By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Frankie is sipping grape-flavored Smirnoff vodka coolers and chain smoking Camel lights. He also has tribal artwork on his bulging forearms as well as a "USMC" tattoo. Born a U.S. citizen in Long Beach in 1980, Frankie joined the Marine Corps in 1997, straight out of high school. He never joined a gang. By the time he was a teenager, his family had moved to a safer neighborhood further away from downtown Long Beach.
He now works with Tony as a supervisor at a hazardous waste disposal company in Long Beach. But the rest of the Gallegos brothers—Felix, the oldest, Tony, Carlos, and Oscar himself—were born in Tanhuato, a small pueblo in the impoverished southern Mexican state of Michoacan. Their father, a butcher, had already headed north to work as a cook in a Mexican restaurant in Long Beach.
With their mother, they crossed the border illegally in the mid-1970s and settled briefly in Wilmington before moving to a poor, gang-infested neighborhood northeast of downtown Long Beach. It wasn't long before the oldest brother, Felix, fell into the orbit of the local gang, the Viejo Varrio subset of the East Side Longos, a well-entrenched and ultra-violent Latino gang. According to Tony, every young male resident of the neighborhood seemed involved in the gang, especially after the local youth center, which provided after-school and summertime recreational activities, shut down in the early 1980s.
"You have a poor neighborhood where all the youth centers where a kid has something to do after school are closed, and you put in liquor stores, what is a kid going to do?" Tony asks. "We were poor kids. We didn't have any money. We had to wait for our parents to save money to buy sneakers or whatever, and you hear about some kid somewhere making a little money selling dope or whatever, to buy cool shoes that other kids who had money were wearing. And, well, that's how it started."
Tony's oldest brother Felix was the first of the brothers to join the East Side Longos. But after being arrested at age 16 for selling drugs, and spending the next four years in juvenile hall and state prison, he dropped out of the gang. "I guess you could say he reformed," Tony says. "He got out of the neighborhood and wasn't active in the gang. He started working, at first the typical job someone who is just out of prison can get at a restaurant or wherever. Now he's a big-rig mechanic—he has his own shop in Wilmington."
Tony says he stopped hanging around with gang members when he was 14 years old. On Christmas Day, 1982, a rival gang member shot and robbed him while he was sitting in front of an apartment building with his best friend, who lived there. A walkway from the building led to a small alley.
"I remember a figure walking to my left side along the walkway, but I didn't pay much attention," he says. As he continued talking to his friend, the figure suddenly approached them. "All I saw was a shotgun on the left side of my face," Tony said. In the instant before the person pulled the trigger, he was able to move a few feet away, but had to be rushed to the hospital with shotgun pellets buried in the back of his neck and shoulders. "That completely changed me around," he said. "I just figured that was it for me."
Three years later, when Tony was 17, he began dating a girl who lived in Fullerton. She urged him to move to Orange County to escape the neighborhood. He spent the next 10 years in Fullerton and Huntington Beach, visiting his brothers every other weekend. By then both Carlos and Oscar had become active members of the East Side Longo gang. Carlos, who was three years older than Oscar, rose to become the leader of the Viejo Varrio subset of the gang.
According to Tony, both Carlos and Oscar quickly found themselves being stopped in the street by police, beaten up, then placed in a police cruiser and driven to rival gang neighborhoods. They claimed there were two police officers who did this so often that whenever East Side Longo gang members saw their car approach, they'd scatter and run for cover. "A lot of the times people would get beaten up or stabbed, but they'd be okay," Tony says. "Oscar got stabbed by rival gang members one time because of this. It was always the same group of officers that were picking him up."
In 1989, police arrested Carlos for being in a car that carried out a drive-by shooting of a rival gang member and, a week later, for shooting at a woman who had testified against him in a vandalism case. Prosecutors charged him with two counts of attempted murder based on eyewitness testimony of the woman and rival gang members. After a jury convicted him of two counts of attempted murder in a week-long trial, a judge sentenced him to life in prison. He is eligible for parole in 2017.
Frankie claims he and Oscar were home asleep—they shared the same bedroom—the night police hauled Carlos away to jail. "That was a big blow to me," he says. "The case was a joke. One witness could identify him and the other couldn't. Their story was so fucked up. I was maybe 11 years old and when I turned 18, I thought, 'Man, I'm the same age as my brother when he was locked up and I'm still lost; I don't know which direction to go.' They never gave him a chance, and it was bullshit. Of course, he wasn't no angel."