Once and Future Kings

A twilight downpour slicks the potholed streets, and for the moment this crumbling bit of Hialeah glows like a busted rainbow. The huge magenta cube named Foxxy Lady is surrounded by guys braving chain lightning for live, nude girls. One corner down, cigarette smoke, music, and watery gold light spill past the bouncer who guards the emerald-green Tropicana Bar's open doors. Across the road, a man with a bullhorn stands in front of Club Ice, hawking the stand-up comics inside, whose blue humor slides right into indigo. The club's signature neon -- a violet champagne glass encircled by fat lilac bubbles -- gleams through the gray mist.

Twenty-one-year-old Ernesto Mora, who slammed a screwdriver through a man's skull two years ago, leans out his car window and sighs: "The sign is so pretty." But the men he hunts are too broke to pay cover charges, so he eases the car back onto West 25th Street.

The ancient sedan is so caked with dirt that rain can't penetrate; it simply transforms the vehicle into a speeding mud mound. Ernesto's partner Hector watches blocks of shotgun shacks and trailer parks fly by. The car slows at a rusted arch marking the driveway of what was once a family motel but is now home for gangbanger has-beens and wannabes. The peeling-pink cottages are still adorned with weed-choked cement bunnies and decapitated elves. The two men scan the graffiti on the cottage walls as they drive by. When nineteen-year-old Hector spots a house scrawled with gold crowns over black hearts, Ernesto hits the brakes. They leap out and head toward the symbols of the lost Latin Kings.

Five years ago Miami police publicly ranked the Latin Kings the most violent and organized of the estimated 75 gangs then operating in Dade County. But what Ernesto and Hector find in this back yard is a quartet of scrawny teenagers in filthy tank tops playing "quarter pitch" for a toothless prostitute. The guys toss coins into small paper cups; whoever fills his first wins the hooker. The enormous poinciana tree that shields them from the rain is topped with orange flowers so bright it seems to be in flames. Ernesto pulls open his black jacket so a holster strap is visible against his crisp yellow shirt.

"Amor del rey, brothers," he says, throwing the Kings' sign: index and little fingers extended, thumb stiffly out, the other fingers closed. "I see youze fly our colors. What I see of your druggy, lace smokin', malt drinkin', ho' mackin', fuckshit life, respect for them ain't happening." Coins freeze in four hands. "I ain't here to drop you," Ernesto continues, his voice softening. "I follow King Tone, crown of New York. My job is, bring Miami gangstas into the love and hearts of Latin Kings. You know what we do?"

One teen's smack-addled gaze is suddenly very clear. "You kill men by chopping them up with an ax," he whispers.

Ernesto shrugs. "That was then. This is now," he replies. "You want our colors? Time to get righteous."

The gang known as the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation was born about 50 years ago inside Chicago's prisons as a means of survival for Latin felons who lived in fear of the black gangs who then ruled the cellblocks. In the 1950s, many of the prisons' black gang leaders espoused Nation of Islam teachings, despising Latin convicts as "white devils." The Kings galvanized Latin prisoners with their own folklore about the downfall of a Latin-ruled utopia and its prophesied return.

Soon the Latin Kings had more than 30 city chapters, each led by a "crown," in Illinois, Connecticut, Texas, Massachusetts, and Florida. The Kings ran drugs and guns and operated car theft/chop-shop rings. The most legendary of crowns is 35-year-old Cuban-born Luis Felipe, who founded the first New York chapter of the Latin Kings. Though he's serving a life sentence for murder (he was convicted along with 50 other Kings in a massive crackdown), many New York Kings refer to him as their "Inca," their one supreme leader.

Miami's crown was Roberto Mosquero, "King Power," who ruled over about 30 members. (Street legend has it that he killed one of his enemies by forcing the man's tongue into a light socket.) In 1988 Power and his gang infuriated police by attempting to claim territory in the heart of Coconut Grove's tourist area. In June of that year the move escalated into a confrontation between the Kings and their archenemy the International Posse, in which Power opened fire into a crowd and hit and seriously injured a Posse member. Other South Florida gangs, which keep meticulous charts of alliances for initiates to memorize, began logging the Kings under the "outlaw" column.

