ON A MUGGY LATE-SUMMER AFTERNOON, I am sitting in my rental car in front of an apartment complex in southwest Houston. A young man named Alex, wearing a blue T-shirt and jeans, opens the passenger door and slides into the front seat. “Oh, yeah,” he says, studying the windows. “This will do for a drive-by.”

For a second, I’m not sure what to say. “A drive-by?” I ask. Alex throws back his head and laughs. “Señor El Bolillo, I’m just messing with you.”

Señor El Bolillo: Mr. White Bread. Alex’s nickname for me. He laughs again. “Do you really think I’m that loco to do a drive-by with an amateur?”

We are in a neighborhood that is just a ten-minute drive south of the Galleria shopping mall, one of Houston’s most famous landmarks. In the seventies the area was known as Swinglesville. Dozens of sprawling apartment complexes, some of them a block long, had been built here, one right beside the other, to accommodate the horde of young, single white adults who were then coming to the city to begin their careers. The complexes were given such sophisticated names as Chateaux Carmel, Napoleon Square, Villa Royal, Sterling Point, and the Turf Club. The owners had planted crape myrtles by the front gates and offered free VCRs to renters who signed year-long leases. At one complex, a two-story disco was built next to a swimming pool.

Today the crape myrtles continue to bloom, but there are no more free VCRs—and no disco. On the walls of almost all the complexes are large banners, many written in Spanish, offering $99 move-in specials, with no credit check required. In the courtyards, where the young singles once played sand volleyball in skimpy bathing suits, young mothers in faded dresses hold babies against their hips, watching their other children kick soccer balls. Old men sit in plastic chairs on tiny balconies, drinking beer. Paleteros pedal their bicycles through the parking lots, past rusting cars, selling such treats as popsicles and spicy cucumbers out of the metal boxes tied to their handlebars.

And late in the afternoons, on the sidewalks in front of many of the apartment complexes, small clusters of young males, most of them teenagers, can be seen standing around, seemingly doing nothing, their hands in their pockets. Almost all of them are wearing similar clothes: T-shirts, tennis shoes, and either neatly creased blue jeans or Dickies khaki pants that they have spray-starched themselves. Sticking out of their back pockets are patterned bandannas. Around their waists are cloth belts, the ends so long they reach down to their knees, and hanging around their necks are crosses or rosaries.

There is only one real difference in the outfits among the groups. The bandannas, belts, crosses, and rosaries on the young men in front of some of the apartment complexes are black. In front of other complexes, the color is white. In front of others, the color is blue or red. Sometimes the T-shirts and pants match the colors of their accessories. Sometimes the color of the tennis shoes is the same.

The young males are gangbangers, members of such neighborhood street gangs as the Southwest Cholos, La Primera, La Tercera Crips, Somos Pocos Pero Locos, and Mara Salvatrucha, or, as it’s more popularly known, MS-13. According to Houston police, they are vicious, tattooed career criminals, their lives devoted to razors, knives, and guns. They regularly rob innocent people who live in the apartment complexes. They steal cars and break into businesses. They deal drugs on street corners. And they constantly wage war with one another—fighting, maiming, killing, and dying over their turfs, their colors, and their hand signs, which have special meanings only to them.

“Come on, let’s cruise,” says Alex. “Let’s see the sights.” He gives me a look, his eyebrows rising, and he starts laughing again. “Maybe, El Bolillo, we’ll get lucky and see some bullets.”

Alex, who is twenty years old, is one of the neighborhood’s veteranos, a veteran gangbanger. Although he is just five feet three inches tall and 138 pounds, with thick, curly black hair, a little goatee covering his chin, and soft eyes the color of chocolate, people keep their distance from him. Since the age of eleven, he has been a member of the neighborhood chapter—or “clique”—of Mara Salvatrucha, which is made up of young males whose families immigrated to Houston from El Salvador and other Central American countries. By his account, he has been involved in at least a hundred—“maybe two hundred,” he estimates—fistfights, knife fights, gun battles, and yes, drive-bys. Tattooed on his stomach is part of the flag of El Salvador, and on his back is a three-inch-high “MS-13”: the M just below his left shoulder, the S just below his right shoulder, and the “13” in the middle. Among the tattoos on his arms is one that reads “Smile Now, Cry Later,” which he says he received to commemorate the gunning down of a rival gangbanger.

