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."
That's why, he says, he wants to get out of it now. The lifestyle, the risks, and the danger all add up to a big headache that Carlos and his small starter family don't need.
"It's hard in Lake Worth," he continues, "'cause I see my homeboys everywhere I go. All over town. Every day. So that's hard to escape. We still kick it, you know. We get crazy when we get together, you know, but I'm not really into that shit anymore." As Carlos explains, eventually you just grow out of it.
But not all of it. Asking if Carlos wants his real name or his gang nickname printed brings a sudden end to the interview. It wasn't his idea in the first place, he points out through teeth clamped on his cigar; he was doing a favor for the friend of a friend. 18th Street never seeks publicity, and hard-core gang members take a virtual vow of silence.
As he opens the car door to leave, the ass end of a pistol is clearly visible in the waistband of his trousers. Carlos came heavy.
18th Street the origins of which can be traced back to the zoot-suited Mexican gangs of inner-city 1940s Los Angeles is infamous for its recruitment tactics, which target schoolkids. The young indoctrinates are often told that leaving the gang will result not only in their death but in the murder of their family. Though their origins actually lie in L.A., most of Palm Beach County's 18th Street gang members feel the influence of Honduras. There, the gang operates as a prison-trained paramilitary organization. In Lake Worth, it's usually the children of migrant workers, trying for a better life, who join. The parents might be from Chiapas, Tegucigalpa, or San Salvador, where violence is a way of life.
MS13, or Mara Salvatrucha, with L.A. and El Salvador as starting points, is also active in Lake Worth. Central American MS13 members have a reputation for doling out even more brutality than 18th Street (their avowed enemies), executing rivals on city buses in broad daylight. Add in other Third World factions like Sur 13, locally germinated offshoots like Krazy Locos and MG13, and Haitian gangs who speak Creole and cops like Agent Brian Hermanson have no trouble keeping busy.
During the last week in March, as temperatures started to creep into the high 80s, local crimes soared too, police noted. First came a trio of dudes who robbed a pair of Guatemalans at gunpoint. That's the most common gang crime in Palm Beach County: Hermanson and his colleagues are accustomed to finding itinerant workers beaten up or worse, with their pants pockets "elephant-eared," or turned inside out. Usually, the Guatemalans are small guys, they carry wads of cash on payday, and since they don't trust police, they rarely report the shakedowns. Easy targets.
Gang members "see it as a crime that's never gonna be prosecuted," Hermanson explains. "We've made arrests like crazy, but by the time it goes to trial, it's hard to find the victims. They could be in North Carolina picking apples or Texas or anywhere."
This time, however, the driver of a Lake Worth church van recognized the victims and stopped to render assistance. A shot was fired, and a bullet penetrated the van, hitting a passenger in the back seat and killing him. Then, a few days later, someone tried to rob a migrant guy on a downtown street. When the man said he didn't have any money, he was shot dead with an AK-47.
After 15 years on the Lake Worth police force, 39-year-old Brian Hermanson knows its five square miles by heart. Tooling around town in an unmarked SUV, the goateed detective sports a boyish grin, a softly rural Florida drawl, and, across the back seat, a stack of martial-arts magazines. Though he projects an easygoing aura of friendliness, he'll kick an ass or two when he needs to.
He can't win the respect of gang members that way, though, he notes wryly. Physical violence doesn't mean much to them. "The threat of that is null and void now," he says. "These kids aren't afraid they volunteer to get their butts kicked to get into a gang. There's nothing you can do to them."
In terms of tracking gang members the way big game hunters trail wildlife, Hermanson is ahead of his time. Lt. Pete Ebel, commander of the department's SWAT team, a muscle-bound man-mountain clearly not averse to the use of force, was initially suspicious of Hermanson's kinder, gentler approach. Decrypting gang signs held about as much appeal as analyzing Tupac Shakur lyrics.
"I wasn't interested at all," he says with a growl. "But he made me a believer. He taught me everything I know." This elicits a modest chuckle from Hermanson, who, with his camouflage shorts, sneakers, and T-shirt, is dwarfed by the towering Ebel in his perfectly pressed blue uniform.
