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In prison, Jose Vivar had time to rethink his love of firearms and life of crime. Here’s what he thinks of the gun-control debate today

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Dec. 7, 2007: Toronto's Integrated Guns and Gangs Task Force shows an anodized gold Desert Eagle pistol at a news conference. This was one of the weapons seized in Project Cheddar, a months-long probe leading to the arrest of Jose (Cheesie) Vivar and eight others.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

I carried a gold plated .50 calibre Desert Eagle because Toronto was a dangerous place for me.

My big gun was what made me feel safe.

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. I wanted to be a man’s man, like the fearless cowboy in a movie with a cigarette dangling from his lips, and I wanted to own a gun.

Over the past few months, gun crime in Toronto has spiked. The city has been on high alert. During this time, I heard from many “expert” voices – psychologists, law-enforcement officials and academics – but I haven’t seen proof of many conversations with people like me – people who have lived inside gun and gang culture, people who understand what it’s like to want nothing more than to own a firearm.

Even though I no longer live this way, I remember clearly what it was like. Memories of the first gun I bought are fresh in my mind. I remember the fog that morning mixed with the sweet smell of marijuana smoked by teenagers with Jansport knapsacks and Air Jordans.

I was a baby-faced 10th grader who had recently been expelled from school for selling weed. Now I was at a new school, making money, meeting girls and making new friends.

One of these new friends had a small .25-calibre stainless-steel handgun. Gorgeous! Pearl handle. Seven shots. It was shiny, blinged like jewellery and fit into the palm of my hand. It was love at first sight. I told my friend I needed to have the gun. I peeled off 15 $100 bills – twice what he had paid for it – handed it to him and watched as he added the cash to a wad of his own.

That day at home, I posed in the mirror with the gun, held it to one side like I believed a gangster was supposed to and spoke to my reflection with a deeper voice, as though I were confronting an enemy. It felt as if I grew taller that day. The gun made me invincible. I held it and felt electricity surge through my body, my veins, my blood, as if given a superpower. I got an erection as I squeezed the handle hard, played around with putting a bullet in the chamber and then ejecting it. I wanted to shoot this newfound love of mine.

I tucked the gun into my waistband and walked to a laneway near my house in downtown Toronto. I pointed at a stop sign, closed one eye to take aim, and without hesitation, pulled the trigger. The shot went off like thunder and I was God unleashing lightning. The recoil gave me goosebumps and adrenaline coursed through my veins. The bullet hole ended up exactly where I had pointed the gun. I smiled. I was a natural!

From that point on, I knew that if someone messed around with me or one of my boys, I was prepared to shoot them. I became a man that day, at just 15 years of age.

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Mr. Vivar is shown in a 2004 TV broadcast as he leaves the Toronto courthouse where he was acquitted for the 2002 killing of Gary Malo. Later convictions on firearms and drug-trafficking charges would send Mr. Vivar to prison for nearly nine years.CFTO

It’s now 22 years later and I am a federal offender, ex-gang member and an ex-drug dealer. For my crimes, I have served more than 11 years of my life behind bars. My most recent stint, 8.5 years straight, ended with my release in March, 2016.

Upon my release, I began a non-profit initiative that aimed at helping the marginalized in my community improve their mental health with fitness, as it had helped me when I was incarcerated. It was during one of these outdoor boot camps in Toronto’s Christie Pits Park that I almost died by the same gun I used to live by.

I was shot five times in front of my students, parents, sister, son and the mother of my child, by someone I had encouraged to join our free session as a participant. It changed my life forever.

I am currently serving the remainder of my parole in Beaver Creek federal penitentiary after violating the terms of my release in December of 2018. After being allowed back into the community in 2018, I let myself fall back into old patterns, and shoplifted a basketball, weights and fitness equipment for my non-profit fitness gym. I was caught.

It is a mistake that has cost me more than a year of my life, my reputation and time with my sons that I can never get back.

From this brief summary, you might think that I fit into society’s idea of someone who was born into a life of crime, but my story is not that simple.

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More of the guns seized in Project Cheddar are displayed as a police officer addresses the news media.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

I grew up in a beautiful Victorian home on a nice street in Bloordale Village. I went to St. Peter’s Church in the Annex every Sunday and practise my religion to this day.

Both of my parents raised me. I was close to my sister. Looking at me, you would see a responsible kid, one who had good grades, held down a part-time job, played sports and hung out with friends.

There was another side to me though, one that craved risk and adventure. I was always a daredevil. Fight? No problem. Throw a rock through a car window? Give me the rock. Shoot a gun? Pass me the strap.

The first time I watched Blood In Blood Out, I wanted to be like the gangsters in the film. I wanted to experience prison and see if I could survive it.

I was mesmerized by the bad – by the rush that came with it, and by the camaraderie I witnessed in the movie. I watched it a dozen times.

