At age 2, Ellen Jaramillo-Lambert ran crack cocaine in her neighborhood. The drugs in her diaper were tucked there by her father, an associate of the Mexican Mafia, who used his children to distribute dope on the streets of Chicago, says the Arizona Republic. The family moved to Arizona, where four of her brothers died violently. Today, at 26, Jaramillo-Lambert shares the harsh realities of her involvement in gangs with elementary school students. She works for Street Soldiers Inc., a gang- and drug-prevention program.
Street Soldiers Inc. has become a cornerstone of the Washington Elementary School District’s effort to reduce violence among its students. This year, the district received a $9 million grant under the federal Safe Schools/Healthy Initiative; part of the money is being used to educate students about the high cost of joining a gang: dropping out of school, getting involved in drugs, possibly ending up in prison – or worse, dying. Besides organizing school assemblies to warn kids about gang life, Street Soldiers offer one-on-one counseling to students identified as at-risk by principals and school psychologists. Gang activity has decreased in the Phoenix area over the past decade. It reached a peak in the 1990s when gang wars, drive-by shootings and drug sales were prevalent. A 2000-01 study predicted that the drop was probably temporary. The number of gangs and gang-related criminal activity will increase, it said, keeping pace with population growth. Because of California’s “three strikes” law that targets repeat offenders, many gang members are relocating to Arizona.