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The Internet can grow your community, build your brand, and extend your reach. Even the Latin Kings are getting into the act.

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Gangbanger.com

The Internet can grow your community, build your brand, and extend your reach. Even the Latin Kings are getting into the act.

By Mike Sula

King Tony's two Web sites devoted to the Almighty Latin King Nation aren't the only Latin King sites. They're certainly not official ones. But because Tony lives in Chicago, the "motherland"--and especially because he lives in Humboldt Park, where the gang was born--Kings, Queens, wannabes, adversaries, cops, and reporters from all over the country stuff his mailbox with up to 40 E-mails a day.

He trashes most of the messages, including one from someone in Georgia who said he was having trouble with rivals and asked if Tony could send some guys down for backup. But he says he sometimes offers advice to correspondents, whether they're worried parents or misguided brothers in a far-flung chapter. He adds, "I'm not into recruiting. I get a lot of stuff like, 'I just moved to Florida, and I'm looking for a chapter to hook up to. I'm from New York.' That could be some FBI agent wanting to get in. I check it out to a certain degree, and there's no way I'm gonna vouch for anybody I don't know. I'll introduce him to some guys--and he ends up being a fed, and he starts indicting people over things they say."

Tony, who didn't want his real name or his real King name used, calls the Latin Kings a "street organization," not a gang. And he claims that the group originated in the 60s as a political movement--like the Young Lords and the Black Panthers--and was corrupted by criminals and government conspiracies. He admits that the Nation became notorious for drug dealing and murderous turf wars, but insists that he and some friends want to restore its noble origins. "We're not saying, go out and be a King," he says. "But you can be a King and still do positive things. I've been a King for a while, and I'm not out there doing illegal things. A lot of people hear about the Kings in the paper and the news about killing and selling drugs. But then they don't know about the ones that do community outreach and social work and good stuff. And there are a lot."

Tony, who's in his mid-30s and has kids, grew up in Humboldt Park and started banging when he was 11. "I used to be a mess-up," he says. "I used to be in trouble all the time. But after I got my first kid I slowed down. I started hanging around different guys. I stopped getting high. Once that happened, everything was OK." He didn't quit the Kings, but he quit the street and started selling real estate and rehabbing old buildings for a living. "When you're young you're at that stage where you want to make a name for yourself," he says. "But once you get older you figure out all that stuff is nonsense and that having responsibilities and taking care of your family is more important. And if you can do stuff for the Nation and help people out, then that's what it's all about."

In some ways Tony seems to justify those rosy cliches about the Net's ability to turn computer illiterates into on-line agitators. He'd never used a computer until 1995, when, after hearing about all the information available on-line, he bought a laptop at a flea market and initiated himself into the Internet community. Sometimes he'd come home from work and stay on-line until dawn, surfing sports, news, music--anything that grabbed his attention.

Four years ago he was lurking on a bulletin board crowded with gangbangers talking smack to one another. "I knew through hearsay that there were Kings in other parts of the country," he says, "but I never knew that in every state there would be some sort of chapter. I left a message one day, and all I really said was, 'I'm here. Who else is here?' I came back the next day and there was like ten replies to that message, and they were from all different states. They were kind of young, and you could tell by what they were writing that they were trying to boast about who they were. Then some rivals got on, and they were back and forth. So I came and I said, 'If we're all Latino we should be trying to work with each other instead of against each other.' Then I told my guys, 'Why are you wasting your time writing back to these guys when you could be doing something better with that energy?'"

Tony says he realized that the best way to try to redirect such hotheads was to create his own site. On his first page, under the headline "Kingism," he put a photograph of an enormous black-and-gold Latin Kings mural that once adorned the side of a building on Division Street. A short text followed: "The Black & Gold will rise above thier oppressors and put an end to all the shit that's going on nationwide. The political tactics used by politicians to gain public recognition at the cost of others, most of the times not knowing the real story, but making shit look alot worse than what it is. They say we're a nusance, we're bad people a gang, menaceses to society, but hardly do you ever find these people coming into our communities, seeing what kind of things that we do in the barrio's, they never ask us to help participate in certain events cause it will portray a negative image unto themselves. THAT'S ALL BULLSHIT!! That's why we have to empower our own! Start putting our own Jente in these political positions, positions that will bring changes, bring fear among those politicians who over the years badmouthed our Nation, our race."

