Latin Kings Live, Die By Rigid Organization
By Chris Markuns
The Eagle-Tribune, Lawrence, MA, February 29, 2004

Found in the midst of much uglier allegations is "Exhibit 3" -- a hand-scrawled receipt for a $500 fine paid by a gang member who didn't kick up 15 percent of drug profits to his street boss.

It's a seemingly innocuous piece of evidence in the case against 20 high-ranking members of the Lawrence and Lowell chapters of the Almighty Latin King Nation now facing a litany of federal drug charges following a multiagency shakedown Tuesday.

But its existence proved damaging to the Kings in two ways -- it was given to one of the ex-gang members who helped investigators break into the gang's inner circle of drugs, violence and guns, and it wasn't written in code.

"Charges (selling drugs). Without donating 15% to Nation. Pay to the order of Nation Funds $500.00 from (name blacked out by prosecutors)."

It ends with an illegible signature and two printed names, reading "By: King Lunatic" and "Witness: King Justice" -- code names used by two of those gang leaders arrested.

That piece of paper is representative of a fixation -- passed down through decades of Latin Kings leadership throughout the country -- with organized, codified structure, such as the various manifestos' rules for prison behavior, lengthy membership applications, funeral arrangements and even what type of envelope to send reports in

"When you compare them to other street gangs like the Bloods and the Crips, none compare to the organization of the Kings," said Wes Daily, a retired detective who is now head of the East Coast Gang Investigators Association.

"They think they're a business," he said, "and they write things down."

It's a fixation that police and experts say makes the Kings simultaneously one of the most effective recruiting gangs in the country and extraordinarily vulnerable to police.

Officials estimate there are hundreds of gang members in the Merrimack Valley alone. But in the wake of this week's sweep -- 18 of 20 were caught and arraigned -- some say there sits an opportunity to set the Lawrence gang culture back

Lawrence Police Chief John J. Romero points out that for all the talk of loyalty, and punishments for turning on the gang -- "Once a King, always a King" is the motto -- police still managed to find high-ranking Kings to bring the others down.

"There's no honor among thieves," said Romero. "These people talk about honor -- there's no honor in gangs."

The Almighty Latin Kings, Almighty Latin King Nation, Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, or just plain Latin Kings.

The origins are slightly foggy, with some versions placing their birth in the 1940s and others the '60s, but everybody seems to agree on Chicago. It was there that a small group formed an "organization of Hispanics dedicated to overcoming an 'oppressive government' and uplifting all 'Third World' people," according to the history included in one of several lengthy affidavits filed last week by FBI Special Agent Mark Karangekis, who headed up "Operation Dethrone."

What started as an attempt to protect turf deteriorated into a "culture of secrecy and institutional violence within the Latin Kings," wrote Karangekis.

More members serving prison sentences allowed the gang to use the correctional system as a network, according to Daily, leading to the branches seen today from coast to coast and in as many as 34 states according to some estimates, with a particularly strong presence in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and hundreds in Lawrence and Lowell.

"They've really blown up on the East Coast," Daily said, crediting prison not only with their growth but the practice of writing everything down, since it's the best way to communicate in prison.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, the Latin Kings are one of three gangs -- along with La Familia and the Neta -- that comprise nearly half of the 1,874 prisoners that belong to "threat groups." The Kings have members in every Massachusetts prison, and Karangekis quotes a gang member as telling an informant that the Nation is "doing well in jail but having problems on the street."

But even as they rely on prison to stay strong, they maintain that their bible is the idealistic, prayer-filled King Manifesto. In addition to detailing certain rituals and rules -- the significance of that three-pointed crown that is their symbol, the gang colors of black and gold, or "the flag shall never touch the floor" -- the manifesto offers page after page of preaching about social justice, education, the lifting up of Latin brothers and sisters, and unfailing loyalty to fellow Kings.

"Love and respect children of all races, sexes, cults and religions," reads part of one section, called the Code of Kingism. "Protect them with your life for they are the leaders of tomorrow's Nations."

That kind of high-minded language contrasts sharply with the depiction in the paperwork filed by the U.S. attorney's office, which will handle the prosecution of what they say are the leaders of the Lowell and Lawrence Kings.

"It's all a scam," said Romero, whose department participated and has dealt with the Kings since his days as a New York City lieutenant. "It's just an illegal group -- period."

The U.S. attorney, FBI and other agencies involved in the investigation declined to comment while the case is ongoing. But Karangekis' affidavits lay out 18 months of activity that seems far removed from "A Love Measured In Great Harmony Towards Yahweh," which the manifesto says "Almighty" stands for.

Along with the numerous drug buys that led to charges -- mostly of heroin and cocaine, but with offers of other drugs including Ecstasy -- Karangekis detailed the following:

* Lawrence resident Victor Arroyo, or King Vicious, allegedly contacted an informant to participate in a "mission" -- the King word for an attack on a rival -- against Dominican drug traffickers who had assaulted a Lawrence gang member. Acting on the informant's tip, police broke up a "large group" of Latin Kings meeting to set up the attack.

* Arroyo is allegedly responsible for organizing "hit squads."

* When the informant fined for not paying his 15 percent drug-dealing tribute was summoned to Lowell to pay the fine, another gang member was being beaten in a room next door for his rules violations.

* When an informant came under suspicion of working with police -- partly because of an unrelated Methuen police traffic stop immediately after a drug buy -- Lawrence resident Juan Ramos, or King Faith, allegedly issued orders to hurt or kill the informant.

