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Six months ago -- three and a half years into the program -- Mesa finally hired Tony Garcia, once a truly hard-core banger. With him came a dramatic improvement in outreach.
Dan Zorich met Tony Garcia at the tattoo removal program. Garcia, 25, had just spent two years in prison for burglary. As with many former gang members, it was a combination of things -- his three kids, a religious conversion, a dread of prison -- that made Garcia leave gang life.
Getting gang tattoos removed is the ultimate commitment to clean living, Zorich says, so he knew Garcia was serious about forsaking his gang. But although he had the approval of Spergel and the feds, Zorich had trouble convincing the Mesa cops to let him hire Garcia.
"This went up the chain, believe me," says Steve Toland, the Mesa police lieutenant who directs the project.
"Our gang detectives were all very aware of Tony. If you look years back, Tony was out there -- and now we actually have our detectives working with him."
Toland credits Police Chief Jan Strauss -- who has been involved with the project from its inception -- for granting approval to hire Garcia.
"That was a hard choice," Strauss says. " . . . It took a long, long time for me to feel comfortable with it -- I'm still a bit edgy about it -- but I think what Dr. Spergel's thesis is is that if you don't have someone who's been there, how effective is your program? It's an uneasy feeling, but then again, if this man is capable of turning his life around and can help kids to stay away from it, then that's a good preventative move."
So far, so good. Garcia works in tandem with Kimo Souza, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University who has a background in counseling. Souza, who is short and stocky, and Garcia, tall and lean, are Laurel and Hardy, constantly exchanging wisecracks with each other and the kids.
"I know the kids really connect with him," Souza says of Garcia. "We're a little unorthodox in the way that we go out there, we kind of tag-team out there, and people kind of look at us. Although we're part of the system, we're not part of the system. We're viewed kind of in the middle ground."
It's hard to imagine, looking at the sweet-faced young man with the pink scars -- vestiges of his tattoos -- that Tony Garcia was a devoted gangbanger.
He won't reveal his gang name, or even his neighborhood.
"I grew up here in Arizona, and got in trouble while I was young, did all that number, did some time in prison and now I'm just out. I've changed my life," he says.
Garcia says he grew up wanting to be macho. He loved the movie Scarface.
Having his children visit him in prison was a humbling experience, and now Garcia, whose résumé lacks anything more substantial than a few months doing custom woodworking, is a social worker.
He says he's gotten some grief from his former homies, but nothing he can't handle.
"Like I told them, I did my dirt and I did my time, and they know all that, and no one can say anything bad about me, can't say nothing ever bad about me. And I say to them, 'If I want to better my life, and that means have a good job and support my kids or whatever, and you have a problem with that, then you're the one with the problem.' A lot of 'em, they're backing me, man. Because you gotta understand, when I was growing up . . . we had this pack that we would be down for each other. And they see me and they encourage me, you know?"
Have they grown out of the gang life, too?
"I don't wanna say."
Souza admits some have asked for help.
When a client is signed up with the Mesa Gang Intervention Project, a home visit is the first order of business.
Maria and her children illustrate how important such a visit -- and follow-ups -- can be. Maria, a single mom, has five teenage kids: four sons and her youngest, a daughter. They live in the project's target area. Maria's second son, Marcos, 18, was sentenced to probation last August, which prompted a home visit by project outreach workers.
They found Maria at her wit's end. Three of her sons belonged to Wetback Power; the fourth associated with the gang. Her daughter was having social troubles of her own. Maria was depressed; she'd attempted suicide three times. Her job at a dry cleaner barely allowed her to pay rent and put food on the table.
Outreach workers helped Maria get treatment for her depression. They counseled her on how to set up ground rules at home to deal with her kids, who often came home at 3 a.m. or not at all.
When Maria lost her housing, outreach worker Carol Reed helped her find a one-bedroom apartment that barely fit her family but did fit her budget -- Maria is not here legally, so she didn't qualify for housing assistance -- and outfitted it with everything from clothes for the kids to curtains for the windows.