Who is ‘West Texas?’

BY PATRICK BRENDEL

September 7, 2007 - 5:07PM

These gang members don’t discriminate based on race. They’re not organized.

They don’t have to kill to get in — or be killed to get out.

West Texas is a different sort of gang, part of a growing movement in the state governed by the simple philosophy of “strength in numbers.”

West Texas members account for about 20 percent of felony drug dealing arrests by the Ector County Sheriff’s Office — twice as many as members of any one traditional gang like Barrio Azteca, Texas Syndicate or Mexican Mafia, said sheriff’s Sgt. Javier Leyva, who oversees the Special Investigations Unit.

In July, District Attorney Bobby Bland used Jesse McGinnis’ affiliation with West Texas to help establish a motive for the slaying of Adrian Ramirez Garza, a crime for which McGinnis now faces a life sentence.

Leyva doesn’t have an estimate of how many people claim West Texas in the area. But gauging the strength of the gang, he said, is as easy as walking around the mall and looking at people’s arms, for tattoos like “WT,” “432,” or “puro west.” Or easier still, by looking up Odessa men age 18 to 25 on social networking sites like MySpace.

“West Texas is huge,” he said.

WHAT IS IT?

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice doesn’t consider West Texas to be a prison-based gang or a “security threat group” — like the Aryan Circle, for example, said Sigifredo Sanchez, criminal justice program specialist.

Instead, West Texas is a “hometown clique,” Sanchez said — “homeboys, people that fall into our system who come from the same geographic area.”

Prisoners are pressured to join established gangs, involving a lifelong commitment or to seek protection elsewhere from those gangs, he said.

David Stacks, criminal justice department deputy director for management operations, said prisoners naturally gravitate toward others with common interests or backgrounds — much like how high school students form social groups.

Starting about 15 or 20 years ago, prisoners, originally from Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston, banded together for protection from security threat groups, calling themselves the “Four Horsemen,” Leyva said.

The Four Horsemen became known as “Tangos — an old Hispanic expression meaning hometown,” Sanchez said.

Tangos are more attractive to most prisoners than security threat groups, because members are not bound to the group once released from prison. Also unlike security threat groups, tangos do not have hierarchies, officers or a constitution, he said.

Leyva said that, at most, a tango would appoint a spokesman to be the voice of the group at a particular facility.

Tangos formed in West Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. These two tangos, plus the original four, sometimes support one another and are collectively known as “Puro Tango Blast,” he said.

Other tangos include prisoners from San Antonio and El Paso. With only about 8 to 10 percent of prisoners in security threat groups, Stacks said, tango members quickly outnumbered traditional gang members.

“There’s a lot of strength in numbers — a lot of power,” Leyva said.

So much power, that security threat groups across the state have declared truces amongst one another in order to present a unified front against the tangos, he said.

According to Sanchez, one important factor to the formation of tangos was overcrowding in the state prison system.

Instead of the normal two months or less, offenders on their way to prison would stay six months to a year or more in county jails, where security threat groups didn’t have a strong presence. Prisoners would carry with them relationships formed in county jails to the prison system, he said.

GROWING

As tangos have become more widespread, people who haven’t been to prison, or county jail or incarcerated at all have started to assert some sort of affiliation, Leyva said — adding that West Texas members don’t claim the term tango until they’ve been in prison.

But while tango members aren’t bound to the group for life, they do cooperate with one another on the streets to commit crime — for West Texas, mostly dealing drugs, he said.

Police departments in Austin and Houston have expressed major concerns to residents and the media in the past year with the growth of tangos there, according to the Austin Chronicle, Houston Chronicle and Houston Press.

And though West Texas and other tangos started out as groups trying to protect themselves against security threat group members, Leyva said the origins of tangos are no different than those of the security threat groups themselves.

“Historically prison gangs have always pretty much been created for protection,” he said. “The stronger they got, they started getting involved in prostitution, in narcotics, in strong-arming people in prison.

“It’s not a crime to be a gang member,” Leyva said. “It’s a crime to commit crimes in groups.”

Trial of Naomi Lee Alva The charge: Murder. If convicted: Alva faces anywhere from probation to 99 years to life in prison. When: Jury selection scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday, with opening arguments expected later that day. Where: 70th District Courtroom, Ector County Courthouse. Judge: Denn Whalen. Attorneys: Ector County District Attorney Bobby Bland for the prosecution, Michael McLeaish for the defense. What is alleged: Alva, 20, is one of three people charged with murder in the June 18, 2006, shooting death of Adrian Ramirez Garza at a West Odessa party. Jesse Lee McGinnis was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in July, while Johnnie Joe Oranday is expected to stand trial at a later date. According to statements in the McGinnis trial, the shooting came a week after an argument between Alva, of Brownwood, and Garza’s girlfriend, Sarah Kiskaden, over a white Ford Windstar van. After an escalation of events at the party between Alva and Kiskaden, Alva, McGinnis and Oranday left. After a phone argument between McGinnis and Mark Garza, a cousin of Adrian Garza, they returned in the van driven by Alva, trial witnesses testified. Trial witnesses testified Oranday emerged from the van and passed a gun to McGinnis, who fired it into the air and then shot Garza from several feet away.