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Lori Duffy Foster

... write to think; think to write.

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY)

The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY)

 

SHOOTING SPARK CONCERNS ABOUT ROLE OF LATIN KINGS

November 7, 1996

 

By Lori Duffy

 

Richard Osorio found little to care about when he moved to Syracuse from Boston in 1994. The streets were the same: filled with aimless, bored kids who often sought trouble.

"Then I saw this group that stood out with their hands like this all the time," Osorio said as he clasped his right hand over a clenched left fist. "People respected them," he said. "Old people talked to them."

His curiosity grew with his awe, and soon he became one of them - a member of the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation. They are his family.

Law enforcement officers in other major cities say the Latin Kings are no family: They are a violent gang responsible for homicides in New York City, Chicago and Hartford, Conn.

In Syracuse, there is disagreement over the Kings' impact. Sam Velazquez, executive director of the Spanish Action League, said the group is a gang that his organization is trying to focus toward community service.

But Syracuse Police Chief James T. Foody said through a spokeswoman that he knows of no organized gangs in Syracuse.

Yet Syracuse police reports link the Kings to at least three shootings this summer on the south and near west sides, including one that left a 13-year-old boy bleeding in the street. Osorio, 20, is identified as a Latin King in one of those police reports, but he is not listed as a suspect.

Police have blamed no local homicides on the Latin Kings or their auxiliary, the Latin Queens.

Police Lt. Robert Driscoll said three detectives were assigned to the shootings that police believe involved Latin Kings. He believes their efforts have curtailed the group's growth. He believes the national Latin Kings do not recognize the Syracuse group because they have not murdered a rival gang member.

Osorio said the Kings are not violent: They are misunderstood. The Latin Kings promote Latino unity and cultural awareness, he said. He said police harass members because the officers fear Latino empowerment.

Latin Kings must abide by strict codes of behavior. Infidelity is prohibited. Kings are encouraged to get jobs. Young Kings must stay in school, obey curfews and achieve good grades.

"We're not a gang. We're not organized crime. We're a nation, a people," Osorio said. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you everyone who's with us is an angel. Everybody's got dirt. Those are the people we clean up."

Osorio said this from a room in the Justice Center Jail, where he was awaiting sentencing on a felony gun possession conviction. The charge stemmed from a July 31 raid of his home and two other Syracuse apartments that netted nine guns.

Police searched Osorio's apartment after someone fired about 20 rounds into the Markee Lounge and some neighboring homes at Oswego and Seymour streets July 22. No one was hurt, and no one was charged in the shooting.

Osorio was sentenced Oct. 17 to 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years in state prison. He said the guns in his home had nothing to do with the Latin Kings. They were his own mistake, he said. Fellow Latin King, Holvin Capeles, said he believes Osorio.

"Richie's a good kid," 30-year-old Capeles said from his Holland Street home on the city's near west side. "He just got caught up."

The Latin Kings formed in Syracuse at least 10 years ago, more than 40 years after the original group was born in Chicago, Capeles said. Neither Capeles nor Osorio would reveal the number of local Kings.

Osorio said the membership size is information shared only among Latin Kings. Confidential guidelines, handshakes and phrases help Kings identify true members.

Velazquez of the Spanish Action League said about 100 local men and boys belong to the Latin Kings.

The league, which works on behalf of Syracuse Latinos, has tried to help the Kings resolve problems with police and improve their reputation, but the Kings have not cooperated, he said. Velazquez has not given up.

"I am not the police. I am part of the 'hood and we can work together to do positive things," Velazquez said. "I wish I had their confidence."

Capeles said unity among Latinos was rare in Syracuse when he was growing up. He knew of only two Puerto Rican families in his neighborhood. He became a King in 1992 while he was serving time for a drug-related conviction in Orleans prison near Buffalo.

"You've got to protect each other," Capeles said.

Capeles returned to Syracuse when he was released in 1993. His live-in girlfriend, Marisol Mendez, said she is a Latin Queen. She declined to be interviewed.

"(Kings) don't do drugs," Capeles said. "They show respect. You don't change just because you become a King. All the Kings teach you is to put the things you've forgotten to use - to put your morals to use."

