Pubdate: Fri, 08 Apr 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Julie Turkewitz


PUEBLO, Colo. - In the heart of territory run by the gang Los 
Carnales East Side Dukes - on a corner known as the Devil's Triangle 
- - a 14-year-old who describes himself as a "baby gangster" explained 
why he was trying to escape the crew.

"I really didn't want to end up six feet under," said Esai Torres, 
who joined the Dukes at 12, beating up rivals and following in the 
footsteps of his father, a leader on the streets.

The city of Pueblo - a gateway to the Southwest and home to gangs 
that span generations - is caught up in a wave of violence that has 
alarmed everyone from the baby gangsters and their families to local 
and federal officials. Pueblo had 13 homicides in 2014 and another 13 
in 2015, giving the city the unfortunate distinction of having the 
highest per-capita murder rate in the state. At 12 murders per 
100,000 people, its homicide incidence is three times that of New 
York City, and twice that of Brooklyn, New York's deadliest borough.

"We're in an unusually violent spike right now," said Jim Moore, an 
F.B.I. special agent who has spent the last 14 years trying to drive 
out Pueblo's gangs. "There is a small group of each gang that will 
shoot at a rival gang member any time of the day or night and 
anywhere, just because they happen to be a rival gang member."

The warfare has left bystanders dead in the quaint city center, 
prompted police officers to leave the force and set off arguments 
over what to do next. The police estimate that there are 1,200 gang 
members - male and female - in this community of 108,000.

By nearly all accounts, the surge in violence is driven by a 
phenomenon rolling through communities from Long Island to St. Louis 
and Los Angeles: a flood of cheap heroin from Mexico and an eager 
base of customers from a range of economic backgrounds, some of whom 
switched to the drug after using prescription painkillers.

Many gang members have become addicts themselves, and officials say 
that heroin's pull - perhaps more than any other drug - has fueled 
recruitment and frayed gang codes that once prevented violence from 
spilling over.

"I've never seen people so sick off of a habit," said Tressa Vigil, 
36, a longtime member of the Dukes who used crystal meth for 20 
years. "That they're willing to do anything, including sell their own 
family over, their own freedom over, their whatever over, to fix that 

Pueblo has long been a Colorado icon, a high-desert community two 
hours south of Denver that is home to the 143-year-old state fair and 
a once-booming steel mill that drew immigrants from around the world. 
But the mill went bankrupt after the steel crash of the 1980s - it 
now runs as a shadow of its former self - making Pueblo one of many 
struggling American manufacturing towns in search of a new economic engine.

The Dukes run a section of downtown Pueblo from East 19th Street down 
to the Lower East Side. They recruit children at the library, wear 
blue, shave their heads and tattoo their biceps with the number 13 
for the letter M - the 13th letter in the alphabet and a homage to 
the group they claim as their national affiliate, the Mexican Mafia.

Their rivals, the Little Aces, control an area farther east known as 
the Dog Patch and ink one another with spades.

Despite the problems, there are signs of resurgence. In recent years, 
the region has lured a wind turbine manufacturer, a solar farm, and a 
hemp oil processing facility that will be built soon. A 
fit-for-a-postcard downtown features antique shops and art studios. 
And city leaders like to say that Pueblo is on its way to becoming an 
affordable Taos or Santa Fe. "We have so much going for us," said 
Steve Nawrocki, the City Council president.

But unemployment, poverty, gangs and drug use continue to haunt Pueblo.

In late February, Devin Clark, 26, was the latest bystander caught in 
the chaos, when he was shot in the chest by a drive-by shooter on 
Main Street. His funeral was attended by 1,300 people, many of whom 
sobbed as they recalled a 6-foot-7 ironworker raised in the community 
who had no ties to gangs.

In an interview at the Clark family home, Devin's brother Tyler said 
he thought community leaders had failed to protect his family - and 
the families of two other bystanders, Ricky Muniz and Isaiah 
Vialpando, who died in similar shootings in September. "Pueblo is a 
dead end," said Mr. Clark, 24. "There is no sense of hope here anymore."

The Police Department has hemorrhaged staff since the recession amid 
shrinking budgets. There are about 180 active officers in Pueblo, 
down from 207 in the last decade. Four recruits recently left, with 
some saying they were "fearful" of working in the area, said the 
police chief, Luis Velez.

Perhaps those most affected by the surge in violence are the people 
of the impoverished, heavily Latino East Side. Across a bridge from 
the manicured downtown, the neighborhood is a braid of wire fences, 
taco shops, condemned buildings and modest houses - the homes of 
14-year-old Esai Torres and thousands of others whose lives are 
intertwined with the Dukes and the Aces.

One day at dusk, two heroin users shot up in a liquor store parking 
lot visible from a major thoroughfare. A few feet away, children 
bounced on a trampoline by their front door. And just beyond, the 
police pushed a man against the back of a squad car, cuffing him and 
leading him away.

"We can't go with our mom because she's doing drugs," said one of the 
children on the trampoline, Aunalea Ornelas, a 7-year-old who spoke 
with the permission of her grandmother, who is raising Aunalea. "And 
my dad is locked up."

Esai comes from a family with gang ties so deep that he is named for 
the neighborhood - Esai for East Side. His mother, Crystal Maestas, 
34, who gave permission for him to be interviewed, said that she ran 
with the Dukes as a teenager. (She now works the graveyard shift at 
an assisted living home.)

His father, Martin Torres, was a gang leader who spent much of his 
life in prison until he died in 2005 of a drug overdose. "Everybody 
said I looked like him, and I thought, Maybe I could be him," Esai 
said. "I thought it would be cool to be just like my dad."

After Esai joined the Dukes, a 15-year-old friend was fatally shot in 
the chest. Two cousins became addicted to heroin. He watched a peer 
shoot up, convulse and overdose. A few months ago, Esai found a mixed 
martial arts gym run by a former member of the Aces and began working 
out rigorously; his grades have gone from F's to C's, and he has 
drifted away from gang life.

His mother said she was proud of his change. And his sister, DeVida 
Griego, 8, said she was working on her own goals.

"I want to be a police officer," she said recently, sitting at home 
in pink pajamas, "so I can pick up the neighborhood."
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