The presence of a gang composed of twelve-to-fourteen year old Jewish boys has sent shockwaves through the quiet, residential town of Redwood City, California.
"I worry about him staying out late, especially on school nights," Barbara Weiss told me. Since her son, Benjamin, 13, joined a local gang, Mrs. Weiss says she hasn’t had a full night of sleep. "I know he’s out there somewhere, with those boys, doing god-knows-what. "I’d like it if he stayed home and got a good night’s rest, but ever since he joined that group he’s just been acting meshugannah."
What Mrs. Weiss refers to as "those boys" is an organized criminal network known on the streets by a more sinister monicker: The South Central Cartel.
"Brandon [Goldberg] got the idea for the name watching an episode of ‘Behind Bars’," David Steinberg, a founding member of the gang, told me. "When people hear about a Cartel, it scares them. Plus, Brandon’s grandparents live in L.A., and he’s probably driven by South Central dozens of times."
"We got our own rituals," Weiss said, pausing on the sidewalk to make sure no one was looking. He opened a bottle of SPF 70 sunscreen and poured it out on the ground. "We’ve gotta find ways to honor the memory of former members."
Weiss proceeded to explain that Simon Bar-Gadda had returned from a family vacation to Florida with a moderately severe sunburn covering his shoulders and portions of his upper back. Weiss shook his head and fought back tears. "He went out there without the proper protection, and look what happened…We were close. I mean, we were like family."
The gang adheres to a strict dress-code, meant to distinguish members from outsiders, some of whom could be hostile.
"I started wearing my yarmulka to the side one day in Temple," David Steinberg said. "I liked the way it looked. Pretty soon, we were all wearing it that way."
"It’s something that we do to represent our loyalty to the group." Weiss explained.
Standard attire for the South Central Cartel consists of prescription glasses, collared shirts buttoned to the neck, and tinted acne cream.
Though the gang openly flouts many of polite society’s conventions, it operates based on its own, twisted interpretation of morality.
"When one of our own get’s in trouble, we look after him." Steinberg explained. "It’s just part of the unwritten code. When Aaron Kaplan got popped for eating skittles in class, we all chipped in and did his math homework for him."
"We weren’t thinking about what would happen if we got caugh," Goldberg shrugged. "We did what we had to do."
"He would have done the same for us," Steinberg added.
The gang subjects potential recruits to a grueling regimen of physical tests designed to break them down physically, as well as psychologically.
"In order to get into the Cartel, for one thing, you’ve gotta play sports with the other kid during P.E. and recess." Goldberg told me. "A lot of guys drop out at that point."
As difficult as it is to join the Cartel, to leave may be even harder.
"The thing is, once your in the game, you can’t get out of the game," Brandon Goldberg explained. "If someone wants out, what we does is, we leg him out." Goldberg paused to let the gravity of the words sink in.
"That’s like a really bad dead-leg. I mean, way worse than usual."