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Former Idaho gang member makes new life

This week we're taking a look at what police say is a resurgence of gang activity - especially in rural areas. In part four of our series "Living In Gangland" we learned how one Idaho man got out of a gang - and stayed out.

Alfonso Santos learned how to make a gang sign around the same time he was learning to read.

"I was in Head Start I remember, and my uncle's like 'Hey, come over here real quick.' He's like, 'Hey, throw it up,' and I'm like 'Alright.' So I'm on one knee, throwing up the E. And, I thought that's cool right there you know."

The E was for East Side Locos. Alfonso says in the '90s his uncle started a branch of the Texas gang in Caldwell, Idaho. It became the biggest in town.

Alfonso officially joined around the age of 13.

"That's when I actually you know, got in it, started going around with guys, starting stuff, just making a name for myself. And I did too, man."

It wasn't a drug thing. Mainly, the East Side gang in Caldwell is a street gang – which means graffiti, theft, but most of all, beating up rivals. Like this one time Alfonso was in the car -- with his mom.

"We were at a stop light and right next to me there's like four guys, some rivals of mine. They looked at me, and they started throwing up West Side, starting their stuff. I got out of the car and right there started punching the guy's window in. Right there at the stop light, there were cars behind me, I didn't care. I just always wanted to fight. I was ready to die for my 'hood, for my family, for my gang."

Alfonso takes me on a drive around town. To some of the places he hasn't been to in a while.

Jessica Robinson: "So this is where you were living?" Alfonso Santos: "Yeah this is my old house that got shot at."

Back then, Caldwell police were still trying to figure out how to respond to the sudden rise in gang activity in the small town. In one month alone in 2004, there were 130 shootings in Caldwell.

Alfonso saw friends get shot. His uncle went to prison. Alfonso was in and out of juvie himself. His mom begged him to stop, especially after the fourth drive-by shooting on their house.

"So those rooms got hit. And that's my mom's room. It was just, it was horrible."

Starting a new life - without the gang

It was around then that Alfonso says he began to realize something. The gang may have called themselves a family. But being one of them was threatening the lives of Alfonso's actual family. So at a gang meeting, he declared he was out.

Unfortunately, leaving a gang isn't like canceling a gym membership. That became clear late one night, after Alfonso thought he was done. A member of the West Siders caught him out alone.

"And I heard the door slam. And he fires, boom!"

Alfonso ran - until a bullet grazed his ankle. He lay on the pavement when the rival gang member caught up with him.

"He turned me over and puts the gun in my face and I'm just there looking at him. He smirked, you know you're done dude, and he just pulled the trigger, and it clicked."

No more bullets.

"Oh man! And he's like, 'F---!' That's what he said."

The man kicked Alfonso in the gut and bolted.

"And right there I was like that's it, I'm done with this, I gotta start doing something. I don't want this no more. I changed so much, I started dressing different, preppy. My whole attitude different. I changed completely. The way I dressed, talked, people I hung out with."

This self-makeover started to do the trick. It started to convince his old gang and his old rivals.

But he still faced constant harassment from both sides -- for a year-and-a-half. Turns out, the toughest part of getting out -- was learning how to back down. "And sometimes I'd get hit, you know, get sucker punched and it just, oh, like, I felt like I lost my pride. I felt like crap. The whole year-and-a-half it was like that. And finally they started to realize, this guy really don't want anything no more."

So, this is the part of the story where I tell you that Alfonso is the rare exception. That most gang members only get out through prison or through death, right?

No. In fact, thousands of kids are going through this same difficult process right now. So says Arlen Egley, a researcher with U.S. Department of Justice.

"This is a finding in gang research that shows up again and again, in different cities, using different methods, surprising to many, is that most kids who join a gang, leave within one or two years."

Egley says, like Alfonso, most kids join because they have friends or family in the gang. They think it will keep them safe.

And like Alfonso, they realize it doesn't.

Alfonso is 21 now. He's been out of gang life for almost five years. He's working in a furniture store and trying to be a good father.

"I'm so lucky that I'm still out here. I mean, before when I was gang banging if I died people would be like, it's cool he's dead, you know. One less gang member we have to worry about. And I always thought about that. I want my life to mean something."

Alfonso and his fiancée just got approved for a home loan. He has new friends now. In fact, one of his closest friends was once one of those rivals in one of those cars - a former West Sider, who has straightened up his life too.

He's dating Alfonso's sister. And they often all have barbecues together.


Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.