Houston Matters

An Infamous Murder And A Groundbreaking Homicide Team: Podcast Chronicles Houston’s ‘Chicano Squad’

The podcast’s host, actor and comedian Cristela Alonzo, tells Houston Matters the true story of an all-Latino homicide squad in the late 1970s.

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A new podcast called Chicano Squad tells the true story of an all-Latino homicide squad in Houston that began in the late 1970s that — with little training — was asked to solve some of the city's most violent crimes.

Host Cristela Alonzo, an actor and comedian who grew up in Texas, spoke to Houston Matters host Craig Cohen about the project and the stories it tells.

The interview below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Cristela Alonzo
Actress and comedian Cristela Alonzo is the host of the podcast Chicano Squad.

Craig Cohen: Some of our listeners may know you from your ABC sitcom, Cristela, from a few years back or the voice of Cruz Ramirez in one of the animated Cars movies. How do you go from that sort of stuff to hosting a podcast about a Latino homicide unit in Houston from 1979?

Cristela Alonzo: Well you know it's actually quite easy because doing the sitcom and being in a Pixar movie is actually — I was doing the same things I’m doing in the podcast, which is telling stories about the community, about the Latino community. So it doesn't matter if its comedic or dramatic. If the story needs to be told I want to tell it.

I think that represents life. Life is both funny and sad, informative, entertaining. So, for me, when the story came up I was so fascinated by it — especially the lack of documentation about it — that I figured it was a story that had to be told. Especially because it’s so timely.

This story really connects to the whole saying that history tends to repeat itself, you know? And this story could be taken out of the books, out of the news headlines today even though it happened 40 years ago. So, for me, any time that I get the chance to tell a narrative, a point of view that hasn’t been told — or hasn’t been told enough — I want to tell it. Especially because it takes place in Houston. It takes place in Texas, and I think that it’s important to have somebody from Texas — a Latina from Texas — to help tell the story.

José Campos Torres
José Campos Torres, a 23-year-old Vietnam veteran, who was beaten to death by Houston police officers in 1977.

CC: Let’s talk about that story a little but. What were the circumstances that led to Joe Torres' murder in 1977?

CA: So, you know, the Houston Police Department didn’t have a lot of diversity in its ranks, especially when it came to Latino officers. And that was actually intentional. So there were a lot of rules back then that made it difficult for a lot of Latino officers, a lot of Latino men to be accepted into the academy. One of the requirements is that you have to be at least five-foot-eight. So if you weren’t that tall you were never considered to be a cop. So, you know, it really kind of showed how specific it was with who they wanted.

And, basically, the police department at that time was predominantly white. What was happening though is you were getting a lot of undocumented immigrants coming to Houston, and it actually started from the Bracero Program during World War II when people actually had to go and work in the war efforts. They needed people to tend to the fields. So we had all these undocumented immigrants coming here under the Bracero Program, and then what happened was that they realized we had a problem documenting and helping the community that we were bringing in to help with our economy because we didn’t speak the language.

That, over time, evolved into this really, really awful strain between the Latino community and HPD. And, honestly, the Jose Campos Torres murder is the one that really couldn’t help set off the powder keg because that was honestly the Moody Park Riot, which really I think is one of those prime examples of how the community’s voice — they were so exasperated that they demanded justice. And that is actually one of the things that led to the domino effect of the Chicano Squad being created.

CC: And I want to get there, but I'm always cognizant of the fact that we have people listening to us who weren’t around here 40 years ago and don’t know anything about this story. And so I’ll just quickly summarize some of the particulars here: Jose Torres was arrested at a bar for disorderly conduct, and instead of being taken to jail he was taken to what was referred to as the Hole, a spot behind a warehouse along Buffalo Bayou. He was beaten by officers there. They then took him to jail, but officials refused to book him because he was so badly beaten, and ordered that they should take him to the hospital. And instead they took him back to the Hole, beat him some more and then sadly dumped him into Buffalo Bayou where his body was found three days later. An awful moment. How was that moment then received by Houston?

