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NMSU professor’s book on criminal gangs sparks new study in borderland

A New Mexico State University criminal justice professor recently published a book detailing criminal gang activities in San Antonio, Texas, for the past 100 years.


Man with beard and plaid shirt
Mike Tapia, NMSU assistant professor of criminal justice, recently published a book on criminal gangs of San Antonio, TX. Tapia has already begun a new study focused on gang activity in Las Cruces, Anthony and El Paso. (Courtesy photo.)

Mike Tapia, an assistant professor in NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, first became involved in criminal gangs after graduating from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. He took a job as a caseworker for gang intervention. His interest in the topic of criminal gangs, specifically juvenile delinquency, compelled him to go back to school, eventually earning his doctorate in sociology.

“I teach a class at NMSU called Street Subcultures & the Underclass, and we try to understand these subcultures that emerge in high-poverty areas and we try to understand what keeps people in this cyclical gang lifestyle,” Tapia said.

His book, “The Barrio Gangs and Criminal Networks of San Antonio, Texas, 1915-2015,” examines these questions and others regarding the role of networks, family influences, and generational changes in gang structure and norms.

Barrio gangs, Tapia said, are a phenomenon that has occurred for the past 100 years in poor southwestern communities.

“I want to conduct this kind of study for the Borderlands region,” Tapia said. “I’ve just begun a study of that nature here in Las Cruces.”

The new study will focus on criminal gang activities in Las Cruces, Anthony, and El Paso, Tapia said.

“My students inform me in that process,” he said. “It’s not only me teaching them, it’s also them teaching me, telling me what they’ve seen in terms of gang culture here.”

Tapia said his research into historical criminal gang activities is important because it gives his students a better understanding of gang culture, which will make them better law-enforcement officers, can educate veteran law-enforcement officers, and spark interests in criminal justice or sociology for graduate study.

“We tend to think of gangs as this kind of separate thing that happens underneath the surface of conventional society but on the contrary, especially in a working-class Mexican-American town like San Antonio, or El Paso, you really don’t have to look far to find that average folks have some kind of connection,” Tapia said.

Tapia’s research found that some kind of youth gang activity in San Antonio was pretty normal.

“When you get to know the people that participated in gangs, you find that they have very normal, mundane qualities,” Tapia said. “It’s called human capital in sociological terms and it struck me that gang members have high levels of human capital.”

Tapia’s research into 100 years of criminal gangs in San Antonio found that less than 10 percent of youth joined criminal gangs or continued criminal activities into their later lives.

“Most people age out or some event happens in their life that takes them out of it,” he said.

Tapia used archived records—newspapers mostly—to detail gang activity in the earlier periods of his research. As he moved forward chronologically, he was able to arrange interviews with former gang members, both men and women.

“As a gang social worker, I interacted a lot with modern gangs through the 1990s,” Tapia said. “So a lot of the later chapters reflect my own personal knowledge and observations.”

With the exception of graduate school, Tapia lived in San Antonio from 1992 to 2015.

“So for pretty much all of my adult life, I’ve been studying Chicano gangs in San Antonio and I learned quite a bit,” he said.