In another group are three young men who have been in gangs for years and have seen what it does to people and families.
There is a clear division between the two groups.
The four younger, less gang-experienced teenagers said they have all been shot at, even though only two of them claim to be associated with a gang, while the three young men don’t seem phased when they recall their histories of violent stories and drug-laden childhoods.
“I’m in a gang,” Sami Kofutua said. “My whole family is in the same gang, they claim TCG, Tongan Crip Gang. There are a lot of people in the gang, too many to count.”
Kofutua, 17, said his decision to join a gang was based on the environment he grew up in and that he is the only gang member in his direct family, but he is beginning to see the toll the gang lifestyle has taken on him.
“Growing up was hard for me,” Kofutua said. “I took it hard and that’s why I choose to be in a gang. Now days I feel like carrying around a weapon because my homie got shot at and my cousin retaliated and shot at the house and now they’re in jail because of that and they weren’t thinking right.”
Juan Guillen, 15, said he is associated with a gang because he sees it as something to do in his free time.
“There are not a lot of things out there that we can do,” Guillen said. “Most stuff you have to pay to go do and most people don’t have the money to do it. If there were something else we could do, I would rather do that.”
Pelón, who asked to be identified only by his gang name, is Juan’s cousin and agrees that activities are limited. He’s a shot caller, someone chosen by the leader of the gang to assign tasks, though Pelón asked that the name of his gang not be identified.
“We do a lot of work and have chill time to kick it with the homies, just drink and do our thing,” Pelón said. “It’s really just all our gangbanging. … You know, they have the Boys and Girls Club and won’t let us into the boxing club, you have to pay to get in and we never had the money. (We) can barely stay on the streets as it is.”
Pelón’s progression into gangs started off “minor,” he said, by “ditching school, hanging with the homies, I joined my ‘clicka,’ doing what I did with them and putting in the work.”
With a difficult family life, Pelón learned how to take control and show he can demonstrate leadership.
“You gotta go through this and go through that and go through the ranks,” Pelón said. “I’ve been in and out of juvie since I was 11. I got taken away from my mom when I was 6. Dad doesn’t talk to me because he’s from a rival gang.”
With time comes experience, and although Tevita Peni is also 17, he views the gang lifestyle differently. Peni’s relatives are members of TCG, which means that he is associated with the Tongan gang.
“I’m not a part of gangs, I’ve just been around them my whole life,” Peni said. “I just want to be a good example for my younger brother.”
Peni said he wants to set a good example for his three younger siblings who range in age from 7 to 13.
“I want to break that cycle,” Peni said. “It just got to the point when I was seeing the same old story. My brother passed and my other brother is in and out of jail. I want to break the cycle. If my little brother ever wanted to join a gang, I would encourage him to stay in school.”
Yet, Brandon McBeigh, 19, sees the cycle as something that is caused by society and is not sure if it can be broken.
“I feel like racial tension still exists here, a lot,” McBeigh said, adding that he was recently called a nigger by a passerby in downtown Reno.
“I went to Reno High School my freshman year and I played running back. I had 16 touchdowns and the starting running back had two and I never got to start,” McBeigh continued. “I’ve seen white people and black people get the same charge but get different sentences, off their first charge. That’s an unfair justice.”
McBeigh said gangs formed as a way to combat the unfair justices in societies.
“The original gangs that started were all in order to boost our community,” McBeigh said. “We were selling crack in order to put some in law school and some in medical school. The game has gotten twisted and flipped over the years, but the original plan of the whole gang was to have the same power as the white people have as far as running the nation.”
He said he joined Vice Lords when he was 14.
“Vice Lords go out for Muslim-based religion,” McBeigh said. “They believe that gangbanging is naturally selling drugs and shooting people, but the five-point star that represents us stands for peace, love, justice, freedom and unity. If you don’t have that in the community, the community will crash.
“A lot if it goes off a lot of principles to help the black community, and it’s just not helping the black community because Latino gangs are the same: family, respect and the giving back,” McBeigh added.
When asked if he thought there were ways for the community to help solve problems associated with gangs, McBeigh said there needs to be better social outlets for children.
“There were some other outlets, but they didn’t give us as much of a chance as other people do give,” McBeigh said. “The stuff that they do offer, well, we have to sell crack just to get into that. There’s no way of getting around it.”
Peni agrees with McBeigh, and said there needs to be a change in the system for there to be change in the community.
“The things that are going on in the community, there are no services out there to help us,” Peni said. “Opportunity — don’t get me wrong, I was offered a lot opportunities — but when I got to a dead end, I really needed those opportunities to save my life. It just seemed like nobody was listening.
“Other communities have services for them and I walk outside and all I see is gated fences and nothing to do,” Peni added.
McBeigh said that there is a large mistrust of authority, including police officers, in the neighborhoods where they grew up.
“We are always getting harassed by the gang unit,” Peni said. “I was brought up in the gang but what did I do to put myself in the gang? I think the gang unit knows who we are, like they come rolling up on me and we’re having a regular conversation like they know me.”
Pelón is also suspicious of police because of a confrontation he alleges with an officer.
“I ran into an incident before when I was a little bit past curfew and he beat my ass,” Pelón said. “What happened, vato, was I was chilling in the ’hood. I wasn’t arrested, but he beat my ass and left me there. I had to walk into my aunt’s house by myself. All the police in Reno is is a big-ass gang that has more authority than anybody else.”
Pelón did not provide specific information about this incident that could be verified with the Regional Gang Unit. Regarding any allegation of mistreatment, the gang unit has said that anyone who feels officers have used excessive force can file a complaint with their local police department.
When asked if they try to prevent teens like Kofutua from joining gang, McBeigh and Peni said that would greatly discourage people from joining.
“We try to prevent (young kids joining) gangs as much as possible,” McBeigh said. “I tell them all the horror stories. People getting shot and locked up and stabbed and stuff. Ultimately in the end, you can’t tell them anything.”
Peni said that if someone hears the stories and still doesn’t walk away from the gang lifestyle, they are not in the right state of mind.
“Once you tell them about it, nobody in their right mind would say, ‘Oh yeah, I want to join that, I want to see that, I want to do that,’ ” Peni said.