Photo by Kevin P. Casey
Gabe Morales was 5, living in Yakima, when he saw his first murder. "Boom! Head splattered all over. Man, the nightmares I had." He was 14 when his brother, a gang member, was shot in the head. "He survived, though." And he was 21 when, for the third time, the Mexican mafia tried to kill him on Beacon Hill. "They shot my brother in the leg, but missed me," he says. "It was my birthday party, actually."
That's when the thought came to him, Morales says: I wonder if the Marines have any openings? "The recruiter tried to sell me on all the benefits of the military—education, travel, so on," he recalls. "All I could think was where do I sign and where's the bus? I want out of town!" And out of a life of crime and a family of criminals—his father ran illegal booze, his uncle did time in Monroe, his grandfather served at Walla Walla, and his brother, remembers Morales, "was locked up half his life."
His own crimes were "misdemeanor stuff," says Morales, now 47. "I never did any hard time." Most important, he survived long enough to grow up. That's something that guides him today as a Seattle gang expert: Keep these kids alive and give them a chance to grow and change, as he did.
"With the Mexican mafia after you, it's kill or be killed, and I didn't like those options," says Morales, who as a corrections officer and gang specialist has been involved in gang-prevention work for 25 years. He runs Gang Prevention Services in Des Moines, which offers advice and intelligence in dealing with, in particular, black and Asian gangs and white supremacists. His new book, Prison Gangs in America, which chronicles the history and current status of locked-up gangbangers, is due out shortly.
"Joining the Marines not only saved me, but opened my mind. I became the opposite of what I was," Morales says. "When I got out, I went to work in Folsom [prison], and the continued violence bummed me out. I came back to Washington and decided to get into prevention, and have been doing gang work ever since."
Married with children, Morales says that Seattle, with a rash of recent gang-related shootings and an estimated 100 tiny to large gangs locally, "is kind of at where L.A., Chicago, and Newark were 20 years ago. We're just now catching up in assessing gangs locally, and we've got a long ways to go with prevention and intervention. There are no easy answers, to be sure."
His passion, he says, "is working with young people to keep them in school and out of gangs and off drugs. They're going through a lot of the same things I did, feeling fatalistic, not thinking they'll live that long, and so they want to go out in a blaze of glory, unfortunately. They know you can get your name in the media, and people will remember you with a big funeral for the big homeboy.
"Too many kids see themselves going there. I do what I can to get in their way." —Rick Anderson