Courts Crime and Punishment Gangs Juvenile Justice

Gangs and the Terrible Politics of Snitching

Agustine Lizama and his long-time girlfriend

On Sunday, the New York Times ran an interesting and alarming story
about a man who was a witness to a gang murder and, at first testified as to the shooters’ identity in front of grand jury, then got spooked and—to use the term favored by frustrated cops and prosecutors—he pissed backwards.

But when the case came to trial, with a phalanx of gang members glaring at him in open court, Mr. Roe changed his story, testifying that he had heard the shots but never saw who fired them. The two suspects were acquitted.

Now Mr. Roe is the criminal defendant, facing up to three years in prison for the sin of being scared silent…… His is one of a small but growing cadre of cases nationally in which angry and frustrated prosecutors are turning the tables on witnesses who recant.

Getting witnesses to testify in gang trials has become a huge problem nationwide, and nowhere is the problem greater than in Los Angeles.

The subject came up in a dramatic way just last week when I guest lectured at a class at the UCLA School of Public Affairs taught by my friend, Jorja Leap who, in addition to being a terrific pal, is an international expert in crisis intervention and trauma response—and Antonio Villaraigosa’s policy adviser on gangs.

Anyway, Jorja made her class read my gang book
, and wanted me to give her students some kind of follow-up talk. To make things a bit more interesting, I asked three of the guys I know who work at Homeboy Industries to show up too and be part of the lecture.

The three men—Joseph Holguin, Agustin Lizama, and Luis Perez
—are all in their early 30’s and all former homeboys with fairly harrowing personal stories to tell. I also know them to be extremely dynamic and articulate. So when they arrived at the lecture hall, I simply turned the floor over to them, and stood back to watch the show.

They got up and talked, one after the other, about their respective pasts
—about horrifically traumatic childhoods, about the lure and familial comfort of the gang, about when they’d been shot, or shot at. They described the horror of seeing young friends shot and killed, talked about time spent in jail or prison, about struggles with drugs and/or alcohol….and then they each explained how and why they’d been able to climb out of the downward trajectory their gang pasts had predicted, to finally begin to build lives with promising futures.

All three spoke with passion, intelligence and candor about where they’ve been, what they’ve done wrong, and how good it feels to finally be doing things right.

The last of the three to speak was Augustine
—a bright, gentle man who’d been one of the stars of the poetry project I wrote about earlier. (Actually all three were involved, in one way or another.) Agustine talked about how he’d had his hand shot off at the forearm when he was 12-years old. How he’d been stabbed at 13.

And then he told a story I’d never heard before.

Agustine told how when he was 16, he’d happened, purely by accident, to be in the general vicinity of a gang murder. The police never found the real shooter but instead arrested sixteen year-old Agustine for the crime.
Agustine said that, although he had nothing whatever to do with the murder, he’d been close enough to see who had actually done the shooting.

“But I couldn’t snitch,” he told the lecture hall full of UCLA students
. “And they were going to try me as an adult. So,” he said softly, “at age sixteen, I was prepared to go to prison for the rest of my life for something I didn’t do, rather than talk. That’s how it is when you’re in a gang.”

Agustine was locked up for two and a half years
while he fought the case, eventually taking it to trial. As luck would have it, he drew a decent public defender and beat the murder case. Obviously, it could have easily turned out otherwise.

After the guys finished their personal accounts, the spellbound UCLA students peppered them with questions for another half hour. Finally, when the class was nearly over, a young woman stood up and asked the group one last question:

What if a homeboy came to you for help and advice,” she asked, “and, like Agustine, he was accused of a murder he didn’t commit? What would you tell him to do?”

The three homeboys glanced at each other.
It was Joseph who stepped forward first. “Unless I knew I could move that person out of state to a, like, really safe place, like Missouri or something, I don’t think I could advise him to talk.” The others nodded. “I’d say the same thing,” said Augustine. “I’d try to find a way to get him very far away, or it just wouldn’t be safe. Seriously. It just wouldn’t.”

What the guys didn’t say is that
, when it comes to a homeboy—or a former homeboy— being a witness—“snitching”—isn’t just a risk, it something that is almost guaranteed to have mortal consequences. And the scariest threat of retaliation isn’t from the homeboys or the gang members on trial. The real fear, for someone who’s ever been in a gang, no matter how peripherally, is of retaliation from the Mexican Mafia.

To illustrate, let me tell you one more story.

