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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Two years ago, one of the nation's biggest and most well-organized street gangs decided to expand operations in Buffalo, seeking to make the city's West Side its turf for drug-dealing.
The Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation -- more widely known as the Latin Kings -- are unlike any gang ever seen in this city.
The gang's Buffalo chapter holds regular meetings -- every Wednesday and Sunday -- and requires members to pay dues, according to police. The dues are $5 a week for members who don't sell drugs and $10 to $20 for those who do.
The Latin Kings have their own prayers, religion, constitution and bylaws. The book outlining their code of conduct is hundreds of pages long. Members who don't follow the rules receive a brutal beating that can last up to five minutes.
"You are not to put God, religion, family or friends before the [Latin King] nation," reads one of the gang's rules.
Homosexuals, gamblers and users of hard drugs are not welcome, the rules also state. The sale of hard drugs, however, is allowed.
"It's the most organized gang we've ever seen here," said James Jancewicz, an FBI agent with the Buffalo Safe Streets Task Force. "The Mafia has all kinds of traditions, but they aren't this structured."
The Latin Kings are the targets of a crackdown by the task force and the U.S. attorney's office. In April, six alleged leaders of the gang's Buffalo chapter were indicted on drug-trafficking charges, and they face the possibility of long prison terms. More local members of the gang are subjects of a continuing investigation.
Among the jailed men is Joseph J. "King G" Santiago, 43, of Newton Street, who was sent here from Rhode Island to take control of the Buffalo chapter, authorities say. He has pleaded not guilty to drug-trafficking charges that allege he ran drug deals from a house on Normal Avenue.
Despite the crackdown, the Kings and other street gangs continue to be influential on the West Side, where police and community leaders say young people are routinely recruited to join and become drug dealers.
"We've heard about kids as young as six to eight years old who are hired to stand on a corner all day," said Robert Kuebler, who runs the Youth With A Purpose mentoring program at Holy Cross Catholic Church on Seventh Street. "If they see the police coming, their only job is to run and tell the drug dealers that '5-0' is on the way."
"The kids join gangs because the gang gives them something to belong to," said Juan "Nino" Acosta, an ex-convict who now runs a job-training program for young people on Seventh Street. "We have to give them jobs and skills, alternatives to the gangs."
"There's more gang opportunity for these kids right now than there is job opportunity," said Jacob Corchado, a West Side electrician. "So you do the math."
Gang's long history
The Latin Kings started as a social organization for Latinos in Chicago in the 1940s, according to the FBI. Over the decades, the organization morphed into a criminal gang that now has hundreds of chapters in cities and prisons throughout the nation.
One of the most powerful Latin Kings leaders was Luis "King Blood" Felipe, a convicted killer who formed the Almighty Latin King Nation of New York State in the 1980s while he was serving time in Collins Correction Facility in southern Erie County.
"Many of the guys who were indoctrinated into the Latin Kings in prisons later came out and started their own chapters in the cities," Jancewicz said.
Felipe is now serving a life sentence in the nation's most high-security federal prison in Florence, Colo. He was convicted in 1997 of homicide and racketeering, including sending letters from prison that ordered Latin Kings on the outside to torture and murder people.
He is still revered as a heroic, almost godlike figure by some members of the Latin Kings, authorities say.
Recruiting young people in neighborhoods racked by poverty and unemployment, the Latin Kings have flourished since they made their big move into Buffalo in 2006. The gang has more than 50 members in Buffalo, according to the FBI and the State Police.
"After the takedown in April, some of their members went around putting Latin Kings graffiti in different locations, just to let us know they are still around," Jancewicz said.
In court papers, the U.S. attorney's office alleges that the Buffalo Latin Kings have been heavily involved in drug trafficking, extreme violence and gun crimes.
Those allegations conflict with the views presented on the Latin Kings' official Web site.
"While history has put Kings and Queens above the people, we The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation -- proudly wear our crowns as servants of the people," the organization states. "Though we strive for peace, may we always find strength to keep our swords sharp and our shields shiny."
The group says it is dedicated to the causes of "evolution, righteousness and community upliftment."
"They use all kinds of flowery language to describe their good causes," Jancewicz said, "but the evidence shows they have been involved in drug-dealing and violence in city after city."
The FBI Safe Streets Task Force also includes members of the State Police, Buffalo Police Department, Amherst Police Department, New York State Parole Division, Erie County Probation Office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives. Assistant U.S. Attorneys George C. Burgasser and Kurt P. Martin are prosecuting the case.
Acosta, 37, the founder of the Urban Community Corp. on Seventh Street, and Lourdes Iglesias, executive director of Hispanics United of Buffalo, are trying to provide opportunities for young West Side residents to better themselves without joining gangs.
Acosta knows all about the gang lifestyle. He was active in gangs in Rochester and Buffalo, and he spent more than five years in state prison for shooting a Buffalo man in the 1990s.
His not-for-profit company provides training in the construction trades for young people.
"I'm not trying to fight the gangs. I'm trying to give young people a different path to follow," said Acosta, who was interviewed on Vermont Street, where his workers are helping Habitat for Humanity volunteers renovate an old house.
"I'm trying to show these kids that they can make a life for themselves without joining gangs."
Gang recruitment of young people is a "serious problem" in the city's Hispanic community, Iglesias said.
"We have great, talented young people in this community, but we're losing some of them to gangs . . . the Latin Kings and others," said Iglesias, whose organization sponsors mentoring, tutoring and recreational programs.
"We tell kids, 'Yes, you can get money by joining a gang, but at what cost?' It's a very dangerous life."