And on his left wrist is a small tattoo consisting only of three dots in a triangular formation: the symbol of la vida loca. The crazy life. “The gangbanger’s life,” says Alex.

He points to one of the dots. “We have a saying down here that if you live la vida loca, you’ll end up in the hospital.” He points to the second dot. “Or you’ll end up in prison.” He then points to the third dot. “Or you’ll end up dead.”

I put the car into gear, and Alex tells me to turn one way, then another, until we end up on a street called Dashwood. “You see them? The chavala?” Alex asks, pointing to three young Hispanic males standing in front of one of the apartment complexes.

The chavala: slang for “the enemy.” The three males are members of the Southwest Cholos, a Hispanic neighborhood gang made up mostly of young men whose parents are native-born Mexican Americans or immigrants from Mexico. With black bandannas in their back pockets, they are, to borrow a gangbanger’s phrase, “showing the black rag.”

“All I have to do is show them some blue, and it all starts going down,” says Alex, who has a blue bandanna sticking out of his back pocket and who is also wearing a long blue belt and a blue rosary.

We pass the three Cholos—they are on the right side of the car, not far from Alex’s window—and he stares at them with a surly, challenging expression: “Mad dogging,” or “murder mugging,” is the term that the gangbangers use to describe such a look. The Cholos, in turn, “mad dog” him.

“They know you?” I ask.

“F— yeah, they know me, fool. Everybody knows everybody in the hood.”

Suddenly nervous, I press down on the accelerator. The rental car lurches forward, and Alex bursts into laughter again.

“El Bolillo,” he says, “I mean no disrespect, but you’ll never get to do any drive-bys if you keep driving like that.”

“DO YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED if your MS-13 guy had stuck his blue handkerchief out the window and waved it at the Cholos?” Jason Tran, a burly Houston police officer who has spent nearly a decade chasing gangbangers in southwest Houston, asks me a few days after my ride with Alex.

“The Cholos would have waved their handkerchiefs back at him?” I say weakly.

“If those Cholos had a gun on them, they might have fired at your car,” Tran says.

“What if Alex had stuck his hands out the window and made his gang sign?”

“Same thing.”

Tran cannot help but grin at my baffled expression.

“You still don’t get it, do you?” he asks. “These gangbangers play for keeps. I’ve talked to hundreds of them, and I ask every one of them, ‘Why is it so important to live this kind of life? Why is it so important to shoot someone because he came to your street and waved a ninety-nine-cent bandanna at you that’s a different color from the bandanna you own?’ And they just look at me—I swear to you—like I’m the one who’s the fool for even asking the question.”

Tran takes me in his squad car back to Dashwood, the street where I had done my faux drive-by with Alex. Two teenagers are standing on a corner, both showing black. Tran gets out of the car and says, “Hey, guys.” They shrug and don’t move. They tell Tran their names—Miguel and Jose (like all the other juveniles in this story, their names have been changed)—and then Tran informs them that I’m a reporter and want to do an interview. To my astonishment, they both shake my hand and politely say hello.

They are good-looking kids, thin as reeds, with short dark hair and unblemished faces. At my request, they show me their black rosaries and their long black cloth belts. When I ask to see their tattoos, they pull off their T-shirts. Miguel has “SWC” (the initials for the Southwest Cholos) across his stomach, and Jose has the word “Cholos” stamped on the bicep of his right arm. They both have la vida loca tattoos on the tops of their hands.

“What happens, say, if an MSer comes through here and throws down?” Tran asks the Cholos.

“If some punk-ass puto wants to disrespect us, then we do what we have to do,” Miguel says.

“And that means?” I ask.

He doesn’t seem remotely bothered that a police officer is standing beside me. Miguel looks me in the eye and says, “Shoot them, stab them, f— them up. Whatever.”

A couple of days later, police officers Mario Válles, David de Torres, and Johnathan Fraley, who are also assigned to chase down southwest Houston gangbangers, take me to an apartment complex about a mile from Dashwood, where some members of Somos Pocos Pero Locos (Spanish for “We’re Few But We’re Crazy”) are hanging. I meet a short, squat seventeen-year-old boy who tells me that his gang nickname is Señor Tórtolo (Mr. Turtle), and when I ask him about colors, he says, “If someone comes through here showing another rag, shouting, ‘F— SPPL,’ then it is our duty to retaliate. We were raised here. We are going to keep the hood ours.”

