HPD History: Chicano Squad pioneered crime-fighting concept that the department has built upon for 40 years now

Tom Kennedy, Editor

Forty years ago marked a transitional year in the history of policing in Houston, Texas. More and more police reports were being filed but the cases were going unsolved because of a language barrier.

“During the 70s there was distrust with Houston’s Hispanic community and the Houston Police Department,” retired HPD Sgt. Cecil Mosqueda told the Badge & Gun. “It was causing a lot of dissention within the department.

The Language Barrier

“Outside from that there was a steady flow of illegal Mexican nationals settling in the Houston area, mostly in the Hispanic communities.

“Therefore, crime was on the increase. Many of the Mexican nationals were being victimized. Houston homicide and robbery cases were soaring. Most of the cases involving Hispanics were not being solved due to a language barrier between police officers and investigators.

“Hispanics had no way of communicating with police to report crimes.”

Robbery Detective Jim Montero was feeling the brunt of the problem. He had tons of cases stacked up on his desk on the third floor of HPD Headquarters, then located at 61 Riesner. The divisions were located in more quaint quarters at this juncture in history. Robbery, Homicide and Burglary and Theft were on the same floor. So was the office of the police chief.

Hearing from Montero, Police Chief Harry Caldwell, legendary Homicide Capt. Bobby Adams and Lt. Chuck Lofland put their heads together to figure out a possible solution to the problem. They determined the need for a special squad of bilingual officers who could handle the ever-growing workload.

Initially, Montero was transferred to Homicide, where the majority of unsolved cases were on file.

His help would come from what retired HPD Sgt. Cecil Mosqueda described as “officers who needed to be bilingual, self-motivated, dedicated and willing to take on this new challenge.”

Besides Mosqueda – the only member of the Chicano Squad to serve the entire duration of its service (1979-2010) – there also were Officers Jose Selvera Jr., Joe De Leon, Robert Gatewood and Lupe Hernandez. A short time later, Officer Raymond Gonzales replaced De Leon.

Each of the squad members hailed from Hispanic communities from the east and north sides. They knew the turf on which most of the crimes were taking place. They began serving as de facto detectives, although they always wore their uniforms while on duty.

Mosqueda provided the Badge & Gun with historical perspective and details.

“This was the first time in HPD history that field officers of Spanish descent were assigned to a specialized division. To avoid confusion within the rank and file of the police department, the officers were to be on special assignment for six weeks.

The Mentor and Tools

“The officers were under the command of Capt. Adams and Lt. Chuck Lofland along with Detective Jim Montero. They were hand-picked from throughout the department.

“On Monday, Aug. 20, 1979 at 0800 we were assigned to report. I remember it like it was yesterday. We five uniformed officers were scheduled to report to the new assignment.”

They were shown all the available resources that would help in their investigations. They paired up and divided all the unsolved cases involving Hispanics. With minimal investigative training they set out to investigate and solve these cases.

Initially, most of the cases were at eastside and northside. But they quickly spread to Southwest Houston since many immigrants came to Houston via Highway 59, aka the Southwest Freeway.

“Detective Jim Montero was our mentor and trainer. If there were any questions pertaining to any investigation, we would go to him for instructions. He was the only detective. He would tell us what to do,” Mosqueda explained.

The six-week period of temporary assignment came and went. The squad members were too busy to stop and take note of the timeframe. Mosqueda proudly recalled that the Chicano Squad was more aptly known as “Squad 1” since it was the first-ever group formed to address a particular crime trend in Houston.

J. J. Garcia, a freelance reporter for Hispanic newspapers, and Rob Meckel, the bilingual police reporter for The Houston Post, were credited for naming the special group “the Chicano Squad.” Meckel regularly used the moniker in his stories in The Post. Garcia used it in his stories constantly and more frequently, very often quoting the squad members by name in his more detailed stories.

And what did these newsmen report?

This “team picture” of the HPD Chicano Squad, circa 1989, might not be politically correct in 2019 but when it was taken the squad members felt they had revolutionized policing in Houston. Therefore, they disguised themselves as this way for their official HPD picture. The picture appeared in the Houston Chronicle. It was taken at a time when the original five-member squad (plus one sergeant) had expanded to 12 members. And they are, left to right (front row) Sgt. Jim Montero, Rico Garcia, U. P. Hernandez, Jose Selvera and Toby Hernandez. Back row: Xavier Avila, Phil Guerrero, Cecil Mosqueda, Jamie Escalante, Raymond Gonzales, Irma Lares-Sauseda and Robert Gatewood.

