Snared by gang life, one teen finds a way out

Gangs have a stranglehold on our county -- one of the poorest in the state; is it a coincidence?

09/09/2008 12:18 AM

09/09/2008 8:36 AM

If a life could be summed up within the pages of a book, then the chapters of 19-year-old Antonio's would mostly be about a Merced boy growing up poor.

One chapter would be about what it's like for eight kids and a single mother to share a two-bedroom apartment, in an area rife with drugs and crime.

Another chapter would be about what it's like to see his mother fall to pieces after hearing that his father wasn't ever coming home again -- and that she'd have to raise the family on her own.

Antonio's book would also include a chapter about what it's like to be a gang member -- to go "on patrol" in search of enemies to beat into a bloody pulp, to break into someone's house and "jack" their video games and appliances and to be on the lam from the law.

His chiseled face is one of thousands who make up the 19.4 percent of people who live below the poverty line in Merced County. Until recently, he was also one of the 3,000 people or so who make up the county's gang population, according to the Merced County Sheriff's Department.

Although many agree that poverty in and of itself may not be the sole cause of gangs, it's one factor that can contribute to the decision someone makes to become a gang member. Poverty rates, family violence, the availability of drugs in the community and low academic achievement all figure into the equation of youth involvement in gangs, according to a 2004 report by researchers Phelan A. Wyrick and James C. Howell, which was published by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

That's not to say that everyone who grows up in poverty will become a gang member -- or even a criminal. Those who work in law enforcement will tell you that most poor people are hard-working. Some of them move on to become college presidents, doctors, lawyers, police and other well-regarded role models in the community.

And not everyone joins a gang for the same reason. Police say they've seen examples of kids from middle-class families with both parents in the household who've fallen into the chasm of gang life. Others may join because they're threatened and feel forced into it, while some may be in a gang because it's a trend -- it's cool.

Nearly everyone agrees, though, that the abysmal poverty situation in the state's fifth-poorest county doesn't help produce college graduates. Sam Rangel, director of New Hope Merced, a nonprofit faith-based organization that works to rehabilitate gang members, estimates that 90 percent of the gang members he meets come from poor backgrounds -- or grow up in areas where opportunities are limited, violence and illegal drugs are common and access to positive role models is nonexistent.

Such conditions, says Rangel, have created a "cloud of hopelessness" among many youth -- and some end up turning to gangs for support. "I think poverty plays a real important part (of gangs)," Rangel said. "Being deprived will always create a want in somebody. Whether someone tries to achieve that want by negative or positive means is up to that person."

Despite the grim statistics, however, there are stories of young people who've emerged from the dire straits of poverty and gangs to elevate themselves above that cloud of hopelessness. The story of Antonio is a snapshot from the life of one of the lucky ones.

From gang-banger to minimum-wage earner

Few people would look at a minimum-wage job as a new beginning. In Antonio's case, however, it's a 180-degree turn from being in jail with people accused of murder, assault and other crimes.

He's also lucky. After all, there aren't many employers willing to give a convicted felon a second chance -- or even a first one.

Less than a year ago, Antonio was a full-fledged gang member -- stealing video games, appliances and whatever else he could grab after breaking into homes, putting in work for his gang. Over the years, Antonio has committed at least 10 burglaries -- the ones he can remember.

He stands about 6 feet, 2 inches with a medium build, and his once bald head now sports a neat, short haircut. Instead of packing a gun and an attitude, he now keeps school books and a Bible in his car -- for night school at Merced College and Bible study at a local church during the week.

Dropping out of his gang may have been a heaven-sent decision, but it has nonetheless earned the ire of his former friends who remain in the gang. Someone shot at Antonio's car two weeks after he was released from jail, shattering some of the windows.

(Because of his recent past and threats to his life, Antonio is not being identified by his real name. For the same reasons, his previous gang affiliation isn't specified in this story.)

Nowadays, Antonio gets up around 3 a.m. for his full-time job, where he earns $8 an hour as a label cutter. In the afternoon, he's off to Merced College, where he's enrolled in four classes this semester with the goal of eventually transferring to a four-year university. He's paying his way through school with his earnings and financial aid.

It's not easy -- but then again, few things about Antonio's life ever have been.

He was born the fourth of nine children in San Jose, the son of Mexican immigrants: a stay-at-home mom and a father, who earned a living as a trumpet player performing in a mariachi band.

His father spirited his family around the country for his gigs, moving from San Jose to Atlanta and then to Puerto Rico. While in Puerto Rico, his mother decided she wanted her children to grow up in the mainland U.S., where they could get a better education.

By the time Antonio was in the fourth grade, his father decided to stay in Puerto Rico, where he was appearing on television shows and performing -- although Antonio said no one in his family knew how much money he was making.

