Darwin “Casey” Diaz was once one of California’s most violent criminals. Brought to the United States as a toddler by his Salvadoran parents, he was a gang member at 11. At the age of 16, he was sentenced to almost 13 years in prison for second-degree murder and 57 counts of robbery. At New Folsom State Prison, his behavior earned him more than three years in solitary confinement.
That’s where he turned his life around.
Now describing himself as a born-again Christian, Diaz was nearly 24 when he emerged from prison with a story of how faith changed his life, and he has been sharing it with nationwide audiences ever since, while mentoring at-risk children. He turned his journey into a book, The Shot Caller, co-written with Mike Yorkey. The book’s title references leaders in gang cultures; the ones who command respect and decide who lives and who dies from behind prison bars.
In a conversation with The Crime Report, Diaz discussed how law enforcement, parents, churches, and educators can work together to disrupt the violent gang culture plaguing communities in Central America and throughout major U.S. cities, the importance of positive male role models for youth, and why his story might help inform today’s tendentious immigrant debate.
The following transcript has been condensed and slightly edited.
The Crime Report: What compelled you to write this book?
Casey Diaz: I’ve been sharing my story for some 20 years in bible study groups, churches, middle schools and high schools. Every time I shared, I always had someone tell me, ‘You’ve got to write a book.’ Most people don’t want to talk about [gang culture] and no one wants to share the reality of it. There have been other gang books but none that really offered a solution. There weren’t any in-depth discussions about the violence, and then the perfect opportunity to write the book presented itself and I said ‘yes’ to the project.
TCR: Gang culture is a real threat not just in El Salvador but in U.S. cities like Los Angeles and Detroit. What needs to change?
CD: If we turn on the news, we’ll see that on a nightly basis there are gang killings throughout Los Angeles, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., New York [and other cities]. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that there are missing male figures in a lot of households, and in the Hispanic community as whole it’s become so common. [A couple] ends up having a kid and the guy takes off. Then there’s a single mom in a bad area with one or two kids, and that young man who left leaves that young woman in a worst-case scenario.
Abstinence education may sound old-fashioned but I think those are things the Hispanic community should be focusing on. Perhaps we could turn future generations around so that kids aren’t so vulnerable to gangs, drug dealers and the party scene which can lead to the same results.
TCR: El Salvador has an extremely male-dominant culture. In your case, your behavior changed through finding faith. What can be done to introduce more at-risk youth to faith?
CD: The church is still vibrant; it’s a huge help and a huge mentorship vehicle. I think the [churches] that are good today are the ones teaching to the Bible. We’ve gotten to a place where church is seen more as an entertainment than a practical teaching of God’s word.
Let’s say a single parent or a young family gets into a local church that actually teaches the Bible and healthy biblical principles. They see the male-dominance prevalent in Salvadoran culture gets turned away really fast. The Bible teaches that a couple is a team and how to be a healthy male leader.
TCR: You watched your father nearly kill your mother. Violence was a way of life and you didn’t know anything else. How can Salvadoran males escape this lifestyle?
CD: The church is number one, but other channels include local sports; joining a local baseball or football league at a local park or at your school. Not everyone that grows up in the ‘hood wants to partake in gang culture. It’s the pressure and the influence but there’s a whole pack of kids that don’t want to be part of that because they’ve joined in sports.
My kid is in a football team and he loves it. They learn what a team is and that you can’t win by yourself. You’ve got to bring others up and [teach them] that winning is really about bringing others alongside you. Sports is a great way to deter a life of gangs and crimes. There’s also the arts and music. They could join their choir group, do some playwriting, write or paint. As a parent, I’ve been able to sit and watch my daughters in plays and choirs and sports and it blesses my heart to see the vibrance in my kids when they’ve come together in a choir or a school play. They put in all their effort into something worthy and it paid off.
Back when I was in school there was education in the trades. I was in shop class. Here’s what I noticed about the gang culture: All of us sat in the back of the class. One, because we were all gang members and the second part is we weren’t book readers. Not everybody can sit in a classroom and absorb teaching. Some kids learn and thrive through hands-on work so bringing those classrooms back would be awesome.
That way, kids coming out of high school who don’t want to pursue college have already learned to work with tools and can go to a trade school. I own a shop and I enjoy working with my hands and building signage. Learning those skills in school helped me big time.
TCR: You are so incredibly vivid about your crimes throughout your book. The scene where you plunge through someone’s stomach with a screwdriver was difficult to get through as a reader. How did you psychologically get through writing about them?