Fifteen minutes later, I’m talking to a couple of La Primera gang members at an apartment complex on Bissonet Drive. “We had some Cholos come over here and shout, ‘F— Bissonet! It’s all about Bellaire!’” one of them says, referring to Bellaire Avenue, which is another gathering spot for Cholos. “We know who they are. We know what to do.”

Gang violence, of course, has plagued American cities for decades. A report released in October by the Police Executive Research Forum largely blamed gangs for what it described as “dramatic” increases in violent crime this year in the nation’s biggest cities, including Houston. According to police reports, in the first seven months of 2006 the city’s gangs committed at least 298 assaults, 271 drug-related crimes, 130 robberies, and 32 murders—statistics that one police official says are “drastically low” because of a state law that strictly limits the ability of officers to identify a suspect or a victim in a police report as a gang member. “If we added up all the crimes that we suspect were committed by gang members, those numbers would double,” he says.

Regardless of the numbers, it is clear that gangs are just as responsible for Houston’s soaring crime rates—the city is on its way to recording four hundred murders in 2006, its highest number in more than a decade—as the Katrina evacuees who have received so much media attention. The gang shootings have been so frequent that some residents of the apartment complexes have hidden with their children in hallways so they won’t be hit by stray bullets. In one gruesome slaying, a young woman was shot in the face by a gang member because she had called the police to report a gang shooting. (Just before pulling the trigger, the gang member allegedly said to her, “I’m sorry, but I have to merk you”—“merk” being gang slang for “murder.”) In another, a young man who reportedly belonged to La Primera was shot as he was entering a store a few blocks from his high school. His killers, who were reportedly members of La Tercera Crips, drove away, only to return a few minutes later to shoot him again while he lay unconscious in the parking lot, just to make sure he was dead.

And in broad daylight in early June, at least twenty gangbangers, many of whom lived in the apartments of southwest Houston, clashed at a public park. They went after one another with baseball bats, golf clubs, tire irons, and machetes. According to police, a fifteen-year-old boy who ran with Mara Salvatrucha was stabbed to death by a sixteen-year-old girl who ran with a gang called Crazy Crew. Afterward, she went to eat chips and salsa at a nearby restaurant, refusing to show any remorse, not even when officers showed up to arrest her.

Since the spring of 2005, the police department has expanded its gang unit, established a “gang murder squad” in the homicide division, and budgeted approximately $10.5 million in overtime pay to send more officers into what are described as high-crime hot spots, most of them plagued by gangs. In August of this year, police chief Harold Hurtt announced the formation of the Violent Gang Initiative, a task force composed of members of the department’s own specialized “gang unit” as well as agents from the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the Drug Enforcement Administration; Immigrations and Customs Enforcement; and the Department of Public Safety. Hurtt declared that the task force would “target the most violent gangs in Houston” and “disrupt and dismantle the gangs themselves.”

But so far, the task force has not come close to dismantling a single gang. And nowhere is that more glaringly evident than in the former Swinglesville—an area that some police officers are now calling Gang Land.

“No one seems to have any idea what is happening down here,” says Amanda Escobedo, a 65-year-old community advocate in southwest Houston who has spent nearly twenty years holding workshops and speaking at schools, trying to persuade kids to stay out of gangs. “The nice Houston people who live in the nice Houston neighborhoods and who come shop at the nice Galleria don’t have any idea—or don’t care—that the apartments that they all used to live in have now become a war zone. And it is a war zone, make no mistake about it. Every week, I hear about a stabbing or a shooting or a drive-by that doesn’t make the newspapers. It never, ever stops.”

It is indeed difficult for an outsider to imagine that this area is a war zone. (To get to Gang Land, all you have to do, if you’re at the Galleria, is drive for about half a mile down Loop 610, turn south onto Texas Highway 59, then take one of the next few exits—Fountainview, Bellaire, Hillcroft, or Fondren.) On the main boulevards, the exteriors of many of the apartment complexes are kept in good condition. The hedges by the managers’ offices are trimmed, and the bulbs in the streetlights by the front gates are quickly replaced whenever they get shot out. The apartments’ owners regularly paint over any gang graffiti that might be visible from these streets.

