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.

Ernesto attended seventh grade before dropping out to join the Latin Kings; older gangbangers recruited him on the playground during recess. The initiation was a drive-by, and he went. He and Luis moved into the gang's house. "It was great -- a place to sleep, food, protection," Ernesto insists. Yet Luis still attended school. The Latin Kings beat him for joining a sixth-grade reading club that rewarded boys with posters of rockets and spaceships for books they'd finished. Ernesto finally intervened, convincing the Kings that "reading can help in some gang business," like passing bad checks. "Only thing -- Luis just couldn't get with dropping guys.

"He wasn't a no-dick punk," Ernesto explains, jutting out his chin. "He'd fight for me with just his hands. But he keeps asking, 'Why Kings be killing men?' Like there's supposed to be a point! Then after seventh grade's when he started smoking major crack." Ernesto's gaze drops.

The week of his eighteenth birthday, Ernesto was arrested for attempted murder and armed robbery. His public defender glanced at his crown-and-heart tattooed arms, handed him a cardigan, and said, "Put this on, give the judge your big brown eyes, and keep your mouth shut, shithead." Ernesto -- who is trim and movie-star handsome -- walked, with six months in juvenile detention and nine months' probation. Luis, who'd left the gang house to live with a girlfriend's family, read magazines to his brother every visiting day -- until Luis was gunned down leaving a Second Genesis rehab clinic.

"It was a gang called the Foundation done him -- too punk to kill a real gangster," Ernesto says. "He wanted to get back in school after being expelled for drugs. And I think, did he be a crackhead just so's I don't got to make excuses for him not coming on drive-bys? And I don't -- I keep hoping maybe 'The Knowledge' will help me know how to think on that." He stares at his Kingism bible.

"We found who dropped Luis and settled it personal," he says. "Stabbed him with screwdrivers. No guns." Ernesto fled to New York and hid with the Brooklyn Kings. He spent the next year in oblivion: freebasing, shooting heroin, gangbanging. "I was trying to get dead. Then my future got me."

A new form of gang is regrouping in Miami for the same reasons banks and telecommunication firms set up shop here: It's a multicultural city and a gateway to South America. "In the Eighties, Puerto Rican gangs, Cubans, Mexicans wouldn't take anyone outside their own ethnic group," says Miami Police Detective Carmona, "till they realized that by joining together, they could infiltrate more businesses in more countries and neighborhoods." Now there are Miami gangs in which Anglos, blacks, and Latins mix. (Ernesto's grandparents were Cuban-born. Hector's parents were Mexican.) Now all bibles, even those of predominantly Latin gangs, are written in English to avoid confusion over idioms and dialects. Like air-traffic controllers, gangsters need an official language. The International Posse's bible even offers helpful hints in the preface for gangsters who've never opened a book: "IPs are not supposed to read the next page of his bible until the page he is reading is pretty much down packed."

The mostly Puerto Rican Latin Kings of Chicago and New York scorned Central Americans. But in 1995 flyers advertising King Tone's new vision for the Latin Kings were plastered on light poles from Little Havana to Sweetwater. One retired Latin King kept a flyer out of curiosity. It reads: "All Latins must join in the unity of Kingism of the Latin King Nation to receive grace."

Arrests occurred after crown tags -- with tornado clouds added -- were scrawled on Salvadoran storefront churches. Florida's House of Worship Protection Act of 1982 made defacing a church, temple, or mosque a third-degree felony. No one believed the tag artists' claims that they were exercising their religious freedom by proselytizing in the only way their audience could comprehend.

"Well, if wall art is all their congregation understands, they should leave genuine sacred places alone and write on a 7-Eleven wall," says Art Teitelbaum, Southern area director of the Anti-Defamation League, who helped draft the House of Worship Protection Act.

A 7-Eleven isn't a big enough canvas. Several Miami gangs illustrate their histories on the walls of a cluster of abandoned buildings near NW Seventh Street and 49th Avenue, not far from Miami International Airport. Before Hector's alcoholism forced him to drop out of his Brooklyn high school five years ago ("Some teachers get mad if you drink sitting in class"), he was in a program for gifted art students. King wannabes scan his mural, which covers one wall inside a hangar-shaped warehouse separated from 49th Street by an empty fenced lot.

The pictures illustrate a few scraps of the Latin Kings' prison folktale. Ernesto and Hector use it when dealing with ex-convicts who haven't found a god they want to obey in any house of worship. From the left, it starts with the image of a beautiful young woman with black braids alone on a mountain. She is the first Queen of the Latin Nation, which ruled the early days of Earth. Sadly she gazes at the nation's white palaces tended by white and black courtiers, surrounded by orchids, roses, coconut palms, and green lawns -- as prostitutes, drunks, killers, and crack dealers invade the landscape. The next scene depicts a tidal wave, sent as punishment by the nation's first King to drown the sinners.

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