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."