Ricardo Lopez was born into gang life and got an early introduction to all things thug related.
He learned to throw up a gang sign when he was just 3 years old, shot a gun at the age of 9, and by the time he was 12, Lopez was already knee-deep in the dope game, selling methamphetamines.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE : Ricardo Lopez turned his back on a life of gangs, violence, and addiction. Now, he helps other young men deal with addiction, and believes that preventing trouble before it starts is the best way to combat gang activity.
# Gang life was a family tradition for Lopez. He said that his relatives started a Los Angeles-based street gang--the King Cobras--and, like it or not, he would be forever connected with them through shared blood.
"I never got jumped in," Lopez said, referring to gang initiation rites. "But whether I got jumped in or not didn't matter to all the gangs around. So guess what? I was from a gang, and I started claiming it."
Without a positive role model in his life, Lopez found refuge in the gang and quickly devoted himself to the clique. He filled his emotional void with violence and drugs. The pre-pubescent dope dealer developed a curiosity about his product and was soon addicted.
The drugs soon altered his perception of reality.
"Being an addict, I remember believing everybody did drugs and really believing that from the heart," he said. "I realized it's a horrible world."
When Lopez's life got too dangerous down south, his family decided to move him up the 101 to the Central Coast.
It was the fall of 1992 when Lopez first stepped foot in Santa Maria High School. Clad in the unofficial gangster dress code of the time--Nike Cortez, denim overalls with the straps hanging down, a vibrant white T-shirt, and short black hair--Lopez let it be known through his appearance that he was down with danger and the gangster persona.
But could the Central Coast really provide the type of thug life Lopez had grown accustomed to in L.A.?
"Definitely," he said. "Looking back on it, it seems the community had a perception of a lot less gang members than there really was. I think it's part of a denial of parents."
For Lopez, school life in Santa Maria in the early '90s was scrappy. Before the school year's end, he found himself exchanging knuckles with another student. The fight would ultimately lead to Lopez's transfer to Arroyo Grande High School, where involvement with thug life, much like his temper, never cooled down.
"When I moved here, there were less gang members in Santa Maria than at A.G.," he said. "Everyone knew me as the kid from L.A. and wanted to test me."
According to Lopez, he befriended some guys from a Nipomo gang during his brief educational stint at A.G. High--which eventually pitted him against a rival set from Oceano.
"I didn't want to show weakness, so I would accept any challenge," he said. "It was unhealthy, but it was filling a gap."
Before long, word spread around the schoolyard that members of the Oceano gang wanted to stain the streets with Lopez's blood.
When he got wind of their desire to throw down, he accepted the challenge. He headed to the school's parking lot where he was confronted by three gangsters--two of whom had switchblades, the other, a machete.
Armed with two deputy sheriffs, a deputy probation officer, a legal clerk, and one deputy district attorney, the San Luis Obispo County Gang Task Force is easily outnumbered by their count of at least 1,200 gang members in the county.
During recent budget hearings, Sheriff Pat Hedges has been requesting additional resources in the form of staffing, vehicles, safety equipment, and budget adjustments to help deal with what he says are rising issues related to criminal activity associated with local gangs. It's been a tough sell in a time of budget cuts.
But according to Hedges, the number of gangs in SLO County--as well as the number of gang members--is increasing at an alarming pace. In addition to the estimated 1,200 gang members in the county, the gang task force also reports that there are 31 different gangs, and the number is thought to be growing.
Hedges has argued that local gang development seems to still be in the early stages, so the gang task force has an opportunity to address an emerging crisis early and avert mounting violence in surrounding counties and communities.
When Lopez's fight was finally over and the blood began to dry, he found himself handcuffed and in the back of a police car.
A couple of weeks after being released by the cops, Lopez attended an expulsion committee meeting. The board determined he was a nuisance and ordered him to finish his high school education at Lopez Continuation High School--an alternative high school setting for troubled teens in grades 10 to 12.
Though the alternative school didn't offer him an academic sanctuary, it did provide him with an outlet: He found his salvation through sports.
After a tussle with another student, Lopez was confronted by a teacher who dealt him an usual punishment.
"He said, 'Meet me after school on the field. I'm going to get you out of the streets,'" Lopez recalled. "I never played sports in my life, but I went to the field."
Once there, the teacher tossed Lopez a baseball glove and told him to go to third base.
"It was the first time I ever put on a glove. I'd never even thrown a ball before," Lopez admitted.
That didn't matter much to the coach. Lopez tried explaining, but excuses weren't accepted.
"He said, 'I don't care. All I need you to do is not let the ball get by. You're stubborn and your pride is not going to let you fail,'" Lopez recalled.
