Street Wise

Robert Duran was lying face down, his hands tied behind his back, when his life as a gangbanger came to a violent, terrifying end. A group of men who said they were cops had busted into the apartment the eighteen-year-old Duran shared with his girlfriend. Now she was next to him on the floor, waiting as the men shredded their home, threatening to kill them both. Upstairs, the couple's baby daughter wailed.

"Things had gotten really crazy," Duran remembers. "I was right in the middle of it, and it was out of control. I realized that day that I didn't want any part of that. I didn't want that kind of life to be my future. I didn't know if I'd even have a future.

"It was really hard, but I just decided to let it go," he says. "It had to end."

Like many young men in the early '90s, Duran got into gangs in high school, drawn by the dangerous glamour of the life portrayed in movies and music. His family lived in a working-class barrio outside of Ogden City, Utah, where his father worked as a miner. The town broke along racial lines, with whites living apart from blacks and Latinos. In Duran's neighborhood, there wasn't a lot for kids to do. He looked up to the older guys in the area's biggest gang, who seemed to command respect from everyone.

"It was a gang that had been around since the early '70s, and it was like a cool thing to be a part of," he says. "It was a lot of older cousins, a real family kind of feeling. It was like, by being with them, you could play at something you're not. Everyone's trying to be tough and get respect."

As a freshman, Duran acted and dressed -- and got in trouble -- like a little banger, even though he wasn't truly part of any set. But as he got a little older and bigger, he learned that he could earn the respect of real OGs by using his fists. Strong and lean, he was hot-tempered and not about to back down from a challenge. He soon developed a reputation as a scrapper -- the kind of guy who was fun, and handy, to have around. At sixteen, Duran was jumped into a growing Hispanic gang that was gaining ground in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"I liked to fight," he says. "I wasn't afraid to get mobbed up. It was kind of my way of establishing myself and making myself stand apart, so I'd be more respected. The night I was jumped in, people said I got pretty messed up, but I held my own and had all my bones intact when it was over."

By the time he was seventeen, Duran was drinking heavily and doing dirt for his set -- fighting, mostly, and selling pot. Things had heated up between the town's two major Latino gangs; old friends Duran knew from the neighborhood were now sworn rivals. He had his own collection of guns, which he never used but was glad he had.

"For a while, it seemed really cool to have this status and to do things for the gang," he says. "There were all the movies and the alcohol that made it seem like a cool idea to go down in a blaze of glory. But things got really tense. They got really scary. People were getting shot. There was a strong police presence in my life during that time."

By 1994, Duran was making moves away from his gang. His older brother had landed in prison on manslaughter charges after knifing a guy who later died as a result of his injuries; Duran revered his brother, and seeing him locked up was a jolt. "After my brother went away, I thought, that's it. I'll be in the same shoes and go to prison, too," he remembers. "I felt like I should have been in his place, because my brother had always shied away from the gang stuff. He just got in this fight that got out of control. And here I'd been putting myself in the way of all kinds of stuff, and nothing really had happened to me."

Duran now had a child as well as a high school diploma, and he started taking auto-mechanics classes so that he could support his family. When his gang friends came around the apartment asking him to come out, he made up excuses why he couldn't join them. Life was calling him to grow up.

Then came the raid on the apartment, which ended when the rival gang members posing as cops grabbed some stuff and left. Duran's first instinct was to round up his homeboys and go after the guys who'd jacked him up. He'd always adhered to the code of street reciprocity: One incident begat another, and anyone who did him wrong was due for a reckoning.

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond