The RN&R takes a black-and-white look at the reds and the blues of Latino gangs in Reno

Photo by David Robert

With no books or bag, he sat beady-eyed in the back of his Algebra I class after having taken “12 hits of chronic.” Only the blue T-shirt and pants were stolen. The coat and shoes were bought with money he had gotten from selling methamphetamine. A uniformed cop walked in.

“I’m taking Ruben Lazaro.”

The teacher pointed out Ruben, who had come to school because he needed his attendance sheet to show his parole officer.

“Let’s go,” the cop said to Ruben.

The previous night, two of Ruben’s friends, armed with a bat and knife, had robbed a 7-Eleven. Ruben, age 16, had been the getaway driver. With the money, they bought crystal meth and marijuana. The other two were already in custody, having been identified by security camera footage. They didn’t snitch on Ruben, who was questioned because he’s a known associate. He walked, never charged with that crime. There were others to come, though.

Ruben was an aspiring gang member. Now Unlimited Intervention, a local nonprofit organization, is offering him a new direction in life—a life in which he doesn’t have to constantly wonder who might have him in their sights.

“I’m trying to change,” Ruben says, sweeping under a table near an entrance of El Cachanilla Mexican restaurant. “I’m getting older. I’m getting wiser.” A thin, black moustache adds contrast to his smooth face.

The owner of the restaurant has donated office space to Unlimited Intervention, where Ruben is doing community service. One entrance bears the organization’s logo, el águila, the eagle with a snake in its talons.

Founded by Roberto “Cheeko” Nerey, 31, Unlimited Intervention works to foster community awareness among Latinos, despite a dearth of funding and manpower. An ex-gangbanger himself, Nerey has been advocating understanding and support for young gang members, or peewees, like Ruben for more than a decade. He has the warm face of a man reborn, and those unfamiliar with his past might not notice the scars.

“Kids join gangs,” he says, “to find what they lack at home—love or respect. It’s no different from being on the football team—you pay your dues, work hard, bond with your teammates.”

According to the Reno Police Department, Ruben is one of 1,562 gang members and associates in Reno. (There are 796 active gang members in the area as of April 30.) That figure, as the department’s annual gang report indicates, has grown almost every year since gangs in California began offshoots in Reno in 1987.

“If you put in work—throw chicasos [punches], do drive-bys,” Nerey says, “you obtain ghetto status. People respect you, and that respect follows you to the county jail, and it follows you to the state penitentiary. Within a few years, you’re treated like a king. If you try to leave, you lose all of that.”

The Boys & Girls Club sign on Neil Road has been “tagged” with white spray paint. A toddler walking on the sidewalk toward the Hispanic Services Building stops next to Miguel Rivera Park, also on Neil Road.

“What’s wrong?” asks Lobo, meaning wolf, 27, a veterano, one of the most respected gangsters in Reno. “You tired?” His voice is a thick bark.

He carries his son, 2, in his muscular brown arms intricately riddled with black ink. His handsome face bears a fresh scar on his forehead where a bottle struck him during a street fray one month before.

It is a mild sample of gang life compared with the knives that have been stabbed into his flesh and the sobering ricochet of bullets that seemed to have missed his head by inches.

Lobo wears a short-sleeved blue plaid shirt over a white sleeveless undershirt and baggy blue jeans.

“Our colors represent cultural differences,” he says. Southerners, sureños, identify strongly with their Mexican heritage, wear blue. Northerners, norteños, wear red.

“Red is more Americanized,” he says. “To make sure nobody confuses us with them, we want to make sure we show our colors.”

As he walks with his son on the sidewalk, Hispanic and black children follow a Boys & Girls Club activity leader on the playground.

Theresa Navarro, president of Unlimited Intervention, speaks to students about the dangers of gangs.<br>

Photo by David Robert

“If you would’ve asked me or my homeboys when we were 10 if we wanted to be part of a clique [gang],” Lobo says, “we would’ve told you straight out—no.” His son is resting his head against his chest. “We all had some sort of dream to make it—a soccer player, a fireman. Then reality struck. “Now I’m ready to die for it.”