Capeles quickly corrected himself. Latin Kings may use some drugs, mostly marijuana and alcohol, but they may not abuse them or become addicted. If a King becomes an addict, his brothers step in.

"We provide help. If we know a brother of ours is an addict or something we try to get them in rehab or something," Capeles said.

 

 

Rules to follow

 

 

Latin King support each other when outsiders give them trouble. Osorio said they usually try to talk things out when they are physically threatened by others. They must have permission from the membership to react in other ways, he said.

"There are times when people push our buttons and we have to react to it," Osorio said. "I'm not going to stand in my house and let somebody take my life. That's the dirty part that nobody understands."

Osorio would not say what Kings do when they react to troublemakers. If the membership decides a King cannot react, he must "let it slide," Osorio said.

Capeles and Osorio revealed a few other rules.  Homosexuality is prohibited. Capeles said. Osorio said married Kings must remain faithful to their wives.

Capeles said young Latin Kings, called "pee wees," may not drop out of school. They must attend school every day and show their report cards to older Kings. They also must obey curfews.

Kings greet each other with the phrase "Amor de rey," which means "King love," Osorio said. The words are followed by a secret handshake and a hug. King love is hard to earn. Potential members of the Latin Kings sometimes spend months proving their worth, Osorio said.

"It's not always easy to be a King," he said. "You're not allowed to judge a person just by seeing them. You have to study them - not just for a week, not just for a month. If they show signs of being a troublemaker, we've got to take care of it."

The Latin King rules help create and reinforce that bond. Members who disobey are disciplined, Osorio and Capeles said, but neither man would describe the punishments.

"It's like family," Capeles said. "If you hit somebody - your brother - you get sent to your room."

 

 

"Gracetown Boys"

 

 

Syracuse police took a greater interest in the Kings after three shootings occurred on the city's near west side last summer. Police reports attributed the shootings to a feud between the Latin Kings and a group called the "Gracetown Boys."

Houston Wheeler, 17, of Hawley Avenue told detectives two Latin Kings invited him to ride with them July 28. They headed toward Grace Street, where they planned to shoot somebody, he told police. Their main targets were two brothers who live there, according to Wheeler's statement.

The bullets accidentally struck Tyrone Bacon, who has since recovered from his wounds, according to Wheeler's statement. Police charged Wheeler with Bacon's shooting.

Wheeler told detectives he knew the Latin Kings only by their first names. He said one of them shot Bacon. Wheeler's mother and sister said detectives, not Wheeler, put the words "Latin Kings" in his statement.

Wheeler declined to be interviewed. Osorio said the Latin Kings had nothing to do with the shooting. Several youths who hang out in Grace Park said Wheeler is eager to please and easily swayed. They believe he was coerced into the shooting.

Among the Grace Street group was Travis Wright, the 15-year-old boy who is recovering from a bullet wound that almost killed him July 21. No one was charged.

Osorio, Capeles and Mike Jackson, one of the young men from Grace Park, said the Gracetown Boys do not exist. The group merely consists of a few friends who hang out in Grace Park. Police are trying to turn the community against the Kings, they said. Police want people to believe the targets in the shootings were not random victims. Osorio said.

"The cops want to make us a gang," Jackson said. "We're just a group of kids. There's so much stuff, you can never get to the truth. Only a few people know the truth."

 

 

Symbolic colors

 

 

The youths on Grace Street know who the Kings are by the beads they wear around their necks and from the words on the streets. New Kings receive black and yellow beads that they treat with reverence. The colors have special meanings, Osorio said.

Black is a reminder that Hispanics share common ancestry. The color symbolizes the three ethnic groups that most Latinos descend from: African, Spanish, and Taino Indians, the natives of Puerto Rico, he said.

"That's what they don't teach you in school," Osorio said. "The gold is the light that shines upon us - that brings us forward."

Many older Kings, like Capeles, don't wear beads. Capeles said he wants people to know him first as an individual and second as a King.

"Beads is not what makes the man. They (younger members) wear it to show their pride. They wear it to show they're proud to be a King," he said.

Velazquez said the community shouldn't be surprised that the Latin Kings exist in Syracuse. Irving Spergel, a University of Chicago gang expert, agrees.

The high school dropout rate for Latinos is 36 percent in Syracuse.

