The growing influence and violence of Latino gangs in Indianapolis
Sinaloa, Mexico: At the shrine of Jesus Malverde, “the bandit of the poor,” the faithful bring their candles and their prayer requests to the uncanonized patron saint of drug dealers, the “Narco Saint,” Jesus Malverde.
One letter left behind reads: “Dear holy and miraculous Malverde. I’m writing this letter so that you’ll help me with a problem I have with some friends I had, so that they won’t look for me any more. Make them forget the problems we had. Make them please leave my parents and my sister and me in peace. This is what I ask of you, Malverde, that you do this favor. I promise that when I go to Sinaloa I’ll go visit you and I’ll bring you what I can because I live in Los Angeles, California, Malverde. Your son, Angel Cortez. Sept 15, 1992.”
Born in 1870, Jesus Malverde lived as a railway worker, a tailor or a construction worker. Take your pick. The facts about the “Narco Saint” are less than reliable.
At some point, he became a robber, who, like Robin Hood, took from the rich and gave to the poor. Mexican authorities finally caught him and, according to legend, like his namesake, a friend betrayed him.
On May 3, 1909, Malverde was executed, leaving behind a myth and an impetus to “rob from the rich, to feed the poor.” Nearly a century later, his face is a tattoo resting on the arms, shoulders and backs of many Latino gang members.
Indianapolis’ Northside: Early Sunday morning, on March 18, a car chase leaves two people dead. Someone in an SUV chases a black Ford Taurus and opens fire with an assault rifle. The Taurus crashes, resulting in the deaths of 16-year-old Armando Diaz and 18-year-old Fausto Ramon Lopez.
Another car pursued in the chase, a red Toyota, crashes in the 6000 block of Grandview Drive. The 18-year-old driver had a bullet wound to the back of the head and the passenger received wounds to the left thigh.
Police believe the shootings are gang related; the Brown Pride Soldiers/Surenos (BPS) fired the shots at members of Sur 13.
Indianapolis’ Westside: At IPS 108, located on West 38th Street, police arrest a 14-year-old girl for gang intimidation. She is a recruiter, one who threatens other girls to join the gang. To join, female members beat up the “wannabe,” or she can refuse and get beaten up. If it’s the 18th Street gang, that means just 18 seconds of getting an ass-kicking.
Depending on who’s counting, 18 seconds can be a long time.
Girls have two ways into Latino gangs: sexed in or beaten in. To be sexed in means you have sex with multiple gang members on the same night; to be beaten in means female gang members beat you until your time is up. Then you are in. Next, you can be tattooed, given your name and property labels. There is only one way out of the gang for these girls: death.
Blood in; blood out.
The secret under our nose
Latino gangs are Indy’s best-kept secret. Yet the graffiti, the “tags,” pervade certain areas of the city.
Drive through the north and south alleys off West Washington Street or the apartments around 34th and High School Road. Check out the graffiti that occasionally surfaces on the Kroger on West 38th Street. What about the “tags” around 42nd and Post? Michigan Road and 71st?
Look for “13” (the 13th letter of the alphabet — M for Mexico or the East Maravilla Los Angeles gang) spray-painted on walls, dumpsters, sides of buildings. Some signs might read “Sur 13,” “BPS 13” or less common but more violent “MS 13” (Mara Savatrucha means “beware of the Salvadoran gang”).
What might look like a garbled mess of spray paint to the outsider has meaning for the insiders. Look for tags sprayed over other tags, a way of declaring turf.
Jose Torres, 37, the leading Latino gang expert in the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, is a member of the IMPD’s Safe Streets Gang Task Force. Raised in the Hammond/Chicago area, Torres is one of the few Indianapolis police officers fluent in Spanish and Latino gang culture.
A tall man with a shy, affable smile, Torres sees a problem that not only the media ignores but the politicians as well.
“We can learn from other cities, like Phoenix and Los Angeles, where this thing is going,” Torres says. “I spoke with an L.A. officer recently who said, ‘You [Indianapolis] are where we were in the 1980s.’”
Torres continues, “At this time, we estimate around 300 Latino gang members live in the Indianapolis area. Nevertheless, the numbers are growing. So far, the gangs haven’t drawn distinct geographical boundaries, but judging by the increase in gang graffiti, it’s only a matter of time.”
