Portrait of the Author As A Young Gang Member
The author, "Reymundo Sanchez," is writing under a pseudonym. His desire to remain anonymous is understandable (there's no statute of limitations for murder), but anonymity raises a problem of accountability. The author admits to robbery, rape, and murder, but he must know that if he didn't, there would be no book. Still, there is the ring of authenticity in the author's inconsistencies (Sanchez can't get his age straight), the hypocrisies (mostly regarding the police), the detailed familiarity with the Windy City's neighborhoods, and above all, the persuasive picture of gang life. And there is something to be learned from taking "Sanchez" at his word.
Before he turned fifteen, Sanchez's life was a tragedy. Raped by a cousin when he was five, introduced to sex by a thirty-five year old junkie when he was thirteen, Sanchez was repeatedly beaten by his mother and stepfather throughout his adolescence. He drank; he did drugs; he helped his half brother sell cocaine and heroin, sometimes helping the customers shoot up in exchange for sex.
In search of affection, acceptance, drugs, and girls, Sanchez joined a street gang. The Latin Kings were mainly Puerto Rican, and their founding myth charged its members with the protection of the Puerto Rican community. The mission was honored only in the breach: the gang protected no one, and Puerto Ricans were frequently its targets. By the time Sanchez joined the gang, its most senior leaders were dead or serving long prison sentences. Its members were young and mainly from poor, highly dysfunctional, frequently violent homes. The gang was loosely hierarchical, but its young leaders had limited control over the organization's money, internal discipline, and outside activities. These leaders profited a little from the gang members' stealing and drug dealing, but most of the members lived in squalor. Sanchez divided his time between the gang's clubhouses, the apartments of other gangbangers or addicts, and the streets.
The gang's existence revolved around drugs and violence mostly violence. Initiates had to endure a three-minute beating. Justice within the gang meant more beatings. Above all, there was the perpetual war of every gang against every other gang. Anything could be the excuse for an attack: trespassing into the Kings' territory, spraying over the Kings'graffiti, "representing" (flashing hand signals) another gang to a King, and of course, attacking a King. All of this had to be avenged, quickly, always in blood, and frequently through "hits," drive-by shootings in the target's neighborhood that left gang members and innocents alike dead or wounded. Sanchez is responsible for several such killings. And all of this violence brought immediate rewards in the form of respect, drugs, and sex.
Before he joined the Kings, Sanchez was a criminal -- but not a predator. He didn't rob, or beat people up, or kill. The first time he was taken on a gang hit, he couldn't bring himself to shoot. Though he quickly became comfortable pulling the trigger, the guns had to be found, bought, and handed to him ready to fire; it was years before he learned how to load one. The Kings transformed Sanchez; "My Bloody Life" shows us how.
The young men who made up the Kings spent all their hours together, away from families, schools, churches, or any other civilizing force. The gang provided them friends, role models, access to drugs and sex, and sometimes food and shelter. With its colors and signals and myths, the gang also gave them a prism through which to view their wasted time together as worthwhile, even glorious. Only the gang connected its members to such feelings; every other association in their lives was a source of misery. It is barely surprising that, under these circumstances, a bunch of drug-addled adolescent boys can be turned into killers, violent protectors of their fragile source of identity. Sanchez's deadening account of joints smoked, girls abused, and innocents bloodied turns out to have an unmistakable trajectory: his time with the Kings molded him into the monster he became.
The Limits of the Law
Sanchez's portrait of the Latin Kings not only provides insights into how gangs change young men, it also provides insight into our ability to fight the war on gangs. The principle weapon in this war is the law of conspiracy and its many manifestations, including the well-known federal "RICO" (Racketeering-Influenced Corrupt Organizations) Act. The premise of the law of conspiracy is that criminals together pose a greater danger than criminals alone. That's the reason conspiracy law punishes people who join together to plan crimes, even if the crimes are never committed. Sanchezs book vindicates this approach to organized criminality: the gang really does make its members more dangerous.
The Latin Kings, like most street gangs, are different. They lack the discipline of a crime family or a drug dealing operation. They routinely spill blood in violation of the first commandment of organized crime as handed down in "The Godfather": violence should be business, not personal. Virtually never in "My Bloody Life," for example, does Sanchez record a hit designed to protect drug dealing territory. There are no lengthy meetings inside well-known locations long bugged by the FBI. Instead, the violence is nearly spontaneous: a rumor, a ride into the next block, and a shotgun blast. Throughout the book, gang members are hassled by the police, beaten, arrested -then cut loose, because there is simply no evidence upon which to charge them.
Unfortunately, we may not be able to do better. The law of conspiracy prohibits the planning of crimes; it cannot render organizations illegal simply because they appear to be crimes waiting to happen. The First Amendment protects Sanchez's right to join a gang and be a "gang member," whatever that may mean. We cannot prosecute the gang's members until they begin plotting a specific crime -even if we know that criminal activity is, in many ways, the gang's raison d'etre. Schools and other places where personal freedoms are reduced may be able to get away with telling people they can't wear certain colors or make certain hand gestures, but everyday street life is considerably freer. "My Bloody Life" explains why, as a result, it can also be considerably more dangerous.