Lobo says he was jumped in at 11, meaning he fought several fellow gang members at once to test his dedication. He got his first tattoo at 13—three dots under his left eye; mi vida loca [my crazy life], it’s called.

“All the kids in my neighborhood felt the same,” he says. “The rest of the city was treating us like outsiders. We said, ‘Society doesn’t want us in their world, so we’ll make our own world. It may not be the best, but it’s ours.'”

He glances at the children on the playground.

“Maybe [my son] won’t end up like me.” The toddler is wearing a blue shirt and blue pants. Whether intentionally or not, by dressing his son in gang colors, Lobo is exposing him to the culture to which he himself is inextricably tied.

Ruben and four friends drive around the barrio, or neighborhood, one night, carrying baseball bats and looking for a rival. Ruben wears blue. So do his friends.

“I think we broke his ribs,” Ruben says. “He jumped one of our friends—we had to get him back.”

The rivals wear blue as well—sureños were fighting sureños. The 10 organized gangs in Reno, about two-thirds of all gang members, are sureños divided by barrios. They wear another color in addition to blue to differentiate one gang from another. In the absence of old enemies, they have made new ones.

Andrew Sanchez’s older brother would probably fight Ruben if they met. The second oldest of five sons living with a single mother, Andrew, 16, is not a peewee. He is an associate trying to resist the pull of the clique. While most closely associated with his brother’s gang, he gets along with other gangs as well.

“I don’t support sureños fighting sureños,” he says. His black hair is slicked back into a wave that exaggerates the thinness of his face. His shirt is striped, sky blue and black.

He is sitting at the kitchen table in the mobile home of a fellow associate, Rob Pulido, 18. A plate of dried-out spaghetti and a blender caked with dried Slim-Fast are set atop the table along with Rob’s cell phone.

“You see your homeboys get shot down,” Rob says, “and you start realizing that [gang life] is not something worth dying for.” His face is scarred with acne. Sweatshirt with hood: navy blue. “I don’t understand why we fight, but I still do it.”

His mobile phone rings a few minutes after 7 p.m. His mother says she won’t get off work until 9 p.m. The television overwhelms part of his response. Rob’s younger brother is on the couch watching Scooby Doo.

“You don’t let other people know that you’re having second thoughts about being in a gang,” Andrew says. His voice is soft and brief, becoming of his nickname, Bashful. “They’ll hate you. They’ll think you’re a punk.”

“You can get done with gangbanging,” Rob says, “but it’s not done with you. If you quit, your friends aren’t going to kick it with you no more, so the other gangs are going to come after you harder because you don’t have backup.

“You have to keep going.”

Nerey is attempting to set associates like Andrew and peewees like Ruben on a new course. He has steered Andrew into boxing. He trains every day after school.

“You feel good about what you’re doing,” Andrew says. “You realize you’ve wasted your time on a gang.”

“The events Unlimited Intervention organizes give kids another focus,” Nerey says. His voice is calm and melodic. “It puts a dream in their minds. Otherwise, all they would have to look up to would be gang members who are in and out of jail.”

Lobo finished high school in San Diego County Jail, maximum security.

“They say that counts for something,” he says, “so I thought I had a fair chance. But ain’t nobody going to give me a job the way I look.”

Tattoos displaying his gang heritage tag every visible part of his body—face, upper arms, forearms, wrists, knuckles. One tattoo curves with the collar of his white undershirt.

Roberto Nerey of Unlimited Intervention calls graffiti “the newspaper of the streets.”<br>

Photo by David Robert

“If I were to have an opportunity I’d take it,” he says. “There’s not a forklift out there I can’t drive—diesel-powered, gasoline, propane, power lift and man lift—I can drive any of them.”

Instead, he says, “I’ll hustle pumps, air hoses, rims. Anything and everything you got—I will find a buyer for it. Speakers, stereos, doors, frames, windows. It’s one of the many things I do to make money.”

The potential to make money is one factor that attracted Lobo to Reno. He says the laws have gotten too strict in California, where the “three strikes and you’re out” law has meant 25 years to life for many gangsters. Even though Nevada passed a law in the early ‘90s declaring that a sentence would be doubled for any crime that proved to be gang-related, Nevada is mild compared with California, Lobo says.