Based in Los Angeles, the Sureno gang, or Sur 13 (“sur” is south in Spanish), was one of the first Latino gangs to arrive in Indianapolis. Their M tattoos show their allegiance to the Mexican Mafia, the umbrella that covers other gangs such as the BPS, Florencia, the 18th Street Gang and MS 13. Other Latino gangs operating in the Indianapolis area include the Nuestra (from Northern California), Latin Kings, People Nation and MS 13.
According to Torres, MS 13, while not large in numbers, can be one of the most violent and dangerous gangs, with a love for machetes.
“MS 13,” Torres says, “has a reason to fear being caught. We can deport them immediately. Going back to El Salvador is one thing they don’t want. There, just having the gang tattoos can land them in prison, and a Salvadoran prison is someplace no one wants to go.”
Belonging to a gang has many advantages, according to Torres. “They give people what we all crave: friendship, love, identity status, money and the feeling of being a part of a family. In some ways,” he says with an ironic smile, “it’s the same reasons people become police officers.”
Heading to Indy
According to Torres, Latino gangs see Indianapolis as rich and fertile ground for gang life. “They see us as being in the Heartland, the crossroads between the Southwest and the East Coast.”
But gang members have told Torres other reasons for settling in Indianapolis: gun control is more lax, inexpensive housing, easy employment, no strict gang laws, no three strikes law. For Torres, an additional factor is the absence of Spanish-speaking police officers.
“Over and over, when officers pull over someone suspicious, the first thing that comes out a Latino’s mouth is ‘no hablo ingles.’ Many of them can speak English as well as I can. But what can you do?”
In fact, one officer who faced this situation responded to the driver in Spanish and found the only Spanish the driver knew was “no hablo ingles.”
Torres knows that the growing gang dynamic in Indianapolis is not necessarily racial. “Most of the Latinos who come to America are hard-working people who want better lives for their children. The problem is, some are so hard-working that both father and mother work, and their kids get left behind to be raised by the streets.”
Torres points out that many of the real victims are the Latinos themselves. Some gang members pressure others to join, and many innocent victims of gang crimes — other Latinos — fail to report the crimes to the police. Because of the fear of retaliation, many Latino witnesses refuse to testify or even make witness statements.
“There’s a real trust issue going on between the IMPD and the Latino community. Part of the problem is that some of the victims are illegals, so they don’t call the police, for fear of getting sent back. We want to stop these guys from hurting others, but someone has to talk first.”
He adds, “I don’t care about whether they are legal or illegal; what I want to do is to help them feel free to come and tell us what has happened to them.”
The city and beyond
Officer Charles Tice, a five-year veteran, is a part of IMPD’s elite Street Level Enforcement Detail (SLED) that operates in any “hot” crime sector of the city. They “turn over rocks” and “beat the bushes” to find criminals at large. Begun in July of 2006, SLED looks for and sees the worst of the worst.
According to Tice, the most active Latino gang in Indianapolis, and one of the most dangerous, is Sur 13. “If you just look at the crimes, the tags, Sur 13 is definitely the biggest gang out there.”
As a member of the SLED unit, Tice sees every area of the city. “If you look around Prospect and State, east of Randolph, you’ll see the tags of Sur 13.” He also sees signs of the Latin Kings, predominately on the Westside, whose tags read 666 or use a crown as a symbol.
While Tice sees the strong Latino gang influence in Indianapolis, he is optimistic. “We’re going to have to get behind the eight ball on this. I think that the gang contact sheets will help us, as a department, to keep each other informed on what’s happening here on the streets.”
The “gang contact sheets” are papers that police officers fill out when they meet suspected gang members. If the suspect has gang tattoos or any other gang-affiliation “colors,” the officer fills out a form, gives the name, and any evidence of the person being a gang member. The officer turns in the form to Torres and the Safe Streets Gang Task Force. In that way, the gang task force can keep up on the latest developments on the street.
Unlike typical gang cultures that have traditionally flourished in urban areas, the Latino gangs have begun to spread to rural settings. Many Latino laborers look for work in farm settings. So when they find a place to work, many “undesirables” follow them. They set up a gang “structure” that not only will recruit other Latinos but also will find a place where few, if any, can speak Spanish.
