King County's Growing Latino Gang Problem

Why the answer to this "war" is a tatted-up ex-con named Mr. Buzzard.

The homies used to call him Mr. Buzzard. During his first shooting, when he was a teenager living in East L.A., the OG's in his gang sent him back around the block to make sure the wounded target in their drive-by had indeed met his maker. He got stuck with the nickname when they joked later that he circled the corpse like a bird of prey. A cartoonish green buzzard still pokes its head out of his shirt collar, tattooed there on his neck in faded prison ink. That shit is forever. Then again, it was also forever ago.

These days Mr. Buzzard goes by his given name, Carlos Garza, and lives a new life entirely. The 54-year-old Tukwila resident is an outreach worker for the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. He spends his days mentoring Latino teens who have been involved in gangs or are at risk of following the same path that left him locked up and drug-addicted for much of his life.

On a gorgeous sunny afternoon in August, Garza and a dozen of his kids sit in an arts classroom at the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club in Columbia City. It's the weekly summer meeting of L.U.C.A.S. (Latinos Uniting Communities and Society), a group Garza created two years ago.

On the agenda now is an icebreaker, a mix of Blind Man's Bluff and 20 Questions. Each teen has a yellow sticky note with a celebrity's name written on it affixed to his or her back. The object of the game is to ask a series of yes or no questions—"Am I a musician? Do I rap? Am I Snoop Dogg?"—to figure out what's written on the note.

One unsuspecting teenage girl has Garza's name stuck between her shoulder blades. The standard questions haven't gotten her anywhere, so she tries a different route. "Am I sexy?" she asks.

There's a brief pause as everyone steals a glance at Garza, who has a shaved head, a noticeable scar across the bridge of his nose, and an empty teardrop tattooed below his right eye. "Oh, yeah, real sexy," deadpans one of the kids. With everyone cracking up, Garza can't help but laugh too.

The friendly ribbing lasts until the next activity, where it screeches to a halt. Each kid is supposed to use one word to describe how the past week of their life has gone. But Abi Guerrero, a brash teen with a flat-brimmed Mariners cap perched off-kilter atop his head, requires two. "Not good," he says.

"I got shot at on Saturday night," continues Guerrero, describing a confrontation that unfolded in a parking lot near his home in Rainier Beach. "My friend has a beef with somebody. He called and said he was getting jumped. I went to help."

The way Guerrero tells it, he was just trying to make peace on his buddy's behalf when the gunman suddenly pulled a pistol and took aim from six feet away. The shooter was holding the gun sideways—"gangster style"—and missed despite the point-blank range. Guerrero's homie returned fire, with the same result.

Most of the group, including Guerrero himself, is indifferent to the near-death experience. But one of Garza's fellow helpers is rightfully stunned. She asks the high-school junior if being shot at was a frightening experience. "The first time it was scary," he replies, with as much macho cool as he can muster. "Now I'm kind of used to it."

Moving around the room, the tales of woe pile up. One girl tells of how her mother, the anchor of their family, was detained by federal immigration authorities after a routine traffic stop. An 18-year-old talks about the challenges of finding a job as a single mother with a 2-year-old baby and no high-school diploma. And a 14-year-old and his older sister recount being chased and nearly run over by a group of marauding teenagers in a Cadillac.

"There's so much stuff out there in the mundo that can take away from your focus," Garza tells the group in his typical Spanglish. "You guys, at your age, you have a chance to accomplish so much. Don't waste time like I did. I spent so many years behind bars just wasting time. I'll never get that back."

The words are heartfelt, and despite their struggles most of Garza's kids seem headed in the right direction. Yet they are just a fraction of the troubled young Latinos now living in the Seattle area, predominantly in South King County, where gang-related crime and violence have intensified dramatically over the past year, culminating in a brazen daytime shootout in July that put a dozen people in the hospital.

In response, last month King County Executive Dow Constantine and the County Council promised $1.4 million to combat the growing gang crisis, promising additional resources for local law enforcement and for a variety of prevention and outreach initiatives specifically geared toward Latinos.

The move redoubles existing efforts, but questions still loom: Will it be enough? What motivates kids to join gangs, and prompts older members to quit the life? And the most prominent question: How has Seattle become a hotbed for Latino gang activity seemingly overnight?