But when you turn onto the side streets, you begin to sense where you really are. Graffiti is spray-painted on the back walls of the apartment complexes, on the walls of convenience stores and taquerías—even on stop signs and the trunks of some of the crape myrtles themselves. The graffiti is like modern-day hieroglyphics, a highly stylized series of letters and numbers. On various walls I saw the initials for numerous gangs—“SWC,” “MS-13,” “SPPL,” “LP.” On one, an “SWC” had been marked out with a large black X, and “MS-13” had been written directly above it. I also saw the spray-painted phrase “187 to MS” (“187” refers to the section of the California penal code that deals with homicide). That phrase had been marked over and replaced with “MS-13 Controla!”

Swinglesville began changing complexions in the early eighties for two reasons: A state law banned owners of apartment complexes from renting only to adults with no children, and the oil bust caused Houston’s economy to collapse. The young singles who lost their jobs moved away, and there were no new groups of young singles arriving to replace them. Rents plummeted, and poorer families began moving in.

It wasn’t long before the gangs also began appearing at the apartment complexes. Black gangs such as the Braeswood Boys and 59 Bounty Hunters were formed in the mostly African American apartment complexes at the edge of the neighborhood. In the heart of the neighborhood were the Latino gangs. A group of males formed a gang called the Dark Angels and then renamed themselves the Southwest Cholos. One former member and some friends who didn’t like the way the Southwest Cholos were treating them started La Primera, choosing white as their color purely to set themselves off from the Cholos’ black. A group of teenagers of Central American descent, who had heard about an existing gang in the immigrant neighborhoods of Los Angeles called Mara Salvatrucha, began calling themselves the Houston Mara Salvatruchans. Other teenagers and young men started chapters of gangs, like Brown and Proud, that already existed in low-income neighborhoods in other parts of the city, and even others started chapters of gangs, like the Latin Kings, that their fathers had belonged to when they were kids.

Some gangs lasted, some did not. But there was never a shortage of recruits. “The neighborhood contained all the elements to create this huge gang culture,” says Charles Rotramel, the director of Youth Advocates, one of the few nonprofit organizations in the city that focuses on gang intervention. “For one thing, it was densely populated”—there are at least 100,000 residents packed into those apartments; some families have as many as eight people living in a two-bedroom apartment—“and there were no amenities at all for the kids because the entire community had been built for single adults who wanted to live it up. There were only a couple of schools, which immediately became overcrowded. There were only a couple of parks that I don’t even think had playgrounds. There were no youth athletic programs, no community centers, no Boy Scouts, no youth programs at churches—nothing. These kids were completely alienated.”

The kids were alienated for reasons other than just geography. “It’s a familiar story,” says Rotramel. “Usually, their fathers were gone, many of them in prison. The mothers were uninvolved in their lives either because they were working day and night for minimum wage or because they were dealing with their own problems—often drugs and alcohol—and they were simply too broken-down to care. Some of the kids had extended family members watching over them, but, as almost always happens, those family members had their own burdens. So it wasn’t long before you’d drive the streets of southwest Houston and see a lot of kids just hanging around. They were skipping school. They had no money, or what money they had was taken away from them by bigger kids or from neighborhood thugs, who also beat them up. And that’s where a gang came in. In this world, the gang provided them status and a sense of belonging. It provided them everything they could not find anywhere else.”

IN MANY WAYS, Alex is the classic gangbanger case study. He was born in 1985, shortly after his parents moved to Houston from El Salvador and ended up in one of the southwest apartment complexes. According to Alex, his parents’ marriage was stormy, and he often found himself alone, a barrio latchkey kid. “I was the smallest little f—er for my age in the hood,” he says. “So I knew I had to learn to box or I wasn’t going to make it.”

He apparently became an outstanding boxer (“boxer” is slang for “street fighter”)—so much so, he says, that he was sent off to a juvenile detention facility at the age of eight because some boy from another apartment complex had shouted, “F— you, you El Salvadoran chicken,” and Alex had gone after him with a metal rod.

