The arrest this past week of a 10-year-old on drug charges in East Baltimore is a sign of what the police fear may be a dangerous new twist in the city's drug trade: As more and more young children become involved, more and more could fall victim to violence.
Vulnerable to intimidation by older dealers or lured by the prospect of easy money, younger children are likely to become increasingly at risk in the city's escalating drug violence.
Time-worn anti-drug slogans, like former first lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No," simply have little or no meaning in the reality of many pre-teens, who are continuously exposed to drugs in some of the city's poorest and toughest neighborhoods, according to narcotics officers.
"When their parents are in it, when their peers are in it, when everybody else is in it, it's apparent to them that it's right to do it," said Sgt. John Sieracki, head of the Eastern District's narcotics unit. "Nancy Reagan and 'Officer Friendly,' these aren't the people they see every day.
"Listen, the organizations look at using little kids as a way to
beat us. They're like the Marines: They improvise, adapt, and we try to overcome. It's what they do. It's a business, a big business. It's like GM or Bethlehem Steel."
In the past, adult drug dealers sought to avoid the police and rival dealers by recruiting teen-agers to hold drugs -- so-called "walking stashes." Many of those teen-age recruits have themselves turned to dealing and are recruiting even younger children.
"It's already a developing trend now," said one undercover narcotics officer. "A few years ago, the adults used 15-year-olds to hold and sell dope because they knew the kids were not going to get locked up. So now, you have a natural progression [to] the teen-agers using small children."
The police say it may only be a matter of time before the younger children who are now being conscripted and recruited into the city's drug trade become victims of violence, as organizations gear up to sell larger quantities of heroin and cocaine and battle over territory, money and prestige.
Young teen-agers are not only working as street lookouts, walking stashes or dealing, they are also holding up other street dealers. The robberies are a dangerous new wrinkle, frequently pitting armed teens against dealers who are themselves armed -- often with semiautomatic weapons -- to protect their lives, their cash and their drugs.
Whatever role younger children assume in the city's drug trade, the police say the youngsters -- such as the scared 10-year-old who was arrested on a playground swing set last week in East Baltimore -- are likely to be pegged by competitors as easy marks to kill, rob or intimidate.
"They would have stuck him up in a second. It's an easy hit," said Officer Ed Bochniak of the Eastern District. "They'd back him up against a wall, slap him upside the head and shoot him."
The drug trade has grown so pervasive that the once-safe alternatives to the street -- the neighborhood playground or recreation center -- have become risky.
The police cite the case of the 10-year-old, whose arrest last week prompted Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods to order stepped-up patrols of playgrounds throughout the city.
"This kid went to the only playground within a four-block radius of his house, which happened to be in a heavy drug area," said Officer Richard Long III. "Where is he going to go? Is his mother going to sit on him and keep him locked up at home? We're talking reality here.
"Even if they get caught dealing, what's going to happen to them? They go back to their mothers."
Last month, 11 youths, ranging in age from 10 to 17, were arrested by Eastern District police on charges including possession and dealing of cocaine. They all were returned to a parent or relative after their arrests; two were arrested on other drug charges within days.
The youngest person to be killed in drug violence this year was 15 years old. He and two other teens were shot to death last month in a drug deal gone bad.
The hardened, streetwise 11-year-old arrested last week for allegedly dealing drugs at Federal and Regester streets admitted that he had grown up idolizing drug dealers, admiring their fancy clothes and their luxury automobiles.
In an interview this week, he said he had regarded dealing drugs as "easy money." And with his expensive Air Jordan sneakers and David Robinson T-shirt, he was already able to buy himself many of the things his mother could not afford.
"I needed to have money in my pocket, for food, pants and shirts," the fourth-grader said.
While school officials confirmed that the boy has long had behavioral problems in school, his daily exposure to the drug culture, a lack of effective parental supervision and peer pressure made it relatively easy for him to become involved with the drug scene.