TV show to focus on Denver gang life
by Kirk Mitchell (Denver Post)
March 5, 2010
Hector “Pelon” Huerta’s whole body is a warning sign, intricately etched in prison ink.
Clown demons, a menacing skull on top of his head, a prison watchtower and his gang name emblazoned in 3-inch-tall letters across his belly reflect his personality and declare his loyalty.
“This is my whole life. I’ve got all my emotions here,” Huerta said proudly Thursday pointing at his bared chest in a high- security segregated cellblock in the Denver County Jail.
And now he is going to be a star — in a cautionary tale.
Huerta is among numerous gang members in jail who will talk about their lives when a new History Channel segment called “Gangland: Mile High Killers” airs tonight at 7.
Huerta, 29, who first joined a gang at 9 and wears dark glasses to shield an eye he said was injured by a bullet, currently faces misdemeanor drug charges. But he has prior arrests for assault, domestic violence, theft and drugs.
“We got to protect our turf,” Huerta said. “If someone runs up on me, I will retaliate.”
“Gangland” will focus on gang members and the Denver Sheriff Department’s gang- intelligence unit. The unit’s investigators include Sgt. Philip Swift, who wrote “Cradle to Grave,” a resource book about gang activities inside jails.
Swift said he wouldn’t participate in a TV series that glorified gangs. But, he said, the “Gangland” series shows the downside of the life.
“The ‘Gangland’ series shows the destruction to families and to society as a whole,” he said.
This year’s series focuses on smaller, homegrown gangs such as those proliferating in the Denver area, he said.
Street gangs in Denver deal drugs and use violence to protect turf or punish enemies just like larger national street gangs, including the Bloods and the Crips, Swift said.
But Denver’s gangs are smaller, more loyal subsets of the larger gangs. “Soldiers” here rise faster to become shot callers or leaders and are entrusted with larger quantities of street drugs, he said. The gangs often reflect the personalities of charismatic and often-violent leaders.
Elias Diggins, chief of the county jail at 10500 E. Smith Road, said the gang unit tracks rival gang members to ensure they are not placed together in order to prevent violence or even murder. The unit listens to prison phone conversations and corresponds with police and federal agents to help build criminal cases, he said.
There are so many gang members who need protection that the jail is running out of segregation cells, he said. Swift said there are about 150 segregation cells, used also to house mentally ill inmates and dangerous offenders. The total jail population is more than 1,800.
“Those concerns are real and credible,” Diggins said. “The gang intelligence officers are the life’s blood of our operations.”