About ten or fifteen years ago a young homeboy I knew quite well
—a 16-year-old— was shot in the back in a gang incident, and it appeared that he was going to die. Since he figured he was dead anyway, and he was pretty unhappy about dying at such a young age, when LAPD officers came to interview the homeboy, he blurted to them the name of the gangster who’d done the shooting.

But then he didn’t die. He recovered.

Naturally, the cops and the D.A. dragged the young man to trial to testify against his assailant. But at that point, he did what the guy in the NY York Times story did,. He said he couldn’t remember. And the shooter beat the case.

But the damage, from a “snitching” perspective, was already done.

Eventually the paperwork from the original police investigation filtered into the jail system (as, for some reason, it always does)…and the EME put what is called a “green light” on the young homeboy— meaning a death sentence. Worse, they told his own homeboys it was their job to carry out the deed, and if they didn’t there would be….consequences. The whole gang would have a “light.”

Father Greg Boyle heard through the grapevine about the boy’s dilemma so (with my help, as it happens) conspired to get the kid away from East LA to stay with a middle-class family in another part of Los Angeles. Eventually he managed to leave Southern California altogether. After a few years, the issue blew over. Now he has three kids, a great wife, a fabulous job and has recently purchased a house.

But, as with Agustine, the story could have gone a very different direction. I still remember the times when it was unclear if the kid would live through the weekend—just for saying who tried to kill him, and then retracting it.

So, as I listened to the pretty college girl
ask the former homeboys that very smart question, I couldn’t help but silently turn the same question on myself: If young homeboy I knew and liked was arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, and he knew who actually did the deed, what would I advise him to do?

Sadly, I didn’t have to deliberate for even a second.

I’d tell him I’d help him find a good lawyer.


  • This behavior isn’t limited to gangs. It’s just that the consequences have a greater chance of being final. Kids growing up, even in nice suburbs, are criticized for being “tattle-tales,” even by adults. That’s a part of human nature that might be primordial for self-preservation. Have you or any others called someone a “tattle-tale” at some point in your lives? Somewhere along the line, being a fink should be rewarded rather than criticized.

  • Killing from Prison

    Eight defendants linked to the New EME mafia prison gang entered guilty pleas Thursday in federal court after prosecutors agreed to take the death penalty off the table.

    The government was seeking capital punishment against four of the eight, but reduced the sentences to life imprisonment.

    Prosecutors have said the investigation of the organization involves the killing of more than a dozen witnesses or potential informants, including a prison guard in southeast New Mexico, as well as foiled attempts to kill a top Arizona prison official.

    Luis Cisneros, who prosecutors claim was the head of the Cisneros Organization, was the first to enter his guilty plea Thursday.

    He admitted he ordered the murders of a New Mexico prison guard, who was also a former Cisneros Organization member, and the guard’s son. Cisneros also pleaded guilty to conspiring to kill the guard’s other son.

    In 1991, Llamas was charged in state court with ordering the death of then-Corrections Department Director Terry Stewart (New Mexico).

    There is a reason that most journalists do not cover the Mexican Mafia, it is because they are afraid for their lives and the lives of their family. When a group can order your death without fear of consequences, it is best not to cross them.

    This is just another reason why capital punishment needs to be available and used often, especially when dealing with organized crime like La EME. Or, perhaps we should just call them enemy combatants and send them all to GUATMO forever.

  • BTW – Maybe this is the reason for blocking the media (SUNSHINE) from these types of prisoners.

  • Great story Celeste. By the way, I can be considered on call to testify against Pokey at any time. I find his proposals to be rather panty-waist. Why not go all the way and send them to Auschwitz?

  • Marc, in regard to your snitching – remember my families connection to certain gang members in prison and out 😉

  • Member of the Mafia
    Marc, I was just kidding about my family, gangs and GITMO, so you have nothing to worry about unless you are worried about my Yellow belt in Karate. I just wanted to clear that up so that I won’t be prosecuted for a hate crime, be the subject of your daughter’s blog or get any more worried emails.

    However, it is shameful that we would be at a point in Los Angeles where we are not able to do the right thing ourselves when advising someone to testify against a murder. By taking the way of fear, by not taking a stand we become an accomplice to murder. We become a member of the Mafia.

    If we do not hold the morale high ground, than we are just enabling the next murder, the next kidnapping, and if you are in Iraq, the next bombing by Al Qaeda.

    The morale thing to do is to encourage the young man to testify and then help him get somewhere safe.

