Jorge Cuevas suffered paralysis, served prison time

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FARMINGTON — The gym at the Sycamore Park Community Center was packed with people Thursday as a former gang member related how he turned his life around after serving time in prison.

Jorge Cuevas was one of the people who spoke at the "Choices: An Inspirational Presentation" event presented by the Farmington Police Department.

The event was held to give visitors an opportunity to hear Cuevas talk about his time in a California gang and the toll it took on his life. The large crowd prompted the community center staff to set up additional chairs and the portable bleachers to give everyone a place to sit.

Farmington police district coordinator unit Officer Michele DeLese introduced the guest speakers and helped facilitate a question-and-answer session with Cuevas at the end of his presentation.

Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts spoke at the beginning of the event, briefly talking about the time he spent on the City Council and the efforts the city made to expand the Farmington police gang unit around 2008.

MORE: Former gang member to speak about turning his life around

Cpl. Travis Spruell and Det. Chris Stanton followed Roberts. They spoke about several subjects, including how the unit operates and some of the history of gang activity in Farmington and San Juan County.

One of the recent peaks in gang activity was in 2008, when there were 13 gang-related homicides in San Juan County.

Stanton cited an incident in March 2008 when gang members had a shootout outside the Chili's restaurant in Farmington as one of the developments that led federal authorities to provide additional resources for the department's gang unit.

The officers spoke about how there are 35 active gangs in San Juan County and how gangs in Farmington are not as organized as they used to be.

Wearing a Miami Dolphins football jersey, the 44-year-old Cuevas followed the officers. He told the crowd about how his life has changed since he was a teenage member of a gang living in Cudahy, Calif. These days, Cuevas is enrolled at San Juan College and is pursuing a business degree.

It was Cuevas' anger at his father for abandoning his family and heading to Mexico that led him to join a gang, he said. He spoke about how dealing drugs gave him money to purchase things, including gold chains.

Cuevas described how he was 17 years old when he was shot and immediately noticed that he could no longer feel his legs. The shooting left Cuevas paralyzed, and he uses a wheelchair to move around.

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It was two months later in September 1991 that his brother Jaime Cuevas was shot and killed during a double homicide as part of a gang war.

After his brother's death, Cuevas said he let all that negative energy pull him to the dark side. He said he moved to Farmington in 1997 and started dealing drugs again, which led to his arrest in 2003 and indictment on federal drug charges.

During the question-and-answer session, Cuevas was asked when he realized he needed to change his life. Cuevas responded by stating he got a letter from one of his nephews while he was serving a prison term of more than six years. In the letter, the nephew wrote he loved Cuevas and missed him.

It was then Cuevas realized he wanted to become a role model for his relatives.

Nineteen students from the Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle Community School 25 miles south of Bloomfield attended the event. Rosa Montano, a guidance counselor at the school and dormitory, said the staff brought the high school students and a couple of eighth-grade students to hear Cuevas speak.

"I just wanted them to hear from another point of view and hopefully they did get something out of it," Montano said.

She hopes to bring Cuevas out to the school so he can address all the students.

Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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