Confessions of a Former Gang Member

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I had no desire to attend college after graduating from high school. Though I'd worked regular jobs, I was restless and looking for something more exciting. Like most kids my age I'd seen plenty of movies that romanticized the lifestyle, and I was attracted to it, so I joined a gang. I'd been told that if you could handle it, there was good money to be made, and if you were really good at it, room to advance.

The gang had international ties, and because of its overseas network I spent a couple of years working abroad. The particular syndicate I was part of would operate mostly in third world countries. It was easier to get away with our crimes there. We'd move into one town or another, and after pushing out the local gang, occupy the prime real estate.

We relied on local contacts, which acted as informants and low level muscle, and helped us to establish dominance on the street. In order to cover for our unlawful activity we had to operate under various front organizations. Usually we posed as security agencies or construction companies, and were in the employ of corrupt governments and big businesses. Our PR was world-class.

I remember doing "security" patrols in the downtown area of one city. Frequently we'd find people, mostly kids, selling "black market gas" on the roadside. This part of town had only a few gas stations and they could never keep pace with demand. Some enterprising guy would stand with a jug on the side of the road and sell a gallon or two to whomever came along. The kids selling gas usually came from broken homes, most had absentee fathers, and were trying to support their mothers and younger siblings. But the gas station owners didn't like competition, so they had their politician-friends tell us to run them off whenever we saw them.

On one stop my boss recognized the kid from another such encounter. Now, the first offense was usually met with having your gas dumped out in the street and a stern warning not to do it again. This time my boss had had it. He slashed the jugs open with his knife and told us to kidnap the boy, who couldn't have been older than 14. He was blindfolded and placed in the back of our truck. Terrified, he urinated on himself and began to cry. My partners laughed at him and joked that he was probably afraid we'd shoot him.

Instead, we took him across town to the house of our local partners, who were known to be more ruthless than we were. The conditions there were miserable. One man who crossed those guys withered away, suffering from an untreated gunshot wound to his abdomen, a row of nails driven into his arm by a nail gun. Lord knows what happened to the kid after we left him with those sadists.

For the most part we operated with impunity, but every once in a while someone would get caught. One time, I remember a few guys working for another ring got sloppy. They got busted for extortion and had to pay some fines. Nothing too serious, but enough to make sure they wouldn't be able to move up. The bosses didn't like it if you got caught.

We ran that town. You parked where the bosses didn't want you parking? We'd bust out your car windows, just to show you who was in charge. Your neighbor been giving you grief? Call us, we'd bust into his house late at night and break his stuff, maybe haul him and his sons off. We'd drive through the markets, maybe pull some telephone wires down, tear up the roads, or break little vendor's stands.

We'd kill anyone trying to compete with us. Look at one of us the wrong way, we'd pull you out of your car and rough you up a bit, put you in your place. We probably spent millions of dollars in dirty money to shore up key alliances and keep our rivals at bay. When one neighborhood got out of line we encircled it with trucks and went door to door for hours, intimidating the residents and promising worse if they didn't do as we said. It seemed to work, so we did it again, and again.

I was good at what I did. I could have moved up in the organization if I wanted to. But I realized after I started, that the life of crime wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The movies didn't tell the whole story. The guys that got me in didn't tell me everything either, they left out the most important details. I learned the hard way that being "part of the family" was really a despicable way to live, that it was dishonorable, immature, and shallow. I had come to view the people in the places I worked as objects, sub-human. In case you haven't figured it out yet, the name of the gang I joined was the U.S. army. I was called a soldier, but really, I was just thug with a gun.

Joel Poindexter [send him mail] is a student at Johnson County Community College working toward a degree in economics. He lives near Kansas City with his wife and daughter. See his blog.

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