LOYALTY is what we live by. RESPECT is what we die for.
I’ve never had an attraction to guns. I’m not against people owning them, I’m just not a big fan of them myself. In most cases if a situation requires you to carry a firearm, then it’s probably a situation you should reconsider. Most are familiar with the saying, “If you point a gun at someone, be prepared to use it.” Unfortunately, and I’m not proud of the fact, there’ve been instances where I’ve had to adhere to this motto.
Gator and Crazy Carlos were Chicanos I became acquainted with through my employment in the Mexican cartel. I had dealt with them on a number of occasions and they considered me a carnal (friend), accepting me even though they considered me a “guero” (white guy), ignoring the fact I was half Mexican. Side note: Mexicans and Chicanos are two vastly different cultural groups. Mexicans are born in Mexico, some having migrated across the border. Chicanos are born in the United States with a Mexican ancestry. Never should the two of them be thought of as the same.
I’d gained the respect of these particular Chicanos because I spoke Spanish, and they found me quite hilarious, laughing at my almost every comment. Both of them had a fixation with guns; owning, buying, stealing and selling a large quantity of firearms. Between the two of them, they were in possession of enough guns and ammo, their stockpile could be considered a small arsenal.
Gator was an ex-con, having done time in San Quentin. He was the quiet type, soft spoken, letting his facial expressions and body language do most of his talking. His message was often interpreted without him ever having to say a word. When he did speak in his quiet tone, you listened, his voice commanding your attention. His body was a tattooed marquee advertising his gang affiliation, girlfriends, children and an assortment of religious symbols; the Virgin of Guadalupe, Jesus, angels, etc. He also had a large drama mask with SUR XIII tattooed across his chest, which I learned didn’t mean he was a fan of the Ancient Greeks. He often commented on my own lack of body art, attempting to persuade me to submit to getting tattooed on numerous occasions. I politely declined, using a fear of needles as an excuse, which he grudgingly accepted although the tracks on my arms told another story.
Crazy Carlos was a character straight out of some dark, bizarre movie. In fact, the word ‘crazy’ fell far short of describing his general demeanor. He’d have to be clinically diagnosed as a psychopath. I had no doubt of his homicidal tendencies, although I don’t believe he was ever actually convicted of a murder. His rap sheet included multiple assaults, robberies, and almost every other felony on the books. It was rumored he had a collection of fingers he had cut off of rival gang members, stashed somewhere in a freezer. He had just been released from the Arizona state penitentiary in Florence eight months ago, but he’d never bothered reporting to his parole officer. Despite all this, he was surprisingly friendly and almost even likable. However, he had these crazy eyes… Oh, those crazy eyes! I was terrified by his glare, although never letting on to how much it scared the shit out of me.
In any case, I had just finished driving a load of cocaine up from El Paso to Los Angeles, delivering it to the Chicanos in question. They’d invited me to their house to kick back with a few beers while I waited to get paid for the run. It seemed like an extremely bad idea, so of course I naturally accepted their invitation.
The house was located in East Los Angeles, a territory I would never entertain entering under any other circumstances. I felt it might’ve been taken as a sign of disrespect if I’d turned down their hospitality. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? My decision to accept their offer is a perfect example of why common sense is not really all that common.
The front yard and porch of the bungalow were guarded by a small group of ominous-looking vatos. Various athletic teams were represented by their jerseys with ball caps, but the common theme among them was blue, the signature colors of Los Sureños. For once I’d gotten lucky, wearing my Cubs jersey to fit in with the guys. Still, they didn’t attempt to conceal their menace as we approached. In typical moronic style I waved, greeting the crew in blue with a friendly “Como te va?” (How you doin’?)
“Carnales, escucha yo!” (Homeboys, listen to me!) Carlos yells at the muchachos.
“This is Santiago, street name Bigotes, and he is family. He is to be treated with respect. Do you all understand?”
He puts his arm over my shoulder, patting my chest with his other hand.
“You fuck with him, you are fucking with me! Entiendas?”
They nod their heads, indicating their understanding.
“Carlos, venga ese,” Gator orders. “Quit screaming at everybody.”
We enter the house and I am completely taken by surprise. It’s not at all what I expected inside. It is absolutely immaculate with contemporary furniture, fine rugs, and Latino artwork adorning the walls.
“You want a beer, Bigotes?” Gator asks. “Also, I have some cocaine that will make you so high, you won’t feel your face. You like cocaine, si Bigotes?”
“I don’t take cocaine to get high,” I reply. “I just like the way it smells.”
“You’re a very funny guy ese,” Gator laughs, slapping me on the back as he makes his way into the kitchen.
I take a seat on the plush brown leather sofa, admiring the artwork and the Mayan masks hanging on the walls.
“Bigotes, what are you doing, pinche guey?” Gator yells at me. “You can’t sit in here! Get up! My grandmother will beat the hell out of us both with a broom if she finds out. Follow me out the back door to the garage.”