Gangs arrived in force in Reno in 1987, during the flush Reagan years. The economy was strong; people had more money to spend on drugs—mostly crack cocaine, marijuana and crank—and business boomed. Gangs spread north and east from California. At first white and black gangs were strong in Reno. Then Latinos outnumbered them and took over.

To combat a growing gang population, the Reno Police Department’s Gang Unit was created in 1991. Its 2002 annual report lists its duties as gang suppression and diversion, intelligence gathering, public education and graffiti abatement. It has yet to meet Lobo, but Ruben has frequented their company.

Ruben wore no blue. He was inconspicuous in his orange hard hat and vest—at least he was dressed like those around him. Armed with a shovel, Ruben worked along the roads for 20 days last summer, picking up soda cans and plastic water bottles, digging up weeds and bushes along the shoulders.

“You can’t stop, or they fail you,” he says, meaning that his parole officer would add an extra day to his work crew sentence.

This is one way the police may help exacerbate the gang situation, Nerey says, because they don’t understand its source—anger. Gang members may see this type of treatment as disrespectful, which encourages them to spend time with people who treat them respectfully—like other gang members.

“We’re dealing with individuals who are very angry,” he says. “If you don’t know how to approach them in a particular way, then you’ll lose them. That’s the problem law enforcement has.”

After his work on the roads was finished, Ruben says, he and a friend took turns mugging women while the other watched. On another occasion, he stole $1,200 in bicycles, for which he was caught again.

“There’s a wall between police and these kids that destroys any opportunity for mutual respect,” Nerey says, “and in gang culture it’s all about respect.”

Of the 20 officers in the Gang Unit, says Lt. Rick Cardwell of the Reno Police Department, “at least three speak Spanish well enough to communicate.” In situations where a higher level of translation is required, he says, the Gang Unit has access to a phone service employing translators who collectively speak more than 80 languages. Or, usually, they find a translator who works for the city.

Theresa Navarro, president of Unlimited Intervention, says that during the three years she worked for the city, the gang unit called her numerous times “in the middle of an incident” to translate. It was impractical and dangerous, she says. She is annoyed that, given a burgeoning Latino gang population, the police still haven’t corrected the situation.

According to the Reno Police Department’s annual gang report, the number of arrests, deaths, drive-bys and crimes is decreasing. The report credits a large portion of the decrease to the Gang Unit’s “proactive approach in identifying and monitoring gang members and gang activity.”

However, Nerey warns, gang violence, like a slump in the economy, occurs in cycles. Today the gangs may be languid, but what if a new drug hits the streets and, with hundreds of new members, gangs want to expand their markets? What if norteños, like the Fresno Bulldogs, move to town? When they have shown up for Hot August Nights the past couple of years, the feuding sureños have united against them, Nerey says, and already that week has become associated with gang violence.

To their credit, the Reno Police Department, Sparks Police Department and Washoe County Sheriff’s Office have cooperated with Unlimited Intervention and other programs, such as Washoe County Juvenile Services and the Boys & Girls Club of America to “ensure that underserved populations receive needed recreation and social services,” according to the annual gang report.

Unlimited Intervention has the respect of the Latino community, Lobo says. “Cheeko can tackle the problem from the roots. He’s trying to help my little brother. He’s trying to improve the situation for my son.”

After the city withdrew funding from his previous employer, the Gang Alternative Program, Nerey began Unlimited Intervention; for three years he has remained a kinetic continuum striving, in the absence of a paycheck, to build a bridge between society at large and the Latino community.

Staffed by Nerey, Navarro and one part-time volunteer, Unlimited Intervention does what no other organization in town does—graffiti rides.

“The way these kids communicate is the graffiti on the wall,” Nerey says. “[It’s] the newspaper of the streets. Unfortunately, a lot of us miss what they’re trying to cry out to us every day.”

Navarro and Nerey drive in his blue Ford Ranger and assess territory encroachments and threats made from one gang to another. They find the “taggers” and risk their lives to intervene.

