Perhaps few know the County gang problems better than Luis Cardona.
Twenty-six years ago, the now Youth Street Outreach coordinator for Montgomery County was lying down in a parking lot covered in his own blood with five bullet wounds in the chest, back and arms, where he prayed to God for forgiveness.
Cardona said doctors at District of Columbia General Hospital told him it was a “miracle” he survived. The shooting was a target assignation for Cardona, who at the time was a member of the Latin Kings gang, and he made the mistake of beating up a rival gang member after a night of drinking.
“Gang life is a long-term way of committing suicide,” Cardona said.
It was not the first time Cardona had been shot, and was one in a series of events that led to Cardona’s gradual shift away from gang life. Cardona, 50, survived and made his way out of gang life to become one of Montgomery County’s leading voices for change. Cardona, a former gang member, now spends trying to steer kids from going down the path he took when he was young.
During the last few years, gang violence has risen in the County. State’s Attorney John McCarthy said 20 gang-related homicides have occurred in the past two years. During that time, police have discovered decaying bodies in County parks and at the sides of roads, pushing the gang issue into the spot light.
To fight the rising tide of gang violence the County provided $843,693 in additional funding for Montgomery County Police and the State’s Attorney’s Office to add special detectives and prosecutors detected solely to targeting gang members. But even McCarthy said the true numbers are hard to calculate.
“I really don’t know that we have a real idea of the full extent to which there is gang crime in the County,” McCarthy said during a County Council Public Safety Committee meeting in July. “That may be heck of a thing for someone in my position to say, but I will tell you that I think some of the numbers that we cite -- based on anecdotal information and what I see in my office and some of the examples I’m going to give you -- do not adequately capture the percentage of crime that is being gang-driven in this County.”
Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger said the County’s gang problem is isolated to certain areas of the County: mainly places such as Gaithersburg, Montgomery Village and Wheaton.
But Cardona said – and members of the County government acknowledge – a top-down crackdown on gangs is not enough to stop their appeal.
“The gangs are doing a better job of providing social support for the young people,” Cardona said.
Cardona said young men are driven to join a gang because the gang provides needs missing in life whether it be food, shelter or protection or kinship.
While the County spent $500,000 in youth programs for atrisk teenagers, the money can only go so far. Through the Street Outreach Program, Montgomery County provides soccer, basketball, boxing and other sports programs, but Cardona said the most important thing is making individual connections with at-risk youth.
“At the end of the day, one of the areas that is needed and necessary is this whole piece of the family,” Cardona said. “It’s one that is overlooked unfortunately.”
Cardona said he became active in gang life when he was only 12 years old. He grew up poor in Washington and New York City, and without a father in his life. He said he got caught up in crowd of young people like and descended down the path of gang life.
“I was no victim, I lived the life style that was brought to me,” Cardona said.
And while Cardona now lives the life of typical suburban father with a wife and two kids, one of which is attending college, a journey like Cardona’s is uncommon.
“That’s extremely rare to go to working for the government,” said Aquil Basheer, a mentor of Cardona and a gang-prevention activist in California.
Basheer said some gang members make a turn and eventually leave a gang, Cardona’s case is rare. Cardona would know, and not just from his own experience.
Basheer befriended Cardona in the late 1990s as he was transitioning out of life in gangs, something that is difficult to do for most.
“The gang is the safety net for the individual,” Basheer said.
The Street Outreach Network, which Cardona runs, creates relationships with at-risk youth and tries to help provide for their needs. Basheer said while government programs can help, municipalities need someone like Cardona who is an authentic member of the community.
Often Cardona is working with young people who are suffering from severe psychological trauma that can’t be undone quickly, something with which Cardona said he is familiar.
In the early 1990s, Cardona said a man, who he thought was a “homeboy,” showed up to his door with a gun and ordered him into a car. He drove him to Baltimore where he ordered Cardona out of the car and put a .357 caliber handgun to the back of his head.
The would-be assassin pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed so he instead opted to pistol-whip Cardona until the sound of nearby oncoming police caused the man to flee.
“I tell people, getting young people out of gangs is the easy part, the hard part is the long-term sustainable healing that young people need to get through those experiences,” Cardona said.
Cardona said there is not a science to what gets a person to leave a gang.
Cardona said from his own experience, it was a series of events and conversations that gradually led him out of gang life, and the transition is not easy.
Though if Cardona could point to one moment when he reconsidered his involvement in gang life, it would be the murder of his friend Danny Rogers, one of 25 or so friends Cardona lost to gang life.
Cardona was the first person to get the call to that his friend had been shot at a nightclub in D.C. When Cardona arrived at Howard University Hospital, he saw his friend with a tube in mouth on life support.
Cardona had the dual task of identifying his friend’s body to the police and calling his friend’s mom, Gracie Rogers, to break the news of her son’s murder. Cardona said he was angry and had plans to retaliate, but at the Rogers wake, Gracie Rogers asked him to reconsider his life in a gang instead try to help his community.
It didn’t change his mind.
Even when he attended Howard University, Cardona was still active in gang life, but he began to change. Conversation with police officers, reading news stories of dead kids murdered by rival gang members and meeting mentors like Basheer eventually steered Cardona out of the gang life.
But Cardona said his path out of gang cannot be repeated when talking to at-risk youth today because the reason each person joined a gang is different. Cardona said it’s about finding what people need and trying to help fulfill that need.
“My programs can’t undo 10, 20 years of suffering,” Cardona said.