Robert Durán takes readers on journey from Utah gang member to professor

Nonfiction • Author explores Ogden and Denver gangs through the context of race and religion.
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Robert J. Durán wasn't yet in a gang when officers from Ogden's gang unit pulled him over in a car. The officers, as Durán tells it, pointed guns at him and his three teenage friends.

Durán and two of his three friends were Mexican. One of the officers asked if they were forming a new gang named the "Putos." That's the Spanish word for male prostitutes, but as slang it's more derogatory than that.

The officers wrote down the boys' information and let them go. For Durán, the anecdote is personal and evidentiary.

Durán went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Colorado and become an associate professor of criminal justice at New Mexico State University. His new book from Columbia University Press, Gang Life in Two Cities: An Insider's Journey, is half research and half memoir.

For every research paper or statistic he cites, Durán drives home his point with an observation from his time in and around gangs in the cities of Ogden and Denver. The result is a book that lags at times — as a scholarly book citations with its many citations tends to do — but it's still readable and serves to make you think of gangs differently.

Durán adds nuance to the conventional claim that lack of opportunity drive people to gangs. For starters, Durán writes, decades of racial segregation, whether by law or personal choices, have placed blacks and Latinos in poorer neighborhoods and relegated them to low-paying jobs. Gangs offer a chance for upward mobility and can increase social standing in the neighborhood.

Durán contends religion is another factor limiting opportunity for Latinos in Utah, where the majority of the white population tends to affiliate with the Mormon faith, while Latinos are more likely to be Catholic. The differences create another barrier, Durán argues, because Mormonism gives the more-affluent whites more interaction with one another, and less with Latinos.

Race reveals the intersections in Durán's life between culture and research. Durán's white mother was from the affluent east side of Salt Lake City. His father's family were originally from the southwest of New Mexico, but when Durán's father came to Utah and found work at Bingham Copper Mine, the father found himself a minority. Both parents were Catholic. Durán says he grew up identifying as Mexican.

Durán doesn't specify which gang he joined. He says he sold drugs while he was n the gang, describing his criminal history as only "misdemeanor." The book opens with Durán recalling how robbers posing as cops broke into his home to steal his money and drugs, throwing open drawers as his baby daughter cried.

In Durán's account, the police in Ogden and Denver appear both bigoted and incompetent, and the writer/scholar accuses police of exaggerating gang problems. He points out how police increased pressure on gangs, often with the help of federal money, when there was no data to support such measures.

And sometimes his research became his story. Durán dropped out of the gang to pursue a bachelor degree at Weber State University, converting his interest in gangs into an academic field of study.

"As I walk the streets, I feel like an advocate for the betterment of my community despite all the conditions that try us and push us to feud with one another," Durán writes. "I greet the people I pass with a 'what's up?' I take out my video camera and record police stops. I move among the residents trying to develop the solutions that will set us free."

In one telling quote Durán found in a 1999 Standard-Examiner article, then-Ogden police Lt. Marcy Korgenski told the newspaper, "Ogden gang-crime statistics are not available prior to 1992, but since then, gang crime in the city has risen significantly."

Durán describes the injunction against members of the Ogden Trece gang as another tool for the police to harass and stigmatize gang members and their associates. He isn't impressed the courts have upheld the injunction. Quoting stories from released inmates, Durán describes prison as a sort of school where gang members learn to better organize.

Gang Life in Two Cities argues against anti-gang programs, claiming a better solution would be to incorporate gangs into efforts to improve communities. Durán points to Denver's Crusade For Justice in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, where Chicano gang members were part of a movement that fought discrimination and advanced civil rights.

Gang Life in Two Cities should be required reading in college courses discussing gangs. Anyone interested in gangs and how society is responding to them should read it, too.

Twitter: @natecarlisle —

'Gang Life in Two Cities: An Insider's Journey'

Robert J. Durán

Columbia University Press

Pages • 269

Price • $27.50