According to the Albuquerque Police Department, our city has 7,800 “ranked in” members of some 200 criminal street gangs. That doesn’t include taggers, pee wees and wannabees. It’s the number of criminals who have satisfied minimum entrance requirements for street gang membership.
To gain admission to one of Albuquerque’s street gangs, there’s the traditional route: having the shit beat out of you for three uninterrupted minutes by a bunch of pitiless men. You don’t get slapped around. You get punched in the face, kicked, choked—anything goes for 180 long seconds, with no cut doctor at ringside and no referee to stop the fight. Some kids have been crippled or disfigured for life. For others, the initiation rite killed them.
Or you can pursue alternative licensure. You can “crime in.” You commit a serious crime, like burning a family’s house or shooting a stranger, so long as it’s loco and illegal.
Women—more accurately, girls—can “sex in.” Sometimes, they’re literally gang raped. Then they become the gang’s property. Their clothes and tattoos identify them as the possession of boys and men whose rights of ownership are exercised by force.
As for leaving a criminal street gang, good luck.
I learned these facts from gang members I have been appointed to represent as their defense counsel. Their personal stories are beyond grim and hopeless. Lt. Rob Smith, Commander of APD’s Gang Unit, provided more current information about gang life in this city.
“There’s nothing sexy or cool about being in a criminal street gang,” says Smith. “Women in criminal street gangs get passed around. There’s nothing empowering about how they’re treated. The organization is dominated by violence and fear. Strength equals power, and that usually means women, because they aren’t the strongest physically, get low ranking.”
Gang culture spans generations, says Smith. Grandfathers belong to the same gang as their grandsons. “Some gang members are pretty old. And some are very young. We’ve encountered a 10-year-old boy selling drugs for a gang.”
Put that 7,800 number in perspective. They’ve got arsenals that include automatic weapons and hand grenades. They use their guns freely. Murder sustains their drug dealing and money-making activities—“rollin’” in their lingo.
Seventy-eight hundred. That’s more armed, organized criminals roaming the streets of Albuquerque than the populations of Corrales, Bernalillo or Taos. Their numbers keep growing, everywhere.
Criminal street gangs don’t celebrate free speech or diversity. They’ll kill for a word or a look. They oppress the poor and weak. They “impose their will upon others by violence,” explains Smith.
Gangs kill witnesses and anyone who stands up to them. Democratic government, the rule of law, and civil liberties (except for themselves) are nuisances to be eliminated. Gangs that spread from Los Angeles have seized control of Central American cities, and have set their sights on national governments.
When asked to name the largest, most powerful, most violent gang, Smith demurs. “We don’t provide free advertising,” he says. It makes sense not giving any of them bragging rights, courtesy of APD or this publication.
Neither Albuquerque nor the state has any anti-gang laws. We’re way behind the rest of the Southwest in that regard. City Councilor Ken Sanchez, who represents a district hard-hit by gangs, wants to change that. He’s introduced a bill to enhance penalties for crimes committed in furtherance of criminal street gang activity. Another bill would require persons convicted of gang related crimes to register with the city upon leaving jail and annually thereafter.
Registration may seem too lame. But Lt. Smith says the panoply of requirements in Sanchez’ bill will give police an effective tool. Gang members would have to provide detailed personal information, subject to penalties for giving incorrect data. APD will be out there checking and double-checking. Gang members must update their dossier, including notifying APD before changing addresses. They must also let APD photograph scars, tattoos and any other feature labeling them as a gang member.
APD will share the information with law enforcement agencies, as well as on an Internet website. No one convicted of criminal street gang activity will be anonymous.
“This creates enormous hoops for criminal street gang members. It will make it so unpleasant, they’ll conclude they don’t want to stay here,” Smith says. “And the penalty enhancements send a message that criminal street gang activity will not be tolerated in Albuquerque.”
City Council will consider Sanchez’ bill on Aug. 20, 2007. Let’s hope it passes unanimously, and receives adequate funding to make it work.