The name Alberto “Alpo” Martinez tends to elicit strong reactions. He‘s been celebrated as a street legend of epic proportions—an iconic figure out of hip-hop mythology who was played by the rapper Cam’ron in the movie Paid in Full. At the same time, Alpo is often reviled as a snitch, a rat of the highest order who allegedly betrayed the street code to save himself, tarnishing his legacy in the chronicles of gangster lore.
One thing is for sure, though: Word of Alpo’s apparent release from a little-known federal prison witness protection program—they’re called “cheese factories” on the inside—is resonating on the street. Don Diva magazine, probably the longest-running periodical devoted to the drug underworld and street life in New York City and beyond, reported that Alpo was released on its website last week.
Alpo was known as a trendsetter in crack-era Harlem, transporting hundreds of kilos of cocaine into Washington, DC, while flaunting his wealth and flamboyant lifestyle with cars, clothes and jewelry. But when he killed his best friend and business partner Rich Porter—another Harlem drug dealer who‘s been immortalized in hip-hop lore—Alpo’s rep took a serious blow. When Alpo went on to testify against the man believed to be his former Washington, DC, enforcer in open court—apparently to spare himself a life sentence—he was branded a traitor.
To get the real deal on this infamous figure, VICE turned to another former Harlem drug dealer, Kevin Chiles. Chiles served over a decade in the feds for his own drug organization, founded Don Diva from the cell block, and was a contemporary of Alpo‘s back in the 1980s. Back then, the crack epidemic was in full swing and young hustlers like Alpo, Rich Porter, Azie and Kevin Chiles were making a name for themselves by perpetuating the lifestyle and fashions that rappers would go on to emulate.
Kevin Chiles: I am most certain that Alpo won‘t come back to New York. He knows he has a bullseye on him. That situation with Rich left Harlem scarred and people have strong feelings about it. And he admitted to playing a part in the death of another with a well-liked figure, Domenico Benson from Brooklyn. I could see a younger dude, on the come-up, try to make a name for themselves by taking Alpo out. They would be instantly infamous. I‘m sure these are things he should be considering.
How did you learn Alpo was out?
It‘s been speculated that he‘s been home for years. But I know it‘s true now because he had been speaking to a mutual female associate of ours. In the conversations, Alpo was trying to fill in the blanks of years past and my name came up. She seemed excited about speaking to him and she thought that I would share her enthusiasm, but she sensed after talking to me that I wasn‘t…. I explained to her that I wasn‘t checking for him, but I didn‘t go into details about the specifics because she was outside the lines as far as that lifestyle was concerned.
You and Alpo were once friends right?
I was cool with all of them—me, Rich, A, and Po. We would play basketball, gamble, compete over girls, swap cars; we did all those type of things on the regular. At any given time between me, Rich and Po, we may have had 15 to 20 luxury cars like Porsches, Benzs, BMWs. etc. If one of us pulled up in a car the other liked, we let him hold it.
What was Alpo like?
He brought attention to himself. He was charismatic and outgoing. He had a party always going on around him and people gravitated to him. What ultimately was unique about Alpo was that he would go from uptown to downtown from the East side to the West side almost like he was campaigning. He was an adrenaline junkie and he was crazy about them bikes. Anybody that knows anything about Harlem, especially in the summertime, is that you have different groups that ride through Harlem doing tricks on bikes and Alpo was one of those dudes that was notorious for that. Po would be on a bike doing wheelies like 15, 20 blocks at a time.
What did you make of the film Paid in Full and how it represented Alpo, Rich, Azie and Harlem?
I don‘t think it captured the essence of what it was like being a twentysomething millionaire in Harlem. The influence and power was overwhelming. It made you feel invincible. We were young and had a lawlessness about us—you felt like you owned the city. The music and the fashion of the era just added to the allure.
What happened when Alpo killed Rich Porter?
We originally didn‘t know Alpo killed Rich. It was speculated but it wasn‘t until he did an interview and told on himself. But Rich‘s death had a huge impact on Harlem. The timing couldn‘t have been worse—Richard was in the middle of negotiating the release of his 12-year-old brother, Donnell, who had been kidnapped and was being held for $500,000 ransom. Rich was killed, and then a few days later the body of his little brother was found in the same vicinity.
What do you think about snitching in general?
We all signed on to live our lives outside of the law. There’s a certain principle or mindset that is put into play. For me and anybody of that mindset or lifestyle who chooses to live outside the law, there‘s a certain understanding: It‘s never right in any instance to take your situation and then pass it on to somebody else to suffer the consequences of your actions. A man takes responsibility for his actions.
What is up with Don Diva magazine for those who aren‘t hip?
We call ourselves an urban lifestyle magazine. It doesn‘t just encompass the gangster lifestyle —we touch on all aspects of the urban existence. The magazine was created because I didn‘t want to see people follow in my footsteps. I know this new generation is infatuated with what they think that the gangster lifestyle represents, but they have no understanding of the consequences and collateral damage it causes.
When I came up with the idea for the magazine, I was probably at one of the lowest points of my life and wanted to be able to do something to affect change. One of the only upsides to being incarcerated in the federal prison system was that I was able to meet other individuals of my stature from all over the country. We all had our own experience with the legal system and the other consequences that come with our lifestyle. I knew if I could tell the stories of individuals who are respected in their communities like Larry Hoover from Chicago, from Queens and from Detroit—just to name a few—we could help this generation make better decisions.from Detroit, Akbar Pray from Newark, New Jersey, Guy Fisher from Harlem
These individuals and their stories serve as a cautionary tale. No one wants to end up dead or in jail for the rest of their life.
*This piece originally appeared on VICE.