March-April 2014

Trends in Texas gang activity

Rene Peña

District Attorney in Atascosa, Frio, Karnes, La Salle, and Wilson Counties

One of the most important responsibilities of any prosecutor is to keep a community safe. Texas is a growing state with changing demographics. Nowhere is this more evident than in the expansion and convergence of gangs and complex criminal enterprises across the state. In addition to changes in the composition and activities of street and prison gangs, the influence of complex criminal enterprises and Mexican cartels now extends throughout Texas. That expansion, along with advances in technology and social media, requires prosecutors to change the way we have traditionally done business.
    According to the 2010 census, Texas’s population continues to grow at a much faster rate than the rest of the country. Numerically, much of the growth is in the large urban counties of Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, and Travis. However, the fastest growing counties are suburban ones surrounding the large urban areas. The top 10 counties projected to have the fastest growth are Hays, Williamson, Fort Bend, Collin, Kaufman, Rockwall, Montgomery, Denton, Bastrop, and Waller. It follows that as these areas continue to grow, the influence of street and prison gangs, as well as transnational gangs and other complex criminal enterprises, will grow in these areas too.
    Gang activity has evolved over the past several years. Not only have the characteristics of street and prison gangs changed but also the increased cooperation between gangs and Mexican cartels has led to more transnational organized crime across Texas. As prosecutors, we need to be aware of these emerging trends and be increasingly proactive with law enforcement to combat the changing face of organized crime in Texas.
      The Texas Fusion Center classifies gangs by their overall threat level. The most significant gangs are classified as Tier 1, and other significant gangs are classified as Tier 2 and Tier 3. These classifications can change from year to year as their overall threat to the state changes. Tango Blast, Texas Syndicate, Barrio Azteca, and the Texas Mexican Mafia are currently classified as Tier 1 gangs due to their relationship with Mexican cartels, transnational activity, large number of members, and high level of criminal activity.
    Similarly in the prison system, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Security Threat Group Management Office classifies gangs (known as Security Threat Groups) including traditional prison gangs as well as street gangs or “cliques.” The traditional gangs such as Bloods, Crips, Mexican Mafia, Texas Syndicate, and Aryan Brotherhood have a highly organized rank structure and constitution, whereas street gangs such as Tango Blast and Black Gangster Disciples have a much looser-knit organizational structure and their members tend to be defined by city and geographic region.

Tango Blast increasing
According to the Security Threat Group Management Office, the number of offenders who are members of traditional prison gangs is holding steady or trending downward, whereas the number of Tango Blast members is increasing rapidly. Five years ago, there were no Tango Blast members in TDCJ; today, they number between 4,500 and 5,000. There are approximately 13,000 gang members in TDCJ, and another 6,500 are either in federal custody or have been paroled or discharged to their community.
    One reason for the growth of Tango Blast is because TDCJ does not house Tango Blast members in Administrative Segregation as it does other offenders classified in certain threat groups. Being housed in Administrative Segregation makes it difficult to carry out the gang’s criminal activity; therefore more offenders identify as Tango Blast to remain in the general population. Another reason for this growth is because Tango Blast offenders identify with others from their particular hometown, making it easier to engage in the gang’s criminal enterprises from prison.
    Due to their large numbers, Tango Blast members often extort, threaten, and assault offenders who are affiliated with other Security Threat Groups. This gives Tango Blast a great deal of control inside TDCJ. Offenders initially join Tango Blast to identify with others from their hometown—being able to live in the general population is an added bonus.

