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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Doing the right thing: Ray’s labyrinth

By Graham Danzer

CSMS Magazine Staff Writer

Ray’s life had so quickly become dark and cold. His cell was dank, and gray, depressing in how it felt like he had reached the end of the world. Judgment day or something. Ironically, this was not far from the truth. As he sat in juvenile hall, in a private cell isolated from other inmates on block 4 due to his recent involvement in a gang fight, Ray was passing time until his day of reckoning arrived. Sentencing that is. And time was passing slowly. As was his life.

            Just months ago, everything was everything. A recruiter for the Nortenos’, or north side primarily Latino street gang, Ray was in many ways on top of the world he knew. Feared, respected, known, notorious. Wanted by the home girls, respected by the homeboys throughout his barrio. And Ray had gone through a lot of trouble to get there.

            He had started out in the trenches. Running packages of dope up and down the boulevard on his bike for older homeboys, collecting on debts owed to the gang and its members, kicking some ass when the Surenos’ (south siders) or others invaded or needed to be dealt with for various measures of disrespect. A dirty look from across the street, throwing up a rival gang’s hand sign, dealing dope in the wrong territory. Punishment was as swift as it was severe. Beatings for the more minor offenses, erupting gunfire for those deemed punishable by death.

            And Ray carried it out to a tea, with no mercy and hair-breadth precision. That was his get down. Not only ruthless and hardened, but with a style, a perseverance, an alluring seductiveness. Ray could be as charming as he was wicked. His older homeboys knew just how to use it.

            They enlisted Ray as a recruiter, the spearhead of a new Norteno’ territory, out beyond the main boulevard that was fast growing a haven for new recruits given the influx of immigrants from Mexico. Poor, illegal, problems at home, a ripe breeding ground for new recruits. Gangs could offer these kids a more available family, more belonging, more purpose, more opportunity, then they could ever know then scrubbing dishes or vacuuming carpets in hotels for rich white tourists to mess up all over again.

            In particular, the Nortenos feared that these incoming immigrant’s south of the border roots might skew their allegiance to the scraps (derogatory name for the Surenos). Ray was given the mission of not allowing this to happen. This territory was now his. A project all of his own. And he took to it with vigor. Canvassing the street corners, the trailer parks, the middle and high schools, Ray made his presence known as a leader. Recruiting new members, jumping them in, teaching the younger ones how to hustle and how to get respect or die defending it, keeping the older ones in line. His territory was beginning to make its presence known, and it was all Ray’s doing. He was always feared, now he was admired.

            But he found that being at the top wasn’t so easy. It seemed that for every new recruit he brought in, two got shipped out to group homes or juvenile hall or the youth prison at The California Youth Authority. Ray had done a little time here and there, but his keen instincts, natural charm, and quick wit allowed him to operate largely unadulterated. He knew what to do when he was in trouble, when he was under siege, and when he got picked up by the police. Keep his mouth shut, swallow his dope, promise to change his ways. And it worked every time. His new soldiers weren’t so lucky, or as Ray suspected, weren’t so smart. They were always getting caught, always getting deported. Couldn’t talk their way out of anything. Couldn’t do anything right. Fuck it, you want shit done you gotta do it yourself, Ray thought to himself. It was time for him to show them how it was done. With the help of someone wiser, more seasoned in the game, a mentor. His brother Rafael.

            Rafael had been in the game for over 10 years, now approaching his mid-twenties, been shot 6 times and wasn’t dead. A real OG. Infamous, held almost in awe. Ray’s idol. He would be Rafael someday. And Ray was smart enough to know that you watch and listen closely to the one you most want to become. He had learned that in school, when he actually he used to go. In 9th grade, they had a career day where each student picked a career and was paired up for a day with someone in that career who had been in for a while, to get questions answered, a taste of the business. The inexperienced learn best from the experienced. Ray got the memo.

            We need some more street credit, need to up the stakes, need to put us on the map, what would you do? Ray asked his brother. Rafael knew just what to do. He dropped a heavy plastic bag full of small, dime sized bags with white powder into Ray’s hand. 50 twenty sacks in there, bring me back $500 and we go from there. Ray’s quick brain swam in the possibilities. He could sell them himself, probably in a few days, pocket $500. Tempting. But then he could ask his brother for more of these after he unloaded his first package, pass one of these packages each to maybe 5 new recruits in the schools. Tell them to get rid of the dope and bring him back $1000 within a week. School recruits were new after all, young, didn’t know much about the game. They might need more then a few days. But if they made that $1000 in a week, Ray could make it part of their initiation into being a Norteno. If they couldn’t unload the stuff within a week, fuck it. They’d pay up anyway or else. Always good at math, Ray was pumped at the potential. And he took to his plans with the courage and fearlessness that made him him. Around the clock. Living by the pager. His cash flow swelled. So did his street credit. So did his organization.

            At first he had five young soldiers dealing for him. Then 10, then 20, it was like a mafia movie. He felt like a Don, maybe even Pancho Villa. He laughed at the thought. Pretty girls by his sides, his minions scattered throughout the city making him money, new recruits damb near beating down his door, Ray himself becoming one of the most powerful leaders of the Nortenos. Life was good. Ray had once visited Rafael in jail after a police raid sent him upstate for a year. Good things never last, Rafael had said. Ray listened, but he couldn’t hear it, couldn’t understand. A few months ago, he discovered the truth in these words.

