst nuke would provide an electromagnetic pulse 300 miles wide that would probably cascade the rest of the system. Without electricity we’ve really got a problem.”
Whatever happens, Pace intends to be ready. “In my opinion 2012 is the year of collapse,” he says. “The perfect storm approaching is a conglomeration of crescendos. The financial collapse, political corruption, natural disaster, terrorism and resource scarcity will culminate in wars and revolution.”
Pace is not alone. In the past few years a growing number of citizens across the globe—survivalists, conspiracy theorists, alternative religion seekers, former military officers, UFO buffs, hard-core Bible-thumpers, ordinary housewives who,post-Katrina, don’t trust the government to save their loved ones if a disaster occurs—have become fixated on December 21, 2012 as EOTWAWKI (“end of the world as we know it”). The Mayan long-count calendar supposedly predicts 2012 as the year in which a 5,000-year cycle of civilization will come to an abrupt halt. The Mayan civilization, a sophisticated culture of temples and cities that flourished in what is now Mexico, mysteriously collapsed around the ninth century. The Mayans have been a source of fascination for spiritual Western tourists since the Beats, particularly William Burroughs, who peppered his novels with references to Mayan timekeeping. The idea that Mayans predicted the world would end in 2012 has been around since at least the 1980s, when writer and 2012 guru José Argüelles popularized the concept with his book The Mayan Factor.
For any number of reasons the 2012 meme has caught on. The media, in documentaries such as’s2012: Science or Superstition and books such as Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, have endlessly chronicled the movement and what to expect. Pinchbeck perhaps more than anyone else has become the great—and most controversial—advocate for a transformational 2012. Apocalypse fever is set to hit multiplexes with the November release of Roland Emmerich’s big-budget Hollywood dystopian disaster movie2012, starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet.A cottage industry of small companies that supply products to 2012ers is now thriving, offering everything from bullets to backup generators to full-size bunkers (such as a $36,000 six-person bargain-basement underground bomb shelter, complete with a nuclear, biological and chemical filtering system, which a Virginia Beach company called Hardened Structures offers to deliver and install anywhere in the U.S.). In May the Associated Press reported that suppliers of survivalist gear and military surplus stores nationwide had seen as much as a 50 percent rise in business in recent months. One survivalist told the AP that the website of his consulting business—which teaches newcomers emergency preparedness—had seen a threefold increase in traffic in the past 14 months.Never mind that reputable scholars insist the Mayans attached no particular apocalyptic meaning to 2012. It was merely the end of their calendar. And never mind the absurdity of the idea that some mysterious Mayan priest could accurately predict what would happen 2,000 years in the future.

“It’s not just the Mayans,” says Pace.“One of the great prophecies of the HopiIndians was that the world would end whena huge spiderweb covers the entire globe.For hundreds of years we didn’t know whatthey were talking about. Now we have theWorld Wide Web. Whether you believe inHopi prophecy, Mayan prophecy, the Bookof Revelations, Nostradamus, the Web BotProject or the Bible Code, the commondenominator is that they are all pointingin the same direction. As Proverbs 27:12says, ‘A prudent man foreseeth the evil andhideth himself, but the simple pass on andare punished.’ ”

“We are located in the middle of the continent, up high and away from significant population centers, nuclear power plants, active volcanoes and major fault lines and at a sufficient altitude to limit flooding. We may have to move—and move quickly—so we have ‘bug-out bags’ packed with food, water, medical and other supplies that can be transported in the event we have to abandon our primary site. I have a network of friendly sites I can make my way toward and improve my chances of survival significantly.”—Ace McQuade, Chuck Norris fan, somewhere in the middle of Canada

The 2012 movement would be easy to dismiss as pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo if it weren’t for the disturbing real-world trends that inform the less fanciful predictions of bad times ahead: catastrophic climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, financial collapse, swine flu, peak oil, peak food. This is the everyday fodder of CNN and Newsweek, not science fiction or religious fantasy. Home prices have declined almost 33 percent since their peak in 2006, and the unemployment rate in America is the worst it has been since 1983. When you add the specter of nuclear-armed religious fanatics, who wouldn’t be a bit anxious about what’s coming down the cosmic sewer pipe?
Even before the current economic crisis, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 made clear to many Americans that civilization can sometimes hang by the barest of threads. Those doomsday cultists stocking up on guns and groceries in preparation for the end-times don’t seem quite so silly after what happened in New Orleans. As we watched bloated bodies float down the streets of a major American city and witnessed the complete paralysis of all layers of government, who among us didn’t think, What would I do in such a situation? Would I have the skills and fortitude to survive?

The 2012ers generally fall into one of two categories: (1) the sane but paranoid who are preparing for a new kind of agrarian civilization based on lawlessness and an absence of government—essentially New Orleans after the storm but on a mass scale, or (2) folks a little more out there who believe that on December 21, 2012 a new spiritual enlightenment will arrive. Some New Agers are expecting the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, which was supposed to happen in 1987 with the planetary alignment known as the harmonic convergence—remember that?—but this time for real. A more popular and dramatic telling of the story, the one with obvious box-office appeal, is shared by the hard-core 2012ers: A cascading series of interconnected disasters, up to and including cosmic catastrophe, will occur as the mysterious Planet X (some call it Nibiru) crashes through our solar system accompanied by a giant ass-kicking flying snake god called Quetzalcoatl, which is scheduled to come screaming out of the sky—essentially Godzilla meets When Worlds Collide. Another theory in play is known as pole reversal. It’s a notion promoted by 2012 leader and author Patrick Geryl (How to Survive 2012), who believes Earth’s magnetic poles will change places, which will lead to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and giant tidal waves that will make most of the planet’s surface uninhabitable. Last are the Christians who believe in what the Bible tells them—the prophecy laid out in Revelations.

Australian Robert Bast isn’t much into organized religion, though he does have an interest in alternative spirituality. That’s why three years ago he began (Steve Pace is an elder) as a quiet place where what he calls the “pink and fluffy people”—the flotsam and jetsam of the New Age movement—can discuss esoteric points of Mayan cosmology. Many 2012ers gather in dozens of other such forums, including and, but Bast’s site seems to be the most popular. Bast is not what you would call a true believer; he’s too skeptical for that. He does, however, think the ancients had something important to tell us. So he was more than a little surprised when all those Bible-thumpers started turning up on the forum. Aren’t these people supposed to be hostile to pagan mythology? Not at all, it turns out.

“Most of our members are Americans, and most of them seem to be Christians of one degree or another,” says Bast. “We get people on our site from all over the world, but in terms of the area most represented, that would be the Bible Belt, USA, easily.”

It shouldn’t be that surprising. Just as nearly every religion has a genesis myth, most religions have a how-the-world-will end myth. In Missouri, as elsewhere in the Bible Belt, belief in the end-times is common: the prediction that Jesus Christ is coming back to earth sometime soon, whereupon a battle will commence, a final struggle between good and evil, a bloody Armageddon, after which the faithful will be “raptured up” into heaven while the rest of us heathens are cast into the flaming pit. The death of millions of people and the total destruction of civilization as we know it is welcomed as the fulfillment of ancient biblical prophecy, just as it is for 2012ers. (Interestingly, some Mormons believe the Mayan snake god Quetzalcoatl is Jesus Christ visiting the New World after his resurrection. Mormons also believe Missouri was the original home of the Garden of Eden, so make of that what you will.)

There are further connections between Christianity and the 2012 movement. Just as Christians have their own online Rapture Index (—the Dow Jones Industrial Average of end-time activity—so do the 2012ers have something called the Web Bot Project, which is said to be a secret computer search engine that began as a way to pick stocks but evolved into a cross between Google and the Oracle of Delphi. Devotees say the Web Bot Project predicted not only 9/11 but last autumn’s financial meltdown. Among the Web Bot’s other predictions: Famous people will start disappearing without explanation later this year, space aliens will make contact in 2011 and millions will die the following year through some combination of natural disasters, economic collapse and those aforementioned space aliens, who one suspects will probably have something to do with the unsolved kidnapping of Lindsay Lohan in the coming months.

Since 2012 is a short three years away, you would think posts on Bast’s website would show a sense of urgency. In fact there’s a great deal of philosophical talk but not a lot of practical preparation. “Most of the people on the forum don’t have the skills or means to prepare adequately,” admits Bast. “Many people think they still have a couple of years before they need to act, but in reality most people who say they are going to make an effort never will. The general preference is for someone else to build the community and then just turn up a few days prior to December 21, 2012. I think many people expect this option will be available to them. It won’t.”

“It’s a lifestyle thing,” Steve Pace says. “It’s a little voice in the back of your head that says every time you go shopping, Get one of those for later. And pretty soon you have a decent stockpile.”

Opening the doors to his kitchen pantry, Pace shows me a cupboard full of canned goods: tuna, mandarin oranges, chili con carne, macaroni and cheese, condensed milk. Nothing fancy but enough food to last six months, he estimates. Out back, planks of lumber lie waiting on the ground. Pace is building a storm shelter. “I don’t see any need for a bunker,” he says. “It’s a metal coffin. The ability to move around is a better defense. If you know there’s a bad crowd coming, get out of the way, let them pass and then come back. With a bunker, you’re in a fixed position. They can circle you. They can smoke you out. They can pour ammonia down the ventilation pipes. A bunker makes no sense to me unless there’s an all-out nuclear war.”

In the woods adjoining the back of Pace’s property you can see the damage from a big ice storm last winter that knocked out electricity for 10 days. Treetops are shorn off as if someone had taken a giant hedge trimmer to them. The ground remains littered with broken branches. When the storm came, Pace—no surprise—was prepared. “I fed the whole neighborhood during the ice storm and still hadn’t opened any canned food by the time we got the power back,” he says. “They put me in the local newspaper for that.”