Hybrid gangs
Gang trends in our local communities are also changing and we need to adapt our model accordingly. For years, gang membership was for life. Gang members wore certain colors and sported tattoos that identified them as a member of a particular gang. As seen with the rise of Tango Blast in prison, members of different street gangs in a city may end up belonging to the same prison gang. However, there is a growing tendency for individuals to have various gang affiliations in our communities as well. This phenomenon, known as “hybrid gangs,” is characterized by combinations of street gangs into a bigger umbrella organization. A person may be a member of a street-level gang but may also be under the umbrella of a larger organization consisting of many street gangs. This enables the umbrella organization to have access to various criminal enterprises and money sources. One part of the organization may have access to a money source such as prostitution or theft proceeds, whereas another group has access to drugs.
    We have long known that prison gangs continue to conduct their criminal enterprises inside prison as well as coordinate criminal activity with their members in the free world. However in recent years, the nexus between criminal activity inside and outside the prison has expanded to include complex criminal enterprises with Mexican cartels and other transnational gang activity. Because Tier 1 gangs are increasingly active with Mexican cartels and are engaging in more transnational criminal activity, we need to change our model and become more proactive in the investigation and prosecution of these criminal enterprises.
    In recent years, Tiers 1 and 2 gangs have increasingly partnered with Mexican cartels on both sides of the border, becoming much more involved in transnational criminal activities such as human trafficking (especially trafficking of children), sex trafficking, and drug smuggling. The cartels have battled the Mexican government for control of lucrative drug and smuggling routes since 2006. They have since expanded their criminal activity in Mexico in recent years to include extortion, kidnapping for ransom, and robbery.
    Mexican cartels constitute the greatest threat to the security of Texas. They have expanded their presence in the United States by teaming up with transnational gangs and other criminal enterprises to engage in a wide range of criminal activities from murder, kidnapping, assault, drug trafficking, human trafficking (including the trafficking and exploitation of children), weapon smuggling, and money laundering.

Child trafficking
The most heinous of these crimes is the exploitation and trafficking of children. These crimes are enabled by prostitution rings that are often controlled by gangs, as well as by manufacturers and viewers of child pornography. Some human trafficking organizations operate prostitution rings, including the trafficking of children. They may operate on the street or are fronted as legitimate businesses. In addition to prostitution, the exploitation and trafficking of children subjects them to violence, extortion, forced labor, and sexual assault.
    Much of the sex trafficking trade in Texas involves Central American girls as young as 9 or 10 years of age. Some girls are brought into the U.S. by unsuspecting truckers who are forced by either cartel members or gang members under contract with a cartel to bring the girls to a specified destination. Other girls are smuggled into the United States and brought to various places in the burgeoning Eagle Ford Shale region to engage in sex with men employed in the oil fields. After a period of time, these girls may be set free, but many are forced into labor.
    These girls lurk in the shadows of society and are afraid to talk to authorities for fear of deportation or fear that family members may be killed back home. This poses a challenge to the investigation and prosecution of sex traffickers. We need to encourage our law enforcement officials to aggressively detect and investigate these cases. In some instances, that may require asking DPS or the Attorney General’s Office for assistance in conducting sting operations to discover the identity of the local individuals involved. The sting operations can involve undercover officers working in hotel parking lots that have been installed with pole cameras. If the officer is approached for sex, he can get a phone number to call the woman back. The phone number can later be traced to determine if there are ties to known sex traffickers. In addition, law enforcement can talk to counselors and students in local schools to see if they are aware of any young people who are victims of this activity.
    I realize this is difficult and requires a new way of thinking. I also realize that law enforcement may be resistant to trying new things or bringing in outside partners. However, we know this activity is going on and we must utilize both new technology as well as old-fashioned investigative techniques to thoroughly detect and investigate these crimes in our communities. It is equally important for us to work closely with law enforcement early in their investigations of child pornography and prostitution cases involving children to determine if there is a link to cartels, transnational gangs, or other organized criminal enterprises that involve the sex trafficking of children.