Antonio, along with his mother, brothers and sisters, moved to East Los Angeles. His father promised to support the family, saying he would eventually rejoin them in the States. "We didn't have any money when we moved," Antonio recalled. "He would send money, but barely enough."

A new life in Merced

Antonio knew his mother wanted to start a new life in a town with a slower pace -- and Merced seemed like the place to make it happen. One of his mother's friends let the family stay in a small guest room in a home off Bear Creek Drive for about a month.

Four or five of Antonio's family members slept in the guest room, while the other siblings slept in the family room.

Finding their own place to live, however, would be a challenge, as few apartment managers wanted to rent to a family with so many children. The family finally moved into a small two-bedroom apartment in the Loughborough area on Denver Avenue, thanks to the generosity of a fellow church member who decided to give Antonio's mother a break.

It was the first of many apartments the family would migrate to throughout the city (some of his siblings remained in Los Angeles). After moving to Merced, Antonio and three of his brothers lived in one bedroom, while his three sisters lived in the other. Antonio's mom and his youngest brother, who was 1 month old, lived in the main room. It was a tight squeeze -- but for Antonio, it was just a part of everyday life.

"You just don't care when you're that small. You just don't think it's anything out of the ordinary," Antonio said. "For the past couple of months we had been living with other families, so having our own place felt better."

Until then, the family had been scraping by on the trickle of funds that his father was sending home. His mother had also become a U.S. citizen, and she briefly left Merced for Puerto Rico to help Antonio's father with his citizenship papers.

After his mother returned home, however, Antonio said things "all went to hell." His father had informed his wife that things were over between them -- that he wouldn't be coming to Merced. Antonio remembered how the news crushed his mother.

Antonio was also hurt because he'd never seen his mother in such pain. "Once my mom and my dad broke up, my mom just lost it," Antonio said. "Through all of this my mom had been a strong lady. She never cried. And seeing my mom cry every night and the devastation -- I was just a kid. I didn't want to see my mom cry."

The end of the relationship between Antonio's parents also created a financial crisis for the family. To make ends meet and raise eight children, his mother was forced to apply for public assistance, receiving food stamps and Section 8 housing. "My mom had (eight) kids to take care of. My little brother was a month old. So how was she going to work?" Antonio recalled. "(The children) were all very small. She couldn't pay for a baby-sitter or nothing like that. All of this just came down on her."

Antonio said he hasn't spoken to his father since he was 12, and has no idea where he is today, or if he is even alive. He still harbors a lot of anger toward the man. "I remember when we first got to Merced we didn't even have any money for sweaters. We had to go that winter without sweaters," Antonio said. "So of course, it makes me mad."

Despite the challenges of being without a father as a breadwinner, his mother tried her best to be a provider. Antonio joked that while there was never "lobster and steak" on the table, there was always enough beans and tortillas for everybody, which he didn't mind: "My mom was always real good about keeping us fed and a roof over our heads."

One of his favorite days of the year was when she would take Antonio and his brothers and sisters to get clothes for school. "We had to make the clothes last," he recalled. "No Nike or anything -- but we always had something to eat."

During Christmas, Antonio said there weren't always presents to go around. When he was around 12, however, a generous teacher who went to his church stepped in to make the holidays a little brighter for two years. She brought over a Christmas tree, along with a bevy of toys, CDs, action figures, gifts cards and dolls. She also brought over beans, rice, dishwashing soap and other household goods.

When his teacher showed up at his house, Antonio believed he was in trouble, having no idea that she was bringing gifts. "I heard a knock at the door -- and I was a troublemaker, so I thought she was going to complain to my mom," said Antonio. "All of a sudden we open the door, and two trucks drove up with toys."

Antonio said growing up in a poor family, with little or no money, also played a role in the other boys he befriended on the street -- because they were in the same situation. "I mean, I'm not going to go be friends with one of the rich kids, because they don't know how it is to be like us," said Antonio. "We both have this in common. We both like this color. Boom! -- there's a gang."

Antonio hits the streets

In the midst of the turmoil at home, Antonio began spending more time hanging out in the streets, sometimes as late as 1 a.m. He channeled his anger by getting into fights and sought comfort with friends who were drug dealers -- and gang members. "I had someone to back me up and someone to pass the time," Antonio remembered. "But when you're out in the street, you're not going to meet friends who say, 'Let's go read a book.' Basically, I took care of myself because Mom was so busy. And I don't blame her."

By the time he was in fifth grade he had begun to steal, targeting residences where he knew no one was home. One of his first thefts happened at a drug house, whose occupants had been arrested by police. That night, Antonio and his friends saw the windows in the house had been left open. "I jumped through the window and my friend kept a lookout," recalled Antonio. "I grabbed a (Nintendo) 64 and a little stash of cash they had in one of the jackets."

