Though he limps slightly from a bullet-shattered leg, Ninja moves with an easy assurance and a lean dignity. Head high, he walks into Cookie Rodriguez’s Street Church, a drafty, converted warehouse on a seamy stretch of commercial properties on Lawnview Avenue in East Dallas. It is a fortaleza, a sanctuary, an inner-city mission for teenage gangsters, and neutral turf where rival gang members can meet in uneasy peace.
Ninja crosses to stand with his back to the bare, dingy wall, between two ready exits. Though not large, his presence is forceful, suggesting hidden motives and brooding passions. A blue bandanna, tied Apache-style, covers hair close-cropped above an angular, mahogany race that is only slightly softened by a slim mustache and a small goatee. His long black eyes flash from one end of the room to the other.
Within seconds a contingent of schoolboy “wannabes” clusters around him, drawn as if by a powerful magnet. “Hey Ninja man, bad dude, what’s going down?” asks a kid whose hair is shaved on two sides, the top cut to stand up like a duck’s top notch. “Where you been?” demands another, tugging down on a black baseball cap that bears the name of his gang trimmed in gold. “How fast can you break down a car?” “What you carrying?” “Lemme see. main man…” They vie for attention like energetic young cubs, impatiently waiting for a turn to slap their hero’s hand in a sliding lowrider handshake, or to touch the blue lines of a sinewy spider web tattoo etched on the back of his wrist. “Ninja, he knows what time it is,” they say. “The Ninja, he crazy, he the baddest, he the best.” Ninja’s teeth flash white and the hard lines of his face relax into a smile.
Though Ninja can’t read, write, or multiply one-digit numbers, his is a name known and respected throughout the cramped, heavily ethnic barrios of old East Dallas, from East Grand west to Central Expressway, from La Vista south to Peak. For six years he has been the notorious leader of a large and well-organized gang, one of Dallas’s most dangerous, known for selling and using weapons that are frequently more sophisticated than those carried by Dallas police. “Don’t leave home without it,” is the gang’s plagiarized maxim, referring not to credit card power but to AK-47s and Tech-9s.
Ninja’s eighteen-year-old bodyguard and a couple of “road dogs,” trusted friends, stand by, ready and willing to take any bullet meant for their leader. He goes nowhere alone, for there have been unnumbered attempts on his life. “I always wanted to be somebody,” Ninja says. “My older brother El Gato, everybody was scared of him. I wanted that kind of respect, to be noticed.”
At the age of twenty, after years of living by , the sword, the Ninja has achieved his desire. But the romance has grown tawdry, the drama tragic, and the taste of success bitter and barbed. Last October Ninja peered into the bleak shadows of one coffin too many, and contemplated his future in the cold, stony race of seventeen-year-old Daniel Gonzalez. “We were like brothers. We loved each other,” Ninja says. “I gave Danny his first gun and taught him how to use it. He wanted to be like me.”
Now Danny is dead and Ninja is a weary bandit going straight, trying to extricate himself from a system in which the strongest defense is attack, where constant displays of force are the only deterrent to enemy ambush. The word has gone down on the streets that the Ninja has hung up his guns. That means it’s open season.. .
Ninja’s boyhood fantasies were not of gangsters and guns. One of seven children of Mexican peasant immigrants, Ninja. born Luis Lopez, was the first mate Lopez offspring born in the land of opportunity: sun-kissed Southern California. U.S.A. He dreamed of someday becoming a policeman, envisioning himself proudly wearing the Blue, throttling a shiny and powerful squad car. The grown-ups in the world of his wishes would show great respect, while the children would aspire to be like him. Such secret ambitions were manna to an undersized second-grader suffering through a learning disability and limited skills in English.
Though they were painfully poor and often hungry, Ninja’s was a happy family. His parents were united, holding fast to the belief that their partnership in hard work was the ticket to a better life. “I wanted my children to grow up to be successful, to have good jobs, to be good citizens” recalls Frank Lopez, Ninja’s father. But when the economy in “El Norte” nosedived, finding simple, honest employment became impossible. The family of nine moved into the streets. “We slept on park benches, washaterias, or bus stations,” Ninja’s mother Marta says. “I prayed that we would be safe, that the boys would go the right way.” She places a work-roughened hand over her heart, remembering. “Every Sunday, no matter where we had slept. I took them to church.”
