Once and Future Kings

Not so long ago the infamous Latin Kings ruled Miami's gangland streets. Now their missionaries are bringing a new message.

The International Posse went after his turf and became the Miami Gang Detail's new most wanted. Today, when Carmona approaches men he knows once flashed the Latin Kings' colors of gold and black, none will claim the gang. "I tell them it's not illegal to have once belonged, but they go, 'No, no, we're not them,'" he says.

As a point of pride, the Kings say they kill veterans for denying their affiliation, even to cops. "A King who don't gangbang cos he got too many children now and works a strat job still say -- I'm old school," states the written handbook of a defunct Cutler Ridge chapter. "If he says -- I never been we will see him dead and send flouers to his wife and kids. You risk your life to claim to the end or the bro's that died for you died for nothing." But the old-school gangsters Carmona sees dread a tedious police interrogation more than the prospect of gang execution.

After Power's imprisonment, the Latin Kings name flickered on in Miami among teenagers who knew only that other gangs once feared it. Rumors that Power had escaped prison and was roaming Calle Ocho with a crown tattooed on his forehead swept Little Havana last year. This past May a South Dade girl who stabbed a classmate proclaimed herself a Latin Queen. Some Miami Beach kids visiting Key West defaced the Southernmost Point marker with Kings tags in June. "All they have is the name -- they have no turf," Carmona says. "The Miami Latin Kings don't even have a leader here."

But that turf may soon be claimed by men who have embraced a novel idea about the Latin Kings' destiny. In 1995 Luis Felipe's successor to the Brooklyn crown, Antonio Fernandez, "King Tone," declared an upheaval in the gang lifestyle. The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation would now be more than a gang, the 31-year-old said. For those who would follow him, Kingism would now be a religion and a Latin empowerment movement. Tone was a former crack dealer and addict (he kicked the habit cold turkey in 1994 while behind bars at Riker's Island in New York). Just as the Nation of Islam targeted addicts and convicts and transformed them into clean and sober disciples (the most famous prison convert being Malcolm X), Tone likewise set up support groups for gangbanger addicts and, once they were clean, urged them into jobs and political action. (He's now a mailroom clerk at a New York ad agency.)

Over the last two years, Tone's followers have revamped their "bibles." Previous Kings' handbooks contained TOS ("terminate on sight") lists and 911s (war calls on other gangs). Now they offer exhortations to get GEDs, use condoms, and resort to violence only when the gunfire is coming at you. Among Tone's New York supporters are radical black activist Rev. Al Sharpton and Father Luis Barrios of Harlem's St. Mary's Episcopal Church, who praises the Latin Kings' ministry to drug abusers. But after a Nightline program on Tone's teachings reported earlier this year that he opens meetings with a prayer to the "King of Kings" and uses religious rhetoric about being "the healer of the breach" among Latins, police responded that they saw no evidence in their cities that the Latin Kings were anything more than a ruthless gang.

New York cops, judges, and prosecutors who've seen the gang's prior handiwork (Kings once chopped a victim into five pieces, then carved his tattoo from his chest because he'd skimmed drug profits) said no way in hell did the Kings get religion. Two years ago, when Tone proclaimed Kingism's new political bent, attorney Ron Kuby defended him on charges of violating his parole by carrying a concealed weapon. The attorney succeeded in persuading a judge that police had planted a .38 on Tone. "The Latin Kings are forging alliances with political activists who are outside the mainstream," says Kuby, who was a partner of the late William Kunstler, "and that threatens some police departments and political machines."

In June of this year, the New York Daily News reported that Tone dodged an assassination attempt by the renegade Bronx Latin Kings. "There are Kings who don't want criminals making money for the enterprise to evolve into radical activists," Kuby explains. "It's a distraction." That Tone was putting his life on the line is "pretty good evidence of his sincerity about his anti-drug rallies and marches against police brutality," the lawyer adds.

Some gangs are organized nationally, with different cities working closely together, similar to the Mafia. But most gangs, the Latin Kings among them, have a far more nebulous structure. City chapters can occasionally transact business with one another, but they don't depend on each other for survival.

Kings get married, take straight jobs, and become veteranos who tell war stories to the neighborhood. Whole chapters can fade away because no one has an interest in moving up the chain of command when leaders are killed, jailed, or retire. Sometimes a gangster with the right mix of fearlessness, vision, and attitude can resurrect a chapter all on his own. Ernesto and Hector see Miami, with its enormous Latin population and influential Latin politicians, as fertile recruiting ground. And even the most strung-out Miami junkie can see that these two are risking their lives by "rushing turf" -- attempting to set up a new Kings chapter without first negotiating the consent of any powerful local gang. It makes an impression. A man who gambles his life for something more ambiguous than drugs or money may be a fool, but he's not just anyone.

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