After the first burglaries, Antonio felt he had changed. His grades also began to suffer, and he was getting suspended more and more often from school.

By the time he was a freshman at Golden Valley High School, Antonio was "jumped" into his gang. "Jumped" meant getting pounded for several minutes by three of his homeboys, their fists falling onto his body like hammers. He retaliated, delivering several punches against his tormentors to drive home a simple point: He wasn't going down like no punk. "You've got to show that you're not going to get disrespected," he explained.

His muscles ached from the hailstorm of blows when it was over, but it didn't matter. He was now a full-fledged gang soldier and had passed his first initiation. Basking in that brief moment of glory, however, he didn't foresee the long-term consequences of his baptism into gang life. Eventually, he would also be given a 9-millimeter handgun.

All of which Antonio kept a secret from his mother until his arrest at age 18. "When you're young, you are not going around shooting people. You really don't know what a gang is about," he said. "Once you are older, people start shooting at you. You can't go places because you'll get jumped. That's when it hits you -- and you realize what you are."

Soon afterward, Antonio and his homeboys were going "on patrol" -- searching for rival gang members to attack -- doing whatever he could to prove that he was "down" for his gang. "We'd smoke hella weed before, to give us guts because we knew we were up to no good," he recalled. "We'd see a couple of guys, we'd get out, we'd fight. Hit them with bats and whatnot. Jack their stuff."

What Antonio became, in his own words, was "a little troublemaker" -- a rep that eventually got him expelled from Golden Valley High School after he cursed out an administrator. Despite his gang life, however, Antonio's grades improved at Yosemite High School (a continuation school), where he graduated last year, although he wasn't allowed to walk during graduation because of a fight.

He attributes much of his success at Yosemite High to teachers who looked beyond his gang affiliation, who never gave up on him. "My mom and everybody, they were excited to see me graduate," he said. "All I needed was somebody to give me a chance."

The summer after Antonio got his diploma, however, his "work" in his gang only increased. When he wasn't burglarizing homes, he was hanging out with friends smoking marijuana and drinking beer. Some of his friends began using crystal meth, but Antonio stayed away from the drug.

A typical night's take would include stealing liquor from a local store and trading it for drugs. "We went to some drug dealers and we said, 'Hey, look at all this beer.' We'd give them the Smirnoff and a pack of Budweiser and they'd give us an eighth of weed," Antonio said. "From like 12 p.m. to like 6 in the morning, all we'd do was get drunk and high. And then we'd come up with ideas for what we would do."

A robbery becomes a crossroads

Antonio reached a crossroads in his life after he and his friends robbed a clothing store. He's reluctant to share all the details of the crime, mainly because he remains on probation.

As Antonio and his friends were fleeing from the scene, someone wrote down the license plate of his friend's car. Merced police rounded up Antonio's friends, and he was eventually named as a suspect. "My friend called me and said, 'Hey, don't go to your house, the cops are raiding it right now,'" he remembered.

Antonio fled the area for several days, leaving in a rusty old 1989 Honda Civic that his friends bought for $100. He remained on the run for a few weeks, although he later decided to turn himself in because he missed his girlfriend, whom he was then living with. He also knew that he had "done wrong" in his heart. "I love my girlfriend so much. She's been with me through everything," Antonio said. "She's been the only one that had never given up on me."

He was convicted on grand theft and committing a crime to further the activities of a criminal street gang and sent to Merced County Jail. There, he was housed in an eight-man dorm with other members of his gang. While in jail, however, Antonio began to reconsider his life choices -- especially after seeing how jail had become a revolving door for many of the older inmates. He also found pieces from a torn-up Bible in his cell and began reading it.

"I looked at myself, and I started asking myself questions," said Antonio. "Like, 'What am I going to be doing 10 years from now? Am I still going to be locked up?' I just looked at myself and thought that I was better than that."

Rather than remain in the gang and face options that included more time behind bars -- or death -- Antonio dropped out. He informed the correctional officers of his decision, and was allowed to move out of his cell.

He was moved to the John Latorraca Correctional Center and issued the standard navy blue jailhouse jumpsuit worn by those who leave a gang. Printed on the back of the jumpsuit was "VP" in large block white letters -- "Victim Potential" because of the violence gang dropouts can face for making that life-changing call. "That was the best choice of my life," said Antonio.

While he was at the correctional center he was housed with other gang dropouts.

