The Black Mafia in Microcosm: The Rise of Nicky Barnes
Leroy Nicholas Barnes, better known as Nicky Barnes (1933 – ) was a New York City crime boss and one of the country’s biggest heroin dealers in the 1970s. He formed an African American organized crime syndicate in 1972, known as The Council, whose members controlled the heroin trade in Harlem. He also played a significant role in international drug trafficking, when he partnered up The Council with the Italian American mob.
Born in Harlem, Barnes left home at an early age to get away from an abusive father, and turned to dealing drugs to support himself. While imprisoned in the 1960s on drug charges, he met and befriended members of NYC’s Colombo mafia crime family, who wanted a greater presence in Harlem’s heroin market. Upon his release from prison, thanks to mob lawyers, Barnes became the Colombo family’s heroin point man in Harlem.
In 1972, he organized a crime syndicate with other Harlem gangsters, named “The Council” and modeled after the Italian American mafia’s “Commission”, to settle disputes and streamline the drug trade in their territories. By the mid 1970s, Barnes’ operations extended throughout New York state, Pennsylvania, and into Canada. At the height of his career, he had a net worth north of $50 million, and he became known as “Mr. Untouchable” because of his success in beating numerous charges. Success got to his head however, and he grew increasingly flamboyant, until in 1977, he agreed to do an interview for a profile piece in The New York Times Magazine.
The article, titled Mister Untouchable, was published on June 5th, 1977, and it offered readers a rare glimpse into a drug dealer’s operations, from bulk shipment to end user. Starting with 10 kilos of pure heroin, the piece described how the drug was diluted, cut, weighed and packed into glass vials, distributed to mid level dealers, hit the street, and ended up in addicts’ veins.
It was a complimentary portrayal of Barnes, at least in the sense of painting him as a smooth and cool gangster. As things turned out, however, sitting down for an interview with a major national publication was a bad career move. As Barnes discovered then, and as John Gotti would discover a few years later, flashy criminals who court the media end up courting extra attention from the authorities.