He said he learned one very important lesson at the detention center: “Don’t back away from anyone. If you want to talk shit to me, I’m going to talk shit back. And if you want to hit me, you better think twice, because I’m going to fight dirty. There were a bunch of vatos at juvenile detention who would come up to me and say I would be a perfect boxer for their gang.”

He says he was sent to juvenile detention a second time for attacking a man who had hit his mother, and when he got out, he began hanging out on the southwest Houston streets with older members of Mara Salvatrucha. “I did everything I could to impress them,” he says. “I heard stories about their OGs [“Original Gangsters,” a term for leaders of the gang] and the crimes they did. I heard about the drive-bys against the gangs that hated us. The OGs were my heroes.”

Just after his eleventh birthday, a group of OGs led him behind a dumpster at one of the apartment complexes. They took off their shirts and proceeded to beat him for a minute or two. It was Alex’s initiation into Mara Salvatrucha—a process that the gangbangers call “clicking in.” Alex was not allowed to fight back or make any kind of sound. At the end of the beating, the OGs pulled him to his feet and hugged him.

“You’re one of us now,” they said. “You’re a homito.” A homeboy.

“And how did that make you feel?” I ask.

“Man, I was part of a family. I had someone always watching my back. That meant a lot to me. I’d never known what that felt like. For me, MS was the most important thing in my life. I lived for the gang, and I was going to die for the gang.”

Alex turned his room into a shrine to Mara Salvatrucha. He put the flag of El Salvador on one wall. On another wall, he put up a poster showing an angry young man, his body covered in tattoos, throwing down one of the MS-13 gang signs: His fingers twisted so that his right hand was in the shape of an M and his left hand in the shape of an S. Alex went through the neighborhood spray-painting “MS-13” on walls, and when he got a little money together, he bought his gang clothes.

For years, southwest Houston gangbangers, regardless of what gang they belong to, have been buying their clothes at the very same stores. They buy their Dickies pants either at a particular neighborhood grocery store or a nearby uniform shop. They buy their bandannas at a dollar store in the neighborhood, and they buy their cloth belts from a flea market at the intersection of Highway 59 and Westpark. At the Sharpstown Center, a nearby mall that has a notice on the front door that reads “Weapons Not Permitted on Premises,” they buy what they call Gangster Nikes: black or colored Nikes with white stripes. And while they are at the mall, they head down to the jewelry stores, usually Jewelry Dog USA or TV Jewelry, to check out the crosses and rosaries.

“I love being down with the blue,” he says of the clothes he wears. “All I do is talk blue. If I see a homeboy, he says, ‘Wassup, niggah?’ And I say, ‘Just blue rag hangin’, or ‘It’s going blue,’ or ‘Just throwing down the MS.’”

(For reasons I could never quite understand, all the Hispanic gangbangers greet a fellow homeboy by calling him “niggah.”)

“And if you see someone wearing another rag?” I ask.

“It’s an insult, a slap across my face. And when they drive past our apartment complex, where we do our chillin’, that’s f—ed, trying to make mess with us in our hood.”

At that very moment, I’m sitting with Alex in one of those apartments he shares with two other homeboys. There is no furniture in the living room and dining room except for a couple of mattresses. In the bedroom, there is a bed and a cheap radio, which is playing MEGA 101 FM, “Latino and Proud.” The apartment doesn’t look as if it’s been renovated since the eighties. The carpets are tattered, the walls need paint, and the kitchen refrigerator doesn’t get cold. For this, the rent is $650 a month.

“This place—this apartment complex—is that important to you?” I ask, unable to keep the surprise out of my voice.

“El Bolillo,” Alex says, “this is my life. This is the only life I have. I’m not going let someone f— with my life.”

A MANAGEMENT CONSULTANT for a Fortune 500 company would be utterly vexed trying to figure out how gangs are organized and how territories are split up. There is, for instance, no single leader or command structure within the Southwest Cholos, despite the fact that the gang operates mostly out of southwest Houston. To further complicate matters, each gang is made up of cliques that basically operate as independent gangs and are usually divided up by streets, parts of streets, entire apartment complexes, or parts of apartment complexes.