Hermanson may not like to brag about it, but he's something of a celebrity. "Guess who called me yesterday?" he says. "Geraldo." Hermanson's program of recording, photographing, and interpreting graffiti as a way to track criminal activity is now considered a model for other departments, and his use of the Internet to follow gang members online is revolutionary.
Sometimes, it doesn't require a trained eye, just an observant one. After two rival Southern California gangs MLK and Sur13 made their presence known in Lake Worth about five years ago via a series of shootings and stabbings, police monitor their activity by the tagging they do to antagonize each other.
They can also translate the markers that define a gang's history.
Not quite two years ago, a 14-year-old MLK member was gunned down as he stood smoking a cigarette in his driveway. Ricardo Andres, known as Silent, was shot five times. He was a tough kid, covered in tattoos, including his street name in huge letters across his stomach, but he couldn't survive the bullets that hit him in the face, leg, and back.
Hermanson, who worked that case, slows down, looking for the right house. He puts the SUV in park and strolls halfway up the driveway. Marking the stain on the cement where he lay bleeding out, a spray-painted message reads "R.I.P. SILENT."
Within days of the killing, police spotted a taunting graffiti message scrawled in black just a few blocks away. "We killed that boy at 6th Ave and F Street," it read. It was signed "Crips and Sur 13."
In the hospital, as Andres' disbelieving friends and relatives filed in, Sister Rachel Sena, director of the Maya Ministry for the Diocese of Palm Beach, tried to comfort them. She's used to dealing with the issues faced by the immigrant population in Lake Worth, but this tragedy was galvanizing.
"The younger kids, 11- and 12-year-olds, were saying, 'Help me get out of this. I didn't know people could actually die.' And the parents were saying, 'Help me understand. What is this? What's going on?'"
Sister Rachel saw the assassination as a watershed event, and she helped to organize rallies and marches to protest the violence. Then she encountered a different kind of trouble. "Parents and children were threatened, told that they would get beaten up if they showed up in the procession through the streets," she says. "And parents from Guatemala or El Salvador understand what death threats mean. That's why they're here. They lived through it."
Gradually, Sister Rachel began to understand the unique set of circumstances that allows gangs such a foothold in a seemingly bucolic world like little Lake Worth.
"These are kids who have become the confidantes of the parents translating business transactions, helping with getting a car, buying a home. In those households, their word is gold. So when they say they're not doing anything, the parent takes it at their word. They're trying to help their parents any way they can, and unfortunately, this is how they've learned how."
Working with indigenous people from Mexico and Central America, Sister Rachel sees that dynamic play out every day. The Maya Ministry runs a family literacy program for "pre-literate" adults who have immigrated but have no education and have never learned to read or write.
"When you have parents who are pre-lit," she points out, "but their kids are not only literate but bilingual and computer-savvy, there's a lot of information they can withhold."
Moms and dads who've never been inside a classroom are often overjoyed when their kids spend time with schoolmates, get involved in extracurricular activities, and learn to use computers. It's easy to picture them smiling benignly as their children surf the Internet for the first time. In many families, kids have to get online at school or a friend's house.
What Sister Rachel sees happening not only in Lake Worth but surrounding communities, she explains, is "an immigrant community whose youngest generation is empowered by education and exposed to a negative and destructive form of leadership.
"Especially if the parent is focused on survival and the child is focused on lifestyle and culture."
In fact, while Hermanson was probing the murder, some of Andres' friends told him where to look. Visits to MySpace and C-Pixel turned up what he calls "nasty-grams" threats, insults, taunts bouncing back and forth between Sur 13 and 18th Street.
Piecing together clues and interviewing distraught family members, police learned what had happened: A pissed-off Sur 13 member who lived out in Greenacres drove with a group to Lake Worth looking to start shit. When his target couldn't be located, they drove around in their green SUV until they spotted Andres over on F Street. A man identified as Miguel Lemu-Flores, then 23, allegedly poked his head out of the window. "What barrio you claim?" he asked menacingly.