Soon after, Tony built a second site with a similar rhetorical bent and a guest book. At first traffic was slow on both sites, but then he offered to provide brothers across the country copies of the official "Chapter Constitution and Manifesto of the Almighty Latin Kings Nation." He says, "That's when I started getting bombarded. I had every Tom, Dick, and Harry asking me for the literature. Unless I know for sure that you're part of the Nation, I can't give it to you. These things are considered sacred, and they can't be given to people outside the Nation."

He says he would have rewritten the page, but he lost the passwords. So the same sites stayed up. Three-fourths of the messages he still gets come from people asking for the document. "I just don't send it," he says. "I tell them, 'You guys got to pick that up here in person, because I'm not the one to be releasing that. If you want, I can direct you to the person who will release it to you, and they'll do a thorough investigation of who you are. I get cops that try to make me send it."

Links to many gang pages, including Tony's, can be found on law enforcement Web sites intended to educate the public about gangs. "They do research," he says. "It's funny because they never have the right stuff, and we laugh all the time. I had some law enforcement official from Michigan, and he basically wanted me to sit down with him and give him the whole constitution and manifesto--because I wrote to him and I says, 'This is a joke, everything you got here. I don't know where you got it, but it's all false.' He wrote back and said, 'Why don't you sit down with me and you let me know everything.' I said, 'I'm not gonna do that. For what?' But that's also why I wanted to do the Web site--so people will know this is not just what everybody says it is."

Tony won't give the constitution to any outsider, but a version of it is printed in a book on gangs by George Knox that's available at the Chicago Public Library. It outlines the hierarchy and bylaws of an ideal chapter: "Membership shall be denied to anyone who has willfully taken the life of a Latin King....Membership is forbidden to anyone addicted to heroin and denied to rapists." It also describes the three stages a Latin King passes through in life, beginning with the "primitive stage" where "the King Warrior acts on impulse...'gang-banging,' getting high and being recognized as big and bad." A "conservative stage" follows, leading--if all goes well--to the "new king stage," when he emerges a revolutionary dedicated to bringing "freedom to the enslaved, to all Third World People."

Tony puts his friends and himself in the third category. He points to "Ernesto," who's in his mid-20s and works for a social services agency, sometimes as a mediator between scrapping gangs. Ernesto says he's built up enough trust with rival leaders that he can walk into any neighborhood in the city, but he wants to be anonymous because his employers and the police he comes in contact with wouldn't understand his continued membership in the Kings. "It's just one of those things you can't shake off," he says. "If anybody told you, 'The Kings--oh, we don't kill anybody. We've never killed anybody.' C'mon. You can't say that. It's proven--there's people behind bars. You can't deny that it's a part of the history."

Tony says that every year he refers 25 to 30 kids who hit his site to social service agencies. Some want to get back into school, some are dealing with unwanted pregnancies, others are looking for jobs. He says he and Ernesto are frequently invited to speak at gang peace summits and conferences in different parts of the country. And he adds that in the mid-90s they distributed 500 copies of the constitution and manifesto in New York City, where the Latin Kings had mounted an aggressive campaign for political legitimacy. Such a movement, he says, would be impossible here, given the Kings' long, sordid history in the motherland.

Tony once posted links to four other Latin Kings Web sites, but none of them works anymore. Gang sites are sometimes hacked or shut down by host companies freaked out about news reports suggesting they could be part of a new criminal frontier. Tony says that a year after his second site went up he got an E-mail from his host company saying it was shutting him down, though it had been running banner ads at the top of the pages. "They said it was a negative site, and they can't have it--it was 'gang affiliated,'" he says. "I'm like, 'What's negative? Read what I wrote and tell me. There's nothing you guys should be worried about. I'm telling these guys to steer on the right path.' I guess they read it, because they stopped messing with me."

Last week Tony's first page disappeared. He's E-mailed his host company for an explanation, but he says he was planning to launch a bigger and better site anyway. "If you need social services, if you need help paying your bills--I want to put up a lot of stuff, man," he says. "Whatever you need, I want to have a link there."

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