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Based on the true life experiences of poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, the film focuses on half-brothers Paco and Cruz, and their bi-racial cousin Miklo. It opens in 1972, as the three are members of an East L.A. gang known as the "Vatos Locos", and the story focuses on how a violent crime and the influence of narcotics alter their lives. Miklo is incarcerated and sent to San Quentin, where he makes a "home" for himself. Cruz becomes an exceptional artist, but a heroin addiction overcomes him with tragic results. Paco becomes a cop and an enemy to his "carnal", Miklo.