Andres exhaled a big cloud of cigarette smoke, and Lemu-Flores asked again. "I said what barrio you claim, homes?"
With another puff, Andres said, "Makin' Life Krazy." Nine bullets sailed from the SUV in his direction, killing him and wounding two others. Months later, two teens who had been in the vehicle were arrested, charged with being an accessory, and are doing time. One, Francisco "Paco" Garcia, begged to be tried as an adult, because he feared retaliation if he ended up in a juvenile lockup. Lemu-Flores, Hermanson says, is now believed to be in Mexico.
"Yeah, the bitch that shot Silent ran," acknowledges Jose, a cocky 16-year-old Lake Worth MLK member, in an e-mail to a reporter. "Cuz he's a lil ho."
Memorials to Silent abound. Jose set up his MySpace page (http://profile. myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user. viewprofile&friendID=48471799) as a tribute not only to his fallen friend but to the MLK gang. His terse narrative of Silent's life and death is as succinct as any:
"Silent was a North Side MLK gang member he was one of the best fighters we ever had. He studyed the bible an' went to church but he was always down for the set... silent wasn't no pussy that disrespect his barrio he gave his life 4 what he believed in... if i die i wanna die like silent cuz i wanna die 4 what i believe in barrio MLK."
On MySpace, Jose, filling in the box that site owners generally use to explain their general range of interests, enumerated these: "Chilln wit my homies, beating the shit out of scraps [rivals] with my homies, smoking out with my homies, ridin' out with my homies, taggin', going 2 places deep as fuck with my homies, watching movies, also tryn to keep my ass out of trouble, but it don't help none."
Until a few weeks ago , at least one Lake Worth gang maintained an active, dedicated website. Krazy Locos, affiliated with MLK, issued threats to "Sewer 13" and other opponents and even taunted police. KL Joker, a 19-year-old member, bathed in the glory. "I know police R listening and reading this... showing me on TV like yesterday 3/26/06 on Univision and Fox 29. Thanxx for the rekognition... I didn't want it, but hey."
Within days, the website, along with Joker's profile, went dark. Naturally, Hermanson noticed. Most likely, he updated his "Book of Knowledge" a black binder with a red bookmark on his desk where he keeps track of local gang members: street name, real name, description, tattoos, web page.
Many teenagers proudly represent the L-Dub online. Like Dreamer561 MLK or Lazie Loco, who says "Krzy Loco to the muthaphukkin fullest... fuck Sureno."
An opposing team member, Sureno Soldier, takes the opposite tack: "Surenos don't die, motherfuckers, we multiply. Kill a Norteño, win a prize. Kill a Sureno, your whole fucking family dies!"
Hermanson is used to outsiders shocked by the cutthroat mentality. "Hatfields and McCoys," he says with a laugh. "Crips and Bloods. They're fighting over north and south, over red and blue. There's no more answers than that. It makes no sense at all to us. But to them, it makes sense."
Sister Rachel begs to differ: "It makes all the sense in the world, because it's about ego. It's about turf. Unfortunately, they have their own rites of passage. It's Lord of the Flies all over again."
Time and again, Hermanson would click on a kid's profile and find a valuable clue. "These guys make it easy for you," he says. He finds one kid's profile, "Tocho_MLK," and says, "I busted that dude." And now he knows where to read about him in cyberspace.
"I always look for a street name," he adds, a vital piece of the puzzle most gang members won't give up to a cop. He finds some black-bandannaed teen he's encountered before. "Headbuster," he whispers. "Hey, I know who Headbuster is." Now, the next time Hermanson spots him on a street somewhere, he can call him by name: "OK, we know each other."
As a narcotics detective for the force ("I just do this part-time," he says half-seriously about his gang monitoring), Hermanson began making connections and examining clues. By photographing and studying gang-related graffiti and reading whatever written material he could find about the gangs, he turned into something of a self-styled expert. And out in the field, he worked overtime developing a mutual pathway of trust.
