I remember when I got my first MS-13 tattoo, as that tattoo is going to pierce my skin, I like to think about was the love that I have for my gang. And then my mom was going to be pretty furious if she found out about it.
I couldn’t wait to show off my new to my homies, a bond that’ll be there for life and when I get locked up again I take my shirt off with pride.
I made bad choices. I committed assaults and robberies that will land me in jail for years as a juvenile. And in there I got a reputation for starting fights on rival gang members. Every time I got out, I gained even more respect. My homies wanted to be just like me. I felt that I owned their territory and no rival gang was going to go in and disrespect it.
I was willing to defend it at all cost, even if that meant me dying over it. But sometimes I ask myself: am I willing to spend the rest of my life in jail? I put my mom and grandma through a lot. When I was out they stayed up for hours lighting candles, praying that it wasn’t my dead body laying on a leaf that white sheet.
When I was in jail they visited me and asked me when I was going to change. I was tired — tired of seeing my family suffer, tired of going to my friends’ funerals. My life had become the tragic outcome of a tragic environment.
My blind love for MS-13 started to fade. I wanted to get out but I just didn’t know how.
Then one night, my whole life changed forever. I was 20 years old, out in the street celebrating my recent jail release when Alex Sanchez of former MS-13 gang member that I looked up to approached me, he told me he had started this gang intervention group and wanted me to join. I was thrilled. Finally I could get out.
The parting was reluctant. I had gained respect, power and pride within the gang and I just didn’t know who I’d be without it again.
Then I looked up at my apartment building and standing there at the window was my younger brother staring at me the same way that I would stare at Nelson. I knew I had to try to get out.
At my first meeting I met rival gang members and their families and we found out that we all felt the same. Their parents cried the same tears as my parents did. The only thing that separated us was the name of the gang.
We learned how to express ourselves without using drugs and violence, and the gang intervention group took us traveling to different places to share our story and more people listened.
The more we talked, the more we felt the sense of respect, power and pride, I was able to fade away from the gang and ultimately being able to leave it. After that was the hard part but we were in the midst of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart crash scandal, now you’ll think that a police department will be welcoming of a gang intervention group but they didn’t.
And instead we were: “search without warrants!” “stop them base-less charges” and beating on our way to our weekly gang intervention group we had gotten out but we were being punished for what we have been.
Finally I had enough and I moved to a friend’s house in Colorado for a chance of a better life. I got a degree in criminal justice. I worked in youth detention facilities as a youth councilor to continue to get kids out of gangs. I thought my gang problems were things of the past.
But then a few years later I was accused of moving to Colorado to start MS-13 criminal activities, and don’t laugh, I was arrested again; I couldn’t believe it.
I was now in a federal court room facing a possible 48-years sentence. For two years, I studied my case. I wrote my own court motions and defended myself in court. Finally, justice prevailed and the jailer opened up my cell door and told me that my case had been dismissed. All of my charges have been dropped and that I was free to go.
But that was two years of my life gone, punished by society for my past even though I was trying to do everything to be build a new future. We all know that, it’s important to get kids out of gangs but we forget that, they aren’t set up to succeed once they leave.
Most people join a gang because they feel disconnected, alone, alienated. They just want to belong, to feel valued, to have a purpose.
Looking back, it’s really surprise why I joined MS-13?! My mom worked around the clock. I was alone a lot and everybody around me was from a gang. When I left MS-13, I had my gang intervention group to support me. Most people are not that lucky, they’re judged and punished by society for their past and they have nowhere to turn to and nowhere to go.
70% of kids, who tried to leave a gang, but don’t have another support system in place, failed. 70%! I realized that the only way to succeed in getting kids out of gangs and keeping them out of gangs is to create an environment that’s going to support them every step of the way.
Today, I’m the executive director of Homies Unidos, Denver, a gang violence prevention and intervention organization. We empower youth and their families to become advocates of social change rather than agents of self-destruction.