"They were never going to be in the same league as the drug cartels," says Det. Aquiles Carmona, a five-year veteran of the Miami Police Department's Gang Detail. "They never lived in mansions. But they owned the streets." In the fall of 1989 Power was convicted of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He was transferred out of state to serve his sentence.

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.

Ernesto and Hector tote black Bic pens and yellow legal pads in their car trunk so they can file monthly reports to New York about potential inductees and their hangouts. When Hector was stuck in a Greyhound bus station en route to Miami, he was forced to send a message on white paper. "Forgive my letter not made of King colors," he was obliged by Latin Kings etiquette to write after the salutation, "but yellow paper was not avalabbel."

The two young Kings carry the new teachings in a bible they wrote by hand with guidance from their New York mentors, on gold paper bound in black-foil wrapping paper covers. The chapter titled "The Knowledge" begins this way: "You feel in your heart 'whats my stinking life worth?' You got no girl who dont play you for your money to truely love you. You dont know who your dad is or he hates you if you do. You know theres a bullet for you only question is when it hits. And we say, brother, your sad secret heart is rite cos nothing is so hard to find as love. Heres what the new Nation gives you to keep strong your heart even in death -- amor del rey. 10 yrs from now we'll be a force even the USA prez must rekon with much less the cops. If you are dead for justice by then, kids in gold and black will ponte to your foto and say -- cos of this man, this King I am treeted with respect by the rich, live in grace and am loved even tho my skin is brown." Their bible also contains job applications, to be distributed in Miami, for positions in the new, improved nation. (Requirements listed for "Enforcer of Democrasy" include "knowledge of semi-automatic weapons, shanks and 45 wpm typing.")

To be recognized as a gang by other Latin King city chapters, Miami's Latin Kings recruiters must enlist fourteen men who, as Ernesto puts it, "are willing to die for peace and Latin majesty." Fourteen is Kingism's magic number, symbolizing the power of Christ, the disciples, and another mysterious King of Kings, whose coming is predicted in the Latin Kings' bible. His traits seem to mirror those of Malcolm X: a keen, self-taught intellect, courage, and a charisma so commanding that white power brokers will feel inferior and alarmed.

Ernesto describes a Latin Kings prayer meeting to the terrified quarter-popping teens: "We kneel in a circle and ask the force of the King of Kings -- it's a power like ESP for Latins -- to protect us and give us answers to gang and society-type problems. We talk over stuff from our life, like getting a brother off drugs or not knowing how to read. We teach about women, how to know a real queen who'll love you good."

Hormonal curiosity momentarily bumps fear off the boys' faces. "You assholes probably spend every dime the same day you rob it," Ernesto sneers. "That's why you sitting in this shit. We have a secret reason for saving our money together." At this Hector holds out a photo framed in yellow cardboard. "This is the church we'll build, where, if you do something brave, we do a ceremony your queens can watch. We'll have teachers there for peewees too scared of gangs to go to schools."

The boys lean forward to examine the picture of a cavernous room draped in saffron silk and featuring a shiny black piano, all overlooking a pool shaded by flowering trees twined with ivy. It is Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago music room, clipped from People magazine. Sometimes Ernesto and Hector use Jon Secada's living room cut from the Spanish-language magazine AHola! The pictures in the pitch may vary but the dream is always the same. "What I'm saying is, you got no future five minutes before I came," Ernesto continues as one boy gingerly touches the photograph. "Join us. Maybe you got something."

Ernesto Mora ("It's one of my real names that got no APBs on it," he says, brandishing five sets of fake IDs bearing different names) was four years old and asleep on a cot just a few feet from the closet where police in a Connecticut city found his mother shot through the head. His father was charged with the shooting but skipped bail, never to be seen again. Ernesto and his kid brother Luis were tossed from relatives to people who just needed things done: laundry for a dozen washed and hung, methamphetamine trotted off to a corner drop. Ernesto's caretakers pinned his name to his shirt so even the stupidest drug courier could find him.