Pace jumps into his truck—the one with the Terrorist Hunting Permit: No Bag Limit sticker on the bumper—and drives a couple of blocks to a storage locker where he keeps additional supplies. Unlocking the metal gate he reveals an Ali Baba’s cave of survivalist equipment: sleeping bags, MRE rations, ammo belts, compasses, fishing hooks, survival manuals, decontamination kits, water-filtration equipment (“You can pump your own piss through this,” he says with a smile). There are no power tools because there probably won’t be any power, he says, just hammers, saws and drills. A half dozen white plastic tubs are filled to the brim with corn, wheat and rice.

Pace proudly pulls out a heavy-looking charcoal-lined contamination suit from an oversize backpack. In case of a nuclear, chemical or biological attack, he recommends you stay in your house, seal the doors and windows as best you can and don gas masks. But if you have to go into the open, a contamination suit will prove to be a necessity.

I pull on one of the gas masks and grab Pace’s assault rifle to get a feel for what such conditions are like. The rifle, more like a machine gun, is surprisingly heavy. The smell of the rubber mask makes me gag. I suck in as much air as I can through the filter, but it is as though I’m breathing through a straw. Claustrophobia makes my heart race. I start hyperventilating in the Missouri sun, and the plastic eyeholes of the mask begin to fog up. I can’t even see let alone breathe, so I frantically peel the thing off my head. I don’t even bother trying on the contamination suit.

“All this stuff gives you peace of mind,” Pace says, waving his hand grandly across his array of provisions. “It’s like having life insurance.”

Potassium iodide pills, popular among 2012ers preparing for the apocalypse, help the body ward off the effects of radiation.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Absent a disaster of cosmological proportions, post-2012 life will go on for the favored few, says Pace. “I believe in some way it will be a better existence, getting back to earth, getting back to nature, less materialistic,” he says. “There will be disasters, wars and plagues, but it’s not going to be the end of the world. It’s not even going to be the end of human nature as we know it. We may kill off a bunch of people, but you’re still going to have commerce. Carpenters are going to build, farmers are going to farm, and criminals are still going to have to be shot. It’s just going to be a change in the way we do things.”

And what if nothing happens on December 21, 2012?

“We just keep on trucking. Just like Y2K,” he laughs. He pauses before saying, “It’s almost as if humans have this constant need to envision the end.”

The good news is that eschatological predictions always turn out to be bunk. Thus far, at least. Remember the hordes of yuppies who bought up half of Whole Foods in preparation for Y2K, another mass panic sparked by nothing more dangerous than a date in time, a turn of the calendar? Every decade has its own vision of the end of the world. And that’s the beauty of the doomsday business.

There’s always another tomorrow.

“My name is Daniel, and I am the leader of a government research team currently stuck in the space-time continuum. Our technology has been sabotaged by an unknown terrorist. We have destroyed time and are stuck in a loophole. Do not believe the particle accelerator being built in the Alps. It is the time machine that President Barack Obama told my research team to build and test on December 21, 2012.”—Daniel, stuck somewhere in the space-time continuum
After leaving rural Missouri, I return home to a bustling Miami Beach to find my neighborhood under a couple of inches of water. A major thunderstorm barreled through, leaving in its wake downed trees and drowned automobiles. Luckily I live on the second floor, but other residents had flooded apartments and no electricity, which means no air-conditioning—not a minor inconvenience in the south Florida heat. The roof of the recently refurbished Fontainebleau, one of the region’s swankiest hotels, collapsed under the weight of the rain, sending a wall of water into the lobby. A hundred lightning strikes in the span of an hour and golf-ball-size hailstones drove pedestrians to seek cover.

I open my fridge, which is empty except for half a pineapple and a bottle of vodka. Okay, it isn’t the end of the world, but it gets me thinking about how unprepared I will be in the event of, say, a major hurricane. I sit at my desk, pour myself a glass of vodka and write a list: Learn how to fire a gun, take driving lessons, stock up on bottled water and canned goods, buy a flashlight and lots of batteries of all sizes, inquire about time-share bunkers.

Hey, you never know.

Playboy Magazine

“The Craigslist Crime Wave” Maxim August 2009

Young dude looking for a good time. We’ll get drinks, go back to my place, and then I’ll kill you!
Everybody in the New York sex trade had heard the stories about Craigslist. Like the one about the two bodybuilder types who liked to set up meetings with masseuses, and then flash fake police badges before robbing the women. Or the john who booked a girl for a “casual encounter” through the Web site: She showed up at his hotel room and went to the bathroom to slip into something more comfortable, whereupon two burly guys burst into the room and took the client’s money, credit cards, and clothes. “One of my girlfriends who works in the industry, she knows him and she had to go pick him up,” says Kristin Davis, who insists this story is no urban legend. “He was stranded in this hotel room, no money, no wallet, no clothes, no nothing.”  Davis has a lot of experience in the sex industry herself—over a decade’s worth.

In the spring of 2008, she made headlines as the “Manhattan Madam” in a charge of a high-end escort service that helped bring down New York governor Eliot Spitzer. But Davis also ran a “body work” service—massages with happy endings—that advertised exclusively in the Erotic Services section of Craigslist. She knew well the changes the site had brought to the business—how it created an electronic version of a 42nd Street back alley, with scams and cheap whores galore. But none of this prepared her for what she found one night in April when she spotted one of her girls surfing the web.

Julissa Brisman

Clicking on a link, Davis navigated to breaking news out of Boston: A masseuse had been shot three times on the 20th floor of a Marriott hotel. There was a blurry security-camera image of the man the press had already dubbed the Craigslist Killer, and below that a picture of the victim, a sultry-looking woman with long light brown hair. It was Julissa Brisman, a sweet, funny, street-smart 26-year-old with pouty lips and a serious Paris Hilton fixation who had recently quit Davis’ employ to go independent. She was one of the Manhattan Madam’s favorite girls.
“I was shocked, devastated, heartbroken, but I wasn’t surprised,” says Davis. “I told her to be careful. Craigslist is full of creeps.”


It was a simple idea that changed everything: a no-frills hippie flea market updated for the Internet age, a place to go to buy a toaster, rent an apartment, or score some meth and hook up with random strangers for the afternoon. It helped to nearly destroy the newspaper industry in America, and it transformed the sex trade. It began 14 years ago when painfully shy über-nerd Craig Newmark started an e-mail list publicizing tech-themed events and job opportunities in San Francisco. Soon Craigslist was everywhere, a self-governing global community of online buyers and sellers, a for-profit business that operated more like a public service. Today Craigslist is an indispensable resource for tens of millions of people worldwide: With 40 million posts a month and sites in 570 cities and 50 countries, it is one of the icons of Web 2.0, as recognizable a brand as Facebook or Google. Yet it only employs 30 people, and the whole operation is run out of a ramshackle Victorian house in the Sunset District of San Francisco.

One of the new media’s signature success stories, Craigslist symbolizes the possibilities of the brave new online world we’re still in the process of figuring out. “The Internet reminds us that people are basically trustworthy,” Newmark has said. But there’s a lot of wiggle room in that “basically.” Like all online community experiments over the past 20 years—from MySpace to Second Life—the site has a utopian side that leaves it open to any creep with a dark fantasy life. What’s terrifying about the Craigslist Killer is what he represents: how the Internet can make crime push-button easy, and unlock psychosis as easily as libido.

Which is why the brutal murder of Julissa Brisman capped a perfect storm of negative publicity for the embattled Web site. Bad enough that the killer used the Erotic Services section to lure Brisman to the crime scene, but this wasn’t his first time. Four days earlier he allegedly tied up and robbed another masseuse he’d contacted through Craigslist, Trisha Leffler. And two days after the Brisman slaying, he allegedly struck again, this time in Warwick, Rhode Island, holding at gunpoint a stripper who advertised lap dances on Craigslist. The assailant fled only after the stripper’s husband burst into the hotel room.

Phillip Markoff

Phillip Markoff Caught on Camera

Police arrested Phillip Markoff (left). Cameras at a Boston Marriott caught footage (right) of Julissa Brisman’s alleged killer.

Boston cops quickly arrested Philip Markoff, a tall, blond, and outwardly respectable 23-year-old med student at Boston University who fit nobody’s profile of a serial sicko (see below). He was charged with Brisman’s murder in addition to the assaults on the two other women. Investigators searching Markoff’s apartment found a gun hidden in a hollowed-out book, a stash of hand restraints, as well as 16 pairs of women’s panties under the bed. (It’s not yet known how many times Markoff may have struck, but as Kristin Davis points out, many Craigslist sex-related crimes are never reported out of fear and embarrassment.)

The Craigslist Killer fits a disturbing pattern: The month before, New York radio reporter George Weber was stabbed 50 times, allegedly by a troubled teenager he met through a Craigslist posting offering $60 for rough sex. In April chubby-faced teenage misfit Michael Anderson was sentenced to life in prison for the shooting death of 24-year-old Katherine Olson, a Minnesota preacher’s daughter who had innocently replied to a fake ad Anderson placed on the site looking for a baby-sitter.

The bad news for Craigslist mounted. Also in April authorities arrested 24-year-old Shawn Skelton in Kent, Washington after he allegedly posted a Craigslist ad titled “A strange desire,” looking for a woman to have sex with and then kill. And in early May convicted sex offender John Steven Burgess pleaded guilty in Los Angeles to involuntary manslaughter in the death of 19-year-old Donna Jou. Burgess said he plied Jou with alcohol, cocaine, and heroin after meeting her on Craigslist, then dumped her body in the ocean when she overdosed.

Adding to the pressure on the company, in early May South Carolina attorney general Henry McMaster threatened the prosecution of Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster for facilitating prostitution. This was the first time a law enforcement official had tried to hold Buckmaster personally responsible for the criminal activity associated with the Web site. Craigslist was being attacked from every direction.

There have always been criminals willing to exploit the latest advances in technology, but the crimes linked to Craigslist of late have become increasingly frequent and bizarre. From murderers, rapists, and child molesters to flimflam men and blackmailing femme fatales, the site stars a cast of characters straight out of a James Ellroy novel.