In 1982, desperate for work, the Lopez family enacted The Grapes of Wrath in reverse, bundling up the almost nonexistent fruits of their labors and migrating from California to Dallas. Their prayers were answered with a tiny apartment in East Dallas and jobs with long hours and low pay. For Ninja, left alone most of the time, the future was quickly decided. His sporadic attendance at school during the homeless years guaranteed his failure in the classroom. His seventh-grade teacher at Long Middle School wrote him off the first day when it became apparent that he could neither read nor write. He fared little better with his classmates. As new kid on the block he was fair game for every incumbent schoolyard bully. “I was alone, with no one, so the bigger kids would beat me up,” Ninja remembers. ’’Finally I got tired of it.”
Since he so obviously lacked the resources to achieve success in the classroom, Ninja transferred his ambitions to the streets, where he was light years ahead of the local boys, ’I got where I loved to fight. I was good at it, and I won respect,” Ninja says. “I would do it in front of a lot of people, with the baddest dudes, so everyone else would be scared. I got where I liked to see them hurt, to see the blood come out. ’You tell your friends,’ I would tell them all. I could really scare people. It made me feel.. . powerful.”
In accordance with the street-worn barrio saying, “A twig is easily broken, but not so a bundle,” Ninja established affiliations with classmates who were for the most part like himself: poor students, frequently targets of racial slurs (from tormentors who were as likely to be second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans as Anglos), whose families were locked in cycles of poverty and impotence. On the streets of L.A., Ninja had witnessed the power wielded by gang members, the older brother he admired, El Gato, among them. Ninja’s father too had once been on the wrong side of the law.
“My father was murdered by twelve men in Mexico.” Senor Lopez explains. “I grew up filled with bitterness and hate, and all I knew was the desire to avenge his death. When I was seventeen I killed the first of his murderers, and I spent time in prison. After that I tried to live right. But my family is still suffering for what I did. Three of my sons have been with gangs.”
Though his father bitterly regretted his crimes, such a legacy of vendettas and “honorable” violence was to Ninja the most romantic and appealing part of his heritage. “Me and my friends decided to make a gang,” Ninja says. “We only wanted East Dallas guys, so we could claim a barrio.” They dressed Southern California lowrider style, in dark plaid flannel shirts and baggy pants, signaling their “’colors” with blue bandannas tied gypsy-style over their hair. They called themselves the East Side Locos. Rootless no more, they claimed all of East Dallas as their turf and “’Ninja” became their leader.
When Ninja and half a dozen of his “homeboys” dropped out of Long Middle School in eighth grade, weary administrators and faculty took a good hard look in the other direction, thanking the stars that at least some of the boys had become someone else’s problem. The boys’ parents, for their part, were bewildered by sons who rejected the best of the old country’s values while embracing the worst of the new. In addition to having no idea how to approach the system, the Lopez family, and others like them, shared a gut-level fear of authority. “We didn’t speak the language, we had no education, what could we do?” Ninja’s mother’s voice trails off and she shakes her head.
During the long, empty hours, the new gangsters came up with a set of club-like rules and vague objectives, the main thrust of which was to achieve the status of Numero Uno, though in exactly what arena they were to be number one was not defined. To be best they would probably have to be biggest, so they set out to recruit in earnest. The fields were ripe for harvest: scores of middle-school boys, many of whom feared for their physical safety when classes were dismissed each day, had nowhere to go and nothing to do after school. They were more than willing to be inducted into a chic and selective fraternity. They bowed stoic heads and “crossed the tine.” accepting blow after blow from the clenched fists of established gang members, proving themselves of tough enough mettle to back up the horneboys, one for all and all for one. “When you step out your front door, all you have is your gang,” Ninja explains. “You gotta know they won’t split and leave you alone.” Once “crossed in,” the recruits flew their new colors proudly, heads held high to display their hard-won black eyes and bruises.
For most of 1983 and 1984 the homeboys hung out on drab East Dallas street corners and thought up delinquent deeds. “We started getting ideas about how to steal cars.” Ninja says. After a little research and a series of blustering pep talks, he and three other homeboys mustered their combined courage and hot-wired a car. “There was nothing to it. We couldn’t believe that was all there was to it,’” Ninja says. For a group of dead-end kids with seven monotonous days to fill each week, this illegal joyriding became a winged ticket to the Magic Kingdom. “First we stole them just for fun. Then we stole them to sell rims and hydraulics,” Ninja recalls. For the first time in his life, he had money to spend. Although he was more interested in drama than profit, the sense of power purchased by the proceeds of crime was sweet and as addictive as any drug.