Soon the little boys became escape artists. They would map out flight paths two minutes after they stepped through anyone's door, then spent nights straining to detect telltale sounds. Children whimpering in nearby rooms, certain phrases shouted in disputes over drugs, silence after a heart-stopping scream -- they climbed out windows, slid off roofs, and ran through streets, even in winter. When snow soaked their sneakers, they hobbled across ice, holding each other up like crippled old men till they found a 24-hour liquor store or phone booth. "You can sleep in a booth curled up one at a time," Ernesto remembers. "Get so cold, your bones don't forget. But that ain't so hard. The hardest, scaredest, coldest fucking feeling is trapped with no getaway."

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.

The sole survivors of the tidal wave are wan children who clutch at their throats, for the storm has torn away their voices. The King allows his wife to feed each child a cake decorated with the crown and heart symbols. "She gave the Latins' voices back so's they'd stay alive, but the punishment is no one listens to them," Hector explains. "The King bible says our hearts stay black from sadness till we come together and work to make the world pure again."

The final picture shows a muscular man in crisply ironed cholos and a gold-and-black plaid shirt descending a mountain. Lightning flashes from a tornado cloud that swirls behind him, and his dark hair is whipped by the wind. His face is obscured. "It's the King of Kings," Hector continues. "We don't know what he looks like, but he brings the Second Storm and sweeps us up to where we can rule the cities again. It ain't about killing whites or blacks. We ain't with that. They're allowed to help us. They can be second-in-commands. Do I think the long-ago stuff is real? I can't say. But I'll believe it 'cause the rest is the Latins' truer story than Jesus."

Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad preached the mythology of Yacub to convicts because it was a more explicit message of racial empowerment than anything he found in the Koran. Yacub was a demon who created white devils to enslave blacks for thousands of years until blacks united as a race to fight for their dignity. Muhammad's message offered earthly power as a reward for maintaining the moral high ground. And like the Second Storm in Hector's mural, it provided the semblance of a common past to men who've never before felt close enough to anyone to share a history.

But if Kingism ever brings disenfranchised Latins together, will it be able to take them anywhere? The Nation of Islam's example could be instructive. In the late Eighties, Louis Farrakhan was dismissed as a marginal influence because of his anti-Semitic remarks, his friendship with Moammar Gadhafi, the resentment many blacks still harbored over his early vitriolic rhetoric against Malcolm X. The Muslims honed their message, focusing on anti-drug campaigns, self-help, and unification across class lines.

Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March proved how fast a leader's base can expand. The Wellington Group, a Howard University think tank, found that 43 percent of the men attending the march earned more than $50,000 per year; 18 percent earned more than $75,000. And the event won praise from real movers and shakers such as Colin Powell (who condemned Farrakhan's racist remarks while supporting the marchers) and Spike Lee.

"Men with big jobs in white shirts and ties will be paying respect to us soon, even though I never actually knew a man who wore one," Ernesto says as he and Hector try to hook a hot plate into a battered generator; the abandoned Little Havana house they hide in for now has no electricity. Sparks shoot from the socket, nicking their fingers. "I know that where we're starting from looks like not much of Miami. You're thinking what a long way we have to go. That's okay. Anyone ever walked hell knows a few miles in the real world ain't that much more to go."

The year after his brother's murder, Ernesto was cursed with bad luck. "No matter what I did, I didn't get deaded," he recalls. "And I did a lot." The Brooklyn Kings he lived with spent their nights on burglaries and the occasional drive-by. ("I can't remember the reason why we done a single one 'cause the reasons were such boring fuckshit.") Ernesto developed a drug habit that outstripped Luis's. "I freebased and smoked so much shit, I lived in the sweats," he says. He lay on the floor on a mattress, his skin hot and soaked, and his heart hammering so, he wondered why it didn't rip through his chest. "I'd feel scared this is me going dead -- then right before I pass out, it's like a door shutting on the fear. And I'd think, Good, at least I get out of this life. But I always woke up."

