Mark Salazar has been a drug addiction counselor for eight years. He founded Hard Knox Gang Prevention and Intervention. He earned an associate’s degree at Pueblo Community College and he’s nine classes away from a bachelor’s degree. Salazar is a dad. He has a family. He didn’t always have these plans.
Salazar grew up on Pueblo’s East Side. During the 90s he was in the middle of Pueblo’s gang wars. After a shootout with cops – Salazar was shot five times – and shooting another gang member – who lived – Salazar was sentenced to eight years in prison. He isn’t concerned with people knowing details about his past. Afterall, it’s what he thinks will make a difference to kids who are on a similar path as he was more than 20 years ago. Salazar says he speaks openly about gang culture and his time in prison because it shows others, especially Pueblo’s youth, that changing course can be done and it’s
The gang violence is spilling over into innocent people’s lives, Salazar said. And while it’s a hot topic to discuss at meetings, he says there is little unity in actually trying to solve the problem.
The following is an edited interview with Salazar.
Within the last year there has been a lot of public discussion, meetings and community events revolving around gang violence, but it seems like there is little progress made. Why?
Most of the problem is politics. You have these older people that frown upon on what I’m doing. I’ve heard of some people who’ve been in politics for quite some time questioning why I’m at the Lucero Library. They say I’m a criminal and people like me don’t change. They have their own point of view of people, who like me, grew up in the neighborhood. But to these kids I’m living proof that despite growing up in poverty, in the hood, if you decide to, you can turn your life around.
I try to encourage these youngsters to turn their lives around. I say, ‘Hey, I know if I can do it, you can damn well do it.’ I don’t say that to impress them by any means. I say that to impress upon them that it can be done. As long as they’re willing to invest in themselves, they’ll eventually reap the benefits.
In your opinion, how bad is the gang violence in Pueblo?
I don’t think it’s as bad as they make it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s bad. If you’re out looking for trouble you’re going to find trouble. And it usually comes after curfews, that’s why there are curfews. I try to explain to these youngsters after 10 p.m. there’s nothing out there but trouble.
These youngsters are dead in spirit, and by that I mean they have no sense of value in life. That’s why they’ll pull the trigger. I sold myself on the concept that I was not entitled to a much better lifestyle than which I was living. My role models were in and out of prison and that’s what I wanted to be. And you want to earn that respect. You have to be crazier than the next homie. I didn’t fear going to prison. I knew I was destined to be there, but I didn’t know for what or for how long.
Would more policing help?
You know, not necessarily. These gang members are only going to be locked up for so long, and there sure isn’t the resources there to turn these people around. Any time I can get any support from law enforcement, I’m going to take it. Sure, the response time could be better and maybe that comes with more officers.
What’s the solution?
There’s a lack of programs. I’m not sure where that money should be coming from. When I say politics is the problem I mean these people need to set their differences and egos aside. You hear ‘we need to come together’ but you never see it. Everybody is too swift to turn on each other than to work together. They all want to form their own groups.
I think part of the solutions for this community is jobs. Offering these kids, especially over the summer, employment. Hopefully as my program continues to develop I can partner with businesses who are willing to hire these at-risk youth for 12 weeks. I’d like for our program to be able to pay for the hires, so these kids are working and it’s feasible for the business.
Would what you’re doing now with Hard Knox have helped you back when you were involved in gangs?
Oh yeah. There was not one time an older cat pulled me to the side and said, ‘Hey, check it out. I see another way.’ Had that happened there would have been a chance I would had a way out. That’s why I’ve collaborated with the the boxing academy and the Five Pillars group and also Divine Ministry and Victory Life Ministries.
Hard Knox is a 12 week course. I use an evidence-based curriculum, and with that I incorporate some of my own life experiences. I share enough about myself so that they know I’ve been there, done that, but I don’t share too much because they’re not there to learn about me. They’re there to learn about themselves. But when they hear that I grew up in the hood and was shot five times, they understand what I’m saying.