Like many teenage boys, the homeboys counted The Godfather and Scarface among their favorite films. “The Mafia movies, we liked them best,” Ninja says. “The stuff they did, especially robbing banks, it looked so easy.” They made a pact, as the credits rolled by, to try it. It was an intriguing new game, and they discussed its execution with the daring and enthusiasm most teenage boys reserve for sex. They brandished imaginary guns, wrestling and shadow-boxing, pumping themselves up, hubba-hubba. like football players before a big game. Ninja, who knew instinctively that it’s far easier for a leader to lose a rep than to gain one, finally translated the talk into action and broke into a pawn shop after hours. “I was scared, man. I ran away the first time and had to go back. I was just so scared I didn’t think I could do it.” Despite his nervous bungling he escaped with several guns, and he and his homeboys were in business.
When push came to shove they opted to rob gas stations instead of banks. Ninja, his still boyishly smooth cheeks hidden behind a mask, right hand locked on the stolen gun in a death grip, led the first expedition. He forced the attendant to the floor and jabbed the stolen gun into his mouth, “Miami Vice” style. The robbery went down without a hitch.
Afterwards Ninja, shaking like a leaf, was as impressed with his verve as the homeboys were. Though a few bruises were the extent of the attendant’s physical injury, the violence of the assault served as a diabolic rite of passage. “After that first time, then I had guts.” Ninja remembers. “We’d go to the Trinity River bottoms to practice, or shoot around the neighborhood once in a while. I started carrying my gun on the street for my image. Then someone shot back. So I found out what kind of guns they had and 1 went out for bigger and better stuff.” The word went down on the streets and the homeboys. ranging in age from fourteen to sixteen, found themselves blessed, or cursed, with a rep that had to be constantly fed or die.
On Saturday nights, groups of teenage boys and girls, self-described “all-American kids.” park in the deserted lots of an Oak Cliff or Pleasant Grove neighborhood car-wash, or alongside the curb that borders a city park in Oak Lawn or Garland. They sit on the hoods of their cars, stereos thumping, and pop the tops from cold drinks in aluminum cans. The guys, sporting funky hairdos and flashy rags, bunch up, self-consciously laughing and punching each other. The girls touch up their lipstick and sway their hips to the beat of the music, whispering and eyeing the boys.
These young people might, with a few minor adjustments in wardrobe and makeup, pass for a scene from American Graffiti. But the movie these kids emulate is the 1988 teen cult hit Colors: “Two cops, two gangs, one hell of a war.” The songs that move them are pulsing street rhythms with volatile lyrics featuring cop-bashing and gang warfare, performed by popular hard-core rappers like Ice T, the self-proclaimed narcotics czar from Southern California whose 1989 New Year’s Eve concert in Dallas was shut down when officials were unable to control the crowd. The brown-paper packet the boys and girls take from the trunk of a car conceals not an illicit six-pack, but crack. The girls, instead of wearing their sweethearts’ rings, carry their guns. The boastful chatter about “making some fireworks” has nothing to do with cherry bombs. Sooner or later, perhaps on a dare, someone will pop a shot. One thing will lead to another. The gangs and their girls long ago accepted the rituals of the streets.
“If we stop shooting, we’ll look weak. Then we’ll get shot,” Benny explains. Anna calls it “a risk you got to take. If you get shot, you get shot. If you die, you die.”’ Michael sees it all as self-defense, ’if they shoot us, we shoot back. It’s normal,” he says. “If they kill one of us, we kill one of them. Then we’ll see how they like it,” taunts Chris.
Though barrio gangs like Ninja’s were already present in Dallas on a limited scale, Colors gave wings to a more deadly phenomenon in Dallas as well as other large cities. Well-armed newcomer gangs exploded onto the scene, encroaching on established territories and challenging barrio homeboys. In addition to a tremendous increase in number and variety of what the DPD Youth Gang Unit officers call “garbage pistols, your standard, average household guns,” Israeli- and Russian-made assault weapons, a la Colors, began to appear on Dallas streets, cradled in the arms of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys. Fights that once had been fist against fist were settled bloodily and impersonally with guns. AK-47s, Uzis, Tech-9s. and sawed-off shotguns, burglarized from residences and gun shops or acquired in trade with more mature drug-dealing contacts, replaced the chains, brass knuckles, and switch blades of previous generations.
Colors proved to be a crash course in anarchy and impersonal murder. Hundreds of unconnected, disaffected adolescents with few interests and little excitement in their lives rallied as if to a siren call. Intoxicated by the power of the Los Angeles youth gangs, they perceived Colors as a romantic adventure. It was a wild and forceful fantasy, and they seized the opportunity to act it out.