"Gangs are such a closed society, it's hard to get any information," he says. "That's why this intelligence thing is so important. You gotta be able to talk to 'em. You can't play all hard-nosed cop with 'em, because it just doesn't work. First, you have to earn their respect, and I did that by working street crime for so many years."
Bad-ass gang boys know him by his first name. And he helps them out too: "The next thing I do is let them know they can call me with any problem they have at any time. A couple of weeks ago, I was counseling this guy who was having marital problems. If they come to me and say, 'I need a job,' then I give 'em a couple of numbers. If they have custody problems or need help navigating social services, I'll give 'em a number and say, 'Tell 'em I sent you. '"
Cruising down dusty D Street in the center of town, Hermanson reads cryptic gang graffiti as easily as Stuckey's signs on the turnpike. Each one is interpreted on the spot. "SSC," he says, pointing to a cement lamppost. "South Side Chicos." Angry black streaks across a slat fence need no explanation: "FUCK MLK," reads one. "FUCK THE WORLD" blares another.
Three-point crowns, five-point crowns, six-pointed stars, diamonds, clowns they all mean something to Hermanson, who usually works undercover. In a dingy alley off Worth Avenue, he spots an unfamiliar design. "This has both Folk Nation and Sureno influences," he points out. "Interesting." He grew up in Lake Worth, owns a home there, and says he can't stand seeing "my city all marked-up. It makes your community look horrible."
But Hermanson has been instrumental in getting the Lake Worth police force to view understanding the gangs as a means to an end: "To focus on criminality, not symbolism." His learning curve, he explains started "when I realized, 'I know a lot of gang members but I don't know anything about gangs. '"
School provides an environment for law enforcement to learn about gang activity. "They're doing better compared to three or four years ago," when officials checking yearbooks missed obvious gang references. "They weren't seeing a thing." Now, teachers pass him graffiti confiscated in class or information gleaned from conversations in the hall.
Palm Beach County officials have placed police in schools, a method Hermanson says makes his job easier. "They actually have more control than we do with what kids are wearing and what they're doing in class." Estimating that a huge percentage of afterschool fights at local middle and high schools are gang-related, he's happy to have the help.
Sister Rachel feels that the police presence is sometimes too heavy-handed around kids. "What are they doing?" she asks. "Harassing students they think are gang members or suspending students for wearing certain things? That's not a preventative measure.
"Police are trained to fight criminals they are not guidance counselors. Police know how to use handcuffs and guns and use intimidating language to talk down to somebody. That is not the kind of profile you want in this kind of situation. Dogs in a school setting? There's already a mistrust of police with these kids, and this doesn't create a feeling of partnership."
Kevin Kuschel, a detective who works with the Palm Beach County School Board Police, didn't respond to several calls for comment.
Hermanson's approach, Sister Rachel believes, is more likely to succeed. "I think he's doing a great job," she says. "There's a certain personality not everybody can do what Brian does. But some are called to that."
At the same time that individuals like Hermanson and Sister Rachel noticed gang-oriented Internet sites operated by area youth, they discovered it wasn't always teenaged boys behind the computers or the beatdowns. Sometimes it was young females.
An L.A. woman named Veronica Alonzo extended the reach of the Maniac Gangster set when she moved to Lake Worth last year, MLK members told the Palm Beach Post. Not only did she help set up a new branch office; she was the main suspect in the stabbing of a 16-year-old MLK member.
Hermanson contends that some of the leaders of the Lake Worth 18th Street sect are female. According to Hermanson, "A couple of girls who've been at it for a long time are recruiting young guys by, uh, having sex with 'em to get 'em to join."
But Carlos scoffs at the notion of female gang leaders. Even if the girls were part of 18th Street, he says, they'd have had to sleep with a guy just to get in so to him, it's a moot point.
"I saw kids even girls who were altar servers," Sister Rachel says with audible dismay. "I saw the best of our youth ministry of Sacred Heart Church on those gang websites. So sad. But I'm not surprised, because culturally these kids are coming from a society where boys and girls have different gender responsibilities."
The L-Dub gang epidemic shows signs of spreading to other cities.