    Two liberal journalists (from Brookings Institute) reported to the NYT’s today that we seem too finally after years of “Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq” to be making real progress. We are making progress in Iraq now because we are doing right and morale things. We are helping to keep our Iraqi friends safe and helping them take back their lives and their county away from Al Qaeda and other extremist groups.

    In Ramadi, for example, we talked with an outstanding Marine captain whose company was living in harmony in a complex with a (largely Sunni) Iraqi police company and a (largely Shiite) Iraqi Army unit. He and his men had built an Arab-style living room, where he met with the local Sunni sheiks — all formerly allies of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups — who were now competing to secure his friendship.

    In Baghdad’s Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers. The Sunni residents were unhappy with the nearby police checkpoint, where Shiite officers reportedly abused them, but they seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish Iraqi Army company patrolling the street. The local Sunni militia even had agreed to confine itself to its compound once the Americans and Iraqi units arrived.

    We traveled to the northern cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. This is an ethnically rich area, with large numbers of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. American troop levels in both cities now number only in the hundreds because the Iraqis have stepped up to the plate. Reliable police officers man the checkpoints in the cities, while Iraqi Army troops cover the countryside. A local mayor told us his greatest fear was an overly rapid American departure from Iraq. …

    Iraqis have begun to turn on the extremists and turn to the Americans for security and help. The most important and best-known example of this is in Anbar Province, which in less than six months has gone from the worst part of Iraq to the best (outside the Kurdish areas). Today the Sunni sheiks there are close to crippling Al Qaeda and its Salafist allies. Just a few months ago, American marines were fighting for every yard of Ramadi; last week we strolled down its streets without body armor.

    … there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008.

  • Pokey, I’m just hoping you’re not suggesting that this makes me an accessory to murder.

    Here’s the deal, moral high ground be damned, I’ve attended too many funerals of young men to tell somebody to be stand-up and do the right thing, and then have to help bury the kid.

    What I myself would do should I ever have the mala suerte to witness a murder another matter.

  • Pokey there is a fair amont of debate, by some really knowledgable folks, as to the ‘liberal’ credentials of Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack. And, whether these two aren’t just trying to CYA from their earlier positions on Iraq. Apparently, it is very difficult for supporters of this military foolishness to admit they were, er, dead wrong. Econ 101: Ignore sunk costs. Street Wisdom 101: Don’t throw good money after bad. Card Player’s 101: Know when to fold ’em. For these two it seems to be: Dream, dream, dream …

    I would direct you here for one such discussion:

    Glenn Greenwald : Monday July 30, 2007 08:30 EST
    The really smart, serious, credible Iraq experts O’Hanlon and Pollack

  • I’ll abuse Celeste’s hospitality with one more off topic observation. That Op-Ed bit in the NY Times by O’Hanlon and Pollack has driven many who aspire to be credible journalists to re-visit and review this piece:

    The Atlantic Monthly | February 1996
    Why Americans Hate the Media
    Why has the media establishment become so unpopular? Perhaps the public has good reason to think that the media’s self-aggrandizement gets in the way of solving the country’s real problems by James Fallows

    My apologies, Celeste.

  • LotS – Perhaps I should have said “the liberal Brookings Institute”

    Yes, I agree that, Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack have been on both sides of the fence.

  • I have to agree with Listener’s last comment on this: that the media’s motives for publishing any story these days, especially a splashy one, are always called into question by their “self-aggrandizement” rather than any genuine desire to portray the “objective truth,” whatever that means anymore.

    This is especially pronounced locally, since the Mayor’s personal life has become front and center. It was little Daily News that “broke” the story, although the Times and others knew about it for some time, no doubt to get some attention for themselves — which they certainly did. Even if their tactics were rather shady, more worthy of a tabloid. (Is Beth Barrett racing off to Boston, even as we speak, to interview mourners and the undertakers at Bratton’s mother’s funeral, to dig up dirt to keep on hand for the right moment, i.e., when they need a new burst of attention?)

    Since then, the Times has also thrown the Mayor into the boxing ring, and Rocky and Yvonne Brentwood Burke, although none of those stories have had the “legs” of the Mayor’s affair and divorce, which has incited many in town somewhat akin to the Salem Witch Trials or the Inquisition: burn them, in the interests of righteousness and godliness! Get out those scarlet letters! Some Times writers have opined against this regressive moralizing, to no avail. Their paper needs revenues, and is getting them however it can.

