March 31 2010 12:00 AM

Gang members bring tales of grit, change to Lansing

Last Thursday night at the NorthStar Center on Lansing’s east side, Latin Counts gang member Anthony Caruso spent two hours alternating rants with another gang member. Caruso, 25, was in Lansing to give a glimpse of gang life on the streets in Chicago.

Already, one Caruso son is dead but he has others.

“Naw, there ain’t no god, “ he says, his words punching the air. “Cause in my head, what kind of person would allow me to become a father?”

But while he eschews one kind of deity, he embraces another. He and a fellow gangbanger, Joaquin Ramos of Detroit, practice their own brand of religion. Each time one of them mentions the Latin Counts, or refers to “his brothers,” the other lowers his eyes, crosses himself, and touches his fingers to his lips.

However, this brand of religion is not for the faint of heart. Life in gangland brings baggage. From Caruso comes a litany of self-loathing. From Ramos roars a river of hate.

Todd Mireles, of the Xicano Development Center of Lansing, has already set the scene. He and his guests are part of the Michigan State University Great Issues series presented by the student government. Mireles, a Ph.D. candidate, grew up in Detroit. Armed with a masters degree in social work, he dons his academic hat.

“Society is a system, the same way as a body,” he said. “For example, our respiratory system allows us to breathe, thus stay alive.”

He explains that when an economic system breaks down, gangs fill the void. The gangs are a fit for some because they provide a social network and an entrepreneurial system, but they breed a culture of vio lence, terror, drug culture and death.

By concentrating on the system, rather than a small part like an individual, Mireles says, repair is more likely. As it is, if society looks only at Ramos as the problem, the only answer is to get rid of him, and that means prison, or worse.

Ramos and Caruso described their lives to date. Neither expects to live very long.

Caruso never had a childhood. At 8 years old, he was walking around Chicago with crack cocaine in his pocket.

“I had to sell it. It was the only way I was going to eat that day. We were poor as fuck,” he says, matter of fact.

He shifts his weight from foot to foot, in rhythm, as if he is rapping without rhyme. His braids bounce. Numerous tattoos cover his skin. He wears a too-large black-onblack T-shirt over low-riding blue jeans crumpled over black high-top sneakers.

When he was 11, he says, he was given a gun.

“Don’t come back ‘til you did your justice,” he was told.

“I was ready to die for my neighborhood,” he says.

He spent six months in jail when he was 13. He had taken a brick out of his book bag and used it to split another kid’s face open.

“It excited me. I wanted to see what his blood looked like inside. I fed off of it,” he says. He was banned from school at age 17.

Eight years later, he’s been stabbed three times and shot. His family has fared worse.

“My father was killed in the joint over a cap of weed. He was stabbed 136 times in the chest, back and legs. It made me hate more,” he says.

His brother, Fly, was murdered in 2004.

Within 24 hours, every Latin Count in the world knew about Fly’s killing, he says. By fellow gang members, he’s called “Baby Fly.”

While Caruso is still avenging his brother’s death, Ramos describes his history in Detroit through poetry. In one called “Assassination of a Child,” he talks of his early years in Detroit when he was molested, beaten and verbally abused: “My innocence was devoured. In rage I lash out — reborn a gangster.”

He had run away from home, slept in cars and abandoned houses. He hooked up with the Latin Counts, which had taken southwest Detroit by storm. Many of his family members are also part of the gang. His cousin, Raoul, died in his arms. It’s his ambition to get revenge.

Ramos looks at Caruso. “This brother was me 10 years ago,” he says. Ramos appears to be a bit older, is stockier with darker skin and shaved head, but he’s not talking about appearances. He’s referring to the bigger picture, and his need to understand how his people got where they are and why they can’t move on.

Another of Ramos’ poems is “The Curse” and refers to the Xicanos who have moved out of the barrios.

“You came into my body and made me meaner/You’re climbing the social ladder of success/suburbanite. A curse on you. You sit in your cushy corporate office. You don’t march no more because you’re driving a Jag. You leave us behind. Forget about us.”

Ramos prays to be more mighty. He expects his life will be short. So, he looks for ways to speed the revolution, not just to eliminate the need for gangs, but to organize his people to bring about the kind of change Cesar Chavez wrought.

He refers to the people who control all the money in society, causing extremes of the very wealthy and very poor.

“We live the way we do because they live the way they do,” he says.

What would make a difference? Better schools, Caruso says.

“It’s too late for me. My life is done.” But by helping the kids, you help the community.

“Or else there will be people like me giving them junk or poison.”

But Ramos, of Detroit, responds to Caruso’s thoughtful suggestion.

“They don’t want everyone to go to school. It’s better we’re killing each other.”

That anger can be used to organize a movement motivated instead by mutual respect. The Xicano Development Center’s Web site says: “Our aim is not to react from anger and revenge but to create on the basis of national pride and love.”

That’s a long way from the Xicano gangs of Chicago and Detroit.

History of the Latin Counts

The Latin Counts street gang branched off in 1950 from the Sons of Mexico City in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. It broke away from the Latin Kings that had its roots in the Puerto Rican community, according to the U. S. Department of Justice. In the 1970s, gangs were split into warring factions, the Folk Nation Alliance and the The People’s Nation Alliance. The Folk Nation included the Gangster Disciples and LaRaza. The Peoples Nation was established to protect members in prison, and included the Latin Counts, and the Vice Lord Nation, an African American gang considered one of the largest and most violent gangs, according to the DOJ.

The Counts expanded to Detroit in the early 80s and 90s. According to a 2009 DOJ incidence map, gang activity in Michigan tends to run up the east and west sides of the state. The Lansing area sees much less activity.

Lansing Police Det. Jorge Garcia, the department’s gang specialist, says he knows of no Latin Counts or Latin Kings factions operating in the Lansing area. But the terrain changes quickly, he cautions.

In January, 23 gang members were arrested in Metro Detroit by federal and local authorities as part of a nationwide sweep netting over 400, the Detroit News reported. The gang members arrested, including some from the Latin Counts, have connections to transnational drug trafficking, Khaalid Walls, of U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said. All of those arrested in Detroit had criminal records.

The Latin Counts and others regularly sell cocaine, heroin and marijuana, according to the DOJ.