SAN MARCOS, TEXAS — The full weight of who he had become hit him, startlingly, when he witnessed that one little grin. Inside a public housing project in San Antonio, Oscar Esparza says he watched the grin snake across the face of a fellow gang member who had just admitted killing one of his oldest and closest friends.
At that moment, Mr. Esparza realized he had joined a gang that was about far more than just kickin' back during the day and hitting clubs at night. "At first I thought he was just playing around, but then I saw his face," he says. "Now I don't talk to none of them anymore."
In a Texas courtroom last week, Esparza closed the final chapter of his life as a member of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation. He was a star witness in the case against Paul De La Rosa, who was ultimately convicted of murdering fellow gang member Christopher Guillen in an internal power struggle.
The trial provided a terrifying glimpse into the culture of one of the nation's oldest and most highly structured street gangs, where rules are considered paramount to the group's survival and any violation is met with beatings and even death.
Strikingly similar to the Mafia in organization, the Almighty Latin King Nation blends criminal activity with mysticism and tribalism - and inside that world, a member's biggest fear is not rival gangs, but crossing his own colleagues.
While the largest chapters are in Chicago and New York, the trial here in central Texas shows how the Latin King Nation is gaining power and prominence in other parts of the country. As its influence grows, other gangs are studying its tactics and organizational chart. "Gangs are finding that, to stay in business, they need some type of structure," says Wes Daily, president of the East Coast Gang Investigators Association in New York. "And many are looking at the Latin Kings and trying to mimic that structure, because this gang gets things done."
The tale of Mr. Guillen's murder began two years ago on March 2, 2001, when about 20 Texas members of the Latin King Nation were summoned to a council meeting at the southwest San Antonio housing project.
Their agenda included a bald accusation - that Guillen wanted to assassinate Jose Beltran, known to members as "Step One," the leader of the Austin and San Antonio tribes. The reason, say prosecutors: He wanted to wrest power from the current leadership. Guillen felt that the head of the regional "210 Lions Tribe" should be from San Antonio, not Austin, where Beltran lived.
Thinking he was paying loyalty to the gang, Esparza, nicknamed "King Oro," pulled Beltran aside and told him what Guillen was saying. "I thought they were just gonna beat him up and that's it," Esparza said at the trial.
Esparza's warning prompted Beltran to call members of the gang from Austin and Killeen, several of whom showed up with guns. "Step One brought in the real gang members to clean up," argued Mr. De La Rosa's attorney, Alexandra Gauthier. The way she portrayed it, the tribe De La Rosa, Esparza, and Guillen belonged to was more like a "big fraternity." "These kids grew up in a part of town where that's what you do," she said. "It was like a bad Rotary Club that got out of hand quickly."
Everyone was relaxing, playing cards and listening to music when Bianca "Crazy K" Ferrell showed up that night. Ms. Ferrell testified she "got rolled into" the Latin Kings and Queens - one of the few gangs that admits women - when she was 13. The initiation: getting kicked and punched by other gang members until she couldn't walk. After hearing about the plan to kill Beltran, members agreed on punishment for Guillen - a beating. "They decided they were going to give him a violation," Ferrell said. "It lasted for 3 minutes and 60 seconds."
This is how a typical Latin King violation is referred to because it symbolizes a 360-degree revolution - a complete circle which, when completed, all is back to normal. Violations are dispensed liberally, for things such as dishonoring Latin Queens, not showing up at meetings, and fighting with other members.
But Beltran wasn't satisfied with that punishment, Esparza said. He told De La Rosa to "terminate" Guillen, and a group left with him in tow. His bullet-ridden body was later found in a ditch in San Marcos, about halfway between Austin and San Antonio.
Ms. Gauthier did not deny that De La Rosa killed Guillen, but says it was under duress: He was acting on the orders of his boss and his own life would be in jeopardy if he didn't follow them. "You can tell how terrified these people are just by looking in their eyes," she said.
The jury wasn't convinced and convicted him of capital murder on Friday after a few short hours of deliberation. He received an automatic life sentence.
Born on Chicago's south side in the late 1940s, the Latin King Nation began as a Hispanic social organization. It evolved into one of the nation's largest and most violent street gangs, with 25,000 current members in Chicago alone, according to police estimates.
The gang's rapid growth occurred in the late 1980s and '90s when incarceration rates quadrupled. Inside prison walls, members enlisted new recruits and refined their rules.
"They got very well-organized, with manifestoes and organizational charts," says Dwight Conquergood, an ethnographer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who is writing a book on the Latin Kings. "They could give seminars to MBA students."
Behind bars, Dr. Conquergood says, the Latin Kings set up taco stands and provided welcome kits - complete with soap, toothpaste, and shampoo - for recently incarcerated gang members. On the outside, they dispensed winter coats and free medical services. After living among Latin King gang members for five years in researching his book, Conquergood believes the structure is a product of "extreme humiliation and day-to-day grinding poverty."
"These kids are never going to make any fraternity or key club in mainstream society and are trying to fill a basic human need for support," he says. "These are people who are living in states of emergency. The irony is that the complex web of mutual support that helps them in the short term is the very thing that locks them out of the mainstream."
Esparana, for instance, said he joined the gang at 16 because "my family wasn't really around. My father was really abusive to me and my mother, and I needed somebody to be there for me. In the Latin Kings, I had all the protection I wanted."
Because the Latin Kings have such a defined chain of command and written operating procedures - including formal constitutions, bylaws, and charters - authorities have had an easier time charging members under federal racketeering laws.
"Some of their instructional booklets are 92 pages long," says Mr. Daily, who refers to the Latin Kings as nontraditional organized crime. "We've done a good job of taking out the Mafia. We need to do a better job of taking out these street thugs who are operating like organized-crime groups."
Other street gangs, such as the Los Angeles-based Bloods, for example, are a federation of smaller groups that share rituals and bylaws but have no real affiliation. Some cities and states have no formal leaders at all.
In the Texas case, however, Guillen's death seemed to be all about leadership and internecine warfare. Police say the gang has been immersed in a power struggle since 2000, and was in the process of trying to become more cohesive through Beltran's appointment as regional leader. "Chicago is the gang's epicenter, but there always has been a strong linkage with Texas," says George Knox, director of the National Gang Crime Research Center in Chicago.
Like most gangs, Latin King criminal activity revolves around drug trafficking. Still mainly Hispanic, the gang wears gold and black colors and uses symbols like the lion, pitchfork, and five-pointed crown. The five points represent the five leaders in each state, of which Beltran was one.
Loyalty is valued - and enforced - above all else. "Membership is very loyal to those in command, often born out of fear, because the gang will kill its own members routinely," says one member quoted in a report by the National Gang Crime Research Center. "So the first and foremost law of the gang is, 'Once a King, always a King.' "
Even though Esparza believes he will be killed for his court testimony, he says he is trying to clear his conscience for his role in his friend's death. He says he finally realized the error of his ways when he heard De La Rosa confess to the shooting. "I was partly responsible because if I wouldn't have told 'Step One' about what he said, nothing would have happened," he says. "I was loyal to the gang. Now I want to be loyal to Christopher."