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David Carrillo is a former gang member who has been out for several years now. He was able to turn his life around but not without a lot of time and effort. Today he is successful at his chosen employment, and has covered his gang tattoos with artwork copied from his grandfather who is a famous painter. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
David Carrillo is a former gang member who has been out for several years now. He was able to turn his life around but not without a lot of time and effort. Today he is successful at his chosen employment, and has covered his gang tattoos with artwork copied from his grandfather who is a famous painter. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

CRIME

After leaving the game behind, ex-gangster shines light on the underworld Add to ...

In his teens and early 20s, David Carrillo was a high-level member in the Toronto chapter of an international criminal organization. From a home base in the Keele Street and Wilson Avenue area, his gang rapidly expanded to control the drug trade in a broad swath of the city’s north end.

Today, the gregarious 33-year-old lives in a middle-class neighbourhood, has a family and a successful career in retail management. He spends his spare time drumming in Latin-jazz bands and talking to high school students to dissuade them from joining criminal life.

In the wake of recent high-profile shootings, – including one that left two innocent bystanders dead at a block party – the gangland culture of which Mr. Carrillo was a part is increasingly in the public eye. And his story offers insight into how this world works and has changed over time.

For example, in the 1990s, when Mr. Carrillo was heavily involved, guns were expensive and hard to come by. Turf wars were settled with machetes, baseball bats and two-by-fours. Now, nearly every crew packs heat.

His life also offers proof that even the most entrenched players can leave the game – although he had to move away from his old neighbourhood and it took him about five years to get out completely.

Born in Toronto and raised in Ecuador, Mr. Carrillo was sexually abused by two relatives as a child. When he returned to Canada with his family at 13, he had a seething anger inside him that he released in schoolyard scraps. By the time he was in Grade 10 at Downsview Secondary, his toughness had earned him the respect of his peers. With four friends, he formed a gang. What follows is his story, in his own words.

Initiated into gang life

[We started a gang] mostly just to hang around, just to be well-known. Little by little, people wanted to be part of it. Next thing you know, we had 70 or 80 people. We would roll together everywhere. Our rule of thumb was: “If one doesn’t eat, nobody eats. If one eats, we all eat.” So we’d always try to get enough money so everyone could eat.

I got into selling weed when I was in Grade 9. By the time I was in Grade 10, I started selling cocaine and crystal meth. We would go to different neighbourhoods and try to put our name out there: jump people, steal their wallets and stuff like that. One of the things the guys used to do, at Wilson subway station, they’d go to the top platform and wait there. And if they would see a guy who looked like he had money and couldn’t defend himself, they wouldn’t let him go downstairs.

One guy who was in the group, his cousin was visiting from Los Angeles. He was basically one of the main guys from one of the most dangerous gangs in the world. [For Mr. Carrillo’s safety, the name of the organization cannot be disclosed.] And he wanted to meet us. He’s like, “I’ve heard so much about what you guys do here. Have you ever thought of joining us?” And we’re like, “We’ve heard of you guys, we know you guys are crazy, but that’s all we know.” And he goes, “Well, we want to expand. We want to be all over the place. What do you think? You want to make your own clique and be under the umbrella of this big gang?” We thought about it and we’re like, “That sounds badass. Let’s do it.” The four guys that remained from the ringleaders, we all got initiated. I got my face busted open. There were two cousins from L.A. They were big boys: six-foot-something at least, 250 pounds each, and they’re both just hitting you. You just stand there and take it like a champ. They hit me first and then I hit the next guy.

They left a couple of us in charge. We started off with a good 30 of us in 1995. By ‘96, there were already at least 200.

The rules of doing business

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