Raymond Perales remembers when he first saw Crips and Bloods graffiti on the rez. He was patrolling Fort Peck during the early ’90s. “How did this end up on a reservation in Northeast Montana?" he wondered.
Perales was witnessing the beginning of a problem that has swept across tribal nations. Since his time as a police officer, he’s studied and written about Native gangs for the U.S. Justice Department, the Native American Alliance Foundation and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
Perales, who is Arapaho, works at Lamar Associates, an Albuquerque-based consulting firm. He serves as the director of training and works with tribes. “Over the last year, I have found very few communities that do not have some sort of gang problem,” he says.
Gabriel Chavez' grandfather used to run sweat lodges. He attended the ceremonies until he was 6 years old. But then, he says, “I really lost touch with my grass roots for a long time.”
Chavez, whose heritage is a mix of cultures, says both of his parents were often incarcerated as he was growing up. Almost everybody he knew was caught up in crime. “A lot of my friends are incarcerated right now,” Chavez says. “They’re strung-out on drugs, or they’re just not doing too good.”
He seemed destined to end up in the vicious cycle, too. “I thought for the longest time that it was just natural. That’s just how things go,” says Chavez. “You go to prison. You pick up cases. My brothers have done it. My dad’s done it. Even my mom’s done it.”
Chavez was booked for his first offense, an armed robbery, when he was 16. He’s been in and out of the criminal justice system ever since.
"You hang out with drug dealers and drug addicts all day, you’re eventually either going to do the drug or sell the drug," Chavez says. “You kick it in a barbershop all day, you’re eventually going to get a haircut. If you surround yourself with gangsters and thugs, that’s what you’re going to be.”
In an informal survey conducted by Lamar Associates, 76 percent of respondents across Indian Country reported gang activity on their lands.
The 2011 FBI National Gang Threat Assessment reports, “Native American gang presence has increased on Indian reservations and in federal and state prison systems in the last few years.”
New Mexico’s tribes have seen a significant spike in activity. In 2010, recognizing a growing problem, Laguna Pueblo Governor John Antonio Sr. issued an executive order prohibiting any gang-related items or people from entering the pueblo.
Initially, wannabes sprouted up in Indian Country. They were young Native people looking to gang symbols and rituals to replace a missing sense of identity, Perales says. But with the introduction of methamphetamine, reservations have become a prime target for national drug-trafficking organizations and Mexican cartels. And Native gangs have become ground armies, he adds.
“You’ve got parcels of land that are geographically isolated with relatively few police officers, a multijurisdictional web of laws,” Perales says, “and, more importantly, you have a population that’s already shown addiction to alcohol, meth and everything else. It’s the perfect place to think, Oh, I’ll use this as a distribution point for my drugs.”
Tribal communities used to dismiss rebellious teens who acted like gangsters, Perales says. With drug use and drive-by shootings escalating on reservations, the problem can no longer be ignored.
It’ll take more than ramped-up law enforcement efforts to tackle the issue. No amount of police cars or roundups will remove the appeal. “Gangs are not a law enforcement problem,” says Perales. “They are a social problem, a community problem. You really have to take a look at why the kid joined a gang in the first place. Until you address that, young people will continue to join gangs.”
During his training sessions, Perales works with a cross-section of the community to reintegrate young gang members back into society.
“The only way to combat the appeal of gangs,” he says, “is to develop positive self-identity, self-esteem and self-confidence. We have a tendency to push our kids to the outer fringes. We need to engage young people as active, productive contributors to the community.”
Albino Garcia is the Native American chaplain for the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center. He's also the founder and director of La Plazita Institute, a South Valley nonprofit that uses traditional indigenous culture to heal.
“The emergence of gang culture in Indian Country is not rocket science,” Garcia says. “You have a large population that is removed from true identity, belonging and ownership. If you are deprived of these things, they will exist in a gang culture.”
Garcia is no stranger to what gang members are going through. But he found a way out in his late 20s when he reconnected with his Apache and Aztec heritage at a Native American ceremony. He reintroduces Chicano and Native young people in county lockup to their traditional core cultures.
“The majority of Native Americans who are in gangs are so removed from who they really are, so removed from family and so removed from their communities, that the gang is pretty much their new identity.”
Garcia and his employees at La Plazita also bring sacred ceremonies into prisons. “When I go and reintroduce certain traditions and ceremonies that are hemispheric norms for indigenous people,” Garcia says, “they are so in awe because they have heard them before but never internalized them. They get so humble, and the healing begins.”
La Plazita's campus is home to a sweat lodge and a curanderismo house. In surrounding farmland, La Plazita also teaches young people how to reconnect with the land.
He says all who visit La Plazita are made to feel at home. It starts with staff members—many of whom are former gang members, drug addicts and incarcerated convicts—greeting newcomers, extending their tattoo-covered arms to offer empathy and a free meal.
Chavez started to turn his life around when the Youth Reporting Center, an alternative to incarceration, sent him to La Plazita. He attended sweat lodges and weekly Thugs Making a Change meetings.
T-MAC empowers people to talk about their issues in a safe “mutual turf” atmosphere and perform good deeds in the community. Tomas Martinez, a former gang member and drug addict who grew up in the Atrisco neighborhood, runs the meeting every Wednesday night. Martinez says that he hopes to take the “worst of the worst” and show them that they can embrace a new identity. Martinez exposes T-MAC members to life outside the gang through camping trips in the Pecos and missions to feed the homeless.
From his experience, he says he knows how teenagers can get caught up. “They’re raised in the streets. They’re raised in a gang,” Martinez says. “You pull them out of that life and show them a better way. It takes time. It took me 37 years to change. That’s what I tell them. But it will happen if you want it to.”
La Plazita helped Gabriel Chavez obtain his GED while he was incarcerated and then steered him toward classes at CNM. Life didn’t get easier from there, however. He lost contact with his probation officer and La Plazita, and he picked up new charges. Chavez returned to jail, posted bond and then, 10 days later, survived being shot three times with a shotgun.
But La Plazita didn’t give up on him. The institute agreed to take Chavez on for full-time community service. He got funding to stay at La Plazita, and now he works there as the community service director.
There are two years left on his probation, and he has cases pending in District Court. But when he’s finished paying for his crimes, Chavez says he wants to return to school to become a social worker and continue to work at La Plazita. “My story can help a lot of people,” he says.
Raymond Perales says the key to confronting gang issues is to engage Native young people and convince them that they have value. “You look at the history of Native Americans,” he says. “We’ve been beat down. They tried to exterminate us, to terminate us. Because of that, Native American youth suffer from a destructive self-image. You need to teach them that it’s OK to be Indian.”