How Do You Leave a Gang?

The tattoo removal center is called Ya' Stuvo, Spanish slang for "that's enough, I'm done with that." A few times a week, surgeons lend their skills to remove the tattoos with laser surgery. Some gang members have black teardrops, often several of them, tattooed just below the eye. Each one can stand for a stint in prison or a person killed.

Gabriel Hinojos says he got his teardrop from doing time at Folsom State Prison. He grimaced in pain as the surgeon extracted the ink from the soft skin under his eye. Asked what it felt like, Gabriel answered: "You know when you're cooking and the oil hits you? It feels like that, over and over." This is his 45th visit, give or take, to Ya' Stuvo. He is still covered in black ink. There is the name of his gang, Florencia 13 or F13 (one of the largest in Los Angeles), written across his neck in huge block letters and a large black spider ("Spider" is his street name) inked onto the side of his head. Some tattoos have faded into a faint collection of light gray lines, but they haven't gone away entirely.

Getting out of a street gang in L.A. is about like getting a tattoo removed: slow, painful, scarring. In street lore, a gang banger can never leave a really brutal gang like Mara Salvatrucha 13. In practice, a gang member like Gabriel can get out of a tough, but not suicidally murderous, gang like F13 if he has served time in prison and "done the work"—shown that he can "sling" drugs and wield a gun. But escaping the pull of gang life is extremely difficult, as Gabriel told a NEWSWEEK reporter during recent conversations. Handsome, charismatic—the nurses at Ya' Stuvo could not help flirting with him—Gabriel became a kind of poster child for leaving behind the gang life. He celebrated his achievement by sipping white wine with former first lady Laura Bush at the White House. A few months later, he was back in jail.

Gabriel joined F13 when he was 14 years old. He had a tough home life, he says, so he moved out and crashed with a gang member named Diablo (since killed). When Gabriel was 16, a girl who was riding on the handlebars of his bike was shot and killed by rival gang members who were aiming for him. He learned to sling (sell) drugs, steal cars and use a gun—"I used to love holding it," he recalls. When he was 21, he was sent away to prison for spraying the house of another gang member with bullets. He was released after only two years, but got two strikes for the incident; one more serious felony conviction and he would be sent to prison for life.

Covered with tattoos when he emerged, he was unemployable. Fearful of winding up back in prison permanently if he rejoined his gang, he wandered into Homeboy Industries, an organization in downtown L.A. that offers GED classes, therapy, substance-abuse counseling, jobs and job training and Ya' Stuvo. A natural leader, Gabriel got a job there. He became a better husband, had another child and moved away from the old neighborhood, Florence. Within a year, he was sent to a Helping America's Youth conference in Washington, D.C., and posed for pictures with the first lady.

But he wasn't free. From time to time, he'd get "G'd up"—crease his pants, iron his shirt and go looking for his old "homeys." (Sharply creased pants are a tribute to old-time Mexican gangsters who wore zoot suits in the '40s and '50s.) In 2006, months after his White House visit, he was back in his old neighborhood, "chilling" with friends, some of whom, he says, were smoking "primos" (crack in marijuana joints). The police arrived. "I hid under the bed," Gabriel recalled. "The cops broke the door down. They got me. I'm like, 'F–––! I'm through'." The police found ammunition and a gun in the house. But the one gang member there who was not on probation agreed (or was convinced by the others) to take the rap. As Gabriel rode in the police cruiser, he thought of his wife, Sandra, who begged him not to go back to his old friends. "I came home and said, 'Babe, I love you. You were right. I almost went to jail for life'," he says.

A few months later, Gabriel was right back out there. "The devil was pulling," says Sandra. He was arrested with his gang buddies and sent to jail for violating his parole and for public drinking. By now he had four kids. Sandra would pile them in the car and drive to the jail after work. Gabriel and Sandra arranged a signal: he'd wave a piece of paper from his cell window and she'd flash the lights on the car. "I'd be in the cell, like, 'Oh, my God.' I have to wave a paper so my wife would know which window I was at."

