By Jeff Berg
Some of the members of the Las Cruces Police Department's Targeting Neighborhood Threats (TNT) squad will tell you this thing.
"It's hopeless," they agree, when posed the question about the possibility of eliminating gang activity in the city of Las Cruces.
Eastside Locos, Red Raggers, Brown Priders, Valley Cartel Crew and Surenos are just a few of the gangs that boast membership in the Mesilla Valley.
Another gang, Mara Salvatrucha13, better known simply as MS-13, has recently been pegged as one of the more dangerous gangs in the country, and they have a presence here, too. The FBI has just taken an extra interest by targeting this mainly Salvadoran gang, which has tens of thousands of members in at least 33 states. MS-13 is seen as one of the more violent street gangs; one of the police officers interviewed for this article says of MS-13, "They will take out their own family members."
Nationwide, the FBI's best estimate is that street gangs number more than 730,000 members in 21,500 different gangs. According to an April 2002 "drug threat assessment" report by the National Drug Intelligence Center, New Mexico has approximately 680 gangs totaling 13,800 members. "Many of these gangs are involved in drug-related activities," the report goes on. "Among these are prison gangs, including New Mexico Syndicate and Barrio Azteca, and street gangs, such as the 18th Street, Los Padillas and San Jose gangs. The retail distribution of illicit drugs is the primary source of income for gangs in New Mexico. As a result, gangs often resort to violence to protect their turf and distribution base. The competition for drug distribution has intensified gang rivalries, leading to violent confrontations and adversely affecting public safety in the urban areas of the state."
Of course every culture and race has their share of gangs and reasons for gang membership, but it's an uncomfortable and inescapable fact that most gang members in Southwest New Mexico are of Hispanic descent. According to Officers Rob Peterson and Luis Astudillo, two very dedicated and motivated members of TNT, it is partially a cultural thing. "Their 'homies' can be a sort of father figure to these guys," says Peterson. "It gives them a sense of belonging, companionship. Many are from single-parent families, and often, one or both parents are in prison. A good family structure and dynamic is missing."
Peterson, an 11-year veteran of the Las Cruces Police Department, is one of the few officers on the force whose position allows him to work directly with the gang problem.
In the downtown area of Las Cruces alone, five gangs are currently active. Thanks to good police work, the gangs have not been able to become too territorial.
Says Peterson, "There are a lot of underage kids smoking pot and 'huffing' things like carburetor cleaner."
It is hard to find a lot of law-enforcement people who are directly assigned to gangs in this area. Dona Ana County used to have a gang task force, but it, like many other things for the short-staffed and under-budgeted sheriff's department, is currently on hold. The state police does not have a full-time anti-gang program, but it does have several officers who specialize in dealing with gang issues. Calls for this article to these folks, along with to the Silver City and Sunland Park police and to the Albuquerque Gang Task Force, were not returned, which is OK, since they obviously have a lot of other things to tend to.
The closest thing to any type of gang task force in Las Cruces would be the city police department's Targeting Neighborhood Threats unit (TNT). Two Neighborhood Police Officers, Wallace Downs and Peterson, noted that there was a definite need within the Las Cruces PD for a "specialized unit that would be dedicated to solving quality of life threats within (city) neighborhoods." The thinking behind TNT was that "if there was a special unit designed to fill the gap between an initial crime and the follow-up, the chances of solving those crimes would increase." Thus, TNT, which just observed its second anniversary.
There are only eight officers on TNT, which is headed by Sergeant Jamie Montoya. Like the other members of the TNT unit, he was "hand chosen for their recognized dedication and demonstrated abilities within the field of law enforcement."
But in parts of Las Cruces, an odd truce exists between the police and some gang members. Peterson describes it as being similar to the old cartoon where Wile E. Coyote and Ralph the Sheepdog would duke it out all day long, after punching in on a time clock. And then, when it was time go home, they would punch out and say good night to one another.
Although none of the other communities in the region has a specialized gang unit, some law-enforcement agencies have other things to rely on.
What Chief of Police Mike Carillo of Deming does have, he says, is a lot of community support. "We do still have gang members and in 1995, we had a serious problem with them," Carillo says. "However, since that time, the communities have come together, and provided a continuum of services for youth, which has helped to curtail the violence."
Chief Carillo, who has been the chief of police in Deming for 13 years, also suggests that the nature of gangs over the years has changed significantly. "Although the gangs are still here, they have gotten away from the traditional turf wars, and now are more into dealing drugs and partaking in property crimes."
It some ways, it seems that gang members are out to hurt themselves more than the general public. That is not to say that they don't actively commit crimes against community members, but as Carillo points out, at least in Deming, "most of the violence relates to bad drug deals, or some kind of transaction that has not been negotiated on good terms."
The chief adds, "They don't want to be high profile any more. With that, comes law enforcement."
Another factor that can help combat gangs, Carillo says, is the "boot camp" that is run for young offenders. "If we target younger kids," he says, "we work with them to 'get them back.'"
Similarly, in Silver City, gang activity surged in the 1990s. As Gary Stailey, chief juvenile probation and parole officer for the Sixth Judicial District, recently described it in a Silver City Daily Press article, "It was like we (those working with juvenile offenders) were all on a boat in the middle of a lake, and the boat began taking on water. We were bailing out water with buckets instead of trying to find out where the water was coming from. We looked at ourselves and said 'what do we need to do, because if we don't stop the flow, we will sink.'"
