Ex-Van Nuys Gang Member Recalls Life of Violence, Bravado


On a wet February evening, half a dozen gang members ran down Li’l Bear and cornered him in a Van Nuys alley, where he was beaten, stabbed six times and shot through the hand he raised to shield himself from the attack.

Left to bleed to death, he dragged himself to a liquor store for help, where a clerk, irritated by the blood dripping on the floor, ordered him outside to wait for the ambulance.

“God help me. . . . God help me,” he muttered as he sat in the pouring rain. “If I’m going to die, then let it be.”


Street violence had been his life, from the 5-year-old boy who watched as his friend was shot in the face, to the swaggering youth perfecting the finer points of drugs, crime and sex, to the accomplished thug whose emotional survival was circumscribed by the respect that he could garner from his gang affiliation.

But on that February night, the attackers were members of his own gang who suspected him of passing information to a rival gang. In Li’l Bear’s world, the violent ritual of rejection, though his greatest fear, turned out to be his escape.

Now recovered from his wounds and a junior attending high school in the San Fernando Valley, the 17-year-old said he regrets ever joining a gang. “I hate the person I used to be . . . and I hate the things I used to do,” he said.

Police say he falls into the unusual category of gang members who are “jumped out,” beaten as an initiation rite or a final act of expulsion from gang life.

“We rarely see kids getting jumped out of gangs,” said Detective George Armenta of the gang task force at the Los Angeles Police Department’s North Hollywood station. “It’s an identity thing for these kids. They have nowhere else to go to, so why leave something that is getting them a lot of attention?”


Born in El Salvador, his first look at the United States came in 1980, when he emigrated with his widowed mother. For Li’l Bear, there was just the tough neighborhoods and grinding poverty of East Los Angeles.


His mother and future stepfather both scorned the gangs. She, a devout Roman Catholic, made churchgoing a regular routine for the family. Li’l Bear stayed in school, though he was a student without distinction.

It was on the streets of East Los Angeles that he met a gang member named Rick, who adopted him almost as his little brother. He bought Li’l Bear ice cream and took him to dinner and the movies.

“He would always tell me, ‘Don’t ever join a gang. Don’t ever become a drug dealer. Do something with your life,’ ” Li’l Bear recalled.

He still recalls with pain the day Rick’s luck ran out. Returning from the grocery store, he watched helplessly from across the street as a gangster accused Rick of stealing his car, then shot him in the head.

On that day, with that vivid example, Li’l Bear promised himself that he would never join a gang.

But years later, when his family moved to the San Fernando Valley, the lures of gang life--money, friendship, respect--remained strong, on the streets and in the schools. In a series of interviews, Li’l Bear recalled how even in church, gang members sat together.


The drift toward gangs began innocently. Back in the fifth grade he would kick back at a late-night party and maybe have a couple of drinks and smoke marijuana. By the sixth grade, the gang members had replaced his other friends, the ones who preferred playing football and Nintendo to stealing cars and taking drugs.

Crime was strictly optional, he said.

The new friends filled a void left by a deteriorating relationship with his siblings and his stepfather, who disapproved of his evolving way of life. The neighborhood, he said, provided an escape.

“When I was out with the buddies messing around I felt happy,” he said. “Like I found what was going to make me happy from the bottom of my heart.”

Inflated with newfound confidence, Li’l Bear began to relish his own bravado. He turned into a bully who became addicted to the respect--or fear--evident when he was in the company of his gang friends.

“I remember when me and my buddies used to walk down the hallway, people would look at us and they would actually get out of our way,” he said. “To me . . . this was the life.”

He savored the role of a cool brat who thrived on the fear that he triggered in others. The next step was donning gang attire, the Dickies, Nikes and white T-shirts. He cropped his hair short and slicked it back with Vaseline.


“You say to yourself, ‘I can dress like this and I can act like this,’ ” he said. “You keep on doing it until you say, ‘All right, I have the guts to go pull the trigger on somebody.’

“The way they interpreted it to me, if you want to do a drive-by, fine, if you don’t, you don’t,” he says. “But when it gets to the point when you are in junior high, that’s when they start revealing the reality of it to you.”

Li’l Bear recalled his decision to join the gang, which came while he was in seventh grade, sitting with a gang member in nutrition class.