So Lopez headed for the corner bag and positioned himself for the unknown. Not much of an athlete at the time, Lopez used his chest, arms, and gut to stop the ball. When it was over, Lopez's torso was starting to bruise but his spirits were starting to blossom.
The school formed a team. And though other schools didn't want to play them, the training gave Lopez something to focus on besides gang life.
When baseball season ended, however, Lopez found himself once again running with the wrong crowd.
Taking it to the streets
San Luis Obispo County has never really been known for its gangs. And it still isn't. In fact, SLO County's total number of known gang members is small in comparison to surrounding communities.
Kern County has an estimated 6,000 gang members, Monterey County reports 5,000, and Santa Barbara County has 3,200--2,500 of whom are based in Santa Maria, just across the county line.
But there's a problem with being surrounded by gang-ridden counties. Because SLO County has such a small number of gang members--and a corresponding gang enforcement police presence--the area has recently been subject to an increased presence of outside gang influence, according to local law enforcement officials. It's like Joe Pesci's character Nicky Santoro in the mobster-gambling flick Casino. Santoro leaves crime-ridden Chicago for the relatively easy streets of the newly developed and not-so-protected Las Vegas. Santoro takes advantage of the Sin City cops' inexperience with mob life and goes on a bloody rampage.
In reality, the influx of outside gang members coming into the area, setting up shop, and taking over turf is what scares veteran SLO Gang Task Force member Rex Reece.
"It really makes the hair on the back of our neck stand when we see those national gangs show their face in our county," he said.
According to Reece, major out-of-town gang forces are now targeting SLO County because of its relatively soft gang enforcement measures.
"It's been an uphill battle," Reece said of dealing with both established and new gangs in the county. "And because of limited resources, the gang task force is really behind the eight ball as far as dealing with the gang activity."
Reece predicted a gloomy future if SLO County doesn't start dealing with its gang situation pronto.
"If we don't continue to stay focused on running an efficient unit and networking with the community and we don't increase resources as a population grows," he said, "I think we are going to find ourselves dealing with more gang-related violence and crimes."
The look that changed it all
Lopez married and had his first child when he was 18, but despite his new family, he just couldn't seem to get his life in order. He was still dealing and using drugs, he said, and was becoming increasingly involved with gangs.
Within a couple of months, the new father was arrested for both drug possession and carrying an illegal firearm and was facing eight years behind bars.
He said that in 2002, because of his involvement with gangs, drugs, and violence, his wife filed a restraining order against him.
"I had done a lot of really bad things to my family and wife," Lopez admitted. "I treated them the way I was treated as a kid."
Without his family, the days lifelessly crawled by. After growing up without a father himself, Lopez realized that he was making the worst mistake of his life.
He wanted to change, but didn't know how. Then he had an epiphany.
As Lopez remembers it, one afternoon he and a buddy drove by his family's house just so he could hopefully get a glimpse of them.
"My wife and my boys were walking across the street to get the mail," he recalled. "My oldest boy saw me and I told my friend to stop. The look [my son] gave me was enough to make me want to change my life. It wasn't a look of love. It was a look of fear. I remember that look I had when I was his age, and I said, 'What am I doing?'"
Since that day, Lopez said he hasn't touched a grain of drugs or a drop of alcohol.
Still confronting legal woes, Lopez was offered an alternative to serving time behind bars. The judge recommended that he enroll in a drug treatment program. Lopez, hesitant and in denial that he was an addict, accepted the bargain. But it was in the program that he overcame his inner demons. After completing the program, Lopez attended the Narcotics Anonymous 12-step support program.
With his life on track and heading in the right direction, Lopez then attended Allan Hancock College--where he earned associate degrees in addictions studies and human services. After he graduated, Lopez was offered a position with Mental Health Systems, where he now helps troubled young men overcome their own addictions.
Last month, Mental Health Systems had its largest graduating program ever as 61 former drug addicts completed their 18-month program.
"You may say [it's] a small percentage," he said of the graduates, "but it's a lot when you're dealing with it on the front lines."
Now, with years of sobriety under his belt and feeling far removed from gang culture, Lopez is making sure his kids don't get caught up in the same activities that almost cost him his life, freedom, and family. When it comes to keeping his boys on the straight and narrow, Lopez, like Hedges and Reece, believes that prevention is far more powerful than suppression.
Lopez used his oldest son as an example. When Lopez started getting calls from his son's school, he knew from experience what to do.
"I got him into football," he said. "Once that happened, there were no more phone calls, and his grades were up."
After the season was over, he signed his son up for basketball, then baseball. It's all made a difference.
"I'm an advocate for sports, not because I'm a fan, but because of what of I've seen it can do for kids," Lopez said. "Sports and treatment--if we don't have those two things, I think it's going to be a disaster."
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