Dealing With the Devil

Antonio Martinez has some last-minute Christmas shopping to do. He buzzes through Kmart, picking out a serving bowl for his grandmother, a video game for a cousin. In Denver just for the holidays, he shivers as he steps outside. He got rid of his winter clothes when he moved west to start another life. A new life.

He's making good money at the tattoo shop. "I'm one of the two bests drawers in the city," he says. Humility has never been his strong suit.

Antonio's transition from Boom, the notorious gangbanger, to Boom, the working artist, is on ongoing process. He charges $100 an hour for his work--part of which goes to the shop's owner--and is doing well enough to complain that he needs an accountant to help figure out his quarterly taxes. He drives an economy car and is thinking about making a down payment on a house.

But every time he's feeling up, he's brought back down by thoughts of the people he left behind. His big brother, Danny, the "Bang" to his "Boom." His childhood pal Francisco Martinez, "Pancho." And Frank "Little Bang" Vigil, who was like a younger brother. He thinks about "my homie," Alejandro "Speed" Ornelas--even his cousin, Sammy "Zig Zag" Quintana, "the snitch." Thinks of where they are today--behind bars--and thinks about how they'll spend every Christmas for the rest of their lives behind bars.

He understands that they put themselves there. Long before the murders of Venus Montoya and Brandy DuVall, starting when they were boys just recruited into a gang, they made decisions that led to this consequence. It's like climbing in the car of a rollercoaster: Once the guy releases the brake, you can't get off until the end of the ride.

Except that somehow, Antonio did.
This compounds the guilt that Antonio feels. He found a way out, but "they didn't bother to think life could be better than this."

Antonio understands there has to be retribution for the deaths of the two women. It's one thing when gang members kill each other--the authorities jump on those crimes only if it fits their overall plan for attacking the gangs. But the two girls weren't gang members. They were innocent victims.

Still, the deal Sammy got for pointing the finger at Frank, at Pancho and, soon, at Danny, is tough to swallow. "It hurts my heart," he says. "It's like he's dead to me now." Sammy is the star witness for the prosecution.

"What kind of fucked-up justice system is this?" Antonio asks. "The guy who helped kill Brandy DuVall gets 16 to 96 years because he told on everybody else around? When it happened, he was just as involved...even more involved than they say my brother was. It's no wonder gangs think the system is just as corrupt as they are."

He's angry at other members of his extended family, too, for turning their backs on Danny. When the gang was making a lot of money in the drug trade, Danny was particularly generous toward his relatives. Buying clothes and shoes for the kids. Handing out money to any relative who asked. "There weren't a lot of people standing around with their hands in their pockets," Antonio remembers. "You know what I mean? But now it's all our fault. We influenced the others, like Frankie.

"What they did, they did on their own. We were who we were."
If it weren't so serious for his brother, Antonio would laugh at the prosecution team presenting the DuVall case "like a big Godfather movie," with Danny portrayed as the capo, the boss and unquestioned leader of a large and sinister crime syndicate, the Deuce-Seven.

"I suppose there was a time a long time ago when we might have been considered 'leaders,' because we started the Deuce-Seven," he says. "And I suppose some of them little 'busters looked up to us because we had been around for so long. But that didn't make us leaders. It made us survivors."

By May 30, 1997, the Deuce-Seven was at the end of its ride--still dangerous, as the gang members proved to Brandy DuVall--but more a band of a few relatives and friends than an organized-crime empire. "By the time all of this happened," Antonio says, "there was about five or six guys that hung around together. We were all equals. We just liked doing the same things.

"It wasn't like we had rules or told people what to do."
In fact, Antonio had long since given up gangbanging and just enjoyed hanging with friends. And Danny, he says, was an alcoholic, hiding from the police because of a drug-dealing charge, with no money and little power on the streets except by reputation.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steve Jackson