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Big Problems, Bigger Men

How Confronting the Gang Just Might Make You a Better Man


Stopping in front of a friend’s house on Santa Barbara’s lower Eastside one lazy Sunday evening in July, I was confronted by a sight that at first made little sense to me. A group of eight or 10 young men, some carrying 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, others carrying short two-by-fours, were advancing down this quiet cul-de-sac-and staring me down.

There was something in the eye contact they made that activated my sense of danger, and without thinking, I re-fastened my seatbelt and drove away. More confused than afraid, I pulled over when I got around the corner and took out a Santa Barbara street map. I suppose I was trying to convince myself that I had gotten lost-that I had somehow been on the wrong block, even though I had recognized the house.

<strong>STRONG MEN FIGHT BACK:</strong>  Author Tom Diaz's book No Boundaries dispels myths about gangs and reveals how stronger people emerge from confronting tough problems.
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STRONG MEN FIGHT BACK: Author Tom Diaz’s book No Boundaries dispels myths about gangs and reveals how stronger people emerge from confronting tough problems.

Meanwhile, my friend was standing in his living room watching a gang ritual, known as a “jump in,” through his front window. The group I had encountered was now at the end of the street, and the young men were beating another teenager savagely. The aggression only lasted a minute, and at the end, the victim was embraced by the gang, and offered a bottle from which to drink. In fewer than 10 minutes, another member of Santa Barbara’s Eastside gang had entered the fold.

What I had stumbled upon was street-gang business as usual, nothing more than the day-to-day activities of a group of mostly young kids, and seemingly nothing to worry about. Within the hour, I would be at the Santa Barbara Bowl watching Snoop Dogg celebrate his gang affiliation and lifestyle on the big stage, surrounded by a portable forest of pot plants, and backed by a giant banner proclaiming his music as “Tales From the Crips.” For all I knew, the young men I had encountered on the Eastside were at the show, too.

In the course of one average summer night in Santa Barbara, I had seen gang life on the street and on the stage, and gone from witnessing a somewhat scary real-life example of the way that gangs have permeated our seemingly peaceful city to smiling and grooving to an elaborately staged cartoon-like celebration of gangs’ outlaw status and lifestyle, something packaged to appeal to white teenagers. Nevertheless, there was something in the coincidence that got me thinking. How big was this problem? Had gangs really come this far, right to our Santa Barbara doorsteps? I had read all the stories and heard about other incidents, but witnessing an attack suddenly made them seem more real, and I now knew for a fact that there was more to this than Snoop was letting on.

Later that week, I spoke on the phone with Tom Diaz, an attorney and noted gun control lobbyist from Washington who has written the recently published book, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press). Diaz has put together what looks like the definitive account of the rise and spread of transnational Latino gangs in America. The book is extraordinarily well researched, the product of three full years of nonstop investigation that took Diaz from Los Angeles to Houston, Chicago, and Virginia, among many other gang hot spots. His conclusions are not necessarily what one would expect.

On one hand, these types of criminal organizations are a social problem without a solution. As long as there are recent immigrants struggling for a foothold in American society, it is likely that there will be people willing to exploit their marginal status by putting them to work in gangs.

On the other hand, Diaz discovered a rich mine of potential for hope among the new generation of law enforcement officials and prosecutors who have come to specialize in this area. The gangs may evolve and adapt, but the people who fight them sometimes evolve, too. Like so many of the biggest issues that confront American society today, the gang problem has become a crucible within which much damage is done, but out of which stronger, more understanding mentalities may emerge.

Growing Up Together

I was told about Diaz’s book by one of my oldest friends, Bruce Riordan, a veteran federal and now city gang prosecutor in Los Angeles. Riordan, who currently heads the L.A. City Attorney’s anti-gang task force, was for many years a United States Attorney, and his successful prosecution of the 18th Street gang on federal racketeering and organized crime charges in the late 1990s and early 2000s is the subject of “Death, Treachery, and Taxes,” one of the Diaz book’s most compelling chapters.

Riordan and I have been friends since we were teenagers-the same age as the gang members I had encountered in Santa Barbara. He was and remains an important figure in my life-a key member of my personal inner circle-and to read about him in Diaz’s book was exciting. There’s a tendency among men to look for values and recognition within a peer group, and to frame success in terms of comparison with their male cohort. When one member of the group rises to a certain level of renown, it becomes the occasion for both pride and another round of self-scrutiny. Like gang members, old friends are still keeping score and rooting for each other.

Having heard Riordan tell bits and pieces of the story of his epic case against L.A.’s 18th Street throughout the years, I was fascinated to see it condensed in print, especially by someone with Diaz’s sophisticated perspective. In No Boundaries, true stories of gang prosecutions are given the urgency and detail of suspenseful police procedurals. Even more startling in my case was the fact that Diaz chose to describe Riordan as a character, and to put him into the context of his background and upbringing in Massachusetts, where we attended high school together. Through this third perspective, I had the chance to observe a childhood and adolescence not much different from my own, but distilled into the formative experience of someone who had gone on to become something that, on the face of it, could hardly be more different.

But, as I had learned on my way to the Bowl that night, the extremes of life, from tragedy to triumph, can lie adjacent, and big differences are often the product of an accumulation of little decisions. Had I gotten out of my car and confronted the gang on their way to the jump in, what would have been their reaction? And what would have been my fate? I’ll never know.

