The Lost Boys

Can a former member of a vicious Houston gang leave crime behind and build a new life for himself?
Photograph by Penny De Los Santos, September 2006

A few years ago, after hearing about a surge of gang crime in Houston, I decided to go to Houston to meet some of these gang members. In all my years doing journalism, I had never met anyone from a gang, and I figured there was no time like the present. I soon found myself driving around a young member of Mara Salvatrucha, or, as it’s more popularly known, MS-13, named Alex. He had me drive in my rental car through the neighborhood of a rival gang, the Cholos, a group of whom were standing on a street corner. If Alex had flashed his gang sign at the Cholos, they could very well have started shooting at us. Later, a Houston cop told me that was one of the dumbest things I had ever done in my life, driving around a MS-13 member during the height of Houston’s gang wars. “You could have gotten killed,” he said, shaking his head like I was the biggest idiot who ever lived.

Anyway, the story came out in December 2006 (“ You Don’t Want to Know What We Do After Dark ”). I mailed an issue to Alex, who was the lead character in the story. (I actually mailed it to the home of Alex’s mother, because Alex didn’t have a permanent place to live.) The story left open the possibility that Alex would soon be killed himself, or sent away to prison—because that was the life he had chosen. I never heard from him. In fact, I had no idea whether he read the article until Penny De Los Santos, a talented photographer who took the pictures for that article, called me. She had been in Houston doing photos for an upcoming story, and she had run across Alex. You can read about the encounter for yourself on her blog , where you can also see a photo of Alex today.

Needless to say, I was stunned at what had happened to him—and also thrilled. When Penny and I first met Alex, we both sensed that there was a really good kid underneath that gang-encrusted exterior. To be honest, that’s the way I felt about so many of the gangsters I met reporting that story. Yes, they were violent. Yes, they did horrible things to one another during the gang wars. But I never stopped thinking that they were lost boys who only turned to gang life because they had nothing else to do with themselves. Sometimes, redemption—not revenge—is possible. It’s a nice lesson to remember.

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