Hendricks County Sherriff David Galloway has seen some evidence of gang presence in his communities. “We haven’t seen a lot of gang activity, but we are seeing signs of gang presence.”
He notes that some “MS 13” tags have been seen in the northeast side of Hendricks County. Moreover, he says that several people brought into the Hendricks County jail have Latino gang tattoos.
“These people know that getting deported is a prison or death sentence [given their gang tattoos]. We know what’s out there and are watching the situation closely.”
Galloway adds, “What bothers me about this gang situation is that it paints Hispanics in a bad light. Most are good people, wanting to better themselves. A few bad ones can put a bad light on all of them. And that’s not fair.”
Much like Torres, Galloway believes that something “big” will have to happen before the public, the media and the politicians take notice. Like Torres, he also worries that it will be too late by then.
From Mexico to L.A. to Indy and beyond
Torres knows that the problem is spreading. Latino gang tags have been found in Iraq, done by members of our military. “Some young Latino gang members have enlisted in the service, so that they can get ‘free’ combat training. They’ve tagged U.S. weapons with gang insigne,” according to Torres.
“What they want to do is to get military training — and get paid for it — and then bring that knowledge back home to further the gang operations.”
Most illegal gang activity can be summed up in two words: drugs and money. Local and federal law enforcement have cracked down hard on the methamphetamine drug labs. Over-the-counter pseudoephedrine is no longer available in vast commodities, crippling the local meth labs.
Thus, the meth labs have moved from the Heartland to Mexico. Cartels set up meth labs in the Mexican deserts. Locally, Latino gangs have become stronger than other gangs.
Torres states, “The advantage that the Latino gangs have over the black gangs — the Crips and the Bloods — is the drug connection.”
According to Torres, drug money provides arms money. “Locally, the black gangs are too disorganized. We have the Crips and Bloods in Indianapolis, but they are too disorganized to compete with the Latino gangs. Some even buy their drugs from [the Latino gangs].”
Not if, but when
On a daily basis, Torres meets those who live in the shadows of Indianapolis’ ever-developing skyline. He wonders what it will take to get the public’s attention.
In February of 2005, reportedly a Sur 13 member gunned down Juan Luis Espinoza. Despite several witnesses, no one saw anything.
On May 10, 2005, on the near Eastside, a group of gang members chased down a 24-year-old man and assaulted him with baseball bats.
In December of 2005, at a 2-year-old’s baptism on the Northwestside, gunshots ring out, leaving one man seriously wounded.
Over the past few years, dozens of businesses along West Washington Street have been robbed. Many believe that gang members were involved.
“Something will happen,” Torres worries, “that will make people realize we have a gang problem. The gangs are somewhat quiet for now, but they won’t always be. What will we do then?”
Despite warnings and signs, the public schools fail to acknowledge a problem, as do the majority of local and state politicians. Some even “write off” the graffiti as the work of gang copycats.
But, as Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi said last year, “They aren’t wannabes. They are gonnabes.”
No matter how much Indianapolis doesn’t want to be a city with a gang problem, it’s going to become one. Many believe it already has.
Genesis: In the beginning …
Pelican Bay State Prison: Inside of the walls of one of America’s most notorious prisons is the largest Mexican gang in America: the Mexican Mafia. This gang controls many, if not most, street gangs in America.
They are usually segregated and their in-going and out-going mail is read. Much like gang member tattoos, letters must be read in code. For example, sometimes gang members will send out a seemingly innocent letter that is “coded.” In one case, the code was that each word that preceded a comma was one that made up a sentence, one that expressed the orders of the Mexican Mafia. Some have gone as far as to learn ancient Aztec.
The Nuestra (Northern California) Familia’s (NF) headquarters is the Security Housing Unit (or the SHU), which houses the worst offenders. The prisoners spend 23 hours a day in the triple-locked facility.
Justin Bertan, writing for Maxim in 2003, wrote that an estimated 300 murders were ordered from Pelican Bay; the victims were often “brothers turned traitors.”
Blood in; blood out.
Often gang members order other inmates who are less restricted to pass on orders, during conjugal visits or through the mail (sometimes to fake lawyers’ addresses). Once the order is made, the intended victim has been officially “green lighted.”