Trusting strangers is the basis of Craigslist. It’s one big communitarian experiment, all very admirable, except for one thing: The ability to connect vast numbers of strangers to one another is only a good idea if the people being connected are decent human beings.


“It’s the anonymity that attracts criminals to Craigslist,” says Trench Reynolds, who runs a blog called CraigsCrimeList. He has counted at least eight killings connected to the site. “When people ask me about the Craigslist Killer, I always say, ‘Which one?’ ”

The prostitution associated with Erotic Services has drawn most of the attention lately, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the past two years the rest of the site has become a virtual playground for fences, petty thieves, con men, and even the occasional bank robber. Last autumn in Monroe, Washington, someone placed an ad for a dozen laborers to dig roads. The men turned up for work dressed, as the ad had instructed, in identical outfits: blue work shirts, yellow vests, respirator masks. Meanwhile, just across the street, another man dressed the same and carrying a pump sprayer walked toward an armored car outside of a Bank of America, sprayed the armed guard in the face with a chemical, then grabbed a bag of money, ran down the street past the startled laborers, and jumped into the nearby Skykomish River. Police say the man who posted the ad was using the laborers as decoys in case he was chased. Eventually, 28-year-old Anthony Curcio was arrested for the robbery.
While some of the cons and capers on Craigslist possess a comic 
aspect, it’s not so funny when you’re one of the victims. Susan (not her real name) is one of those down-on-their-luck pretty young things in recession-hit Miami Beach who scours Craigslist every day looking for freelance gigs: spokesmodel, events coordinator, restaurant hostess, anything that pays more than $10 an hour. So she was more than excited to get a job advertised on Craigslist as a $1,200-a-week personal assistant to a man who claimed to work as a producer for Pharrell and Lil Wayne. He called himself Lorenzo and said he had a side business—a pizza chain that had gone belly up. He needed Susan to help him sell the restaurant equipment on eBay and Craigslist, and got her to open up a Pay-Pal account in her name. She received tens of thousands of dollars in offers for the various ovens, prep tables, and refrigerators. Then she got a call from somebody who knew Lorenzo saying there was no restaurant equipment. “Thank God PayPal flagged it, because none of the money went into my bank account or I would be behind bars right now,” says Susan. Only after Lorenzo was arrested did she discover that she wasn’t the only victim. “He was scamming tons of people on Craigslist, selling everything from puppies to Ping-Pong tables to car parts to sexual favors. I feel like such a fool. My life is a mess because of this guy.”

In response to the media storm engulfing Craigslist, CEO Buckmaster defended his company, claiming the percentage of criminals who operated on his Web site was tiny compared to the overwhelming majority of trustworthy users. And that’s true as far as it goes. What Craigslist ignores is the outsize impact of even a small number of criminals: One con man posting on Craigslist can scam scores of people with a single ad.

Take Sean Church, international drifter, one-time DEA informant, former jailbird, consummate con man. Last summer Church was sitting at an outdoor café in Budapest, Hungary, low on funds, when he hit upon the idea of concocting a Parisian bed-and-breakfast scam on Craigslist to fleece unsuspecting tourists. He’d seen similar cons on the site before and figured there was little chance he’d get caught.

“That’s what makes Craigslist so great,” says Church. “There’s no policing. It’s like the Wild West.”

Church (not his real name) went back to his apartment and wrote a carefully worded posting: “Amazing bed and breakfast in the heart of Paris. Just three rooms with unique architectural details like a natural stone wall and a quaint Romeo and Juliet balcony that overlooks the lush courtyard. The price is 50 Euro per night (one person) or 60 Euro per night (two persons).” The address he gave was a nondescript apartment building where he’d once stayed. Then he downloaded a picture of a cozy-looking interior from a magazine, clicked on a button, and, presto: Within minutes the ad was up and running.

Immediately Church was inundated with queries. People wanting to book a room were instructed to send a 50-Euro nonrefundable deposit to Church’s PayPal account. On receipt of the money, Church e-mailed a fake invoice. More than 300 people fell for the scam, and when they couldn’t find the B&B at the address and e-mailed Church, “What happened?” he had every excuse in the book ready: “Maybe you pressed the wrong buzzer” or “Maybe you went to the wrong floor.”

“Most people just write it off,” says Church. “I wasn’t taking big amounts of money. A lot of times it’s only 50 Euros, but if you do that with 300 people, that’s serious money.”

The scam was so lucrative that Church repeated it with phony apartments in Madrid, London, and Washington, D.C. In all, he estimates he made $33,000 without ever leaving Budapest.

By the end of the summer, Craigslist users had caught on. In late August one wrote in the discussion forum on the Web site, “I just got back from Paris, where I had rented a room in a bed and breakfast through Craigslist. When I got to the address, the place was actually owned by a French couple.” Other victims soon responded in kind.

Church was feeling the heat. It was time to skip town, so he booked a flight to Toronto. But he needed a place to bunk once he arrived in Canada, so he went—where else?—on Craigslist to find an apartment. He spotted what looked like a good deal: a one-bedroom with a big den in a nice part of town for $766 a month. Church e-mailed the owner and received a reply from someone claiming to be an African minister who needed to rent out his apartment because he had urgent missionary work to attend to in West Africa. Church let out a laugh. It was the old African-missionary-apartment swindle, one of the most popular cons on the site. Someone was trying to scam the scammer.

Only on Craigslist.


Last year the Cook County Sheriff’s Department in Chicago launched a sting operation to test Craigslist’s much vaunted automated self-policing system. Much vaunted, that is, by Buckmaster. “Community moderation as exemplified by our flagging system is arguably the most successful system ever conceived for eliminating inappropriate activity from a massive Internet community,” he wrote this past May on his blog. The Chicago investigators posted two ads. One read “14 year old looking for sex”; the other was “15 year old looking for male companionship.” Neither of the ads was flagged.

“We pulled the ads down after we started getting hits from sex offenders,” says Sheriff Tom Dart, who has spent two years pleading with Buckmaster to do something about the site.

Buckmaster insisted that the company works hand in glove with law enforcement to track down criminals misusing the site and that the Erotic Services section mainly consisted of postings for legal mas-seuses, lap dancers, and escorts. (After agreeing to be interviewed by Maxim, Buckmaster pulled out, claiming he didn’t have time.)

“Jim Buckmaster is out of his mind,” said Sheriff Dart in early May. “Of all the operations we have ever conducted, never once did we get ‘I’m a professional masseuse.’ Not once.”

Dart, a former Deadhead, is not some right-wing law-and-order type looking to whip up a moral 
panic. In fact, Time magazine awarded Sheriff Dart a spot in its “One Hundred Most Influential People” issue. So Dart deserves to be taken seriously when he says Craigslist has become America’s biggest source of prostitution.

“Prostitution is a dangerous field,” he continues. “Women have been beaten up, assaulted, murdered for years. But if you’re looking to harm a woman, what better way than Craigslist?”

The cyber-libertarians at the Electronic Freedom Foundation sprang to Craigslist’s defense: “No one ever suggests that Henry Ford or Alexander Graham Bell is morally culpable for developing technologies that could so clearly aid criminals,” says EFF senior staff attorney Matt Zimmerman. “Cars and phones aren’t illegal, even though people obviously 
use them to facilitate crimes, so why should new digital communications technologies be criminalized?”

Kristin Davis, for one,  was well aware of the risks of advertising on Craigslist. Before she was busted last year on charges of money laundering and promoting prostitution, Davis made tons of money using the site: All the traffic kept three locations with 12 girls busy 18 hours a day. Davis set up an overseas call center to handle the volume of replies she received. You’re not supposed to be able to spam on Craigslist, but Davis paid a programmer $10,000 to design software that could bypass the company’s spam filters and post up to 600 ads a day.Still, Davis worried constantly about the safety of her girls. That’s why she warned Brisman that you could never tell who was really on the other end of the phone.

This past November Craigslist entered into an agreement with more than 40 state attorneys general along with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to instigate new measures that would help stamp out any illegal activity on the site. Jim Buckmaster claimed that the new measures led to an immediate 80 percent reduction in postings in the Erotic Services section. But according to some, prostitution on the site soon rebounded to become as rife as ever.

“Buckmaster makes it sound like they should be given some sort of badge because they’re so helpful to law enforcement,” says Dart. “They do the minimum required by law.”

Frustrated with his lack of progress, this March Dart filed a federal lawsuit against the company, claiming it knowingly facilitates prostitution. Buckmaster claimed to be mystified. Newmark insisted the Erotic Services section would remain open for business.

In the end Craigslist caved. On May 13, Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan announced that Craigslist had agreed to shut down Erotic Services and replace it with a new Adult Services section monitored by the Craigslist staff. Only those offering legal services—lap dances and the like—would be allowed to post.

Would Craigslist’s new safety measures have prevented Julissa Brisman’s murder? Maybe. But the Web site still doesn’t require people who reply to posts to register. So if Brisman had managed to evade the monitors with a deceptively worded post, Philip Markoff would have still been able to commit the crime. In fact, in June—just weeks after Craigslist closed Erotic Services—a 25-year-old from North Carolina allegedly used the site to enlist a man to rape his own wife. According to authorities, the husband was in the room during the rape, and the couple’s two children were asleep in the house.

So the question remains: Will Adult Services be Erotic Services redux, nothing more than a name change?  “We’re going to keep a very close eye on them to find out,” says Sheriff Dart.


“The Hunt for White October” Maxim April 2009

As Columbian traffickers continue their battle to smuggle cocaine onto the streets of America, a new front has developed in the war on drugs: below the surface of the ocean. An inside look at the world of drug subs, and the men trying to catch them.

There’s a popular saying in the port city of Buenaventura : “Those who talk are carried away by the tide.”

So it’s understandable that Diego Morales doesn’t want to reveal too many details about why he agreed to undertake such a perilous mission. All he will say is that his sister owed money to the wrong people. And owing money to the wrong people in Colombia’s new cocaine capital is a good way to end up dead.

“I needed a lot of pesos fast,” says Morales, 52, a sullen-looking fireplug of a man with a scar over his right eye.