Middle and high school principals noticed students of both sexes clustering into new kinds of cliques, sporting striking renegade haircuts and adopting distinctive styles of clothing. “My ninth-graders organized over the summer,” says former Sunset High School principal Richard Marquez. “’I noticed it the day they returned from summer vacation, quoting lines, intact, from the movie.” Provocative graffiti-innocent scribbles to the uninitiated, lethal messages to those in the know-were splashed across the walls of campus buildings, elementary through high school, all over the Dallas Independent School District. Increasingly sophisticated weapons were confiscated in school parking lots and even in class.
Senior Corporal Bob Neuman of the DPD Youth Gang Unit calls Colors a definitive “primer for gangs.” Within weeks of its release law enforcement officers witnessed, on the streets from Mesquite to Arlington, Lancaster to Lewisville, a stunning instant replay. Teenage drive-by shootings, as depicted on the big screen, became weekly events. Schoolyard assaults were more frequent and vicious, and victims included an increasing number of innocent bystanders. Inner-city parks like Reverchon and Kidd Springs. Exall and Lake Cliff were transformed from playgrounds by day into battlefields by night.
The boy-gangsters dubbed their new toys “quetes,” firecrackers, and stashed ammunition in their closets and beneath their beds, next to the dirty socks. They stowed their guns, when not flaunting them, in the trunk or under the seats of an older gang member’s car. If they anticipated trouble, or wanted to start some, they took their guns to school.
Gang membership mushroomed as established gangs like Ninja’s competed with new and younger groups. Since a teen gang’s status and safety is dependent upon the acquisition of bigger and better weapons than those of the opposition, significant criminal activity was no longer a choice. With the new high stakes, gangs, once a minor subculture in rougher urban neighborhoods, had evolved into a major fact of Dallas life.
“With a carved-off, I got a sawed-off, Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off.
You too boy, if you f— with me, The po-lice are gonna hafta come get me.
Here’s a mother-rapper to keep you dancing,
With a record like Charles Manson. AK-47 is the tool.
Don’t make me out a mother f—ing fool…”
The dozen “prep” boys in the Oak Cliff city park know the free-form rhymes of Ice T’s latest raps by heart. Lounging in the dark shadows, away from the umbrella glow of the Park and Rec lights, smoking pot and drinking cheap booze, they talk about brotherhood, being the best and the “baddest” of desperados, and living and dying for the gang. Seventeen-year-old second-lieutenant Danny Gonzalez, a ’”nice boy” from a comfortable and conservative, tree-shaded neighborhood east of White Rock Lake, swaggers and struts, bragging about the sophisticated weapons he already possesses and those he could acquire. He boasts of his dazzling “gauging” and “capping” skills, and the rep he and his prep boys have already attained. Though Danny shares the gang leadership with Moses, a street-tough teenager from Lewisville, he is clearly the flamboyant star of the hottest new show in town, at least on this firecracker-hot night last July. “I never saw anybody like Danny,” says fourteen-year-old Eric Peterson, who asked that his real name not be used. “He was the craziest, the bravest.”
Eric, like Danny the product of a comfortable, middle-class home, was as appreciative a fan as any posturing headliner could wish for. A vacillating wannabe who worried about getting in over his head. Eric usually hung out on the fringes. This Saturday night he was privileged to join the inner circle by sitting in on the initiation of his best buddy Joey. “Hey, Peterson,” Danny jerked his head toward Eric. “You been running with the AV Boys long enough. If you’re bad enough to run with us. you’re bad enough to get initiated tonight.”
As Danny talked on, Eric drank and smoked until he was high enough to agree. ’I just wanted to be like everybody else,” he says now.
The initiation rite began as Danny. Moses, and six or seven high-level gang members kicked, dragged, and stomped on Eric, prying the boy’s arms from a protective cradle over his face. The honored victim’s only confused, hazy thought was that if he couldn’t go the distance, he’d be exiled, forever on the outside. He tucked his head down to keep from vomiting until his allegiance was sealed. Though he was petrified, he felt a pulsing elation. For the moment at least, Danny’s new young follower scarcely noticed the pain.
Eric’s anti-hero, patron, and now his leader was a handsome, well-mannered, middle-class boy, nurtured and educated in the Catholic church. The Gonzalezes had hoped that their son and daughter could remain untouched by the violence that daily crowded the pages of the newspapers. But by September 1989, the family had been subjected to threatening epithets shouted from the open car windows of speeding cars and death threats on the answering machine. “Danny started having problems because of his adjustment to the public school,” Rebecca Gonzalez, Danny’s mother told the Dallas Times Herald. “Maybe we protected him too much and he wasn’t exposed to a lot of things. I don’t know.”
