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High on drugs, he com­mit­ted his first mur­der at the age of 14 to prove his brav­ery in an ini­ti­a­tion rit­ual to be­come a mem­ber of the Ugly Amer­i­cans gang.

Eigh­teen years later, 17 murders to his name and a few years in prison, Lee Adams (32) is a wanted man back home in Cape Town – but in El­do­rado Park, he has found refuge.

Adams said de­spite its crime and drug abuse, El­do­rado Park has of­fered him a sec­ond chance in life.

He ar­rived in Jo­han­nes­burg two years ago flee­ing from other gang mem­bers seek­ing re­venge for the deaths of their friends and fam­ily mem­bers.

This week he stood among drug ad­dicts in Ex­ten­sion 1, El­do­rado Park, lis­ten­ing to them shar­ing their sto­ries of despair.

For a re­cov­er­ing ad­dict who has re­cently been to re­hab and who took his last hit in Novem­ber last year, Adams could only shake his head. He did not agree with the young men that they could not run from drugs and crime.

“I was deeply in­volved in gang­ster­ism. I sold drugs and was paid to kill peo­ple and now I’m a re­cov­er­ing drug user. If I could change, then any­one can do it,” he told them.

“I found hope right here in El­dos where ev­ery­one is think­ing there is no hope at all. Back in Cape Town I was one of the most feared in the com­mu­nity and re­spected in gang­ster cir­cles, and I could have con­tin­ued with that life here in Joburg, but I chose not to.

“I still live among drug users and crim­i­nals, but I still choose not to get in­volved.”

On the Cape Flats, Adams said he be­longed to the Ugly Amer­i­cans. The let­ters UA re­main tat­tooed on his wrist. The gang’s in­signia – a mark of his rank as cap­tain – re­mains tat­tooed on his shoul­ders.

His left arm is cov­ered in tat­toos earned through spilling blood.

“They are 17 [stars] and I earned each of them af­ter killing some­one. I have killed peo­ple, but have only been to prison for at­tempted mur­der be­cause when you are con­nected in the po­lice ser­vice, ev­ery­thing dis­ap­pears,” he said. There is a large star on his arm with a smaller one in­side it. “This was a fa­ther and son. I shot both of them dead,” he said.

“I am not proud of all that ... I can never be proud of tak­ing lives and ter­ror­is­ing my own com­mu­nity. I have at­tended fu­ner­als of at least seven of my clos­est friends who died in the streets while oth­ers are serv­ing life sen­tences for murders, but here I am out­side and I have El­do­rado Park to thank for sav­ing me.

“El­dos is battling drug abuse that leads to crime and I be­lieve with the right at­ti­tude and com­mit­ment from the po­lice, this can all be curbed be­fore it gets to­tally out of hand. There is hope ev­ery­where ... I found hope in the midst of despair, right here in El­dos.”

Des­per­ate and help­less faces of El­do­rado Park

R eleased from prison four years ago af­ter serv­ing eight years of his 15-year jail term for rob­bery, Watson said he is back to us­ing drugs “just to ease up”. “I have not bro­ken into any­one’s house since I walked out of prison and I do not in­tend to, but life in the town­ship with­out a job and with a crim­i­nal record is not easy.”

JEROME ABRAMS (31)

He was re­leased from prison af­ter serv­ing 18 months for busi­ness bur­glary. “I was a heavy drug user and had to rob peo­ple, steal and break into peo­ple’s prop­er­ties so I could get some­thing to sell to buy more drugs. I don’t in­tend go­ing back to that life at all af­ter my time in prison,” Abrams said. “Things have turned for the worse now with chil­dren as young as 10 us­ing drugs.”

ELRICH THOMP­SON (25)

‘Ijob use drugs be­cause there is noth­ing for me to do ... no

or any­thing to keep me oc­cu­pied. I know very well that drugs are bad for me or any­one, but do I have any choice?” he asks. “I am will­ing to quit drugs, but what do I turn to? There is noth­ing for young peo­ple to do here in El­dos.”

PAUL BROWN (32)

He is des­per­ate to quit drugs, but lacks hope. Brown said he was also wor­ried about es­ca­lat­ing crime in El­do­rado Park, which is mainly due to drug abuse.

“We wake up ev­ery day to re­ports of peo­ple be­ing robbed, stabbed or at times killed, all be­cause of drugs. I don’t think any­one wants to be a drug user ex­cept that mo­ment when you are high on the sub­stance ... hon­estly. I’d rather be sober, but it is dif­fi­cult quit­ting on my own,” he said.

SAVED? Re­cov­er­ing drug ad­dict and former gang leader Lee Adams shows off his tat­toos on his arms

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