He first saw Isabela one morning when his shirt was drenched with beer from an all-night binge. She stood across the street from him, calm and clean, talking to her little cousin. Around her was the usual street play of cursing and dealing. "She never took her eyes off the kid, smiling, leaning her head to listen closer. She took his hand and walked off very strong, her head up. I found out the boy was scared to walk to school past some homeless, so she took him," Ernesto says. "She moved to the projects to raise six cousins when her aunt went to rehab -- a girl who takes care of people and herself, without leaning on anyone. And she was doing better than I did with my one brother."

Isabela was finishing high school while waitressing in a Brooklyn Heights restaurant. One day Ernesto saw his cronies follow her to the subway, harassing her. He ran across the street and shouted, "Leave this lady alone or I kick ass one asshole a time!" He grins. They ran. Along with her thanks, Isabela gave her champion an assessment. "You wear their colors, even though you can act better than what's on your back," she said, looking Ernesto in the eye. "Gangbangers do whatever the strongest man they see does. You're strong enough to stand up to them, but not to walk away, so tomorrow and the day after that, they'll still be hurting ladies."

"She said all these ideas I never had, and she says them like she's hard to break as iron. And all I could think was, She's real pretty," Ernesto recalls.

He blurted out, "Can I walk you to your stop?" She smiled. It became his new custom. They chatted to and from her subway stop about her classes and her college scholarship; he told her about Luis. After a few weeks he asked her for a date. Latin Queens on his block kept lists of items they wanted their boyfriends to buy -- TV sets, gold watches set with rubies -- each time they had sex. He knew Isabela was different from that, but he was stunned when she refused to date him because he was in a gang. He vowed to forget her, then watched her as she navigated the mean streets without him. "At night I tried to think of every bad thing -- like she's stuck up but has no money so who the fuck she think she is? -- to make myself hate her," he recalls. But her image fought stubbornly for the ground it had won.

His admiration for Isabela was not cool or dispassionate. It was annoying, disturbing, striking at the core of his personality with the nature of a challenge. She has a future, Ernesto's night thoughts ran; he had only a past. He had swagger; she had spirit. He was with a gang; she was self-reliant and self-possessed. "With no gun in her hands. She had so much," he says wistfully. "Sometimes I think she has all."

For the first time he wanted the pattern of his life broken. "She wasn't like this gang girl I been with before, where I knew what to do for every situation," he says. "There's the money situation. The 'I want to get laid' situation. The 'make me look good for my homeys.' I talked with Isabela different. No guy made her think what she didn't believe."

They resumed their conversations, though it irritated him that she didn't seem to notice he'd been absent a month. Ernesto sat with her in a park near an office complex one evening and watched men outfitted in suits and wedding rings plunging through the crowds "like safe ships with somewhere to go," he muses. "I had no pictures to think about their lives with. No one I ever knew was married. There were a couple of times when I was next to her I wanted to say, 'This is forever.' I don't know what that means, neither."

Suddenly Isabela announced she was leaving the next month for a college upstate. To Ernesto it sounded as far away as another planet. "I don't know why, but I said, 'You think you're escaping, but no one's gonna respect you,'" he says wearily. "Told her I'd been with a girl 100 times better than her and would be again. I was real mean till she stood up. She said, 'You win. I saw you as a gangster who might become a good man. You don't want me to see that, and now I don't. All I wonder is, what'd you win, Ernesto?'" She walked away for good as he sat there on the bench, longing to call her name.

Ernesto was mired in his drinking and drug cycle again when he met Hector, who'd joined the Latin Kings the year before. Hector said he kicked his heroin habit thanks to one of King Tone's "righteous talking circles," which are similar to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, complete with Kings acting as sponsors. (Hector had no one else; his parents were killed during a home invasion by rival drug dealers.)

At Ernesto's first circle meeting, Hector agreed to be the King who talked him through withdrawal, the shakes, the night sweats. When he was well enough, Ernesto (who says he'd never read a book or magazine in his life) plowed stolidly through Tone's doctrine. "There's parts I only sort of understand," he concedes, "like how we'll show Latins their lost gifts, lost voices. I never had a gift like art or singing. But Isabela was right -- I know how to stand gangsters down and make 'em listen." He shifts uneasily. "I was so sick of me, maybe I wanted anything, long as it was a change. The stuff about feeling love for lost brothers -- I don't feel it. But my King brothers say if I do it with my actions, my heart will come later."