CD: There are certain incidents in everyone’s life that you don’t want to remember or relieve and that happens so many times throughout the process of this book. I recorded all of my life as far back as I could remember. I carried a voice recorder and I think I recorded over 54 hours. I’d go to a local park and just start talking. I would come across those incidents I’d rather not talk about and it would turn my stomach because you could see the evil that I was living. I had no problem with it back then, but as a Christian now it’s very difficult to put it into writing.
Coming into this book I didn’t want to do a book that was just so Christian and fluffy. That’s what we have in our Christian libraries, with mega churches and small churches, it’s always a fluffy story. It’s Christian entertainment for lack of a better term. I didn’t want to write a book to convert people to be born-again Christians. I wanted to get it into the hands of those who don’t know the Lord and I know a lot of people are intrigued by crime stories.
I said, ‘Let’s write something that’s 100 percent real. It’s going to hurt to remember all these things but if I could capture an audience of non-believers and the rawness of how far I went and the realness of who God is, then I think we have a good book.’
TCR: In Chapter 5, you shared a thought-provoking revelation that you joined a gang seeking male approval. Do you think this is true about gang culture in general?
CD: Absolutely. You look at the prison population here in the United States. There are 2.3 million people behind bars and nine out of 10 grew up without father figures. When that positive male role model is absent it’s a big deal and it affects both genders. There were girls in my personal gang that went in for murder, assault and home invasions.
TCR: Your book points to the fact that you missed positive role models throughout your youth; What kind of impact have you had in your current role of trying to keep other youth from following a similar path?
CD: Three or four years ago, I took my kids to Venice Beach and as we were walking one of the kids I mentored when I was a youth pastor happened to be there walking in the opposite direction. He comes over and starts talking to us. He calls me ‘Papa’ and my wife ‘Mama.’
This is a young black man in his early 30s. When my kids asked him who he was he says, ‘Give me a second.’ He takes a little run and then comes back with about 10 teens and he looks at both of my daughters and says, ‘Your parents were my youth pastors and brought me to the lord when I was 13 years old and because of them I’m their youth pastor now,’ pointing to the kids with him.
You see first-hand the labor of your hands. The endless amount of time you spend with kids teaching them the Bible and taking them out on trips. What he got he’s now returning to the community. Those moments are special. The lasting effect is just incredible. He came from a broken house, with only a mom and sister in the picture. They struggled financially and emotionally. He lived in a very raunchy area but connected to the church and has lived a good life now.
I put myself in their shoes. I put myself in their kind of mentality because I share a similar background with them. It’s easy for me to relate to them. I think, ‘How would I respond to this adult?’ I open myself up to these youth so that over time I can earn their trust. Trust has to be earned. They’re wounded and the last thing you want to do is continue to wound them. Being authentic goes a long way. If I don’t have the answer to something, I tell them, ‘Why don’t we look for the answer together?’ Being a good listener is so important as a leader. God has given us two ears and one mouth to listen more and talk less. Listening is an important skill that mentors need today.
TCR: How can parents, the education system, law enforcement, youth and the media work together to break the cycle?
CD: Through dialogue and having an open discussion. For example, a meeting at a library, park or neutral place, where you invite law enforcement and other members of the community. I attend clergy meetings with my local police department and we feed off each other’s perspectives and ideas and how we can help each other. Community members and business owners are willing to help, but a lot of times don’t know how. If we get a whole community together then we could change the atmosphere. Let’s get business owners, teachers, parents, clergy, church leaders, law enforcement, and the media together, and let’s discuss solutions rather than drawing up signs and picketing.
We want to convey the message to our youth that: You’re important, we want to see you survive, go to college, to be self-employed. What are we missing as adults that could help you guys out?
TCR: How do the issues this book brings to the surface fuel or combat today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric?
CD: Before I joined gangs, my mom sat me down and told me: ‘I don’t ever want to see you hanging up any other flag but the American flag. This is the place where you’re going to learn to get an education and you’ve got to respect this place.’
Man, that stuck with me. She also said: ‘You’re never going to get a government handout. You’re going to work hard and you’re going to contribute to the wealth of this place.’ I understand the economics and struggles of developing countries, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to enter this country. I understand it’s a hard thing when gangs have taken over places like El Salvador and Guatemala, and cartels have taken over Mexico, but if every country does its part (and it’s also a lack of leadership in these countries where there is so much corruption), then those countries will become safer. Those who choose to come to America the right way can pursue happiness without looking over their shoulder.
The message in this book is not just for gang members and inmates. It touches on immigration and domestic violence, which is rampant in our culture. It’s a tool that can perhaps lead to a better way of life and maybe end up in a local church and change the future of its children.
Christine Bolaños is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. Her work is heavily focused on social justice issues and has been published by the Guardian, NPR’s Latino USA, The Crime Report, The Trace and many other news outlets. You can follow her work at https://twitter.com/bolanosnews08.