Randy Moreno is staring into an open prison cell where two inmates are waiting to kick in his head. He had promised himself he would never join another gang, and certainly not a prison gang. But now is not the time for second-guessing. This is his initiation.
"Get your shine on!" barks a prisoner serving as the lookout.
Shirtless, wearing white prison pants and matching Chuck Taylor low-tops, Randy, who accurately calls himself "a big guy for a Mexican," steps into the cage. There's not much room to maneuver in the tiny cell, what with a metal toilet, table and bunk bed taking up most of the space. The walls are slowly turning peach-colored, as over time inmates have chipped away at the top coat of white paint, putting the flakes over their water heaters to sniff and get high.
Suddenly, the first guy lunges forward, but Randy shoves his shoulder, sending him into the metal table in the same instant that the second inmate swings a fist at Randy's head. Somehow, he misses, just as the first guy moves across the room and tackles Randy, hammering his head against the wall. Quickly, Randy bounces to his feet, and the three men continue to swing at each other, as many blows missing as landing.
In all, the "cora-check" lasts less than a minute. It's just a test, a "heart-check" to see if Randy will fight back, proof in gang-world that he'll stand strong and be there to back up his fellow "homitos." Randy passes. It's official. He's been "jumped-in," and now belongs to Tango Blast, the largest prison gang in Texas.
"When I was finished doing it," says Randy, "I barely had a mark or scratch on me."
This is not posturing on Randy's part. His initiation was relatively easy, just cheap, street-punk theatrics compared to the laborious crime-riddled rituals older, more established prison gangs require of their recruits. And that's the point.
Ostensibly, Tango Blast is not your grandfather's or even your father's prison gang of old, with familiar names like the Texas Syndicate and Mexican Mafia, established organizations based on commitment, structure and a rigid do-or-die set of rules. No, this is a new breed putting a fresh twist on an old idea.
It is permeating the social fabric like no such group ever has before. Members proudly advertise their affiliation all over MySpace and YouTube, and people who have never even been to prison wear the gang's tattoos and symbols.
It's disorganized, fast and loose, and with none of the lifelong "blood-in, blood-out" commitment demanded by other gangs. At least that's what members told Randy in the beginning.
"It's a headless organization" says Randy, "like an anthill that busted open but with no queen. Everyone is running around crazy doing their own thing and there's a freedom that none of the other gangs allow. And that's why people join. It's just homeboys looking after homeboys, protecting each other, and once you leave prison, it's not supposed to really exist, even though it does. In some ways, it's kind of like Gang-Lite."
In some ways, maybe, but in others, members are every bit living the gangster life.
Technically, Tango Blast is not a prison gang.
"The thing is," says Sigifredo Sanchez, head of the Security Threat Group Office that monitors prison gangs and cliques for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, "they don't fall under any of our criteria for a prison gang, so we can't establish them as that. A Security Threat Group, like the Texas Syndicate or Mexican Mafia, is far more organized and has laws and regulations, so they fall under the state's definition of a prison gang. But right now, the Tangos are just an up-and-coming group."
This technicality is allowing Tango Blast members to flourish. For security reasons, known members of other gangs are placed in segregation and kept separate from the general population. But because prison authorities cannot segregate members of Tango Blast simply for belonging, they live with everyone else and, according to members, have the run of things, extorting non-gang members for protection and taking control of the illegal drug and cigarette trade.
"When I was inside," says "Pete," a member of Tango Blast who now lives in Port Arthur and did not want his real name used, "I was selling stuff and getting things smuggled in, but this was all on my own accord and I kept whatever I earned. I didn't have to kick it back into the group. And that's why we're not really a gang. Nothing is organized. Each unit has its own set of rules and personality, but the thing that makes us closest to a gang is the fact we fight other gangs. But it doesn't matter which prison you go to, we outnumber everybody, and I think everyone is getting alarmed."