Overwhelmingly Hispanic and all-male, Tango Blast formed inside Texas's state prisons during the early 1990s. Originally, say members, it was an offshoot or cousin of the Texas Syndicate, but the "homitos" soon grew tired of being taken advantage of by the established gang to do much of its dirty work. So, in the same way that MS-13 formed in Los Angeles to protect its people from other predatory groups, so Tango Blast was created to shield inmates from other prison gangs. In fact, many older members claim the word "Tango" is an acronym standing for "Together Against Negative Gang Organizations." However, the most common interpretation of Tango is "hometown clique."
Subject(s): Tango Blast, Houston Police Dept., gang-related crime, gang insignias, prison gangs This makes sense, because the group is divided up by cities, or hometowns. The four original chapters of Tango Blast are in Houston, called Houstone; Austin, called ATX or La Capricha; Dallas, known as D-Town; and Fort Worth, called Foros or Foritos. These independent groups unite to form the Four Horsemen, sometimes also called Puro Tango Blast. In and out of prison, they tend to stick together. Other cities and regions, including El Paso, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas, have Tango gangs but do not always get along with the original four. Houstone is by far the largest of them all. Exact numbers are hard to come by. While police, county jail and state prison authorities all say Tango Blast is the largest clique in Texas, they will not estimate how many men belong. Several members, including Randy, say Houstone members number in the thousands, and when you "put all the Four Horsemen together, you're in the five digits, easy."
"There's so little structure and so few requirements to get in," says Harris County Deputy Michael Squyres, who works with gang members in the county jail, "that they're drawing very large numbers of people."
The older prison gangs are far more selective about whom they let in, and initiations are more involved than a simple minute-long fistfight with a pair of members. Typically, recruits are forced to commit some violent or serious crime so that members can dangle it over the greenhorns like the sword of Damocles, and use it against them should they betray the gang.
Indeed, the Tango Blast gangs, Houstone in particular, are in a class all by themselves. They operate as both a street gang and a prison gang, and at the same time, in some ways, they are neither.
"We used to joke," says Squyres, "that when you went from a street gang to a prison gang, you'd gone from a farm club to the major league. But Houstone is kind of in-between. They're a weird concept, and it's something we're all having to deal with and adjust to."
Most street gangs are territorial and dominate certain blocks and neighborhoods. Not Houstone. The majority of members joined up while incarcerated and have returned home, be that in the Heights, Baytown, Pasadena or southwest Houston. They do not sport colors or bandannas like street gangs, but do have signifying tattoos, including the Astros logo, local area codes such as 713 and 281, and the Roman numerals XVI, XX and II, which correspond to the letters P, T and B and stand for Puro Tango Blast.
Unlike traditional prison gangs, Houstone is decentralized, with no written constitution or set rules. All members are supposedly equal; all you need to apply is to have spent time in a state prison — although even that is no longer an absolute. Whereas traditional prison gangs have clear-cut systems of seniority and rank, Tango Blast does not. Members elect speakers for each wing of every unit within the prison system. The speakers, called "sillas," Spanish for "chair," then meet with the leaders of other gangs when required and bring the group's consensus opinion to the table.
"It's like the only and purest form of democracy in there," says Pete.
When a man joins one of the established prison gangs, he must drop any and all prior gang affiliations. But not if he joins Houstone. Upon release from prison, members can choose to stay active in Houstone, or they may return to their street gang or just plain drop gang-banging altogether. In traditional prison gangs, death is the only acceptable reason to quit.
"We get a lot of people who will take a minute-long ass beating just to join for the protection and to live a little better," says Pete.
If you listen to many of the guys who have been released from prison, you'd tend to think Houstone is far more like a college fraternity than a prison gang. They talk mostly about brotherhood and looking out for one another, watching football games together and hanging out with their women and kids. After all, unlike other prison gangs, many members of Tango Blast are not hardened criminals, and they simply joined for short-term protection while incarcerated, with the expectation they'd drop the gang once they got out.
"It's just a group of people in the same city or in the suburbs that get together and go to picnics and barbecues," says "Bill," who did not want his real name used and is currently on probation. He calls himself an "active" member. "Me and my homeboys, we try to help each other out and try to get jobs for one another. We act like a second family."
In some instances, says Bill, Houstone even creates peace between street gang members who were at war with each other before they united under Tango Blast.
"I know this dude who I shot at when we were on the streets in different gangs," says Bill, "but he joined Houstone and now we laugh about it. He tells all the homeboys, 'this crazy motherfucker shot at me, and now I have his bullet right now.' And we just laugh about it because it's just part of how we grew up."
But not all Houstone and Tango Blast members choose a crime-free life after getting out of prison. Over the past several years, Houston, Dallas and Austin police have arrested Tango Blast members for everything from drug dealing and kidnapping to sexual assault and murder. Members have been accused of threatening police officers and waging a bloody, all-out turf war with members of the Texas Syndicate over drugs and issues of respect that are spilling over from the prisons into the streets