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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Villalobos

Gangs of Albuquerque

Originally Published 15 October 2012

In Albuquerque, the mayor responded to rising violent crime rates by tripling the size of its Gang Unit in 2010, which now boasts a fifteen-member team split into a plain-clothes squad dedicated to undercover investigative work and a uniformed task force to patrol the entire city of Albuquerque.

I requested a ride-a-long with the unit to try to learn what is real and what is not about gangs on the streets of the city I usually call home. This post therefore reflects the perspective of the police. Future posts will explore the complex workings of gang life from the perspective of current and ex-gang members.

An Albuquerque gang member shows his tattoo to Gang Unit officers. (Photo: Michael Jerome Wolff)

The Gangs

According to the police, there are as many as 246 active gangs in Albuquerque and a total of 7,700 documented gang members. This number is deceiving considering the enormous diversity in size, structure, and purpose of these groups. Like so many things, a “gang” is little more than a loose concept used to describe a great many social phenomena for which multiple connotations exist. Gangs are often defined minimally as groups of at least three individuals who identify themselves as a group and who routinely engage in some kind of illegal activity. But as this definition qualifies perhaps half of Albuquerque’s young people, substantial discretion is needed to concretely identify who is a real gang member and who is a “poser”; that is, who is a danger to society and who is innocuous.

Of the 246 gangs in the APD registry, the vast majority will likely not exist in any real sense within a few years. Lacking structure, scope, and a unifying principle beyond pop culture imagery and youth itself, most gangs will disintegrate as some members go off to prison and others simply grow out of troubled adolescence and into an equally troubled but less organizationally cohesive adulthood.

Among the gangs that endure, we might distinguish two basic models: traditional gangs and contemporary gangs. Traditional gangs, those which were born out of the 1950s and 1960s, and which became distinctly politicized during the civil rights and Chicano’s movements, tend to be much more organized than most contemporary street gangs. That is, they have a more rigid hierarchy of actors, a stricter and better enforced internal code of ethics, and a more stable group identity. They are classically territorial and family oriented. They are, to some degree, families of multiple generations who occasionally adopt new members into the bloodline. And because they have been in the same neighborhoods for many generations, they have become a semi-accepted part of the community. As a result, an effective code of silence in these communities seriously impedes police investigation of their criminal activities.

Perhaps the largest and most structured among these is the Los Padillas gang, which runs crime in the far South Valley of Albuquerque. The organization is allegedly controlled by the untouchable biological father of the late Johnny Tapia, Jerry Padillas, Sr. Jerry’s other sons, nephews, and cousins make up the group’s top leadership, while Jerry himself maintains a good relationship with several local politicians, including ex-state senator Manny Aragon. Despite numerous undercover operations by City and County narcotics police, as well as the DEA, the Los Padillas gang has proved resilient to both law enforcement and the encroachment of other gangs on their territory.

Most of the other traditional gangs, such as the San Jose, Barelas, Martinez Town, and Duranes gangs have not faired so well. Heroin addiction and prison sentences have decimated the old guard since the 1980s, leaving the younger generations to fend for themselves without a mature spiritual guidance. Numerous splits resulted, and have left space open for new gangs to drift into their territory. Because one of the sources of police intelligence comes from enemy gang members, territorial encroachment has had a particularly devastating effect. Some traditional gangs, like El Washe and the Wells Park gangs, have virtually gone extinct as a result of such trends.

APD Gang Unit officer ready for evening patrol duty (Photo: Michael Jerome Wolff)

Contemporary gangs like Westside, Eastside, Southside, Northside, 18th Street, Bloods, and Crips—and their innumerous subgroups—are characterized by a much younger and more reckless membership. They are less stable and more violent. Their sense of territoriality is much less developed, as their communities are characteristically more transient and otherwise rapidly changing. Their identities, in fact, are altogether looser than their traditional counterparts. Their unifying principles are often based on symbols derived from pop culture emanating via airwaves from New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles rather than from tangible commonalities around them. Gang loyalty is far less guaranteed, such that rats for the police abound. Further, they are often loved little by the communities they live in, such they are rarely protected by a neighborhood code of silence.

Taken together, contemporary youth gangs in Albuquerque are fodder for the justice system. They are both highly criminal and bad at getting away with it. They are by no means efficient criminal enterprises, rather they are problematic expressive outlets for masculine identity development.

There are also a small number of so-called motorcycle gangs, which typically are run more like illegal businesses fit with elaborate divisions of labor, and prison gangs, which are structured umbrella organizations for numerous street gangs that out of necessity for protection in close quarters find temporary unity while in the “clink.”

The main problem with all of it is that gang identity, when one has little else to feel proud of, can easily be enough to kill or die for. And the killing and dying associated with gangsters is what makes us all a bit uncomfortable about the matter. Whether this discomfort has led to policies that reduce or exacerbate the problem is another question.

Neighbors at the scene of a drug-related homicide in the "International District" (previously known as "The War Zone")

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