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One former gang member is doing what he can to help teenagers stay away from criminal life.
Many juveniles at Miami-Dade’s TGK are charged with violent crimes.
To fill a void in his life, the former gangster found religion.
Jail is not anybody’s childhood dream, but it is a reality for many teenagers at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in Miami-Dade.
Many juveniles at TGK are charged with violent crimes.
“My mom, she left home when I was 13 and I was mad at her so it made me do things to innocent people,” said one teenager.
NBC 6 Reporter Stephanie Bertini was granted exclusive access inside TGK. She spent time with the juveniles and with one man who is doing what he can to make a difference.
Rene Martinez goes by Level, a nickname he was given when he was a well-known gangster. He spent years with the Latin Syndicates.
“I have done a lot of horrible things in my life that I can’t take back,” said Martinez.
He knows all about going in and out of jail.
“At 16, I caught all kinds of charges: attempted murder, transporting explosives without a license, possession of firearms,” Martinez said.
A criminal lifestyle meant fast money. But when Martinez hit his mid-20s something happened that made him finally think twice.
“My daughter was born, so I was like how am I gonna get money the right way? All I ever knew was robbing dope boys, and then I found out about bare-knuckle fights,” said Martinez.
He started off with street fights around Miami, and eventually made a profession out of it in the Mixed Martial Arts world.
“I started fighting for money, became a professional fighter but I still had this void,” he added.
He said that void was eventually filled by a higher power.
“I heard the voice of God tell me, ‘I spared you, either you come to me now or I will take my protection off of you,’” said Martinez.
And so he made a change.
Now he lives a religious life, and he has made mentoring youth through ministry a top priority.
“That’s why I do what I do now, to show everybody that God can deliver you from anything,” said Martinez.
Every Monday evening, Martinez brings his pastor to TGK. The pastor preaches, they pray with the kids and they baptize the young ones hungry for reform.
Many teenagers look at Martinez as an inspiration.
“If God could do that for him, He could do that for me,” said one teen.
Aside from religion, Martinez talks with the teenagers one-on-one about the gang culture inside the jail, about why criminal life is a mistake, and about his own story.
To further spread his message, Martinez created a documentary using his own videos from his past – a trailer of which is available on YouTube.