What Mrs. Gonzalez did know was that Danny was staying out late at night with a group of boys who listened to loud, vulgar music and wore disturbingly unconventional hairstyles. Strange, stylized drawings branded his school notebooks, and handmade, tattooed initials darkened the backs of his hands. Though half afraid of the answer, Rebecca Gonzalez demanded to know what the initials AV meant. “Audio-Visual-it’s a school club.” Danny said. By the lime she discovered, too late, that AV stood for “Always Violent,” she realized that her sweet, sheltered son had led a double life.
Two years before, Danny had met an East Dallas teenager with a Mexican-Mafia-inspired spider web tattoo and the street name of Ninja. Danny was itching for some excitement and had been immediately attracted to Ninja’s don’t-mess-with-me air of authority. He viewed the gang leader as dashing and dangerous, a charismatic top player in what appeared to Danny an exhilarating game. He, too. wanted to play.
Feeling an almost brotherly responsibility, Ninja look Danny under his wing and a curious friendship blossomed. He felt protective of the vulnerable younger boy, and Danny’s eager interest put some shine into Ninja’s tarnished illusions. “I was the one who taught him about guns and gangs and how to escape the cops. I taught him how to intimidate other dudes,” Ninja says. “If you scare ’em bad enough, you don’t have to shoot so much.” What Ninja didn’t tell Danny was how at times he felt suicidal, how he had grown to hate sleeping with a gun.
Although Danny briefly joined Ninja’s lowrider homeboys, he soon aspired to lead a New Wave, slicker breed of gang whose influence would cut across traditional geographic turfs. He set out to establish a reputation. “He asked me, as a friend, to help him,’” Ninja says. “He would come to me with his problems, ask for my help when he got into hot water.”
In the summer of 1989 Danny Gonzalez recruited several hundred members. None of them liked being told what to do by their parents, but all considered themselves privileged to take orders from Danny. Though he organized them into what amounted to an insurgent guerrilla army, his management style was strictly middle-class corporate: membership and recruitment lists, diagrams of sophisticated hand signals. Sketches of signature haircuts and clothing, as if on the drawing board, were scattered throughout his notebooks. Gang emblems blanketed the covers of his books.
By the first day of the 1989/90 school year, Danny had effectively established his gang as a force to be reckoned with, notorious for carrying guns and synonymous with danger. Their ideological turf extended from Lancaster to Denton. Like most members of the police-drama generation, they equated their recklessness with courage, and believed themselves somehow invincible.
N UNINITIATED BYSTANDER. SEEING police from Dallas, Garland, and Rowlett, and numbering the cars in the funeral motorcade, might have assumed it to be a slightly skewed affair of state. The long, snaking procession headed north on Garland Road, en route from the St. Bernard Catholic Church to the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Rowlett. Radios blared full blast, basses thumping in a macabre harmony.
Inside the cars, street-hardened young faces were angry and defiant, with only the least experienced and the weakest betraying their fear. Ninja stroked the coat that covered his hip with long, nervous fingers. His piece was ready, in place, just in case.
Uniformed officers watched warily from their cars at the cemetery gates. The dark, restless body of mourners fanned out behind and around the burial plot, clustering in groups, allegiances proclaimed by signature colors, clothing, and posture. Hand signals flashed and ritual handshakes were exchanged- Guns and knives remained hidden as the pandilleros, though members of rival gangs, united to pay their respects to Danny Gonzalez.
The homeboys of the deceased formed a jagged line facing a fresh pyramid of dirt at the edge of a gaping, rectangular hole. They were dressed prep style, turtlenecks and khaki pants, hair in the signature cut: left side up, meaning shaved on the sides and high and combed over on top. Some wore black jackets boldly appliqued with the words “In Memory of Danny.”
Three days before, Danny Gonzalez’s illusions of immortality had been shattered by a well-aimed bullet that ripped through his chest. He and thirty to forty homeys had been hanging out, doping, drinking, and rapping at Kidd Springs Park in Oak Cliff. Shortly after one a.m., rival gang member Andrew Reyna drove up to the curb, calling out for one of Danny’s homeboys. Danny, known for an intrepid “mad dog” stare, approached the car. The fierce, non-verbal challenge he issued was the most direct there is in the ritual of gang warfare. “It wasn’t even Danny Reyna was calling,” Eric says. “But because he was Danny, the bravest, he walked up to the car, and he got it.” Reyna shot three times. The homeboys, except for Danny, ducked. “There was a lot of blood and he was still conscious, still walking for a minute before he fell out,” Eric says. “I’ve been shot,” Danny announced in shocked unbelief. Then he crumpled to the ground, blood spurting from a hole in his chest.