Seeking answers, Seattle Weekly spent more than eight weeks researching the rise of Latino street gangs in Seattle, interviewing former and would-be gang members as well as law-enforcement agents from across the state, elected officials, Department of Corrections representatives, teachers, and outreach workers like Garza. The unfortunate consensus: Gangs are almost certainly here to stay. Yet there is still hope that a get-'em-before-they're-too-far-gone approach could prevent the problem from spiraling out of control. And it starts with the man they used to call Mr. Buzzard.

 

The history of who arrives in Washington has largely been defined by who's leaving California. Historically, one out of every two new Washingtonians has come from the Golden State. Not coincidentally, this migration also defines the history of Washington gangs.

According to Thomas Ward, an anthropology professor at the University of Southern California, Latino street gangs first formed in the 1940s and '50s as teenagers in the Los Angeles area adapted to the hostile environments in which they lived. The mostly Mexican youth didn't gang up to commit crimes, but as a way of guaranteeing safety in numbers against the white kids whom they were now living among.

"The early incarnations were not involved in drug-dealing, robbing, or violence," says Ward. "They were for self-defense."

Although innocuous at first, the early Southern California gangs soon fractured due to neighborhood rivalries. The warring factions that resulted sustained their conflict with profits from instant-cash endeavors like armed robbery, extortion, and later the drug trade.

With crimes came prison time, which meant being sent to the Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Tracy, Calif., a reform school that once housed the state's most hard-core juvenile offenders. More colorfully known as "Gladiator School," DVI was known for the frequent clashes that erupted between gang-banging teenage inmates.

It was at DVI in 1957 that the notoriously brutal Mexican Mafia formed. La Eme, as it is also known, eventually came to rule the California prison system and exert influence over virtually every Latino street gang in Southern California.

In the mid-'60s, another prison gang, consisting primarily of inmates from agricultural communities in Northern California, formed to fight back against the Mexican Mafia. They chose the name Nuestra Familia—"our family."

Like a Mexican-American version of the Crips and the Bloods, associates of the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia define themselves against each other. Affiliates of the former wear blue and call themselves sureños, or Southerners, in honor of their SoCal heritage; the latter prefer red and refer to themselves as norteños, or Northerners. Today, gangs still loosely united under the broad black hand of the Mexican Mafia affix the number 13 to the end of their names, referencing M, the thirteenth letter of the alphabet. Nuestra Familia does the same with N, the fourteenth letter.

As the story goes, the bad blood began in 1968 when a Mexican Mafia associate stole a pair of shoes from a Nuestra Familia sympathizer at San Quentin Penitentiary. The petty theft sparked a prison riot in which 19 inmates were shanked, one fatally. The so-called "shoe war" commenced a battle between norteño and sureño factions that continues to this day. One gang expert likens the rivalry to the fabled feud between the Hatfields and McCoys.

"It's pretty much a never-ending battle," says Gabe Morales, a consultant for the Washington Department of Corrections and the author of Varrio Warfare: Violence in the Latino Community. "Most of those kids that are fighting on either side don't even know why they fight."

The story of the rise and continued hostility between sureños and norteños is also Carlos Garza's story. Born in Billings, Mont., the second eldest of eight siblings, Garza's family relocated to East L.A. when he was 4. Not long after, he started getting into trouble.

Garza was labeled "incorrigible" by the justice system at the age of 11, which led to him being taken from his parents and placed in a series of group homes. "All I knew is what I did in the streets: selling drugs and partying," he says. "I was raised in institutions practically all my teenage life." A member of the East L.A. crew Varrio Eastside Los (or VES LOS, as is tattooed in block letters across his belly), Garza came of age in Gladiator School, where he became a dedicated sureño soldier. "I was down in prison down when it was first jumping off," he says. "We were always locked down because of fighting."

For most of the past two decades, Hispanic street gangs in Washington have been an east-of-the-mountains problem. Attracted to the fertile farms of the Yakima Valley in the early '90s by the promise of post-NAFTA work, eastern Washington towns soon became home to increasing numbers of migrant workers, many of them from the San Francisco Bay Area and California's Central Valley. With poverty and disenfranchisement came disorder, and with that gangs—with an almost 50/50 split of norteños and sureños, according to experts.