That's a sure sign that Latinos are not comfortable in the school district's culture or structure, said Velazquez and Spergel. Cultural clashes and poverty also are factors that make communities ripe for gangs, said Spergel, who spent the past four years studying 200 Chicago gang members, including 100 Latin Kings.

 

 

Searching for structure

 

 

Spergel said most gang members are first-generation Americans whose parents barely speak English and are working two or more low-paying jobs. They often have little time for their children, who are caught between cultures, he said.

"(Gang membership) is about toughness, reputation. When they are younger, it has relatively little to do with drugs," Spergel said. "...They need structure. Kids can't grow up completely as wild weeds. They need some guidance and the gang provides that."

Velazquez agreed.

"Unfortunately, they isolate themselves from the mainstream and they want so badly to be recognized that they tend toward the negative reinforcement rather than the positive reinforcment," Velazquez said.

In Syracuse, many Latino immigrants and Puerto Ricans new to the mainland settle on the near west side, where Capeles grew up.

The neighborhood was ranked the 12th poorest predominantly white neighborhood in the country by U.S. News & World Report in 1994.

"(Latin Kings) is here because of the economic situtation," Velazquez said. "It's here because our community has been forsaken as far as putting resources into the community. That's a fact."

Velazquez said he understands the craving for unity and the need for some people to belong to a gang. He knows former Latin Kings who eventually quit the group and became solid members of the community, he said. He would not provide their names.

"There are bright people. They are bright, productive, industrious people. With the economic situation and the racial situation, some just give up," Velazquez said.

Capeles said he tried to get Kings involved in the community last year through the Latino Festival. He said he won't be happy until the Latino parade moves through downtown like the St. Patrick's Day parade.

Osorio participated in the festival on his own, he said. He said people don't give the Latin Kings credit for the good they do. The group helped Osorio learn to get along with his mother. they helped him get a job detailing cars and are encouraging him to pursue a general equivalency diploma, he said.

"Ever since I joined them, a lot of good things have happened."  Osorio said. "I was just ignorant, I was blind to the ways of goodness, you might say."

The Kings' guidance didn't keep Osorio out of jail and he quickly learned he is not alone behind bars. He met four other Latin Kings on his first day in the Justice Center jail, he said.

Osorio pleaded guilty to the gun charge instead of fighting it in court. By pleading, he spared his girlfriend, Gloria Cruz, from state prison, prosecutor Michael Price said. Cruz, who was arrested in the same raid, pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of the couple's three daughters.

Osorio said he continues to spread the message of the Latin Kings from jail for the sake of his children, ages 1, 2 and 4. Cruz is not a Latin Queen, he said.

"I want my girls to have everything, but at the same time I want them to know how to work for it. I want them to know everything they've been denied," Osorio said. "I want them to know, you came from something so beautiful, you'll cry when they tell you. Never deny who you are."

 

 

Shooting spree

 

 

Syracuse police have said they suspect members of the Latin Kings were involved in at least three shootings on the near west side this summer.

 

 

1. July 21: Travis Wright, 15; Marquis Williams, 13; and Alfredo Dashnaw, 16; were standing near a sign post at Massena and Grace streets when three masked gunmen approached. The men shot Wright and Williams. Dashnaw avoided the gunfire. Wright was in critical condition for several days. Williams and Wright have since recovered, but Wright still carries a bullet in his back.

 

 

2. July 22: Someone fired about 20 rounds into the Markee Lounge, a camper and some houses at Seymour and Oswego streets. No one was injured in the shootings. Information from the shootings led to a raid of three apartments and to the arrest of Latin King Richard Osorio on gun charges July 31. Osorio is serving 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years in state prison for felony gun possession.

 

 

3. July 28: Tyrone Bacon, 17, was shot while walking outside the Big A Market at 731 Oswego St. Police charged Houston Wheeler, 17, of Hawley Avenue with the shooting after witnesses identified him from photo arrays. Wheeler told police he was in a car with two Latin Kings when one of the Latin Kings shot Bacon. Wheeler's mother and sister said Wheeler never mentioned Latin Kings to police. They said police put the words in his statement, which Wheeler signed  Bacon was released from University Hospital after a few days.