He is a man who has lived most of his life dead cold and now studies empathy like a hard lesson. Neither Hector nor Ernesto can imagine the infinite small steps to get from where they are to a career, a safe home, or a happy marriage. What they can do is memorize and learn a regimen their bibles say is necessary to mold other men with little to lose into comrades for a lofty cause they don't fully understand. Both swear they will never abandon Kingism's recruitment mission in Miami. They have stumbled onto an addiction that, for those who've witnessed the worst humans can do, is as potent and perilous as drugs or alcohol: the role of Eternal Rescuer.

The temporary headquarters of the Miami's Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation is a big white house in Little Havana, trimmed in fragments of pink and blue paint, with crushed cornices and a buckling porch. In the house, Hector and Ernesto use flashlights after dark to find the sleeping bags they've stitched together out of sheets. As they prepare for bed, they dutifully recite their prayer to the King of Kings. Before all that, though, Ernesto has a ritual of his own. He enters a room that faces the setting sun, lifts a floorboard, and retrieves two photographs he keeps there. One is a Polaroid a teacher took of Luis, sporting a black eye, displaying his reading club certificate. The other is a senior yearbook photo of a girl with long black braids and gray eyes. "Yeah, like the Queen in Hector's picture," Ernesto murmurs. "I told him to draw her like that. But I never showed him this."

He pores over the photos of two people he'll never see again. "It's like, maybe I'll see a clue to -- I don't know," he waves the thought off with his arm. "It's just, there's this dream I have some nights. Me and Isabela and Luis are outside, someplace better than I've ever seen. We're under a tree with fancy pink roses on it. Luis is telling a joke. Isabela takes my hand, laughing. We're drinking cold water out of clean glasses, all happy. I don't know what the dream means" -- he holds the pictures close as the light fades -- "just sometimes ... I have it."

Ernesto and Hector are success stories for Tone's rehab programs, but coming to Miami with his message was their own idea. They ask advice from Tone's lieutenants, who are donating only some money to help pay the security deposit on an apartment they will move into in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, they survive alone and use their generator and a brick back-yard barbecue for cooking. They have two battery-powered circulating fans to ruffle the steamy air.

A Dade contractor who has a former King in his family gave them their own portable toilet. They wash up at gas stations and shower at a trailer park in Little Havana. When they need money, the same man who loaned them the toilet throws lucrative construction work their way. Their favorite supermarket is La Mia because Hector adores its gigantic sign, with its painting of a bosomy female shopper in a tight pink dress. "She's a goddess," he swoons.

In addition to their monthly reports, they call their mentors every other week by cell phone but have never spoken directly with Tone, who is unaware of their activities. "He has so much to take care of in New York, and cops and enemies to deal with, and people to help," Hector says. They get advice from what Ernesto terms "community outreach and nation-building experts," men in Tone's circle who know how to plan rallies and construct rudimentary Rolodexes of community activists. Since no one's sure whether the cops listen in, their long-distance sessions sound abbreviated and cryptic. The Miami missionaries are, for the most, completely alone.

Four days each week they recruit, rising shortly after dawn and taking meticulous care with their appearance. As in most big cities, Miami police track gang members by filling out cards when they see a man throwing gang signs or flashing colors. Cops fill in the blanks after Usual occupation and Nickname with the man's cooperation. They can take detailed physical descriptions by checking off the tiny boxes under categories ranging from Facial hair ("clean-shaven, full beard, Fu Manchu, goatee, lower lip, unshaven") to Speech ("accent, rapid, slow, loud, soft, lisps, nasal, raspy, stutter, other"). Ernesto was so proud when a Miami officer checked "calm," "neat," and "cocky" under the Demeanor column that the patrolman gave him the card as a souvenir. Hector and Ernesto feel they are outstripping their disheveled pasts with freshly washed, permanent-press, mostly gold and black clothes and clean-cut good looks.

