The arrest of the teen-ager Anthony Jones last week on charges of running a violent $1.5 million-a-year cocaine operation is one more depressing sign of a culture watching its own suicide take place.
The cops say Jones, born 18 years ago as Anthony Kundyo Ayeyni, recruited children to work for him. These children live in a time when warnings are issued, lectures are delivered, people are shot to death on street corners, gunbattles are staged in schoolyards and nothing of conscience seems to sink in.
Last May, at Federal and Regester streets in East Baltimore, the cops arrested an 11-year old boy carrying five vials of powdered cocaine and $160 stuffed into his sweat pants. The arrest was part of a process called Operation Clean Sweep. It was the first step toward the bust of Anthony Jones.
"The 11-year old was very intimidated by us," said Officer Edward Bochniak, one of the city's savviest narcotics officers. "He sat there and never said a word. He acted like any 11-year-old, except he was a drug dealer."
Among those arrested last week, along with Anthony Jones, were six other adults and 11 juveniles. One was 14. In the city of Baltimore today, there is a name for 14-year-olds in drug traffic. They are called veterans.
"It's become part of the economy," Bochniak was saying now, at a little desk at Eastern District. "It's pretty much accepted. It pays the rent, it pays the bills, it pays for food. The kids take care of the parents. We see it over and over again.
"We've arrested so many kids with hundreds of dollars on them. We go to the mothers. The mother says, 'I can't control him.' These are kids 11 years old, 12 years old. Does the mother know he's selling dope? Come on, her kid's walking around with $500 in his pocket."
Those arrested last week were charged with the breaking of various narcotics laws, plus gun violations, plus the use of juveniles for drug purchases. In the 1700 block of East Oliver Street, where Jones was arrested, there were neighbors openly thanking police for their work. Many of them live in a permanent state of psychological siege.
At Eastern District, the elation was covered by a veil of reality.
"As long as the stuff's coming into this country," said Sgt. John Sieracki, who orchestrated last week's arrests, "we don't have a chance in hell of stopping this traffic. That's the key. I mean, we're not growing cocaine in Baltimore, it's coming in from other countries. If we can put pressure on the Japanese for eating endangered turtles, why can't we pressure South America to stop letting cocaine out?"
Sieracki and Bochniak, veterans with no illusions, sound like echoes of each other. More cops? Wouldn't matter. More arrests, more drug treatment programs? Won't stop anything. All the cops in the world can't find all the little capsules, all the little vials, when they're coming in by the ton from places overseas.
"We're on a path to destruction in this country," Sieracki says flatly. "You could double the police department, you could double the number of arrests. Won't matter. We gotta cut off the supply, or it's still gonna be out there."
The amount of money assures this. Arrest one dealer, others will line up to take his place. Morality is no longer a part of the equation, only the instant gratification of cash.
"That's what's a little scary," Bochniak says. "I grew up in a time when guys grew up and looked for jobs, for a nice lady to marry and a nice little house. Those values are missing here. There's no longer an issue of morality."
Bochniak has heard the argument about how poor people living in a tough time will take desperate measures. He does not buy this.
"Bull," he says. "It's strictly the lure of fast money. The people who get into narcotics make a conscious decision. They see more damage than anybody from drugs, but they accept that. The gunplay? It's all part of the game.
"They see violence, they see their friends die, it doesn't matter. It's part of the culture. The drug culture. It's not good guys and bad guys. It's just the drug culture. We're trying to put our morals and values and laws to this culture, and it doesn't work. The deterrents don't work. If somebody told me I was going to jail for 10 years, I'd have a heart attack. It doesn't bother them. It's part of the culture."
When police arrested Anthony Jones, they were amazed to find about 150 pairs of sweat socks in his bedroom. They found leather coats. He was wearing a diamond ring, a gold chain and an expensive wristwatch and carrying considerable cash.
The children allegedly employed by Jones don't fare quite as well. A 13-year-old arrested recently had 50 vials of cocaine, worth $500 at $10 a vial. The kid was to make $10 for the whole batch. But maybe it's like any other business: You want to get your foot in the door, you start small. You start young enough, you have time to learn the business.
The difference is this: Most businesses don't take victims. Most businesses, a sense of morality, a code of conduct, is enforced by rules. The business of drug trafficking has only one rule: Money talks.
And now, more and more, it is children who are doing the talking.