So imagine the relief when the offer came: 30,000 American dollars, half now, the other half when the work was completed, a mind-boggling amount of money for someone used to living on the equivalent of $5 a day. And all he had to do, he was told, was go on a fishing trip.

It was August 2007 when Morales was picked up in a truck and taken to a damp estuary on the outskirts of Buenaventura, a vast, tangled network of rivers and inlets bordered by dense jungle. He glimpsed men wearing camouflage uniforms and cradling assault rifles guarding something half-submerged in the muddy creek. Morales was expecting a fishing boat, so he was puzzled to see a rusty cigar-shaped metal contraption about 60 feet long and eight feet wide. Suddenly, it dawned on him what it was—anarco-submarino, the latest weapon in the Colombian drug traffickers’ campaign to smuggle cocaine into North America. Morales had heard the stories about fishermen who went on one of these deadly vessels and never came back.

“I didn’t know that I was going to be traveling in a vessel underwater,” he says. “But I couldn’t say no. When someone takes you to one of these things and you say no, you can lose your life.”

The coke was already in place, five tons wrapped in plastic and tightly packed in the fore and aft. Morales was ordered on board, and he squeezed his thick frame through the hatch into the sub, where he saw three figures crouching in the shadows: the burly captain, Arturo Gonzalez; a mechanic named Arley Arraya whose face was blistered with nasty-looking burns; and a Mexican “load guard,” Luis Galindo, a 25-year-old with jug ears who was sent by the drug traffickers to makesure their precious cargo reached its intended destination.

The interior smelled of rusty iron, and the walls dripped with condensation. Morales had worked on some junkers in his nearly four decades as a fisherman, but nothing like this. “There was nothing inside except cocaine—no beds, no toilets, no kitchen,” says Morales. The Captain told him the mission would take about eight days. The assignment was to transport the contraband, worth about $100 million on the streets of America. Though the crew didn’t know it, they were headed some 1,700 miles to Mexico’s Gulf of Tehuantepec. Morales’ job was to help Gonzalez and steer the mini-sub when the captain was asleep.

Ready to go, Captain Gonzalez started up the 350-horsepower diesel engine and rode the receding tide out of the estuary, puttering at a slow and steady five knots into the darkness of the Pacific.


The frontline in the war on drugs has now shifted underwater. The U.S. Coast Guard calls these cocaine submarines SPSS s (selfpropelled semi-submersibles) because they don’t dive like military subs but glide just below the surface of the water. Sightings of the vessels have skyrocketed in the last year. Back in 2006, the Coast Guard detected only three; now they are spotting as many as 10 a month. Last year alone, more drug subs were seized at sea and on dry land than in the entire previous decade. According to the DE A, as much as a third of the cocaine that arrives on American shores comes via these sometimes comical conveyances. They’re usually bound for Mexico’s west coast, where the cocaine is off-loaded onto speedboats or fishing vessels and taken ashore, while the sub is scuttled.

“We can’t say exactly how many there are and how many are getting through,” says one DE A source. “But there’s a lot.”

Regarded as a joke by law enforcement when they first appeared in the early 1990s, the prototypes were jerry-built contraptions, difficult to steer and limited in how far they could travel and how much cocaine they could hold. Now, with a new fleet of faster, more seaworthy vessels that can travel as much as 2,000 miles without refueling, the U.S. government officially regards cocaine submarines as “an emerging threat.”

Commander Timothy Espinoza of the U.S. Coast Guard told a recent maritime security conference, “An SPSS can smuggle 10 to 12 tons of coke without detection. What else can they smuggle: money, guns, illegal aliens, terrorists, weapons of mass destruction?”

These subs cost upwards of $1 million, which sounds substantial until you realize that each vessel carries cocaine worth 100 times that amount. They’re built in secret jungle shipyards on the outskirts of Buenaventura, protected by armed guards and shielded from aerial surveillance by a thick canopy of trees and near constant cloud cover. While their construction may be a secret, their existence isn’t. Everybody in Buenaventura knows about the narco-subs. People line up at the dockside for a chance to work on one. For some in the slums, a job on one of these boats is like winning the lottery, a ticket out of deprivation.


The first couple of days were intolerable. With nowhere to lie down, the crew had to sleep sitting up, eyes half-closed, leaning on one another’s shoulders. They survived on stale bread and canned tuna, and if they needed to go to the bathroom, the captain had to surface the vessel, and the crew would defecate with the fishes.

Worst of all was the punishing humidity. Morales had to keep pouring water over the engine to prevent it from overheating, releasing clouds of steam that turned the narrow space into a sauna. It was so hot the crew worked in their underwear. The ventilation system that poked up through the surface of the water didn’t provide nearly enough air in the cramped quarters for four people.

Morales’ main role was to steer the submarine when the captain was otherwise occupied. A compass sitting on top of a metal box guided the way, and Morales could see where the vessel was headed by looking through a narrow slit level with the ocean surface. But only the captain was allowed to communicate with the traffickers via the radio.

By the seventh day, the food and drinking water were running low. Things were officially desperate. Where were they going? The captain refused to say. The traffickers had sworn him to secrecy on pain of death.

Then, in the early evening, the Mexican load guard popped his head up through the hatch to get a breath of fresh air and looked up to see a propeller-powered military plane circling overhead. He rushed back below and told his comrades:

The captain turned off the engine, fearful that the U.S. plane might fire at them. And then the sub started to leak. Throughout the voyage, Gonzalez had to stop periodically and surface to let Morales pump out puddles of water. But this time the Pacific Ocean roared into the interior and soon the panicked crew was up to its knees, frantically operating bilge pumps in a futile attempt to halt the tide. They thought about abandoning ship, but were worried about being eaten by sharks. So instead they donned their life vests and clambered onto the deck, where they waved T-shirts in the air in a frantic attempt to attract the attention of the military plane. What if the Americans couldn’t reach them in time? Galindo the load guard predicted that they were all going to die.


On the evening of August 20, 2007, the USS De Wert out of Mayflower, Florida was on a routine counter-narcotics patrol in the eastern Pacific about 300 miles southwest of the Mexican-Guatemalan border when the call came in. A U.S. Navy marine patrol airplane had just spotted a suspicious vessel about 35 miles away. “It looks like a fucking submarine,” one of the surprised Navy airmen blurted over the radio.

The captain ordered the De Wert to change course to intercept the SPSS . Below deck, LED T 102, a U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement deployment team led by Petty Officer Nathan Fornicola, was preparing to conduct what is called an ROV (right of visit). At 26, Fornicola had six years service with the Coast Guard. He had joined the service two years out of high school in San Morales and now led a group of guys, many of whom were not long out of high school themselves.

At approximately 1:30 a.m., Fornicola and his five-man team dropped over the side of the De Wert and into a high-speed inflatable boat headed for the target zone. The Navy patrol plane flew overhead to guide them. About a mile from the vessel’s last reported position, they saw a faint light flickering in the distance.

As they closed in on the position, they noticed four people in the water, all of them wearing life jackets, one of them holding a flashlight. Their vessel was gone but the crew was still very much alive.

Officer Steven Lutz shouted in Spanish. “What happened to your boat?”

“It sank,” a voice in the darkness replied.

With rifles and side arms trained on them, the survivors were instructed to swim to the boat one at a time. Once safely onboard, Fornicola told Lutz to ask the crew members where they come from. Three said they were Colombian, the other said he was Mexican. Fornicola noticed that the Colombians were nervous. Not so for the Mexican.

“Relax,” he said in English.

Asked what happened to their vessel, Galindo stamped his foot on the deck and said, “There was a crack in the boat.”

The sub crew had spent about a half-hour in the frigid water, but they looked in fairly good physical shape, so Fornicola brought the survivors aboard the De Wert. The whole crew felt relieved. They were alive, and as far as they knew, they were in the clear, the evidence 3,000 feet below on the ocean floor.

After securing Morales and his pals in the ship’s brig, Fornicola, accompanied by Officer Lutz and Officer Michael Karnoff, headed back out to see if there was any debris left behind. Karnoff, 30, the oldest member of the team, was at the front of the speedboat when he first noticed a plastic water bottle bobbing on the water. Fornicola’s ears pricked up at the news. Then Karnoff spotted what looked like a plastic-covered brick, then another, and another, followed by a burlap sack that contained what looked like 20 individually wrapped kilos of cocaine. Two hour later, two small boats laden with 11 bales and 60 bricks—five tons in all—headed back to the De Wert.

It was a big win for the U.S. Coast Guard, the sort of bust that garners headlines, which it did on CNN and other news outlets. Fornicola and his team had managed to retrieve enough drugs to send Morales and company to federal prison for long stretches. Still, it nagged at him that they had failed to capture the vessel before it sank. Every time the Coast Guard tried to board one of these subs, the crews would scuttle them, sending boat and cocaine to the bottom of the ocean. If the Coast Guard could actually capture one and thus be able to examine the technology that powers them, it would shed some light on the drug traffickers’ tactics: how they communicate with each other, how they construct these subs. They might even be able to discover who was building them.


With the demise of the Cali and Medellín cartels in the 1990s, some observers incorrectly predicted the beginning of the end of the Andean cocaine trade. By 2000 it was practically impossible to ship coke of any great weight through the Caribbean, so drug traffickers turned to Colombia’s untamed Pacific coastline. Instead of declining, cocaine production boomed as the role of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by their Spanish acronym FARC, took on a new importance. The FARC needed the money to buy weapons and to continue to finance their half-century-long struggle against the Colombian government. Now they took on a more active role, not just proitviding protection but also assembling a small navy of drug vessels to transport the contraband on the high seas.

“The FARC became the FedEx of the cocaine business,” says Daniel Castillo, a Tampa-based defense lawyer who has represented a number of foreign maritime cocaine smugglers caught at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. “They don’t own the product, but make money by ensuring that it’s delivered to the right address.”