Released after six months, he vowed again to stay out of the old neighborhood. But he couldn't resist getting in his car and just driving, slowly circling East Los Angeles, which helped him fight his impulse to drive to Florence. Gabriel, normally articulate, struggled to explain the strange draw: "Sometimes, when I'm arguing with my wife, I'll want to go … to my neighborhood, you know? And now it's like I'll block myself out—like, 'F–––! Where are you going now?' You ain't going nowhere, you know? It's like I drive in circles, you know what I mean … Just stop my mind or just thinking about the s–––, being in jail. I don't want to go back to jail and s–––."

It was easier to understand Gabriel's struggle with temptation by watching him interact with an 18-year-old who is also trying to escape gang life. David Davila got out of "camp," as juvenile detention is known, six months ago. He has been working at Homeboy Industries and staying out of trouble, but he still lives in a crash pad in his neighborhood (he doesn't know his father, his mother is in Colombia and he's estranged from his grandmother). NEWSWEEK visited his house, a bungalow on a bleak street. Inside there is a statue of the grim reaper, draped with a blue bandana and chains. David, a slight boy with long eyelashes and a seemingly kind disposition, explained that the statue represents the neighborhood, which he calls Dead Town. His gang is Muertos 13. When he leaves the house in the morning, he asks himself, "Do I want to go to work or post up with the homeys and gang bang?" On Día de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday honoring the dead that falls on Nov. 2, he recalls: "I missed pulling out the gun on people, I missed the adrenaline. I like taking risks. It's the high."

Sitting in Gabriel's East Los Angeles living room, David admitted he's still hanging around his gang sometimes. Gabriel told him, "Just do it right, dawg"—meaning no drugs, no guns. David talked about wanting to go to the beach and about his infant daughter, whom he never saw (she died while he was in jail). The two men also spoke of their bond. "I feel you, dawg, cause you're so used to being in the hood," says Gabriel. David: "We love that feeling of knowing that somebody's [an enemy] out there." Gabriel: "I know what you mean … She'll [Sandra] be like, 'What are you looking out there for?' "

Sandra interjects, "He'll be driving and he'll be looking for other gang members." Gabriel goes on: "We have it in ourselves … We ain't gonna do what we're doing, this and that [dealing and stealing], but we're still gonna be from the hood." David agrees, "We're always gonna be from the hood."

For a youngster like David, it is extremely difficult to just walk away from a gang. The older members will likely try to shame him, and possibly beat him, into line. Founded more than 20 years ago, Homeboy Industries now helps at least 8,000 men and women from as many as 700 gangs annually, but some go back to the street, and others turn to drugs. They become lonely and depressed. "You can't cry in the hood," says Fabian Debora, a former gang member and drug addict who is now a substance-abuse counselor at Homeboy. "They'll say, 'What's wrong with you, sissy? What's wrong with you, faggot?' Misery loves company. They don't want to see you succeed because they're still in misery. 'He's doing good? F––– that fool.' A lot of kids fall away. They sabotage their success." David wants to tread a fine line: "Before, I used to shoot at anybody just because they looked at me wrong or said something stupid. Now I think about it twice … I still do the same route of walking up and down, but I'm just not doing it with a gun." But, he adds, "If someone comes to do some crazy s–––, I'm gonna do it back."

Gabriel wants to give David a way out of the gangster life, and he offers to let David crash on his couch, any time. "Hey, dawg, straight up," he says. "Whenever you don't got a place to stay, you can come to my pad … I know what it is to live in the street, homey."

Gabriel, his wife and four children live in a four-room rental. On the wall are pictures of the priest from Homeboys whom he credits with saving his life, Father Gregory Boyle ("Father G" to Gabriel, who named his 3-year-old son after Boyle); a portrait of himself posing with Laura Bush at the White House; and a movie poster from "Scarface" quoting Al Pacino as dope dealer Tony Montana: "I want what's coming to me … the world … and everything in it." Gabriel is a neat freak who mops and vacuums his house every day. For a while, during his transition to the life of a working man, he got high to help him calm his demons. He says he feels old. He is 29.