Things began to change during the second wave of migration, in the latter half of the '90s and into the following decade, of which Garza was a part. According to the latest census, King County is now home to roughly 172,000 Hispanics, nine percent of the county's population; their number increased 81 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Paroled in 1989, Garza relocated to Seattle, where his estranged father was living on Capitol Hill—a move that placed him among the first in a line of Latino gangsters who joined the masses of law-abiding immigrants trekking up the I-5 corridor to Seattle. Some came to escape California's draconian three-strikes law. Others, like Garza, just came for a fresh start.

Almost immediately Garza began stirring up trouble, though his most high-profile arrest was not gang-related. On October 28, 1989, he and three other men were taken into custody for burning an American flag in front of a post office on Capitol Hill. The desecration was part of a larger protest against the newly enacted federal Flag Protection Act. Represented by the ACLU, the case of Garza and his co-defendants (U.S. v. Haggerty) went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the measure was declared unconstitutional, clearing him of any wrongdoing.

"My parole officer at the time was really cool about it," Garza recalls with a laugh. "She said I was taking a stand for something I believe in, and she couldn't send me back to jail for that."

Around the time Garza arrived in the Pacific Northwest, Dan Satterberg was an up-and-coming King County deputy prosecutor specializing in gang cases. The crack epidemic was at its peak, and violence in Seattle's historically African-American neighborhoods was the prime focus. At the time, the Seattle-native Black Gangster Disciples (BGD) were battling for control of local drug markets with transplant gangsters from Southern California.

"In the late '80s and early '90s [Latino gangs] did not have a presence here at all," says Satterberg. "Crips and Bloods came up from L.A. because it was getting too crazy down there. They saw our streets as fertile, open markets."

Although predominantly black street gangs still reign in several Seattle neighborhoods, Latino crews are growing in numbers and stature, particularly in areas like White Center, South Park, Burien, southeast Auburn, and Kent's East and West Hill neighborhoods—all areas with low-income housing and sizable Hispanic populations. But unlike chronically gang-infested cities like Los Angeles or Yakima, experts say it is rare for Seattle gangs to maintain absolute control over a stretch of turf.

"The difference is it's not as territorial or neighborhood-based," Satterberg says. "We're a little less settled geographically here. The gangs are more fluid and move from neighborhood to neighborhood."

Movement means rival gangs have more opportunity to cross paths. And when they do, bad things happen.

 

On the afternoon of Saturday, July 23, Lokos Music—a business that promotes itself as "the Southern Style store in the Puget Sound"—organized a free concert and lowrider car show at La Plaza, a strip mall that straddles the border between Kent and Des Moines on Pacific Highway South. The headlining acts were Midget Loco, Baby Jokes, and Fiesty 2 Guns, Los Angeles gangster rappers who proudly flaunt their sureño links and fondness for gunplay. Fliers for the event featured the musicians looking like cholo caricatures, with Pancho Villa mustaches and menacing stares.

"It obviously wasn't something that you'd want to bring your family to," says Armando Vargas, a member of the Northwest chapter of Rollerz Only, a prominent lowrider car club that chose not to participate in the event, but sent representatives to pass out flyers promoting their own charity benefit car show.

Tricked-out rides filled the parking lot, and hundreds of attendees gawked at the custom paint jobs and hydraulic suspensions that allow the vehicles to cruise either a few inches off the ground or launch their front wheels high into the air.

One rapper sported a number 13 San Diego Chargers jersey onstage with a blue bandanna dangling out of his back pocket. Midget Loco, whose stage name belies his burly physique, clutched a blue bandanna in his hands along with the microphone and urged the crowd to "throw your flags up." The audience obliged, raising their hands into the air and flashing a dangerously diverse assortment of gang signs.

"There was no police, no security, no nothing," says a lowrider aficionado from Kent who shared video footage of the event with Seattle Weekly but asked to remain anonymous, fearing reprisal from gang members for speaking publicly. "People brought their own beer and liquor, and they had been drinking all day. It was no good."

Things went horribly awry near the end of Midget Loco's performance. Witnesses and court documents describe two groups of men staring each other down near the right side of the stage. One of those men, according to court documents from the King County Prosecutor's office, was Chris Weber—a "documented gang member" from Varrio Locos (VL), a prominent Seattle sureño clique. Egging him on were members of the rival Playboy Sureños 13. The mean-mugging escalated into a shoving match. Then shots rang out and panic gripped the crowd. According to Kent Police and King County Prosecutors, at least five gunmen were involved in the ensuing melee.