Being out of the gang would take some getting used to, such as when he was approached by a burly, muscle-bound man who was a rival gang member -- identifiable by his tattoos. Fortunately, the man was a gang dropout too -- and wished Antonio no harm. "He said, 'Hey, how are you doing, brother?' He said, 'Don't worry. There's no gangs here. Everything's kick-back. We're Christian brothers.'"

After Antonio's release from jail in January, his girlfriend put him in touch with Rangel, the director of New Hope Merced. As a former Merced gang member himself, the heavily tattooed Rangel understood the rocky path and temptations lying in wait for Antonio -- including the lure of old habits, drugs, alcohol and the need to reconnect with familiar friends on the street.

For nearly five months, Rangel met with Antonio a few days every week, teaching him a variety of skills and methods ranging from anger management, conflict resolution, how to fill out a resume and how to conduct himself properly during a job interview. Those in the program also pray and go to church, although Rangel said it's not required.

Rangel also tries to line up employers for those who remain committed to his program. The payoff, he said, is moral, spiritual and financial. "To these kids, their gang is their job," he explained. "But the same reason why someone leaves a gang is the same reason why someone leaves a job: They get fired, they retire or they find something with better benefits. I want to offer something with better benefits."

Antonio finally graduated from New Hope Merced in May, receiving a certificate to commemorate his new life. Shortly after, Rangel connected Antonio with a full-time job.

Antonio believes his life unfolded the way it did for a reason. "I look at (jail) as a blessing because it gave me the opportunity to see what I was doing was wrong -- and gave me the opportunity to change," he smiled. "(The theft) was a bad thing to do -- but I learned from it."

Gangs and poverty: Can more be done?

To grasp the scale of Merced County's gang problem, all you have to do is glance at the county's jail system.

Of the 1,328 youth who were booked at Merced County Juvenile Hall from July 2007 to June 30 this year, 92 percent said they were gang affiliated in some way, according to Chris Bobbitt, the county's chief assistant probation officer.

In the county's jail system, about 20 percent of the approximately 800 inmates are somehow gang affiliated, according to Tom MacKenzie, Merced County Sheriff's Department spokesman.

Merced police Lt. Tom Trindad, one of the foremost experts on local gangs, said they have been documented in Merced as far back as the 1970s. Trindad was among the first officers in the department's Gang Violence Suppression Unit, which began in 1992 under Chief Pat Lunney.

Trindad said there are currently about 24 documented gangs in the Merced area -- several of which are sets belonging to the Norteno and Sureno criminal street gangs.

Law enforcement officers like Trindad say although the county's large poverty population certainly is a piece of the complex gang puzzle, it's not the sole cause.

Trindad said he's even heard of cases where the children with both parents in the household -- including some who worked in law enforcement -- have been involved in gangs.

For some youth, Trindad said being a gang member is a matter of "the thrill" of being in that lifestyle. He also cited the entertainment industry, mainly the influence of "gangsta rap" and violence in movies that play their part by glamorizing the gang life.

Others, Trindad said, are attracted to gangs because of the illusion of power they offer. "What happens to a lot of these kids is they come from a background where they are getting harmed -- and they finally feel a sense of power belonging to this group," Trindad said.

Economic pressures also play a role because there are fewer parents who are able to stay home to nurture their children, especially when those parents work more than one job. "When both parents are out there hustling to get food on the table, there is often nobody there at home to provide the guidance, mentorship and coaching that a developing child needs," said Ana Pagan, director of Merced County Human Services Agency.

Staying on track

Today, Antonio is out of jail, and the stakes couldn't be higher for him.

For the next three years, he must abide by the terms of his probation -- which essentially means being subject to searches, staying clean of any drugs and not wearing gang colors. He also cannot move outside of the county without permission.

One misstep -- and he could wind up right back in jail.

Rangel knows the next few months won't be easy for Antonio, as temptations gnaw at his willpower in the form of familiar friends and old habits that are hard to break.

Antonio has already covered up the small gang tattoos on his arms -- and he and his girlfriend are about to move into their own apartment in a "good" neighborhood. He still sees his old homies on the streets -- moments he describes as "hi" and "bye."

Rangel can't hide his enthusiasm for the positive changes that have already taken place in Antonio's life. "The rewards are far beyond what I expected," said Rangel. "Here's a guy that came with a felony and is now talking about getting out on his own and he's paying taxes. You can't help but get excited about that."

In the meantime, Antonio said he is taking his life "day by day." Although his old friends still want to "hang out," he acknowledges that it would not be the best thing. "I've got too much going for me to lose it," he said.

Can anyone be sure he'll stay away from his earlier life of crime?

"You can't. It's all up to me. Either I want to or not," he said. "But I have faith in God that everything is going to work out for me."

Yet to be written, then, are the next chapters of the book of Antonio.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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