This column was contributed by San Benito County Sheriff Captain Eric Taylor. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors.
If you read the first part of this series, you should have some understanding of the reasons Hispanic criminal street gangs came to exist in California. This chapter will speak to how and why they have proliferated in our region.
As Mexican-Americans united in the Los Angeles area, against oppression, the natural urge for power and control began to occur. As Hispanics spread out into the numerous housing projects of East Los Angeles, turf wars ensued. These were impoverished communities that were the breeding grounds of criminal behavior. Statistically, impoverished areas have more crime. It really is not a matter of the character of the community, it is in an artifact of survival and desperation. Unfortunately, a power vacuum often makes way for some influential, charismatic leaders to take control. The leaders began to take ownership of their respective gangs and started to look for ways to capitalize. These turf wars separated neighborhood from neighborhood and began to develop into more organized crime. Copying the model of the Italian Mafia and gangs of the east coast, Hispanic gangs moved in to control the drug trade as well as prostitution and other vices. Amid these endeavors, innocent members of the same communities were becoming victims of gang crime and gang violence. These conflicts forced young, disenfranchised men and women to make a choice to either join their neighborhood gang or suffer potential victimization.
Around the same time, Hispanics were beginning to see higher rates of incarceration in the California Department of Corrections. The prison system in California, and nationally, have long been segregated by race. Once a person lands in the correctional system, they make a choice to try to survive alone, or “clique up” with their “own kind” for protection. But nothing comes for free and protection comes with a price. The main factions of violent gangs in prison are whites, blacks and Hispanics. There is a constant and similar struggle for power and control within the prison system as there is on the streets.
In the 1960s, Hispanics continued to migrate from the Los Angeles area to the central valley and Northern California. As Hispanics from Northern California were incarcerated, they were expected to “clique up” with the Hispanic prison gang called the Mexican Mafia, or La Eme. Unfortunately, the Northern Hispanics were seen as inferior to the Hispanics from Southern California. They were seen as merely “farmers” or “sod busters.” They were thought to lack the sophistication of their southern brethren from a more urban environment. Because of this, southern Hispanics began to prey on northern Hispanics. There were a few violent confrontations between these groups in the 1960s. On September 15, 1968, Hector Padilla, a gang member from Northern California, was attacked after a confrontation with Mexican Mafia gang leader Robert “Robot” Salas. The initial confrontation was over a pair of shoes stolen by Mexican Mafia associate Carlos “Pieface” Ortega. Having had enough of being victims, on September 16, 1968, a group of Northern Hispanics decided to formally break away from the Mexican Mafia and form a new prison gang called Nuestra Familia. This was the beginning of a war between southern Hispanics (Mexican Mafia/La Eme) and northern Hispanics (Nuestra Familia/NF). On the street, new identities began to form. From Delano south, there were now Sureños (southerners) and to the north were Norteños (northerners). Those labels still exist today.
Each gang has their own signs and symbols. Sureños associate with the number 13, or X3 as “M” (or Eme) is the 13th letter of the alphabet. Norteños associate with the number 14, or XIV as “N” is the 14th letter of the alphabet. As for “colors,” the movie of the same name seemed to make it appear that African American gangs are to blame for the Bloods (red) vs Crips (blue) coloration. It is in fact the California Department of Corrections that is to blame. When persons went to the reception center, or were entering the prison system, they were given numerous items including clothing, bedding, shoes, etc. One thing they received was a bandana. The most common colors at the time were red and blue. Wanting to be different, Northern Hispanics began to pick red and Southern blue. Today Norteños still associate with the color red, and Sureños blue. This was later copied by the Bloods and Crips in California.
As still occurs today, Hispanic gangs inside the prison system began to direct criminal activity on the streets of California. This was purely motivated by the desire to finance these criminal organizations. It was no longer about protection against oppression, it was now about capitalizing on the vices in our society. Control of robbery, burglary, narcotics, prostitution, money laundering… it was all on the table and was all up for grabs. But these gang leaders needed soldiers, so they began to recruit the kids in our communities. Local children, and young adults, often disenfranchised and in need. They were targeted by a slick recruiting model offering protection, family and socialization. Gangs began to fill a need in the lives of those most vulnerable.
In the next installment, I will explain what our current gang trends are and how we may combat the vacuum these young men and women find themselves being sucked into.