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Review: 'Gangs Of The El Paso-Juarez Borderland: A History' By Mike Tapia

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Mike Tapia is the author of "Gangs of the El Paso-Juárez Borderland: A History."
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Mike Tapia is the author of "Gangs of the El Paso-Juárez Borderland: A History.""

This week’s Pop-Up Book! is Gangs of the El Paso-Juárez BorderlandA History by Mike Tapia. The book offers a 100-year history of the subcultures of the El Paso-Juárez Borderland.

It might seem unusual to focus on a book such as this one. It’s admittedly unlike the books we’ve covered so far on the Book Public podcast.  It’s a history book that focuses on the Southwest and the subject is gangs. So, yes, this is a specific kind of book about a specific area of the country.  Learning about history sheds a different light on what one might consider the vagaries of the news that we hear about peripherally.  Much goes on at the border affecting all sides of these spaces.  Often it seems we just don’t pay enough attention to this part of our world or realize how connected we are to these spaces.

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Author Mike Tapia reminds us that the borderland is a relevant sociopolitical topic, for all of us, particularly as we all consider the related issues of public safety, crime, drugs, and homeland security.

Tapia’s research is impressively all-encompassing and varied. Newspaper archives, the work of other scholars, oral histories, police records, public and classified intelligence reports from local and federal agencies, and his own field research led him to the idea that the borderland is worthy of our understanding for the ways that “drugs, gangs, and clandestine underworld elements are endemic, camouflaged, but often in plain sight” and the ways these things can come to impact us directly.

This part of the country is not as far removed from us as we might think. Gangs of the El Paso-Juarez Borderland: A History examines the gang history in the region that encompasses West Texas, Southern New Mexico, and Northern Chihuahua, Mexico. Three million people live in this area that extends 130 miles from east to west.  This area is militarized and politicized—more than it has ever been before. 

Author Mike Tapia grew up in El Paso’s Lower Valley — there amid the street gangs he writes about — and brings us an exploration of the area, a century’s worth of the historical developments there through his expert criminological lens that also fully covers the diverse subcultures on all sides.

Tapia demystifies this area, shining a light on the case study of Homeland Security, focusing, too, on the lack of a drug spillover in communities on the U.S./Mexico border.

The book traces the roots of El Paso-Juárez-Las Cruces area street gangs back to the 1910s. Tapia compiles then lists of gangs by decade, documenting the history with turf maps.

Incredibly — and despite the negative image of this area of the Southwest — gang activity has shifted over the decades Tapia documents. There is a lull in violence today compared to other periods. This remarkable point might be difficult to accept, but the evidence provided by Tapia seems clear and unequivocal.

History is an interesting thing. When it is meticulously researched the way Tapia’s book is, it reminds us of the way that historians show us the origins of an entity or concept and also the truth about it that might be covered up by stereotypes and misinformation.

For all the research about gangs throughout this part of the country, the fact is that since the early 1990s, violent crime has decreased in El Paso. The city is now considered to be among the safest large cities in the United States.  

Tapia cites the work of sociologist Robert Duran’s book Gang Paradox: Inequality and Miracles on the U.S.-Mexico Border. Duran’s thesis is that “gangs are borne from the forces of discrimination and the resultant subcultures that emerge in the lower working class.” He also writes about the “moral panics created by the press and law enforcement that mislead the public about threats to public safety.” Duran, says Tapia, frames the work through a social justice orientation in which the pachuco border gangs are actually a type of resistance.

Tapia also develops the idea of this gang paradox. Gang activity, his book ultimately reveals, doesn’t necessarily mean higher rates of violent crime. The story is more complicated than just that.

The sprawl of history, as we know, is told in small moments or in moments not often discussed or documented. Tapia’s book is a rare and authoritative look at a unique and complicated subculture — one never too far removed from the rest of us.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.

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