            Making his last sale of the night, he came home, rifling through his thick was of bills, twenty, twenty, hundred, twenty, was that $2000? $2020? Ray laughed and shook his head; it was Dinero seriouso (serious money) however much it was. He came home, from 14 hours straight of dealing and collecting, swinging his fists, charging all over the city after his debts and rookie dealers and gang bangers. He was tired from a long days work. He lay down on his bed, stripping off his belt with its blazing red N on the buckle and his red bandana tucked into his back pocket. He heard Rafael on the phone in the other room adamant about his attending school, turning his life around. Must be his PO (probation officer). Rafael was now swearing profusely that he was not dealing, word on the street be damned. Ray listened for a moment, admiring his brother’s swift conversation, his smooth delivery. I’ll be my brother someday. Little did he know.

            Ray looked up briefly at the ceiling and began to close his eyes, now exhausted. Just before they closed all the way, he looked unintentionally toward his closed bedroom door, next to it was his coat rack which strangely had Rafael’s monstrous black puff coat draped over it. What was Rafael’s coat doing in his room?

            BAAAMMM!!!! POLICE DON’T MOVE, GET ON THE GROUND!!!! . . . WHAT THE FUCK I DIDN’T DO NOTHING!!!! Ray jumped to his feet, eyes scanning his room frantically for an escape. Always fast on the move, Ray was too slow this time. His door swung open, a gun drawn and pointed between his eyes. His hands shot above his head, his heartbeat going a mile a minute. Not for the gun drawn on him, he had guns pulled on him more times then he could count. These cops aren’t in uniform. Shit, they’re Narcs (Narcotics officers). Ray suspected with a grave awareness that he knew why Rafael’s coat was in his room. His instincts had never failed him before, nor did they this time. Following his being handcuffed and made to face the wall, the police began rifling through Ray’s room. Both Rafael and Ray being on probation made searches legal any place at any time, no warrant required. Within that big black jacket, two 8 balls, or about a quarter once of cocaine lay in wait. Shit, I’m fucked. Ray said to himself. Again his instincts served him well.

            His brother visited him at the hall. Don’t trip, you’re a minor, you’ll do a little time in a group home and you’ll be home in no time. Ray knew what that meant, better you do a few months then I do a few years. And Ray was loyal. He’d never rat on his brother. Even when other kids on the hall, swore he was looking at real time. You got priors? You on probation? Two eight balls? Gang affiliated? You got years comin’ hommie, his peers told him. Even when he went to trial Ray was loyal. Ray said the jacket was his. The defense made him try on the black jacket, that the police had somewhat suspiciously not taken into evidence. At least 5 sizes too large, its tail dragging on the ground.

            His brother was called to the stand and asked about the jacket. I plead the Fifth Amendment. . . Evoking his right not to incriminate himself, Rafael was excused by the judge. Giving the thumbs up to his little brother on his way out. His little brother now 15 years old. You’re doing the right thing Rafael seemed to say.  The Constitution of the United States having served its purpose. With no corroborating witnesses, or evidence to the contrary, the prosecution dropped Ray down a hole. The police and its gang units having their eye on Ray for some time.

            Presenting hours of court room testimony on investigative evidence, including the history of the local Norteno street gangs. Their involvement in drug dealing, assaults, robberies, homicides. Ray’s intricate role in their operations and growth. Having 11 year olds deal cocaine in their middle schools, elementary school kids trafficking dope up and down the block. Ray reaping the glory of their exploits, proud and unrepentant for his starring role in the production. The prosecution laid claim to ray’s drug dealing not only being of a felony caliber given the drugs found in the jacket and several thousand dollars spread throughout his room, but also the gang affiliated paraphernalia spread throughout his room. Police evidence introduced as testimony not only tying Ray into a criminal street gang, but drug dealing and Ray’s related exploits in particular being in furtherance of the criminal operations of a street gang. Thus making Ray punishable under organized crime statutes whereby the state can severely increase the amount of time the offender must serve if their crimes are deemed in furtherance of the operations of organized crime.            Ray’s public defender did all he could. Ray had good grades at one time, severe history of abuse and neglect, the dope was Rafael’s, look at the size of the coat!!!! The police didn’t take the jacket into evidence, why not??? There’s a problem there!!! . . . . Guilty, said the judge.

            And so Ray sat in his cell, day after day, awaiting sentencing. Up to 5 years, the judge had said. 5 years, 5 years, he would be 19. Ray couldn’t imagine that far into the future. He knew 2 inches in front of his nose and not much else, lived for the moment. But farther into the future than he could see could be the next time he saw daylight. The California Youth Authority. The thought made him afraid. For the first time in a while, really afraid. The rapings, the stabbings with hot pockers, animals he would be surrounded by. There were animals in the street, but there he was protected, insulated, known, feared, YA was a different story. A dangerous place to be. Even for someone so dangerous. At one time he thought himself a dangerous man.

            But sitting there in that cell, paint flecking from the walls, a smell of death reeking through his pores, Ray had become a little boy again. Scared and alone. Dying second by second. His thoughts drifted in long painful waves. His freedom, his mother, his brother. . . . . His brother. . . Ray was beginning to ask questions. A few months in a group home??? 5 years mother fucker!!!! He almost yelled at himself. But who was he really yelling at? And with a sigh, he realized it didn’t matter. He was going in. And there was nothing he could do about it. He wouldn’t rat Rafael out. For one thing he wasn’t a rat, and two, he would be dead if he did, even if he wanted to. Months ago, he would have seen himself now in that cell, awaiting sentencing, and keeping his mouth shut, as doing the right thing. Taking one on the chin, for an older homeboy, for his brother, upping his street credit, soldiering up, doing the right thing.

            Ray remembered back to his brother’s words and swagger out of the court room. I plead the fifth. A thumb’s up like it was the right thing to do. Only now at the end, did Ray realize he didn’t know a damb thing about the right thing. But now it looked like he would have nothing but time to figure it out.


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