Amateur video recorded approximately 30 minutes after the shootout depicts utter chaos. A woman wounded in the leg and sprawled on the trash-strewn pavement wails in agony as first responders try to stanch her bleeding with a towel. People shout into their cell phones, pacing around an area cordoned off with police crime-scene tape. Firemen haul another wounded man by his arms and legs toward a waiting ambulance.

Twelve people were wounded that afternoon, including a 14-year-old boy and one of the performers. Miraculously, none of the injuries were life-threatening. According to court documents, six of the victims have gang connections, and police have identified at least eight different sureño gangs that traveled from as far away as Centralia, Mount Vernon, Yakima, Wapato, and Toppenish to attend.

"This was advertised through posters and social media through channels primarily driven toward Hispanic street gangs," says Lt. Pat Lowery, spokesman for the Kent police. "It was the perfect storm. You had people from all kinds of sets and subsets who showed up."

On September 15, Kent police announced that they had rounded up six men suspected of inciting the mayhem. All but one live in south King County and are between the ages of 17 and 21. (The lone outlier is a 30-year-old from Tacoma.) Most, according to court documents, do not have "stable employment or a stable residence." One admitted to detectives that when the fighting began he drew a pistol from his waist and started firing randomly into the crowd. All are allegedly Playboy Sureños, and they have each pleaded not guilty to an array of felony charges.

The shootout and subsequent media frenzy thrust Latino gangs into the region's consciousness. Two days later, Kent police hosted a "gang violence intervention summit" attended by more than 60 local and federal law-enforcement officials. One month later, on August 23, Satterberg and the King County Prosecutors and Sheriff's Offices briefed the County Council on gangs, with Chief Deputy Steve Strachan calling the current state of affairs an "all-out war." Satterberg also stated that there was a "war among rival Latino gangs in South King County." The officials pleaded for additional funding to tackle the problem, and the following week Constantine accommodated them with $1.4 million from the Criminal Justice Reserve.

Announcing the additional anti-gang funding on August 31, the County Executive said gang-related crime has increased 165 percent since 2005, and that "as many as 10,000 gang members are estimated to live in the county, as part of an estimated 140 active criminal street gangs." The figure of 10,000 was later put into doubt by the ATF, whose own figures point to a gang presence roughly one-fifth that size.

Whether or not anything resembling "war" has broken out on the streets of King County is also under debate. One of the chief skeptics is Brad L, the pseudonymous author behind the website Northwest Gangs (nwgangs.com), who has spent the past seven years chronicling gang-related news from across the state. "As far as I know nobody has been killed due to this gang war, the streets aren't being riddled with gunfire every night, buildings aren't being covered in gang graffiti everywhere you look," he wrote in the days following media coverage of the "war" comments. "You want to see a gang war? Take a quick three-hour drive east to Yakima, Sunnyside, or Pasco. You will see firsthand a gang war taking place over there."

A variety of ghastly events in recent months—including a gang-related arson that killed two young boys, whose funeral proceedings were marred by an attempted drive-by—seem to bolster the blogger's argument. Sgt. Randy Briscoe, commander of the Yakima County Sheriff's Violent Crimes Task Force, agrees, estimating that there are more than 2,000 active gang members in his area from "110 individual subdivided cliques," nearly all of which are sureño or norteño. Judging by the raw numbers and level of bloodshed, King County pales in comparison to Yakima and Grant counties.

Satterberg, however, stands by the "war" rhetoric. "It's a scary word, but it's a word the detective used to describe what's going on," the prosecutor says. "It's a battle in a conflict that shows no signs of simmering down."

 

Although Garza moved to Seattle from East L.A. to reboot his life, he eventually fell back into his old habits, selling drugs to support his cocaine and heroin habits. He violated his parole, and ended up spending time in a variety of Washington prisons, where he says he became a "shot-caller" for the sureños.

"Because I'm an OG, you go in and right away they bow down in a sense," Garza says. "Before you know it, I'm involved in extortion, taking people's food. People had to pay me rent [to be on my cell block]."

Prison officials got wind of Garza's schemes, identified him as a leading member of a "security threat group," and placed him on lockdown 23 hours a day, a setup the DOC calls an "Intensive Management Unit."

"I sat in the hole for a year and a half," Garza says. "It was good for me. It gave me the opportunity to stop and think. I was really sickened to see a lot of young people that were 19, 20, 21 years old coming in with life sentences. That's not a very happy feeling. These young men are never going to see their kids. They're never going to have nothing. That's what motivated me to come out here and set a positive example."