“We took Danny and piled into a car to take him to Methodist,” Eric remembers. “Everybody else followed us. All the way there the girls were screaming and us guys kept saying, ’What if he dies, what if he dies?’ And everybody was thinking, “What’re we gonna do to the guys that did it?” We knew, if there’d been time, that Danny’s last words would’ve been ’get revenge.’”
As the mourners watched, Rebecca Gonzalez knelt beside the coffin of her son. One by one they filed forward to pay their final respects. Though their gold “ropes” and earrings winked in the bright sun of a Texas October, despair hung in a palpable cloud. The future could offer little besides alienation, addiction, prison, or death.
From out of the crowd, the Ninja, wearing a blue bandanna and the lowriders’ uniform of baggy cholo pants and high-buttoned flannel, pushed his way through to the deep oblong pit. His limp was more pronounced than usual, like that of a rheumatic old man, but his lean face was hard. Daring Danny’s prep boys to stand in his way, Ninja knelt and dug his bare hands into the pungent dirt, then slowly released it handful by handful. Clods of dirt struck the sunken face of Danny’s casket with a dull, hollow thud. Though his eyes were defiant, a strange kind of panic needled in Ninja’s veins.
FROM A TINY, WINDOWLESS OFFICE IN the Street Church, a diminutive, gypsy-like woman named Cookie Rodriguez works tirelessly for her charges: gang members, dropouts, runaways, drug addicts. She makes deals with probation officers and trade offs with court judges. She tips off the police when she hears, through the grapevine, that a dangerous “throw-down” is in the works.
By her late teens, the woman that Dallas judge Harold Entz calls the “Mother Teresa” of gangs had been a New York City gang “deb,” a heroin addict, a prostitute, and an unwed mother. She’d assaulted a teacher, knifed a policeman, been in and out of mental institutions and jails, and attempted suicide. Though she despised the parents who had abandoned her, the “friend” who had raped her, and the court psychologists and probation officers who tried to figure her out, her greatest revulsion had been reserved for herself.
“Finally, when I hit absolute rock bottom, a stranger took time to reach out to me,” Cookie says. “He told me that I didn’t have to die in the streets, that God loved me, that my life was of value, that I could make it.” Twenty years later her simple message, often overlooked in the tangled red tape of DISD and Dallas County Juvenile Department programs, echoes that of her Good Samaritan stranger: “You kids are special. You kids can make your lives count for something.” She rolls up her sleeves and shows them the scar-puckered needle tracks that make a map of her inner arms. “You can see where I’ve come from,” she tells them. “I’m not ashamed. How long or how low you’re down isn’t important. What matters is how hard you fight to get up.”
The authorities have learned to respect Cookie, tacitly agreeing that the walls of the Street Church mark her undisputed jurisdiction. “When a teenage gang member is wanted for murder, I’ll promise to bring him in peacefully, in exchange for thirty-six hours and the freedom to do things my way,” she explains. “I arrange for rival gang members to meet and talk things out, or for kids who are afraid of the cops, but want to confess or disarm, to make their statement and turn in their weapons through me.” After hours, she hits the streets, cruising the parks, alleys, and fast-food joints where her kids hang out, even crashing their weekend parties. “I involve myself in their lives,” Cookie says. “They can”t see God’s face, but they can see His concern for them in me.”
Cookie approached Ninja at Danny’s funeral. “I was so nervous, I admit it,” Cookie recalls. “He had that mean, ugly look, and that walk, you know, that says I’m the baddest.’” Even so, she looked Ninja right in the eye. “Hey, man, 1 don’t want to go to another funeral,” she said. Though Ninja maintained a menacing silence, she continued. “I’m looking for some true men who will take a stand. I’m inviting the gang leaders who are here to the Street Church to discuss a truce.”
Ninja, contemplative and noncommittal, just nodded. “I was remembering Danny, and all the stuff we did together,” Ninja says now. “I was so tired of going nowhere, of watching my back all the time, but I felt like it was my fault Danny died, that it was up to me to do something for him, like I had to go after the guy who did it. I would’ve, too, if I hadn’t seen Cookie at the funeral. I’d heard a lot of good stuff about her and I respected her for being there. I never trusted anybody before, but I felt like maybe 1 could trust her. I thought, ’this is my chance. Somebody’s giving me a chance.’”
