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My life as a Latin King

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This past August, after a multiyear federal investigation, nine North Carolina men affiliated with the Latin Kings were sentenced for various crimes under the Racketeer Influenced or Corrupt Organizations Act, or "RICO," a prosecutorial hammer enacted in 1970 in response to Mafia enterprises.

The Latin Kings case drew intense media attention when it went to trial last year. One of the convicted men, Jorge Cornell, aka King Jay, doubled as a community organizer. He had previously campaigned for Greensboro City Council, running on a social justice platform.

In 2007, when he was 16, Raleigh resident Steaphan Asencio-Vazquez, aka King Lio, was convicted of armed robbery and went to state prison. Four years later, a federal grand jury indicted Asencio-Vazquez, Cornell and 12 other men for RICO crimes dating to 2006. Asencio-Vazquez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to conduct or participate in a racketeering enterprise, but he refused to cooperate with prosecutors or testify against others during trial. This past August, after five years in state custody, he was sentenced to three and a half more years in federal prison.

Through email correspondence, Asencio-Vazquez, now 22, opened up about the Latin Kings, prison life and his thoughts on RICO.

I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on December 26, 1990. I started out pretty good, but I had a bad anger issue. When I was 6 or 7, I smacked a nun after she hit me with a ruler. I was eating some M&M's, and the ruler was the punishment. But I was taught to defend myself and my family.

My parents split when I was 1. My dad works in digital photography for the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día. He was always on his own shit, so I was a mama's boy. But I don't hold no grudge; I think not having him around made me tougher. My mom is a tough, strong woman. I love her to death.

I never seen no violence in home, thank God, but outside, it was terrible. Growing up in P.R. you get that shit you see in violent urban movies, and I was always pissed off. My mother moved to Florida to get a job at Disney World and to save up so me and my sis could leave P.R. Her being away taught me to grow up quicker, and to be a tough young cub lion.

Later, after my mother got situated in North Carolina—she worked for Wake County Human Services— me and my li'l sis came up. I was overwhelmed 'cause I didn't know how to communicate. It felt dead in the U.S., and I felt out of place real quick. So I kept up my "you can't fuck with me" attitude. That was me.

We moved a lot. Making friends and proving I wasn't no punk was a 24/7 job. I got into fights and went to juvie a couple of times. I wasn't the biggest kid on the block, but after a few encounters, bullies ended up seein' me with knives or guns. So I got me a li'l respect and they left me alone.

Petty crimes start like this: "I bet you ain't got the balls to do that." After that, you graduate to, "I had to rob that old man 'cause I'm kicked out the house and running from the law and I gotta rob to eat." Eventually I started getting locked up. The guys I did shit with snitched me out. That should've been a sign to let it go, but I kept on.

One day I was home during a 10-day suspension from Knightdale High School for fighting, and I seen this HBO Special documentary on Latin Kings. It was an all-out recruiting video. I said, "Oh, shit, Puerto Ricans throwin' up the 'LK' sign, saying 'Amore de Rey.' Shit, this is me, this is where I belong." So I went to a store and bought me some black-and-gold bandanas and started throwing it up (representing), and ultimately I hooked up with some brothers out here in North Carolina.

I didn't have to do anything to join the group. I had made my reputation, so when they heard about me, it was like, "Yo Lio, we know you wild, but yo, chill out, King—we ain't on that gangbanging shit." But I was like, fuck that, I am on that shit (like I said, I was young, and they were trying to teach me something but I wasn't trying to hear it). I gave myself the name King Lio because "lio" in Spanish is "trouble."

I took a liking to King Jay. He was like a father figure to me in a street type of way. Him and the brothers like King Peaceful were always on some shit, like quit smoking weed and get a job and stop that bullshit at school. (Like I said, I used to fight a lot.) They told me that no King should be walking around looking dusty and havin' no money in their pocket. That made me feel bad. So—me being young and dumb—I decided to go rob more. Had I had enough sense, I would've just gotten a job. But I was all tatted up with a bad attitude. So who was gonna hire me?

The brotherhood is like it sounds: brothers. When you ain't got something at home, you look for it elsewhere. For example, if you're a married man and there is no excitement at home, you go to a strip club and get it. For me, I had to escape 'cause I was messing up in school. I thought, "Well, maybe if I leave, I won't see Mom cry." I didn't know it then, but that made Mom cry more. Shit just kept getting worse.

I got caught with a knife at school and got expelled, and I was just looking for a quick job. So I started hustlin' weed and robbing more people. That's how I fell out with King Jay and some of the other brothers; they didn't want no negativity around them. They said we shouldn't be doing shit like terrorizing our own neighborhoods. If anything, we should be protecting them from that type of activity.

