Recent arrests of pre-teen drug sellers and a teen-aged''kingpin'' have brought public recognition of a new, uglier face of the drug subculture: conscription of youths into the fast lane of clandestine crime. Teen-agers, many who do not take drugs themselves, are being pressed into service as pushers as well as lookouts and runners. Police say these youngsters are told they won't be suspected or, even if caught, face the prison terms adult pushers draw, and can rake in $100, $150 a day or more for hawking drugs on street corners. They are the front-line troops of an increasingly sophisticated, terrifyingly violent brand of drug hustlers.
But sophistication begets sophistication. Thursday night's raid on five East Baltimore row homes and a Baltimore County residence topped a year-long investigation by the Eastern Police District's crack ''Zone Rangers'' plainclothes unit.
According to Ranger leader Sgt. John P. Sieracki, Eric Lamont Johnson, 26, ''Big Eric'' on the streets, and Eric Labrent Coley, 24, ''Little Eric,'' ran an operation that branded itself ''the Untouchables'' before an 80-officer city, county and Drug Enforcement Agency task force collared them. If members of the reputed ''Eric & Eric'' organization put a new face on crime, the probe that cracked their network has revealed a new face behind the long arm of the law.
Seen from the the Rangers' cramped, second-floor Edison Highway office, the outlines of this new approach become clear. Sergeant Sieracki, who with Maj. Alvin A. Winkler, the Eastern District's chief, developed the Zone concept, says, ''it's important that our commander gives us the freedom to go after organizations and not just numbers [of arrests]. Focusing on numbers, we'd just be busting drug users. A lot of officers do that, and they are good cops, doing their jobs the best way they can. But our way is to go after the 'kingpins' and then take the whole network down. That makes a real difference on the streets.''
A map on the office wall tells a sad story: 215 colored pins, identifying the street corners, alleys and houses where people have been shot, many killed, in drug-related incidents. It doesn't show the places where gunfire erupted but no one was hit -- the number would jump upward if it did -- but it does illustrate the hot spots for drugs.
Other things decorate the Rangers' walls. One is an organization chart for the ''Eric & Eric'' gang, showing pictures, names, nicknames, crimes believed to have been committed and lines of authority. A similar chart of Anthony Jones' reputed gang has tags beneath 17 of the pictures: Arrested. A few others are still sought. According to Sergeant Sieracki and Ed Bochniak, the unit's record-keeper, the Zone Rangers keep an extensive picture gallery of all drug suspects and collect many tips about their activities, affiliations and methods. Thus, when the Rangers learn of a new drug network operating in their area, they have ready background on its possible links to others.
Meticulous records are the foundation on which the best probes are built. The Rangers, like other city police, lack office equipment that matches the sophistication of their efforts. Officer Bochniak brought in his own 35mm camera to use in investigatory work, and Tom Marucci, another Ranger, brought in his own computer, a pre-IBM, eight-bit Atari with a single disk drive. On this machine, less powerful than the Nintendo game processors in many children's toy chests, the deadly patterns of drug activity are made clear.
What these probers could do with a state-of-the-art desktop machine and software, or even a used IBM clone, is unknown. What they accomplish with manual typewriters, paper records and notes and many hours of labor is remarkable.
Thursday's raid, launched before TV cameras, shredded the image of impunity with which ''Eric & Eric'' allegedly terrorized an area bounded by Linwood Avenue on the east, Milton Avenue on the west, Monument Street south and Eager Street north. Big and Little Eric had their $150,000 bail reduced, but may soon face federal charges. A teen-ager caught flushing ''jumbo'' bags of heroin down a toilet and seven other indicted suspects -- five already in custody -- will not quickly get back to business. Eric & Eric's cars were seized, a drug-sniffing dog revealed new search points in their raided homes and the DEA is on their case.
And right now, an East Baltimore neighborhood is breathing easier. That's what good law enforcement is supposed to be about.
Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.