An hour later Ninja walked his baddest walk into the Street Church. “There’s going to be trouble,” Cookie’s son D-Boy warned. But Ninja quietly joined eleven gang leaders in Cookie’s office. “I couldn’t believe it,” Cookie says. “I never expected him to show up. I really thought he was too tough a nut to crack.” They sat in a semicircle of chairs facing Cookie. “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword,” Cookie told them. Then they bowed their heads while she prayed.
More than two hundred and fifty gang members crowded outside Cookie’s office, waiting for their leaders to emerge. At last the door opened. Cookie exited first, followed by Ninja and the others. “I want you kids to look at each other,” she ordered those in the crowd. “If the shooting doesn’t stop, some of the faces you’re looking into will soon be those of dead men. We can turn Danny’s death into something positive. Who will stand with me?” Ninja stepped forward and took his place beside her.
“I knew the truce wouldn’t last forever, that it wouldn’t be a permanent solution,” Cookie says. “But I hoped it could be a beginning.” A week later the Ninja, head in his hands, knelt in front of an altar and wept. “I want to come back, God. Take me back. I want to come home.”
Though Danny Gonzalez’s death in October 1989 was by no means the first teen gang slaying, it was the first to receive more than a line or two in the media. Prior to his death, the killings and weekly woundings were mentioned only briefly, if at all, generally in an obscure, back-page summary of metropolitan violence. Minority leaders suggest that most of the violence was perceived as “brown on brown,” limited to lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, and therefore considered not worthy of community notice. But Danny Gonzalez was a middle-class kid from a respected family. He attended private schools until he enrolled in 1988 at Bryan Adams, transferring in 1989 to Skyline. Both are among the most stable and highly regarded DISD high schools, ranking in the top academic quartile.
Of the eighty-four gangs catalogued by the DPD Youth Gang Unit, fewer than ten are officially considered criminally violent, with the remainder engaged primarily in schoolyard fighting. Members from twenty-seven gangs, however, have been processed through the Dallas County Juvenile Department on charges ranging from criminal mischief to murder. Assistant District Attorney Janice Warder keeps tabs on the frightening increase in the number and geographical distribution of gang violence. “There’s no question that we’ve seen an alarming rise, almost an unbelievable increase, in gang-related crime,” she says. “A lot of these kids simply do not appreciate the value of human life. Killing is a game to some of them.” Statistics bear her out: juvenile homicide filings rose to thirty-nine in 1988, and jumped again to fifty-two in 1989.
“It’s not as bad as New York or Los Angeles-yet” has become a catch phrase common to spokespersons for the dozen-plus committees and task forces formed within the last six to eight months to address issues of gang violence. The consensus, however, is that Dallas is well on its way. that gang activity, like a cancer, is spreading steadily and far too quickly through the city and into the suburbs. While there’s no doubt that predominantly Hispanic and African-American communities have been the hardest hit, no neighborhoods-even white middle-class ones-are exempt.
There’s little reason to hope that gangs, like hula hoops, will simply go out of style. On the contrary, DPD Youth Gang Unit detectives fear that teenage gangs that are now primarily social clubs will become sources of low-cost, quick-turnover labor for more sophisticated criminal networks. Police have confirmed that deadly narcotics-dealing gangs from East and West Coast cities now have operations in Dallas and are known to use teenage gangsters as bodyguards and street-level pushers. Since pushing drugs and weapons is easier, experts say, and far more lucrative than ripping off cars, relatively innocuous youth gangs will inevitably cross into the major leagues. As the profits increase, so will the violence.
Educators complain that parents expect schools to solve the problem, in effect dumping their out-of-control teenagers on the doorstep and saying. “Fix them.” Extensive new district policies include stricter dress codes, random locker searches, and the use of metal detectors. The juvenile justice system is likewise berated for not keeping known troublemakers off the streets; officials counter that even if their physical resources were adequate, locking kids up is a poor investment. Juvenile prisons have in fact become known as “gang universities,” whose graduates are far more dangerous and accomplished than they were as freshmen. Though the schools and the juvenile courts, along with the police, are aggressively addressing the crisis, they can at best apply sturdy band-aids to the most blatant symptoms. A cure, juvenile authorities believe, can only come from a massive community effort, beginning with support from, and for, the embattled family.
“Gangs flourish where families don’t,” says District Court Judge Hal Gaither. Gaither says that 90 percent of the cases he sees in court could have been avoided had parents been more involved in their children’s lives.