But their work is exasperating. A great look, it seems, is not enough to reach the Miami crowd. When they drive their car around to gather a dozen men who expressed interest in attending one of their ad hoc Saturday afternoon orientations, only three actually appear at their designated corners. Two had thought there was going to be free booze. The third is a forlorn, unbathed young junkie with red-rimmed eyes, who begs the guys for methadone. "I know you Kings have ways of getting it," he says.

Ernesto thinks the junkie is the best bet as a convert. "He's the only one who wants a big life change," he says. Ernesto puts his arm hesitantly around the addict's thin shoulders and promises to take him to a treatment program and attend some meetings with him. (His New York mentor, who helped Ernesto prepare, has a list of Miami programs using all sorts of methods and funding, broken down by neighborhood.)

In the past month they've never had a bigger turnout than four for the nine meetings they've put together. In Riverside Park, Ernesto and Hector can't even coax a verbal commitment out of the men they approach. In a Little Havana apartment complex, they explain to skeptics how the Kings hope to straighten out enough gangbangers to get one block to see them as heroes. The unemployed audience decides that sitting in a parking lot with paper-bagged beers is more fulfilling, though two men in their twenties approach Hector later and ask whether, if they join, they'll learn how to read. Exhausted, Hector agrees to try to teach them.

But what occurs in Lummus Park, along the north bank of the Miami River, blasts their mildly hopeful mood to smithereens. Ernesto is tracing the trajectory of Tone's philosophical development -- from that of self-interested gangbanger to peacemaker and civic leader -- to six young men bearing the tattoos of defunct gangs. Only one of them is drunk, which seems a nice change until he steps forward, unzips his pants, and urinates on the full length of Ernesto's freshly laundered black trousers. It happens so fast there's a motionless moment when everyone wonders whether it's a hallucination. Once it's clear that Ernesto is soaking, the onlookers are compelled to some reaction. Too scared to laugh, too keyed up to stay quiet, they begin howling. They throw back their heads and, wide-eyed, yelp like coyotes.

Ernesto reaches in his pocket. There's a flash as he sends his brass knuckles crashing into the side of the drunk's head. The man falls screaming to the ground. Hector hustles Ernesto to the car. The smell is so awful they stop at a gas station and buy an entire 36-count carton of pine-shaped car air fresheners. "Was that motherfucker half horse to piss a stink this bad?" Ernesto bellows as he slaps the little green trees all over the dash and rearview mirror. "I hate this stinking motherfucking city that stinks as much as this motherfucker's piss! Why didn't you let me kill that puta?" he demands, transferring his rage to Hector. The frazzled men scream at each other as the car screeches around corners. (The deodorant trees bob merrily against the windows, ceiling, and armrests, exuding scent. The car now smells like a forest primeval -- that some guy has peed in.) The shouting match continues up the steps and into their house as Ernesto shoves Hector, rummaging in their ice chest for lunch, out of his way.

That tears it. Hector hurls a mango at his friend. The orange fleshy pulp splatters across the wall. "Are you crazy? Wasting our fucking food!" Ernesto yells. He grabs Hector by the shirt, but just as they're about to pummel each other, the anger evaporates. They clap each other briefly on the shoulder. "Sorry, man. You did exactly what was right," Ernesto mumbles.

Hector cleans up the pulverized mango. They depend on each other as much as lifeboat survivors would. Hatred is a luxury they can't afford. Their sixth week in Miami ends on such a depressing note that they forgo their reports to New York.

A knock on the door the following Friday at noon changes everything. Ernesto and Hector exchange a puzzled look. They have scheduled yet another Latin Kings orientation, this one on a Monday night near the beach behind the Delano Hotel. A wannabe could be dropping by to ask for a ride, but it would be the first time that had happened. Hector puts his hand to his shoulder holster as Ernesto opens the door.

A man of about 30 with a desperate, almost crazed expression stands there with a young boy at his side, maybe six years old. "You're looking for men," he gasps. "I was once one of you here in Miami." He shoots out his arm to reveal the crowned-heart tattoo. "And I need your help." He scoots the boy inside.

