For more photos, view Sam Slovick and Luigi Ventura's slideshow "Sympathy for the Devil: Inside Look at Gang Hoods."
We will take that most famous shield, the most famous badge in the world — and whatever little . . . tarnish exists, it will be wiped clean, and it will be the most brilliantly shining badge of any in the United States.
—William J. Bratton, October 2002
On the day his father left for good, Mauricio’s father had some parting words for his son: “Whatever you do, be the best.”
“That’s what he told me,” Mauricio remembers. “So I said, ‘I’m going to be the best fucking gangster in L.A.’”
This happened when Mauricio was 12, the year he started banging. Three years later, on February 24, 2005, Mauricio — not his real name because he is in this country illegally — stopped by his mom’s job to get 20 bucks to buy a part for his bike.
“I kissed my mom and told her I loved her,” Mauricio says. “I was on my beach cruiser, near Gage, near the fucking football field. I went to the school and got some water, then I was ready to go home and get something to eat and shit.
“I was going to the sidewalk. I saw a white Impala pull around the corner. I see two guys looking at me, and a homey I recognized got out of the car. I knew him from before. I used to be with his sister when I was 13. I seen the gun. I was trying to hop the fence to get away.
“He started dumping. I turned a little. I remember seeing the bullets cutting through the grass, then, poof, dirt flying ... like in a fucking movie.
“First one was in the back. It made me do a turn to the left. It went through by my spine, through a disc — missed the nerves. It broke my intestines and [went] in my liver. Then another one hit me in the side, in and out. The other in the arm.
“I was conscious. I was on the floor looking up. A clear blue sky like I never seen one like that before. I was like, fuck, I was having fucking flashbacks of my life. I seen my whole life in 30 seconds. I was a little baby and fucking up till the time I was there getting shot.
“I was on the floor, taking deep breaths. Trying not to panic. Then I saw another fool hit me up, he stood over me, like, ‘Where you from, homey?’
“Then the ambulance came. That was the first time I got shot. I was barely, like, 15. But here I am.”
Here he is, all 18 years and five bullets of him, a plastic tube permanently inserted inside his reconstructed intestine, the most unlikely college freshman, waiting with a bunch of dignitaries and neighborhood school kids to meet Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, a city that seems to get safer every year. Just this week, Congressional Quarterly came out with its annual City Crime Rankings, and Los Angeles has improved its position from the 103rd highest-crime city in 2007 to the 158th in 2008. Mauricio, inactive in gang life for several months, is one small part of the turnaround. And now that he’s about to meet the mayor, Mauricio is ecstatic. It’s as if he’s been on a trajectory to this moment for 18 years and didn’t even know it.
“I just had a dream about it, like, three days ago . . . that I was talking to him,” Mauricio says. “It just came through. I’ve always been like that. Like I know who’s barely about to call before the fucking phone even rings. Hey, take my picture with him after.”
Mauricio’s psychic scar tissue is substantial but the prognosis, oddly, is excellent. He’s hopeful for the future. With a lineage traceable to a cartel in Toluca, Mexico, Mauricio inherited brutality as a birthright. Jumped in, hemmed up, locked up, jammed up, searched and cuffed by the LAPD more times than he can count before his nuts dropped (and he’s pretty good at math). Mauricio, in his usual long white T-shirt, baggy jeans and shaved head, is transfixed as he watches Villaraigosa work his mayoral magic at the mike here at L.A. Trade-Tech College. The mayor is unveiling something called the Triple Crown Initiative, a college-prep and work-experience program seeded with a $1.2 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation to bring high school students from the Santee Education Complex to Trade-Tech for classes in tourism, culinary arts and other fields.
“Today we are building a bridge that connects two campuses less than a mile apart, and which will lead to dreams and real options for our kids,” the mayor says for the record. “At a school where almost one in two kids now drops out, our students will be graduating with a double diploma, and with double the opportunity.”