This column was contributed by San Benito County Sheriff Captain Eric Taylor. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors.
I have spent the majority of my career in gang enforcement, disruption and more recently intervention. You see I am always looking at ways for us to improve policing. We have been attempting to arrest our way out of problems for decades. Clearly that one-stop approach hasn’t worked.
In my career I have contacted, arrested and interrogated hundreds of gang members and associates. I have chased killers and tried to mentor misguided youth. I have begged parents to face reality and struggled to gain trust of those I had in my custody. But mostly I have studied. I have studied the history of local gangs and gang violence. I always want to know why people do what they do.
In my career I served on a gang unit and was a gang detective. I am a court-certified expert in Hispanic criminal street gangs. In a short period of testifying as an expert in Santa Cruz County, I secured 76 convictions in 77 cases. I want to share my opinion on what I believe is happening to our kids. And yes, they are all our kids and it’s our job to protect them.
It is difficult to fully encapsulate the complex history of our local Hispanic criminal street gangs in short form. To make it more palatable, I am going to break it into a multi-part series that will have some not-so-popular opinions. I ask all of you to open your mind as you read these columns. The early history is mostly indisputable. It is what these gangs have morphed into that is at issue today. They have become criminal organizations that prey on our communities. But at the end, I am going to ask all of you to consider the possibility that the majority of these young men and women are victims who sometimes commit crimes. Maybe this can be the beginning of the “why” behind gang involvement so we can figure out the “how” to rid ourselves of these often-violent organizations.
But we must start at the beginning.
The actual roots of Hispanic criminal street gangs in California have nothing to do with criminal organizations or criminal acts. These gangs are deeply rooted in the defense against victimization. If you really take a look into the history, you can begin to see past the “thug” and you can begin to see the often-damaged human being under it all. I have written before that I am not naïve. I seek justice and I seek to remove “bad” people from our community to keep everyone safe. I also believe good people do bad things and they need to be held accountable. As stated prior, I think true evil exists, but is much less common in our society than some may believe.
Hispanic gangs in California grew out of oppression and repeated victimization. They grew out of the mistreatment of a perceived lower “class” of people. The “Sleepy Lagoon murder” is one of the precursors to the gang movement. It was a case regarding the death of José Gallardo Díaz, who was discovered unconscious and dying on a road near a swimming hole on the morning of August 2, 1942. The actual cause of his death remains a mystery to this day. However, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested 17 Mexican-American youths soon after Diaz’ death. These boys were kept in prison, without bail, on charges of murder. Twelve of the 17 defendants were convicted of second-degree murder with no true evidence of their guilt. The other five had lesser charges and were jailed also. The convictions were reversed on appeal in 1944. The case is considered a contributing factor to the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 as the community was outraged over the treatment of these young men.
Also during this time period, Mexican-American boys and men were seen as disrespectful and un-patriotic during World War II as they embraced the Zoot Suit culture. They were ostracized for wearing suits made of large amounts of wool while wool was being rationed for the war effort. These men and boys were often referred to as “pachucos” and “pachuco gangsters.” This all came to a head in 1943 when Los Angeles erupted in violence during the Zoot Suit Riots. These riots were a result of American servicemen preying on Mexican-American women and assaulting Mexican-American men. The Zoot Suit Riots occurred when the Mexican-American men decided to fight back in defense of their people.
Soon thereafter, in the early 1950s, another oppressive act occurred in Los Angeles. There is hallowed ground where Dodger Stadium sits in Los Angeles today. This area is where the “Battle of Chavez Ravine” occurred.
The Chavez Ravine incident was a product of eminent domain and resulted in a mass eviction of Mexican-American land owners. The mass eviction was performed in order to make way for public housing, or housing “projects,” in an area suffering from urban blight. The intentions were to take a “run-down” area of the city and make public housing. The persons affected actually owned the land and were citizens of our country. When a more conservative leadership team took over in Los Angeles, they scrapped the plans for public housing and instead entered into a deal with Walter O’Malley to move the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. This was perceived as a violation of eminent domain as a Major League Baseball stadium was not technically “public use” as required by the Constitution.
Nevertheless, in 1958 the Dodgers committed to moving to Chavez Ravine and the last “holdout” tenants were forcefully removed from the land by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 1959. This furthered the sentiment that the Mexican-American community needed to “band together” in order to protect themselves against the mistreatment by the government and the military.
This is a very brief and high-level view of the history explaining why these Hispanic gangs started. The next column will explain the role state prisons had in the division between northern and southern Hispanics, and how our local gangs took root.