CHICAGO â€” Jesse Guajardo choked back tears on the witness stand in federal court as he abandoned his second family once and for all.
He had grown up in the Latin Kings street gang, peddling drugs when he was only 8 and becoming a soldier when he was a young teenager. After an uncle recommended him for membership in 1988, he suffered a beating or “violation” by three Latin Kings to join the gang’s ranks.
By 2006, at age 29, he was a chapter leader in the southwest suburbs, commanding two dozen soldiers and making his betrayal of the Latin Kings that much more stunning. He was facing life in prison in a drug case when he decided to cooperate with the government.
“I had no choice,” Guajardo told a defense lawyer who called him a traitor at the drug conspiracy trial of his onetime gang boss, Fernando King. “I had to choose to continue to be a Latin King or continue being a father. I didn’t ask for this.”
Federal authorities call Guajardo’s cooperation remarkable and say his testimony was a significant moment in their battle against Chicago’s entrenched street gangs. He became one of the highest-ranking Latin Kings to testify against his superiors, in the process offering a rare glimpse into the powerful gang’s structure and reach.
King, 38 — the national “Supreme Inca” or No. 2 leader — was convicted Tuesday in a drug conspiracy that saw him back Guajardo’s drug operation with Latin King muscle.
Working undercover for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Guajardo secretly recorded high-level gang meetings, once catching King reprimanding members of the gang’s “Crown Town” region, near Midway Airport, for disrespecting gang rules.
” [Expletive], we don’t go for it in New York City, in New Jersey, Connecticut — we don’t go for it …” King said on the undercover recording.
Guajardo said the gang maintained security in its stronghold in the Little Village neighborhood by establishing a perimeter patrolled by gang soldiers. The gang used maps to plot out escape routes that rivals probably would use if they carried out drive-by shootings in the neighborhood, Guajardo said. Armed security teams were on standby to block exits and take swift revenge.
In addition to Little Village and “Crown Town,” the Latin Kings had six other regional organizations stretching from Waukegan to East Chicago, Ind., with hundreds — if not thousands — of members in neighborhood chapters.
Below the gang’s highest ranks, Corona and the Supreme Inca, were dozens of leaders who made up the gang’s strict hierarchical structure and went by such titles as nation enforcer, treasurer and cacique , or chief. One of the gang’s top deliberative bodies, the “Crown Council,” functions as both the legislative and judicial branch of “The Almighty Latin King Nation.”
Guajardo was the leader, or Inca, of the “Lenzi” Latin Kings, a chapter with 24 members named for an avenue in Hodgkins. But he had the ear — and trust — of the gang’s most powerful leaders. The reputed Corona, Augustin Zambrano, asked Guajardo to care for his heroin-addicted son, Guajardo testified.
While working as an informant, Guajardo recorded King as he ordered his soldiers to beat two Latin Kings in March 2006 after they threw a beer and mistakenly hit Zambrano’s wife.
Authorities have said King essentially is part of the second generation of leaders of the Latin Kings, a gang that began in Chicago a half-century ago and remains one of the country’s largest.
The gang was directed for years by Gustavo “Gino” Colon, a squat, powerfully-built North Sider who continued to exert control over his troops even after he was in prison for a quarter-century on a murder conviction.
About 24 hours before his release from state prison, Colon was rearrested by federal authorities and charged with running the gang’s drug operations from prison. Now 53, he is currently serving a life sentence at the federal super-maximum security prison in Florence, Colo.
Colon’s incarceration, like that of legendary Chicago street gang leaders Jeff Fort and Larry Hoover, has left Chicago’s gangs, including the Latin Kings, dispersed but still powerful and deadly.
The gangs have been disrupted further by aggressive federal prosecutions such as the “Operation Broken Crown” probe that resulted in the convictions of King and 31 other Latin Kings.
Still, the Latin Kings have chapters in New York, Florida and other states and even have a presence overseas, including in Spain and the Dominican Republic, experts say. And while gang leaders in Chicago retain influence over members far and wide, the Latin Kings, like other street gangs, are organized by neighborhoods and act largely in their own interests even though they share a common ideology and structure.
Zambrano, the reputed Corona, and King owned a remodeling company and a modest takeout restaurant.
It was at the restaurant in December 2006 that Guajardo, acting as a government informant, gave King a kilogram of fake cocaine in exchange for King’s promise to protect Guajardo’s drug-trafficking operation. A grainy videotape of the transaction was played at King’s trial.
Joseph Lopez, King’s attorney, argued in court that Guajardo and federal investigators entrapped his client. He said King had stepped away from gang life.
After King’s arrest, federal authorities searched his home and confiscated the Latin King’s constitution and manifesto that lay out gang rules, bylaws, symbols and its quasi-spiritual, quasi-revolutionary philosophy.
The constitution lists the gang’s official annual holiday as Jan. 6 — Kings Holy Day — when gang members fast to honor “the memory of our departed Brothers and Sisters.” Gang membership is open to anyone who adopts “Kingism” except for rapists, heroin addicts or anyone who has killed a Latin King or his or her relative.
Also, any member “found guilty of being a traitor or police collaborator shall … be expelled from the Nation.”
As for Guajardo, being expelled from the gang was a given. During his time as an informant, he was more worried about staying alive.
“If the Latin Kings knew I was cooperating, they would kill me,” he said.