Tanya Eiserer at the Dallas News had a feature yesterday ("Texas Tango Blast gang draws kids with tattoos, loose affiliation rules," Nov. 30) focusing on the rise of the Tango Blast, an alternative to hard-core prison gangs created by Texas prisoners for self-protection which has now become well established and is much larger than traditional "security threat groups" (the bureaucratic euphemism for gangs) in prison. (See prior Grits coverage.)
Eiserer calls the Tangos "a violent, drug-dealing gang born in the Texas prison system," but that generalization slightly misstates what's going on, IMO - a misstatement she somewhat qualifies elsewhere in the article.
So by this description, Tangos were a) created for self-protection, not as a criminal enterprise, b) don't require their members to engage in violence or criminality on the organization's behalf, and c) members are not bound to the group once released from prison. That's a different kind of prison gang than the Texas Syndicate, Aryan Brotherhood, Bloods, Crips, etc.. However, reports Eiserer:
This new type of prison gang came to being in the early 1990s when Hispanic inmates from Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston banded together to protect themselves against more organized prison gangs such as the Mexican Mafia and the Texas Syndicate.
They called themselves the "Four Horsemen," after the four cities they hail from, and became known as "Tangos" – which came to be known as slang for hometown.
While old established gangs such as the Texas Syndicate, which was weakened last year as part of a federal racketeering investigation, have seen their fortunes decline, the Tango Blast's loose affiliation rules have made it attractive.
Earlier this year, Texas prison officials added the group to their list of regularly monitored gangs. So far, they have identified about 700 confirmed Tango Blast members.
Prisoners flocked to the Tango Blast because its laissez-faire philosophy is the antithesis of the established prison gang mentality of blood-in, blood-out – the notion that members have to commit an act of violence to get in and that the only way out is to die.
More recently, authorities say, Tango Blast has been locked in a pitched battle for control of illegal prison activities. The group is becoming more predatory, and prisoners who refuse to join are getting beaten over it, prison officials said.If that's accurate, it's a marked change from what the Tangos have been in the past. However, much of the rest of Eiserer's account disputes this trend. For example:
Paul, who asked that his last name not be published, went to prison in early 2005 for burglary of a habitation and theft. He said Tango stands for "Tejanos Against Negative Gang Organizations."
He became a member because he liked the idea of not having any strict obligations as a Tango. "I knew they weren't going to ask me to go beat up or kill," he said.
Joining was as simple as meeting several inmates in the prison yard and getting "jumped in" – a beating that serves as an initiation. It lasted about a minute.
He's been out of prison since 2006 and says he's not involved in criminal activity.
Eiserer writes that Tango Blast "rejects old notions of prison gang exclusivity and lifelong commitments." What's more, even an assistant DA said of Tango Blast members who commit new crimes on the outside, "I don't think they are committing their crimes for the purposes of the gang." That description better fits my own understanding of what Tangos are and how they actually operate (though I hope readers with first-hand experience can give us even more background in the comments).
The Tango Blast phenomenon is worth officially monitoring, but distinctions should be made: These are loose-knit affiliations while the major, traditional prison gangs are actually ongoing criminal operations, several of them with ties to multinational drug cartels.
A major result from the Tango Blast phenomenon not mentioned in Eiserer's article is that it reduced violence by traditional prison gangs, who fear reprisals by the much more numerous Tangos. TDCJ gang specialist Javier Leyva told The Back Gate last year that "security threat groups across the state have declared truces amongst one another in order to present a unified front against the tangos."
So while I agree officialdom must pay attention to the growing phenomenon, I'm not at all sure that simply cracking down on Tangos as though they're the same brand of creature as the Mexican Mafia or the Texas Syndicate will help TDCJ's security problem. Prisoners flock to Tango Blast because they need protection TDCJ does not or cannot provide, not necessarily to engage in crime and thuggery.
Fully staffing prisons (TDCJ is 3,000 guards short right now) while maintaining or reducing the number of prisoners incarcerated would do more than anything else to improve safety, which is why TDCJ's bid to increase pay for prison workers is so important. When the agency is able to provide security itself, the Tangos, given their lack of hierarchy and discipline, will inevitably see their role reduced.