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.

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Lynda Edwards