“Desculpe carnal, I had no idea. Your grandmother lives here with you?”
“Well, I live with her, really,” he confesses with a touch of embarrassment. “She raised me and my sister. My father was always missing in action, met him only once. Dear mom was a junkie and died of an overdose when I was six. Mi abuela (my grandmother) took care of us, and now that she’s older, I don’t want her to live alone.”
“You’re a good man, Gator. You’ve got a good heart.”
We head out into the backyard, and in comparison to the house’s interior, it looks more like a military compound. The garage walls have been reinforced with bricks, and the yard itself is enclosed with an eight-foot chain link fence, topped off with razor wire. Up on the garage roof, there’s some type of crow’s nest or lookout point towering over the confines of the enclosure.
I enter the garage, following behind Gator. I can hear Carlos already inside, singing along to a classic tune by NWA. Unlike the main house, the garage’s interior is exactly what I’d imagined; three large sofas covered with colorful Mexican quilts, two enormous televisions, one being used for video games and the other playing porno, a stereo with four giant speakers in each corner, and two refrigerators with terrariums placed on top, one containing scorpions the other tarantulas.
Besides us, there are three attractive Latinas present, along with two other guys who appear to have no interest in them whatsoever. Instead they scream at one of the TV screens, deeply involved in their video game.
The aroma of marijuana fills the air; I’m sure I’ll get high by just breathing it. There’s graffiti covering the walls as well as nearly every other surface, street art in lettering I am unable to decipher. It’s a disability I attribute to my suburban upbringing.
I wait to sit down until I’m sure it’s okay to do so without causing another incident. Carlos slaps me on the back, hands me a beer, passes me a lit joint then pushes me down onto the nearest sofa.
“So que piensa guay?” he asks, dancing around with a grin on his face. “Pretty fucking righteous place, huh? This is our home, our place, our church. And you are the first outsider to ever be in here.”
“Gracias jefe,” I say, coughing as I pass the joint back to him. “It’s an honor.”
“Bigotes, do you maybe want some fuckie fuckie, or a blowjob from one of the chulas?” Gator offers. “It’s okay, they’re not anybody’s novias. They’re members, so it’s part of their duties.”
“Appreciate the offer but I think we need to discuss my payment. I was told it would be ready for me upon delivery. And with all due respect, I would like to take care of business first if you don’t mind?”
“Carnal, you need to lighten up. Tranquilo,” Gator says. “We were not expecting you until tomorrow, but as usual, here you are a day early. Just like you, Bigotes. You are never late and the count is always good. I know why you are El Jefe’s favorite.”
His words are flattering, but the soft tone of his voice still manages to carry a hint of menace.
“We don’t have the plata right now,” he continues. “It’s gonna take us a few hours to pull it together. I’m sorry, but we’ll have it for you later tonight.”
“Okay,” I accede, “but understand I need to call my contact and report all is well. Then return the rental van and get to the airport for a ticket to Tucson. Or should I consider a hotel for the night, taking care of my tasks in the morning?”
“Bigotes, you can stay here,” Gator offers. “We will take you to the airport in the morning. How does that sound?”
“I just think I’d be more comfortable at a hotel,” I attempt to explain. “Don’t want to be a problem for anyone. Plus, I’m beat from the run and could use a good night’s sleep.”
He sets a plate piled high with cocaine on the table in front of me.
“Here,” he says. “This will keep you awake until the money arrives. Now relax and have some fun.”
He doesn’t have to twist my arm any further. I obey his suggestion, snorting up a righteous line of coca. After three minutes, my face is so numb you could pull my teeth. Damn, he wasn’t lying about the stuff. Unfortunately however, it puts me on edge, as I’ve never been quite comfortable getting coked up in such unfamiliar environments.
Moments later, two of the sentries that had been posted out front enter the garage, hurrying over to Gator with an urgent message. His expression instantly changes from the friendly guy from before into that of an enraged beast.
“Call every member!” he yells, louder than I’ve ever heard him before. “Every carnal, now! Those motherfuckers just shot two of ours. Pinche Norteños are gonna pay! Tell Calle 18 and the Playboys to meet us in 30 minutes. Death is coming to dinner. Let’s go, Bigotes!”
I could have sworn I thought I heard him say, “Let’s go, Bigotes!” That wasn’t what I heard, was it?
The garage is swiftly occupied by a large contingency of gang members. I rise to my feet as they begin to move the couches, pulling back the rug to expose the flooring underneath. Several sheets of plywood are pried loose, revealing a large hole in the concrete where their arsenal is stored. They start handing out a staggering array of weaponry — AK-47s, Mac-11s, Uzis, M16s, M14s, MP5s, and a variety of handguns as well — to each of the assembled gang members. Carlos pushes an AK-47 at me. I push it back, but he pushes it at me again, and I’m forced to take it from his hands.
