The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

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June 29, 2014

ROCKY ROAD: Man who has spent much of his life behind bars in Texas prisons finally may be on right track

HUNTSVILLE — The ongoing story of Jesse Banda may seem like a tragedy to some. However, life’s biggest tragedies might be to have the experiences, yet miss the messages in their meaning.

Banda is not a changed man. He is, however, a work in progress — a human being in transition from what he once was to what he will one day become.

Banda is only 35 years old, yet has been locked behind bars for more than 17 of those years. The question is, can Banda emerge from his past with hope and a brighter future?

“My first time I was in prison was for a burglary of a habitation charge. I had just turned 18 years old when I got five years for that,” Banda said recently. “My second charge was for aggravated robbery,” a sentence that carried with it 15 years in prison.

Banda spent only nine months between prison terms as a free man.

The lifestyle that Banda chose eventually led him to a 13-by-8-foot cell, no windows, for 23 hours a day, for nine consecutive years. Until recently, for the last 11 1/2 years, Banda had been locked up in Huntsville’s Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

In the first part of a two-part series, Banda speaks openly and honestly about his life, time and crimes, and also about his outlook for the future.

“The first time I got caught, part of me was getting money to buy drugs and party. The other part of me was to prove to myself and the gang that I had the (nerve) to do it,” said Banda.

“I stole a rifle from a home garage, me and two friends. I did it just because I saw it and I said to myself, ‘Let me go and get that gun.’ When I did it, a neighbor saw everything.”

Stashing the weapon, then fleeing to a nearby convenience store, the gun owner stopped the young men to ask if they had seen anything. They told him no. As they returned to retrieve the stolen weapon, it was the neighbor who pointed them out to the sheriff.

Banda was by then part of a street gang calling themselves the “Po-boys.”

“To get in the gang you have a godparent who sponsors you,” Banda explained. “This person knows you and is responsible for you. You will have to do things to get in the gang, whatever pops up. It could be a killing, stabbing, beating, it all depends on the needs of the gang.”

Banda points out that a time limit is given. If the task is not carried out, another prospect (gang trainee) will do it.

“If the prospect does it, then they take your place and you can’t become a part of the organization,” Banda said.

The allure of the lifestyle was different from the way he was raised by his adopted parents. Although poor, the Banda family made a living by migratory produce picking in the Rio Grande Valley.

“My father picked tomatoes, cotton, peppers. Whatever needed to be picked, he did it for the family. But the gangs got my attention,” Banda said.

“My first experience in jail, my father bailed me out after the first week. I remember being nervous but the Po-Boys were on good terms with the Pistoleros, a notorious prison gang in the TDCJ system.”

The Hermandos de Pistoleros Latinos (aka, Pistoleros or HPL) is a Hispanic prison gang formed in Texas in the late 1980s. The English translation is “Brotherhood of Latin Gunmen.” The gang operates in most prisons in Texas and in small communities like Huntsville throughout the state.

The largest contingent is located near the Texas/Mexico border. Members maintain close ties with Mexican drug trafficking organizations. They are known for being involved in trafficking large amounts of cocaine and marijuana from Mexico into the United States for distribution.

In 2006, the gang was nearly dismantled by the FBI after 12 of its highest-ranking members were indicted on 17 counts of federal drug, firearm possession, conspiracy, distribution, and a host of other criminal violations. The FBI dubbed the operation “Pistol Whipped.”  

Today the gang is still structured and is estimated to have more than 1,000 members.

During Banda’s first week in jail, he came in close contact with the Po-Boys’ parent group HPL.

“I was nervous but they put me in a holding tank of 30 HPLs and they started to teach me the ropes,” Banda said. “I learned that all the street stuff stays out forever.”

While in jail, Banda recalls getting into a fight.

“Black dude just ‘stole’ on me,” Banda said. “We fought. I gave as much as I got, but after that I got with the Pistoleros and it was like I was never locked up.”

After making bail, Banda went to court and received eight years probation. During that time he was arrested again, but a minor took the “rap” for him and Banda was released.

“Then I came up dirty on my urinalysis test,” Banda said. “But they kept giving me chances.”  

As a result of his violation, he was sent to boot camp for offenders where he would make a daring escape.

Part two of Jesse Banda’s story will run in Tuesday’s edition of The Huntsville Item.

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