* Lawrence resident Edwin Serrano, or King Psycho, asked an informant to join him on a trip to New York to kidnap somebody who "had 'burned' Serrano for $40,000."

Ultimately, the 20 gang members charged now face mandatory minimums of five years in prison -- up to 40 years, in some cases -- and up to $4 million in fines.

The Kings' Massachusetts Policy Book, one of many localized versions of the manifesto, at least acknowledges this part of the Kings' existence. It goes over extensive guidelines for choosing a lawyer -- it's the chapter's job to know good local private ones -- what your rights are under questioning, and advises against ever giving a statement.

Once in prison, Kings should always be able to run two miles in 20 minutes, perform 500 push-ups and do 50 sit-ups in two minutes, with slightly more lax requirements for Queens, and they should always exercise together. It also bars, among other things, "friendly conversation with correctional staff," looking into anyone else's cell, associating with "situational homosexuals" or anyone in protective custody, or making loud noises after 10 p.m.

The Kings have made efforts to appear legitimate, Romero said, including attempts to appear in city-run parades in New York, but the written rules prove otherwise.

"If you were a legitimate group," he asked, "why would you be telling your members, 'If you're in jail ... '?"

"It is a load of hooey and it isn't a load of hooey," said Steve Nawojczyk, of the Kings' manifesto and focus on gang legacy and history. "The fact of the matter is, hooey or not, it works."

Since leaving his county coroner's post in Arkansas to focus on the gang problem he saw put so many teenage bodies in front of him, Nawojczyk has become a close follower of the national gang scene. The Kings are widely considered one of the nation's most effective recruiters, and Nawojczyk says that is due to more than just the standard gang offerings of money, safety and family to kids who have none.

They have a proudly documented history, well-crafted pitch for loyalty, and are so regimented that a Latin Kings meeting is "almost like watching a city council meeting -- it's amazing." An actual application, voting forms for leadership and a formal complaint process complete the image of something worth belonging to.

"All of that," Nawojczyk said, "is used as a recruiting tool."

The manifesto may be at the heart of it.

"When you read that manifesto, they have hit at the crux of the problem," said Michael Walker-Jones, a regional manager of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. He has specialized in anti-gang efforts since 1988, but had little luck getting support or funding in the teacher ranks. He describes Massachusetts' gang problem as "growing, and almost out of control."

The manifesto's reference to Latinos being held down by the government, the upper class and law enforcement isn't entirely off-base, said Walker-Jones, when you consider how few options the gang's target audience feel they've been given by their schools. It becomes an easy sell.

"Look at the turmoil Lawrence and Lowell have been in the past 10 years," said Walker-Jones. "And so, yeah, it becomes a matter of us versus them. What alternatives do (kids) see?"

And they don't have to know the manifesto word for word -- or even ever read it, for that matter -- for it to work, according to Daily, who spent 30 years with the Suffolk County police in Long Island, N.Y., and is a past president of the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Association. It is much more closely followed in prison than on the street, he said, but its reputation precedes it.

"That is a strong working document," he said. "Like the U.S. Constitution, very few people can tell you what's in it. We know it's there, and they know it's there. We know it's a respected document and they know it's a respected document, and that's all that matters."

But if the sense of organization is the key to Kings' recruiting, it's also their fastest route to prison

"It's always been their weakness for being taken down criminally," said Daily. He explained that law enforcement welcomes the record-keeping for obvious reasons -- seen with the receipt issued in Operation Dethrone -- but the Kings can't seem to help themselves. The gang application includes extensive information on age, family history, phone numbers and addresses, education, military record and criminal record.

"At one point in time they had ID cards with a picture and fingerprints on it," Daily laughed. "You've got to understand these guys aren't brain surgeons."

The question that has yet to be answered is the long-term effect of the arrests, even if leadership goes to jail. Daily believes the removal of a crucial leader can be a devastating setback to the Kings because so few members -- "maybe one percent" -- have the talent to organize and lead, and points to the New York chapter of the Kings still struggling years after the loss of their high-profile leader.

But Karangekis details in his affidavits how the New Jersey Latin Kings sent in reinforcements to stabilize things when leadership was imprisoned years ago, and there is no shortage of rival gangs to quickly fill the void. Nawojczyk, who is now the youth services director for North Little Rock, Ark., and travels the country speaking on the topic of gangs, says periods of violence, split-offs and general upheaval often follow raids like this one.

"That's why it's such a good time, while there's a vacuum and the heads are gone, to turn the tide," he said. "But what many communities don't recognize is that while the ... leaders are taken out, there has to be a lot of prevention-intervention stuff going on."

The Lowell Boys & Girls Club has established a gang-prevention effort at its club, but the club's national director of delinquency prevention, Frank Sanchez, says it takes time to convince potential recruits that you can fill the void in their lives as well as any gang.

"It only presents an opportunity if there's an infrastructure in place," said Sanchez. "When you're looking at a gang in disarray, what you need is to share with members some alternatives. If not, they refill that cup every time, and there will be new leaders in place in six months."

It's an effort all the more important, said Daily, as the Kings get better at turning their money into legitimate fronts like record companies and athletic stores, and look to recruit smarter, more technologically savvy kids -- some starting at the age of 8.

"If you have not been engaging these kids (already)," said Walker-Jones, "just because you've taken the head out, it's not going to get you any advantage."



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