Why you should care

If you’d been a gangbanger on your way to a lengthy prison stay, the last detour you’d expect would be one to a preschool.

OZY's Scenes of the Crime series explores what drives our evil ways. OZY's Scenes of the Crime series stares into the hearts of darkness that drive our sometimes savage ways.

I first met Edwin at the door of my four-year-old son’s preschool in a middle-class Mexico City neighborhood. I spotted the telltale signs straight away. Black ink tattoos on his hands and neck. A long-sleeved shirt that hid his forearms. His closely clipped hair and mustache suggested impeccable personal care. American English.

He was a deportee for sure, I thought, and he’s seen some bad things. A lot of bad things, as it would turn out. And now he was my son’s new English and art teacher.

But I’ve been a reporter in Mexico for 11 years and have specialized in covering organized crime, drug trafficking and violence across the region. So I’m familiar with the dark side. And I knew Edwin was too.

At a family day organized by a school at a nearby ranch, Edwin and I got talking. I’d just been on a trip to Central America and was dazed by the brutal violence and control waged by the notorious Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha street gangs there.

Edwin knew about gangs, he said. He’d been in one from the age he was old enough to throw a punch. He rolled up his sleeve to show the letters BTR carved into his skin: Burbank Trece Rifa.

The charges? Attempted murder brought down to assault with a deadly weapon.

I knew I should have at least had mixed feelings about Edwin being in such close contact with my son, who, like all the other kids in the school, adored him. But I was more curious than concerned. Soon after, I asked Edwin if I could interview him, and he said yes. Sitting opposite each other in the kitchen of his small apartment, about a 40-minute bus ride from the school where he works, he told me how his first drug deal went down.

He was around 10 or 11 years old, he remembers, when he stole some weed from his dad’s stash and sold it to his grandfather. “I was all happy because I made 20 bucks,” he laughs. “But my dad was pissed.”

His “dad” turned out to be his stepdad, he discovered years later. His real dad, he says, was a people smuggler in Tijuana, where his parents met and where he was born Edwin Gamez Sanchez in 1977. Three days after he was born, Edwin’s mom, Martha, took him, undocumented, to the United States, where they settled in Sun Valley, California.

He started drawing and painting from a young age — “I was a good kid,” he starts off. Well, clearly not so much, I comment. Edwin laughs.

He got as far as junior high, but before he was a teenager he was smoking pot, shoplifting and getting into trouble. He got “jumped in” by six gang members — a ritual where members pummel a new recruit for 13 seconds to see if he can stand it — and then “that was it; I was part of the neighborhood.”

“I’m gonna be honest with you — it was fun. It was like, ‘Yeah, I’m the man!’ I had realized that I wasn’t going anywhere, but I didn’t have nothing to really look forward to. There wasn’t this support, you know what I mean? [The gang was] all we had — that was it.”

 

In and out of juvenile detention, he eventually went down for real in 1994 and would spend the next 14 years of his life in jail, most of that time at Pelican Bay State Prison, and much of that in its Security Housing Units, better known as the SHU. The charges? Attempted murder brought down to assault with a deadly weapon, he says.

But Edwin said he didn’t mind the SHU at all — quite the contrary.

“There was always that sense of ‘I’m cool here.’ It was a time for me to think,” he said. “I think prison was the best thing that happened to me. I don’t think I would have lasted on the street. I think I would’ve got killed.”

He spent a lot of time reading, thinking and gangbanging, which is why his time inside, which was meant to end in 1997, lasted until 2006. He was released and immediately deported to Mexico — a birthplace that he had never called home. It was hard to adapt. He arrived with very little Spanish and knew almost no one.

After kicking around for the first few years, staying with his mother’s extended family in different states around the country, he ended up in Mexico City and in an interview for the teaching job he currently has.

“I was thinking [on my way to the interview], ‘If this doesn’t work out, I’m done,’” he remembers.

It did work out. His fluent English was his main selling point, and a crisp, long-sleeved white shirt and tie concealed most of his tattoos. He got the job, and it was a game-changer.

Redemption? Maybe. A second chance? Definitely.

“I remember one time I went to Costco to buy some stuff and this little kid recognized me and shouted, ‘Teacher Edwin!’ The parents were like ‘How you doing?’ and that was …” He trails off.

“They believed in me,” he says to the floor.

Not everyone, at least not at first. There was a small contingent of mothers at the school who figured out his background and wanted him out, according to Edwin. But the bosses stood by him — they just asked him to keep his past to himself.

“They kind of backed off and I’ve been there since, and it changed me completely. The fact that I was able to believe in myself and that people were willing to give me a chance — that’s how we get by, you know.”

He adds, “I remember an older homie said to me once [in prison], ‘You think you’re a man because you fight and all that? You’re not a man. We don’t pay rent. We depend on what our mothers give us or, if we hook up with somebody, they send money. We’re not men. We don’t know the first thing about responsibility,’” says Edwin. “To this day, when I got out that’s always been like, ‘Am I a man now?’ Shit — and that’s kind of what has kept me going.”

He may not be where he wants to end up yet. But Edwin is a man now.

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