But the FARC had a problem. The Colombian navy had Buenaventura blockaded. And even if a FARC drug boat made it into international waters, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were there waiting. A multipronged crackdown on maritime cocaine trafficking called Operation Panama Express was eating into the narco-terrorists’ profit margins. “The success of Operation Panama Express in stemming cocaine trafficking over the water is a big part of the reason why the Colombians went underwater,” says Castillo.

The FARC turned to a shadowy Colombian man nicknamed Captain Nemo for help. Enrique Portocarrero was a shrimp fisherman by trade who once worked at a commercial dry dock, where he learned the rudiments of boat design. Short and squat, with the crumpled face of a bulldog, he owned a shipyard about 20 miles south of Buenaventura, where, according to Colombian law enforcement, he invented a new generation of narco-subs—sleek, V-shaped fiberglass boats specially designed for stealth. The only thing visible above the water line was the top of the pilot house, along with the goose-neck-shaped ventilation and exhaust pipes which gave the vessels the appearance of something dreamed up by Jules Verne. Each boat was custom-designed to carry a specific load. A key feature of the boats were the scuttle valves that Portocarrero installed which enabled the crew to flood and sink the vessel along with the incriminating evidence if they were stopped.

Cocaine mini-subs are an old idea updated, and Captain Nemo’s were fairly easy to construct. Portocarrero would build a ship’s mold, put the fiberglass in place, buy a diesel engine, and procure navigation and communication devices. Though the design was simple, the boats took a long time to construct, three months or more, mainly because Portocarrero had to stagger the deliveries of materials to avoid being caught. Captain Nemo’s subs were ideally suited to their task. For the time being, though, Portocarrero remained something of a mystery. Law enforcement didn’t know where or from whom he got his materials, nor how many subs he was capable of churning out. If the authorities could just get their hands on one of his vessels, they would achieve a rousing victory in the war on drugs. They might disrupt the supply lines, halt the trade at the source, maybe even get Captain Nemo himself.


A little over a year after Diego Morales and his crew were apprehended in the USS De Wert incident, the Coast Guard received an urgent bulletin from Operation Panama Express saying that a suspicious vessel had left Buenaventura on August 31, 2008 at around nine at night heading north-northwest. Rather than relying on luck to stumble across one of these cocaine submarines in the vastness of the Pacific, this time the Coast Guard had actual advance intelligence. If the operation was planned correctly, they would be able to seize one of Captain Nemo’s vessels before it sank.

Just after midnight on September 17, 2008, Petty Officer Alberto Delgado was relaxing in his bunk on the USS McInerney, when he received the word that he has been waiting for all day. The SPSS had been spotted 350 miles off the coast of Guatemala. Delgado stood in the door of the cramped sleeping quarters and told the members of his crew the good news: “Wake up. We found it.” The five other members of the crew pulled themselves out of their bunks and sprung to attention. Then they went over the plan of attack.

Delgado had 12 years’ experience in the Coast Guard. Over the years he’d boarded hundreds of vessels looking for drugs: trawlers, cargo ships, tankers, you name it. He was proud of the fact that he’d helped seize in total about 16 tons of cocaine worth nearly $300 million.

But that night, equally as important as the cocaine, was the vessel itself. Federal lawyers back in Tampa were having difficulty prosecuting the operators of the SPSS ’s without the vessel as evidence.

In the predawn hours Delgado’s team headed out to capture the SPSS. It was quiet in their small, inflatable boat, the atmosphere a mixture of adrenaline and anticipation.

It took nearly an hour to get to the sub. The only thing Officer Delgado could see through his night-vision goggles was the white foam coming out of the back of the vessel. The sub was thrashing through the water at 10 to 12 knots, a steady clip for a SPSS . Removing his goggles, Delgado instructed one of his team to fire a 40 mm White Star flare. They could now see the strange-looking, goose-neck-shaped exhaust pipes that poked out from the top of the 60-foot sub. The Coast Guard boat pulled up parallel, and Delgado and two of his team jumped onto the top of the moving sub. The deck was slick with seawater, and Delgado had trouble keeping his footing. Once aboard, Delgado, a 9 mm pistol in one hand, used his other to bang on the hull.

Policia. Policia. Americano. Americano!” he shouted.

Suddenly, the sub lurched sharply into reverse, the engine dipping in the ocean, the bow rising out of the water like a surfacing whale.

“Hold on to the pipes,” Delgado shouted at the other guardsmen.

“Watch out for the propellers!” He worried that his team might slide down the slippery deck and be mangled.

The sub then started making erratic side-to-side movements, trying to shake the guardsmen off the hull. The vessel began to sink: six inches at first, then a foot, then three, close to waist high. Somebody inside was trying to wash the Coast Guard into the ocean.

Delgado could see people carrying knives moving around inside through the porthole and shouted at them to halt.

Para el bote. Para el bote.

It seemed to take forever, but after about four or five minutes, the sub crew complied with Delgado’s command. The steel and fiberglass vessel glided to a halt, the hatch slowly opened, and one of the crew popped up his head. Delgado ordered him back inside at gunpoint. He knew it was a trick: Three crew members would squeeze themselves one at a time through the narrow hatch, giving a fourth member enough time to sink the vessel. Not this time. Delgado climbed down into the sub and spotted one of the crew in the engine room preparing to open the scuttle valves. He pointed a gun at the engineer and told him to stop what he was doing and put his hands in the air.

Then the groggy crew members—three of whom were asleep when the Coast Guard came calling—were taken outside and ordered to sit atop the sub with their hands on their heads. After being patted down and searched for weapons, they were handcuffed and told they were being detained by the U.S. Coast Guard.

While the smugglers were taken back to the USS McInerney, Delgado stayed with the sub. Battered but relieved, he took a deep breath and headed inside. The interior smelled like a mix of diesel, salt, and dirty feet, and there was a foot of water on the floor. Another few minutes and the sub would have sunk. But the living conditions weren’t bad as he expected. The crew had plenty to eat, and there was on-board air-conditioning and bunk beds. Despite being at sea two weeks, the quarters were surprisingly tidy. After making sure the vessel was seaworthy, Delgado started to count the coke. There was a lot, maybe as much as seven tons.

Even more surprising to Delgado was the technical intricacy of the vessel. Captain Nemo had done good work. There was a powerful longwave radio, a GPS device, and a satellite telephone. A mariner’s compass sitting on top of a metal box guided the way. The only retro detail was the wooden steering wheel, which looked like something you’d find on the wall in a kitschy seafood restaurant.

The McInerney towed the coke sub to the Costa Rican Coast Guard base of Punta Arenas en route to Key West, where the vessel would be taken apart by investigators. Hopefully they would be able to glean valuable information about how the drug traffickers communicated with one another, how they navigated the vessel, and maybe even proof of who was building these things and where they got their materials, critical advance intelligence that would help the Coast Guard to better plan to interdict these coke subs in the future.

“We were very proud, very excited,” says Delgado. “It was the first of the new generation of semi-subs ever caught by U.S. government.”


And what of the people of Buenaventura? Security for ordinary residents has improved somewhat in the last year thanks to President Alvaro Uribe, who dispatched 2,000 marines and Special Forces trained in urban combat to patrol the slums. The city is hardly calm, but the crackdown is having an effect. Murder rates have dropped by 70 percent since 2006. And the narco-terrorists are feeling the pinch. The St. Petersburg Times reported last November that FARC commanders in Buenaventura were having trouble paying their members because cocaine revenues have been cut in half.

In the meantime, the DEA, in cooperation with the Colombian equivalent of the FBI, is going after the sub builders. In December the culmination of a joint three-year investigation led to the arrest of Buenaventura’s very own Captain Nemo at his home, where police found $200,000 hidden in the spare tire of his car. The next day armed drug agents descended on Portocarrero’s secret shipyard and demolished two of the vessels. Enrique Portocarrero is expected to be extradited to the United States to stand trial in Tampa. What hasn’t improved, and what is unlikely to improve anytime soon, are the appalling living conditions that drive the desperate to risk their lives. As far as real estate goes, for 80 percent of the population it’s still hell with an ocean view.

“I’ve personally heard DEA agents down in Buenaventura say that if they had to grow up in these types of conditions,” says a Spanish interpreter who works with American law enforcement, “they’d be the first one to get on one of these subs.”

Meanwhile, Diego Morales is in federal prison in Florida for the next eight years, thankful that his sister is still alive, though he misses her. He rues the day he ever set foot on the cocaine bathtub.

He sighs in Spanish, “Fueron los peors siete días de mi vida.”

“It was the worst seven days of my life.”

Maxim Magazine


“The Adderall Effect” Playboy October 2008

Photo illustration by James Imbrogno

Baby-faced Joe is a student at an elite East Coast university who deals drugs on the side to make a bit of spare cash. It’s not a major operation: a little weed here, a little acid there. But the most sought-after item on his menu is Adderall, the popular prescription drug that family doctors and psychiatrists give to kids as young as six to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

It’s finals time, and Joe, a skinny teenager with a mop of curly hair, sits in his crowded dorm room, listening to the Velvet Underground’s paean to amphetamine psychosis “White Light/White Heat.” He and his three roommates are readying for another all-night studying session on Adderall. A book about macroeconomics sits on his desk, awaiting his attention. Joe’s cell phone buzzes. His friends have been text-messaging him all day: NEED 3 ADDY. R U AROUND. Joe texts back: COME OVER 15 MIN.

Joe (not his real name) grabs a plastic medicine container with a HIGH ABUSE POTENTIAL label on it and pours pills onto his bedspread. He separates and counts them: There are the 20-milligram standard-release tablets, which go for up to $5 each and can be crushed into a fine powder, making them popular with students who like to snort the drug to quicken its onset. Better yet, there are the orange-colored 20-milligram extended-release Adderall XRs, which also sell for $5 a pop and last up to 12 hours. Adderall XR is the Lamborghini of study drugs, the version students take when they need to drive themselves faster, longer and harder than the competition.

