Been Family tattoo on the chest of Thomas Jennings an active member of the Bloods gang in the U.S.A. The Bloods have established a good relationship with members of the Latin ings in the state of New York. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
The Latin Kings are more of a family than a gang.
It was Nicolas Enriquez’s first year living in New York. The Colombian-born photojournalist came in search of The Bloodline chapter of the Latin Kings, one of the city’s most powerful gangs.
“Gangs were not new to me,” says Enriquez, who has made a career out of capturing urban conflict and struggle, “what was new was to know this Latino gang started as groups fighting against racism, creating comfortable spaces for Latino teenagers and families that had arrived in a new country.”
Founded in Chicago during the early 1940s, The Latin Kings were born of the harsh conditions that many immigrants face when they first arrive in the United States. Contrary to the stereotype of gangs, the Kings were formed to help their community get settled, teaching English and providing job opportunities to newcomers, helping them navigate the American Dream.
The Kings are made up of several factions, which remain loyal to their Windy City predecessors, known as the Motherland, but many have become thriving organizations of their own.
The Latin Kings New York chapter, The Bloodline, was founded in 1986 by Luis “King Blood” Felipe, who ran the gang from behind bars for years before he was placed in solitary confinement at a maximum-security prison in Colorado. Today, The Bloodline, also known as the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, has grown into one of the most influential branches of the group with an estimated membership of 7,500.
“Police abuse, deportation, and racism were the triggers for the creation of the Latin Kings back in the day and still are strong motives that keep the gang alive and growing,” says Enriquez.
But his photos document a side of gang life that falls just beyond the frame of the nightly news cameras. The stories of youth and family life defined by their fellow gang members.
Latin Kings meet at one of the headquarters of the gangs in Bushwick, monthly meeting often take place at parks or abandoned houses. Amor de Rey, “King Love”, is what they yell while listening to one of the leaders give instructions to the gang. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
“The family is all there is,” says Enriquez, “and somehow it’s also something that is missing from the lives of gang members.”
He points out that Latin Kings members, who often join between the ages of 13 and 17, come from broken homes where the Kings are the closest bonds they have. In that kind of environment, mentors who help the Latin Kings stay true to their roots can be the most crucial members of that family.
“We often associate gangs with organized crime and violence, and they are indeed problems that exist within the gang world,” he admits, “but if we analyze gangs in America, they are mostly formed by minority groups, people living in extreme poverty, victims of police abuse and racism, victims of the mass incarceration system in the U.S.”
Still, violence and the drug trade play significant roles in daily life on the margins of society.
“Street-level drug dealing is the main source of income for gang members today,” says Enriquez, “this means they have to deal with all the aspects that surround it…armed violence, fights for territory, and fear of ending up in jail.”
But Latin Kings members who hold true to their roots can provide a calmer sense community. Members like Smokey, the 25-year old leader of the Brooklyn Tribe. His influence on his fellow members stood out for Enriquez because it was a side of gang leadership he hadn’t expected.
“He was like an older brother and a father for all of the people following his lead,” Enriquez remembers, “he was constantly proving to everyone why he was in charge without violence or fear, but with education, friendly advice, family advice, work advice, he was always thinking about his brothers and sisters and how they could improve together.”
Karen’s baby, Kirell, sleeps at his home in the Bushwick projects, a place that he shares with his uncle “Smokey.” He rules this neighborhood for the Latin Kings and wants Kirell to be a part of the gang when he grows up. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
“Looney,” an active member of the Nation, yells “amor de rey” king love at his group while they’re looking for “Trinitarios,” members from an enemy gang in a subway station. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
“From here I can shoot the J train” is what “B-Rad” said to his brother in law “Smokey.” B-Rad is not a member of the Latin Kings, he is a member of the “Ysquad” Gang that rules a small neighborhood in Brooklyn. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
Looking outside from the window to see if there is any man-down outside the building. Man-down is the way they call police officers. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
Gangs have their own security systems to keep themselves safe from other gangs or police officers. Gang members are selected to stand outside the projects, patrol the area and communicate with the gang if there’s anything suspicious. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
A distant family is one of the main reasons why teenagers join gangs. The lack of support and understanding pushes teenagers to seek a community that will help them. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
Smokey and Chucho play with one of the toys of Kirell. For a long time, I was interested in the playful and childish side of being a gang member. I found the contrast between friendship and risky situations, just minutes later in the street, fascinating. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
Murder holds a gun that he bought for $250 in the street. He bought it after guys from another gang stabbed one of his friends in the neck. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
“Flash” after smoking marijuana. One of the things that Latin Kings do the most is hang out and smoke. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
(Left to Right) King Buckets and King Chucho, both gang members from the Latin Kings gang, wait for Smokey, friend and leader of the gang, outside his house. Smokey got locked up for possession of a gun and drugs. A police officer broke into Smokey’s house around 2:00 a.m. and arrested more than 11 people, 4 of them gang members. The state of New York doesn’t allow the police to incarcerate someone for more than 48 hours unless they are found guilty. Smokey, as a leader of the Latin Kings, didn’t take the charges and was released after 2 days. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
Blask got his hand cut with a broken bottle during a fight with members from an enemy gang called the Trinitarios. These kinds of injuries are common among gang members since fights quickly escalate from fists to razor blades, knives and guns. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
Several Latin Kings members enjoying a playful time outside one of the project buildings in Brooklyn. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
(Left to Right) Smokey, Imakee and Looney pose for a photo inside of a Brooklyn apartment that served as a meeting point for the Latin Kings until it was raided by NYPD officers. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
Teflon shows the table where he has displayed a gun laying on top of a Bible, several bullets, a balance for drugs and a book of The Law of Attraction. Drug dealing and violence are part of the daily lives of gang members in New York. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
Smokey lights up a marijuana cigarette while sitting in his room at the Bushwick housing projects. Smokey is the leader of the South-Side tribe of the Latin Kings gangs in Brooklyn and he tries to keep his people from smoking anything that is not marijuana because he wants them to be able to protect the hood at any time. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
Smokey, of the Latin Kings, walks down the street while taking his shirt off before trying to fight some other gang members from a rival gang called the Trinitarios.
View of Manhattan at night from the top of one of the buildings at the Bushwick housing projects in Brooklyn. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
Gang members and friends mourn the death of Simbaa, who died after being stabbed 20 times in the chest in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Death has become familiar to gang members. Memorial ceremonies and visits to the hospital are common and they always live with the fear of who is gonna be next. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
(From Left to Right) King Looney, King Chucho, King Smokey and King Buckets rest in their apartments after a long day at a meeting with other Latin Kings gang members, smoking some marijuana and drinking beer. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)
(Left to Right) Poppa and Teflon pose for a photo taken inside their apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Teflon is a member of the Bloods gang and is now in prison for missing court dates. (Photo by Nicolas Enriquez)