I sat expectantly as Jose's parole officer, Ted, brought him into the
room. Jose, at six-foot-three and 300 pounds, filled the doorway. He is a Hispanic gang member from Los Angeles.
big cahoona. The one no one wants to mess with ... every pound of him pure muscle.
He had tattoos of barbed wire
around his neck, "666" above one ear and "Diablo" [Devil]
over the other ear. The numeric symbol for his gang's name was plastered all over his body, head, and face.
even had Devil's horns tattooed on his completely shaven head, if you could see that high
Ted introduced me to Jose as a "professor doing some research on
gangs." Jose didn't buy it. It took about thirty minutes
of conversing with him before he was convinced I wasn't a police officer. Once we got past that, we were able to
get down to business.
"You can take the kid out of the gang," he
said, "but you can't take the gang out of the kid." I asked Jose
about the situation in Los Angeles and he replied saying "A 14 year old boy in L.A. was riding his bike.
He saw a police car
driving in his direction, jumped off the bike and starting running away. The cops drove up, stopped, and one of 'em hopped out of the car.
The kid jumped a fence and the cop starting chasing him on foot. As he cleared the
second fence the officer shot and killed him. That's how police are
taking care of the problem - they're killing people!"
I was surprised when Jose added "I can understand where the cops are coming
from, though. Where they work, everybody on the street has a gun. You
have to be real careful." Jose
has been shot five times in his 23 years on Earth, served several jail terms and one prison term.
His left index finger was shot off "with a
three-fifty-seven [caliber bullet]. I got another three-fifty seven through my waist, a nine
[millimeter bullet] through my shoulder, a
nine here [showing me a dent and scar in his shoulder], and a shot gun on the back of my leg.
It's time to live life
now. I've had enough." At nine months, this is the longest period of time he has been out
of jail or prison since his fourteenth birthday.
My interview with Jose took place outside Los Angeles. At his
mother's and sister's suggestion, when he was released from prison [and put on
parole] he moved to another state to live with his sister in an
effort to get out of the gang. The first time he was in jail he said
"I was doing some bad things. I was about 14 years old then." A short time later he
was drawn into the gang. "They promised to protect
me [from other gangs], give me a way to make some money, and to love me as a
When he first got into the gang he said "I remember I would get out
[of jail], go home, and guys [rival gang members] would start shooting at my Mom's
house - where I was living. Jose's eyes began to swell with tears. "It's makes me cry sometimes to think of all the things I put my
mother through," he said softly, looking down at the floor, trying to hide
the impact of his emotions.
As Jose's story unfolded he said "When I was in prison sometimes, I
would run into a member of my own gang who was doing time. There were
people like that that I didn't even know, and we were in the same gang! They'd
come up to me and say 'I been here a long time and, you know, no one in the
gang sends me anything - no money, nothin'. They really don't care
about us.' So much for being a family, for being 'loved like a
He told me " ... you got to learn to take care of yourself. That's
why I'm gettin' out. They really don't take care of you. It
started out that the gang guys said they would take care of me - you know,
support me, stand behind me in hard times. But, after I was in the gang a
while, it changed. It really wasn't like that." And
this is a big gang. A very big gang. I visited the
neighborhood they represent and it consists of nearly one hundred square blocks in South
Central Los Angeles. There are reported to be several
hundred members in the gang comprised of 20 to 30 different groups or
Jose had earlier told me that his gang promised to provide a way for him
to make some money. "They showed me how to get drugs and
sell 'em," he said. "We had our neighborhood and a place where we sold
drugs." But, according to Jose, there was a problem. "The
Mexican Mafia guys would go where another gang already owned the corner and sold
drugs, and they would say 'Here's a pound' or five pounds or whatever, of
crystal meth. 'You have eight days to sell it and you can pay us
Jose said if the gang member to whom the offer was being made
turned the deal down, "the Mexican Mafia guys would leave, but, using some of
their techniques, they would eventually force you to buy from the them later. If you sold the stuff and didn't pay them off or paid less than what
was wanted, you were in trouble. It's like makin' a deal with the devil. That's what gets so many people in trouble.
And if there's a
problem, the Mexican Mafia guys threaten to take one of your other gang members
out [kill him] while he's in prison. It's dangerous business."
I asked Jose what it would take to keep youths from getting involved
in a gang. He said
I think they should talk with someone who's
experienced in gangs. Someone who was in the life and out of it now. Someone who really knows what it's like. That's what it takes to
reach little ones. At that age everyone wants to be
accepted. They see the group, the girls, the money and things, the
closeness and protecting one another. We wanted every
kid in our neighborhood to join the gang. That makes us the biggest and
And it was all about drugs. And parents need to
tell kids that they don't have to be a member of a gang to be accepted. Where
I come from, gang members were put on pedestals. It's all about status and being looked up to, having power and money and
stuff. There was no alternative. It seemed like every kid in school
was in a gang.
California really needs
to crack down. They're too easy on these guys [gang bangers], and the
courts just let 'em out and they go back on the street. And they print the
names of the gangs in the newspaper. They shouldn't do that. When
they do the guys all get together and show off. They collect this stuff
and have scrap books.
And we need some anti-gang programs in the
detention centers where these kids are first exposed to gang stuff. After
that, it's too late. Any change is going to have to come from inside [the person]
after that. But if you can get to them before they get into the life, that's
better. You have a better chance of keeping them from getting in in the
Jose's insights were right on target. He knew exactly what was
needed - prevention, focusing on the very young, a rejuvenation of the
courts, and a general disparaging of gangs.
It's been two years since I last interviewed and visited with Jose. I ran
into one of his past probation/parole officers and asked about how he was
doing. Here's the reply I received:
I talked to the probation officer who had Jose as a client. Not very
good news. He got off of parole in California then went back there to see
some of his family. He was there about two days and was questioned by some
local yokels. The California Prosecuting Attorney, learning that he was
back in the state, re-filed some old charges and now he's in prison with
the "three strikes
and you're out" clause. Probably for life.