“I said it would be pretty good if I got ‘into the neighborhood,’ ” he told one of his gang friends. “He said, ‘Yeah, it would be good, you’d have more respect.’

“We went to a boy’s restroom and three guys just started jumping on me,” he says. “They hit me left and right and they kicked me for 15 seconds.”

As Li’l Bear tells it, the vividness of the memory lay not so much in the pain, but in what the bloody badge of gang initiation meant to those around him.


“For some reason I felt good,” he said. “I walked down the hallway and felt like I owned the whole world.”

Now a full-fledged street gangster, he would kick back with the boys at alleyway meetings in Van Nuys.

He stole cars. He mugged pedestrians. Soon he was present at drive-by shootings and drug deals.

“You’d go and hang out with your buddies and if any rival gang members came, you’d have to claim your neighborhood and tell them what’s what,” he said.

One time he walked to a Pacoima park outside his neighborhood, where he was approached by two rival gang members. One put a gun to his head and asked him where he was from.

“I told them to pull the trigger if they want,” Li’l Bear said. He escaped with just a black eye.


“The way I saw it, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,” he said. “That kind of attitude has gotten me into a lot of trouble.”

Li’l Bear’s mother said she realized something had changed in his life only after he cropped his hair short, put on gang clothes and spoke to her in rebellious tones. The happy eyes of the boy that she adored as a child were replaced by the cold stare of a gangster, she said.

“I would pray that he would turn from these friends who were turning him from me,” she said. “So I told him, ‘If you keep going around with those friends you will never realize your dreams.’ ”

But by the day he entered high school, he had been arrested four times, once for leading police on a high-speed chase that ended when he crashed the car he was driving.

Despite occasional misgivings, it took a woman, as Li’l Bear tells it, to get him to seriously consider leaving the gang behind.

In his sophomore year he met a girl, and she was frightened by his lifestyle.

Ironically, it was his longing for approval--from friends and from the opposite sex--that helped push him toward gangs in the first place.


He wanted to be like the gangsters he knew--secure and self-confident--and he wanted girls to respect him and his machismo.

“No matter how much a gang member tries to deny it or tries to lie about it, there’s always a point where he falls in love and he’s attracted to one special girl,” he said. “This girl showed me what I could have been if I wasn’t a gang member.”

But he was dating other girls, too, including one from a rival gang. When his gang found out, they suggested setting her up for a beating, in hopes of getting information on the rival group. Li’l Bear refused.


That rainy February day, he got a call from one of his homeboys, who asked him if he needed a ride to a gang meeting. They met at a doughnut shop and drove to an alley, where about five other guys were preparing for an expected drive-by from a rival gang. They asked him to shoot a rival gang member, Li’l Bear said, but again, he refused his homeboys’ request.

Violence broke out when a sixth gangster from their neighborhood arrived. The unsuspecting youth became the victim of his own homeboys.

“They started jumping him and beating the crap out of him. He was screaming in pain,” Li’l Bear recalled. They wanted him out of the neighborhood because he had a new job and started hanging around with a different crowd, with no gang members, Li’l Bear said.


“I couldn’t bear to watch it,” he said. “The way I saw it, no matter if he was gangbanging or not, he still deserved credit for what he did in the past.”

When they finished, one of the gangsters called out Li’l Bear’s name. He became the target.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I didn’t have time to be scared.”

He tried to run away, but one of them grabbed the hood of his jacket and pulled him back into the alley, where he was shot once and repeatedly stabbed.

Six youths were later arrested in connection with Li’l Bear’s beating, an LAPD detective said, two of whom are likely to stand trial on charges of attempted murder. Li’l Bear, the ex-gangster, is the key to the prosecution, authorities said.

Nearly three months after the attack, Li’l Bear, dressed in a crisp white shirt and pressed khaki trousers, still wonders what brought it on.

He struggles to understand whether the decision to end gang life was his, or theirs.

Li’l Bear has been trying new things, such as writing a series of short stories based on his life as a street gangster and the life of his friend Rick.


The respect he’s lost from his homeboys has been replaced by the support of his family, school officials and the police who helped catch his attackers.

“To me, I felt I had lost the entire world after I got jumped out,” Li’l Bear said. “But I’ve learned that if you want respect, you gotta earn it on your own.”

Some wonder.

“Maybe he’ll have a good future and maybe he’ll get jumped into another gang,” says an old girlfriend. “It’s hard to say.”