Next, I’m handed a kevlar vest.
“Just in case someone gets lucky and shoots your ass,” Carlos laughs.
Now, you should know that bulletproof vests are not exactly bulletproof; they’re more like bullet resistant at best. Nothing is 100% bulletproof, and while the vests may stop a .44, .45, and small-caliber rifles, 9 mm and .357 rounds travel at a higher speed, often piercing right through. A well-aimed shotgun blast can penetrate the body armor like it’s nothing at all. So, what you see in the movies and TV shows… all total bullshit.
Carlos brandishes some pruning shears, furiously snipping them close to my face. “These are for dedos (fingers) to put in my collection,” he laughs, shoving them in his back pocket. “Now we have some fun!”
As for myself, I’m not at all excited to participate in this impromptu round of gang warfare. It’s not that I’m a coward; I’ve experienced a few gun fights in my life. As I’ve grown older though, I’ve developed a sense of survival by avoidance. This type of recreation is what I consider to be a very high-risk activity, but I’m unable to excuse myself without sounding like a pussy.
Meanwhile, Carlos is helping me with the kevlar vest, grunting as he tightens the straps around my sides. In this moment, I’m reminded why I always make “business first” my priority, but this time unfortunately I have failed to follow my own philosophy. Now I’m coked up, stoned, haven’t been paid or returned the rental van yet, and I still haven’t even reported my status to El Jefe either. I must be suffering from JRS (Johnny Rico Syndrome)!
Soon I’ve become just another body in the wave of warriors being pushed out the door, unable to fight against the current, forced to go along with the flow. As we reach the street, Gator grabs my arm and pulls me into a white lowrider with him.
“You better ride with me, Bigotes. You will be safer, the other members don’t know who you are and just might cap your ass.”
“Thanks Gator,” I say, “but I’m not quite sure I want to be a part of this little confrontation…”
“You’ll be fine. Just stick with me, okay?”
I squeeze into the backseat with three other heavily armed muchachos. As I attempt to get situated, I inadvertently point my gun at the driver’s head up front. Gator grabs the barrel and pushes it down, nearly causing me to pull the trigger on accident.
“Who’s fucking side you on, pinche guey?” he says. “You gonna get one of us killed!”
“I’m sorry carnal, it won’t happen again.”
“Vamonos jefe,” he orders the driver.
Just as we begin to pull away from the curb, however, a police cruiser pulls up and parks in front of our caravan, blocking the street ahead. Two more cruisers pull up behind us with their lights flashing.
A unmarked black car pulls up alongside us. Two detectives exit the vehicle and motion to Gator to come with them.
“Damn, it’s Detective Graham from the gang unit. I guess they want a pow-wow. Everyone just be cool, let me see what they want.”
Gator exits the vehicle and walks toward the two detectives. Meanwhile, the uniformed cops have taken up positions behind their cars with weapons drawn. The tension grows thick as we wait to see what happens next.
After a few minutes of heated discussion with the detectives, Gator returns with a disappointed look on his face.
“They arrested the three Norteños who shot our brothers,” he tells us through the window. “They don’t want to see any revenge in the streets. They’re armed and ready to put down a gang riot. Graham said all that’s going to happen is that a lot of people are gonna get arrested and killed. So we’ll wait for another day to get blood for blood. Head back to the house, I’ll be there in a minute. Gotta tell the other vatos.”
I’m so damn happy with this development, it takes all my will not to let it show.
As we file back into the garage, someone turns on the stereo, and we slowly begin to restock the armory. I open the refrigerator, grabbing a beer and pausing to check out the scorpions on top of it. When I turn around, there’s a group of muchachos standing behind me with angry looks on their faces.
“Hey gringo,” one of them says, “you just go in people’s fridge, take what you want without asking? You weren’t raised with any manners?”
“Who the fuck you think you are, guero?” says another one. “You don’t give us no respect.”
“Desculpe carnales,” I say. “Gator told me to help myself, and since I wasn’t going to ask one of you to get me a beer, I got one for myself.”
They all start laughing, slapping me on the back and giving me high fives all around.
“It’s okay, we were just fucking with you,” one of them says. “You were ready to go to war with Los Sureños, now you are one of us.”
I laugh it off and help them put the room back together. Gator returns with Carlos close behind, walking straight up to me without a word to anyone else present.
“Bigotes, I have to let you know that you showed me the true person you are today. You were ready to come with us and defend our honor. I want you and everyone here to know you are family para seguro (forever).”
He places his hands on my shoulders as Carlos hands me a blue bandana.
“Escucha jefe, I have to go and pay respects to the families of our dead brothers. Luis will drive you to a hotel, and I will come by with your money later tonight. Is that okay with you?”
“Sure patron, absolutely fine. Who is this Luis that’s going to drive me?”
“The carnal you almost shot in the car. He will take you, I hope?”
Gator laughs as he walks away.