The Digital Journalist
© Steve Liss
"No Place for Children: Voices From Juvenile Detention"


Holkan, a 16-year-old charged with murder, with a tattoo in memory of his older brother who was slain in gang violence.

"I don't know if I really did it or my friend did it. I don't know which bullet got to his head."

Police think that it was a bullet from 16-year-old Holkan's 9-millimeter pistol that killed another 16-year-old that Friday night. Both Holkan and his victim were members of gangs, and the local newspaper wrote that the crime "epitomizes the current gang problem in Laredo." But long before his story made headlines, Holkan's life personified the insidious effects of family breakdown and untreated drug addiction. A kid described by former teachers as "happy" and "cooperative" didn't become a poster child for gang crime overnight.

Sometimes seeing your fate is not enough to save you from falling victim to it. In his older brother Juan, who died in a gang fight one year before Holkan's arrest, he could clearly see the potential perils of his surroundings. "He was always in trouble," Holkan remembers. "But he was in Mexico. You wouldn't like to be in jail over there. I would go and visit my brother and, every time, he was always beat up. My mom would always cry."

By then, Holkan was used to seeing his mom cry. He doesn't remember his dad, who left the family when Holkan was five months old and hasn't been heard from since. His mom, who only made it through the fourth grade, raised the family alone, juggling multiple jobs. At the time of Holkan's crime, she was a cashier at a fast-food restaurant and a janitor at the local mall. She tried to do the best for her youngest son, who suffered from learning disabilities and took special education classes. But he knew the streets and he had a plan for getting away.

Holkan knew he had to get away. "I dropped out of school 'cause I was going to go to a military school in Galveston. I knew if I stayed down here in Laredo, I would be ending up in prison."

He didn't get away in time. Instead, he ended up on Poza Rica Drive that Friday night.

"They were running behind me and I couldn't do anything except shoot. . . . Me and my friend, we both did. The morning after, my mom told me that there was this guy dead and that they were looking for me. I didn't feel right, so I went down to the police station and I turned myself in."

Holkan, who had never been to Juvenile before, was now charged with murder. The prediction that sent him looking to escape his gang-dominated world had come true. "Everything is all my fault 'cause of the people I hanged around with."