If, for instance, you ask a gangbanger what gang he’s “claiming”—a gangbanger never says he “belongs” to a gang; he always says he “claims” a gang—he might say, “I’m a Cholo from Glenmont.” That means he’s a member of a clique of Southwest Cholos who hangs out on a particular block of Glenmont Drive, where a few members of the clique (though not necessarily all of them) have apartments. Likewise, when he talks about defending his hood, he’s often talking about the area around Glenmont, not the actual neighborhood itself.

Rarely, if ever, do all the Southwest Cholos—or the entire membership of any other gang, for that matter—get together for a mass meeting. Each clique does its own thing. If one of the cliques wants to run drugs and prostitutes on its street, it has that right. If it simply wants to charge rent to existing drug dealers and prostitutes and sell protection to the nearby businesses, it can do that too.

The decisions about the clique’s activities are loosely made by the clique’s OGs. But unlike a Mafia family, a clique has priorities other than making money. It’s a lot like a college fraternity. If you’re in one, you hang out with your fellow homeboys, you party with your homeboys, you trade girls with your homeboys, you loan your homeboys money when they need it, and you go out and get into trouble with your homeboys.

What’s more, in the same way that the fraternities on fraternity row stay out of one another’s way, the gangs of the southwest apartment complexes usually maintain an uneasy truce, abiding by certain codes of conduct. It is acceptable, for instance, for one gang member to go into another gang member’s territory as long as he does not show his colors or flash his sign. “And any good gangster knows he doesn’t go after another gangster if one of the mothers is around,” says Alex. “That’s bullshit. You know you’re supposed to show your mothers respect.”

But when disputes arise, gangs don’t go to some sort of council the way fraternities do. A gang that thinks it has been dishonored by another gang will do whatever is necessary to win back its respect—such as a drive-by. That in turn forces the other gang to respond with its own drive-by.

These wars can last for months or even years. In the mid-nineties the Southwest Cholos and the Mara Salvatruchans actually had an alliance. But according to local legend, about six years ago a well-known MS-13 homeboy was shot to death by a Cholo, and the war has been going on ever since. The rivalry is so established that when I recently asked Caroline Dozier, a prosecutor for the Harris County district attorney’s office who specializes in gang crime, why an MS-13 gang member was about to be tried for murder, she shrugged and said, “Oh, the usual reason. He shot a Cholo in a drive-by.”

Many large cities have an MS-13 gang. Each one operates independently, and just like the Southwest Cholos, there are various cliques within each city’s gang. It is true that in recent years MS-13 gang members from Central America have illegally crossed the border and gotten involved with one of the gangs already here. Many of them are more violent than the homegrown Mara Salvatruchans. Still, they haven’t significantly changed the balance of gang warfare. One day, Alex took me to lunch with a young MS-13 member named Fernando who had just arrived from Guatemala. He had tattoos on his body but not on his face (when newspapers run stories about MS-13, they tend to run photos of the Central American members who are in prison and have facial tattoos), he dressed nicely, and though he couldn’t speak any English, he said, as best as he could when lunch was over, “Thank you, sir,” and he shook my hand.

“Is Fernando some sort of trained killer?” I later ask Alex, thinking about some of the alarmist articles I had read about MS-13.

“El Bolillo, you are such a f—ing goofy-ass gabacho,” Alex says. “Fernando’s working at a shirt embroidery shop in the neighborhood, making $6.50 an hour.”

After dropping out of high school, Alex had also worked at that shop, and he’s also worked for his uncle’s roofing company, making $10 an hour. As far as I can tell, that’s his main source of income, which allows him to pay for his rent, cell phone, and food. Alex is obviously not in the gang for the money. He has no car, he doesn’t have the money for his own apartment, and he doesn’t buy many clothes. When I ask him what he does for money when he’s in a tight spot, he gives me one of his smiles and says, “Oh, don’t worry. I know what to do.”

ALEX’S ADULT CRIMINAL RECORD is relatively skimpy: just three convictions for drug possession and one conviction for assault. A law enforcement official told me that Alex’s juvenile record, which by law he could not reveal, is “far more impressive,” involving a variety of thefts.

Alex regaled me with numerous stories of crimes he has committed for which he was not arrested. At the age of thirteen, he says, he stole several cars from the parking lot of the Bellaire Square apartments (a Cholos hangout) and sold them. He and other gang members, he says, broke into a Wal-Mart in a failed attempt to get into the cash registers to get money to pay for a fellow homeboy’s bail.

