‘At 12, I first smoked a joint, given to me by my seventh–grade schoolteacher,’ Alex Velasquez recalls. ‘Later, he taught me how to snort heroin and meth.’ The below–the–radar, white, middle–class teacher was obviously a scoundrel. At the time, though, young Alex thought he was cool.
“He preyed upon vulnerable, fatherless boys to run drugs for him,” Alex says. “In a few weeks I was his number one drug runner, catering to kids my own age and younger in schoolyards throughout the neighborhood.”
South Side Blues
Today, Alex is a captain in The Salvation Army. But his life of crime and addiction might never have ended if someone hadn’t put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Son, you don’t have to live like this.”
Alex, born in 1958 on the South Side of Chicago, was the third of three children born to Cruz and Antonia Velasquez. Alex’s brother, Joe, and sister, Marie, were six and five years older. Home life for the Velasquez kids was unstable because Cruz was a raging alcoholic. And in 1965, things went from bad to worse. The family lost their meal ticket when Cruz hailed a cab and skipped town.
Antonia got a job working long hours as a spot welder. She kept the kids in Catholic schools.
“The nuns and priests tried hard,” says Alex. “I was even an altar boy, but the three of us rebelled.” The kids eventually transferred to public schools, and Joe and Marie joined street gangs.
“They never got into the life as deeply as I would, but they were involved in drug and stabbing incidents,” Alex says.
Learning the Ropes
The family moved to a housing project near Cook County Jail. Alex stole the materials he needed to start a shoeshine business at the Criminal Courts Building. Before age 10 he got to know several big–name lawyers and politicians who became his clients. Shining shoes, he’d listen to their conversations, all the while taking mental notes on how to beat a rap. He also studied arrest cases and sat in on court hearings during lunch breaks.
When Joe entered the military and Marie married, they straightened their lives out. But Alex’s career on the streets was just beginning. Antonia moved to the Humboldt Park area, where Alex began running drugs on his Stingray bicycle. He attended high school for a year only because, he says, “It was one way of getting into a bigger schoolyard [to sell drugs].”
By age 13, Alex was a gang member and full–blown addict hooked on pot, heroin, and meth. He hid sawed–off shotguns for his gang. During a turf war, he and his best friend, 14–year–old “Puppet,” were retrieving guns in an alleyway when a rival gang member shot Puppet in the head. “Puppet was dying on the ground, bleeding profusely and convulsing in front of me. I knew I was next, so I shot the rival and ran!” Alex says.
The rival survived, but a “shoot–on–sight” order went out to kill Alex. When Alex was leaving a shopping center with his mother one evening, bullets sprayed at them from a passing car. Alex pushed Antonia down and shielded her.
Antonia feared for her life and couldn’t handle one more wayward child. So one day while Alex was at school, she escaped back to Puerto Rico.
For the next 27 years, Alex continued his descent into hell. His status increased among gang members as he worked himself up the ranks to become “President.” On his watch the gang grew from 2,000 to 5,000 members. Alex was in and out of jail for possession, assault, and aggravated battery but beat most of the raps because of his knowledge of the system.
“Out of nine division buildings at the Cook County Jail, I was locked up in six of them,” he says. He was also shot several times and had gang war sniper bullets removed from his buttocks, thigh, gut, and skull.
When he was young, Alex had married an older woman after she gave birth to his son, but the marriage failed. He then moved in with another woman, and they had two daughters. Addicted to snorting heroin and meth, she overdosed in 2004.
At times Alex and his girlfriend had plenty of money from drug dealing, but it never lasted. Most of it went up their noses. The home environment was dangerous as shady characters traipsed through the apartment to deal drugs and exchange weapons. Because of his personal power, his girls were never harmed. But Alex wants people to know that children of drug addicts are in great danger of being kidnapped and trafficked into child pornography.
Alex’s life began to deteriorate at an accelerated pace by his late 30s. Living in a basement apartment, he took in his dying, regretful father, who had lung cancer. A seed was planted in Alex’s mind. Did he really want to end up like his dad?
Arrested for possession again, Alex spent four weeks in jail. When he returned home, he discovered that his father had died. Through a complex series of events, by Ocober 1998, Alex had lost all contact with his family—and his gangland status—after gang members ransacked his apartment and left him destitute.
He found himself on the streets during a brutal Chicago winter. January saw a 22–inch snowfall with wind chills dipping to –50 degrees at night. Alex would walk for miles trying to get into any place warm. He would slide under recently parked cars for heat from their exhaust pipes.
He was no longer of any importance to anyone. “When you’re homeless, 50 percent of people act as if you’re invisible while the other 50 percent scapegoat and exploit you,” says Alex. He witnessed firsthand what can happen. “A [homeless] friend cleaned someone’s garage all day for $5. He invited me to sleep in the garage one night. When I arrived, I found him frozen to death.”
Tired and shivering on a street corner, Alex felt that hand on his shoulder and heard these words, “Son, you don’t have to live like this.” The elderly man (a Chicago Salvation Army Advisory Board member) drove Alex to the Army’s Harbor Light. (See sidebar.) After a period in detox, Alex was admitted into the recovery program.
In spite of the help he received, Alex had every intention of returning to his old haunts when he got healthy.
“I saw several men in the program I had known on the streets as users,” says Alex. “I thought, Give me another month and I’ll be running this popsicle stand.” But God had other plans.
Under the caring ministry of Majors Geoffrey and Marian Allan, Alex’s attitude slowly changed.
“I saw men in the program who were serious about their recovery, testifying to how the Lord had changed their lives,” Alex says. “I started to think … that could be me.”
A New Creature
One Sunday morning Major Geoffrey preached a sermon about a man crippled for 38 years lying by the pool of Bethesda. Jesus told the man to “get up and walk.” This Gospel story had a profound effect on Alex. Two Sundays later, he says, it was as if a supernatural power shot through his being and led him to the mercy seat (altar). He cried in public for the first time. At the altar, he heard Jesus say, “Your sins are forgiven, paid on the Cross. Get up! Walk away from your sins and follow me.”
Today Captain Alex Velasquez is a new creature in Christ, transformed by the grace of God. He’s reconciled with his once–estranged mother, son, and two daughters. They were present in 2004 when Alex was commissioned and ordained as a Salvation Army officer. His mother, with tearing eyes, revealed that she had become involved with a Christian prayer group in Puerto Rico. She had been praying for years that God would save her son.
Alex married Captain Jennifer Poore and today they are administrators of the Army’s Davenport, Iowa, Adult Rehabilitation Center. Jennifer says of her husband, “The man has always been something of a workaholic. Only now his energies are redirected toward reclaiming others trapped in the chains of addiction.”
This year both Alex and Jennifer received B.S. degrees in practical ministries from Olivet Nazarene University, an amazing accomplishment, all the more so considering that little over a decade ago, Alex could barely write.
In 2005 Captains Alex and Jennifer were blessed with the birth of a little girl, Jaqueline.
“She and Jennifer are the joys of my life,” Captain Alex says. “I never knew love could be so intoxicating. Every little thing Jaqueline learns or gets excited about thrills me. My life was once only about satisfying the five senses. Since the Lord saved me there’s now an eternal dimension transcending everything. ‘O to grace how great a debtor!’ Jesus saves! Jesus saves!”