Bangin' in L-Dub

A half mile from Lake Worth's trendy eateries, a war is under way. With guns and cyber-graffiti.

Along the edges of the Florida East Coast railroad, which slices through the center of Lake Worth, dwell the poorest of the poor. Spanish-mission bungalows peel and fade in the sun, and motor oil stains the sidewalks of the auto body shops and old warehouses. Gravel streets turn to dirt and disappear altogether in the clumps of weeds that choke the rail bed. And everywhere, cryptic graffiti — seemingly random numbers, letters, and symbols — drips menacingly.

Carlos, who grew up on the south side of town and went to school at Lake Worth High School, can explain exactly what the messages mean. "X-V-3," he says, tracing the outline with a finger in the air. "That's us, 18th Street." On a stop sign, he spies a territorial marker made by a rival northside outfit. He explains: "That's MLK, Makin' Life Krazy, just some pussy-ass bitches. They ain't shit."

How about KOS?

"That's 'kill on sight. '"

MS? "Mara Salvatrucha," which roughly translates as Salvadoran Guy. "Our enemies."

What makes them enemies?

"They're soft. They scared — they ain't down for they 'hood like us."

What about FTW?

"That just means 'Fuck the World,' you know?" answers Carlos.

Some of the tags, he brags, he did himself, and he's proud to point them out. Crossing out a rival gang's markings — which he does at every opportunity — makes him even prouder. But Carlos, though insisting he's still "down for my set no matter what," isn't exactly waving pompoms. Sitting in a reporter's car on a damp, gray Sunday afternoon, he slouches in the seat and watches a freight train noisily navigate a lazy curve in FEC tracks. Shoes, socks, pants, shirt: Every garment Carlos wears is black. The funereal color scheme matches the drizzly day.

Just a few blocks from the yuppie-friendly strip of trendy cafés and restaurants on the city's east side, the rest of Lake Worth is home to at least a dozen gangs. Instead of staking out turf the conventional way, they've taken the fight to cyberspace. There, threats are typed out in staccato, all-caps blasts. Insults and reprisals are tossed back and forth, IM-style. What probably started in a classroom or library has revolutionized street-gang activity and retooled it for the 21st Century.

The computer dimension also gives girls a greater role in gangs — which hasn't gone unnoticed. The rules of the game are undergoing subtle changes. Wielding a gun and displaying gang tattoos don't necessarily mean you have what it takes to be a gang leader in the cyberworld.

The computer, of course, strikes parents — especially those who've migrated from the Third World, as many of Lake Worth's immigrants have — as a once-unimaginable benefit and asset. Today, though, it's the newest way for local gangs to posture, preen, and plan. If the blogosphere is Hannity and Colmes, cybergangs are Saw II.

Spray-painted boxcars trundle north, and their piercing, metal-on-metal squeaks and squeals occasionally drown out Carlos' sleepy, stoned voice, which is punctuated by yawns. The day's already half gone, and Carlos, who sheepishly admits he's a wake-and-bake sort of guy, hasn't done much today but blaze blunts with his "boys" — fellow gang members — as the rain came down for the first time in weeks.

His 20th birthday now in sight, Carlos is itching to leave 18th Street, the gang that's been his second family since he was 13. That's when he was initiated, the night a quartet of older gang members beat the shit out of him for 18 seconds, as the leader counted. The rules were simple: Take the ass-whupping like a man, and the second you fall down, get up. If you last the 18 seconds, you're in. Stay down and you're out.

Even back in elementary school, Carlos was on a collision course with 18th Street. "I knew that's how it was gonna end up," he says, a thin, black cigar smoldering between a stained thumb and finger. Inky number 6s adorn three fingers on his left hand. (No, it's not about Ozzy; do the math.) "It was just my boys from the street, is all it was. Growing up where I did, on the block I lived on, it wasn't like something I could avoid. I always knew." Just above his eyebrow, a crude, blackish-blue tattoo reads X V 3.

"People think it's all about stupid shit and crime, but it's really not. It's all about respect, bro. You gotta give respect to get respect. And it's about family. Loyalty. Straight up." A scornful, victimized character like any other gang member in L-Dub, Carlos might be taking the "Gangster's Prayer" to heart: "When will it end? What's it all for? To prove to my homies I'm down, I'm hardcore? I wonder how I will die... By a bullet wound or a knife in my side?"

Not long ago, Carlos spent 18 months in jail on a cocaine charge. Now he works six days a week as a roofer, supporting his girlfriend and his 2-year-old daughter, Angelique. "When I saw her born, I just realized, like..." Momentarily, the coldness in his black eyes vanishes. "I need to be there for her," he says, blowing his smoke out the window. "And I can't do that if I'm dead or in prison."

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