Houston's 1979 Chicano Squad solved so many murders, it changed HPD forever
The bilingual unit is believed to have been one of the first of its kind in the nation and was an immediate success
By St. John Barned-Smith
HOUSTON — Spiking homicides. Deep distrust between police and civilians. Outrage — and riots — filling the city after a high-profile police killing.
The late 1970s were fraught times in Houston. Many homicides in the city's Latino community went unsolved — casualties to the department's mostly white corps of detectives, few of whom spoke Spanish.
In an effort to build trust, the Houston Police Department plucked a few young Latino officers from patrol cars in 1979 and told them to spend 90 days solving as many murders as they could. The officers — who had no experience solving murders — cracked so many cases that the department formalized the unit, which would work for 30 years before it was finally disbanded.
Now, the squad is the subject of a new 11-episode podcast, "Chicano Squad," by the Vox Media Podcast Network. The show debuts Tuesday.
"For 30 years, this squad was working in Houston, and had no recognition," said Eva Ruth Moravec, one of the podcast's writers. Moravec, a former Hearst reporter, covered policing for the San Antonio Express-News.
Today we presented a proclamation to recognize the 40th anniversary of the @houstonpolice Department - Chicano Squad, a specialized Spanish-speaking homicide unit started in 1979 to deal with a rash of murders affecting Houston’s Hispanic population. pic.twitter.com/vYJy0LYF9v— City of Houston (@HoustonTX) August 20, 2019
Dark time in Houston policing
The Houston Police Department became enmeshed in scandal after several officers in 1977 killed José Campos Torres, a young Latino Vietnam War veteran.
Torres had been arrested at a Houston bar for disorderly conduct on May 5. Six police officers took Torres to a spot called "The Hole" next to Buffalo Bayou and beat him. They then took Torres to the city jail, which refused to process him due to his injuries. They were ordered to take him to the hospital, but instead the officers brought him back to the banks of Buffalo Bayou and pushed him into the water. Torres's body was found two days later.
It was not Houston Police's only scandal at the time. Two other killings by officers had stained the department's reputation, and in 1979 the former chief, Carroll Lynn, was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for bribery.
At the same time, the city was weathering a wave of homicides: 1979 saw 664, with 163 Latino victims.
"Nobody cared about those homicides," recalled Jaime Escalante, one investigator on the squad who retired last year. "They used to call them misdemeanor homicides."
After a bloody weekend that year that ended with 17 killings, homicide Capt. Bobby Adams created the unit, which was led by Detective Sgt. Jim Montero and the late homicide Lt. Chuck Lofland.
The results were "immediate and astounding," one former commander told the Chronicle in a 2004 story noting the squad's 25th anniversary. The division's clearance rates soared, and by the end of the year, the Chicano Squad helped solve 40 homicides. The unit is believed to be one of the first of its kind in the nation, though many others followed.
"They were outstanding," recalled now-retired police chief Charles A. McClelland, then a rookie with the force. "Their language and cultural skills put them in position to be successful. They would work day and night. Whatever hours they felt were necessary to be successful in solving those cases."
At the same time, their work showed HPD leadership the benefit of having a more diverse workforce and more officers who spoke Spanish or other languages, McClelland said.
"It motivated HPD to go out and recruit minorities with language skills and cultural diversity," he said. "And it worked."
The department now has more officers of color than Anglo officers, McClelland said, but "that's what started it."
For the creators of the "Chicano Squad" podcast, the unit's track record was a chance to tell a type of story frequently overlooked in the past.
Podcast host Cristela Alonzo said the story particularly resonated given her experiences as a first-generation Mexican-American woman from the Rio Grande Valley, where she saw problems with police and rarely saw examples of Latino-focused stories in school.
"I loved that I can explain it in a simple way in my own personal experience," she said.
'They inspired guys like me'
The squad's caseload was intense, and investigators frequently battled hostility from white peers, former homicide investigators recalled.
"They were thrown everything that had anything that sounded like a Spanish surname, more in resentment of their existence, more than the legitimacy of the case existing," said Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia, a former HPD officer before leaving the force to enter politics. "But these guys worked them all ... They just became a trusted resource in the community."
They had another impact, he said.
"They inspired guys like me to know one day I could be a homicide investigator as well."
By the mid-1980s, the squad grew to more than a dozen investigators and sergeants, and generally solved more than 70 percent of cases assigned to it, and was nationally recognized in 1997 by the National Latino Peace Officers Association, after posting a clearance rate of 91 percent.
Visited with members of HPD's famed "Chicano Squad", a group of Spanish-speaking officers who formed in '79 to help solve crimes within Houston's growing Hispanic community. We will be celebrating their 40th anniversary & showcasing their exemplary service in August! pic.twitter.com/LJWSP2tnHH— Robert Gallegos (@RobertGallegos_) June 27, 2019
The squad's greatest triumphs include the rescue of a kidnapped newborn in 1991 after his mother was locked in the trunk of a car; arrests of two East End men accused of being serial killers, who were both later sentenced to death; and the rescue of a 14-month-old girl kidnapped from Houston in 1987 by a baby sitter.
It weathered its own scandal, as well, after one sergeant, Robert Martinez Gatewood, was investigated and later convicted of participating in a drug conspiracy and sentenced to 24 years in prison.
In 2010, the department disbanded the squad. By that time, the department had evolved from mostly white to one where officers of color outnumbered Anglo officers.
"It wasn't as critical," McClelland said. "Homicide was more diverse, we had more folks who were bilingual, and over time and attrition, every squad had investigators in it."
Alonzo, the podcast's host, said the squad's story remains relevant today, particularly given recent tensions across America between law enforcement and civilians.
"This is something that could be told in the news now," she said. "This podcast is about evolution of the Houston Police Department, and how it happened because of racial disparity. But this is also the first Latino homicide squad in the U.S. And they are figuring it out, while they were doing it — they were building a house, while designing the blueprints."
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