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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

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

People think a gang is not organized, but it's really organized. Especially if you have the right mentality. It's the same as a pyramid, almost, so if you want to move up, you really gotta fight your way. Out of each [ringleader] was five guys, then another five guys under each of them. On top of this, there was always one guy that we listened to. And he was the word. One of the guys from L.A.

The good thing is, a lot of the guys had respect. They knew what their role was, what their position was, what they can say, what they can't say.

The strategy that we put in place worked really well. If you have five guys, let's say, "You guys are on this side, five other guys on this side, five other guys on this side of the city. Do your thing. Don't tell me who you're selling to, that's not my business, I just want you to come back with the money." And there was a certain percentage we had to wire back to the main guys.

Every penny was accounted for. In the same way you look at a business: Let's look at our demographics. Who's our competition? How's their product compared to ours? Let's run a sale: Buy one, get one free. Let's bring business. Obviously at that point I didn't talk that way, but it's the same mentality.

I was in a good place, I was happy where I was. I saved some money, but I knew it was bad money and it was hard to launder, it was like 'what do you do with it?' You start taking everybody out to eat. I would take 10 guys with me almost every day to lunch and dinner. You know 'You guys roll with me, you guys are going to be treated good.' And they would do anything for me, that's for sure. They always had my back. A lot of the money was also spent on alcohol and cocaine. I had my own batch just for myself. I would do roughly three grams of cocaine a day.

Violence and guns

We wanted to expand our turf, so we'd go to areas that we weren't welcomed in and we'd fight. Everyone had machetes and baseball bats. Guys got half their limb chopped off, got two-by-fours across the face. One guy got slashed in his head and got about 200 stitches. My friend got stabbed 16 times and survived to tell the story. I got stabbed in my back with a Rambo knife – took a nice chunk of meat out. I've been hit with baseball bats. Cracked ribs, hit with a metal tube in my skull.

It was really hard to find guns back then. It was ridiculous hard. And they were expensive. Mine cost $550 for a 9mm. Nowadays, apparently, they go for like a hundred bucks. And everybody has one.

One time, before we had our own gang, we had a big huge fight in a park. And one of the most highly respected guys, this Latino guy that went to our school, was sitting at a bench, wearing sunglasses, with his arms crossed. We're all running around fighting with everybody and this guy was just chilling. Maybe 20 minutes pass by and some Asian dude just walks up to him, points a knife at his face and goes, "You're gonna die." The Latino guy didn't even bother looking at him, he just looked away. The Asian guy goes, "You wanna fight? 'Cause I'm gonna kick your ass." The Latino guy stands up and grabs his gun from his pocket and shoots it in the air. Everybody ran away. I was hiding for my life, like, "Holy shit, he pulled out his gun." That was the highest level of respect, "Okay, you've got a gun – okay, sorry, my bad, we'll walk away."

Getting out of the lifestyle

My dad saw where I was heading and it was no good. He bought a ticket for me to go to Ecuador. I had two death wishes on me from different gangs. So I ended up leaving for three months. I came back with this totally different mentality. I wasn't really interested any more. The first place I started working was Home Depot, working as a regular guy. And in six months, I became a department manager.

I got married and had my son at 19. I didn't want my son to go through what I went through. I started working harder, for my career, something better for ourselves. I got into store managing. At about 21 years old, I had my daughter. I said, "Okay, we've gotta move from this area, because this is all bad." We moved away from the neighbourhood.

It was hard. Because you're trying and then they'll pull you back in. There were so many times I backslid. Especially when I was stuck with money and needed to pay my rent. They're like, "Well, you can take this little bag and sell it." You'd just get back into it again and do that for a couple months and then say, "No, I don't need this any more" and then leave. There's always something they lure you back in with. It's a lifestyle you get used to and it keeps calling you back. I didn't really completely leave it till I was about 24, 25.

To this day, there's still guys in it. Just the other day, I went to a club and I saw this guy I haven't seen in 10 years, and he looked exactly the same. I'm like, "Let me guess, you're still in it." He's like, "What do you want me to do? That's my lifestyle." I was just laughing. "You're not going to change are you?" He's like, "What am I going to change for? This is my life."

Since leaving gang life, David Carrillo has become a motivational speaker, leading workshops on drug and gang prevention. Two years ago, his work earned him a community service award from the lieutenant-governor. Mr. Carrillo can be contacted at

This interview has been condensed and edited.