Whether Sur 13 or Nuestra or some other gang, someone “on the outs” carries out the order. It could be against a rival gang member or against a former “brother” who has betrayed the gang — often, by trying to live a straight life.
Reading the code
The vast array of Latino gang tattoos — many of which were received in prison — are varied and complex. Gangs are learning that the tattoos give away their identities. An MS 13 member from Nashville, Tenn., said that the gang is now forbidding tattoos. At the same time, however, they have mandated a “must kill” to join.
The “codes” within the tattoos are often difficult to read, because they are imbedded in a labyrinth of colors and cryptic symbols.
For example, the Mexican Mafia, organized in 1956, used the letter “M” or the Spanish pronunciation “eme.” Often the tattoos contain an Aztec shield, with its symbol of eternal war. Also common is a Mayan-Aztec numerical symbol consisting of three dots resting above two horizontal lines (13).
Sur 13, the gang that seems most prevalent in Indianapolis, as well as the Brown Pride Soldiers/Surenos (BPS), wear any shade of blue (often a blue jersey), with black and khaki pants. Their tattoos often consist of “Sur 13,” the number sometimes in Roman numerals or X3. Look for three dots, formed in the shape of a triangle. This sign represents either the number three within the Aztec numerical system or it can also represent “mi vida loca” (my crazy life).
The Latin Kings dress in black and orange (sometimes in the form of an L.A. Kings or a Raiders jacket or cap), with tattoos that usually include a crown.
A small teardrop, often seen on inmates and ex-convicts, used to mean one year in custody. A filled in teardrop represented five years in custody. More recently, the symbol has taken on various meanings. For example, now a teardrop might represent a fallen “homeboy.” A filled-in teardrop means that his death was avenged.
A common tattoo is one of the Virgin Mary, placed over the heart, as a means of protection from gunshots.
Much of the above information comes from Richard Valdemar’s article, “Murder Ink,” Police Magazine, February 2006: 30-42.
Children gang members
With such a huge influx of Latinos to Indianapolis (a population expansion from approximately 13,500 to 47,000 between 1999 and 2004), many Latino parents are working multiple jobs just to scrape together a living, and this leaves little time to spend with their children. With a lack of roots or connection to their new homes, along with an absence of parental supervision, many young Hispanic youth are seeking bonds or a sense of belonging anywhere they can. This explains the reasoning behind gang recruitment targeting youth as young as 13 or 14, according to police.
Some people of Indianapolis may think this type of youth gang involvement doesn’t affect them. This assumption is being proven more and more incorrect, however, as the Latino gang problem seems to be growing and expanding to many more city neighborhoods and schools.
In 2005, Indiana state Rep. Dan Burton spoke of reports of increasing gang recruitment in elementary and secondary schools. Burton also revealed suspicions of youth gang/drug involvement as close as downtown, when he described 17- or 18-year-old Latino youth from rough neighborhoods driving around Monument Circle in brand new cars with “a wad of money.”
Mike Bachman, site supervisor of the United Methodist Children and Youth Center located on East 10th Street in Indianapolis, told of his feelings that Latino gangs on the near Eastside of the city are growing and gaining strength. Working closely with Latino youth at the center, Bachman said that he has seen a huge growth in violence and verbal abuse in fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. Bachman even spoke of a tension developing between the African-American and Hispanic communities, especially after the Hamilton Avenue murders of seven Latino family members on June 1, 2006. The youth center supervisor mentioned the effects on the children he works with, since many of them went to the same school as the murdered children.
Another representative of the youth center, Jean Casmir-Hill, did say that she believes the center has improved conditions for the area youth and has tried to teach children about each others’ cultures.
Although this is definitely encouraging, the growing gang influences cannot be denied. Indianapolis Latino youth may be in grave danger of falling into a life of violence, where children give up games of hide-and-seek for those of aim-and-shoot.
Hotlines against crime
24 Hour Safe Streets Task Force Gang Hotline: 317-898-GANG (4264)
24 Hour Spanish Language Crime Hotline: 317-327-MOTA (6682)
Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Hispanic Resource Officer: 317-890-3288 (ext. 23)