    The Daily News did run a story a few days ago that pertains to this issue of silence in the face of gang crimes, called “Silent Suffering,” featuring a woman in the East Valley/ Panorama City. She saw a woman lay dying atop a washer in their building’s basement laundry room, and rather than do so much as call the cops anonymously even to get help for the woman, she retreated back to her one-bedroom apartment which she shared with a bunch of kids: eight people total.

    But we are supposed to care about educating all her kids, paying for their healthcare, and all the other burdens that an impoverished woman (don’t know if she has a husband) with all those kids imposes on our society. Sorry, that woman is not deserving of our caring, after what she did. She wasn’t the “victim” here, the dying woman was.

    And then, they ran a concurrent story about how residents in that very neighborhood didn’t feel protected by the cops. The fact is, 8 cops have recently been added there, but if the residents won’t call them or take any responsibility for their lives, what good are they? If SP40 isn’t working anyway as intended (to encourage illegals to call the cops) then I say, revoke it and deport all illegals. Including this woman and all her kids.

    Celeste, I’m sure there are valid cases were people are afraid to report a crime: say, if there’s a possibility that the criminal could ID the witness, or saw the person actually see THEM do the deed: but more often, I think it’s an excuse for people to expect the cops/society to do what they should be doing themselves.

  • “Why Americans Hate the Media” – Good link Listener!

    The link deals with deep moral issues and was accentuated by the answers of journalists Jennings and Wallace gave when they were confronted by a morale dilemma and choose silence.

    Generals Ogletree and Connell were disgusted by the Journalists answers as were most Americans.

    Our action or our silence can affect the world around us. The conspiracy of silence in the inner city has come with a huge cost to the community. Most murders remain unsolved, justice is a joke, police are frustrated and another cycle of death starts again.

    When we damn the moral high ground, we may be damning our community, and our children’s children for generations to come.

    P.S – this isn’t meant for you – get back to your deadline

  • The rules on retaliation does not apply to those that don’t gang bang. If this guy would have testified, the gang can not retaliate without their own consequences, he’s considered an innocent in the street game of gang banging. However, in terms of being a banger and snitching, the issue here is really “WHO” exactly was it that you snitched on and what was his status (power) within the neighborhood. This also applies to relatives. If you snitched on some homie that was a brother or a cousin to a vato with serious status, your just asking to get whacked….ASAP
    Gang members will 90% of time always snitch but to their own personal benefit. They just dont like to promote it but its almost always the case. If they promote it, it creates an atmosphere against the long standing cardinal rule of….bitches get stitches.

  • Good points, Poplock. The kid I mentioned (and Agustine, when he was a kid) were at the time, gang members—hence the problem.

    Even the police I’ve talked to say that innocents, as you say, rarely face retaliation. It does happen, but it’s the exception.

  • Interesting, poplock. You indicate a deeper level of familiarity… and, that “it depends.” Still, how do you ask someone, who perhaps isn’t sure of status and contingencies, to take the risk? Especially when, if they’re wrong, it’s lethal?

  • just wanted to add a bit about the positive “fall-out” from my class. a week later and the students are still talking about luis, agustine and joseph. their three stories and celeste’s observations resonated deeply with these students who are still grappling with both the profound losses, changes and moral ambiguities that characterize these three lives. a group of students even went over to homeboy to better understand the lives and poetry the three young men presented. one thing is certain — not one of us knows what it would be like to deal with the real terror and uncertainty — not only with snitching — but with life itself, that these poets face. and make no mistake about it — their pain, their crimes, their loss — has rendered them poets.