No Boundaries is packed with violent incidents and terrifying characters, all described in a matter-of-fact style that nevertheless holds the perpetrators accountable for the misery they inflict not only on their victims, but also on their friends and on themselves. However, amid the bristling personalities of the leaders and foot soldiers of 18th Street, Mara Salvatrucha, the Latin Kings, and the Mexican Mafia, another ensemble of equally intense characters emerges in the form of those men and women who work to bring these groups to justice. The names of men such as Kevin Carwile, Frank Flores, Brian Truchon, Bruce Riordan, and Richard Valdemar take their alphabetical places in an index that places them alongside guys with names like Greedy, Termite, the Tapeworm, and the Baker.

For me, having grown up alongside someone who has become an authority on Los Angeles gangs and who has successfully prosecuted them for organized crime, the story of how these two groups-transnational Latino gangs and American law enforcement-interact has special significance. Like so many men I know, it is to my close friends from high school and college whom I look for support, guidance, and a standard for comparison. Throughout the years, I witnessed Riordan’s transformation from the boy I knew growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts-gregarious, intellectual, adventurous, and full of a powerful yearning to be part of something bigger than himself-into the man who today calls the shots in some of the world’s most violent conflicts between criminals and law enforcement. Reflecting on the lives, motives, and dark circumstances of the gangsters whom Riordan prosecuted became another strand in a tapestry of shared interests that link us in the project of coming to terms with our own place in history and our own roles as men in contemporary America.

Getting Into Gangs

For Tom Diaz, researching and writing about Latino gangs has been a personal journey as well. The son of a career Army officer, Diaz only recently learned something ironic about his own father. Diaz senior spent his adult life in this country passing as a Mexican, when in fact he was of Spanish descent, having immigrated to the United States from the Canary Islands. He came across the border at El Paso in 1924, at a time when Mexicans were free to enter the country and become American citizens, while most Europeans were restricted from doing so by quotas. “I still have my father’s crossing card,” he told me. “When he arrived, he had 50 dollars, and no profession other than as a laborer. I still wonder where I would be today if he hadn’t joined the Army.”

His own status as a member of the second generation of an immigrant family has made Diaz acutely aware of the vulnerability of that group. He said that it is a popular misconception that most gang members are illegal immigrants. “Statistically, first-generation immigrants are much less likely to be involved in crime,” explained Diaz. “It’s their children, the ones who are born here, who are most vulnerable to this situation. That’s just one of the reasons why the current debates about immigration policy are often so unhelpful in relation to crime. People are proceeding from false premises about who is involved.”

Another popular misconception that No Boundaries undermines is the idea that the problem originated in Central America. The rise of the powerful Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has created the mistaken impression that there was a culture of organized crime in that country that has now spilled over into the United States. Not so, says Diaz. “The evidence on this is quite clear,” he said. “The major transnational Latino gangs all trace their origins back to Los Angeles. What we are seeing now is a kind of ‘blowback,’ in which the gang members we deported in the late ‘90s are now returning to this country after spending several years refining their organizations and increasing their levels of violence in the prisons of Mexico and El Salvador. But they all agree on one thing-L.A. is the cradle, it’s where it all began.”

One of the most difficult things for American law enforcement to deal with in the quest to eradicate gangs has been the unintended complicity of our own prison system in their rise. The power of the Mexican Mafia, or La Eme as it is known, comes primarily from its ability to control what happens within the walls of American prisons. “Prison is a creepy place,” said Diaz. “It’s suffocating even in a medium-security facility, and that’s just a first impression.” When things get really frightening, according to Diaz, is when one realizes that “organized crime groups control everything inside our prisons right up to the walls. They have their own system of government, and they dictate the terms of an enormous number of crucial decisions, from where someone will be housed to where they will work.” This alarming vision of prison life as controlled by the gangs is only part of a larger context that Diaz terms “the invisible subject of the extent to which corruption of the type we hear about in Mexico is already happening in this country.”

For Diaz, the purpose of writing No Boundaries was similar to that of his activity on Capitol Hill in support of gun control. “Listen,” he said, “evil exists. Terrorism is still a threat to this country, and so are gangs. When I attend a conference, the thing I ask people to do is to think ahead. Imagine what we will be up against in 10 years, and work from there. I was in Rio de Janeiro recently, and I was talking with the chief of police there, and he said something really frightening, because he said of the United States and gangs, ‘You people are where we were 20 years ago.’ If you know anything about what they have been experiencing in Brazil recently-multiple police shootings, a loss of the rule of law, prisons being hijacked and completely taken over from within-then you know that what he means is serious. Gangs are not static, they will adapt because they are fluid, non-bureaucratic organizations.”

What to Wish For

When asked about what gives him hope, Diaz was just as forceful, if somewhat less precise. “I do believe in the possibility of redemption, because I have seen that some men who have been involved in gangs do just stop. Some have seen all these terrible things and they walk away. But it’s never easy, and some of them get killed anyway.”

For the members of the law enforcement community, the answer may lie in accepting the nature of the problem as one without an obvious programmatic solution. The long years that it takes to bring these violent gangs to justice have a way of altering everyone involved. Prosecutors speak of the “you change it, it changes you” phenomenon of a big case, and generally agree that, in spite of the sense that the circumstances are overwhelming, there nevertheless is an imperative to go on trying.

Diaz sees this, as do I, in career prosecutors like Bruce Riordan, who has been transformed by confronting challenges that have taken him places he never expected, and forced him to exceed the limits of his own expectations. If there is a goal to becoming a man, beyond the trappings of custom, it might be this-to take on a problem without a solution, and to live through the changes it makes to who you are.

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