At 16 Joe was diagnosed as having ADHD by a psychiatrist and prescribed Adderall. Joe doubts he has a condition, certainly not one that requires a big pharmaceutical dose (60 milligrams) on a daily basis. His schoolwork noticeably improved while he was taking Adderall, but he felt hyped up all the time, like an energized zombie, as if some person other than himself were operating his body. He feared he would become dependent on the drug, and without telling his psychiatrist he stopped taking his meds. But he retained his prescription so he could sell the pills to his friends.

“My three-month prescription, if I were to sell it all, would be worth $1,500, which is a lot of money to me,” says Joe, who still takes Adderall at exam time. “I have the ideal situation for selling Adderall: I live in a dormitory with 800 other students. All my neighbors are potential buyers.”

Twenty milligrams is enough to give the user what seems like superhuman powers of concentration; it banishes distractibility and delays sleep. It can turn tedious work into fascinating material; a boring textbook can become a riveting page-turner.

“I feel like the drier the subject is, the more effective Adderall is,” says Joe. “Little details I have to go over six times when I’m straight, on Adderall they stick in my brain right away.”

Joe worries the Adderall craze on campus is getting out of control. A third of his friends use the drug. Two of his roommates also have prescriptions, one from a doctor father who knows full well his son doesn’t have ADHD yet gives it to him anyway.

“Colleges are increasingly competitive,” Joe says. “There’s an ever-increasing desire among young people to make money and become successful because that is what’s being promoted by their parents, by the university and by the culture at large. In that sense Adderall is the perfect drug for the times. I think it embodies and defines what this culture of medicating kids is all about.” He pauses. “It’s the drug of conformity. Adderall is the drug your parents want you to take.”


Drug use on college campuses in America has always served as a barometer of what’s going on in the culture at large. In the 1960s drugs were about the counterculture and rebellion. In the 1970s and 1980s they were about partying, sex and excess. Students in the 1990s rediscovered drugs as a source of illumination, becoming foot soldiers in the rave and neo-hippie movements. In the new millennium, however, Adderall is threatening to surpass marijuana as the most common illicit substance on some campuses. Students use it not so much to get high as for a rather prosaic purpose: to get better grades.

According to recent research done by the University of Michigan’s Sean Esteban McCabe, up to 25 percent of students at high-powered universities have used prescription stimulants like Adderall. According to the numerous interviews I conducted with students, professors and scientists for this story, use of the drug shows no sign of declining.

Adderall is a mixture of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine. It’s speed. From the 1930s to the 1970s doctor-prescribed amphetamine was a socially acceptable mainstream medicine. Every segment of American society—students, housewives, soldiers, doctors, factory workers, politicians—consumed massive amounts of amphetamine to get an extra boost for what had become known as the rat race. In the “Just Say No” era, -doctor-p-rescribed amphetamine disappeared from college campuses. Two decades later it’s back with a vengeance.

How ironic that methamphetamine continues to be demonized by the media and law enforcement as the most frightening substance since crack cocaine, while amphetamine and dextroamphetamine—different versions of the same basic drug—have once again become an intrinsic part of campus life. The major supply of speed on college campuses today comes not from scabby street chemists but from the freshly scrubbed men and women in white coats who belong to the medical establishment. Many parents who would be horrified if their children were using crystal meth are happy to see them dosed up on what is essentially the same drug, as long as it comes from a pharmaceutical company and little Jimmy or Jenny gets good grades.

Few who pop these pills have any idea of Adderall’s strange history. The drug was invented as a diet pill called Obetrol in the 1960s. It crept into the counterculture as well, including into Andy Warhol’s crowd. (Warhol had just picked up a prescription for it the day Valerie Solanas shot him at his Union Square studio.)

Obetrol’s selling point was its smooth onset. It was said to be less harsh than the more popular weight-loss pills of the time—like Desoxyn (pure methamphetamine) and Dexedrine (pure dextroamphetamine)—because of its mixture of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine salts. In the 1970s the Food and Drug Administration cracked down on doctors who prescribed amphetamine pills for weight loss. Obetrol was withdrawn from the market.

Enter Shire Pharmaceuticals, a British company at the time known less for inventing new medicines than for taking existing ones and rebranding them. Shire bought the company that owned the rights to Obetrol—as well as the factory that produced it—in 1997 and then began promoting the drug as a treatment for attention-deficit disorder.

It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. The number of kids prescribed drugs to treat ADD and ADHD in the late 1990s skyrocketed. Ritalin—which is methylphenidate, a nonamphetamine stimulant that acts in the brain like cocaine—was the most popular treatment for ADD. But after newspaper articles, and Scientologists, raised concerns about the safety of prescribing such a powerful drug to children, Adderall was aggressively marketed to physicians as a safe and longer-lasting alternative to Ritalin. By the end of 1999 Adderall had boosted Shire’s revenue to more than $400 million a year.

The moral debate over dosing children with powerful drugs continues to rage. “I don’t think there’s any question doctors overprescribe these drugs,” says William Frankenberger, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire who has spent the past decade studying the effects of stimulant medications on academic performance. “There was a huge increase in the 1990s, thousands of percent, of children being diagnosed with ADHD and being treated with stimulant medication. Those children are now in college.”

Adderall’s popularity as a study aid really took off in 2001, when Shire introduced Adderall XR, the extended-release version of the drug. XR is a capsule containing two types of time-release beads, half of which dissolve immediately, the other half four hours later. Sales of Adderall XR grew on average 20 percent a year, and it quickly became the most widely prescribed ADHD drug in America, generating $1 billion of Shire’s $2.4 billion in revenue last year.

Although small doses used occasionally don’t result in much of a hangover, slightly higher doses extended over time can result in a harsh comedown: sweaty palms, blotchy skin, heart palpitations, strawlike hair, insomnia and limp-dick episodes. Cardiologists worry about the effects daily doses may have on the heart. In February 2005 Canadian authorities temporarily banned XR after reports of 20 deaths linked to the drug. In this country the FDA looked at the same data but concluded that the rate of fatal heart attacks among kids on Adderall was little different from the rate among those who didn’t take stimulant drugs. The feds allowed doctors to continue to prescribe it.

“Because it comes from a doctor, students don’t think it’s that risky,” says Dr. Lawrence Diller, author of Running on Ritalin and a frequent critic of doctors who overprescribe stimulant drugs to kids. “For most of them who take it occasionally in small doses, it isn’t. But a small group will overuse and get into trouble.”

Beyond the question of physical effects, what does the current campus Adderall craze say about kids these days? About the marketing power of pharmaceutical companies reaping huge profits? And the medical community, which stands between the two?


David (not his real name) is sitting in an exam hall, and he’s losing his mind. He thinks he’s having a panic attack. The 19-year-old economics major now realizes that washing down 75 milligrams of Adderall with eight cans of Red Bull wasn’t the best study plan he ever had. His hands shake, his mind races in a hundred different directions, and his heart feels as if it’s about to burst out of his chest. He’s pouring with sweat, and he can barely breathe. Holding up his hand, he leaves his seat and stumbles into the hallway, where after 10 minutes of drinking cup after cup of water and taking deep breaths, he’s calm enough to reenter the hall and take the exam.

“I did better on that exam than on any exam I’ve ever taken,” he later recalls. “I got a near-perfect score.”

A slightly built youth with gelled brown hair and a casual half-hipster, half-preppie style, David is a fan of Adderall. He has been taking it for about a year on a fairly regular basis, and except for that time he nearly passed out in the exam room, it has been a cool ride. “It takes away your worries,” he says of the drug. “Instead of freaking out and thinking, Oh man, I’m going to fail tomorrow, you take a pill and everything is fine.”

When I meet David, he is in the middle of finals, and in four days he has slept only eight hours. He shows no signs of tiredness. In fact, he’s feeling great thanks to the 60 milligrams of Adderall he has taken over the past 24 hours. He’s from a well-to-do suburban family, and once finals are over he’s headed to Europe for the summer and vows he won’t touch the drug for months. He says he uses Adderall mainly as a study aid, but sometimes he uses it to socialize, too.

“Adderall has added a lot to my life,” he says. “I owe a lot of my friendships to Adderall. Normally, I don’t like talking to random people, but on Adderall you’re really interested in people. It’s the get-up-and-go drug. Instead of sitting on the couch, smoking pot and watching television, I want to go out and do things.” (David has also discovered another useful role for the drug: “Jerking off on Adderall is an amazing experience.”)

When asked if Adderall has improved his grades, David pauses. “Actually,” he says, “now that I think about it, it doesn’t. My first semester I had straight A’s. The second term, when I started taking Adderall, I had straight Bs. I continued using it, and now I have an A-, B+ mix. So maybe the Adderall hasn’t helped.”

David underscores a seductive part of amphetamine’s appeal that scientists have known for decades: The substance doesn’t just give you extra energy; it makes you feel good about yourself. The drug releases in the brain high levels of the pleasure chemical dopamine, the same substance discharged while making love or smoking a cigarette. That’s why amphetamine was America’s first widely prescribed antidepressant, decades before Prozac.

A common complaint among today’s students is the constant stress and mental exhaustion they feel competing in such an academically demanding environment. The pendulum has swung away from the slacker generation, so much so in fact that one could argue college students have never before found themselves under so much pressure to perform and excel—not just to get good grades but to outdo one another. It’s not only harder to get into a good college these days (some Ivy League schools receive twice as many applications as they did a decade ago), but once you get there the pressure is unrelenting to maintain good grades so you can get a six-figure job upon graduation. The majority of students interviewed for this story expressed anxiety about disappointing their parents, some of whom are spending as much as $200,000 for a four-year degree. Adderall boosts self-esteem. It’s a drug that not only helps students manage a complex world but also makes them feel good about their place in it.

“When it costs my parents $50,000 a year to put me through college, you can bet I’m going to be stressed about getting good grades,” says David. “The reason I started taking Adderall in the first place was I thought I was going to get an F on a paper, and my father would have been pissed. My dad, who is a dentist, often says, ‘Do you know how many teeth I have to pull to put you through college for a year?’”