  • Every gang member from any neighborhood knows his or her limitations on vomiting information. Even an informant who holds a certain degree of power within his neighborhood gang structure will release only so much. Again, certain things are said and others are just to be left alone (ordered by the higher ups). If you break this rule, your requesting retaliation not only upon yourself but now your jeopardizing your love ones as well. Again, this all “depends” on the degree and the issue your touching upon. Plus, a homie will never be plain stupid to cut his own neck and always knows when its time to call it quits. At the bottom of the totem pole, no one really cares, as long it doesn’t jeopardize the gang as a whole or affects a specific person with some serious power and status. Again, power plays an important role. For example, you have a “youngster” putting in serious work for the neighborhood and starts to become a walking problem. At the gang’s monthly meeting, the vets will order his clique to check him with a simple warning (a chin check) that he needs to calm his little ass down because its starting to disrupt the higher ups dope sells, tax collecting, or bringing heat to the point of gang sweeps. This hurts two groups that live within the neighborhood, those that are trying to go straight and can not move due to economical problems and gang retaliation, and those that continue to use the gang to proliferate, involved in more sophsicated criminal activities (the backbone of the neighborhood).
    Consequences to the youngster may consist of a serious beat down at a monthly meeting or a vet doing what is more commonly done – dropping dime (stitching) on the youngster, locking him up and drawing attention away from the gang. What are the consequences on the Vet for stitching out the youngster, you guessed it, “cerote.” Why? ….again, the vet holds a certain degree of power that the youngster wants to hold one day. Sad but true, the younster will one day return as a parolee and will be well learned and groomed on street level gang politics. The cycle of stitching on a future younsters will just repeat itself – thats if he survives to see past 21.
    Gang members always play this game with the media and newspapers too. Not to offend a handful of you well intended writers, I respect your career and your determination of keeping things open minded, but countless times I’ve seen and heard a gangster tell a story with certain missing implications or skipping a couple of the juicy movie scenes. Again, I’ve seen and heard gang members switch themselves in stories. They will put themselves as the one driving the car, when in fact, the gang member saying the story was the one holding the gun and shooting out the window. This is also common at Court trials. The validality of the events are many times changed to the benefit of the story teller. You may think that a gang member has your trust and will swear on top of his abuelita’s tombstone on telling you the truth. NOT! Put it to you this way, if he checks you out from top to bottom, he knows your naive and unfamiliar with gangs – you getting a disneyland story. The only time a gang member will give you an entire truth or almost an entire truth is when you know certain details prior to him telling you his own version.
    I was going to talk about a certain gang member that killed his pregnant girlfiend with the help of his little homie. She was planning to stitch him out on a murder in the hollenbeck area. This was many years back and it would be kinda throwing mud at a certain East LA project gang. Some things are better left alone…….this was a good example of girlfriends not being exempted from the rule or considered innocents.

  • Hi Jorja, it’s good to hear that your class is still thinking and talking about the three guys, although I’m not surprised. Heck, I pretty much was familiar with their stories, and I was still taking notes as they talked. (As you can see from the post.)

    Interesting stuff, Poplock. Thanks for putting it up.

    The only cautionary note I’d suggest is that viewing gang members—or anyone, for that matter— through a strictly cynical lens, is in the end as misleading as viewing them through a strictly naive lens.

    About that last thing you mentioned, (and I realize we’re now talking inside baseball here) Smiley was typical of nothing. He’s the 2 percent…a true sociopath. Although, to my mind, that murder—which was a hell of a lot worse than either one of us is saying here, or should say here—brought a darkness on the soul of that particular neighborhood [the gang, I mean] that I believe has never again lifted. But that’s only my very personal opinion, and it is, of course, a far longer conversation.

  • It may be too late in the day for this in some neighborhoods, but I’ll suggest it as optimistic reading for fellow Saul Alinsky admirers, as well as for anyone who has heard the name Saul Alinsky and wondered what that might be about:
    Can Block Clubs Block Despair?

  • Yeah, the conversation would be good because I dont classified him as a sociopath. But then again, my life expericences are very different and unique compare to the majority of the people your bump into or even teach.
    Smiley is probably taking a break from his criminal activities in sunny Mexico and drinking a pina colada – thinking really hard on who in the hell is writing all of this….lol.

  • Great link, LotS. I justed printed it out to read post-deadline.

    Poplock, I understand from some of the homicide guys at Hollenbeck that they have repeated rumors of strange Smiley sightings—sort of like Elvis. (Smiley used the ready teller at the station before it was torn down. Smiley’s a known assassin for the Medellin cartel, and so on.)

  • Not exactly an Elvis Pres (we know he left the building). Its not even the Homicide guys from LAPD Hollenbeck who have pumped-up these rumors. The sources are coming from outside entities. Its not even from his family members or homies either. Moreover, I believe most of the Homicide Unit are all gone and totally care less about this incident. You know, that attitude – just another gang member story. My objective, like yours, is to get into his head and see what went on or goes on with his marbles.
    The only real credible facts that I can personally tell you – is that he’s on a sunny beach in Mexico, plastic surgery is a nice tool to change identity, this cholo coconut finally learned Spanish, and he is indeed was/is working for a cartel. I wont give you any more because I know your testing me and it doesn’t feel good…..

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