Most of his stories, however, are about battles with rival Cholos who, in some way, have shown “disrespect” (one of Alex’s favorite words). He says he started a fight with a Cholo at one of the neighborhood nightclubs by “stacking” him: using both of his hands to flash gang signs, one right after the other—similar to what a third-base coach does in baseball. (Among the signs he displays is one that shows the Cholos being shot down and rubbed out, which is almost guaranteed to provoke a brawl.) He says he was part of a team of MS-13 members who shot at a Cholo coming out of a party. (He refuses to tell me whether the Cholo was wounded or killed.) He also says he is sometimes used as the driver in the gang’s drive-bys “because I know all the shortcuts and how to disappear down the back alleys.”

In fact, directly below the MS-13 tattoo on his back is another tattoo that reads “El Rata”—the Rat. It’s his gang nickname, which he says has little to do with his slight stature. “Once I do my business, I get away,” he says. “I scurry away just like a rat from the cops, from other gangs, from anyone else who’s after me. If I didn’t get away, you wouldn’t be talking to me. I’d have been dead a long time ago. Think about it, El Bolillo. I’m about to turn twenty-one, and I’m still on the streets. Not too many other f—ing gangbangers in the barrio can say they’ve been doing it as long as I have.”

BUT THE QUESTION IS, How long can Alex keep doing it? During one of my trips in September to the neighborhood, I began hearing rumors that some of the Cholos had put out a hit on Alex. “There’s a tag on my head, yeah, but there’s always been a tag on my head,” he says when I see him.

I’m not sure whether to believe the last half of his sentence. I ask him if it’s true that someone shot at him the previous week. “Yeah, coming out of a convenience store off of Rampart. Someone drove by in a black car and a bullet came my way,” he says. “F—ing Cholos.” He then tells me he’s moving from one apartment to another, just in case.

I originally heard about Alex from Charles Rotramel, of Youth Advocates. Every day, Rotramel has his twelve counselors travel to gang-ridden areas throughout the city to meet gang kids, and in 2004 one of them came across Alex. (There used to be other groups who did the same thing, but they now have trouble getting funded. Much of the government funding they once received goes, in the post-9/11 age, to homeland security. There is a Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office, but it has only six counselors to cover the entire city. Because the Houston City Council will not devote any of the city budget to the Anti-Gang Office, except to fund two staff positions, it too has to look for grants to keep its doors open.)

To the surprise of everyone at Youth Advocates, Alex had shown up at the Youth Advocates building off Interstate 45, far from the southwest neighborhood. He said he wanted to check out the break-dancing program—and “check out the girls.”

“We figured it was his way of saying that the gang life, for all its excitement, was starting to get to him,” says Rotramel, who has recently moved the Youth Advocates office to southwest Houston. “You see it happen so often to so many gang kids as they start hitting their twenties. They know they are not happy, they can’t sleep at night because of the stress, and they’re worried that the cops or the other gangs are finally going to catch up to them. And here is one place where an option is presented to them of a life that’s different—a life of pizza and listening to music and not having to think about drive-bys.”

When I see Alex in September, I ask him if he’s thinking that the time has come to leave.

“What do you mean, ‘leave’?”

“Leave the gang,” I say.

As we’re having this conversation, we’re walking into a neighborhood pupuséria, a restaurant that specializes in El Salvadoran food. Immediately the customers stop talking. I assume that they have turned silent because they realize that a member of the feared Mara Salvatrucha, showing his blue, has arrived.

“No, El Bolillo,” says Alex. “They’re used to gangsters. Gabachos never come in here.”

He orders two beers, both at the same time. I ask him again if he thinks about leaving. But instead of answering, he tells me a story about a girl he had met a year ago. She was fourteen, known as a “Cholita”—which meant she got passed around sexually among the Cholos. “I didn’t care,” says Alex. “When I met her, it was a whole different story for me. My insides felt different. She knew I was carrying out assignments to get rid of Cholos, but she still cared about me. I never had anyone care about me as much as she did, and I had never cared for any girl like I did for her. I’m not lying to you. My insides felt different.”