Does Adderall raise academic performance over time? This much is certain: Amphetamine medications have been used for a brain boost since the Great Depression. As far back as 1937, at a Rhode Island mental hospital, psychiatrist Charles Bradley, widely credited with discovering ADHD, dosed 30 learning-disabled children with Benzedrine (the original brand name for amphetamine) and found half the children showed “a spectacular improvement” in school performance. Bradley had accidentally found that amphetamine has the paradoxical effect of calming hyperactive kids, enabling them to better concentrate on their class work.

Within a year student test subjects in psychological studies had spread the word to their friends about amphetamine’s effectiveness as a study aid. Time magazine reported that “the use of a new powerful but poisonous brain stimulant called Benzedrine had college directors of health in dithers of worry.” One British psychologist at the time claimed “students have come to cherish this drug as a gift of the gods.”

“There’s pretty much been a 70-year use of amphetamine to help children do better in school, to concentrate and control their behavior,” says Diller. “Personally, I think Adderall has more of an effect on improving one’s sense of self than improving one’s performance.”

“I’ve been studying this for years, and I’m still not sure there’s an advantage for students taking tests on Adderall as opposed to students who study in the normal way,” says Frankenberger. “There’s good evidence that in the short term when children go on stimulant medications, the quantity and quality of their work increases. There’s no debating that. But are they learning more in the long run? The answer seems to be no.”

If it is a myth that Adderall and drugs like it are cognitive enhancers, it’s one that many scientists and researchers have taken as truth. A recent survey by Nature magazine, whose main readership works in science and academia, found roughly one in five readers used prescription drugs—including Adderall, Ritalin and Provigil—to focus concentration and increase productivity. Pilots in the military have used these drugs to stay awake and concentrate for long periods. The Adderall-on-campus issue is, in effect, the same debate that’s going on with steroids in professional sports. If the drug works, even in the short term, does taking it constitute cheating? Should all students be allowed to take it to level the playing field?

“Society is rife with hypocrisy,” says Diller. “These kids are taking these drugs for the same reason athletes are taking these drugs, the same reason their teachers are taking these drugs, the same reason businessmen are taking these drugs. It’s for performance enhancement. We live in a competitive society that demands performance at all costs and equates material acquisition with emotional and spiritual contentment. This is a culture perfect for using performance enhancers. Whether they actually work or not is another question.”


Susan (not her real name), 21, is a pretty blonde in a clingy black dress who goes to a well-regarded college in upstate New York. It’s summertime, and we’re sitting in a restaurant in midtown Manhattan. She describes her sorority life as being like Valley of the Dolls redux. These days there’s a drug for every occasion—OxyContin for when you want to get really zoned out, Xanax for anxiety, Valium for relaxation and Klonopin, a hypnotic drug used to treat seizures, for a pleasantly drowsy evening when there’s nothing better to do. But the crown jewel is Adderall. The drug is particularly popular among female students because, while they believe it helps with their studies, it also suppresses their appetite and helps them lose weight. After all, it was originally created as Obetrol, the diet drug. (For the same reason, Adderall has been called “the miracle pill” for Hollywood celebrities trying to control their weight.)

“There’s definitely a return to pill culture on campus,” says Susan. “I don’t know if it’s that students are more scared today to experiment with street drugs than in the past, but part of the appeal of pill culture is the feeling that these drugs are safe and legal because they come from a doctor. There’s still a lot of ecstasy and cocaine around, but increasingly, students prefer prescription drugs.”

Susan estimates well over half her sorority sisters have taken Adderall at least once. All sorts of students take the drug, she says, from straight-edge types who would never dream of taking street drugs to slackers who think they can cram a term’s worth of study into one week. On Susan’s campus little or no social stigma is attached to the drug. It’s such a normal part of campus life that students openly pop the candy-colored capsules in the library, even though Adderall is a Schedule II controlled substance, the possession of which without a prescription is technically punishable by jail time.

Says Susan, “It’s not even considered a drug anymore.”

But it is a drug, one that when taken in high doses can have some unhappy consequences. Fortunately, the students who take Adderall are usually sensible enough to take it only when they think it can help them and in small doses—usually 20 milligrams at a time, which falls well below the threshold that produces euphoria and is unlikely to cause harm.

Larger doses taken regularly over an extended time period—that’s a different story. As the legendary underground chemist Uncle Fester, who wrote the meth cook’s bible Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture, once told me, amphetamine “makes a great short-term friend but a lousy long-term companion.”

Playboy Magazine


“The Brooklyn Girls Fight Club” Maxim June 2008

In the notorious neighborhood that has given birth to more top fighters than anywhere else in America, a secret, underground contest for women emerges.
Photos by Janette Beckman

On a chilly December night in the heart of Brownsville, Brooklyn, the weather so cold even the drug dealers have retreated indoors, 100 or so rowdy young men and women from the adjacent housing projects have gathered inside a windowless garage. In the center is a brightly lit boxing ring stained with dried blood from a previous fight. Standing in the ring, two women dressed in street clothes and wearing martial arts training gloves are punching the frigid air.

In one corner the deceptively slender Danyel Portis (a.k.a. Do Her Own Motherfuckin’ Thing) is using her fingertips to lightly grease her pretty face with Vaseline. She resembles a young Dionne Warwick and wears an impatient expression that says: Let’s just do this. Danyel has no time for the prefight trash talking that usually accompanies these bouts. This single mother of three is not here to pop off her mouth. She’s here for one reason only: to win the $1,000 prize money so she can feed her kids.

In the other corner, a young woman named Aliya Zalk, who has maybe a 20-pound weight advantage over her rival, is also eager for the fight to start but for a different reason than Danyel: “You better make that money quick,” her boyfriend, who is standing at the side of the ring, urges her. “Don’t forget to cover your face.” She is from next door, Flatbush, and exudes pure courage. Brave is the white girl who steps into this arena in a neighborhood where the only pale faces belong to the cops.

Despite the numerous hard-looking characters hanging around, the atmosphere in the room feels more like a family picnic than an illegal fight club. While adults eat McDonald’s and sip Hennessy from plastic cups, baby-faced teenagers flash gang signs and pose for cell phone cameras and toddlers scream with delight, chasing each other around the echoing concrete space. Incongruous sights abound: a father sitting on a folding chair tenderly cradling a baby; a pit bull growling in a cage. Near the ring a film crew that has been hard at work on a documentary about the club prepares for the main event. By the entrance, two behemoths—one female, the other male—pat people down. Everybody gets checked for weapons. As soon as the last person has entered, the brooklynGirlsFightClub_article02.jpgbouncers bolt the metal door shut. No one is allowed to leave until the event is done. If a fire breaks out, we’ll all be goners.

A voice in the audience yells, “Put your bets down now,” and $20 bills appear from baggy trouser pockets and are passed from one hand to the next. While there is no admission charge for the fight, the proceeds from the gambling pays the fighters and finances the evening’s festivities.

Jigga, one of the organizers and the MC for the evening, calls the women to the center of the ring. A lean 6’5″, he is a popular figure in Brownsville, known as “the Mayor” for his talent as a peacemaker. That’s a critical skill when dealing with the boisterous fans who often support fighters based on which public housing development (Tilden Houses, Brownsville Houses, Langston Hughes Houses, Marcus Garvey Houses) they come from. He explains the rules of the contest to the combatants: “No grabbing. No kicking. No scratching. No hair pulling. No biting. Three rounds. Ninety seconds a round.” The fighters nod in acknowledgment. And with the blare of a car horn, the battle begins.

Aliya immediately goes on the attack, catapulting herself across the ring toward Danyel’s corner like a human cannonball. She throws a wild right, which fails to connect after Danyel ducks. Then she throws a left, which also hits air, but this time Danyel is ready and grabs her opponent’s arm in midflight and wraps it around her neck. Danyel is now strangling Aliya with her own limb. Aliya tumbles awkwardly to the canvas gasping for breath. In a flash, Danyel is on top of Aliya, her legs straddling Aliya’s chest. She pummels her face with both fists.

The crowd goes crazy with blood lust. Jigga spots that Aliya is in trouble and dashes across the ring to pull Danyel off her dazed rival and end the round. Jigga grabs Danyel under the arms, and as he heaves her up from the canvas, she gets in one last hard kick, direct to Aliya’s face.


brooklynGirlsFightClub_article04.jpgThe 1999 movie Fight Club is commonly credited with setting off the trend for semi-organized underground slugfests among teenage boys and young men, but informal female fight clubs, just like their all-male counterparts, have likely existed for decades in prisons, housing projects, and reformatory schools. In fact, the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club—born in Brownsville, the gritty ghetto that has spawned more top fighters than any other neighborhood in America—began in the late 1980s at the tail end of the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, when whole families lost themselves to the pipe.

“It started on the street with poor girls who desperately needed money to take care of their kids,” says boxer Zab Judah, the former welterweight champion who grew up in Brownsville. “A guy would tell a girl: ‘You’re a tough bitch. I’ve got $500. You fight my tough bitch.’ And the guy’s friends would bet on the fight. A lot of women thought: I got three kids. My lights are getting cut off. My rent is overdue. Where’s the bitch at?”

Then a group of local gangsters decided to organize these street brawls and move them indoors into a boxing ring. Today half the audience assembled at the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club is female. The brawlers are recruited from the street, and they fight at the club to further establish their rep in the neighborhood and to get a shot at the prize money. Why not get paid for doing something they would otherwise do every day for free?

The fights occur intermittently, publicized by word of mouth. The location, which changes each time, is kept secret up to the day of the fight. In the afternoon, word will start to spread through the housing projects that an event is in the offing, and people will begin to congregate outside the local barbershop; a car will pull up, and someone inside will announce where the fight is. Not everyone can attend. You have to know the organizers or someone connected to the fighters. Jigga refuses to identify who is behind the club. But it’s a safe bet to assume the people who really run the show have good reason not to want publicity. “When you got a certain system going, if it’s going good, why invite attention,” the 38-year-old Jigga reasons.