CA: Well, you know, it was interesting because at that time it took a long time for anyone to even admit that that’s what happened. I mean that was one of the things that really set off the community, is that when they saw the body they actually called the cops and told them they found a body. He was actually identified — I can't remember if it was ID or the dog tags that he was wearing — but they called and gave a name, and the police department said that they had him. So there was a lot of denial. There was a lot of skirting around the issues. Nobody knew what had happened to him. Nobody knew what had taken place that night until one of the police officers — a rookie cop that was there that night — had to tell his father who is also a policeman. And that brought it to light.

Now the news media had access to the story. Now they had somebody that came forward to tell the truth, but it took a while to get there. And I think the fact that the policeman actually came forward was the thing that really set off people that said basically, “You see? It’s happening. There is proof. This is the proof.”

CC: And then, of course, I mentioned that essentially slap on the wrist that the officers received and the reaction that followed. What led the Houston Police Department to conclude that the best way forward was to establish an all-Latino homicide squad?

CA: Well, you know, what happened at that point is that they realized the Houston Police Department was already very problematic. It was seen as a very problematic police department across the country. They were at the point after the Jose Campos Torres murder where they have received tips that they were going to be taken over by the U.S. Department of Justice. So they were at their last straw where they had to try to make some amends, some reforms.

The Houston Police Chief at the time — Caldwell — he decided that he wanted to do something to actually make some reforms in the department. So he got the idea of getting one of the Latino detectives, Detective Montero, to come up with a unit that could connect with the community, with the Latino community, by literally speaking the same language. It was this idea they thought where they realized so many of the crimes that were happening in the Latino community were unsolved literally because there was a loss of translation. The police — the white detectives — couldn't understand the Latino immigrants, so not much was done in solving the cases.

So when Police Chief Caldwell had the idea they created this unit. Detective Montero just thought of whoever Latino officers he could think of. They were patrolmen. They didn't even have experience as detectives. So the only thing that they literally had going for them at that point that was their biggest strength was speaking Spanish and being from the same neighborhoods that the crimes are being committed in and going unsolved.

So this was kind of like their last straw before they had to give up their control — the Houston Police Department — and honestly it seems so simplistic when you think about it: Having people that literally speak the same language talk to people that speak that same language. But back then it was such a novel and rare idea. It was basically at that point, I think, as a last resort. Kind of like, “Lets try and see if this happens. Let's see if this works.” And it did.

CC: It did. They were successful in lots of ways, but how were they received by other officers and by the community surrounding them?

CA: So this is the problem. They were actually struggling with both groups. The Latino community, they didn’t take to them because they weren’t used to having Latino cops in the neighborhood. They weren’t used to having representation. They were used to actually not caring for a lot of the policemen. A lot of the people in the Latino community back then saw them as traitors just because they had become cops, and they had such a negative idea of cops by the way they had been treated themselves. They didn't know what to make of the cops.

But, at the same time, the other officers at the Houston Police Department, they struggled. They didn't take to the Chicano Squad because they thought they didn't deserve to become detectives or to work homicide cases. A lot of the policemen in the Houston Police Department thought they had skipped the line. They'd jumped the line.

And look, lets face it: Back then, what I'm discovering in this podcast is that the racism was rampant in the Houston Police Department. And, you know, to see a squad of Latino officers getting work done and getting things accomplished, a lot of cops said they’re doing that because they spoke Spanish. But the reality of the thing is they were accessible. It took a long time. They ended up getting the trust of the community with their statistics — actually proving their worth to the Houston Police Department, which I have to say is just so unsettling and frustrating. Because I think just from my own personal life experience it's something that I’ve struggled with where you have to put in the work and show some results before people can be deemed worthy of doing the work, which can be frustrating. But it started out rough. It was a rough thing for them. They were there for it. They committed to the work, and they did a great job.

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Brenda Ruiz

Brenda Ruiz

Supervising Producer, Houston Matters

Brenda Ruiz is the supervising producer of Houston Matters, which airs weekday mornings at 9:00 on Houston Public Media, News 88.7 FM. Brenda is a graduate from the University of Houston's Valenti School of Communications. She graduated in 2018 with a BA in Journalism, and a minor in Psychology. She...

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