They maintained a secret relationship for several months. He borrowed, or perhaps stole (I was never able to get the truth out of him), a car and took her to an Olive Garden south of Houston near the Johnson Space Center—“the one place where I knew I wouldn’t find any gangsters.” He went to Jewelry Dog USA at the Sharpstown Center and bought her a fourteen-karat gold necklace with a medallion that read “LOVE.” She, in turn, went to Jewelry Dog USA and bought him a grill—a metallic mouthpiece, popular among rappers, that had MS-13 written across the front plate.

When a friend heard about the relationship, she told him it was just like Romeo and Juliet. Alex, who knew nothing about the ill-fated love affair, says he went to a video store and rented three different versions of the movie. “And we watched them all. All of them. One with Leonardo DiCaprio, another with somebody else, and a real old one. That one was my favorite.”

“A veterano with MS-13 has watched Romeo and Juliet,” I say quietly.

“Oh yeah, El Bolillo, and I also got that damn West Side Story. Too much f—ing music.”

There’s a silence, and Alex finishes one of the beers. He then returns to the story and tells me that the girl’s mother learned about him. She realized that if the Cholos got wind of the relationship, which they inevitably would, her daughter would be killed. One day, the mother and daughter disappeared. “They went to Central America somewhere,” he says. “I could never find out. Right before they left, I told my girl that we were going to get married and leave Houston and start a new life with a baby. I told her we could go to North Carolina.”

“Why North Carolina?” I ask.

“I’ve never been there, but I know it’s far away. I told her I’d always wear a shirt so no one would see the tattoos—so no one would find me. I cried like a baby when she was taken away from me.”

A COUPLE OF WEEKS LATER I return to southwest Houston and head to the apartment where Alex is staying. When I walk in, he is hanging with three of his homeboys. Blaring out of a boom box is a rap song that sounds like gunfire. “We’re survivors, still standing,” the rapper shouts in Spanish.

Alex isn’t looking good. His face and body are bruised. One of his lips is puffy. There’s a fresh scar across one of the tattoos on his left arm.

“F—ing Cholos,” he says.

He tells the other homeboys and me that he had been walking alone the previous afternoon down Rampart Street toward the Bellaire Square apartments. A group of Cholos had driven by in an old Lincoln, the front seat pushed all the way back. One Cholo had leaned his head out the window and shouted, “Cholos controla!”

“F— you, you punk!” another Cholo had shouted.

“Then what, Alex?” asks Julian, one of the homeboys. Julian is only thirteen years old. He was “clicked in” to the gang a couple of months earlier, and he worships Alex. At his middle school, he proudly tells other students that he is part of Alex’s “crew” and that he is doing “missions” with him. (When I had first met Julian, I had asked him what those missions were. He had grinned confidently and said in as forceful a voice as he could muster for someone who had barely reached puberty, “Mr. Reporter, you don’t want to know what we do after dark. You really don’t want to know.”)

“What did you do, Alex?” Julian asks again. I realize I’m holding my breath. I want Alex to tell us he kept his head down, refusing to take the bait. I want to believe that Alex has not traveled too far down a certain road to be able to retrace his steps.

But Alex says, “I did what I had to do for the gang, my homito. I threw down. Chunked them our sign.”

According to Alex, the driver of the Cholos’ car hit the brakes and everybody came after him. Alex started running, but one of the Cholos was far faster than Alex expected. He pushed Alex to the ground. Another Cholo raced up and began kicking him in the ribs.

“But the f—ing putos didn’t see my knife,” says Alex, El Rata. “I got the leg of one of them, then I slashed some motherf—er’s arm. That got them the f— outta my face. And then I was gone. Ran down an alley and was gone.”

“Now what?” asks Julian, his eyes gleaming.

Alex shrugs and stares at Julian. “What do you mean, ‘Now what?’ They come back at us. And we come back at them.”

Alex shrugs again, and just like that, he seems ready to talk about something else. He looks over at me leaning against a bare wall, taking notes. He gives me a smile. “Hey, El Bolillo, take us out to eat on your credit card,” he says. “Come on, you know we need our fruits and vegetables.”

We head out the door of the apartment and walk down the stairs and into the parking lot to my car. Instinctively, he pauses to see who else might be in the parking lot. He looks to the left, then to the right. He looks toward the street to see what cars are coming his way.

“Come on, El Bolillo. Let’s cruise.”

Photographs By Penny De Los Santos