Gangs in the El Paso-Juárez borderland: the role of history and geography in shaping criminal subcultures

Abstract

This paper examines the early precursors of organized criminal subcultures using the U.S.-Mexico border city of El Paso, Texas as a case-study. El Paso is known as the birthplace of the pachuco; the Mexican Americans’ original street-oriented subculture. It formed the basis for the numerous delinquent groups that would emerge there throughout the decades, ultimately producing a binational organized crime syndicate called the Barrio Azteca. This barrio-prison-cartel hybrid is a modern group with deep roots in the street-gang subcultures of the region. The current study shows that its ties to drug gangs in Ciudad Juárez and subsequent federal prosecutions were recent catalysts in its escalation as a unique cross-border entity. The work is informed by archival material, police data, and multi-faceted fieldwork with gang members and police. It illustrates how the El Paso-Juárez metroplex has fostered particular criminological dynamics not seen in any other place in the U.S. to date.

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Fig. 3

Notes

  1. 1.

    A US vicinity inhabited by impoverished Latinos and typically isolated from other, more affluent parts of the settlement.

  2. 2.

    An historical analysis of gang violence in Texas (Tapia forthcoming) shows that such violent incidents were not characteristic of youth gangs in other cities in this era.

  3. 3.

    See Gundur (2018) and Tapia (2014) for recent changes in Texas prison gang structure, no longer guaranteeing the BA would be the group street gang members aspire to join.

  4. 4.

    Gundur (2017) for example, reported having difficulties finding willing gatekeepers in the gang-crime fieldwork in El Paso-Juarez he conducted for his dissertation.

  5. 5.

    In 1925, 23-year-old Gabriel Ramirez was referred to as “El Paso’s super criminal” by the police (El Paso Herald Post, 1925), and was jailed in LA after four different failed attempts to apprehend him in El Paso. Sought on murder charges, he entered into a series of shootouts and up-close physical struggles with police before fleeing to LA and eventually being caught there.

  6. 6.

    The implication of the number 13 is a supposed connection to the California Mexican Mafia (EME) prison gang, the parent group to the SUR-13.

  7. 7.

    In the borderland region, however, with its proximity to and strong ties to California in the Latino population, the purity of the transplantation process is often considerable.

  8. 8.

    Varrio Berino Heights-13, for example, is an area gang who were said to be reprimanded by some larger Sureño authority for “not having permission” to start up a 13 set, unlike their enemies, the Varrio Anthony Locos (VALs-13), who were a sanctioned set (“Chuy”, personal communication in 2016).

  9. 9.

    The Destroyers, named in Jose Rivera’s (n.d.: 28) memoir were another of these gangs from the Paisano housing projects appearing in Figure 2.

  10. 10.

    Del Sherman Territory is currently listed with 24 members in the El Paso Police Department gang database and the Sherman Park Locos are listed with only three members.

  11. 11.

    Barrio Logan of San Diego, CA (no relation to Barrio Logan Heights of El Paso) once had a profile similar to that of the Barrio Azteca, as it was said to have become involved with the cartel in Tijuana for some time in the 1990s (Sullivan 1999; United Gangs 2017). Other details of this relationship and those of several Texas-based gangs with similar ties to northern Mexican cartels are discussed further in this paper’s Conclusion.

  12. 12.

    Some detached observers have aptly referred to the BA as one of the world’s most dangerous gangs (e,g. Casey 2010). While this title is often given to MS-13 by the press and politicians in hyperbolic fashion, by comparison to the BA, it has proven to be a glib misnomer. Ward (2013) illustrated that the roots and evolution of MS-13 are not much different than most U.S. Latino street gangs for example. Under the Trump presidency, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions has exploited the false sense of danger posed by MS-13 to the general public to further politicize the issue of Latinos and crime.

  13. 13.

    In his pioneering work on the BA, Gundur (2018, 2019a, b) interviewed and relied on the written memoir of Jose (Raulio) Rivera-Fierro, who claims to be the founder of the BA in the Texas prison system’s Coffield Unit in 1986. By Rivera-Fierro’s account, the BA was formed to ward off pressures from warring Latino prison gangs, noting that the BA initially had no formal structure or membership initiation rituals because the El Paso-Juárez based inmates all knew each other from the street, were already unified in prison, and had a reputation for toughness. El Paso law enforcement intelligence on the gang’s history considers Rivera-Fierro to be one of several “founders”, noting there are different gang genesis stories told among a small group of founders in which one or another assumes the role of “hero” (Chavez 2019).

  14. 14.

    Some of Gundur’s (2019a) research subjects did not believe this hegemonic characterization of Ravelo to be credible considering his unremarkable presence and role in the gang in the past, but no definitive challenge to the narrative was presented.

  15. 15.

    While this arrangement stood for well over a decade, Juárez police commented on the recent friction between the BA and La Linea, perhaps causing them to split up. In late 2017, an executed corpse was hung from a bridge at the border between Santa Teresa and Anapra,on the western outskirts of Juárez with a “narcomanta” (message) scrawled on it. This prompted the comments from Juárez authorities to the press (Tiempo 2017). Throughout 2018, violence levels increased in Juarez, with speculation by the authorities and the press that splintering, power struggles, and shifting alliances among the gangs in Figure 3 (plus the emergence of new ones) caused the uptick in violence (Esquivel, 2018; Orquiz 2019).

  16. 16.

    There are active and former members of well-known California Sureño sets such as Colonia Watts, Gary Lomas, and Varrio Nuevo Estrada scattered across El Paso, but as individual groups, their presence is not as prominent as the others mentioned here.

  17. 17.

    A notable incident occurred in 2011 at Shooter’s Billiards in the Devil’s Triangle Neighborhood in Northeast El Paso when a high-ranking Sureño/Eme transplant from California was assaulted, stabbed, shot, and “left for dead” by three members of the BA (“Spooky” personal communication in 2017; Ortiz 2011). The intended message was essentially, “this [El Paso/Juarez] is our turf”.

  18. 18.

    See the work of Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera (2013, 2017) for a great exception.

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Correspondence to Mike Tapia.

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Tapia, M. Gangs in the El Paso-Juárez borderland: the role of history and geography in shaping criminal subcultures. Trends Organ Crim 23, 367–384 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-019-09374-7

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Keywords

  • U.S.-Mexico border
  • Gangs
  • History