NINJA SLUMPS IN A CHAIR IN THE DARK living room, his feet twitching on the floor, reflecting on a haunting irony: he himself poses the biggest threat to the survival of his gang. A beam of light from an approaching car glows through the thin sheet covering the large front window. Instinctively Ninja ducks. He wonders where the next bullet will come from.
The bulk of his mother’s furnishings, consisting of a few mattresses and a kitchen table and chairs, has already been loaded into the pickup truck. Stacks of well-worn clothes, a lamp with a faded shade, paint buckets filled with ancient kitchen utensils wait by the front door of the tiny frame house. Ninja’s family had gotten used to the oven-like heat in the summer and the chill winter wind that whistled through cracks in the floor. They had not been able to accept the steady stream of gunshots that shattered the blind hush of night. Ninja and two of his brothers had taken to sleeping on the floor. He counts the bullet punctures around the window: more than fifty from at least four different gun types. “They were, they are, after me,” Ninja says. “I understand why.”
Where the family will move is a secret. How long they will be able to stay is uncertain. Ninja’s father is again unemployed, and there are seven mouths to feed: an older, mentally retarded brother, a younger boy, and two shy, doe-eyed sisters too young to work. At twenty, Ninja has lost count of the times he has been to jail. “I can’t remember-for burglary, for armed robbery, for attempted murder. A lot of times. A lot of stuff,” he says. He has looked for a job, but to no avail.
The way out of trouble is never as easy as the way in. Almost overnight Ninja has become a man without a country, a renegade soldier preaching revolution within his own ranks, recruiting his homeboys to lay their guns down alongside his. He has turned his back on a binding, lifetime pledge to a strict code of honor that asks its members to stand with the group, right or wrong.
Four months after Danny Gonzalez’s death, Ninja’s gang is in disarray, and Ninja agonizes over the split. “I wanted to be with my homeboys,” he says. “But I knew the killing had to stop.” The homeboys had loved and hated together, eaten and gone hungry, shared tenderness as well as violence. They had grown up together; they were in his blood, as he was in theirs. Danny, Rabbit, Miguelito, little Indio: four good friends had been buried in as many months.
IT IS NOON AT THE STREET CHURCH, AND lowriders and preps, from eleven to nineteen years old, jam the six or seven tables that stretch wall to wall in a small, narrow room framed out of the warehouse to serve as a lunchroom. Their restless feet, clumsy and oversized, tap out tangled rhythms on the concrete floor, keeping time to the lively, fast-rising tide of one-upmanship and corny jokes. Story points are generously accented with gestures; one glass of milk goes over, then another.
Four pretty, dark-haired girls, former members of gun-toting girls’ gangs, stand alongside Cookie Rodriguez, talking and giggling while (hey spoon up mounds of starchy spaghetti brought in large cartons from a nearby takeout restaurant. From time to time one or the other will touch a furtive hand to her hair, to make sure the long bangs are swept properly high, fanned out and lacquered stiff with layers of hairspray. Then the Ninja comes in. and the conversation hits a new crescendo. Lowriders and preps alike straighten their backs and thrust out their chins. Twelve-year-old Robert, who started stealing cars before he could see over their steering wheels, calls out to the Ninja: “Hey vato, you still holding down?” “Over here, Ninja man, I got you a seat next to me,” calls a kid with a circular haircut and a long spike in front. “This way, dude,” others beckon. “Hey Ninja, cut me some slack!” Ninja smiles and flashes the victory sign.
“Everything ends,” he tells them. “For how long you gonna be stealing cars and selling drugs? The cars and the gold will end. You can be the baddest there is and it won’t make any difference in three or four years when you’re dead or in jail.” He holds up the Bible that was given to him. “I don’t fight no more. I carry this now, instead of a gun.” Though he cannot yet read a single verse, he intends to learn.
Still unemployed and facing one day at a time, Ninja spends much of his time at the Street Church counseling young gang members. “Go to school,” he tells them. “Try to make something out of your life.”
“Ninja and others like him, they desperately need support,” Cookie says. “They need a purpose, a job, an opportunity to start over.” Ninja has been told that he doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of freeing himself from the past. He is aware that there are those who will consider justice poorly served indeed if he succeeds. “I understand,” he says. He is himself, after all, a graduate of the eye-for-an-eye university. But still he will try. “We can make it, but make it the right way,” Ninja tells the wannabes. “I got out. So can you.”
But where will he go? Where will they?