“Full of fight and devotion to some inner ideal.” -A friend’s description of Che Guevara.
Back when I was doing appointed cases a gang attempted murder/robbery case was dropped on my desk. Fernando, we’ll call him, was all of eighteen years old when he and a friend decided to leave the Colonia one night and engage in a crime spree like none other. Before the night was over they had done two armed robberies, shot a drug dealer six times, and a rival gang member once. Pursued by Sherriff’s Deputies they attempted to make a run for it before flipping their van. Inside was the money from the robberies and the two firearms used in the shootings.
The DDA (Deputy District Attorney) assigned to the case was none other than Bill Haney, the Golden Boy of the office at the time. I knew Bill would not miss a shred of evidence in slam dunking this prosecution. With gang allegations and the use of firearms, my calculation was Fernando was looking at something north of eighty to life, plus life, should he be convicted of everything at trial, which on these facts was a virtual certainty.
Bill was offering Fernando a deal of thirty-two to life, which meant that if he took the deal he might someday get out of prison, if he rejected it he most certainly would receive a sentence that would cause him to die on the inside. When I met with Fernando in a holding cell to tell him his options I was greatly distressed. Fernando, an innately intelligent young man and surprisingly empathetic, recognized my distress saying to me, “Mr. Dunn, its okay, I’ll take the deal, they know us in there, I’ll be alright.” You see, Fernando was Colonia, a true gang member, and once in prison he would join the Mexican Mafia, earn his stripes by assaulting other prisoners at the direction of the “Big Homies” and someday become a made member of a ferocious prison gang.
How is it that something as malevolent as a prison gang can inspire such devotion? Fernando at the age of eighteen had already given his life to the violent anarchy of the criminal street gang culture. He had simply graduated to the next level, in a community that “respected” such deeds as young man’s right of passage.
It is estimated there are 1.4 million gang members in 33,000 gangs throughout the United States of America. It is commonly believed that this is an urban nightmare, and it is, but it is no longer isolated to the poorest neighborhoods of our inner cities. For more than thirty years we have been taking young men off the streets and putting them into advanced gangster training schools known as prisons. Prison gangs generally breakdown along racial lines and failure to associate with and “work for” the gang means you are left alone to fend for yourself in the midst of the never ending racial warfare that largely rules our prison system.
This insidious phenomenon came to fruition in the City of Los Angeles in the 70’s and exploded in the Crack Cocaine epidemic of the 80’s. Gangsters sent to prison recruited new gangsters from all over the State of California, and then through the federal system the entire country, so that upon release newly trained gangsters have started new street gangs in communities in every state in the nation. Today, Los Angeles has seen a significant drop in gang related homicides, Chicago is now the eye of the storm with over seven hundred homicides in the last year. Even including the atrocity on September 11, 2001 we have lost more young men and women to gang violence than terror attacks and two foreign wars combined. The cost of keeping us safe from this foreign threat has also cost us more than a trillion dollars.
Los Angeles is once again leading the way in gangster evolution as its most sophisticated practitioners are now leaving their neighborhoods in pursuit of bigger gains. Rather than fight amongst themselves and sell poisonous drugs to their own community, gang members are “flocking” into suburban neighborhoods and committing sophisticated high end residential burglaries. Using their ill gotten gains to purchase luxury cars and wear designer clothing they raise little suspicion as they case expensive residences. Notable celebrities and athletes including Alanis Morisette, Yasiel Puig, and Derek Fisher have been amongst the victims. Lt. Todd Hankel commander of the West Valley Station of LAPD notes that for these crimes gang members will “cross territories to group up to have enough people to commit the burglaries,” and they have even created a “common fund for bail money.” A previously unheard of level of cooperation.
In the depressed areas from whence they come these gangsters are seen as modern day Robin Hoods as they bring new revenue into the neighborhood. In a time of economic divide between rich and poor of unprecedented proportions a new consciousness is arising amongst the disenfranchised, that is a redefining of the enemy. Rather than spend their life’s energy on maiming and killing each other, the fight is being taken outside the neighborhood to places where the gains are so much greater.
The brutal anarchy of gang infested neighborhoods has created an environment ripe for revolution. As we obsessively guard against the external threats to our security we continue to turn a blind eye to the domestic carnage of street gang violence. Those that live within these communities feel more disenfranchised than ever as new governmental edicts call for longer prison sentences and deportation of their friends, neighbors, and family members. There is still time to save ourselves from these regressive policies of retribution that have brought us to where we are today. Reform our prison systems and prioritize the future of our youth most likely to fall prey to “gangsterism.” Provide them with positive alternatives upon which to place their hope for a better future. In so doing we might just avoid the day in which a leader “full of fight and devotion to some inner ideal” springs from their midst.
Written by: Philip Remington Dunn is a practicing criminal defense attorney, social justice advocate, and author of the critically acclaimed book: When Darkness Reigns.