PUEBLO, Colo. (KRDO) -- As a young teen, Mark Salazar knew he was destined to go to prison. To him, it wasn't a matter of if, but when.
"I acknowledged at 12, 13, 14-years-old that one day I am going to be in prison, and I can't do anything to prevent it from happening," Salazar told KRDO in an interview.
"Reflecting on it, that was one of the most foolish things I could've done."
At 15, Salazar was recruited into a gang in Pueblo's east-side neighborhood, and he began his career in the gang culture: selling drugs, petty theft, burglaries, and getting into fights with rival groups.
"There were fights that ultimately escalated to where some individuals lost their life, unfortunately," Salazar said. "They say you play you pay, if you play to game you have to be willing to pay the consequences."
On July 17, 1995, then 19-year old Salazar was drinking at his mother's house with some of his partners or fellow gang members. Drinking turned to fist-fighting amongst each other. Fist-fighting led to gunshots.
Salazar shot one of his partners point-blank in the chest twice, and he says he would've shot another partner if his gun didn't jam.
Not long after, Pueblo Police arrived at his mother's home and a shootout ensued. Salazar says he was hit five separate times.
Salazar was taken to a hospital and his life was saved. Despite being shot in the chest, Salazar's partner also made it out alive after driving himself to Parkview Medical Center.
Just as he predicted as a young teen, Salazar spent the next eight-and-a-half years in prison. By the time he was released in 2004, Salazar decided to get out of the lifestyle and change his neighborhood for the better.
"If you have so much love for your neighborhood and for your people, why were you so quick to take the life of another Chicano brother?" Salazar recalled.
Seeking to help at-risk youth entangled in gang culture, Salazar started the non-profit organization HardKnox in 2015.
“There are a lot of [gangs] that are disorganized and they are just running wild, like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off," said Salazar.
According to Pueblo Police, the gangs in Pueblo have evolved over the years. New drugs and younger faces, and police say they care less about turf and more about making money.
Rival gangs are even willing to work with each other to make a quick buck, police say. However, just as quickly as gangs are willing to come together, they will shoot-up each other's homes.
13 Investigates discovered aggravated assault, menacing, and drive-by shootings - all violent crimes commonly associated with gang activity - are on the rise in Pueblo.
Since 2018, aggravated assault incidents have risen by 7%, while menacing has increased by 23%. Meanwhile, drive-by shootings have nearly doubled, up 93% in just the last two years.
In 2020, Pueblo Police connected at least four homicides to gang activity.
"I saw this unfold in the early '90s, we sort of tried to deny there was a gang presence or gangs caused problems," said Pueblo Police Chief Troy Davenport. "I think it's much healthier to acknowledge there is an issue and do things purposefully to help make it better."
Police estimate there are hundreds of gang members living in Pueblo right now. Whether it's in Belmont, Mesa Junction, eastside, Bessemer, or even downtown Pueblo, Pueblo Police say gang activity is touching every inch of the Steel City.
Not all crimes stem from gangs, and being associated with a gang isn't a crime. Pueblo Police say gang-related crimes occur when a member commits a criminal act in order to move up within a gang organization.
"That destructive behavior that happens within, 'You hit me and I end up retaliating and I hit you,' it's called street justice," said Salazar. "If you can't face the consequences then you have no right playing the game."
"It's about respect, or their version of respect," said Sgt. Franklyn Ortega with the Pueblo Police Department.
Sgt. Ortega worked in the narcotics division back in 2004; it's a division that deals with gang activity on a daily basis.
"When I first started, cocaine was the thing, and we recovered cocaine all the time," said Sgt. Ortega. "Now it's pills, methamphetamine, and heroin."
Drugs are an integral part of the gang culture, especially in Pueblo. Police say Pueblo is a distribution city, meaning drugs come into the community and are shipped out all across the country thanks to the intersecting highways, both Interstate 25 and Highway 50.
"A lot of traffic comes through here," said Salazar. "It's supply and demand."
Police in Pueblo say one of the best ways to slow the drug trade is by sometimes letting smaller deals slide. They call it "Let 'em Walk." They observe the deals, build a strong case, and send as many big dealers who could be tied to gangs to prison for as long as possible.
"For the normal person that's living on the block, they are like, 'Well the cops aren't doing anything,'" said Sgt. Ortega. "Well maybe we are and you don't know it."
“Taking somebody into custody addresses a significant public safety issue. We have to take that person into custody," said Chief Davenport. "Sometimes I think getting the bigger case lends itself to public safety. So it’s always a sliding scale and it’s never an easy decision.”
Like any other business selling a product, gangs need workers. Pueblo Police say entry-level gang members are often in their young teens. Gang members will advertise on social media sites like Facebook or Snapchat, showing off their nice cars, money, guns, and status.
Gangs provide a structure many of the kids don't have at home. Salazar says it is either because their parents are addicted to drugs or they're already in prison.
For some of the recruits, gang life is family tradition.
"If there is any uniqueness to the Pueblo gangs, it might be the familial aspect to it," said Chief Davenport.
Salazar says many in his own family are still active gang members. His stepbrother, Rico Martinez, was arrested in 2018 on drug charges. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) said Martinez has 'an extensive history of selling and buying large quantities of illegal narcotics'.
In November 2020, two brothers, 19-year-old Issaiah Apodaca and 23-year-old Gary Apodaca, were both arrested and charged in connection to a fatal drive-by shooting a block away from the Pueblo Mall. Pueblo Police described the shooting as gang-related.
These aren't the only Apodacas in trouble with the law. In 2004, John Apodaca was arrested by the DEA on drug trafficking charges. All three Apodacas are believed to be related.
"My goal is to help (the youth) get up out of the system," said Salazar. "I'm trying to prevent these kids from being his dad's (cellmate)."
Today, Salazar spends a lot of time playing chess with the youth. Chess is a game Salazar grew familiar with while he was in prison.
The 47-year old former gangster says chess is a great way to teach the youth how to think for themselves and build up their own self-worth, rather than accepting the fate too many of the youth in Pueblo believe they are destined for: crime, gangs, and prison.
"The streets and the hood need you more than you need the hood," said Salazar. "The hood needs you to replace the homies that passed away, the hood needs you to replace the homies that are locked away."