So I took heed and got a job at a Finish Line in the Raleigh Towers shopping center. I got it through this brother from Chicago called King Squirrel. He was also on some responsible shit and trying to teach me how to be independent. He gave me a place to crash, and I started to leave all that robbery shit alone. But like every human, we fall. And I messed around, and I got four and a half years for robbery.

During that particular robbery a brother called King Scrappy got killed by Durham police. The robbery was in Raleigh, but we ended up in Durham that night—we went to press a lady about some money owed to a brother, and she was wearing a wiretap. It was part of a sting operation where the Durham police were getting sexual favors from prostitutes. A few cops complained to Internal Affairs, and that's what started the investigation; we just happened to stumble on the sting operation. We knew she was a prostitute, but she owed money, and we were just talking.

When the King brother died from the bullet, it took a toll on me because I was the one behind the robbery. The other two brothers snitched on me and told the police I was the one who orchestrated everything. A brother who was a confidential informant told the F.B.I. that I was the one calling the shots for all North Carolina prisons. I think that played a big part of why they got me with RICO.

Everything I was charged for was when I was 16. During my plea I acknowledged maintaining affiliation with the Kings after I was locked up. I told my attorney I'd sign the plea if I get credit for time served, and that I didn't wish to cooperate with the feds. I've never been a coward, and I felt like I was responsible for my actions. To me it wasn't about "you tell on me, I tell on you"; it was about, "I fucked up and got caught. So my fault, I'ma do my time and learn from my experience." I've been incarcerated since age 16, and I will be 23 this month. I still got three years, so do the math.

Most people don't understand how it is in prison. You need someone who is going to keep the brothers on a positive mind frame, keep good jobs, go to GED classes and work out together. King Jay was always big on unity. I have never seen King Jay as a bad guy. He was always trying to do what was better for everybody and the community, and getting brothers involved with church. I was just a renegade doing all the bad shit by myself.

I feel like we got indicted because King Jay ran for City Council. The government didn't like that, so they decided to make some bogus-ass RICO conspiracy just to see who would lie on the man and save their own asses to prevent Jay from getting that City Council chair. So it became the USA versus little ol' me.

I don't think it's fair I got charged with RICO, but I do see how I got connected to it: by maintaining my affiliation and catching gang-related charges while I was locked up. When I was around 19, I got into fights in prison. I guess they thought we were running hard, but my actual focus was teaching the locked-up King brothers the real aims and purposes of the Nation, beyond the negative aspects. We worked out together in the yard, and I made brothers go get GEDs or jobs. I was really hard on them. Excuses are for the minds of the incompetent; they build cities out of nothing and bridges headed straight to nowhere. Every time brothers tried to justify some bullshit—getting in trouble, not going to work, missing class—their love and loyalty for me was still undeniable. It might not be 500 Kings, but as long as I have five to 10 real good brothers with good heads on their shoulders, I'll continue to make sacrifices.

So it goes without saying I have no regrets. Going through what I done been through defines my character and makes me unique. We go through things in life to learn and become wiser, and to show kids and younger generations how things can be done differently. During days when I don't feel like getting up or doing shit, I look at the man next to me who has 10 life sentences plus 100 years, and I get out of that negative mode. That doesn't mean I wish I did things differently. I do things differently now, and that impacts where I'll end up at the end of the day.

I think the most misunderstood thing about, not just the Kings, but about every nation is that through time, our goals somehow get misplaced in the minds of others. As Latinos, we have progressed, overstepped barriers and are doing great things for the community. So brothers need to keep in mind where we came from, and to do our homework to know where to lead the Nation. If brothers don't stay in school and learn shit we will continue to be misunderstood. As the saying goes, "An illiterate person is a weak person, and a weak person has no place in this world."

What I'm preaching now is the same positive shit I wasn't trying to hear from King Jay and King Squirrel originally. That's funny in a way, but it's also serious. When I see brothers on the same negative shit I used to be on, I laugh and call 'em all types of shit. But I bet, by the end of the day, they gonna see how ridiculous they once thought.

As far as the chances of me getting out of prison and going on that negative bullshit—hell nah, I got it all out of my system. I want to go to barber school, get my instructor's degree and open up a School-N-Shop. I'll probably call the barber shop "Dice 'em Up's." I want to invest some money in my mother's pocket so she can sit on her ass, get paid off me, travel and enjoy the rest of her life with her husband (when she gets one, haha). I also want to give my sisters some type of instruction so they don't have to follow behind boys like me. I wouldn't put up with that shit.

I got faith in God that someone will learn something from this. If any of the brothers I did time with read this, you know who you are. I love y'all.

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