Full Mettle Junket

For gangbangers and delinquents, Project Challenge boot camp is a last chance to avoid prison

Martinez had no desire to return. He looked like he'd go AWOL on the first day, but managed to adjust his attitude and gut it out. Martinez wanted Hammonds dead when he made him read the autobiography. He matured a bit during the week.

For his survey on what he liked, Martinez wrote, "CI Hammonds was cool."
The CIs are overworked and underpaid. They've been well-trained in the military and could get better-paying jobs doing something else. Despite its success, the program lives under a shadow of budget cuts and the threat of being shut down.

But this is the kind of job where results look better in the flesh than on paper.

"One guy in my platoon hugged his mom and then he came back over and hugged me," says CI Justin Whitehead. "I told him he better get out of my face. But I got all misty eyed."

Nickolas Acosta relaxes in a booth at Denny's in Mesa. It's around the block from his grandparents' house where he's been living. He says he rarely visits 27th Avenue and Glendale, his old 'hood. He'd rather hang with his grandparents, his fiancee and his son.

There are no CIs at Denny's. Acosta was able to sit down without sounding off. He has a choice of menu items. And freedom tastes minty fresh between drags off a Marlboro Menthol 100.

The grueling week of Pre-Challenge is behind him. Acosta has been selected to come back for Project Challenge.

"That program is damn good," he says. "I just wish I had finished it the first time. It's a program that proves that no matter where you've been or what you've done, you can always improve yourself."

Acosta's been in Durango four times. He says it "sucks" compared to the program he's about to reenter.

"The counselors at Durango don't give a shit about you," he says. "At Project Challenge, they won't hire CIs that don't care about the kids. And after you graduate, they still keep in touch with you. My brother still talks to his CI."

Acosta also likes the opportunity to meet different people. Students at Project Challenge don't bring the rules of the streets into the program.

At night, he'd meet up with Sainz and Romero in the bathroom. Both are Bloods. Acosta's a Crip. That's usually reason to brawl.

"We didn't care, we were cool," says Acosta. "We talked about where we're from, our families, stuff like that. The more mature ones won't let where you're from get involved."

He wasn't always so forgiving. Acosta admits that he used to be prejudiced against blacks.

"I finally got smart one day and decided to find out what the word 'nigger' really means," he says. "Shiftless, lazy and ignorant. That applies to every color of person. What are you going to do, hold a grudge against someone just for the color of their skin? If you do, then that's ignorant."

In his Project Challenge autobiography, Acosta wrote that he wanted a better life for his family. That wasn't going to happen if he kept up what he's been doing.

His first drink went down when he was 9. At 14, Acosta snorted coke. Crystal meth, weed and ecstacy followed.

"I'd do anything but crack and heroin," he says. "Nothing involving needles."

Besides getting high, Acosta was banging. West Side City Boot Hill 10th Ave Crips. He and his boys would look for rival gangs to fight. They'd drive through neighborhoods and shoot guns in the air, just for the hell of it.

Acosta can't remember the last book he read, but he could write one on stealing cars. He says he wasn't afraid to die or go to prison.

For Acosta, being a Crip meant more than roaming the 'hood.
"All that shit you hear about dealing drugs, all that bad shit is true to a point," says Acosta. "But you always have someone to watch your back. Somebody's always there to watch out for you."

Project Challenge has Acosta's back now. When he graduates, it will be the Navy.

The gang will always be a part of Acosta, and he knows it. He keeps his distance because it's easy to fall back into old habits. He says that part of his life is over.

"I couldn't handle people getting killed in front of me anymore," he says. "That shit gets old."

Contact Matthew Doig at his online address: mdoig@newtimes.com

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