Grim doesn’t begin to describe the view from the peeling elevated railway on the corner of Rockaway and Livonia Avenues. Under a gray winter sky, a vast collection of faceless brown housing projects stretches as far as the eye can see. From the top of the projects, you can catch a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline, which might as well be in another country. Brownsville is so insular that many of the residents never leave the neighborhood. As well as being one of the poorest places in New York City, Brownsville—whose unofficial motto is “Never ran, never will”—is also one of the most dangerous; the area’s thought to be so hazardous to human health that U.S. Army field surgeons train for the Iraq War at the nearby Brookdale Hospital. At the moment, however, the neighborhood seems uncharacteristically safe. On nearly every street corner, bored-looking NYPD officers stand in pairs, part of Operation Impact, which has flooded the area with rookie cops. While elsewhere in New York City, murder rates continue to fall to historic lows, last year the 73rd Precinct, which covers Brownsville, posted the only increase in homicides of any precinct in Brooklyn—up 37 percent from the year before.

No wonder, then, that this compact two-and-a-half-square-mile neighborhood has produced so many celebrated professional fighters. “Brownsville has always been a tough place, dating back to when it was a Jewish ghetto and you had [Mob boss] Meyer Lansky and Murder, Inc.,” says former WBO heavyweight champion Shannon “the Cannon” Briggs, who grew up in public housing in the neighborhood eating “welfare cheese” and wearing “Medicaid sneakers.”

brooklynGirlsFightClub_article03.jpgDuring the 1930s, Jewish pugilists were the first to put Brownsville on the map as a boxing mecca. The most famous was Al “Bummy” Davis, dubbed “the Brownsville Bum” by the newspapers because of his dirty fighting style and the fact that his younger brother was a bagman for Murder, Inc. Davis’ 1938 fight with another Brownsville fighter, Bernie “Schoolboy” Friedkin, attracted 6,000 fans to Madison Square Garden, where Davis KO’d Friedkin in the fourth round with a left hook to the jaw. In 1945, when four stickup guys tried to rob a bar in Brownsville that Davis had recently sold, the fighter punched out one of the robbers and ended up being shot in the throat and killed. He was 25.

Two generations later, Mike Tyson emerged from the same hardscrabble neighborhood. The future Brownsville bomber was just a preteen when he established his reputation as a terrifying street fighter after a teenage gangbanger snapped the neck of one of Tyson’s beloved pigeons. An enraged Tyson beat the boy to a pulp. Another future heavyweight champion, Riddick Bowe, lived nearby and attended the same school. Unlike Tyson, Bowe largely ignored the call of the streets.

Following in the wake of Tyson and Bowe, a new wave of Brownsville fighters rose to prominence, eager to use the sport as their meal tickets out of the ghetto, among them Shannon Briggs, Golden Gloves champion Danny Jacobs, and Zab Judah.

“Brownsville breeds the best fighters in the world,” says Briggs. “What other neighborhood has produced so many champions?”

As the ever-popular Jigga (real name: Jeffrey Shepherd)  walks down the avenue on the way to the liquor store, interrupted every few steps by somebody wanting to shake his hand, he ponders the question of what makes Brownsville a nursery not only for tough guys but tough girls too. The surrounding neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Flatbush, and East New York boast their fair share of warrior women who like to brawl in the streets. But Brownsville has a reputation for breeding hard-faced girls willing to “get busy” and “knuckle up” at the slightest provocation.

“You think an epidemic of violence is going to spread through a neighborhood and it’s just going to touch guys?” Jigga shrugs his broad shoulders. “It’s going to touch women too.”

“Girls in Brownsville don’t play,” adds Briggs. “They will tear you a new asshole. Brownsville girls are known for being quick-tempered.”


Back at the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club, round two is about to begin. The noise of the crowd is deafening. Danyel Portis is standing in the corner, her thumbs hooked in the waistband of her jeans, a look of grim determination spread across her face. All around her is chaos, as friends and relatives in her corner scream advice: “Keep her on the ropes. Choke her out.” Danyel tries to tune out the noise and concentrate on the task at hand. She knows she’s winning. She says to herself: Imagine you’re in a street fight outside.

The contest continues, as Danyel holds her fists up and jabs at Aliya’s face. Her punches show precision. Whack. She hits Aliya on the left side of her face, then the right. Aliya responds with a Hail Mary haymaker that again fails to connect. Danyel hits Aliya one more time in the face and then grabs her around the neck, holding her head like a football, and hauls her roughly around the ring.

Then Danyel loses one of her sneakers, and Aliya sees an opening. As Danyel bends over to pick up her shoe, Aliya attacks her. Danyel fends her off with a number of kicks until Jigga separates the two women and temporarily stops the fight. Jigga picks up the sneaker from the canvas and hands it to Danyel. The brawl resumes.

By now Danyel is feeling winded. She can’t believe that after all the punishment the girl is still standing. Why won’t she stay down? When it comes to technique, Aliya is not much of a fighter, but neither is she a quitter. This white chick sure has heart, Danyel says to herself.


Sitting in a shabby steam-table restaurant on Rockaway Avenue is a 33-year-old woman that Zab Judah calls “Brownsville’s top bitch.” Kia Hayden (a.k.a. Bloody Ass Knuckles) arrives for the interview dressed like a rap star in a sparkling winter white outfit complete with rap star attitude. She is a legend in the neighborhood, known for her unparalleled ferocity both in and out of the ring.

“Kia has more fights under her belt than Hagler,” says Jigga.

Kia was raised by her grandmother, along with nine sisters and brothers, all in a two-bedroon apartment in Brownsville. By her early teens, she was beating and robbing people, often sending her victims to the hospital. “They say I’m mean and I’m a troublemaker,” she says. “A lot of niggas out here can’t stand me.” But Kia is unapologetic about her long track record of brawling with other females, even the time she punched out a pregnant women on the street. Asked whether she might have harmed her opponent’s unborn child, she looks up and sniggers: “You ain’t pregnant in the face.”

brooklynGirlsFightClub_article06.jpgKia’s epic tussle two years ago with Danyel Portis at the Brooklyn Girls Fight Club is still talked about the way old-school boxing writers remember the Ali-Frazier bouts of the 1970s. A brutal contest that pitted the underdog Danyel against the odds-on favorite Kia, for a while it looked like the Bloody Knuckles had the upper hand, knocking Danyel to the canvas and generally dictating the course of the fight. But by the end of round two, Kia was gasping for breath. Much to the crowd’s surprise, she got up off the stool and left the ring. It was Bloody Knuckles’ first and only loss at the fight club.

“I would have won,” says Kia. “But I couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t going to kill myself for a corny fight.”

Kia says she’s tired of fighting and yearns for a better life (“an office job, a nice house”), but in the next breath this high school dropout with a criminal record describes a recent incident at a local nightclub that ended with her repeatedly slamming a rival’s head into the DJ’s turntables.

Lack of self-esteem. Poor impulse control. The stress of ghetto living. Whatever the root cause, violence begins early in Brownsville. Little Keisha (not her real name) is Kia’s niece. She’s used to witnessing mayhem. Last year she saw her mom and her friends involved in a major fracas with the cops in the local park. “I was scared,” she says in her squeaky little voice. “I started crying. The cops sprayed Mommy with mace.”

Keisha is only eight years old, but already she has numerous fights under her belt. “Dozens,” she claims. She says she wants to be a math teacher when she grows up, a goal she’s unlikely to achieve if she continues down her present path. The pretty little girl whose hair is freshly braided and beaded has spent the day at home in the Brownsville Houses watching cartoons on television after being suspended from school for her latest infraction: a brawl in the school lunchroom with a child the same age. “She was drumming on the table,” Keisha says. “I asked her to stop, and she kicked me in the leg. So I punched her in the eye.”

“I fight all the time,” says Keisha. Who taught her that? “I got it from my mother,” she says a little meekly, the violent habits of one generation begetting the violent habits of the next.


brooklynGirlsFightClub_article07.jpgAs the third round begins, both Danyel and Aliya are obviously exhausted. Street fighters tend to lack stamina and pacing; after all, a typical corner brawl is over before you know it. Here a fight lasts three long rounds. Danyel rests her left arm on the ropes and tries to fend off Aliya with her right as her supporters scream in her ear: “Just knock her out. You can do it.”

Meanwhile Aliya’s boyfriend is leaning into the ring offering his own advice: “She’s tired. Stay on her. You just got to keep working on her.”

Danyel’s sister hears what Aliya’s boyfriend says and screams across the ring: “Fuck you! She’s not tired. She’s gonna fuck your bitch up.”

Jigga pushes the girls together and warns them if they don’t fight harder, no one gets paid. Within moments both girls are on the floor. Rolling around near Aliya’s corner, Dan yel climbs on top of Aliya’s back, and with a renewed spurt of energy, grabs her ponytail with her left hand, lifts up Aliya’s head, and proceeds to smash the side of her face repeatedly with her right fist. Aliya struggles free and staggers to her feet. Her face and neck are covered with scratches and welts. Dan yel proceeds to wrap both arms around Aliya’s neck and forces her back to her knees and then chokes Aliya till her eyes bulge and her mouthpiece pops out onto the canvas. Aliya, who looks like she’s about to draw her last breath, desperately grabs at Jigga’s shirt. Enough is enough. Jigga declares the fight over and Danyel the winner. The $1,000 is hers. Danyel’s kids will go to bed with full bellies tonight.

Soon after the fight, Danyel retired from the ring and put her $1,000 in winnings toward resettling her family in the less perilous environment of Delaware. “I can’t change the world, but I can change my situation, making it better for my kids so they don’t have to feel like they always have to defend themselves, always have to have their guard up,” she said recently from her new home.

“It’s just growing up in Brownsville. You have to know how to defend yourself. You’re taught from when you’re young, if someone hits you, you hit them back. They grow up fighting, then teach their kids to fight, and it keeps on going and going.”

Maxim Magazine


“The Medical Marijuana Murder” Playboy March 2008 issue


“Summer of Love” Playboy July 2007 issue


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