They made clear the results of the concerted effort.

Mosqueda recalled, “The department and media outlets recognized how the Chicano Squad was impacting the Hispanic community with their services by solving major cases in Houston and Harris County.

They went Everywhere

“Yes, we went into the county in some of these cases that bordered on Harris County. We had to do some of the county’s cases. We also worked in the surrounding counties. We would travel wherever the investigation led us.

“The Chicano Squad broke clearance and arrest records in the 80s and 90s. The crime rate dropped every year through 2010. We were untouchable. We had the highest clearance rates.”

As the arrest and clearance records were broken, the prestige of Squad 1 rose to new heights. That wasn’t the only numbers that grew, either. At one time the squad had up to 12 members. Throughout the years there were at least 30 other officers to come on board in addition to the original five.

The lieutenants over those years were Lofland, Murray Smith, Joe Gamino and Humberto Lopez.

Mosqueda reflected on the mission and achievements of the Chicano Squad in his recent interview before the Houston City Council was scheduled to recognize the group’s 40th anniversary in a proclamation ceremony on Aug. 20.

“We were the first bilingual officers who completed their mission. It was evident that uniformed officers could investigate cases without being promoted to detectives. By 1986 Police Chief Lee P. Brown abolished the detective rank. Detectives were made sergeants.”

The retired sergeant, admitting that he is opinionated (like most HPD retirees), said, “When you have officers clearing cases, who needs detectives? At the end it was all about the money.”

In other words, officers were doing detective work but didn’t have to be paid the salary of a detective. (By the way, Mosqueda promoted to detective in 1982 and became a sergeant when the detective rank was abolished.

Caseloads and Causes

As a result, more officers from throughout the department were assigned to other specialized divisions and squads. Again, another Mosqueda opinion: “This squad was kicking ass. We laid the foundation for other officers in the department to do the same thing. We came in through the back door.

“There’s never been another Chicano Squad in the country.”

Mosqueda himself could not recall a specific newsworthy case that made Page One on a regular basis like some of the celebrated cases from Homicide and other divisions.

The retired sergeant described the situation faced by the Chicano Squad as “the cantina era.”

“We investigated the various crimes dealing with illegal integration,” he said. “In the late 70s and 80s there were many barroom murders during ‘the cantina era’ on the east side, north side, Canal, Harrisburg. We worked all of those.

“We had what seemed like thousands of barroom killings. The reason we had so many in the late 70s was because it was when Hispanics were coming over, and the only ones coming were working men. They were leaving their wives and children and looking for work.

“In the early 70s you couldn’t come out as Hispanic or you got arrested. If there were four or five Mexicans walking down Harrisburg you were going to get stopped. There were Hispanic men staying 10 to 12 per house.

“They had no entertainment. There was only one Hispanic radio station. No Telemundo. No Univision. No other entertainment – except to go to barrooms. Because they worked in the fields and had a wad of money, they got victimized.”

Mosqueda credited changes in policing attitudes to former Houston City Controller Leonel Castillo, who went on to serve in the Jimmy Carter administration as commissioner of Immigration for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“He was the one who changed the whole deal. You couldn’t harass a Hispanic because of the color of his skin.”

The change paved the way for more entertainment. Hispanics began to come out in public without a growing fear of harassment and victimization.

Until then, the longest-tenured Chicano Squad member told the B&G, “Guess what their entertainment was? They came to the cantina to drink their hard-earned money. They had more money than they did in Mexico. Their toys? The guns were their toys.”

Lasting Legacy

Later in the 80s there were more drug-related homicides to investigate and then in the early 90s there came the rash of gang violence.

The Chicano Squad did its job by solving the everyday violent crimes involving Hispanics and setting the stage for better-than-ever communications and relationships between the department and the Hispanic communities all around the city.

Today, Mosqueda, who described himself as “a barrio guy quietly doing his job,” pointed out, the policing problems “affect all citizens of the United States.”

They can be more easily handled with crime-fighting techniques and investigative approaches pioneered by what now has been more widely recognized as the Houston Police Department’s Chicano Squad.

“The Chicano Squad prevailed,” Mosqueda said, “and all these crimes throughout the HPD were solved and we were able to keep safety throughout the city. We were able to preserve and protect the community.”