Murder also stalks black men in their 20s While younger victims have grabbed the headlines, black men in their 20s have been murdered in alarming numbers, especially in North Miami-Dade County. BY DAVID OVALLE AND NICOLE WHITE [email protected] PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RONNA GRADUS AND ZACH FOLZENLOGEN/MIAMI HERALD STAFF * Interactive | Audio interviews and a map of the recent deaths Ansy Monestime went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Liberty City, an event meant to honor the peaceful message of the civil rights leader. He wound up murdered. The 22-year-old was gunned down Jan. 16 as he socialized at a nearby gas station. One gunman was armed with a ''small machine gun with a clip coming from the bottom of the weapon,'' police said. His death is tragically symbolic -- young black men this year have been murdered at a high rate. While the violent death of a toddler last month drew outrage, police say it came as part of a larger spike of violence involving mostly young black men like Monestime, mostly in North Miami-Dade County. In turn, the overall homicide rate has skyrocketed. During the first five months of this year, the Miami-Dade medical examiner's office logged 106 homicides across the county. That far surpassed the 70 counted in the first five months of last year. Despite the high number, it's a far cry from the early 1980s, when authorities logged more than 500 homicides in each of three consecutive years. The worst year was 1981, when the medical examiner's office recorded a staggering 621 homicides. Nevertheless, this year, 40 black men 30 years old or younger have been shot or stabbed to death, records show. In Monestime's case, police called his death the result of an ''ongoing dispute.'' A suspect was arrested a month later -- Mario Jean-Pierre, who turned 17 three days after the shooting. ''It's an alarming issue, No. 1 because they are very serious offenses,'' said Miami-Dade Police Director Robert Parker. ``And the fact that they're happening in such a frequent and high number.'' Said Parker, who is black: ``It's exclusively black-on-black crime.'' ASSAULT RIFLES USED The deaths are also significant because, increasingly, the weapon of choice seems to be assault rifles, police say. That may well be fueled by the 2004 expiration of the federal ban on assault rifles, making them legally available -- and more likely to reach the streets illegally, Parker said. ''There was nothing positively gained by the lifting of the ban on assault weapons by the government,'' he said. An assault rifle killed Covington St. Juste. In May, a gunman wearing a black T-shirt printed with the letters R.I.P. pointed the automatic weapon out the door of a brown sedan with tinted windows and opened fire on St. Juste and his friends, witnesses told police. St. Juste died in the operating room. He was 22. The rash of murders has left police and community leaders again grasping to stem a stubborn cycle of death in the black community. Detectives desperately need witnesses and people with information about the unsolved murders to come forward. Miami-Dade police say they are increasing rewards for the CrimeStoppers tip hot line, and targeting drug holes in high-homicide neighborhoods. In hard-hit Little Haiti, Miami Commander David Magnusson advocates professional, aggressive policing of smaller crimes such as vandalism, loitering and drinking in public. ''You need to start dealing with the foundation, quality-of-life issues, and keep these thugs running,'' he said. THE ROLE OF POLICE It is the job of police, said prominent black community activist H.T. Smith, to protect the streets, and he said they are not doing enough. 'I'm not an apologist for black-on-black crime, but I'm sick and tired of every problem in the black community, the media and those in power saying, `Well, you have to solve this yourselves,' '' he said. Last month, at the height of the rash of murders in Miami-Dade, community leaders, law-enforcement officials and others gathered in Miami for an annual national conference to explore ways of preventing crime in the black community. One common theme: Change starts at home. ''What I want parents to know is if our communities are going to be better, we are going to have to make them better,'' said Yvonne Pointer Triplette, an author from Georgia whose daughter was murdered in 1984. Also, this month, the state commissioned a study that would examine the root causes of youth violence in the black community. `AN EPIDEMIC' ''There is an epidemic in this state of high school dropouts, and every one of those youngsters involved in those killings was a dropout,'' said State Sen. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat, one of the bill's co-sponsors. Miami Herald staff writers Luisa Yanez and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.