In response, a Juvenile Justice Continuum of Services program was formed, which aims to decrease youth crime and delinquency—to reach young people before they enter the Juvenile Probation and Parole Office already having committed a serious delinquent act. The program ranges from mentorship, sports and after-school programs; to DWI councils, Teen Outreach Program and a Safe Schools initiative; to probation, community service, electronic monitoring and Teen Court; and ultimately to detention or commitment to state facilities.
The history of New Mexico street gangs is not readily available, but it does seem that they are a hybrid of California gangs, which have been active since the early 1900s.
In an unusual article from 1998 by Al Valdez, an investigator with the Orange County, Calif., district attorney's office, he makes the argument that Hispanic gangs developed because of an incident that took place way back in 1836—the Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. Valdez writes of the racism and land issues that resulted from the ensuing 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, where many Mexican citizens felt that they got a raw deal when the US government paid only a total of $18 million for what's now most of the southwestern United States and California. The ensuing California Gold Rush in turn set the stage for the social and economic conditions of Los Angeles that eventually led to the formation of the first street gangs in that city.
Valdez offers this thought about the first stages of gangs: Mexican-Americans who lived in the "pueblo" of Los Angeles still felt displaced, even as naturalized citizens. Many of these new Americans were treated like second-class citizens by white Angelinos, and were told to go back to their home, Mexico. In the minds of Hispanics in Los Angeles, they were already home, but their home was now part of the United States because of the annexation. They now lived in a country that didn't want them, but they could not return to Mexico because they were US citizens.
He also notes the similarity between these events and the events that led to the Irish gangs that were prevalent in the 1800s in New York City (dramatized in the film Gangs of New York).
In the 1920s a sort of underground market of drugs and prostitution was forming between LA and El Paso. Early gang members started to imitate the culture of the drug dealers and pimps that ran these businesses. Furthermore, as Valdez notes, by the 1920s El Paso had become a center for many immigrant Mexicans, much like Los Angeles. In fact, an underground travel route developed between the two cities. This route allowed El Paso trends to directly influence the LA street gangs.
In El Paso, many of the Mexicans who went to prison were incarcerated in Huntsville, Texas. While in the Huntsville prison, they formed a prison gang called the El Paso Tip, which took its name from the area of Texas where the prison was located. Fellow gang members would greet each other by saying, "Are you tipped up?" or "Are you tipped?" According to Sergeant Richard Valdemar, a prison gang expert with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, this phrase meant: "Are you from the El Paso area?" El Paso Tip would later become very influential in the Los Angeles street-gang culture.
So it would seem to follow suit that the El Paso influence also eventually infected New Mexico.
Valdez goes on to mention other incidents, mostly racially charged, that helped step up gang activity, recruitment and popularity. In 1995, he cites a then-all-time-high number for gang members in LA, with 150,000 gang members participating in 1,500 gangs. By 1997, LA County had "only" 452 murders that were probably gang-related.
This past summer in southern New Mexico, however, things took a big turn for the better. A multi-agency Gang Task Force, led by Sgt. Montoya and made up of 13 members of the LCPD, 10 from the Dona Ana County Sheriff's Office and one each from the Sunland Park PD and the New Mexico State Police, worked together to deal with gang problems here. A National Guard helicopter was also employed to act as a spotter and for intelligence gathering.
Twenty "Solution Oriented Policing Projects" were opened, with 17 being closed by the wrap-up of the task force in August. The projects were mostly centered on gang activity, but also touched on quality of life issues and drug-related problems in the neighborhoods that it served. Along with 235 felony and misdemeanor arrests, a total of 155 felony and misdemeanor warrants were also issued.
The task force was also successful in getting a variety of illegal chemicals off the streets, including 22-plus ounces of cocaine, 10 pounds of marijuana, and small amounts of serious pharmaceuticals such as heroin and methamphetamines. Just under $4,000 was recovered in relation to drug deals. A variety of weapons, including several handguns and an AK-47, was seized, all of which were in the hands of criminals who were on probation. There was also a crossbow taken from a member of the SUR 13 gang, who probably wasn't thinking of using it for a reenactment at the Las Cruces Renaissance Faire.
TNT itself was also successful in helping clear the streets during its first year of operation. During that time, the unit boasted 427 arrests and the recovery of 13 firearms away from various ne'er-do-wells, most of whom were already, well, at least until then, on probation.
It seems that New Mexico has become a popular spot for California's bad apples to move to. In 2003, an article by Will Sands of the weekly Durango, Colo., Telegraph, reported that the Farmington, NM, police department's Gang Enforcement Unit reported that the city had 15 gangs, which included 519 members. Eighteen other gangs were reported to be active in surrounding communities, and also on the Dine (Navajo) Nation. Sands' article noted that California's "three strikes and you're out" law was a big reason that New Mexico has seen such an increase in felons moving here.
"New Mexico has nothing even approaching an equivalent to that law," said Detective Sgt. Pat Cordell of Farmington. "Instead of three strikes and you're out, it's two strikes and you move to New Mexico."
So it seems the stricter that laws get elsewhere, the more the bad guys and girls pick the Land of Enchantment, as their new home from which to deal drugs and kill people.
Sands' interview with a member of Farmington's and Albuquerque's gang task forces reaffirmed the notion that the gangs grow because the members "are missing something on the home front." And once again, bad families are given the rap. It does, however, make one wonder how some kids from broken families can grow up to be president of the United States, while others hunger for such negative attention.
"Often the more you understand, the less you forgive."
—Jilian Becker, director, Institute for the Study of Terrorism
Frequent contributor Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.