Human smuggling
Mexican cartels are also a threat because they control the lucrative smuggling networks and trafficking routes in Texas. Six of the eight major Mexican cartels currently operate in Texas in areas from El Paso to Texarkana and from Brownsville to Gainesville. Nearly every interstate in Texas is part of this elaborate network of human trafficking and drug smuggling.
    Most undocumented aliens in the U.S. make use of human smugglers. Over 4,000 human smugglers have been apprehended by the Border Patrol in Texas since 2010. This number does not include the number of smugglers who are U.S. citizens or in the country legally. In FY 2012, 2,737 human smuggling cases in the Rio Grande Valley involved 32,138 aliens, up from 2,204 cases involving 12,473 aliens in FY 2011. This dramatic increase is partially due to enhanced law enforcement and prosecution efforts along the border.
    Once in the U.S., smugglers routinely hold undocumented aliens in stash houses. Stash houses are not confined to the border counties; they have been discovered in San Antonio, Austin, Odessa, Houston, and elsewhere. In the Rio Grande Valley sector alone, law enforcement responded to 237 stash houses where they apprehended 4,752 illegal aliens in FY 2012, up from 178 stash houses with 1,945 illegal aliens in FY 2011. Again, this increase is due in large part to increased law enforcement efforts aimed at identifying these houses.
    It is easy to spout statistics, but it is hard to see the actual human toll and cost of the victims of the cartels and transnational gangs in our communities. Human smuggling and trafficking are secret crimes that happen in plain view all across the state. For practical purposes, the “border” is no longer just the counties in the Rio Grande Valley. In reality, the “border region” extends up to Highway 90 from Del Rio to Victoria and Houston. From there, human smuggling and trafficking continue up Interstate 35 to Austin and Dallas, Interstate 37 to San Antonio, and Highway 59 to Houston.
    There are numerous sweatshops in the Houston area that are tied to human smuggling and trafficking. They are often controlled by local prison and street gangs as well as by other organized criminal enterprises who pay the prison and local gangs $2.00 per slave-labor hour. The women and children who work in these sweatshops usually live in deplorable conditions in stash houses. Like the young girls who are trafficked for sex in the Eagle Ford region, these women and children are also invisible to society. Law enforcement usually learns about specific sweatshops and stash houses only if a girl manages to escape and comes forward to authorities.
    One tactic the cartels have used as part of their human trafficking and drug smuggling in the United States involves the use of cloned vehicles. Such vehicles are painted to look like company vehicles, official government vehicles, or even school buses. We must encourage law enforcement to think outside the box when conducting drug interdiction on the interstates.

What we can do
As prosecutors, we have to change our model so we can proactively respond to increasing criminal activity in our communities, whether it involves “hybrid gangs,” prison gangs, or transnational gangs. We have to get involved with law enforcement agencies early to make sure they are aware of these changing trends and investigate crimes accordingly.
    When law enforcement arrests an individual for a crime (especially a property or drug crime in an area known for gang activity), they must do a thorough investigation and look at all aspects of the offense to see if it may be gang-related. We need to be proactive in ensuring that law enforcement does not prematurely conclude its investigation merely because a suspect has been arrested. Many times, a person may be arrested for a particular offense, and additional investigation leads to information not only that the suspect was a gang member but also that the offense was part of an organized criminal enterprise.
    Gang members constantly use technology and social media. An individual’s Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat or Twitter account can offer treasure troves of information showing that the individual is a gang member. Social media accounts are just one tool that law enforcement needs to utilize as they investigate if the suspect is indeed a gang member and that the crime is gang-related. This evidence is extremely helpful, especially in open pleas or jury trials.
    If the investigation reveals that the case could be gang-related, law enforcement needs to notify us as early in the investigation as possible. They also need to relay that information in their offense reports so the case can be assigned to a gang prosecutor or the gang unit of a large office.
    In turn, we need to be vigilant in looking for possible gang connections. We must routinely ask agencies if an individual is in a gang. Just because a person isn’t listed in a gang database does not mean the person is not in a gang. The Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office has a “gang affiliation” box on its Case Intake Checklist that the filing agency attaches to its case filing. Being aware of possible gang connections early helps us formulate our trial strategy and develop punishment evidence and is extremely helpful in plea negotiations.
    We need to be especially proactive with law enforcement when confronted with evidence of human trafficking and drug smuggling. Because these cases usually involve Mexican cartels or other transnational gangs, they often take a long time to develop. Law enforcement must utilize traditional investigative tools, such as developing confidential informants and placing cameras around suspected stash houses. Human intelligence (such as the use of wires) is often very important in these cases, and we need to work closely with law enforcement to ensure that the investigation is conducted properly. We need to educate law enforcement on the Penal Code statutes concerning conspiracy, money laundering, and engaging in organized criminal activity so their investigation is focused on the entire criminal enterprise rather than on individual suspects or offenses.
    As Texas prosecutors, we face greater challenges that ever before from street gangs, prison gangs, transnational gangs, and the Mexican cartels. We must change our model to confront these 21st-Century challenges diligently and successfully. The citizens of our communities look to the men and women in public service for a safe, secure, and prosperous community. They deserve nothing less.