“Theresa, standing 5-foot-nothing, is out there in the thick of it,” Nerey says. In addition to graffiti rides, Navarro says she counsels adolescents at more than 15 area high schools and middle schools and gives presentations on gang intervention at PTA meetings and English as a Second Language classes.

Drugs and gang membership are sometimes seen as ways to escape the problems of family life and society.<br>

Photo by David Robert

“Patience is essential,” she says. She wears a red patent leather jacket and red lipstick. But she says she has never been associated with a gang.

“The last thing we want to do is fail on these kids,” Nerey says, “because they’ve already been given up on.”

As reflected by his blue truck, Nerey toes the line between maintaining his clout within the Latino community and building his reputation in Reno. The story of his incarceration and reformation is told in an unpublished book manuscript, If I Had Only Known, with an introduction by Steven Kosach, the judge who sentenced Nerey. The two are now friends, Nerey says.

Because Unlimited Intervention’s role is preventive rather than punitive, the degree to which the organization has reduced gang violence can’t be gauged. Although other civic organizations, including the police, call their programs preventive and intervening, they fail to delve into the barrios as Unlimited Intervention does; they operate after the fact of violence.

The police were called after an episode at Ruben’s house. He and his stepdad had already exchanged chicasos in the kitchen; Ruben had scored three blows. Knife in hand, his intention was to kill, but his mother blocked the way. Ruben ran outside, smashed his stepdad’s car windows and ran away for three months, breaking into vacant houses for shelter.

That was the bottom of a lifelong descent. In the seven years Ruben has lived in Reno, he says, he can’t count the number of times his mother has said, “I should’ve left you in Mexico” or “I hope you rot in jail” or “I hope you die.”

“Sometimes I’d just get high because of my problems,” he says. “I’d rob houses, trade the gold for crank or coke.” He says he injured his nose from sniffing crank. “I think I made a hole or something.”

At age 12, he smoked marijuana every day. He got drunk daily when 13 and 14.

“Sometimes you cry at night for no reason,” he says. “'I need to go smoke some more,’ you say. You want to die. But you can’t die, because you’ll go to hell.”

Now he is trying to reverse course to whatever degree possible—a change catalyzed by his real father, who turned him in to the police.

Francisco Lazaro had no place in his son’s life until his ex-wife told him how severe the situation had become. Once a gangbanger himself, he converted to Christianity in 1987, the same year Ruben was born. He worked as a missionary in Mexico and Alaska before meeting his son.

“Be a man,” he told Ruben. “Do your time. When you get out, you can live with me.”

Ruben hasn’t swallowed, sniffed, smoked or injected crank since he has lived with his father, he says. Sometimes, he craves the drug. He’s going through a lot of changes.

Last year he wore the Mongolian hairstyle—ponytail in back, short on top. He lost the ponytail, so that he would look less conspicuous while shoplifting.

But the new haircut has another effect: Cropped short on top, oily bangs spiked into a small crest, Ruben’s hair helps him look like an ordinary kid.

“Most gangsters now are fake,” he says. “They’re living the good life. They have mom, dad; they get what they want.”

Gangsters used to claim territory, like a hundred dogs lifting their legs in unison. Now the boundaries have been set, gangs are in a lull, and the only thing for gang members to do, Ruben says, is get high and find an excuse for petty conflict.

“Why do you want to be a gangster?” he says to wannabe gangsters. “You got love. I come from a broken home.

“Take advantage of this life, fool. You got everything, fool. I don’t have nothing, fool.”

A few months ago, Ruben was expelled from the Boys & Girls Club for carrying a pocketknife. That was when his parole officer introduced him to Unlimited Intervention. Now, Nerey says, he gives Ruben all the attention he can spare and hopes it will fertilize the goodness within.

“Like the gardeners who bend bonsai trees as they grow,” Ruben’s father says, “Roberto knows that you must bend minds while they’re young. Ruben is still a pup.”

His broad moustache and eyebrows provide a model of what his son’s might one day look like.

Still wearing a blue T-shirt, Ruben talks about his future. He wants money, cars, girls, he says.

“I’ve been thinking about going to the Marines. They’re probably tougher than gangsters.”

The names of several gang members in this story were changed.