In 1977, a handsome young veteran named Jose Campos Torres was arrested at a Houston cantina after getting into a fight. Police hauled him, still drunk and angry, to a remote parking lot along Buffalo Bayou where officers beat him up. His injuries were so visible that a jailer refused to book Campos Torres and suggested taking him to a hospital. Instead, rogue cops returned to the bayou, continued the beating, and then threw him in the murky water to drown him and to cover up their crime.
Two years after the murder, which remains one of the most infamous in-custody deaths in Texas history, the Houston Police Department recruited a handful of young Chicano officers for a bold experiment in an attempt to solve murders in the city’s fast-growing Mexican American neighborhoods and build community trust. The Chicano Squad operated from 1979 to 2010. Its story provides new perspectives on enduring issues of police violence and unsolved murders today.
Two native Texans teamed up to tell that story in a new podcast called Chicano Squad.
Eva Ruth Moravec, an Austin-based freelance writer and the series’ producer, has spent years writing about police and collecting data on in-custody deaths for a series on police shootings of unarmed people, and is the co-founder of the nonprofit Texas Justice Institute. Cristela Alonzo, a Rio Grande Valley native, writer and actress who now lives in California, hosts the series. The first two episodes of the series, produced by Vox Media, are available via Apple Podcasts.
Observer: What were some of the most surprising revelations that emerged from your reporting?
Alonzo: Oh, so many. One thing that I think surprised me—but at the same time, not at all—is how the officers on the Chicano Squad were just thrown into something, without any resources, and basically told to figure it out because they were given so much responsibility and expectations and it was clear that it was a huge undertaking. I say that it doesn’t surprise me because growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, I used to see people live life like that a lot. I mean, it’s my family’s story. We are expected to triumph with limited resources.
Moravec: It doesn’t happen all that frequently that you get to go into this territory that really hasn’t been touched in many years. The mystery, the untold aspects, going through these records, reliving these stories through interviews, pulling letters out of envelopes that people wrote 30 years ago. I was continuously surprised at the lack of coverage of these stories and value of what they were doing back then.
A lot of the cases handled by the Chicano Squad were whodunnits. They were dumped bodies on the side of the road, cantina kills, bar fights where nobody wanted to own up to any role in it, and drug-related murders. There was definitely a larger volume of homicides in the 1970s than we have now … and fewer resources.
When the Houston Chronicle covered the Chicano Squad’s 25th anniversary in 2004, only two original members were still alive. How did you find them and other officers who later joined the squad and get them to talk?
Moravec: The podcast got started when a staff member of the media company Frequency Machine stumbled on a one-sentence mention of the Chicano Squad in a 2009 article from the Texas Observer, part of Dave Mann’s series about flawed arson science. But squad members weren’t ready to be incredibly open on Day 1. They were skeptical. It took a lot of trips to Houston, a lot of meals, and just explaining and showing them what a podcast was. And it took finding experts, finding professors, finding crime victims, and families, too.
I sent a lot of letters. I didn’t want to retraumatize crime victims. Letters, I thought, were a sensitive way to reach out. That was especially helpful in finding one young woman, named Liliana Reyes, who was kidnapped as a baby and taken to Mexico.
In October 1987, Baby Jessica, a white 18-month-old Texan, fell in a well in Midland and she was pulled out in two days. Her story made national news. In October 1987, Liliana Reyes, a 14-month old Tejana, was abducted by a stranger and the Chicano squad tracked her down after 12 days. Her story played out at the same time as Jessica’s and got no press attention. People can hear the full story of Lilliana Reyes’ rescue for the first time in episode seven.
Cristela, you weave your own experiences of growing up in Texas into this podcast. Have you or has anyone in your family experienced police harassment or police brutality?
Alonzo: I grew up in San Juan, Texas, right outside of McAllen. My sister lives in a suburb of Dallas. In order to visit her, my family would do the nine-hour drive back and forth a couple times a year. I was always nervous to do those drives, especially through the small towns along I-35.
In 2002, I was driving from Dallas to San Juan with my sick mother and my sister’s three kids. I noticed a police car behind me and thought nothing of it until he started driving right next to me. He pulled me over and the reason he gave me [was that] my headlights had not been turned on and it was within 30 minutes of the sun setting. He kept me there for about half an hour, asking me questions. He didn’t like any of the answers I gave him. It’s almost as if I wasn’t giving him the answers he wanted to hear. He asked me where I was going, if my mom had papers—he was a cop, not Border Patrol—and yes, she did. He wanted to search the back of my rented minivan. All I wanted was to do exactly what he told me because everyone in the car was terrified. He eventually let me go and told me that I needed to be aware of the laws so that I could stop breaking them.
HPD reported a homicide clearance rate of only 40 percent in 2019. Dallas did not do much better. The Washington Post did a series on unsolved homicides in minority neighborhoods. Obviously HPD has changed and Houston now has a Hispanic police chief. But does anyone consider that disbanding the Chicano Squad was a mistake?
Moravec: The guys would say—and they do say—there will never be a squad like ours. There’s still a need for them. At HPD, the thinking in 2010 when they were disbanded was that they were not necessary because the department as a whole had become much more diverse. I’m not familiar with ethnic squads in other parts of the country but I know that other departments sent officers to train with the Chicano Squad throughout their tenure.
One thing that was important in their success was actually where they came from. They needed empathy to connect with victims and witnesses; to be able to see them as victims and witnesses and to gain the trust of suspects as well. By understanding how Hispanic Houstonians lived and were raised, that’s what made the Chicano Squad so successful.
Ultimately, the officers who beat Jose Campos Torres nearly to death received little punishment, though some were prosecuted after their brutality was exposed by another officer. Today, police are rarely prosecuted for in-custody deaths, except in high profile cases like that of George Floyd. What reforms are still needed to keep incidents similar to Campos Torres’ murder from occurring, or from being covered up, today?
Moravec: Many things have changed at HPD since then, including some of the mentality at the department. But another thing that came out of the death of Jose Campos Torres was the founding of the HPD Internal Affairs division and setting up a department for civilians to be able to make complaints. That was a much-needed step.
Statewide, today we have the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE), which is currently under sunset review. This could be an opportunity for discussion about TCOLE’s role in licensing and overseeing police officers. There’s discussion of improvements in documentation of so-called bad apples, such as officers who are fired by one department and hired by another. There was a HPD officer I was researching for this series who was indefinitely suspended after he got caught stealing money from crime scenes. And yet he was actually able to maintain his license as a reserve officer for another department for another decade until he died.
Why was participating in the podcast important to you specifically as a Tejana, Cristela?
Alonzo: One thing we need more of is the specifics of how Latino cultures can be different from each other. Being a Tejana is different from other things. It’s a love of Texas and the Mexican culture that is embedded within us. There’s just something about the Mexican-Texan community that is unlike any other and I wanted to make sure this project had the voice of someone from the community.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read more from the Observer:
Bringing the Dead Home: Thirty years after Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, only a fraction of human remains held by Texas’ museums and universities have been returned.
How We Got Here: Texas’ health system has been underfunded, understaffed, and unprepared for years. Here, COVID-19 found the perfect place to spread.
‘Being A Prisoner During COVID Is A Death Sentence’: Death row exoneree Anthony Graves reflects a decade after his release.