The movie portrayed men in gangs as a family. This family would demand respect, would make money in unison and eat at a dinner table together. I wanted, more than anything, to be a part of that kind of family.

I remember seeing a map published by the Toronto Star in 1996 that showed that the Christie Pits neighbourhood, or Toronto Police’s 14 Division, had a high concentration of gang membership at the time. I can attest to that.

Growing up, I got punched in the head or eye for no reason, robbed for my clothes, was jumped on multiple occasions, fought back and broke knuckles – sometimes at a loss and sometimes at a win to my fighting record. I was too scared to tell my parents what was happening.

My Ecuadorian father would have slapped some machismo into the side of my head and told me to defend myself. That’s what he had been taught by his father before him and, likely, what drew me to crave the acceptance of other men his age.

I had to survive – so I joined a gang.

Growing up, I experienced trauma. I did not witness violence at home but experienced it in the world with my friends.

The mentors and leaders who took an interest in me did not teach me finance or law. They showed me the "power" of guns and drugs. They made me believe they were the only resource I could access, and the best way to achieve my goals was by "working" with them.

Most of these friends are now dead.

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The weapons seized in Project Cheddar included Ruger and Glock handguns.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

At 17, instead of dreaming of girls, cars and concentrating on school, I dreamt of collecting new guns. Brand new Glocks, Sig Sauer, Heckler and Koch.

In that world, a nice gun beats a nice car any day. The guns came from the States and legal gun owners here in the city. Some would buy up to 30 legally then sell them to drug dealers at a huge markup, then later report their cache stolen.

I worked as a sales clerk at Holt Renfrew. I would wear a thin bulletproof vest underneath my dress shirt and sell overpriced denims as I scanned faces, looking out for any opposition. I never felt safe. Maybe “they” had found out where I worked and were coming to get me. Maybe today I would see a face I recognized for the wrong reasons. Maybe today I would die.

The women and men who paid with gold and platinum cards were oblivious to the threats around them. The kid that was in front of them concealed enough firepower to put down a bull. For the next several years, my gun was a part of my everyday life. I held it on my waist and walked with it, had it on me when I was driving, in cabs, subway, restaurants and nightclubs. My gun of choice was the ultra compact Glock 27, with a modified 16-shot clip.

Those days whenever I left my home, or place of business and walked to my vehicle, my hand didn’t leave the handle of my gun. Killers didn’t come alone; they came with a partner, or in threes. They weren’t asking questions, they were just blasting. I figured my 16 shots could at least hold three guys back until I got away.

After years of carrying a gun, there was never a doubt that I had it on me. My gun became a part of my body. Like a limb, or a finger. With this came a feeling of power, manhood and invulnerability.

Even during my first years in jail, I would habitually check for my gun, though of course I couldn’t keep one there.

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Firearms sit on a display rack at 2019's Tactical and Competitive Shooting Sports Show in Mississauga.J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

On a daily basis, I continue to fight the lure of the gun. Having survived an attempt on my life, I think of how much safer I would feel if I were armed.

I am, however, on a lifetime weapons ban. Possession of a gun would get me a minimum of 10 years. After what seems like a lifetime of criminal activity and prison, I will take my chances and do whatever it takes to preserve my freedom.

It pains me to know what is going on in my city. I talk to my son every day from a jail payphone. Sometimes we brainstorm ways to help with the problem. What is being done to fix the root cause?

Certainly, there are various programs across the city that attempt to engage gang members. Often viewed in a positive light, they give these youth an opportunity to socialize and learn new skills. However, I believe there are several things missing in these programs. Primarily, they lack mentors with lived experience, mentors who these youth can relate to and who can teach the necessary life skills needed to escape the lifestyle.

Who do you think a hardened gangster who views the world as unsafe will listen to more? Those with the lived experience or those without?

In this world, where luxury cars, diamond jewellery and handguns are worshipped like God and are unfortunately considered symbols of success, we need to teach these youth how to make money in a legitimate way.

In my case, my draw to the gun and the lifestyle that followed was not time spent in vain, as I was able to use the business skills I learned dealing drugs to become a legitimate professional. This is what I hope to help others do in my situation.

I am now the executive director of a non-profit organization that works with youth. We take a fitness-based approach to controlling PTSD and other symptoms related to the gang lifestyle. Additionally, I mentor various youths who are trying to escape the street life and transition into a life of normalcy.

The lure of the gun gets stopped by understanding the lure of the gun. It gets stopped by understanding the root cause of these violent crimes. It gets stopped by offering gang members business opportunities and grants to start legitimate business as opposed to spending billions of dollars on incarceration.

Toronto does not have to be a dangerous place.

Jose Vivar is the executive director of 25/7 Fitness Initiatives.

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Mr. Vivar, shown in 2016.The Globe and Mail

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