Garza earned his GED behind bars, and has been drug-free for nearly a decade now. He was released in August 2002, devoting his life since to outreach work through various nonprofit organizations, including mentoring at Rainier Beach, Cleveland, Chief Sealth, and West Seattle high schools.

While Garza's turnaround is remarkable, it might not have been possible in today's prison system. Since 2008, the Washington Department of Corrections has segregated the most violent norteño and sureño inmates at the state's two highest-security facilities, Clallam Bay Corrections Center and the state penitentiary in Walla Walla. Prisoners loyal to the two Latino gangs are housed in separate "close custody units." In this system, the sureños live near each other, share the yard at the same times, and eat their meals together. The norteños do the same, but on a different schedule.

According to DOC spokesman Chad Lewis, the "strategy" was implemented to curb prison violence. The two gangs have a "fight on sight" policy, which obligates them to attack their enemies at every opportunity. The DOC crunched the numbers and determined that prison gangs—which account for roughly 20 percent of the state's 17,000 total inmates—were causing half the "violent infractions." Many of those incidents were the work of roughly 850 sureños and norteños currently incarcerated in Washington.

"We've never been able to share the same yard," says Manuel Torres, a 35-year-old former norteño now living in the Tacoma area. "It's a green light on each other no matter what. That's the way it is. If I was in there and didn't do something when I saw other sureños, I'm going to suffer the repercussions when I get back to the yard with all the other norteños."

Similar segregation policies were already in effect in select Federal prisons, some California penitentiaries, and the Yakima County Jail. The Washington DOC decided to follow suit. "Now we approach them at the reception center in Shelton and have an honest discussion about their gang affiliation," Lewis says. "We tell them 'We don't mind you being in the gang, it's the violence that bothers us.' "

Critics of the system—Garza included—feel it makes it even more difficult for inmates to change their ways, and more likely that they'll cause trouble after they're released. "With no mediation between the north and south, there will be continued war," Garza says. "They figure they'll lock up the problem, but all those guys will go to prison and they'll spread the problem, and they'll get out and bring it back to their neighborhood."

Even some law-enforcement officials have their doubts. "These guys go to prison, they get stronger, they get more affiliation, and they come back, and now they stick their chest out and they're bigger than they were when they went in," says Kelvin Crenshaw, special agent in charge of the ATF's Seattle field division. "We certainly can't arrest our way out of the problem, but that doesn't mean some of these people still don't need to go to jail."

Lewis, though, notes prison violence is down statewide since norteños and sureños have been separated. It dropped five percent over the past three years, and at the largest facilities—Walla Walla and the Monroe Correctional Complex—it has decreased nearly 20 percent.

 

Listen to Garza talk for just a few minutes, and he'll inevitably use the word "blessed." He casually drops it into sentence after sentence, as in "I'm so blessed to be working with the youth" and "Have a blessed day." He quotes parables from the Bible and believes that his faith in God has been one of the most critical factors in his redemption.

One evangelical church in Seattle actually caters to at-risk youth and former gang members. Every Wednesday night, the Victory Outreach Church in White Center hosts a youth group called G.A.N.G.—God's Anointed Now Generation. Graffiti murals are propped up behind the pulpit, and the music is hip-hop instead of hymns, with one of the group's leaders dropping freestyle rap verses about the Lord.

After one recent service, 24-year-old Jose Alea tells how he relocated here four years ago from L.A., where he was a veteran of a gang called South Los 13. Like Garza, he hoped the change of scenery would help set him straight. It did not. He says he thought the gangs in his new neighborhood were "a joke" compared to where he came from, and called his cousin in jail in California to get authorization to start a new local chapter. He has since left the gang, a life change he says was the result of a revelation that came while he was coming down off a methamphetamine high. "God spoke to me in a dream," Alea recalls. "I woke up and told my wife, 'We need to change. God revealed in a dream that Heaven and Hell are real.' "

According to Ward, the USC professor, such conversion tales are not uncommon among Latino gang members. Virtually all of them are raised "culturally Catholic," he says, laying the foundation for spiritual awakening later in life. And the examples he gives, again, sound an awful lot like Garza's experience. "There's this stereotype of the 'gang member for life' that gets perpetuated," says Ward. "The reality is—and we now have 30 years of excellent research on street-gang membership to back this up—the vast majority mature out or age out of the gang. They get too old for it. They burn out . . . Often the church fills that gap of support in their frayed social net."

