Fighting Gangs in Houston, One Hot Spot at a Time

Officer Vento gives a presentation on Houston gangs to teachers.
Officer Vento has worked with prison and street gangs in Houston.

Officer Eric Vento has dedicated his short career to fighting gangs on the street as part of the Houston Police Department, and he would like to share his knowledge with prospective law enforcement officers in the future.

“I love gangs, they are so interesting and diverse,” said Vento. “They are migratory and move around constantly. It is like a little city within a city. They have their own colors, tattoos and terminology. They are similar to law enforcement in that they have their own subculture, their own language, writing styles and structure. They have ranks and rule books called ‘bibles.’”

Vento has been part of the Houston Police Department Gang Task Force since 2010, just a year after graduating from Sam Houston State University and joining the department. He works in “hot spot” policing, moving among crime-ridden neighborhoods and attacking gang activity through drug and violent crime arrests. He has interacted and investigated street and prison gangs – from top gang leaders to the eight-year-old lookout on the street.

Officer Eric Vento of the Houston Police Department Gang Task Force stands in front of a gang tattoo.
SHSU Alumnus Eric Vento is a member of the Houston Police Department Gang Task Force.
“Gangs are such a huge part of policing in America,” said Vento. “It’s constantly changing and evolving. It’s fun just trying to stay ahead of the game.”

Vento is in the second year of the Master’s program in Criminal Justice Leadership and Management. He doesn’t plan to use the degree for promotion; instead, he wants to return to a community college one day to teach the next generation of law enforcement about the growing menace in this country.

“It’s a huge problem and not going away anytime soon,” said Vento. “It is a very integral part of policing. If you work on the street, you will come in contact with it.”

Gangs are defined as three or more people who associate for the commission of criminal acts. Gangs are very diverse in the Houston area and include such groups as Gypsies, Asian gangs, Mexican gangs and cartels, which have units that specialize in certain types of crime. One of the biggest gangs in Houston is Tango Blast, which has chapters in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. They go by Houstone, D-Town, and Valluco, to name a few. They often use tattoos featuring numbers, letters, city skylines, and symbols to indicate their affiliation.

Officer Vento poses with some of the tattoos used by gangs in Houston.
Officer Vento poses with some of the tattoo used by gangs in Houston.
Texas is often called the “Third Coast,” behind the East and West Coasts, for gang activity. In schools students often fly their gang affiliations in the music they listen to, the messages they post on the internet and the hand signs they flash, as well as clothing and accessories flown a certain way. Rappers like 50 Cent and Snoop Dog glorify the gang culture with their music and using hand signals such as a “C” and “B,” which stand for the Crips and the Bloods, two main African American gangs. Many fights in school are actually gang initiations, and girls may enter gangs by having sex with members.

Vento said it is important to look at many clues to determine if an individual is involved in a gang. For example, rosaries are used in the Catholic faith, but religious paraphernalia is heavily present in the Hispanic gang culture. Drug traffickers use patron saints such as Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte to protect their drug shipments. Individuals may favor certain colors, clothing or accessories to indicate their gang affiliation. Tattoo, markers, or graffiti are commonly used to display gang affiliation and numbers may stand for letters; for example 12, the first and second letter of the alphabet, may mean Aryan Brotherhood. Area codes, like 713, 281 or 512, also may be present to indicate the city where the gang is active

Officer Vento discusses gang signs with a teacher.
Officer Vento discusses gang signs with a teacher.
Vento said it is important for law enforcement to identify the gangs in their area to better understand the criminal activity that occurs. Graffiti is a great way to identify certain areas where gangs have set up criminal activity or areas they claim as their own.

During his street investigations, Officer Vento is required to meet two of eight criteria to include a person in a database of known gang members, which is shared among departments. It can be based on tattoos or advertising affiliation on social network sites. It also can be self-admission, affiliation with known gang members or identification as a gang member by a reliable informant. As an example, Officer Vento recently pulled over a car with six people inside, ranging from 14 to 32. They all turned out to be Black Disciple gang members with ecstasy and marijuana in the car.

Vento said he hopes that colleges add gang courses for future law enforcement officers.

“There’s not a common modus operandi for gang members,” said Vento. “They don’t fit within a box. They can be involved in anything from drugs to murder. Some gang members look respectable and dress professionally. Some are the typical street members walking down the sidewalk. Gangs are about one thing and one thing only, making money.”

Member of The Texas State University System