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Police Under Verbal Attack for ‘Surprise’ Riot With AM-Rampage-Community

December 4, 1990

MIAMI (AP) _ Merchants criticized police response as they angrily cleaned up Tuesday from a night of looting and fires triggered by the acquittal of six police officers in the fatal beating of a Puerto Rican drug dealer.

Fire officials estimated the fire damage alone at $2.9 million.

Police Chief Perry Anderson said police could have moved in earlier. But he defended his department, saying there were no deaths or violent clashes with police.

Mayor Xavier Suarez met with leaders in the largely Puerto Rican Wynwood community to look into reasons for the rioting, which police and city officials admitted caught them by surprise.

Merchants complained that police took too long - more than two hours - to move in Monday night after hundreds of youths swarmed through usually tranquil streets, looting stores and burning down businesses.

The riot followed acquittal of six police officers accused of beating to death Leonardo Mercado, a Puerto Rican-born cocaine dealer.

″The police knew it was going to happen and they just sat back and did nothing, absolutely nothing,″ said Richard Munoz, who owns Los Hispanos Supermarket.

Munoz said his small grocery store was not damaged because he scared off the looters.

″I spent all night armed and on the roof,″ Munoz said.

Other merchants were busy sweeping up broken glass and cleaning soot.

Police estimate about 300 people were involved in the rioting at its height. From 10 to 15 people were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and inciting to riot, said George Law, a police spokesman.

Residents said many looters were not from their neighborhood, but came in from other parts of the city to take advantage of the anger in the northwestern Miami community.

The trouble began shortly after nightfall, nearly six hours after a federal jury found the members of an elite drug squad innocent of conspiracy in the killing of Mercado, who was from the neighborhood.

The jury deadlocked on more serious charges of violating the civil rights of Mercado when he was beaten to death two years ago and Judge Stanley Marcus declared a mistrial.

The trial’s end set off the city’s fifth riot in just more than a decade, the first involving the usually low-profile Puerto Rican community rather than black neighborhoods.

Mercado’s sister-in-law, Rosa Allende, said some Puerto Ricans feel the need for revenge.

″It’s not going to change things, but it’s a start to let them know it’s not only the blacks who get angry,″ she said. ″They said he (Mercado) was a low-life cockroach. But he had children. A life is a life.″

Some business owners said they got telephone calls in the afternoon, warning them there might be trouble and to close down their shops.

″They (the police) knew all about it,″ said Ricky Perez, whose parents’ shoe store was vandalized.

″We called the police and they told us to close down the store and go home. They (the police) were just down the streets, watching them taking TVs and they didn’t do nothing about it,″ Perez said.

Suarez conceded the police did not react swiftly enough. But he said officials did not expect the number of people involved from other parts of the city.

″We were caught a little bit by surprise,″ Suarez said. ″We’re going to have to investigate ... and see if it wasn’t some sort of predisposed or pre- organized element to this.″

Anderson agreed the 200-member riot squad came in too late. But he noted that in a recent confrontation with Haitian demonstrators, police were criticized for moving in too quickly.

″With this particular situation we took two hours to respond, and we should have gone in a lot quicker,″ Anderson said. ″So what I’m saying is, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.″

Fire investigator John Calpini said two stores were destroyed by fire. Other damage appeared limited to a few buildings.

Patrick Gerrits, wiped away tears as he watched investigators rummaging through the rubble of his family’s construction company.

Gerrits’ company, which was hardest hit, operated in the same spot since his father started it in 1946.

″They (just about) killed my daddy when they burned this building,″ Gerrits said. ″And it’ll probably kill my mama. The whole highlight of her life was coming in here every day.″

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