Secular outreach workers and former gang members talk often about the importance of "replacing the social element" that makes gang life so alluring. The substitute can be anything from a lowrider car club to a boxing gym—camaraderie and positive reinforcement are what's critical. Garza's summer program, for instance, included field trips to a Seahawks preseason game and to Wild Waves, and hosted several cookouts in local parks. In those settings, it quickly became obvious that despite their hardships, the kids ultimately just wanted to hang out with their friends and have a good time.

"It's like everything else," Garza says. "They just want a sense of belonging."

The prosecutor's office received the lion's share of the $1.4 million from the Criminal Justice Reserve funds allocated by Constantine, and approximately $400,000 of that will go toward outreach and prevention initiatives. This relatively forward-thinking approach appeals to scholars like Ward, who argue that the system has placed a disproportionate emphasis on punishment and incarceration for far too long. "You've got to have a carrot-and-stick approach, and any program that ignores one or the other will not be effective," he says. "The stick has always been much larger than the carrot. We offer this tiny piece of carrot, and we've got this huge bat we're clubbing them over the head with. If we ever change that or balance it out, we'd have much more success."

 

A few days before Labor Day weekend, a diverse group of sleepy-eyed high-school students stare glumly at the whiteboard in a classroom in a ramshackle building across the street from the Columbia City light-rail stop. While most of their friends are out enjoying the final week of summer vacation, this group has been summoned back to school early. Now their principal, 42-year-old Kaaren Andrews, is asking them to keep their location to themselves.

"Don't be on your phones saying 'I saw so-and-so here,' " Andrews says. "You're here. That's what's important. You don't have to tell anyone that anyone else is here. We don't want to start any issues."

There's good reason for Andrews' request for secrecy: Last year one of her students was shot during the first few weeks of class near her home in the city's Mount Baker neighborhood.

Andrews is the principal of Seattle Public Schools' Interagency Academy, an assortment of alternative programs designed for dropouts and students returning to school after serving long-term suspensions for violence or substance abuse. She is in charge of roughly 1,200 kids, and she estimates that "more than a quarter but less than half" have some degree of gang involvement. "We don't shut down gang affiliation," Andrews says. "That would alienate kids. But we work hard to put that aside and be safe."

Interagency places teens according to their individual needs in programs that offer everything from resources to cope with homelessness to vocational training. There's also an outpost at the King County Jail.

According to Andrews, 65 students earned their diplomas through Interagency last year. All of them were the first high-school grads in their families. Andrews—along with virtually everyone else interviewed for this story—believes that education is the most effective way to counter gangs. To that end, she stresses that "outcomes, not test scores" are what matter, and the curriculum is individually tailored to each student's abilities and interests.

"It's battling a lot of stereotypes," says Andrews, formerly the principal of Madrona K-8. "If you want to be the big, gangster tough guy, how does school fit in with that? We've got to make it relevant for them. It's reading and writing, and doing it on their content. Choosing books that they can relate to, and writing, asking kids to tell their stories."

Several of Garza's kids are Interagency attendees, including Sergio Salazar, a 14-year-old with a stocky build and a spiky gelled hairdo. He says he was kicked out of school last year for brawling, and ended up spending his time away from the classroom running the streets with a group of older kids, "just doing stupid stuff, fighting with anybody we see." That sort of behavior is exactly the reason Andrews says Interagency suspended just three students last year, all for fewer than three days.

Though he tries to act tough, Salazar's eighth-grade teacher, Letta Stewart-Baker, raves about his leadership abilities, and says she expects him to be "one of our top student-government officials" in the coming year. She gives Garza credit for the transformation. "Carlos just gives it to 'em real," the teacher says. "He has changed the whole perception of a lot of the students. When he talks, they're mesmerized. He has them in a daze—he's got them doing that critical thinking."

Asked about his teacher's appraisal, Salazar admits Garza has inspired him to clean up his act. "He told me how he spent most of his life in the penitentiary because of gangs," Salazar says. "I definitely don't want to be like that. I want to have a good life with a job and a family. Not fighting in there."

And for Garza, that's the best he can hope to accomplish.

"If I can stop one person from pulling that trigger and ending a life and doing 20 or 99 years in prison," he says, "if I can stop one person so they can stay home with their family, I feel like I've done my job."

khamilton@seattleweekly.com

 
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