The labeling of a snitch is a lifetime scar/
You’ll always be in jail, n—a, just minus the bars …
— Jay-Z, “A Week Ago” (1998)
In the 2002 cult classic Paid in Full, rapper Cam’ron — who played the drug dealer Rico — delivered the movie’s most legendary line, proclaiming, “N—as get shot every day, B.” The character was inspired by the notorious Harlem drug kingpin Alberto “Alpo” Martinez. Just hours after midnight on Halloween, it was Alpo who found himself on the wrong side of a bullet.
According to local news reports, Martinez, 55, was struck five times while driving a 2017 Dodge Ram near West 147th Street. Medics were unable to revive him and he was pronounced dead a short time later at Harlem Hospital. No suspects have been arrested, but it won’t surprise anyone to learn that Martinez’s death was a byproduct of the life he lived and especially his decision to make a deal with prosecutors nearly 30 years earlier.
In the history of drugs in America, Martinez is one of its most notorious cautionary tales. His legacy lives in the world of hip-hop, the genre that was still in its relative infancy during his apex. Over the years, the name Alpo has woven itself into songs from artists such as 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Nas, Meek Mill, Shyne and Future. His legacy in rap, much like in the streets, has always been divisive.
“To me, it’s even beyond the snitch factor of that story. There’s something to be said for the murder of your brother,” Pusha T said, explaining his How you n—as celebrating Alpo? lyric from the 2015 track, “F.I.F.A.” “It was just a whole bunch of violations that to me are just a bit too much to be clapping your feet about somebody coming home from jail. Someone who violated on so many levels publicly.”
Wars are remembered for the carnage they bring and the legacy they leave, but no war starts with the first shot fired. A decade before Martinez’s reign began, New York City faced a financial crisis that nearly crippled it, leading then-President Gerald Ford to publicly blast Gotham for asking the federal government for help. Ford eventually changed his mind, but budget cuts had a dramatic impact, especially in the city’s working-class neighborhoods. As a result, options became scarce and a generation of young Black men enrolled in something more dangerous than the military: the streets.
In New York City in the ’80s, it wasn’t athletes or rappers who sat atop the social hierarchy in the Black community. That distinction rested with drug dealers. They had money, power and respect. They were, in many ways, the tastemakers of fashion and were living the lives that many rappers spoke about in their music.
Former kingpins such as Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas were sitting in prison serving lengthy terms. The arrival of crack cocaine made the game far more anarchic than it had ever been before, leading to a new cast of street legends controlling the drug trade. Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff and Gerald “Prince” Miller of the Supreme Team, founded near Baisley Park Houses, ran Queens. The names of Howard “Pappy” Mason and Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols struck fear at the mere mention.
Meanwhile, Martinez, Azie “A.Z.” Faison Jr. and Rich Porter were top dogs in Harlem. Martinez was flashy and flaunted his riches. He was making money not only in New York, but also out of town in cities such as Washington. But then came the act of betrayal that would trademark the rest of his life.
The only thing perhaps more important than money in the streets is loyalty. On Jan. 3, 1990, Martinez and his right-hand Garrett “Big Head Gary” Terrell allegedly killed Porter. (Neither were ever convicted for the murder.) Martinez believed that Porter was lying about a connect he used to purchase product. All the money they made together suddenly didn’t matter. Porter’s slaying was always going to be major news that would shake up the balance of power. But his killing at the hands of a man whom many saw as a brother ran deep.
“I was meeting Rich that night, he got into a van. Once he got in the van, I locked the doors. As I was pulling off, I was asking him, ‘Yo, Rich, where did you get that coke from? That s— was good,’ because I wanted to make him comfortable,” Martinez once recounted. “I was very mad. I just killed a n—a that I loved. A n—a I called my brother.”
Exactly how many bodies Martinez piled up over the course of his life may never be known. But nearly two years after the hit on Porter, Martinez’s world came to a screeching halt. History remembers Nov. 7, 1991, as the day Magic Johnson announced his retirement from the NBA after being diagnosed as HIV positive. On that same day, Martinez, 25, was arrested in Southeast Washington, bookending a yearlong manhunt by the FBI for one of the more powerful drug dealers in America.
A day later, Martinez sat in a courtroom hearing the list of charges with his name on them. Authorities also wanted information on the slayings of big-time Washington drug dealer Michael Anthony Salters, aka “Fray,” and Timothy Cohen and Mark Mullen — the latter two were killed in broad daylight at an Oxon Hill, Maryland, car wash.
Martinez didn’t say much in the courtroom that day. He sniffled loudly and his eyes filled with tears, the Washington Post reported at the time. He was staring at 14 counts of murder — including the deaths of Porter and his 12-year-old brother William — and the real possibility of death row.
Few people who get into the drug game are granted a safe exit strategy. Death or prison are often the only outcomes. Martinez was desperate for any sort of a win. He cooperated with authorities, and because of that breach of street code, many of the same people he made money with in the streets were now wards of the state. One figure in particular was Wayne Perry, a man described by Lorton Legends author Eyone Williams as “the most infamous hit man to ever walk the streets of the nation’s capital.” Perry was eventually sentenced to five consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. In exchange for his testimony, Martinez was sentenced to 35 years, and eventually was released into the witness protection program in 2015. (The identification found at the scene of the crime listed him as Abraham Rodriguez, a resident of Lewiston, Maine.)
After this weekend’s events, one has to ask: Why would Martinez be so comfortable walking through his old stomping grounds given the sins of his past? Truth be told, Martinez was visible in Harlem even before the shooting that took his life. Clips emerged online in recent years of Martinez in the streets he once ruled. Ego has blinded men since the beginning of time. That’s about the only elixir that explains why one of the most storied and maligned street hustlers was leaving a nightclub in Harlem in the wee hours of the morning. Martinez wanted to be seen because Martinez always thrived on that sort of acknowledgment.
Martinez’s slaying seemed almost preordained. It’s impossible to tell the story of Harlem or the war on drugs without mentioning the carnage Martinez played a significant role in orchestrating. The movie Paid in Full ends with Rico, the character inspired by Martinez, saying he’d cooperate and give up names of drug dealers in Washington, but he refused to snitch on anyone in Harlem. In his words, it was there where he would always be the king.
Yet, as history has shown, nothing has ever stopped a king from being beheaded.
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