James Howard pulls his lawn-care service truck into a McDonald's parking lot in downtown Riviera Beach. Via a local church, he's working as a mentor to gang members in this notoriously poor African-American city, with 26 murders many of them yet-unsolved drive-by shootings over the past two years.
"The female gang members are even more ruthless than the men!" he insists. "I knew this shorty from Lantana. She wanted to be part of a gang, and they wouldn't let her in. So she killed some dude at a Walgreens here in Riviera Beach. She got the $8 in his wallet and the gang still turned her down."
Twenty years ago, Howard hung out on the same corners, and most of the kids today know he has a couple of drug arrests on his record. Hence, his street cred.
"I haven't always been such a standup, role-model citizen," he says, eyes peering over his glasses. "And they know that."
Despite Riviera Beach's violent streak, Howard hasn't seen the Latin gangs from Lake Worth making inroads there yet. But when he took his daughter to a skating rink in Lantana last year, where a performance by local rapper Suave Smooth was taking place, he watched as a fight broke out between Lake Worth and Boynton Beach gangs.
"It got out of hand," he says. "The front plate-glass window was broken, kids were trampled, it was pandemonium." The event left him feeling uneasy about the Lake Worth area and the looming threat of gangs like MS13, MLK, and 18th Street.
After all, the last thing Riviera Beach needs is gang members with websites, AK-47s, and big beef against one another.
"Their aim is the superiority of their group over another group," Howard says, "and it isn't that organized up here yet. [The local murders] could just be that A shoots B because C shot D. Or kids hanging out, just a group from the neighborhood, and now they call that a gang."
A tall, skinny black kid in a red Nissan Altima pulls into the parking lot and nods at Howard. "What's up, Mr. James?" he asks politely as he ducks into the restaurant.
"That's one of the kids I've had over to my house," Howard says. "I'm living out in a nice place on PGA Boulevard, and I'll bring 'em up there and say, 'This is a style of life you'll never see again at the rate you're going,'" he says seriously. "Who else is gonna talk to these kids? Who's even gonna sit down with 'em, knowing they have a gun?"
A few yards from Howard's lawn-care truck is a light pole that marks the spot where a young man was killed late last year in a still-unsolved robbery/murder. "They'll tell me what's up," he says of his teenaged confidantes. "Someone will say, 'This is who did the actual shooting, Mr. James,' and I'll get that word to law enforcement and still protect my sources."
Despite the technological innovations, Hermanson's beat is a lot like any other police beat. It involves a lot of shoe leather or, at least, tire rubber. The web will take you only so far. Eventually, you have to hit the street.
Just a few interstate exits south of Riviera Beach, Hermanson muscles his SUV though an alleyway clogged with tall weeds and shattered bottles. Garage doors have been recently repainted with a roller in mismatched shades of beige and brown. His cell phone awakens to the sprightly melody of "Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)." He studies the caller ID on his cell phone and answers, "Hola. Happy St. Patrick's Day to you too. Hey, where's all the gang boys hanging out out your way?"
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It's a woman who used to be in a Lake Worth gang who now has teenaged sons of her own who are gang members. "I've helped her and her husband out over the years," he remarks as he motors past a new home, under construction, turned into a spray-painted gang billboard. "As they get older, they get away from it, and they've given me information on a lot of crimes."
The life of a Lake Worth gangster isn't terribly lucrative, Hermanson says. Rolling farm workers for cash, selling weed and coke, and occasionally stealing a car represent typical spoils. But when people are getting blown away on city streets and drive-by shooting cases remain unsolved, cops give the gangs a harder scrutiny. On April 11, for instance, a 57-year-old man was shot and killed while walking his dog near State Road 7 and Lake Worth Road, and no witnesses have come forward.
Hermanson spends an hour or so each day surfing for gang info, knowing that the clues gleaned from the web don't normally point toward big game like murderers. "The real bad guys we need to catch," he says, "they're not sitting at home playing with a computer."
But it's a start. You can bet that, when Hermanson notices something new be it the angle some kid's hat is cocked, a new gang sign or tattoo, a new nickname or catch phrase it's going into the Book of Knowledge. For next time.