Hector stands slightly behind the man, very watchful, hand still on his gun butt. Ernesto's eyes never leave the man's face. "I don't expect you to get me out of my trouble," the man says. He rakes a hand through his sweat-slick hair, trying to cobble together a dignified mien for his plea. "I'm a dead man for what I done. There been no Latin Kings here for years worth shit. I been working for other gangs. I stole from a gangster supposed to go to prison. And his PD copped a plea. He's not gonna take money or sorry from me. This is my son. I want him out of Miami. I want him with people who ain't down with no gang to raise him. You say you're the Kings what helps everyone. Prove it. Help the boy of a dead man."

For a second, Ernesto looks helplessly at his cell phone. "I need to know more," he says cautiously. "Your name. The name of the guy who'll drop you."

The man hesitates, then steps forward and whispers in Ernesto's ear. Recognition flits across Ernesto's face. "I know the name since I got here," he says grimly. "You were a damn fool to steal from him."

"Jesus Christ! Motherfuck! I fucking know that!" the man explodes. "I also knows you guys ain't got shit to show for the time you been here. My boy has nothing to do with this. You want your name to get respect around, this'll do it -- that you helped the son of a dead man get a home. Even the gangster what drops me will respect that. He respects gangsters what looks out for their families."

Ernesto nods, agreeing but unsure. The man twists the front of his black shirt, almost sobbing: "You want Miami to know the Kings take care of their own, then do some shit instead of standing there in fucking stone. Who gives a shit about praying to amor del rey if you can't help a dead man's son? You want the hero word around? You gotta know one fucking family that ain't with no gang that'll take my son. There's lots of families that do this just so's little kids won't be in gangs or group homes."

The thin little boy stands silently, a battered paper bag pressed to his chest, as his father rants in counterpoint to Ernesto's careful questions. The child's huge brown eyes fasten on a female visitor in the room. He walks over to her as the drama rages on and whispers, "You want to help me with my reading? I brung my books, but I need help with words." He holds up the sack. Inside are some cardboard-cover Golden Books: The Little Engine That Could, Poky Little Puppy, The Gingerbread Man. The child and the woman sit in the window seat as Ernesto makes calls and the father weeps. The boy moves his finger along the tale of the Gingerbread Man's escape. "I run! I run! Please don't let me melt!" he whispers.

By nightfall, with the help of a New York social activist and ally of the Kings, Ernesto has talked to an out-of-state family that is already raising one child of a gangbanger who vanished from the earth. They will take another. The husband, who never gangbanged, lost his favorite cousin in gang warfare and views child-rearing as a moral mission. Ernesto and Hector buy a Greyhound bus ticket for the boy, who will stay with his elderly, ill grandmother until the departure date. "Who's gonna hold the ticket for him till Monday?" Hector inquires, surveying the wrecked father doubtfully. The little boy holds out his paper bag to accept it. "You won't lose it?" Hector asks.

"No. I'm real careful," the child replies. He takes his father's hand and briefly leans his forehead against it.

Ernesto comes to the beach at sunset, though the Monday gathering isn't scheduled until after dark. He loves the moment when Ocean Drive's neon signs first etch icy blue words into the milky, tropical sky. Hector is using the car to fetch five guys who'd said they wanted to come but have no car and would find the bus daunting. "If we get five, that's breaking our record," he says. When Hector arrives, all five youths are with him, sober and in tidy clothes. The addict who approached Ernesto about methadone appears under his own steam. While Ernesto is still reveling in the attendance surprise, four additional men -- two Nicaraguans, a Salvadoran, and a Puerto Rican -- to whom he'd preached at a construction site climb the stairs to the promenade. "Amor del rey," Ernesto greets them. The men regard him for a moment.

"We heard what you Latin Kings did for the boy," one finally replies. "So we're here to give some respect. And listen."

A cool ocean breeze sweeps the beach where the men gather to form a circle on the sand. As Ernesto recites the Latin Kings' prayer, he drinks in the Technicolor lights of a city whose glorious or terrible future he's determined to begin.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >